Healing and the Atonement

     In our day and age some people claim that we have a guarantee of healing in this life because Jesus Christ died on the cross not only for our sins but for our sickness as well. Is this true? The question that needs to be answered and the theological issue that is at the center of this belief, is this; is physical healing included in the atonement? And if it is, are we guaranteed healing in this lifetime? Among many verses there are three that are at the very center of this issue. These are Isaiah 53:1-13, Matthew 8:17, and 1 Peter 2:24-25; what do they really say about this issue? But to start, let’s begin by understanding what physical healing in the atonement means.

     If physical healing is included in the atonement it means that when Christ died on the Cross he did not only bear and pay for our sins, but he also bore and paid for our sickness. Some say that this means we will be ensured physical healing in this lifetime[1], others say that this atoning for our sickness, like our sins, will only come to complete fulfillment in the resurrection[2][3]. Those who claim that Christ did atone for our sickness use the interpretation of Isaiah 53 found in Matthew 8 to suggest that as well as bearing our sins on his beaten body Christ bore our sickness.

     Does Isaiah 53 itself suggest that the messiah would bear our physical sickness in his atoning work? The context of Isaiah 53:1-13 and the language used suggest that it only addresses sin and not our physical healing[4]. The Hebrew words in verse 3, 4, and 10 that are said to refer to physical healing (מַכְאוֹבmak˒ôb; חֳלִיḥŏlî) can refer to physical healing, but not necessarily in this context.[5] Throughout Isaiah 53 there are three different words used for sin (translated sin, iniquity, and transgression) and they are used in total at least 9 times. This is a good indicator that this passage is talking about sin, not physical infirmities.[6]  The word that is translated as scourging or wounds in our English translations (חֲבוּרָהḥăbû̂râ, “stripe, blow”) can have a meaning of physical wounds or of the spiritual affliction of sin.[7] “Although Christ was physically afflicted by man before and while upon the cross, it is most consistent with the remainder of Isaiah 53 to see this in the latter sense of Christ being afflicted by the Father for the sins He bore (53:10–12).”[8] The context for the suffering servant in Isaiah 52-53 suggests that the focus of this passage is on sin and spiritual healing, not physical healing; what about Matthew 8?

     Matthew 8:17[9] is frequently used to support healing in the atonement; this is because it quotes Isaiah 53 in the context of physical healing. Matthew says that Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and of those after her was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 53:4. Does Matthew have in mind Jesus atoning for our sickness? In the LXX the Greek word for “bear” used in Isaiah 53:4 is fe,rw (pherō). This word indicates a sacrificial bearing in a substitutionary way. In Matthew’s quotation of this passage he uses the words lamba,nw (lambanō) and bastazw (bastazō).[10] “They are never used in the NT with the sense of atonement or propitiation.”[11] These words mean to take away or remove; Matthew’s intent was not to indicate that Christ bore the sickness sacrificially, but that he removed it completely.[12] Matthew also switches from the LXX’s use of iva,omai (Iaomai), which can indicate physical or spiritual healing, to the Greek word qerapeu,w (Therapeuō) which always refers to physical infirmities.[13] “Matthew’s purposeful change to therapeuō signals his obvious intent to focus on the physical alone. From Christ’s perspective, those hearings provided Messianic credentials. From the perspective of the present time, they pointed to the resurrection hope that when sin disappears, human bodies will be free of physical infirmities.”[14] Matthew’s use of Isaiah 53:4 is appropriate because even though the sickness in view in this passage refers to sin, the removal of the effects of sin is in mind; disease is inseparable from sin.[15] In this passage Matthew shows that Jesus took away the infirmity, the idea of physical healing in the atonement was not intended with this passage.

     The last verse used to support the idea of physical healing in the atonement is 1 Peter 2:24-25[16]; supporters of this view say that this verse indicates that Jesus came and died for our physical infirmity[17]. A quick survey of the context of this verse shows that it is has everything to do with spiritual healing, salvation, not physical healing.[18] Verse 20[19] talks about finding favor with God by enduring suffering when you do things right, a far cry from deliverance from suffering, it is quite the opposite[20]. Verse 21[21] indicates much the same thing, Christ is our example for enduring suffering. “Peter actually validates the divine purpose in human suffering rather than eliminating it.”[22] 1 Peter 2:24-25 cannot be used to support physical healing of any kind, especially not inclusion in the atonement; this verse actually shows that Isaiah 53(LXX) is utilizing a figurative use of the Greek word iva,omai, a use within the realm of salvation.[23]

     Numerous verses indicate that we are not to expect physical healing in this lifetime, there are many scriptures that say we can be healed; but it is not a guarantee. Even the apostles and their close companions were not always healed. At least three times we see an absence of supernatural healing (1 Timothy 5:23, 2 Timothy 4:20, Galatians 4:13-15). In the Psalms we read that affliction can turn us around, can teach us; so it is not always a bad thing (Psalm 119:71, 67).  Paul also teaches that our bodies are fading away, that they are perishable; we will only receive imperishable bodies in the resurrection, when Christ returns (1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 51-55; 2 Corinthians 4:16).

     The testimony of scripture, even those verses used to support healing in the atonement, show that Christ did not bear our sickness and atone for our healing. We can be healed in this life, but it is not a guarantee ensured by the Atonement. Upon our resurrection we will receive an imperishable body; we will see full healing when Christ comes again. But not before that time; we may receive supernatural healing but that is only a temporary relief from the temporal consequence of sin, which is death. “However, there is healing “through” the atonement or “as a result” of the atonement, but it is never promised to believers for the present time.”[24] “It seems more biblically precise to say, “There will be physical healing through the atonement” rather than “There is physical healing in the atonement.”[25]

Bibliography

Beilby, James, and Paul R. Eddy, . The Nature of the Atonement. Downers Grove, Illinois : InterVarsity Press, 2006.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000.

Mayhue, Richard L. “Cessationism, “The Gifts Of Healings,” And Divine Healing.” The Masters Seminary Journal 14 (Fall 2003; 2006): 285-286.

Mayhue, Richard L. “For What Did Christ Atone in Isa 53:4-5?” Master’s Seminary Journal 6 (1995; 2002): 121-143.

Mitchell, John G. “Does God Heal Today?” Bibliotheca Sacra (Dallas Theological Seminary) 122 (1965; 2002): 41-53.

Wommack, Andrew. “HEALING IS IN THE ATONEMENT.” Colorado Springs, Colorado: Discipleship Evangelism, 2004.

Young, Edward J. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book Of Isaiah.Vol. III. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974.


[1]Andrew Wommack, HEALING IS IN THE ATONEMENT (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Discipleship Evangelism, 2004), 97.

[2]James Beilby, Paul R. Eddy; The Nature of the Atonement (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 140;

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000), 1063.

[3]Grudem seems to believe in Physical healing through the atonement, not in it; but this physical healing will only be completed in the resurrection.

[4] Richard L. Mayhue, “For What Did Christ Atone in Isa 53:4-5?” Master’s Seminary Journal 6 (1995; 2002): 121.

[5] Ibid., 126.

[6] Ibid., 127.

[7] Ibid., 128.

[8] Ibid., 128.

[9] “This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: “HE HIMSELF TOOK OUR INFIRMITIES AND CARRIED AWAY OUR DISEASES.”” (NASB)

[10] Mayhue, Isa 53:4-5, 132-133.

[11] Ibid., 133.

[12] Ibid., 133.

[13] Ibid., 133.

[14] Ibid., 133.

[15] Edward J Young, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book Of Isaiah. Vol. III. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974. 345.

[16] “24 and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. 25 For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.”

[17] Wommack, Healing, 96.

[18] Richard L Mayhue, “Cessationism, “The Gifts Of Healings,” And Divine Healing.” The Masters Seminary Journal 14 (Fall 2003; 2006): 285.

[19] “20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.”

[20] Mayhue, Cessationism, 285.

[21] “21 For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps,”

[22] Mayhue, Cessationism, 285.

[23] John G. Mitchell, “Does God Heal Today?” Bibliotheca Sacra (Dallas Theological Seminary) 122 (1965; 2002): 42.

[24] Mayhue, Isa 53:4-5, 139-140.

[25] Ibid., 140.

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