If healing is in the atonement, why are not all healed?

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So far I’ve dealt with some of the exegetical arguments raised against the view that healing is in the atonement. Now I’d like to turn to what I would call the logical argument against healing in the atonement, which simplified, goes something like this:

  1. If healing is in the Atonement, then we would expect all believers to not be sick.
  2. Many believers are sick.
  3. Therefore, present-time physical healing cannot be in the atonement.

A.C. Gaebelein argues this point forcefully, saying:

We must add, that if it were true that Christ died for our sicknesses, then His atoning work in this respect is a failure. His people ever since these words were written have borne all manner of diseases and have died. Some of the greatest saints of God, the most mighty instruments of God the Holy Spirit, men of faith and whole-souled devotion, were weak in body and afflicted with infirmities. The choicest saints on earth today are the thousands of shut-ins, who suffer in patience and sing their sweet songs in the night. (The Healing Question, pg. 74-75)

We can all feel the emotional power behind this argument, but I don’t think it works. Premise 2 is obviously true, but premise 1 is demonstrably false. Think about it. Can one benefit from something they do not know is theirs? Case in point: no Bible-believing Christian would argue that Jesus’ death did not atone for our sins. They may disagree about the nature of the atonement, but that forgiveness belongs to the Christian is not up for debate. But just because Christ secured our forgiveness, it doesn’t automatically guarantee that every believer will enjoy the full benefits of that pardon. In fact, many believers live under a cloud of despair. Despite that they are forgiven, many of them often do not feel forgiven; rather they feel dirty and worthless. They do not enjoy the benefit of being forgiven, often because of ignorance of scripture.

So also, we read from scripture that Christ has delivered us from the power of sin (Rom. 6:1-14). But many Christians, ignorant of their new nature in Christ, still struggle with self-destructive habits. Moreover, we read that deliverance from the power of darkness is a present-time blessing. (Col. 1:13-14). Yet we are elsewhere told in scripture to “give no place to the devil” and to “resist the devil”.  (Eph. 4:27, James 4:7). So despite being delivered, if a believer does not resist the devil because of ignorance, he will not flee, at least not without some other sort of intervention.

So it is when we read “He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases“. (Mt. 8:17) Healing is ours, but have to believe and act on that reality, even if it is not apparent. Certain benefits of the atonement are not our automatic experience, our response is necessary.

This might be a crude illustration, but not long ago a Chicagoan named Irving Przyborski won a $9 million prize through the Illinois lottery, and yet he didn’t know that he had won until he found the ticket by accident after opening an old tax file. He did not realize the ticket fell into the file.  He had no idea that this ticket was a winning ticket despite having it in his possession for nearly a year. In fact, it nearly expired and his winnings would have gone to fund public schools had he not claimed his prize. So it is with many Christians. They have the healing ticket, so to speak, whether they realize it or not,  but they have to collect their prize.

Notice also that in Mr. Pryzborki’s case, the Illinois Lotto Commission was not hunting him down to tell him that he had won. It wasn’t up to them tell him of his benefit, for the lotto picks were broadcasted long ago. So likewise, we have to read what was published long ago (the scriptures) to find out what is ours.  God will be merciful with us and occasionally heal someone in spite of our ignorance simply because it pleases Him to do so, but He does expect us to learn what belongs to us.  But if congregation members are taught that we are only healed “spiritually”, or told that sickness is “our cross to bear”, how can anyone expect to receive healing from God with any confidence?

It is considered to be a church faux pas to encourage one to simply have faith for healing (and I agree that we should do everything in love), but we see repeatedly that the healings of Jesus were in response to faith. Here is a sketch of the individuals Jesus specifically healed in reaction to their faith.

Key Phrase

Ref.

Leper in Galilee

“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus said “I am willing, be clean!”

Mk. 1:40-45

Paralytic at Capernaum

Jesus saw their faith

Mk. 2:3-12

Hemorrhaging woman at Capernaum

Daughter, your faith has healed you

Mk. 5:25-34

Two blind men at Capernaum

According to your faith let it be done to you

Mt. 9:27-29

Ten lepers between Samaria and Galilee

your faith has made you well

Lk. 17:11-19

Blind Bartimaeus

your faith has healed you

Mk. 10:46-48

Roman centurion’s paralyzed servant

Let it be done just as you believed it would

Mt. 8:5-13

Canaanite Woman’s demonized daughter

Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.

Mk. 15:21-28

Man’s epileptic son near Caesarea-Philippi

Father: if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us…Jesus: “If you can? Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Mk. 9:17-29

Jairus’s daughter

Don’t be afraid; just believe

Mk. 5:36

Lame man at Lystra

Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.

Acts 14:7-9

It should be noted that we do not always see Jesus remark about the faith of the one coming to him for healing. In other passages with individuals (Jn. 9:1-12) and groups (Lk. 6:17-19), we see their faith demonstrated simply by their actions.

Moreover, we see that a lack of faith to some extent limited Jesus’ healing ministry. In his own hometown of Nazareth, we read that Jesus “could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith” (Mk. 6:1-6) While at times Christ would approach the sick to heal them by Father’s direction (Jn. 5:19), quite often it was the other way around. This is particularly notable in the accounts of Jesus’ mass healing events, where people came to Jesus to be healed. (Mt. 4:23-25, 21:14-15, Luke 4:40, 6:17-19, 7:21, Mark 6:53-56, etc.)

Healing is not a matter that is simply all up to God. In relation to forgiveness, Jesus told the woman who anointed his feet in Luke 7 the same thing he told the woman with the hemorrhage in Luke 8. “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (Lk. 7:50, Lk. 8:48) In order to enjoy the benefits of the atonement, we cannot remain passive.

Sick for the glory of God?

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Critics of the view that healing is in the atonement often respond with Jesus’ words in John 11:3-4. Upon hearing the news that Lazarus was terminally ill, Jesus responded to his disciples, saying “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Somehow this passage is supposed to overturn the multiple passages that show sickness and disease is Satanic oppression. It is also interpreted that God mysteriously wishes for some to stay sick, and that somehow brings glory to Himself. I think a closer examination of the story of Lazarus give no such credence to this interpretation.

We see throughout scripture that sickness and disease in themselves give no glory to God. On the contrary, God gets glory through healing! For example:

But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—”I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”  (Luke 5:24-26)

When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him. (Luke 13:12-17)

This is just a small scriptural sampling that demonstrates that the healing of the disease is what brought praise and glory to God. Sickness in itself was an opportunity for Jesus, just as sins against us can give us opportunity to respond in love and mercy, and that brings God glory.

In contrast, Lazarus’ death raised questions in the hearts of his two sisters about Jesus’ goodness. (vs. 21, 32). Also, some of Jesus critics asked “could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”. This is the typical problem of evil we see so often raised in our day. If Jesus is God’s all-benevolent, powerful Messiah, how could he let this happen to his friend? Yet we see that Jesus didn’t offer a theodicy. In response to the crowd, we read that Jesus was “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled”.

I submit that most of the Bible translators dropped the ball, so to speak, when translating these verses. The Greek word for  “deeply moved” is ἐμβριμάομαι, which means “I snort (with the notion of coercion springing out of displeasure, anger, indignation, antagonism), express indignant displeasure with someone”. Jesus was deeply indignant. Indignant at whom?  We read in 1 Corinthians 15:26 that death is an enemy. We see also in Hebrews that one of the reasons Jesus became incarnate was ” that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” Death did not glorify God, rather Jesus was angry at the one who had power over death.

What happened in this classical bible narrative that glorified God?

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11:40-45)

It was God raising Lazarus’ from the dead that glorified God, not the sickness that led up to it. That was the enemy that Jesus was antagonistic against. Had Lazarus remained in the tomb, and Jesus’ prayer had been left unanswered, would God have been glorified? Would Jesus still be viewed by his disciples as God’s chosen Messiah if he simply said “God has his reasons” or “it must not have been God’s will”?

So we see that by taking this verse out of its setting and building a doctrine around it, we greatly err and rob people of their faith. Healing and miracles glorify God, acquiescing to sickness does not.

Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

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Opponents of the view that healing is in the atonement often point to Paul’s thorn in the flesh. According to their interpretation, Paul’s affliction was some sort of chronic physical problem that he repeatedly begged God to remove. In order to keep Paul humble, God refused his prayer to heal him. The reasoning follows that if the great apostle Paul’s prayer got rejected, how can Christians possibly expect God to always heal them?

I really feel like this objection is quite weak, as it is based on some very sloppy exegesis. Let’s look at the passage in question:

Therefore, so that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself. Concerning this, I pleaded with the Lord three times to take it away from me. But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Therefore, I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. So because of Christ, I am pleased in weaknesses, in insults, in catastrophes, in persecutions, and in pressures. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (HCSB)

The context of these verses makes this passage more clear.  In the earlier chapter Paul is discussing false apostles whom Paul feared were leading the Corinthian church astray. These teachers were questioning Paul’s authority. Reluctant to defend himself, Paul tells of his hardships, pointing to proof of his commitment to Jesus in comparison to some of these false teachers.

But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?

Conspicuously absent in these passages is the mention of sickness and disease. Many bible scholars believe that this thorn was actually demonic messenger who stirred up persecution everywhere Paul went, not to mention many heresies from within. The term “thorn in the flesh” is a metaphor similar to the expression “pain in the neck” in our modern vernacular. In the bible, the metaphor is never used in connection with illness. For example, see Numbers 33:55,

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell.

(See also Judges 2:3, Joshua 23:13 and Ezekiel 28:24.) This was the view of the ancient church father John Chrysostom, who said:

“And so by the “messenger of Satan,” he means…those who contended with and fought against him, those that cast him into a prison, those that beat him, that led him away to death); for they did Satan’s business.” (Homilies 26)

Following Paul’s conversion, Christ said that Paul is “a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” This wasn’t just Jesus “picking on Paul”, as Christ warned his disciples that they “will be hated by all because of My name”. (Mk. 13:13)  But Paul did lay a large part of the foundation for Christian doctrine, and he preached the gospel to much of the known world. His impact is immeasurable, so naturally he greatly opposed by Satan. While it was men who persecuted him, Paul teaches us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” but spiritual forces who oppose the gospel. (Eph. 6:12, see also 1 Thess. 2:18)

Given that demonic spirits and human beings can presently freely choose to oppose the gospel if they so wish, God could not take this “thorn” away that was stirring up trouble and thus tormenting Paul. For when Paul was weak and weary from the persecutions and trials, then he was strong through the grace of God, demonstrating the “marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles”, which we know includes healing (2 Cor. 12:12, see also Acts 19:11-12, 28:8, Rom. 15:19). This humbling lesson that he learned is clear from the outset of this epistle, as Paul began by saying that he “felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead…” (2 Cor. 1:9)

Some have also connected Galatians 4:13-14 with these passages in order to explain that Paul’s disease was eye-related. However, we learn from Acts 14 that Paul was stoned by an angry mob and left for dead in Lystra, a city in Galatia. It is noteworthy that this stoning took place in conjunction with Paul healing a man from the town who was born lame.  (see Acts 14:7-20) This miraculous healing brought undesirable attention from Satan, who worked through the mob that nearly killed Paul.  It is not at all implausible to think that Paul’s eyes, as well as other parts of his head and body were still bruised and swollen when he had preached to those addressed in the epistle. At the end of his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul speaks of his scars that he bore in his body attesting to the fact he belonged to Christ. So this was not some sort of illness in his eyes, but the scars of persecution that Paul bore in his body.

Christ said that the tares would stay with the wheat until the last day, and not until then. Jesus took our sicknesses and bore our diseases, but not our persecutions. It is incongruous with the ministry of Jesus —  who healed everyone who approached him asking for healing — to turn away one of his greatest servants; a humble man who continued Jesus’ ministry to the Gentiles, a ministry which included divine healing.

Physical Healing and the Atonement Pt. 3

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Healing and Christus Victor

Through the gospels we see Christ dealing with sickness and disease in the same matter he dealt with demonic spirits. We know this because Jesus uses the same harsh Greek word ἐπετίμησεν (epetimēsen) to rebuke sickness as He uses to rebuke evil spirits.

In Luke 4:35 we read “...Jesus rebuked him (the spirit in the man), saying, “Be silent and come out of him!”. Four passages later we read “…and he (Jesus) stood over her (Simon’s mother-in-law) and rebuked the fever, and it left her”

Jesus always viewed illness as an enemy. Nowhere did Jesus tell his followers to expect sickness or disease as part of their calling in life. Jesus never suggested that sickness was “a cross to bear.” He honestly told his followers to expect to experience hardship. But the hardship he constantly referred to was persecution, not illness. In Luke 10:8-9 we read Jesus commissioning his disciples to “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.” The coming of God’s kingdom, in some measure at least, entails deliverance from evil spirits and healing from physical disease.

When we read about Jesus healing the crippled woman in Luke 13:11-17, Jesus asked his critics “should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

We also read in Acts 10:38 a summary of Jesus’ ministry from the apostle Peter. That summary was about “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” I think it’s important to note the connection between “doing good” and “healing”.  We see that before being healed, the sick were  “under the power of the devil” . The Greek literally reads καταδυναστευομένους (katadunasteuo). Translated, the word means “I overpower, quell, treat harshly”. Therefore, disease is a satanic evil to resist, not acquiesce to.  It is not a blessing, but harsh treatment meant to overpower us.

We read in 1 John 3:8 that “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil”. The word destroy here is λύω, (luó) which is translated  “loose, untie, release, set at naught, contravene.” If sickness is Satan’s work, then one of the reasons Jesus became incarnate is to release us from it.

Healing is the presence of the Kingdom of God coming to the earth. Sickness, we understand, is Satan working to overpower those whom God made in his image. In Colossians 1:13-14 we read “He (God) has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins”. Therefore, we’ve been delivered from Satan’s dominion over our lives through Christ’s redemption, and that includes the tyranny of sickness.

One may raise a scientific objection to this scriptural argument. Of course, we have natural explanations for illness that the Bible attributes to evil spirits. This is true. Sickness and disease, on one level, is simply nature taking its course. But there is no intrinsic contradiction with attributing infirmities to spirits on the one hand while also explaining them in natural terms on the other. Death itself is a “natural” process, yet we also see in scripture that the devil is “the one who has the power of death”. (Heb. 2:14) This suggests that the laws of nature as we know them are satanically influenced to some degree. This may sound strange, but we have no trouble saying that we as human beings have ability to use our free will to effect the natural order of things for good or bad. Why is it incomprehensible that spirit beings can do the same?

We see through this series of posts that there is no good scriptural basis to believe that we have to suffer with illness when Christ has already suffered on our behalf. Healing is in the atonement because Satan’s power over the believer has been annulled through the atonement. There is nothing that glorifies God by being under the burden of disease. An overcoming faith, however, does glorify God.  The gospel is about much more than “redeeming souls.”  It’s a holistic gospel that includes healing of our physical bodies, in anticipation of total redemption in the age to come.

I believe the burden of proof that healing is not included in the atonement lies with the objector. Most arguments against this view simply beg the question for a view of meticulous providence; that is the view that God is controlling everything in the world, even evil. On such a view, the will of God is never thwarted. It assumes people are sick because God always gets what He wants, so therefore He must want people to be sick. While this view is popular in western Christendom, I believe its starting points rests upon a distorted understanding of the nature of God’s sovereignty.

In future posts I will defend this view against some of the various objections that have been raised and hopefully I’ll be able to expose them as inadequate on the basis of scripture.

Related articles

Physical Healing and the Atonement Pt. 2

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Physical Infirmity As Punishment

In modern times, we do not equate being sick with being sinful. We don’t make someone feel like they’ve done something wrong for coming down with the flu or having cancer, and rightfully so.  Objectors to the view that healing is part of the atonement like to press this issue. They argue that if sickness is not a sin, how can it incur a penalty? Not only do I think this is this missing the point, I believe that it is looking at the bible anachronistically.

In the ancient near east, we see a worldview that connects sin and illness as revealed throughout scripture.  When Jesus’ disciples asked about a blind man “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn. 9:1-3) Jesus corrected their faulty theology that personal, specific sin is always the cause for illness. However, we do read where in John 5:14 he told the healed paralytic to “sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you”.

When the paralyzed man who was bore by his four friends was let in through the roof, Jesus told the man that he forgave his sins. This strikes us as a strange reaction because the man was clearly seeking healing. When the Pharisees charged Jesus of blasphemy for saying he had such authority, Jesus showed them that he had the power to forgive sins by healing the man. The Psalmist declared that God “forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” (Ps. 103:3). In the epistle of James we read “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.” (Js. 5:14-16). When Israel complained to Moses for the umpteenth time, venomous snakes came into the camp as a judgment. The people quickly repented, and God instructed Moses to put a serpent upon a pole. As the people gazed at the pole, they were healed. (Num. 21:1-9)  We find this thinking throughout the Psalms as well:

LORD my God, I called to you for help,
and you healed me.
You, LORD, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
you spared me from going down to the pit.   Sing the praises of the LORD, you his faithful people;
praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime

Forgiveness and healing oftentimes go together in the bible.

Healing and the Penal Substitutionary Atonement

Most Christians would agree that ultimately all human sickness is a result of sin, in that the fall introduced not only sin but also corruption and death into the human race. When Jesus was enduring the terrible beating at the hands of the Roman guard, it is hardly a controversial theological statement to say that he was taking the beating that we all deserved for our rebellion.

I argue that sickness is itself a beating; a flogging. When Jesus told the woman with the issue of blood “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease” – the Greek word here used for disease is μάστιγος (mastix), which is also translated flogging or scourging. (See also Mk. 3:10 and Lk. 7:21) Christians would not deny that without Christ people will suffer eternal destruction because they believe “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” and “the wages of sin is death“. (Rom. 3:23, 6:23) For a Christian to stay consistent, I believe they must say that Christ bore all of our the punishment we deserved, which would include sickness and disease, not just eternal separation from God.

On what grounds do I say this? In Exodus 15:26 we read where God promised Israel that He would be their healer on the condition that they kept his covenant.

“If you listen carefully to the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, who heals you.”

Later we read in Deuteronomy 28:15-48, 59, 61 that Israel’s disobedience to God’s law resulted in specific curses that were not just spiritual, but were rather physical in nature, naming specific diseases that would come upon them for forsaking God’s covenant. We later read in Galatians 3:13-14 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” I believe this was God lifting his hand of protection and allowing them to feel the force of the demonic corruption of nature. If his people wanted to pursue the devil, they could have the devil.

The good news is that Christ took the curse we all deserved for all of man’s disobedience, which included not only hell to come but hell on earth.  Ask anyone with cancer, lupus, epilepsy, Ebola and the like if disease is not experiencing a living hell. To think that God would want any of his children to suffer under such dreaded diseases in light of His Son’s suffering for us I believe would be a miscarriage of justice. Why must we endure the beating of disease when Christ already suffered in our place?

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5

I argue therefore, that it is wrong to accept sickness and disease from the hand of Satan when the penalty for our sin has been fully paid. Moreover, Jesus always viewed illness as an enemy. Nowhere in scripture did Christ tell his followers to expect sickness or disease as part of their calling in life and ministry. Jesus never suggested that sickness was “a cross to bear.” He promised persecution, slander, and the possibility of martyrdom for his followers, but never sickness. All sickness is suffering, but not all suffering is sickness.

In my next post, I will close my positive case for healing being included in the atonement with a look at Christ’s victory over Satan.

Why the Cross?

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Today is the day we celebrate the Crucifixion of Christ. In the minds of most unbelievers, celebrating something as bloody as crucifixion could be seen as just plain strange, if not a bit ghoulish.

At the heart of this, I think a lot of misunderstandings exist about the nature of the cross of Christ, and I’m afraid that the church has only exacerbated the matter by misconstruing what the atonement really is.

What the atonement is not

  • Simply a moral example to humanity to inspire us to lift ourselves out of sin and grow towards union with God.
  • A payment that God paid the devil to ransom our release from the devil.
  • Merely what God required to forgive sins, or what you see in the typical Christians tracts that present the “Romans Road”. Don’t misunderstand me, it is that in on a certain level, but there is much more to it than simply that.

So…why then the cross?

Jesus’ words in John 12:24 are particularly enlightening about this subject:

I assure you, most solemnly I tell you, Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains [just one grain; it never becomes more but lives] by itself alone. But if it dies, it produces many others and yields a rich harvest. (Amplified Bible)

Often Christians interpret this passage as something they must do; that they must die to their own selfish desires to become more Christ-like. While I think there is some truth to that, I think Jesus is referring to himself in this passage. Throughout the first 19 chapters of John’s gospel are references to Jesus being the only begotten Son. After the resurrection however we see Jesus tell Mary Magdalene to “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (Jn. 20:17) The only begotten Son (the one grain) is planted and dies, but in the end it produces many other sons. Satan thought that by inciting Judas’ betrayal he was ridding himself of a problem, but in doing so the life of Christ was reproduced in believers many, many times over!

The writer of Hebrews elaborates further:

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.

God, who is Love, wanted many sons participating in his glory. As sons, we partake in Christ’s divine nature, or at least those which can be communicated – love, joy, peace, faithfulness, etc. This participation in the divine life is further illustrated in Paul’s analogy of the body of Christ, and Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and the branches. How could a perfect being communicate this type of life to us? Robin Collins has come up with an interesting theory of the atonement that he calls the Incarnational Theory, and I’ve personally found it to be helpful, at least in some respects. Here it is in a nutshell:

As finite creatures, something such as the nature of God is completely foreign to us. You can’t do something ridiculous like graft in a tree branch to a lion, but only another tree, that is to say you have to find something of the same nature.  Through the Incarnation and Passion, God entered into our human situation of death and suffering and overcame the this alienation. Jesus was fully human/fully divine and acted in complete moral perfection. Jesus exercised the virtues (faith, love) that God intended man to exercise in the face of human suffering, persecution, uncertainty, opposition, etc.

Interestingly, God could not personally, actively exercise these virtues apart from the incarnation. Apart from the incarnation, God could not experience temptation, danger, uncertainty, vulnerability, weakness, lack or victimization. We now can take part in this life by being “grafted in the vine” by placing our faith in Christ, and it is this that saves us from sin.

We “tap in” to the divine virtues come not only from reading or hearing scripture, but these spiritual disciplines are also intertwined with the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, our Connector to Christ. The indwelling Holy Spirit also supernaturally transmits to us Christ’s subjectivity. One analogy Collins uses that I actually think is really cool is we can imagine somehow through technology a future in which a person can tap into and adapt the desires exercised by an extremely courageous or loving person.  Imagine we could all tap into Mother Teresa’s subjective compassion for the poor, or Muhammad Ali’s confidence in the face of a fight.

Or another example is how children pattern themselves after their parents. Our view of the world and behavioral patterns are often unconsciously picked up or patterned after those in our environment whom influence us. Paul speaks of following God, as dearly loved children follow after their parents. (Eph. 5:1-2) What we could not change through the self-effort of our distorted human desire, God “works in us both to will and to do his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13)

The cross was not merely the price that was paid for our forgiveness, but where our warped, selfish, sinful selves died; where we partake of Christ’s full facing of human frailty and alienation and yet in the face of it we overcome through the resurrection. We now gradually learn to put off selfishness and grow into godly maturity as we tap into the mind of Christ through the help of the Holy Spirit. Through doing so, we get a victorious mentality, a son of God mentality. (1 Corinthians 2:10-16, Romans 12:2, Eph. 2:6, 4:22-24).

The cross is not just where we become forgiven sinners, but where we also died. As we tap into the mind of Christ we see ourselves in Him; dead to the praises of men and our selfish impulses, and moreover, alive with Him, victorious over the loneliness and powerlessness that world tries to hold us captive to.

There are other theories of the atonement I find worthwhile; in particular I’m a fan of the “Christus Victor” interpretation, which I hope to tackle in a future post because I see that I’ve hit the 1000 word mark, so if you’ve got this far, thanks for tapping into Christ’s patience to get to the end!

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ec82DmqBKyA&w=425&h=349]

Why Pray?

Prayer is the language

I’ve thought about the subject of prayer lately and it’s striking how our view of providence plays such a role on our urgency to pray. Thinking particularly of this passage in Ezekiel:

And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none.  Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord GOD.”

Ezekiel 22:30-31 (ESV)

We see that God was looking someone who would intercede for Israel, just as he did when he had Abraham intercede for Sodom and Gomorrah. The other example from the Bible would be Moses, who took it upon himself to intercede for Israel, and interestingly enough, the Bible says that God changed his mind about the judgment that He intended to bring upon Israel.

The traditional view of providence believes that the future is exhaustively settled from all eternity by God. If that is the case, then what difference would it make if an intercessor had not came forward? Is God being sincere here? Moreover, if the future is exhaustively settled in God’s mind, how could he honestly say he’s looking for someone who He knows for certain is not there?

In saying these things, I guess I’m letting the cat out of the bag: I think I’ve been an open theist all along and I’m just now realizing it. (I understand that in some Evangelical circles this view is anathema, but this view is at home among many Pentecostals-and I’m one of them!). For prayer to have real integrity and not be a mere showpiece, it has to have some affect on God and truly influence the outcome of certain events. But if our prayer is ultimately brought about by God; I don’t see how it can truly persuade God.

On the open view, while part of the future is settled by God, it is also partly open. God may also have certain plans and purposes that we can hinder through sloth and unresponsiveness, or we can help him bring to pass through our co-operation. In other words, God in his sovereignty allowed himself  to be dependent upon our prayers; He will allow what we allow and he will forbid what we forbid.  This point seems to be driven home by God’s words to Solomon.

“..if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land”

2 Chronicles 7:14 (ESV) (Emphasis added).

Allow me to illustrate using a personal story. Once when I was in prayer, I perceived that my mom – who lived miles away at the time – may be involved in a car accident. I believe this was the Holy Spirit warning me. I prayed my mom would be delayed. Several weeks later, I asked my mom about it. I was pretty confident that I had heard from God, but I could have been mistaken. As it turned out, my mom confirmed that she did indeed get distracted and was late to work, and on her way she got stuck in traffic because there was a multi-car pile up on the freeway. She recalled that seeing the wreckage that day was unnerving and, she was quite shocked with what I shared with her! (This story doesn’t refute the open view, but rather it was a revelation of what was going to happen under the present circumstances given the most probable free choices of people, and perhaps even angels, at the time.)

Now if the future is exclusively a realm of comprehensive settled facts, then what good would it have done for God to call upon me to pray? Can God act to change what he infallibly knows will happen?  While I don’t deny there are some things God settles ahead of time, I believe there are also real future possibilities of blessing that will come to pass or fail to come to pass through our prayers, which spurs a sense of urgency.

Now the big question is this: Why would God make himself vulnerable by allowing some of his plans to be carried out or hindered by our prayers, or lack thereof? I really think that is a more interesting question than the question about providence alone. Some theologians have suggested that prayer is “on the job training” for Christ’s bride, the church. The crown is for the victor, and the Bible speaks of a kingdom to be handed over to his saints. (Rev. 2:26-28, 3:21, 5:10) At least to some degree, God will not override the will of the church. Through prayer we enact God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, the Lord’s prayer says. Prayers can also affect the amount of people who come to know God, and we see from the scripture that God is waiting for the “precious fruit of the earth” before He returns. (James 5:7, 16) This is why I believe E.M. Bounds said:

“God shapes the world by prayer. The more praying there is in the world the better the world will be, the mightier the forces against evil …. The prayers of God’s saints are the capital stock of heaven by which God carries on His great work upon earth. God conditions the very life and prosperity of His cause on prayer.”

And John Wesley said:

“God will do nothing but in answer to prayer.”

For the sake of time, I won’t go too in-depth as why this seems to be the case, but we do see that from the beginning, we’ve been made in God’s image and given responsibility to care for the world God has created. (Gen 1:26-28)  Biblically, an argument can be made that man fumbled the ball, so to speak, as the New Testament multiply attests to the fact that Satan the ruler of this world. (John 12:31, 2 Corinthians 4:4, 1 John 5:19) This is why we see in the Gospels and Acts a picture of Jesus and his trainees healing the sick, exorcising demons, etc. Jesus saw this as a sign that the Kingdom of God arriving. We even see Christ addressing natural evil, such calming storms.

At the end of His life on earth, Christ tells his disciples that they’ll do “the works that He does”, and He instructs them on the use of his name. (Jn 14:12-14) In His resurrection, he conquers Satan (Col. 2:15) and removes Satan’s claim over man as his slave, and gives his followers “power of attorney” so to speak to act in his stead. Intercessory prayer is one way we  can wage warfare against these evil powers that corrupt nature and influence men to steal, kill and destroy. (Jn. 10:10) The oft quoted C.S. Lewis famously said:

“Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

The traditional view of God seems to have to attribute everything – good, bad, and indifferent – to God’s sovereignty. This seems to paint God as some sort of schizophrenic autocrat. How can we be assured of any answer to prayer if this is the way God is? The biblical picture as demonstrated by Jesus was not a puppet master, but “Our Father”. He said that if we’ve seen Him, we’ve seen the Father, and in Him we saw someone triumphing over evil and death, and as the one who “gave us the keys of the kingdom”, able to bind Satan’s plans and loose God’s ultimate ends on the earth.