A Point-by-Point Response to the Film, “Cessationist” – Part FifteenNovember 1, 2023 3 Comments
Today is the final installment in my point-by-point response to the film, Cessationist. I hope you have enjoyed and been edified by these fifteen articles. Let me say once again what I said at the start. I welcome any and all responses by cessationists who believe my interpretation of the biblical text is mistaken. Until now, the responses I’ve received are little more than ad hominem attacks against either me or some flamboyant and theologically misguided charismatic minister. I decided not to post such comments as they simply prove nothing. The only thing worth posting are comments that provide substantive pushback against my interpretation of the biblical text. After all, the only thing that matters is the biblical text.
So, in this final article I want to address comments made in the film regarding the subject of healing. On more than one occasion it was said that “if someone has the gift of miraculous healing, he can prove it by going into the hospital and clearing it out.”
Let me begin by saying that there is no such thing as the spiritual gift of healing. There never has been and never will be. Obviously, this calls for some explanation. Many Christians, perhaps even most, think of healing in much the same way they do the spiritual gifts of teaching or mercy or evangelism or encouragement. That is to say, they envision a person with the gift of healing as being able to heal all diseases at any time, whenever they will. A person with the gift of teaching can teach at the drop of a hat. So too with gifts such as mercy and serving, just to mention two. They are gifts that are in our possession and under our control. This is the single most serious mistake when it comes to understanding the spiritual gift of healing.
Let’s begin with the way Paul refers to this gift in 1 Corinthians 12:9 and again in 12:28 and 12:30. These are the only three places where the gift of healing is mentioned. Note well. I didn’t say they are the only three texts where healing is mentioned. Healing is found pervasively in the four gospels and in the book of Acts. But the “gift” or charisma of healing is spoken of in only three texts, and in all three instances it is the same terminology: “gifts of healings.” Virtually all English translations render this as, “gifts of healing” (singular). But Paul quite explicitly employs the plural of both nouns: “gifts [plural] of healings [plural]” (charismata iamatōn). This can’t be insignificant or merely stylistic. Furthermore, of the nine gifts listed in this paragraph, only healing is mentioned in conjunction with the word “gift(s)”. What could this imply?
Evidently Paul does not envision an individual being endowed with one healing gift operative at all times for all diseases. His language suggests either many different gifts or powers of healing, each appropriate to and effective for its related illness, or each occurrence of healing constituting a distinct gift in its own right.
I’ve had the opportunity on numerous occasions to meet people who have what appears to be a healing anointing for one particular affliction. Some are able to pray more effectively for those with back problems while others see more success when praying for migraine headaches. This may be what Paul had in mind when he spoke of multiple or a plurality of “gifts” of “healings”.
As I said above, one of the principal obstacles to a proper understanding of healing is the erroneous assumption that if anyone could ever heal, he could always heal. But in view of the lingering illness of Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:25-30), Timothy (1 Timothy 5:23), Trophimus (2 Tim. 4:20), and perhaps Paul himself (2 Cor. 12:7-10; Gal. 4:13), it is better to view this gift as subject to the will of God, not the will of people. Therefore, a person may be gifted to heal many people, but not all. Another may be gifted to heal only one person at one particular time of one particular disease. When asked to pray for the sick, people are often heard to respond: “I can't. I don't have the gift of healing.” But if my reading of Paul is correct, there is no such thing as the gift of healing, if by that one means the God-given ability to heal every one of every disease on every occasion. Rather, the Spirit sovereignly distributes a charisma of healing for a particular occasion, even though previous prayers for physical restoration under similar circumstances may not have been answered, and even though subsequent prayers for the same affliction may not be answered. In sum: “gifts of healings” are occasional and subject to the sovereign purposes of God.
Few doubt that Paul had a “gift” for healing. But his prayers for Epaphroditus weren’t answered, at least not at first (see Phil. 2:25-30). Clearly, Paul could not heal at will. Aside from Jesus, no one else could either! And there is doubt if even Jesus could (read John 5:19; Mark 6:5-6). Some would conclude from Paul's failure to heal his friend that the so-called “gift of healing” was “dying out” at this juncture in the life of the church (in spite of the fact that late in his ministry, in Acts 28:9, Paul apparently healed everyone on the island of Malta who came to him). It seems better to conclude that healing, whenever and wherever it occurred, was subject, not to the will of man, but to the will of God. No one, not even Paul, could always heal all diseases. If Paul was distressed that Epaphroditus was ill, almost unto death, and that initially his prayers for him were ineffective, I doubt seriously if the apostle would have drawn the same conclusions that modern cessationists do. Paul understood the occasional or circumstantial nature of gifts of healings.
The fact that healing is an expression of divine “mercy” (Phil. 2:27) means that it should never be viewed as a “right” or as something the Christian can claim. There is no place in the life of the believer or the local church for the presumptuous approach to healing that is found in advocates of the health and wealth gospel or in the Word of Faith movement. Healing is not the payment of a debt. God does not owe us healing. We don't deserve healing. I believe we should have faith for healing. But there is a vast difference between faith in divine mercy and presumption based on an alleged right. God had “mercy” on Epaphroditus (Phil. 2:27), the same word used in the gospels to describe why Jesus healed people while he was on the earth. God's motive for healing hasn't changed! The primary reason God healed through Jesus prior to Pentecost was because he is a merciful, compassionate God. And the primary reason God continues to heal after Pentecost is because he is a merciful, compassionate God. God is no less merciful, no less compassionate, no less caring when it comes to the physical condition of his people after Pentecost than he was before Pentecost.
There may well be a close connection between gifts of healings and the gift of faith which immediately precedes in Paul's list of the charismata. The spiritual gift of faith is a unique and extraordinary capacity to believe that God is going to do something quite remarkable for which we don’t have an explicit biblical promise.
A personal example will help illustrate what I'm saying. One Sunday a couple came to me before the service and asked that the Elders of our church anoint their infant son and pray for his healing. After the service we gathered in my office and I anointed him with oil. I don't recall the precise medical name for his condition, but at two months of age he had a serious liver disorder that would require immediate surgery, possibly even a transplant, if something did not change. As we prayed, something very unusual happened. As we laid hands on this young child and prayed, I found myself suddenly filled with an overwhelming and inescapable confidence that he would be healed. It was altogether unexpected. I recall actually trying to doubt, but couldn't. I prayed confidently, filled with a faith unshakeable and undeniable. I said to myself, “Lord, you really are going to heal him.” Although the family left the room unsure, I was absolutely certain God had healed him. The next morning the doctor agreed. He was totally healed and is a healthy, happy young man in his late twenties today.
Perhaps, then, “the prayer of faith” to which James (5:15) refers is not just any prayer that may be prayed at will, but a uniquely and divinely motivated prayer prompted by the Spirit-wrought conviction that God intends to heal the one for whom prayer is being offered. The faith necessary for healing is itself a gift of God, sovereignly bestowed when he wills. When God chooses to heal, he produces in the hearts of those praying the faith or confidence that such is precisely his intent. The particular kind of faith to which James refers, in response to which God heals, is not the kind that we may exercise at our will. It is the kind of faith that we exercise only when God wills. Thus, there is no reason to think that had I prayed for another afflicted infant boy that day he would necessarily have been healed. The fact that I received a gift for healing on this one occasion is no guarantee that I may pray with equal success on some other occasion.
Many in the church today say they believe that God still heals, but they live as functional deists who rarely if ever actually lay hands on the sick and pray with any degree of expectancy. Jesus laid his hands on the sick (Lk. 4:40), as did the early church (Acts 9:17; 28:7-8; cf. Mark 16:18). And so should we.
People often confuse praying expectantly with praying presumptuously. Prayer is presumptuous when the person claims healing without revelatory warrant, or on the unbiblical assumption that God always wills to heal. This then requires them to account for the absence of healing by an appeal either to moral failure or deficiency of faith (usually in the one for whom prayer is offered). People pray expectantly when they humbly petition a merciful God for something they don't deserve but that he delights to give (Luke 11:9-13; cf. Matt. 9:27-31; 20:29-34; Lk. 17:13-14). Expectant prayer flows from the recognition that Jesus healed people because he loved them and felt compassion for them (Matt. 14:13-14; 20:34; Mk. 1:41-42; Lk. 7:11-17), a disposition that nothing in Scripture indicates has changed.
We should also take careful note of the example of Elijah (see James 5:17-18). As we noted in an earlier article, some cessationists believe that biblical miracles were clustered, or concentrated, in only three major periods of history: the days of Moses and Joshua, the time of Elijah and Elisha, and the time of Christ and the apostles. The point of this argument is that Elijah and Elisha, for example, were special, extraordinary, unique individuals who cannot serve as models for us when we pray.
But James said precisely the opposite! The point of verses 17-18 is to counter the argument that Elijah was somehow unique or that because of the period in which he lived he could pray with miraculous success, but we cannot. James wanted readers to know that Elijah was just like you and me. He was a human being with weaknesses, fears, doubts, failures—no less than we. In other words, James said: “Don’t let anyone tell you Elijah was in a class by himself. He wasn’t. He’s just like you. You are just like him. Therefore, pray like he did!”
Don’t forget the context: James appealed to the example of Elijah to encourage us when we pray for the sick! The point is that we should pray for miraculous healing with the same faith and expectation with which Elijah prayed for the end of a three-year drought.
So, if God still heals, why doesn’t he always heal?
It's hard to imagine a more difficult, confusing, and controversial topic than why God chooses not to heal in response to the intercessory pleas of his people. I don't profess to have all the answers, but I think I've got a few. I'm sure that what follows will provoke many to anger and frustration, while others, I pray, will find a measure of comfort.
In the final analysis, virtually everything about healing remains a mystery. I don't mind saying that I'm weary of those who claim to reduce healing to a formula or a manageable cause and effect phenomenon in which we can know with certainty why some are healed and why others are not. I've labored in this article to avoid falling into that trap. That said, I would like to suggest that the reason why many are not healed may possibly be answered in any one of seven ways.
First, although we must be careful in giving more weight to the role of faith than does the NT itself, we also must be willing to acknowledge that occasionally healing does not occur because of the absence of that sort of faith that God delights to honor. This does not mean that every time a person isn't healed it is because of a defective faith or that if only a more robust and doubt-free faith were in exercise that healing would inevitably follow. But it does mean that faith is very important. How can we conclude otherwise in view of the many texts in which healing is closely linked to someone's faith? I hope you'll take the time to pause and read these passages: Matt. 9:22, 28-29; 15:28; Mark 2:5,11; 5:34; 9:17-24; Mark 10:52; Luke 17:19; Acts 3:16; 14:8-10; James 5:14-16.
Second, sometimes healing does not occur because of the presence of sin for which there has been no confession or repentance. James 5:15-16 clearly instructs us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another that we may be healed. Again, please do not conclude from this that each time a person isn't healed it is because he/she has committed some specific sin of which they have refused to repent. But in some cases (not necessarily all) this is undoubtedly true. We have to reckon with the possibility that lingering bitterness, anger, resentment, envy, or unforgiveness in our hearts and our refusal to confess and repent of such sins is the reason why God withholds physical healing from our bodies.
Third, although it sounds odd to many at first hearing, healing may not happen because the sick don't want it to happen. Jesus asked the paralyzed man in John 5:6, “Do you want to be healed?” What on the surface may appear to be a ridiculous question is, on further examination, found to be profoundly insightful.
Some people who suffer from a chronic affliction become accustomed to their illness and to the pattern of life it requires. Their identity is to a large extent wrapped up in their physical disability. I realize that sounds strange to those of us who enjoy robust health. Why would anyone prefer to stay sick? Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to be healed? But I’ve actually known a handful of folk who in a very real sense enjoy their dependence on others and the special attention it brings them. They are convinced that the only reason people take note of them and show them kindness and compassion is because of their affliction. If they were healed they fear losing the love on which they’ve come to depend. Remaining sick is to their way of thinking a small price to pay to retain the kindness and involvement of those who otherwise would simply ignore them.
Then, of course, in some instances people don't want the responsibilities that would come with being healthy. To their way of thinking, it’s easier (and perhaps even more profitable) to remain the object of other’s beneficence and good will than it would be to be healthy and thus expected to get a job and show up 9-5 on a daily basis. This is not a common phenomenon, but it does happen in a few cases.
Fourth, we must also consider the principle articulated in James 4:2, where we are told that “you do not have, because you do not ask.” The simple fact is that some are not healed because they do not pray. Perhaps they pray once or twice, and then allow discouragement to paralyze their petitions. Prayer for healing often must be prolonged, sustained, persevering, and combined with fasting.
Fifth, some are not healed because the demonic cause of the affliction has not been addressed. Please do not jump to unwarranted conclusions. I am not suggesting that all physical disease is demonically induced. Of course, it is interesting, is it not, that in Paul's case God used “a messenger of Satan” to inflict the thorn. There is also the case of the woman in Luke 13 “who had a disabling spirit [or, a spirit of infirmity] for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself” (Luke 13:11). According to Jesus, “Satan” had “bound” her (Luke 13:16; see also Acts 10:38). It takes considerable discernment, time, and patience to determine if an illness has a demonic cause, together with even greater commitment to praying for that individual and leading them to address the reasons for their spiritual oppression. When these factors are ignored, healing may not be forthcoming.
Sixth, we must also consider the mystery of divine providence. There are undoubtedly times and seasons in the purposes of God during which his healing power is withdrawn or at least largely diminished. God may have any number of reasons for this to which we are not privy, whether to discipline a wayward and rebellious church or to create a greater desperation for his power or to wean us off excessive dependence on physical comfort and convenience or any number of other possibilities. If this leaves you confused, that's why it's called a mystery!
But what must we say when the problem isn't the absence of faith or the presence of a demon or the refusal to repent or the failure to pray or a lack of desire? How then do we account for on-going physical affliction, as in Paul's case? I strongly urge you to carefully read the next point.
Seventh, often times there are dimensions of spiritual growth and moral development and increase in the knowledge of God in us that he desires more than our physical health, experiences that in his wisdom God has determined can only be attained by means or in the midst of or in response to less than perfect physical health. In other words, healing the sick is a good thing (and we should never cease to pray for it), but often there is a better thing that can only be attained by means of physical weakness.
More important to God than our physical health is our spiritual holiness. This isn't to say the body isn't important. God isn't a Gnostic! He values and has redeemed our bodies and now dwells within them as his eternal temple. But while we live in this corrupt and decaying world, inner and spiritual conformity to the image of Christ often comes only at the expense of or at least simultaneous with physical deterioration and suffering (see 2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Let me personalize this principle. If I believe Romans 8:28, that God sovereignly orchestrates all events in my life for my ultimate spiritual good (and preeminently for his ultimate glory), I can only conclude that, all things being equal, if I'm not healed it is because God values something in me greater than my physical comfort and health that he, in his infinite wisdom and kindness, knows can only be attained by means of my physical affliction and the lessons of submission, dependency, and trust in God that I learn from it.
In the final analysis, we may never know why a person isn't healed. What, then, ought to be our response? In the first place, don't stop praying! Some people find this difficult to swallow. Many times I've been asked: “Why should Paul bother to pray for release from something that God wills to inflict?” The answer is because Paul didn't know what God's will was in this particular case until such time as God chose to make it known. And neither do you or I with regard to any particular illness that we may suffer.
If the Lord had never said in response to Paul's prayer, “No, it isn't my will that you be relieved of this thorn,” Paul would have been justified, indeed required, to continue to pray for his healing. I once heard my friend Jack Taylor put it this way: “Never cease praying for healing until you are shown otherwise either by divine revelation or death!” If you are able to discern, as did Paul, through some revelatory disclosure or other legitimate biblical means that it is not God's will now or ever to heal you, you may cease asking him to do so. Otherwise, short of death itself, you must persevere in prayer. You never know but that God's ultimate and long-term will for you is complete healing after he has for a season accomplished his short-term sanctifying purpose.
In Paul's case, the only reason he ceased asking for deliverance was because God, in effect, told him to shut up! “No, Paul. I'm not going to heal you. It isn't my will in this instance that you be set free from this affliction. Rather, I have a higher purpose in view: your humility and my Son's glory manifest in the context of your on-going weakness.” To which Paul, in effect, replied: “O.K., Lord, I'll shut up and submit to your merciful purpose in my life. I know you love me and desire what is ultimately of greatest good for my spiritual growth. Therefore, my prayer now is that you maximize in me the beneficial effects of this pain. Don't let me miss out on any spiritual good that might come my way from this malady. Teach me everything I need to know and sustain me that I might be a platform for the glory of Christ and a source of comfort to other suffering saints.”
I'm sure there are other ways to account for why God chooses not to heal, but I trust that these have proven helpful. There is much I do not know about this matter, but of this I'm quite certain: God's grace is sufficient in all circumstances so that we, “for the sake of Christ” (2 Cor. 12:10a), might learn that in our weakness his power is made perfect!