Is Physical Healing in the Atonement?

Divine healing proponents look to Isaiah 53:4,5 as proof that healing is to be included in the atonement. Indeed, almost all of the faith teachers appeal to this passage. The NIV rendering of the passage in question is as follows: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

Can a full-blown theology of healing be developed from this passage? Are those who argue for such an interpretation correct? Just how are we to understand the healing elements of Is. 53? Let’s consider this last question. Gordon Fee puts it this way:

“The Isaiah passage itself is ambiguous; it is clearly a metaphor for salvation, but in the prophetic tradition such salvation also included the healing of the people’s wounds incurred in their judgment. Thus in the NT this passage is understood both as a metaphor for salvation (1 Pet. 2:24) and as a promise of physical healing (Matt. 8:17).

As R.T. France reminds us, in “many OT texts healing and forgiveness are so closely related that it is hard to tell whether the language of healing is meant to be understood of physical illness or metaphorically for restored spiritual health (e.g., Pss. 41:4; 103:3; Is 53:4-6)”.

It is worth examining the two New Testament passages in a bit more detail. The first is Matthew 8:16-17: “When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases’.”

The case for healing in the atonement perhaps can best be made from this passage. Yet a number of issues need to be explored. It should first be noted that the word translated “infirmities” in v. 17 is the same word Paul uses in 2 Cor. 12:9: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” If, as the faith teachers suggest, the healing of all sickness and illness is included in the atonement, then we must ask with James Dunn, “How could Paul glory in something that Christ took away when He died?”

Donald Hagner remarks that consideration of context is important here: “Given the entire sweep of the Gospel, the healing pericopes become relatively insignificant. As the Isa 53 quotation suggests to the reader who knows the story to its end, the healings are but one aspect of a much more important work to be performed by Jesus”.

Indeed, “Isa 53:4 guarantees no one healing in the present age. What is guaranteed is that Christ’s atoning death will in the eschaton provide healing for all without exception. The healings through the ministry of Jesus and those experienced in our day are the first-fruits, the down payment, of the final experience of deliverance”.

Even if healing is in the atonement, other facets of the fall could then also be claimed, such as sorrow, death, pain, etc. Most commentators take this line. As Dunn notes: “Death as a consequence of the fall is emphasized in the Bible much more than sickness; if the atonement removed all the  results of the fall, why do Christians still die?”

We seem to be a bit selective in what we want included in the atonement, as Dunn points out: “There were other consequences of the fall besides sickness – man must earn his living by the sweat of his brow, woman must struggle and suffer pain in childbirth, just to mention a couple. And yet I have never heard anyone claim atonement for these things, and as far as I can tell they are still very much with us.”

D.A. Carson agrees, stating that this passage “cannot be used to justify healing on demand. This text and others clearly teach that there is healing in the Atonement; but similarly there is the promise of a resurrection body in the Atonement, even if believers do not inherit it until the Parousia. From the perspective of the NT writers, the Cross is the basis for all benefits that accrue to believers; but this does not mean that all such benefits can be secured at the present time on demand, any more than we have the right and power to demand our resurrection bodies.”

Craig Blomberg concurs: “There is physical healing in the atonement for this age, but it is up to God in Christ to choose when and how to dispense it. Perfect healing, like the believer’s resurrection body, ultimately awaits Christ’s return.” Or as B.B. Warfield put it back in 1918, “If sinfulness is not to be removed in this life [in the sense of sinless perfection], neither is sickness.”

Gordon Fee, a New Testament scholar associated with the Assemblies of God, points out that Matthew’s use of Is. 53:4 does not even refer to the cross: “rather he clearly sees the text as being fulfilled in Jesus’ earthly ministry”. He continues: “Matthew clearly saw Isaiah 53:4 as referring to physical healing, but as part of the Messiah’s earthly ministry, not as part of the atonement.”

Michael Brown’s brief treatment of this passage concludes by noting that it should be tied in with Is. 33:17-24, which speaks of the messianic kingdom. Verse 24 reads: “No one living in Zion will say, ‘I am ill’; and the sins of those who dwell there will be forgiven”. Here spiritual and physical blessing are tied together: “By bearing sin and iniquity the servant bore sickness and pain; by taking his people’s guilt he thereby incurred their punishment; and it is at the cost of his wounds that total healing has come. There is no artificial dichotomy here! The whole man has been wholly healed. The straying and sickly nation has been completely restored and made well.”

Commenting on Is. 33:24, John Oswalt says this: “As in ch. 53, forgiveness of sin and healing from disease are related. This is not to say that all disease can be related to specific sins committed by the ill person. But neither can we say no relation exists between the two. Disease is in the world because of sin.”

Millard Erickson says this: “The prophet is referring to actual physical and mental illnesses and distresses, but not necessarily to a vicarious bearing of them. . . . What we are suggesting here, then, is that both Matthew and Isaiah are referring to actual physical sicknesses and mental distresses rather than sins. They do not have in view, however, a vicarious bearing of these maladies. It seems likelier that they are referring to a sympathetic bearing of the troubles of this life.”

Thus it was the incarnation and life of Jesus in general, rather than the atonement in particular, that is in view here, although in a “general sense, of course, the atonement cancels all the effects of the fall. But some of the benefits will not be realized until the end of time (Rom. 8:19-25).”

John Stott offers this three-fold critique of the idea that healing is found in the atonement. One, the Hebrew verb rendered “to bear” (nasa) is used in a variety of ways in the OT, often with the idea of carrying. But the verb “in itself does not mean to ‘bear the punishment of’”. Two, while one can intelligibly speak of ‘bearing the penalty of sin’, the same cannot be said for bearing the penalty of sickness. Three, Matthew uses Is. 53:4 to apply to Christ’s healing ministry, not his atoning death.

Craig Keener ties together some of the various threads of thought with this remark: “The context in Isaiah 53 suggests that the servant’s death would heal the nation from its sin. . . . But the broader context of Isaiah … shows God’s eschatological concern for his people’s complete wellness (29:18; 32:3-4; 35:5-6), suggesting secondary nuances of physical healing in 53:4-5 as well. . . . The servant’s suffering would restore to Israel eschatologically the benefits lost through sin (cf. Deut 27-28). Thus Matthew cites Isaiah 53:4 to demonstrate that Jesus’ mission of healing fulfills the character of the mission of the servant, who at the ultimate cost of his own life would reveal God’s concern for a broken humanity. Matthew himself also recognizes that genuine physical healings can illustrate principles about spiritual healing (9:5-7, 12; 13:15).”

The other NT passage that cites Isaiah 53:4,5 is 1 Peter 2:24: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed”. This passage is somewhat more straight forward, with the result that commentators show much more unanimity regarding its meaning. The context of this passage shows that the healing being described is clearly a moral/spiritual healing.

As Fee remarks, Peter “saw the healing in Isaiah 53 as being metaphorical and thus referring to the healing of our sin sickness”. Most commentators agree. Wayne Grudem says that “Peter here applies the words [of Is. 53:5] morally: by Christ’s wounds we have been ‘healed’ from sin.”

Connelly, commenting on this passage, says this: “Nowhere in Scripture are we given any indication that Christ took upon himself human sickness in the same way as he did human sin. The apostle Paul clearly says that God the Father ‘made [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). The Bible never says that Christ was made sickness for us.”

Alan Stibbs offers this thought on the passage: “Peter’s thought here, however paradoxical, is deliberately that of benefit to be gained by sinners from our Lord’s suffering in their stead. Here, as Theodore said, is ‘a new and strange method of healing; the doctor suffered the cost, and the sick received the healing’.”

In sum, the relationship between healing and the atonement will continue to be disputed. The cessationists will take one side, the faith healers, another, and numerous mediating positions will continue to be pushed. This author recognizes that healing, like so many concepts, has both a literal and a metaphorical usage in scripture. It may be impossible to fully distinguish the two. Indeed, this may not even be desirable; often a term can be used in both senses simultaneously.

On the issue of Is. 53, the comments by Bailey (an advocate of divine healing) offer a safe course: “The Scriptures state that healing is in the atonement but they do not disclose how healing is in the atonement.” Or perhaps more to the point, as another scholar notes, the “question is not whether our bodies receive healing because of the atonement of Christ, but when.”

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