"By His stripes we are healed . . . " — Isaiah 53:5
To properly understand anything, we must first define our use of terms.
"Healing" may be physical, from a disease, infirmity, or accident. It may be emotional or mental, as one's mind is cleared of disorder and brought to sanity. It may be social, as the promise in II Chronicles 7:14 where God says, "I will heal their land." It may be spiritual, in the experience of salvation and strength against sin. When we speak of "healing in the atonement," we must first clarify which form or forms of healing we mean.
"Atonement" is a commonly used word for the work of Christ as Calvary. It is actually an Old Testament word, appearing only once in our common version of the New Testament (Romans 5:11), where it stands for the same word elsewhere translated "reconciliation." We use it here for convenience, recognizing that Christ actually went beyond the Old Testament concept.
But did He buy for us physical, mental, social, or spiritual healing, or some combination or all of these?
I. Isaiah 53:5 is set in a spiritual context.
1) "We did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted." Though men nailed Him to the cross, God was the active force in it — see Acts 2:23. His greatest agony was not the pain of crucifixion, but the weight of sin.It is difficult to see, in Isaiah 52:13—53:12, any clear reference to the first three categories of healing. It is true that spiritual healing (salvation) produces physical, mental, and social results, as the new man in Christ is better able to relate to reality. But much physical suffering is not the direct result of sin (John 9:2-3, 11:4), but the result of sin in the world — the "background radiation."
2) "He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities." The sin problem is clearly in view here, not physical illness.
3) "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the "LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all." This is not our physical illness, but our sin. See also verse 10, "You shall make His soul an offering for sin;" verse 11, "by His knowledge shall My righteous servant justify many;" and verse 12, "He bore the sin of many."
II. If physical healing is in the work of Christ, how can it relate to lost people? The benefits of His work are for those who will receive them in an experience of repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21), not for unbelievers. For it is "by His stripes" that cancer and broken legs are cured, how can professing unbelievers and those who have never heard of His name receive such blessings?
It is in the universal providence of God that "He makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust" (Matthew 5:45). It is this providence, not the work of Christ in the gospel, that "gives to all life, and breath, and all (physical, material) things" (Acts 17:25, spoken to pagans). This providence bears Him witness, through nature, "in that He did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness" (Acts 14:17, spoken to pagans). Surely physical healing, which is of God, is not limited to those who are already His born-again children, but like sunshine, rain, life itself, food and other physical blessings, is available to all His creation as a testimony to His goodness.
III. Further, if physical healing is in the "atonement," why are saved people ever sick? Did God do His work carelessly (I speak as a man), so that we "didn't get it all" in believing? Why did Paul pray three times for his thorn in the flesh to be removed, only to be told it was good for him? Why was Epaphroditus "sick nigh unto death" (Philippians 2:25-30), when he was in the midst of a missionary journey, evidently in God's will? Why, indeed, do believers die? If "God wants you well," how can the believer ever depart and "be with Christ, which is far better" (Philippians 1:23)?
The cruel hoax that tells people with physical ailments that they are out of God's will, or lack faith, is sometimes only a money-raising scheme. It is often a sincere but (I feel) misguided expression of faith. It may be supreme folly, a sort of humanism, in which a "healer" imagines himself a channel of God's grace and becomes a sort of second god.
Are we denying or questioning God's power to heal? Far from it. All healing is divine, whether physical, emotional, social, or spiritual. When a Hindu doctor in India gives a Moslem some "miracle drug" and there is recovery, without prayer or any proclamation of the gospel, it is still God's providential provision. Also, there is much in the attitude; if we have the right outlook and conduct ourselves wisely, we will avoid many illnesses and recover more readily. And a Christian should be more able to express that positive attitude.
But let us not make the mistake Job's miserable comforters made, by assuming that we know God's purposes for others. Let us with reverence honor His precious Name, and not drag it through the circus of magic rituals that often passes for "healing."
[From the CENTRAL BAPTIST REVIEW, Marion, KY - September 1985.]