Is healing promised in the atonement?
‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, the chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5).
Great controversy has often arisen over this verse. Some believe wholeheartedly that physical healing is here guaranteed in this life for the believer, since the Lord Jesus Christ has dealt with sin past, present and future by his sacrifice on the cross.
Others argue that the remit is limited to spiritual reconciliation and that full organic restoration will only occur in heaven.
Consider the verse’s context. The theme of Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 is the sin-bearing Servant of the Lord. More specifically, Isaiah 53:4-6 mentions Christ being stricken, smitten, wounded, bruised and chastised for our transgressions and iniquities, to bring us peace with God.
Undoubtedly, the focus is Christ suffering for the salvation of those who believe in him. Also Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 is Hebraic poetry, although its interpretation is not allegorical or subjective.
Hebraic poetry is markedly different to many Western forms. Instead of using rhyming words at the end of sentences, the same idea is expressed in different but similar ways in sequential lines. In stating truths in couplets the Hebrew genre provides greater clarity than if it referred to an important point only once.
In Isaiah 53, the parallelism works this way: ‘Surely he has borne our griefs’ is rearticulated in ‘and carried our sorrows’; ‘yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted’ in ‘but he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities’; and ‘the chastisement for our peace was upon him’ in ‘and by his stripes we are healed’.
Here ‘healed’ parallels the wrath of God propitiated. Spiritual rather than physical healing is in view. While the idea of physical healing cannot be totally excluded (see Matthew 8:15-17), and ultimately the resurrection will bring physical healing for believers, there is no indication here that it is always guaranteed in the here-and-now.
Consider the implications of physical healing being always granted in this life because of the atonement. It raises serious difficulties with other Scriptures.
We are not able to determine the exact nature of Paul’s ‘thorn in his flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12:7-10), despite him pleading on three occasions for it to be removed. He confessed that he had learned to ‘glory’ in his infirmities. Was, then, Paul lacking faith in God to claim physical healing? Furthermore, on at least another recorded instance he suffered physical infirmity (Galatians 4:13).
Paul encouraged Timothy to take a little wine for his stomach’s sake and frequent infirmities. So why wasn’t Timothy encouraged to claim ‘healing in the atonement’?
Trophimus, one of Paul’s fellow workers, was left ‘sick’ in Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20). Faithful Epaphroditus was ‘sick almost unto death’, yet Paul commended him and stated God had mercy on him; Epaphroditus did not have to claim healing (Philippians 2:25-27).
The late Merrill Unger of Dallas Theological Seminary states that physical healing is not in the atonement since: ‘(1) Christ was never sick; (2) the old nature is not eradicated in this life; (3) death is conquered, but not destroyed; and (4) Christ has a purpose in the sickness of saints, because God is sovereign, and because Christ died to atone for sin, not sickness, which is not sinful in itself but merely the result of sin’.
Those espousing the ‘health and wealth gospel’ argue that if a person is not healed, it is because of their lack of faith. But this ‘faith’ in God is thereby reduced to faith in one’s own faith or, more simply, to faith in one’s positive thinking regarding Bible promises ripped out of context!
The context of Isaiah 53:5 is Christ’s substitutionary atonement. Automatic healing for believers is not a certainty on earth, but in eternity all sickness will be removed. In that sense, healing is indeed a wonderful blessing that will flow from the atonement.
And, there is the glorious promise given to every believer that, one day, ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away’ (Revelation 21:4).