By Allen S. Dvorak
Little David Willmann is dead. He died of bone cancer last year in Cincinnati, Ohio. Seven years is not a long time to live on this earth, but the real tragedy is that perhaps David Willmann did not have to die. Maybe if surgery had been performed when the doctors had recommended it, the cancer could have been stopped before it ravaged his youthful body and eventually took his life. But David Willmann’s parents, Douglas and Lori Willmann, would not allow surgery for religious reasons. His father was quoted as saying, “David was healed 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ died on the cross. Christ provided us with eternal salvation. The blood he shed on the cross healed us from all sickness. The only way we can achieve that healing is to have faith and believe that it has happened.”(1)
Although David was made a ward of the court, the delay involved probably cost him his life. I am fairly confident that his parents were merely acting on the basis of their convictions, but their sincerity did not save the life of their small son. Was their faith simply inadequate? Could little David Willmarm really have been healed of cancer by the death of Jesus on the cross?
There are many people who believe and teach the “gospel of good health,” that the atonement of Christ can alleviate physical illness in this life. Is this true? Can we be free in this life from the suffering of physical illness by virtue of the atonement of Christ? To answer this question we must first examine the purpose of the atonement.
The concept of atonement is introduced and developed in the Old Testament. The shedding of blood (the taking of a life) was central to the idea of atonement. For this reason the Israelites were forbidden to eat blood; the life is in the blood and God gave the blood of animals to the Hebrews for the purpose of making atonement for their souls (Lev. 17:10-14). A contextual word study of “atonement” indicates further that blood was offered for the atonement of unclean persons or objects (Lev. 14:18-20, 48-53, 16:30-34; see also Lev. 12 and 15 and Exod. 29:36-37). When atonement had been made, the person or object was again considered “clean.” The Hebrew word most commonly translated “atonement” literally means “to cover. ” The idea seems to be that when blood was offered, the cause of the “uncleanness” (sin, leprosy, etc.) was “covered,” i.e., removed from God’s sight.
The doctrine of atonement reached its clearest expression under the Old Law in the events of the Day of Atonement. Upon that day, the high priest took blood for his household and the rest of the people into the holy of holies to make atonement for sin, to cleanse them from their spiritual “uncleanness” (Lev. 16:30). The writer of Hebrews reveals that this ritual was a type of the sacrifice offered by Christ (Heb. 9). Jesus made atonement for our “uncleanness” when He shed His blood and then, as our High Priest, presented His blood before the Father. The atonement of Christ was offered because man was estranged from God. The cause of that estrangement was sin and it is amply clear that the blood of Christ was shed for the forgiveness of sin (Eph. 1:7; Heb. 9:26-28). When His blood “covers” our sins we can again enjoy the fellowship with God that had been interrupted by sin (Rom. 5:1, 9-10). Because of the atonement of Christ, man can be reconciled to God.
Physically Healed By The Atonement?
Some “faith healers” suggest that we can be physically healed by miraculous means on the basis of the atonement. Isaiah 53:4-5 is given as evidence that our illnesses were “healed” in prospect on the cross. All we must do now, we are told, is “stand on the atonement,” i.e., claim that healing as a benefit of the atonement.(2) Isaiah 53:4-5 reads as follows:
(4) “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. (5) 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.”
The first half of verse 4 is quoted in Matthew 8:17 with obvious reference to physical healing that Jesus did on that occasion. It is thus argued that since Isaiah 53 discusses the atonement, physical healing is available. Two observations should be made in reply to this assertion. First, the section of Isaiah 53 which Matthew quoted does not have to do with the atonement. It is certainly true that verse 5 has reference to the atonement, but that is not what Matthew quoted – he affirmed that the healing by Jesus was the fulfillment of verse 4a – not of verse 5. Not all of Isaiah 53 has direct reference to the atonement; we must remember that the atonement was made when Christ shed His blood and offered it before the Father. Secondly, the healing recorded in Matthew 8 was done before the atonement was offered and thus could not have been as a result of or on the basis of the atonement!(3)
Some would point triumphantly to the concluding phrase in Isaiah 53:5 (“by His stripes we are healed”) as evidence that physical healing was contemplated in the atonement. However, the apostle Peter alludes to this very expression with clear reference to the forgiveness of sins rather that physical healing (1 Pet. 2:24). Our conclusion is further sustained by Arndt and Gingrich who suggest that the word translated “healed” in that passage (1 Peter 2:24) can be used in the figurative sense of deliverance from sin .(4)
Physical Illness And Sin
It seems clear that the atonement was offered to “cover” sins and not for physical illness. It is not physical illness which causes man to be separated from God – it is sin (Isa. 59:1-2). On the other hand, could it be that physical illness is caused by personal sin and thus the atonement would afford physical healing by removing the sin which caused the sickness in the first place? While we sometimes suffer physically because of our own sins, the Scriptures do not teach that all physical illness or suffering is the result of or punishment for personal sin. The most obvious example of innocent suffering is that of Job. It is plain that the physical illness of Job was not caused by any sin on his part (Job 2:7; 1:1,8,22). When the disciples of Jesus saw the blind man of John 9, they asked Jesus who had sinned so that the man was born blind. Jesus replied that the man’s disability was not punishment for anyone’s sin (John 9:1-3).
The Scriptures also reveal that New Testament saints, those who enjoyed the benefits of the atonement, were sometimes physically ill. Timothy was frequently sick (1 Tim. 5:23). Paul left Trophimus sick at Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20). Epaphroditus, who was commended highly by Paul, was sick “almost unto death” (Phil. 2:25-30). If the atonement provided for relief from physical illness, why did these saints become ill? In fact, why would any person who has obeyed the gospel and is thus entitled to the benefits of the blood of Christ ever become sick if the atonement provided for healing? Since the atonement was offered on behalf of those who were estranged from God, it can be concluded that if the atonement is for physical healing, then those who are physically sick are separated from God. The Scriptures teach no such thing!
The Danger Of The Doctrine
The tragedy of the “gospel of good health” is that it creates false hope. It targets those who, because of their sickness, are often poorly equipped emotionally to resist its welcome appeal even in light of obvious failures. The desire to be well is so strong that men and women will grasp at the opportunity to be healed miraculously, particularly if medical science can do little or nothing for them. When the promised benefits do not materialize, despair or even anger against God can follow. Little David Willmann died.
Even more importantly, the “gospel of good health” places undue emphasis on physical health. It focuses the attention of men on the physical rather than on the spiritual. It is certainly desirable to be physically healthy, but the most important need for man is to be spiritually healthy. Jesus shed his precious blood for the lofty purpose of providing forgiveness of sins, thus promoting man’s spiritual health. Praise God – by his stripes I am healed!
2. Oral Roberts, If You Need Healing – Do Thesee Things! (Tulsa: Standard Publishing Co., 1947), pp. 45-46. Quoted by David Edwin Harrell, Jr., Oral Roberts. An American Life (Bloomington, In.: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 450.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 12, pp. 368-369, 390
June 18, 1987