Summary: In recent years, mercenary faith-healers have largely discredited their own ministries. As a result, many have questioned whether the ministry of miracles is intended for today. In this article, apologist, Ben Fischer, examines the arguments of Dr. John MacArthur as well as the New Testament to discern whether healing have indeed ceased. To sign-up for our emails, click here.
In his seminal book, Strange Fire, renowned pastor, Dr. John MacArthur, wrote the following: “Leading healers have arisen who unite the … tricks of the theatrical hypnotist with … occult techniques … and multitudes follow.” (MacArthur, 2013, 12)
John MacArthur has more recently become the most outspoken voice against the Charismatic movement. His influence as a pastor and as a teacher has swayed millions of believers to reject miracle healings. As a leading Reformed thinker, MacArthur has assumed the role of announcing to the broader Protestant church that the common modern emphasis on signs and wonders is a distortion of true gospel ministry.
“They simply cannot do apostolic-quality miracles,” MacArthur urges. “[T]hey try to pass parlor tricks … off as if they were true signs and wonders.” Speaking of those who claim to walk in healing power, he implores that such assertions “undermine the authority of Scripture.” (MacArthur, 2013, 176) “[H]ealings are the result of a euphoric placebo effect,” he goads, “in which the body temporarily responds to a trick played on the … emotions.” (MacArthur, 2013, 161) By numerous similar beseachings, MacArthur fervently argues that the practice of “faith healing” is harmful to biblical living.
But are MacArthur’s charges discernibly justifiable? Should Charismatic Christians capitulate to such teaching? Modern practitioners of the faith-healing movement have unfortunately made it difficult to properly disagree. Widely criticized figures, such as Evangelist Benny Hinn, have harmed themselves greatly by, at times, physically injuring their patients. (William M. Alnor, 1994) Others have horribly disfigured core biblical doctrines, such as Jesus Christ’s atonement, and have discredited their ministries.
The question is: Do such incidents decisively settle the issue? What precisely do the various abuses show? Should those who parlay healing as a means of profiteering be used to formally argue that the age of miracles has ceased?
In this month’s issue of The Messenger, we will examine the biblical basis for physical healing. And we will critically evaluate the arguments of John MacArthur against the broader backdrop of the New Testament’s teaching.
Question # 1: Have Miracles Ceased?
The first issue to settle then is whether healings have ceased. Is there any basis for such anti-miracle teaching? Today, many suppose that the more phenomenal gifts of the Spirit described in the Bible were given solely to betoken the gospel. Once the resurrection had occurred, however, the need for further signs beyond the apostles’ witness was ended. The question is: Is there any basis from the scriptures to affirm the idea that miracles have ceased?
The answer is that the scriptures firmly deny this. In fact, no spiritual gift of God will ever suddenly cease. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1 verse 7: “you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of … Jesus.” (ESV) The same letter expressly references the gift of healing. (cf. 1 Cor 12:28) It would seem that no spiritual gift of God can therefore be presently ceased. As Paul later stated in his epistle to the Romans: The gifts of God are “irrevocable.” (Rom 11:29; ESV)
Unfortunately, John MacArthur has refused to admit to this. Strange Fire, in fact, never seems to acknowledge this point. For this reason, no attention whatsoever is given to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians, chapter 1, verse 7. Examining the passage carefully, it is easy to see why: Paul’s words obviously deny the ceasing of healings. Miracles must therefore, as Paul clearly implies, continue until the time of Jesus’ second appearing.
Question # 2: Are Faith and Healing Connected?
Sadly, this is only the beginning of MacArthur’s problems. In fact, other voices agree that what follows is the bigger question. For not only do the various critics hold that miracles have ceased, but that the alleged connection of faith to healing is based on faulty teaching. “Time after time, people were healed,” MacArthur writes, “without any expression of personal faith.” (MacArthur, 2013, 163) Faith is therefore seen as unimportant to miracles. All that chiefly matters is God’s sovereign choice to heal.
The problem with this argument is that MacArthur’s proofs are hollow. The various scriptural passages he cites are mostly unpersuasive. The story of the cleansing of the ten lepers, for example, is presented as a case in which the need for faith was never preached. “[O]nly one of the ten lepers expressed faith,” MacArthur sasses, “yet all were made clean.” (MacArthur, 2013,163) However, many surveyors of this very same passage have convincingly made appeals which seem to deny Macarthur’s pleadings.
Noted healing evangelist, F. F. Bosworth, for example, denies this. He has rather argued strongly for the role of faith in healing. As a defender of modern-day miracles in the early part of the twentieth century, Bosworth mentioned Jesus’ call to the ten lepers to believe. “When he saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’” The text then reads: “As they went, [the lepers] were cleansed.” (cf. Lk 17:14; NIV) The call for faith was therefore plain and unmistakable. The lepers were to act as though they had already been healed.
For this reason, Bosworth has likened the healing of the lepers to other stories of faith, such as the cleansing of Naaman the Syrian. For example, Bosworth writes that in the case of the man born blind, Jesus commanded him to wash in the pool of Siloam. (cf Jn 9:7) “This gave the man the opportunity to exercise faith,” Bosworth comments. “It was the same with Naaman, and with the ten lepers and with the centurion. In each case, they went relying on the words of Christ. They believed the healing was theirs before it manifested to [them].” (Bosworth, 1924, 136)
At this point, it is worth mentioning the limited role of the priests; the men whom Jesus had instructed the lepers to visit. For according to the strictest reading of the Old Testament law, it was only after a leper was cleansed that he was permitted to call for a priest. “If the priest finds that someone has been healed of a serious skin disease, he will perform a purification,” scripture speaks. (Lev 14:3; NLT; emphasis mine) The lepers therefore clearly were exerting biblical faith. It would appear that John MacArthur has no reason to disagree.
Awkwardly, other scriptures are cited. Stories, such as the raising of Lazarus are acutely misrepresented (cf. Jn 11:1-44) Thus MacArthur writes: “dead people are not able to make [a] ‘positive confession,’ much less respond with [a] show of faith.” (MacArthur, 2013, 163) Yet the careful reader will observe that Jesus said to Martha: “If you believe, you will see the glory of God.” (cf. John 11:40, NIV; emphasis mine) One might simply argue that Lazarus was revived through the faith of his sister who commanded his tomb to be unsealed.
Question # 3: Is Disease Spiritual?
But this point of course only raises additional questions. Does this mean that healing is practically guaranteed? What if physical symptoms manage to persist beyond our earnest prayers to receive our physical healing? Here MacArthur thunders his worst condescensions, arguing against the work of faith in bodily healing. In fact, the famous pastor has at times compared the various modern practices with new age “astral-healings.”
For example, MacArthur flatly condemns the biblical view concerning the spiritual root of physical sickness. Instead, he attempts to argue that referring to disease as a spiritual problem is virtually quasi-Christian! “[T]he notion that disease is spiritual, not physical … provided the [basis] for … Word of Faith theology.” (MacArthur, 2013, 29) The question is: What alternative cause, other than sin, should we attribute to bodily sickness?
Returning to F. F. Bosworth, the evangelist biblically answers: “[B]y one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin” (cf. Rom 5:12; KJV). He then went on to state: “[I]t is clear that disease, which is incipient death, entered into the world by sin.” (Bosworth, 1924, 24) Physical sickness therefore must have a spiritual cause. No other conclusion can be biblically reached. Since sickness came about because of Adam’s willing transgression, sickness is necessarily, psychosomatically driven.
In a 2013 issue of the science magazine, Discover, award winning journalist, Dan Hurley unknowingly confirmed this. Noting that human trauma can radically alter our genes, he reported that minor matters of diet can readily elicit the same. “[P]ioneering studies showed that molecular bric-a-brac could be added to DNA in adulthood,” Hurley marveled. Experimental science therefore seems to be confirming the point: Mere emotional experiences can yield negative genetic changes.
It is no great leap of logic to draw the larger conclusion: Spiritual (like emotional) experiences may plausibly produce the same. Sin could thus potentially bring about enormous physical consequences which need depend, not a wit, on any further aid. For this reason, the Gospel’s promise of healing from bodily ailments seems to come as a welcome road to relief. For as the scriptures state: “He sent forth his word and healed them.” (Psa 107:20) Perhaps the connection of faith to healing is not nearly so far-fetched a relation.
In closing, we address the troubling question of how to view symptoms and tokens of sickness which stubbornly remain. Here, we might simply do well to remember that, after all, emotional ailments sometimes remain also. But these are not, as some suppose, signs of “ultimate” failure of our faith. Rather we are growing gradually and slowly to find relief from our deepest pains.
This month may you be blessed as you also seek the Lord for his healing touch. And may you take comfort in the scriptures which remind us of Jesus’s compassion and healing love. Amen.
Postscript: The above article was featured in our May 2019 issue of The Messenger and only deals with small portions of John MacArthur’s book, Strange Fire. For a fuller scholarly, philosophical and theological critique, please visit us online at benfischerministries.com. Thank you for your prayers.
John MacArthur, Strange Fire: The Danger of Offending the Holy Spirit with Counterfeit Worship (Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2013).
William M. Alnor, “News Watch,” CRI Journal, May 10, 1994.
F. F. Bosworth, Christ The Healer (Chosen Publishing, Grand Rapids, 2000 ed.).