from Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem
Introduction: Sickness And Health In The History Of Redemption
We must realize at the outset that physical sickness came as a result of the fall of Adam, and illness and disease are simply part of the outworking of the curse after the fall, and will eventually lead toward physical death. However, Christ redeemed us from that curse when he died on the cross: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows . . . by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:4–5). This passage refers to both physical and spiritual healing that Christ purchased for us, for Peter quotes it to refer to our salvation: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
But Matthew quotes the same passage from Isaiah with reference to the physical healings Jesus performed: “and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases’” (Matt. 8:16–17).
All Christians would probably agree that in the atonement Christ has purchased for us not only complete freedom from sin but also complete freedom from physical weakness and infirmity in his work of redemption (see chapter 42 on glorification). And all Christians would also no doubt agree that our full and complete possession of all the benefits that Christ earned for us will not come until Christ returns: it is only “at his coming” (1 Cor. 15:23) that we receive our perfect resurrection bodies. So it is with physical healing and redemption from the physical sickness that came as a result of the curse in Genesis 3: our complete possession of redemption from physical illness will not be ours until Christ returns and we receive resurrection bodies.
But the question that confronts us with respect to the gift of healing is whether God may from time to time grant us a foretaste or a down payment of the physical healing which he will grant us fully in the future. The healing miracles of Jesus certainly demonstrate that at times God is willing to grant a partial foretaste of the perfect health that will be ours for eternity. And the ministry of healing seen in the lives of the apostles and others in the early church also indicates that this was part of the ministry of the new covenant age. As such, it fits the larger pattern of blessings in the new covenant, many or all of which give partial foretastes of the blessings that will be ours when Christ returns. We “already”possess some of the blessings of the kingdom, but those blessings are “not yet” fully ours.
The Purposes Of Healing
As with other spiritual gifts, healing has several purposes. Certainly it functions as a “sign”to authenticate the gospel message, and show that the kingdom of God has come. Then also healing brings comfort and health to those who are ill, and thereby demonstrates God’s attribute of mercy toward those in distress. Third, healing equips people for service, as physical impediments to ministry are removed. Fourth, healing provides opportunity for God to be glorified as people see physical evidence of his goodness, love, power, wisdom, and presence.
What About The Use Of Medicine?
What is the relationship between prayer for healing and the use of medicine and the skill of a physician? Certainly we should use medicine if it is available because God has also created substances in the earth that can be made into medicine with healing properties. Medicines thus should be considered part of the whole creation that God considered “very good” (Gen. 1:31). We should willingly use medicine with thankfulness to the Lord, for “The earth is the LORD’s and the fulness thereof” (Ps. 24:1). In fact, when medicine is available and we refuse to use it (in cases where it would put ourselves or others in danger), then it seems that we are wrongly “forcing a test”on the Lord our God (cf. Luke 4:12): this is similar to the case of Satan tempting Jesus to jump from the temple rather than walking down the steps. Where ordinary means of getting down from the temple (the steps) are available, it is “forcing a test”on God to jump and thereby demand that he perform a miracle at that exact moment. To refuse to use effective medicine, insisting that God perform a miracle of healing instead of healing through the medicine, is very similar to this.
Of course, it is wrong to rely on doctors or medicine instead of relying on the Lord, a mistake tragically made by King Asa:
In the thirty-ninth year of his reign Asa was diseased in his feet, and his disease became severe; yet even in his disease he did not seek the LORD, but sought help from physicians. And Asa slept with his fathers, dying in the forty-first year of his reign (2 Chron. 16:12–13).
But if medicine is used in connection with prayer, then we should expect God to bless and often multiply the effectiveness of the medicine. Even when Isaiah had received from the Lord a promise of healing for King Hezekiah, he told Hezekiah’s servants to bring a cake of figs and apply it (as a medical remedy) to a boil that Hezekiah suffered from: “And Isaiah said, ‘Bring a cake of figs. And let them take and lay it on the boil, that he may recover’” (2 Kings 20:7).
However, sometimes there is no appropriate medicine available, or the medicine does not work. Certainly we must remember that God can heal where doctors and medicine cannot heal (and it may amaze us to realize how frequently doctors cannot heal, even in the most medically advanced countries). Moreover, there may be many times when an illness is not putting us or others in immediate danger, and we decide to ask God to heal our sickness without the use of medicine, simply because we wish for another opportunity to exercise our faith and give him glory, and perhaps because we wish to avoid spending the time or money to use medical means, or we wish to avoid the side-effects that some medicines have. In all of these cases, it is simply a matter of personal choice and would not seem to be “forcing a test”on God. (However, a decision not to use medicine in these cases should be a personal choice and not one that is forced on others.)
We see Jesus healing explicitly where medical means have failed, when “a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years and could not be healed by any one”then “came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased” (Luke 8:43–44). There were no doubt many people beyond the help of physicians who came whenever Jesus was teaching and healing, yet we read that “all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them”(Luke 4:40). There was no disease that Jesus was unable to heal.
Does The New Testament Show Common Methods Used In Healing?
The methods used by Jesus and the disciples to bring healing varied from case to case, but most frequently they included laying on of hands. 28 In the verse just quoted, Jesus no doubt could have spoken a powerful word of command and healed everyone in the large crowd instantly, but instead, “he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them” (Luke 4: 40). Laying on of hands seems to have been the primary means Jesus used to heal, because when people came and asked him for healing they did not simply ask for prayer but said, for example, “come and lay your hand on her, and she will live” (Matt. 9:18).
Another physical symbol of the Holy Spirit’s power coming for healing was anointing with oil. Jesus’ disciples “anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13). And James tells the elders of the church to anoint the sick person with oil when they pray: “Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven” (James 5:14–15).
The New Testament often emphasizes the role of faith in the healing process—sometimes the faith of the sick person (Luke 8:48; 17:19), but at other times the faith of others who bring the sick person for healing. In James 5:15 it is the elders who pray, and James says it is “the prayer of faith”that saves the sick person—this then must be the faith of the elders praying, not the faith of the one who is sick. When the four men let down a paralytic through a hole in the roof where Jesus was preaching, we read, “And when Jesus saw their faith . . .” (Mark 2: 5). At other times Jesus mentions the faith of the Canaanite woman regarding the healing of her daughter (Matt. 15:28), or of the centurion for the healing of his servant (Matt. 8: 10, 13).
How Then Should We Pray For Healing?
How then should we pray regarding physical illness? Certainly it is right to ask God for healing, for Jesus tells us to pray, “Deliver us from evil” (Matt. 6:13), and the apostle John writes to Gaius, “I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in health” (3 John 2). Moreover, Jesus frequently healed all who were brought to him, and he never sent people away, telling them it would be good for them to remain ill for a longer time! In addition to this, whenever we take any kind of medicine or seek any medical help for an illness, by those actions we admit that we think it to be God’s will that we seek to be well. If we thought that God wanted us to continue in our illness, we would never seek medical means for healing! So when we pray it seems right that our first assumption, unless we have specific reason to think otherwise, should be that God would be pleased to heal the person we are praying for—as far as we can tell from Scripture, this is God’s revealed will.
Ken Blue has a helpful observation here. He argues that if we want to understand God’s attitude toward physical healing we should look at Jesus’life and ministry. Blue says, “If Jesus truly reveals the character of God to us, then we may cease speculating about and arguing over God’s will in sickness and healing. Jesus healed people because he loved them. Very simply, he had compassion for them; he was on their side; he wanted to solve their problems.” This is a strong argument, especially when coupled with the realization that Jesus came to inaugurate the presence of the kingdom of God among us and to show us what the kingdom of God would be like.
"How then should we pray? Certainly it is right to ask God for healing, and we should go to him with the simple request that he give physical healing in time of need. James warns us that simple unbelief can lead to prayerlessness and failure to receive answers from God: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2). But when we pray for healing we should remember that we must pray for God to be glorified in the situation, whether he chooses to heal or not. And we also ought to pray out of the same compassion of heart that Jesus felt for those whom he healed. When we pray this way, God will sometimes—and perhaps often—grant answers to our prayers.
Someone may object at this point that, from a pastoral standpoint, much harm is done when people are encouraged to believe that a miracle of healing will occur and then nothing happens—disappointment with the church and anger at God may result. Those who pray for people to be healed today need to hear this objection and use wisdom in what they tell people who are ill.
But we also need to realize that there is more than one kind of mistake to make: (1) Not praying for healing at all is not a correct solution, for it involves disobedience to James 5. (2) Telling people that God seldom heals today and that they should expect nothing to happen is not a correct solution either, for it does not provide an atmosphere conducive to faith and is inconsistent with the pattern we see in the ministry of Jesus and the early church in the New Testament. (3) Telling people that God always heals today if we have enough faith is a cruel teaching not supported by Scripture (see next section).
The pastorally wise solution, it seems, lies between (2) and (3) above. We can tell people that God frequently heals today (if we believe that is true), and that it is very possible that they will be healed, but that we are still living in an age when the kingdom of God is “already”here but “not yet”fully here. Therefore Christians in this life will experience healing (and many other answers to prayer), but they will also experience continuing illness and eventual death. In each individual case it is God’s sovereign wisdom that decides the outcome, and our role is simply to ask him and wait for him to answer (whether “yes”or “no”or “keep praying and wait”).
Those with “gifts of healings”(a literal translation of the plurals in 1 Cor. 12:9, 28) will be those people who find that their prayers for healing are answered more frequently and more thoroughly than others. When that becomes evident, a church would be wise to encourage them in this ministry and give them more opportunities to pray for others who are ill. We should also realize that gifts of healing could include ministry not only in terms of physical healing, but also in terms of emotional healing. And it may at times include the ability to set people free from demonic attack, for this is also called “healing”sometimes in Scripture (see Luke 6:18; Acts 10:38). Perhaps the gifts of being able to pray effectively in different kinds of situations and for different kinds of needs are what Paul referred to when he used the plural expression, “gifts of healings.”
But What If God Does Not Heal?
Nonetheless, we must realize that not all prayers for healing will be answered in this age. Sometimes God will not grant the special “faith”(James 5: 15) that healing will occur, and at times God will choose not to heal, because of his own sovereign purposes. In these cases we must remember that Romans 8:28 is still true: though we experience the “sufferings of this present time,”and though we “groan inwardly as we wait for . . . the redemption of our bodies”(Rom. 8:18, 23), nonetheless, “we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). This includes working in our circumstances of suffering and illness as well.
Whatever Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”was (and centuries of work by Bible-believing interpreters have failed to turn up a definitive answer), Paul realized that God allowed it to remain with him “to keep me from being too elated” (2 Cor. 12:7), that is, to keep Paul humble before the Lord. So the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor.12:9). There are indications in the early church that even in the presence of the apostles not all people were healed. Paul recognized that “our outer nature is wasting away” (2 Cor. 4:16), and sometimes disease and illness will not be healed. When Epaphroditus came to visit Paul, he had an illness that brought him “near to death” (Phil. 2:27). Paul indicates in the narrative of Philippians 2 that it appeared as though Epaphroditus were going to die—that God did not heal him immediately when he became ill. But eventually God did heal (Phil. 2:27) in answer to prayer. Paul told Timothy that he should drink a little wine “for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Tim. 5:23). He said, “Trophimus I left ill at Miletus” (2 Tim. 4:20). And both Peter (1 Peter 1:6–7; 4:19) and James (James 1:2–4) have words of encouragement and counsel for those who are suffering trials of various kinds:
Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2–4).
When God chooses not to heal, even though we ask him for it, then it is right that we “give thanks in all circumstances”(1 Thess. 5: 18) and realize that God can use sickness to draw us closer to himself and to increase in us obedience to his will. So the psalmist can say, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes”(Ps. 119: 71), and, “Before I was afflicted I went astray; but now I keep your word”(Ps. 119: 67).
Therefore God can bring increased sanctification to us through illness and suffering—just as he can bring sanctification and growth in faith through miraculous healing. But the emphasis of the New Testament, both in Jesus’ ministry and in the ministry of the disciples in Acts, seems to be one that encourages us in most cases eagerly and earnestly to seek God for healing, and then to continue to trust him to bring good out of the situation, whether he grants the physical healing or not. The point is that in everything God should receive glory and our joy and trust in him should increase.
See also A Theology Of Faith & Healing