Charismatic Perspective On Healing

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This is probably the viewpoint that we personally need to be the most cautious about evaluating. As a group of charismatics, there is a danger that we could cling to our own historical viewpoint on healing and defend it simply because it is the one which we have held for so long – rather like the fact that you will never convince me that anyone cooks better than my Mum, simply because I grew up and had my palate shaped by the tastes and preferences of her kitchen!

Charismatic or Pentecostal?

The charismatic view is similar to the Pentecostal view, but it is considerably less triumphalist than its Pentecostal counterpart. Although it agrees that the Kingdom of God has most definitely come with the First Coming of Jesus (Mt 12:28, Dan 2:34-35), and that it certainly did not diminish with the deaths of the first-century apostles, it would generally not be so bullish as to argue that ‘healing is in the atonement’, either in the sense of people already being healed and needing to bring this into reality through their faith, or even in the sense of healing having been won decisively as a covenant blessing through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Instead – depending on the particular writer or teacher – it would generally tend to place the emphasis more on the fact that the Kingdom is now-but-not-yet, and sometimes the fullness of the Kingdom spills out from the future into the present through the mystery of the compassionate and gracious character of God.

Fig.4 – “The Classic Charismatic Theology of Healing”

Embracing healing & reality

One great strength of this view is that it manages to embrace the Bible’s teaching that God grants gifts of healing today without ignoring the fact that it also tells us that our bodies are still wasting away (Rom 8:23) and are still destined to die at the end of their fixed lifespan (Heb 9:27, Ps 102:24, Eccl 7:17). It stresses that we should expect miraculous healing from God, but that we should also accept the teaching of Eccl 3:2-3 that there is a “time to die” and a time for the Lord to take life rather than heal. When Kenneth Copeland tells us that “I don’t care how old we are, it’s God’s will to take us home healed, well, whole, and delivered,” 29 charismatics ask the obvious question of why we will be “taken home” at all if we are quite so healed, well and whole?! Similarly, since Elisha’s dead bones still contained enough anointing to raise a man to life (2Ki 13:21), but his whole body did not contain enough anointing to heal him when he was afflicted with “the illness from which he died” (2Ki 13:14), they reject the view that healing is always God’s Will for absolutely anyone who has enough faith to receive it. Paul tells us that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (1 Cor 15:50), so charismatics accept the Bible’s teaching that some sickness does end in death, and that a ‘a good death’ at the right time is part of the victorious Christian life (1Th 4:13-18), and not necessarily a ‘failure’.

Another strength is that the charismatic view accords far more with our experience of God’s working – at least within charismatic circles! – and with some of the clues we have about God’s actual working in New Testament times. Pentecostal triumphalism has no convincing explanation for why Epaphroditus, Trophimus and Paul were all sick and did not receive immediate healing (Phil 2:25-27, 2Ti 4:20, Gal 4:13-15), and it does not easily accommodate Paul’s teaching in Gal 4:13 that God sometimes uses sickness for good. In fact, as even the Pentecostal theologian Gordon Fee points out in his book ‘The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel’, the Pentecostal viewpoint can come very close at times to sounding like the very opposite of the apostolic Gospel that “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22).

A pastoral theology

Consequently, a third strength is that it appears to be a more ‘pastoral’ theology than the Pentecostal viewpoint. It is one thing for a (usually itinerant) healing evangelist to promise that a person ‘has been healed’ and simply needs to deny their symptoms until earthly experience catches up with spiritual reality, but it is quite another to be the pastor of that same Christian the following week when their earthly reality seems rather reluctant to change! The charismatic viewpoint denies that healing is categorically God’s Will for any person at any time, and therefore avoids serving up what Jim Carrey’s character in the film ‘Bruce Almighty’ refers to as a “side-plate of guilt” to go alongside the “main course” of sickness and suffering which has already been laid before them. Nobody wants to be like Job’s comforters or to add to a sick person’s misery by telling them that they would be healed if only they had more faith. After all, David Watson was a great pioneer of the healing ministry in late 20thcentury Britain, but despite the fact that he (and with him many thousands of Christians around the world) had faith not just in God’s ability but also in His willingness to heal him, he nevertheless died of uncured cancer.30 This viewpoint therefore refuses to treat faith as a ‘magic’ which forces the arm of God, and it makes room once again for some of the New Testament miracles which happened without a sick person having faith to be healed. This theology allows for a lame beggar to be healed even though he expected nothing more than money (Acts 3:5), or for another lame man to be healed without having any understanding of Jesus or his mission (Jn 5:12-13).

Bigger than just us

The other key strength of this viewpoint is that it takes a more biblical view of the Kingdom of God affecting the whole cosmos together rather than every single individual separately. God’s agenda is the redemption of the whole universe and not just individual people. To reduce the coming of the Kingdom of God to matters of my own individual life and body is to miss the bigger picture that the Kingdom of God brings the complete redemption of the whole cosmos. We groan with the aches and pains of our mortal bodies as part of a universe which longs for God’s redemption of the universe – in a far greater, cosmic sense than just the sickness in my own body (Rom 8:18-25). The charismatic viewpoint rejects the Pentecostal assumption that we are always able to second-guess what God’s perfect Will is for any individual in any given situation. It accepts that a particular healing in this life may not necessarily be the ultimate good in God’s great Master-Plan, and accepts that we will never grasp the fullness of God’s wisdom this side of eternity.31 It can accommodate the fact that the apostles Peter and James both had the same promise of God that “the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deut 31:6) and yet the Lord chose that the outworking of this promise for one was deliverance whilst for the other it was execution (Acts 12:1-11).

However, even though there are some real strengths in this fourth viewpoint, I want to suggest that this our traditional viewpoint has some flaws of its own which we need to reconsider and revise to if we are to arrive at a truly healthy theology of healing.

Acknowledging the flaws

Firstly, it places too much emphasis on a ‘theology of sickness’ which is not actually clearly stated in the Bible. Since Jesus and the apostles regularly spoke about the fact that suffering is an integral part of the Christian life, many who hold to the classic charismatic viewpoint extrapolate that principle to argue that sickness is therefore also a normal way in which God sanctifies Christians and glorifies His Name. However, the list of biblical examples which are used to support this teaching do not bear detailed examination. Job was indeed sick, but Scripture tells us clearly that it was a work of Satan (Job 2:3-7) which was healed by God within months, and that at least one of the reasons for the delay was that those around Job were too busy theorising about why God might allow suffering to bother to pray for him to be healed. The book of Job was not given to justify a theology of sickness but precisely to prevent people from arguing that God smites people with sickness to deal with their sin! Epaphroditus, Trophimus and Paul were not healed straight away (Phil 2:25-27, 2Ti 4:20, Gal 4:13-15), but Scripture tells us that at least one of them did recover after only a short delay so that he was able to leave Galatia. Last, but by no means least, the old classic of Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Cor 12:7-10. He is almost certainly referring back to the Septuagint’s description of troublesome people in Num 33:55 – hence the fact that he calls the thorn an a|gge loj /angel/messenger which is only ever used in Scripture for a person or spirit and never for a thing – but even if these things were not the case we would need to concede that since the Lord told Paul that He would not remove the thorn in his flesh in order to keep him “from becoming conceited” because of the “surpassingly great revelations” which He had given him, this is unlikely to be the primary reason why many are not healed in our churches.32 When we argue that unhealed sickness is a God-given “thorn”, we prove that we do not believe this deep down for all our claims on Sunday that ‘my sickness is God’s Will for His glory’ because we then visit the doctor’s on Monday – presumably as a rebellious attempt to diminish God’s glory in the world?!

Primary means of sanctification?

We can say that there is evidence in the Bible that God may not choose to heal everyone immediately, but this is a long way from saying that sickness is either God’s normal means of sanctification or a primary means for His glory. Jesus and the apostles talked very frankly and in some detail about the suffering we must endure as Christians, but not one of them ever talked about the suffering of sickness in this context despite being surrounded daily by crowds of sick people. Importantly, not one of them ever told anyone who came to them for healing that they should go home and continue to glorify God by the faithful way in which they bore their sickness.33 On the contrary, whilst we never read in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that a sick person ever glorified God by remaining sick, we do repeatedly read that they glorified God by being healed! (eg Mt 15:31, Mk 2:12, Lk 5:26,9:43,18:43&19:37, Jn 11:4, Acts 4:21). The fact that our ‘theology of sickness’ is overblown is demonstrated by the way that we often call sickness a blessing when Jesus calls it Satan’s prison (Lk 13:16) and call death the ultimate healing when Paul calls it “the ultimate enemy” (1Cor 15:26). A ‘theology of sickness’ ends up blunting our faith that we have authority over sickness and paints a picture of God which defames His character. As Francis MacNutt writes, “When we say that God sends sickness or asks us to endure it, we are creating for many people an image of God they must eventually reject. What human mother or father would choose cancer for their daughter in order to tame her pride?...Those preachers and chaplains who try to comfort the sick by telling them to accept their illness as a blessing from God are giving an immediate consolation, but at what an ultimate cost! In a sense, we unwittingly treat God as something of a pagan deity, placated by human sacrifice.”34

Hasn't God promised?

Secondly, it places too little emphasis on the faithfulness of God to His promises In reaction to the crass way in which they feel that some Pentecostals have tried to use the promises of God as a means of forcing God’s hand and manipulating Him in to action, many charismatics prefer to emphasise the sovereign freedom of God to heal or not to heal, just as Romans 9 defends His sovereign freedom to save or not to save. This sounds good in theory, but the objection that “the faith confession movement tends strongly to emphasise God’s faithfulness at the expense of God’s freedom”35 creates a false dichotomy which leaves us wondering how it could ever be possible to over-emphasise God’s faithfulness or why He might ever want the freedom to be less faithful?!

The thing that makes the Gospel good news is precisely the fact that in it is revealed a God who grants us what we do not deserve based on the cross of Jesus “from first to last” (Rom 1:17 & 8:31-37). The Gospel means that God does make promises to us that in view of the cross of Jesus He will act in one way and not in another, and Paul tells us that this Gospel includes miraculous healing as well as justification (Rom 15:19). Not only do we never find Jesus rebuking anyone who comes to him for presuming too much but only for believing too little (eg Mk 16:14), but we actually find Jesus deliberately making himself into servant in order to demonstrate that we will never receive all that is ours through the cross unless we let him assume this role as the great Giver (Jn 13:1-9). The cry that it is presumptuous to act as if it is God’s Will to heal all who ask Him ignores the great compass of the New Testament promises of healing – such as “Is any one of you sick?...The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up” (Jas 5:14-15) – and it is a far cry from Jesus’ reassurance “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32). If all our caveats were indeed true under the New Covenant then the good news of the Gospel would actually mean that God is less willing to heal now and less committed to destroying the work of Satan than He was before Christ came, since in BC times He encouraged people that they could all come to Him with faith for healing (Num 21:8-9 & Jn 3:14, Ps 103:3). Clearly this cannot be the case.

It's not a lucky lottery

The difficulty with dismantling this deep-rooted belief that God decides to heal or not to heal based primarily on ‘the mystery of His character’ is that deep down we know that His character is far beyond our comprehension and that this is in part the only place for us to take some of our disappointments not seeing people healed. The point is not that there is no mystery in God’s character, but rather that we have placed far too much emphasis on the fact that “the secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deut 29:29a) and not enough emphasis on the fact that “the revealed things belong to us and to our children” (Deut 29:29b)! God has not left us with the spiritual equivalent of the National Lottery’s promise that “It could be you!” He has given us such great promises that Peter was able to assure a lame man he had only just met that “the thing that I have I give to you” (Acts 3:6). The “revealed thing” is that neither Jesus nor the apostles refused anyone who came to them for healing, telling them that it was “not God’s will” or “not yet time” for them to be healed.36 On the contrary, we are told consistently and repeatedly that Jesus healed all the sick who came to him (Mt 4:23-24, Mt 8:16-17, Mt 9:35, Mt 12:15, Mt 14:16, Lk 4:40, Lk 6:19), and that the apostles also tended to heal all the sick who came to them (Acts 5:16 & 28:9). Another “revealed thing” is that Jesus promised us that “Anyone who has faith in me will do the works I have been doing. He will do even greater works than these because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:12). A final “revealed thing” came on the only occasion that anyone ever came to Jesus with a query over whether he was willing to heal him, and he very quickly corrected his theology with the words “I am willing” and then healed him! (Mt 8:2-3, Mk 1:40-42). The fact that despite God’s revealed willingness people are sometimes not healed is definitely one of the “secret things”, but we need to move from meditating on what has not been revealed to confidence in what has been revealed. There is no Beatitude that reads “Blessed are those who expect little from God, for they shall not be disappointed”! On the contrary, Jesus encourages us instead that “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see” (Lk 10:23).

There are therefore some great strengths to the classic charismatic theology of healing, but we cannot accept that we have arrived yet at a rounded biblical view when we treat Scripture’s silence about sickness as ‘theology’ and Scripture’s promises about healing as a ‘mystery’.

Since we have dismissed the classic liberal and cessationist theologies of healing as decidedly unhealthy, and have seen major flaws in both the classic Pentecostal and charismatic theologies of healing, let’s draw together in conclusion a fifth, more healthy, theology of healing. Check back soon for our final installment in this series.

// Originally posted on Theology Matters //

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Confluence is a place where the reformed, the charismatic, and the mission-minded converge to equip and serve the church to transform communities. Our authors are mostly leaders in the Newfrontiers family of churches.