Healing: Barnett & Jensen

© Anzea Publishers 1973
This article is an excerpt that was first published in The quest for power | neo-pentecostals and the New Testament by Paul Barnett and Peter Jensen (Sydney: Anzea Publishers, 1973, p. 89-97). It is reproduced here with permission.

There has been a good deal of publicity given recently to healings reported among Christian people. These have often been linked with the worldwide ‘charismatic’ movement. It is said that just as Jesus and his disciples worked miracles, and miracles were reported in the first centuries of the church’s life, so the same power for miraculous healing is available today. It is sometimes alleged that the church’s inexperience of the miraculous has prejudiced the proper understanding of the Bible, but now Christians are realizing the enormous potential of their faith, and reading the Bible aright.

Influential theologians have maintained, indeed, that miracles ceased after the New Testament period. Augustine was one (fourth century). John Calvin (sixteenth century) was another. Calvin’s argument was that the purpose of Biblical miracles was to attest the validity of the message; they are linked, therefore, with the revealing word of God. Since that word has now been spoken, miracles are no longer necessary.

It was certainly not through lack of experience that Calvin took this line. On the contrary, he knew of all too many miracles—the spurious wonders used to bolster up the unbiblical and sometimes superstitious theology of the opponents of Protestantism. The real problem was not lack of the miraculous but the abundance of it. This remains the problem.

The Roman Catholic Church has always endorsed the possibility of contemporary miraculous healing. The histories of the saints were filled with such tales. Over five hundred miracles were associated with Becket and his shrine, for example. Images, relics, shrines, holy water, all had reputations as healing agents. Nor did all Protestants reject the notion.

To take one example, George Fox, the Quaker leader, was credited with a hundred and fifty cures. But it was not only the Quakers who made these claims—other sects did too. Even more interestingly the King of England was said to be able to heal the disease of scrofula (called the ‘King’s Evil’) by touch. Hence, for example, Charles II touched 90,000 sufferers over the years, and did so in the context of a piece of ritual conducted by his Anglican chaplain. Many claimed to have been cured.

Claims for miracles, especially healing miracles, were common in the nineteenth century—we have only to think of Lourdes and Mary Baker Eddy. They continue to this day. There is thus nothing especially new about this phenomenon.

One thing is clear, that there does not need to be any Christian content to the situation. Some healers are orthodox Christians, some are heterodox, others are spiritualist, others have no religious faith, others have led immoral lives. Claims have been made and believed on behalf of all such groups, and the claims are of equal impressiveness.

It is true that Christians must rejoice when God heals the bodies and minds of men, and especially when he gives them a new heart in regeneration. However, they realize that wholeness is God’s ultimate, not his immediate, purpose. Without a doubt God’s aim is to create a new heaven and a new earth, to dwell himself among men, to wipe away every tear from their eyes and to put an end to death and mourning and pain (Rev. 21:1-4). In that time God’s people will have ‘spiritual bodies’, that is, bodies ruled by the Holy Spirit.

Since the resurrection of Jesus the last days have set in; the world to come and the old age are overlapping. Christians, for example, are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but we still groan inwardly as we wait for God to make us his sons and set our whole body free. We have been saved, though only in hope (Rom. 8:18, 23, 24). We have much, but we are not yet perfect for we still sin (1 John 1:8), and we still groan. Christians still wear glasses and undergo the ageing process at the same rate as others. Wholeness is God’s ultimate purpose; it is not with us yet.

This may be seen by the fact that not every disease is cured. Not one of the early Christians escaped old age, sickness and death. Paul observed the process of decay at work in his own body, but did not check its progress by a healing miracle. On the contrary, he fixed his gaze on the eternal and declared that death would be preferable to life since he would then be with the Lord (2 Cor. 4:16-5:10).

It is worth noting some words of Dr. D. Treloar at this point, speaking of degenerative diseases:

These diseases start at birth, at which time we start both to live and to commence dying. During childhood and adolescence they are masked by the physical and functional development of the individual. ‘Middle age’ is the euphemism applied to the time at which they commence to become apparent and ‘old age’ to the time when they are unmistakably so. NO ONE HAS EVER DIED OF ‘OLD AGE’, nor, for that matter, of ‘NATURAL CAUSES’. People do die, IN old age OF degenerative diseases. Normally they are those of the heart, circulation, brain and kidneys. The treatment of these diseases is difficult, unspectacular and usually palliative. Because of their slow progression, their common incidence and the common acceptance of ‘wearing out’ as a general principle, the very nature of these diseases is usually overlooked.1
The Holy Spirit is certainly at work within us, but as a guarantee of our future life with God, not of present healing (2 Cor. 5:5).

We can understand, then, why it was that a man like Paul, who did work miracles by the power of God, did not always do so when confronted with disease. He reminds the Galatians that it was a bodily illness that originally led to him bringing them the gospel, ‘and you resisted any temptation to show scorn or disgust at the state of my poor body’ (4:14 NEB). When Timothy is afflicted by frequent ailments he suggests a medical remedy, ‘use a little wine …’ (1 Tim. 5:23).

It may be that Paul suffered from chronic illness. The word translated ‘weakness; in 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 is the same as that rendered ‘sickness’ in James 5:14. At any rate, Paul’s fervent prayer in respect to this disability, that it may be removed from him, was not granted. Whether or not we understand Paul to be unique at this point, it is the testimony of people who exercise a ministry in the area of healing that there are occasions when, despite the offering of faithful and persistent prayer, no cure is granted.

We also hear of Epaphroditus who was dangerously ill (Phil 2:26, 27) and Trophimus, who was so sick that Paul left him behind (2 Tim. 4:20); there does not appear to be any question of a miraculous healing.

Thus we must be very careful of statements which assure us that God’s will is perfect soundness of body (or ‘wholeness’) for every Christian. Such sentiments are only helpful if they apply to that day when Jesus returns, for that is when they will be true for all. However, this is not to deny that there is healing, nor that God can if he so pleases work quite independently of natural means to cure anyone.

In fact, Christians have always believed that God can heal people, and prayed for the sick privately and in church. Doubtless many have been cured as a result of these prayers. Certainly, too, Christians have not been bold enough in seeking God’s favour at a time of sickness, and have shown lack of faith.

But the fact of healing does not necessarily indicate a miraculous intervention by God for two main reasons.

First, the devil can do signs and wonders. This is the teaching of the Bible at several points. For example, the false prophet of Deuteronomy 13:1-5 is capable of miracles, and Jesus himself warns us, ‘False Christs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect’ (Mark 13:22). Paul says, ‘The coming of the lawless one by the activity of Satan will be with all power and with pretended signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are to perish, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved’ (2 Thess. 2:9, 10). Thus a person’s ministry can never be recommended to us on the grounds that ‘it works’. So does the devil’s! We must always ask, ‘Is it true?’, and the only measuring stick is the word of God.

This is a vital point. It is natural to conclude that a healer’s ministry is authenticated by the miraculous. Yet miraculous cures are produced in the ministries of spiritualists and agnostics as well as Christians of all descriptions and they can quite possibly be the devil’s work to lead men astray. It may even be said that the presence of the miraculous is a warning sign for us to listen all the more carefully to the accompanying message, testing what we hear against the Bible.

Second, due notice must be taken of the ease with which mistakes are made. In 1956 the British Medical Association gave a list of six factors which help to account for magical ‘cures’: (a) mistaken diagnosis; (b) mistaken prognosis; (c) alleviation of the illness; (d) remission; (e) spontaneous cure; (f) simultaneous use of other remedies.2 We need to remember particularly the evidence, as yet not fully fathomed, that our minds have a big influence on our bodies. Certain types of disease are very susceptible to treatment of the mind—or the increase of ‘faith’.

Naturally, we rejoice when any good thing befalls us, explicable or not. But when it comes to knowing what God says, we should read the Bible. Failure to observe this can lead to situations of personal torment as does failure to observe the Bible’s teaching on the conditional nature of prayer.

There are magnificent promises in the in the scripture to do with prayer. Take James 5:15, where we read, ‘… the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up’; and again, ‘… whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you will receive it, and you will’ (Mark 11:24). These are encouragements to faith in God, for this is a necessity in prayer.

But of course we must realize that God does not give us the things which are contrary to his will. If I prayed that the ocean would dry up, then it is hardly likely that God would grant my prayer, even though I evacuated my mind of any doubt that he would act. Jesus exemplified this principle in Gethsemane: ‘Remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt’ (Mark 14:36). Many of our prayers, unlike his, are malicious or foolish or ignorant, and the loving God does not heed them. Note the clear teaching of 1 John 5:14, 15: ‘And this is the confidence which we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.’

It is interesting also to hear Paul’s comment on prayer in Romans 8:26, 27: ‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.’

Thus we cannot force God’s hand by the intensity of our prayer for a particular object; we may indeed well doubt that it is God’s will for us to be healed, for example, for in our ignorance we do not know his plans for us. He may want to make us perfectly whole by allowing us to succumb to disease and take us to heaven. What we ought not to doubt is God’s fatherly care and protection for us whatever the outcome. Here is rest indeed and about this Jesus says, ‘Doubt not.’

In fact, to criticize those who remain unhealed as men of small faith is to make nonsense of the commitment of those numerous Christians who have suffered for long years but have been shining lights to those around them. These are heroes and heroines of faith—who dares accuse them of faithlessness?

Concerning the promise of healing in James 5:14-16 there are several observations to make.

First, there is no one who takes it on face value, because this would mean that Christians would never need die, and also because of considerations like Paul’s thorn.

Second, this provision is not to be classed with the Lord’s miracles or the apostles’. Those had the quality of immediacy and directness, whereas the arrangements suggested here are more akin to that which was open to any devout Jew with the Old Testament in hand (e.g., Psalm 41).

Third, the language is ambiguous, since both the word ‘healed’ and the word ‘raise’ can refer to an earthly experience or a post-death experience. It may be that James has in mind here the ultimate salvation (or healing—the word is the same) assuredly available to the Christian, whatever the outcome of his present disease. That is to say, we may read the passage like this:

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 [heal] the sick man [i.e., either save him from the disease, or eternally], and the Lord will raise him up [i.e., either from his bed or on the last Day]; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven [in either case]. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed [or saved eternally].
This is not to suggest that James had one or other of these readings in mind—rather that he had both. This accounts for his perfect confidence in the future of the sick person.

Fourth, the ‘prayer of faith’ spoken of reminds us of the conditional nature of prayer—God’s will for individuals has yet to be seen. It would be unbearably cruel to torment a patient with the exhortation to have more or better faith if all the time it was the Lord’s will to perfect him in heaven. There is no justification whatever for combining the words ‘prayer of faith’ exclusively with the passage that speaks of belief in prayer in Mark 11:24. Further, the unwillingness to submit to illness under God can have deleterious effects on the person’s family and character. This impatience to be ‘whole’ does not constitute real faith.

Fifth, perfection of our bodily and spiritual prowess is not promised or envisaged by God before the return of Jesus. Our present position in the fallen world needs to be taken into account.

There is, therefore, a way of thinking about healing which is dangerous for the children of God.

First, it assures men that God’s will is for their cure, or their ‘wholeness’, but it misses the Biblical emphasis that suffering is the lot of the Christian, and that our hope lies in the coming of Jesus. Sickness and sin and all kinds of imperfection characterize this present age and individuals have no promise that they will escape this. Sometimes God does cure; sometimes he does not.

Second, it teaches that faith in prayer is not so much fixed on God but on the thing which is prayed for. Thus, if you believe sufficiently strongly in a particular request, then it will be granted, even if God does not approve. This pernicious thinking leads people into great torment; when God does not answer a prayer in the positive, the fault must be their own, for not believing hard enough! This time, let us summon up enough ‘faith’ for it to work… The result can be mental torture and self-scrutiny, not faith in God.

Third, it commends itself to people on the grounds that ‘it works’, while forgetting that false prophets and teachers will do the same. In so doing attention is distracted from the central question: ‘Is it true?’ The great danger then is that men and women will wander off into the delusive fog of mystical experience, ignoring the light of the Bible, perhaps finding health for the body, but losing the very things which made for health of the soul.

1. Reproduced by permission from a paper presented to the Diocese of Sydney Commission of Enquiry into the Charismatic Movement by D. Treloar.
2. Diving Healing and Co-operation between Doctors and Clergy (B.M.A., 1956), p. 10. | joe towns: christian discussion on pentecost, charisma, pentecostal and charismatic beliefs, the Bible and Jesus; including the origin and history of pentecostalism, baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, gifts and miracles, divine healing and word of faith, prosperity and wealth, praise and worship, guidance and hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit.