Posted by: Damon Whitsell | April 16, 2009

Faith Healing and the Sovereignty of God: C. Everett Koop

Faith Healing and the Sovereignty of God

I don’t know how many operations I performed in my surgical career. I know that I performed 17,000 of one particular type, and 7,000 of another. I practiced surgery for thirty-nine years, so perhaps I performed 50,000 operations. I was successful, and patients were coming to me from all over the world. And one of the things that endeared me to the parents of my patients was the way my incisions healed. No one likes big scars, but they are especially upsetting to mothers when they appear on their children. So I set out early on to make my scars small, as short and as thin as possible. These “invisible” scars became my trademark. But was I a healer?

The secret of thin scars is to make the incision precise-no feathered edges-and in the closing, to get the edges of the skin in exact apposition. I would do this by sewing the stitches inside the skin, but not through it, and the knots were tied on the bottom. All you have to figure out is how I crawled out after doing that.

I was the one who put the edges together, but it was God who coagulated the serum. It was God who sent the fiberblasts out across the skin edges. It was God who had the fiberblasts make collagen, and there were probably about fifty other complicated processes involved about which you and I will never know. But did God come down and instruct the fiberblasts to behave that way? In a sense, he did. But he did it through his natural laws, just the way he makes the grass grow, the rain fall, the earth quake. The question, then, is not, Does God heal? Of course he heals! We are concerned with this question: Granted that God heals, is it normally according to natural laws or an interruption of those laws (i.e., a miracle)?

Ordinary Providence

It is God’s providence that keeps the sea at the edge of the shore, or an airplane in the sky, or that makes cats out of kittens. When the twenty-three chromosomes of the sperm and the twenty-three chromosomes of the egg are put together, it is God’s ordinary activity that forms a baby. It is his ordinary activity that grows a baby into a child, a child into an adolescent, an adolescent into an adult, and an adult into an elderly person. It is also his ordinary providence that brings about the death of a person, set off by one phenomenon or another. Nevertheless, the phenomenon is part of God’s natural law. Can you interrupt or alter God’s law of nature? It may indeed appear that you can. You might accelerate the process or slow it, but you cannot avoid it. Whatever happens, it is according to God’s providence.

Suppose you get tonsillitis. Your doctor recommends penicillin, and your condition improves. You say to your doctor, “You’re a magician!” Not so. He was an instrument, just as I was an instrument in stitching the skin together. I used instruments to do it, but I was an instrument in so doing. You might say at this point, “What makes you so special?” And the reply is, “I’m not.” Nothing makes me special. God uses instruments who will spend eternity with him. I’m one of those instruments. But he also uses instruments who curse him and people who never even acknowledge him.

I remember well an incident that occurred during my days in training. A woman was recovering from gall bladder surgery. She said to her surgeon as he made his rounds, “I thank God for making me well.” The surgeon angrily grabbed the foot of the bed with both hands and shouted, “God didn’t do that; I did!” But whether this doctor acknowledged it or not, he was an instrument of God’s providence.

Now, back to the tonsillitis. God created a fungus that a man named “Penicillin notatum.” It has been around, I presume, since the beginning of time. But I was well into my residency before Alexander Fleming noted its properties. Penicillin killed bacteria, and it did so through a very complicated process: all part of God’s natural laws. Penicillin killed the streptococcus in your tonsils, and you were healed in accordance with the process and timing of God’s law.

Maybe you have had a severe illness. Let us say you have “hovered at death’s door,” as they say. Then you slowly improved, and here you are today, fit and healthy. I can just imagine that when you recovered someone told you, “It’s a miracle!” Not necessarily. God’s providence was again at work.

Let me offer an illustration that should be familiar to most city dwellers. I missed the entrance to the expressway and wandered all around parts of San Francisco I had never seen before. Finally, I got back to where I wanted to be, got on the expressway, and arrived at the airport with no time to spare. It was a miracle that I caught my plane! Miracle? Not so. Just a loose use of a word that is rarely employed in its authentic meaning. That was no more a miracle than the recovery from tonsillitis. Now, I can hear somebody say, “He doesn’t even believe in miracles!” But I do believe in miracles, and that is why it is worthwhile to define the term.

If the surgeon who reacted so arrogantly to the praise attributed to God were writing this article, you would be wasting your time to continue reading. But I have credentials in this matter. I am a Bible-believing, evangelical Christian steeped in the doctrines of the Reformed faith. I am absolutely committed to a belief in the sovereignty of God in all things, and because of my understanding of the art and science of medicine, I have a perspective on the process of healing as it ordinarily takes place.

Supernatural Intervention

Having defended my supernaturalism, let us turn our attention to a case study that does circumvent or interrupt God’s natural laws. It is the account of a man who never attended medical school. On one occasion, he encountered a homeless person who had been unable to walk since birth. The man’s heart went out to that disabled individual and, looking the man straight in the eyes, the non-credentialed physician said, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”

Of course, this is an excerpt from Acts 3:6, and the unlettered healer was the apostle Peter. The next verses tell us, “And he took him by the right hand, lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. And he, leaping, stood up, walked and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God.” That was a miracle! An apostle uttered those words of healing. It was performed before there was a written New Testament, and the healing was immediate, radical, and demonstrable to those who knew the man when he was disabled. The healing of this lame man was instantaneous, and that is what made it a miracle. However, a miracle is more than a matter of time. It is an act of God produced in unusual circumstances in which he uses means unfamiliar to us but which are perfectly normal expressions of his character. Miracles may be a departure from God’s usual way of acting (as we understand it), but we can never say they contradict God’s nature.

Over the years I have had innumerable people say that I am wrong, that they have witnessed numerous miracles. For example, after I had spoken one night, a woman came to me and said, “God can do anything! … I once knew a woman who went into the hospital to be fitted for a glass eye. The surgeon turned his back to get an instrument, and when he looked back, he found a new eye in the empty pocket where there had been nothing before, and the woman could see!”

I said, “Did you say you knew this woman?”
“No. I knew someone who knows her,” she conceded.
“Well,” I said, “could you tell me who he or she is? I would like to have a conversation with even that person.”
“Well, I don’t really know that person either, but I know someone who knows her.”
“Even so,” I persisted “I would like to meet that person.”
“I don’t really know that person, but she knows someone who knows someone….” And so it goes.


Is It Faith or Faithlessness?

A surprising number of Christians are convinced God will not be believed unless he makes tumors disappear, causes asthma to go away, and pops eyes into empty sockets. But the Gospel is accepted by God-given faith, not by the guarantee that you will never be sick, or, if you are, that you will be miraculously healed. God is the Lord of healing, of growing, of weather, of transportation, and of every other process. Yet people don’t expect vegetables without plowing. They don’t expect levitation instead of getting in a car and turning a key-even for extraordinarily good and exceptional reasons.

Although God could do all of this, Christian airline pilots do not fly straight into a thunderstorm after asking God for a safe corridor, although he could give them such safety. We do not have public services and ask God to remove all criminals, prostitutes, and pornographers from our midst, although he could do that too. God could eliminate AIDS from our planet. While we pray for a speedy discovery of successful treatment, I must do all I can to employ medical science in its task, as all health care professionals must do.

We live in a fallen world and the afflictions of our bodies and souls are the result of that fall (not the immediate work of Satan). Disease and death are “givens” in this fallen world. They are the expectation; all will be straightened out only after the return of Jesus Christ-and not before. God is sovereign. By “sovereignty” I mean that God is in total control of this universe, at all times. If you and I could determine human circumstances by our “faith” (as it is called), God would not be sovereign, and I do not think, indeed, that he would be God. He did not create us and drop us down here, withdrawing control to see how we would make out. He does not act capriciously nor arbitrarily. It is all in line with the grand plan that you and I can only see in pieces now but will see in its completeness in the future.

Presumptuous Christian writers claim to know God’s intent, such as the author of the book that insists, “God wants you well.” Who says so? Why should he want you well when he did not want the apostle Paul well? Paul apparently had a serious eye disease to which he refers in his letters to the young churches. And indeed, Paul asked God to remove his thorn in the flesh several times. But God chose not to do so. Timothy, Paul’s protégé, had something in the way of a gastrointestinal complaint. Paul didn’t respond with the command, “Be healed!” Instead, he told Timothy to stop drinking only water and to drink a little wine!

Affliction is part of the Christian’s life just as much as the nonbeliever’s (sometimes more so). The proper response of Christians to affliction is not to demand healing but rather to witness to the world that through the grace of God a Christian is able to accept affliction, trusting in the sovereignty, grace, and mercy of God in time, knowing that all of these things will be removed in eternity.

Soon after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus himself began to perform miracles. And those miracles, no doubt, authenticated Christ’s claims and his mission. Thereafter, he invested his twelve apostles with these same healing capabilities in order to authenticate this “new” religion, which we call Christianity. But after serving their purpose, these gifts ceased. With the completion of the canon of Scripture, the total revelation of God has been given (that is, not all that can be known about God, but all that God has decided to let us in on).

If miracles were commonplace, they would cease to be miracles. And I repeat what I said earlier: It is always God who does the healing, but he does not regularly do so in a miraculous way. He heals providentially. God can be, and should be, glorified when healing of illness takes place. But he should also be glorified when healing does not take place-and even when death ensues, in spite of the pain and grief it may cause. I don’t say this flippantly. I lost my own son to a rock-climbing accident, and I have learned how essential the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is in such circumstances. God was greatly glorified by that tragedy in ways I could have never predicted.

Miracles, then, were the credentials of Christ and the apostles, to whom he gave the gift of healing. And one can assume, I think, that the cessation of these gifts came at the end of the apostolic age. A few biblical statements would seem to promise, at first glance, that God will do whatever we ask of him. Obviously, though, these cannot be taken as absolute promises in an unconditional sense, because, if this were true, God could not possibly be sovereign. Such passages must be analyzed in light of other passages. For instance, we read in John 15:7, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you” (NASB). Nevertheless, there is a condition to this promise, given in 1 John: “If we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (5:14, NASB).

When a faith healer commands God to perform a miracle, in the absence of a prayer that says, “thy will be done,” it is, as far as I am concerned, the most rank form of arrogance. No doubt some have said that it is the will of God for every affliction of man to be healed, but you know that this could not possibly be true. Otherwise, we would have to conclude that God falls far short of his plans.

But if faith healing is really accomplished by faith, why is a mediator (the faith healer acting in a priestly role) necessary? Why are the healings often either invisible or said to have occurred over a long period of time? I want to see a person with one leg suddenly (“immediately”) have two. In fact, I want to see a person cold, flat-out dead, get up and walk. Now it is not that I want to see these miracles take place just to satisfy my own curiosity. I want to see them happen in such a way that there is no praise attributed to the faith healer. And I want to see it done in a situation that is not a carnival. Now if all of those conditions were in place, I suspect that a healing service would occur very much in private.

Did I Have Enough Faith?

I was once the president of an evangelical organization which hired an investigative writer to look into some cults and into some specific faith healers. Our investigator traveled to a southwestern city where a healing campaign had been advertised some weeks in advance. Adjacent to the huge tent into which thousands would pour for services was a smaller tent. For the whole week prior to the services, those who had physical infirmities came to this smaller tent in order to be screened by associates of the healer. The associates’ job was to pick the proper specimens for their “chief” to heal on television. They chose people with such conditions as asthma, which has a very strong emotional overlay. They dealt with hysterical people, and with those who were very open to the power of suggestion. With others, they tried to see if they could find samples of psychosomatic illness that could be altered by suggestion.

Among those who applied for healing was an elderly Christian gentleman who lived out on the prairie. His vision was becoming dim, and he most likely was developing cataracts. The only lighting in the little cabin where he lived was a kerosene lamp. He was a devout Christian, read his Bible daily-or tried to. Unfortunately, his sight had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer read. On the night of his appearance before the healer, the old man was led into the meeting which had the atmosphere of a sideshow. The faith healer said, “Well, Pop, you can’t see anymore. You’ve gotten old; you can’t even see with your glasses. Your vision is failing.” Then he reached over and took off the old man’s spectacles, threw them on the platform, stamped on them, and broke them. He then handed the elderly gentleman a large-print Bible, which under the lights necessary for television in those days, enabled the gentleman to read John 3:16 out loud, to the astonishment and applause of the audience.

The elderly gentleman praised God, the healer praised God, the audience praised God, and the old man went back to his dimly lit cabin and could not find his Bible, because his glasses were destroyed. The man went back to the healer, but was told the most discouraging thing a godly man could possibly hear: “You didn’t have enough faith, or the healing would have stuck.”

Now, obviously, this makes two classes of Christians: those who have enough faith to be healed-the first-class Christians-and those who don’t have enough faith to be healed-they, of course, are second-class. There is great poverty in that kind of religion. One’s willpower, not divine grace, becomes the basis for faith and life.

Biblical Christianity is different: It does not allow us to peek into the hidden workings of God to determine his purposes in all suffering. “Who sinned,” the disciples asked Jesus, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned … but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:2-3). Then Jesus, the Great Healer, did the work of opening the man’s eyes-not because the man had fulfilled some “work of faith,” but because Jesus is the Messiah who gives sight to the blind.



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