Is healing in the atonement? Well, yes and no!
Here in 1 Peter 2:24-25 the apostle is very clearly alluding to Isaiah 53:4-5. There the prophet declared:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
In order to understand what Peter had in mind in quoting this OT passage, I need to address a very controversial question: Is there healing in the atonement?
Some believe that just as God the Father made Jesus to be “sin” for us on the cross he also made him to be “sick” for us on the cross. Word of Faith advocate Gloria Copeland once wrote: “Jesus bore your sicknesses and carried your diseases at the same time and in the same manner (emphasis mine) that he bore your sins.” Another author put it this way:
“When Jesus stood bearing the lashes from the Roman soldiers, all our physical pain and sicknesses were being heaped upon him. . . It is as if one lash was for cancer, another for bone disease, another for heart disease, and so on. Everything that causes physical pain was laid on Jesus as the nails were driven into His hands and feet” (Colin Urquhart).
What is being said is that Christ bore our sicknesses in the very same way that he bore our sins. Another once wrote that “Christ endured vicariously our diseases as well as our iniquities.”
We know what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:21 that God “made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf.” He was declaring that the guilt of our sins was imputed to Christ and that it was because of that guilt that he was punished in our place. But what can it possibly mean to say God made him “to be sick” on our behalf?
There is no guilt in disease or sickness. Having diabetes or a head cold is not sinful. The Bible tells us to pray “forgive us our trespasses” and urges us “to confess our sins,” but nowhere does it say that we should pray “forgive us our arthritis” or “Lord, I confess that I have the flu.” Sickness is not sin. The Bible never issues the command, “Thou shalt not commit cancer,” or “Flee the flu.” Nevertheless, many insist that Jesus “bore the penalty for our sins and sicknesses.” But if sickness is not a sin, how can it incur a penalty?
Of course, ultimately all sickness is a result of sin, but only in the sense that Adam’s fall introduced corruption and death into the human race. But that does not mean that every time we get sick it is because of some specific sin we have committed. It does mean that had Adam not sinned, there would be no sickness. Sickness is the effect of sin (just like tornadoes, weeds, and sadness). But that is altogether different from saying that sickness is sin. We do not repent for having kidney stones, nor do we come under conviction for catching the measles. I didn’t rebuke my older daughter for coming down with the chicken pox, and I certainly didn’t ask my younger daughter to ask for forgiveness when she caught it from her older sister.
Jesus was not punished for our diseases. Rather, he endured the wrath of God that was provoked by our willful disobedience of the truth.
So what does it mean in Isaiah 53 and in 1 Peter 2 when it says that he bore our sicknesses and carried our pains and that by his stripes or wounds we are healed?
As I’ve already said, Christ “bore our sins” in the sense that he bore the wrath of God of which our sins were the cause.
In the case of Isaiah 53 and 1 Peter 2 we are being told that he carried our pains, not in the sense of personally experiencing stomach viruses and ulcers and earaches and gallstones as he hung on Calvary’s tree, but by enduring the wrath of God against that willful human wickedness which is ultimately the reason there are such things as pain and infirmity. By his death at his first coming he has laid the foundation for the ultimate over-throw and annihilation of all physical disease, which will occur with the resurrection of the body at his second coming. Thus it is theologically misleading to say that Jesus bore our sicknesses in the same way he bore our sins. Rather he paid the price of our sins in order that one day, when he returns to glorify his people, he may wholly do away with all of our sicknesses.
May we conclude that there is healing in the atonement? Of course! Were it not for Jesus making atonement for sin, we would have no hope of healing in any form, either now or later. The redemptive suffering of Jesus at Calvary is the foundation and source of every blessing, whether spiritual or physical.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is healing through the atonement rather than in the atonement, insofar as the atoning death of Jesus is the basis for God healing us. In this way we avoid suggesting that because of Jesus’ death we are guaranteed healing in this life.
To ask, “Is there healing in the atonement?” is like asking, “Is there forgiveness of sins in the atonement?” or, “Is there fellowship with God in the atonement?” There is even a sense in which we may say that the Holy Spirit is in the atonement! We are told in John 14:16-17,26; 15:26; and especially 16:7-15, that the Holy Spirit’s present ministry is a result of the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus.
Everything we receive from God finds its ultimate source in what Christ did for us on the cross. Therefore, the question is not whether our bodies receive healing because of the atonement of Christ, but when. We are forgiven of our sins now because of Christ’s atoning death, but we await the consummation of our deliverance from the presence of sin when Christ returns. We experience fellowship with God now because of Christ’s atoning death, but we await the consummation of that blessed relationship when Christ returns. We profit immensely now from the Spirit’s work in our hearts, but who would dare suggest that what the Holy Spirit is doing in this age is all that he will ever do? There is a glorious harvest reserved in heaven for us of which the present ministry of the Holy Spirit is merely the first fruits!
In other words, it is a serious mistake for us to think that every blessing Christ secured through his redemptive suffering will be ours now in its consummate form. All such blessings shall indeed be ours, let there be no mistake about that. But let us not expect, far less demand, that we now experience fully those blessings which God has clearly reserved for heaven in the age to come.
Life for the believer in this present age is a life of tension between the already and the not yet. We already have so very, very much. But we have not yet experienced it all. There is much yet to come. One of the “not yets” in Christian experience is the complete redemption and glorification of the body (see Phil. 3:20-21). Yes, we believe God heals today and that any healing that occurs is because of what Christ has accomplished in his death and resurrection, and yes, we will pray fervently for healing of the body in the present. But that doesn’t mean that because of what Christ accomplished then that we will always experience complete healing now.
We must also remember that frequently in Scripture the sinful condition of the soul is portrayed as analogous to a body suffering from various wounds. Forgiveness and restoration are therefore described in terms of a bodily healing. By his atoning death the great Physician has truly “healed” our hearts. We were continually straying like sheep, but by the redemptive grace of Jesus we have been enabled to return to the shepherd and guardian of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25). Thus the context of 1 Peter 2:24 clearly tells us that it is primarily spiritual healing from the disease of sin, not physical restoration of the body, that the apostle has in mind.
The sickness was that of having strayed from God. The disease was that of having departed from him. The healing provided by Christ, therefore, is bringing us back to God and restoring our relationship with him.
This is clearly the case in our passage when we take note of the word “for” with which v. 25 begins. The word “for” or “because” indicates that the “healing” in v. 24 is from the punishment we deserved for the wandering in v. 25.