Sanctification and Healing

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

Evelyn was a dear woman: a woman of faith, joy, and peace. She always had a happy, positive, expansive outlook on life and the future, and never gave in to the depression, self-pity, or bitterness. And, yet, Evelyn suffered from the painful ravages of cancer. Breast cancer, lung cancer, bone marrow cancer … no sooner had she beaten down cancer in one area of her body than it would rear its ugly head in another. Long before I met her, and long before she had become too ill to get out and come to church on a regular basis, Evelyn’s life had become one long, continuous battle with a body which was in rebellion. Just about anyone else might have given up long before, but not Evelyn.

I’ll never forget the day she went in for her last intensive round of radical chemotherapy. I knew she was dreading it, but she never let on how afraid she was. In the past the chemotherapy treatments had been harsh; this promised to be the worst yet. Be that as it may, when I saw Evelyn her eyes were bright and her smile was broad and real. I remember sitting down next to her, taking her hand, and spending a wonderful half-hour just waiting for them to come and give her the treatment. Toward the end of our conversation she got quiet, looked directly at me, and said, “Let’s pray.” And then, rather than waiting for me to begin, she opened her own mouth and began to offer up her words to God. She prayed for her doctors, her nurses, her family, her friends, and for me. She prayed for everyone but herself.

I couldn’t stand it. I began to cry as she prayed, and as I listened to the deep concern that she had for everyone else, I grew to comprehend the grace that she had been given. It was beautiful; it also gave me a little bit of insight into how she had managed to hold up under the constant stress of being ill for so long. Rather than obsessing upon her own pain, her own fears, and her own sickness, she focused upon the needs and concerns of others. She didn’t ignore her own condition; rather, she was more concerned with how other people dealt with her condition.

As she fell silent, I began to croak out a prayer for her. I felt so inadequate, but I prayed that Jesus would be with her, touch her, and heal her. I took out a vial of oil, made the sign of the cross on her forehead, and then closed off my prayer for her by thanking God for the powerful grace of Jesus Christ which I had been honored to see in her. I then gave her a hug and she, smiling up at me, said, “That was beautiful, honey, but Jesus has already healed me. This cancer …it’s annoying, and it hurts, and I’d like to be cured, but I’m already healed.”

Through tears all I could say was, “Praise God.”

Evelyn was cured a few weeks later when Jesus took her home to be with him in heaven. But Evelyn was right; long before she was cured, she had been healed. Long before her physical suffering had come to an end, God had healed her.
It is easy to become caught up in the conditions of life. It is easy to focus upon our illnesses and the immediacy of our pain. This is only natural; when I am sick, all I want is to be made well. I can wax long and rhapsodic on the virtues of healing that exist above and beyond the physical manifestations, but when I’m sick I really want to be cured. Indeed, no one can be blamed for wanting to be cured of an illness; no one likes being sick. However, we can be so narrowly focused upon physical curing that we rarely remember that healing is far more than just a physical phenomenon. It includes, but is not limited to, physical curing.

To be healed means to be made whole. It means to be made complete. It means to be made at peace with God, with creation, and with oneself. Healing is the re-establishment of a right relationship with God, a relationship for which we were made and from which we have strayed. We were created to live in a relationship with God, and part of our susceptibility to illness follows from our unwillingness to live according to God’s will within this relationship. We think we know what is always right for us, and so we end up abusing body, mind, and spirit through overwork, overeating, overstressing, and under-maintenance. Part of being made whole is being returned to the relationship that we are called to have with God. This return, this “re-creation” of the image of God in us, does include the curing of physical, emotional, and mental illnesses; but curing is not all that there is to healing.

“If God promises to heal me, why am I not healed?”

Few questions are more painful to hear, or more difficult to answer, than this one. It is very much like the classic question: “If Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the whole world, why isn’t everyone saved?” These two questions are not only similar in terms of being difficult to answer, they are also closely related. Healing and forgiveness are, in many respects, two sides of the same coin.

Ever since the early days of the Church, Christians have looked to the Old Testament to provide them with an interpretation of the suffering and death of Jesus. After all, the Jewish concept of the Messiah didn’t include the idea of him suffering and dying. The Messiah was supposed to be victorious over the powers and forces of evil in the world ... he wasn’t supposed to be killed by them! Hence, early Christians were faced with a serious dilemma. They were still Jews, and yet they followed a Messiah who had died! How were they going to deal with this serious inconsistency?

They found their answer in the pages of the prophet Isaiah, and specifically in the concept of the “Suffering Servant.” While the Jews didn’t view the Suffering Servant motif as being fulfilled in an individual person, and they certainly didn’t connect this person with the Messiah, Christians found in this concept a key to unlock the theological significance of the suffering and death of Jesus.

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:4-5)

Christians understand this passage to say that Jesus was “wounded for our transgressions” and “bruised for our iniquities.” In his suffering and death we are reminded that God loves us so much that he is willing to stand in our place …and that he actually has faced death for us. All the sins of the world – past, present, and future – were paid for on the cross in that holy moment. Nothing more needs to be done to pay for them, or to break down the wall of separation between us and God; Jesus has done it all. As a result, for faith in Jesus Christ God imputes to us His righteousness. We are not righteous in and of ourselves, but through justifying grace we are regarded by God as if we really were righteous. When we continue in faith, responding to God's grace, the imputed righteousness which comes in justifying grace actually begins to impart to us in sanctifying grace … not only judged righteous, but Christ’s righteousness is actually grafted into us. By no virtue of our own, when we continue to live by faith we discover that our desire to sin is increasingly diminished. To use a bit of Wesleyan terminology here, we discover that God has actually worked a miracle of transformation, moving us “on toward perfection” in God’s love. Not only this but we can also trust that in glory, when our corruptible bodies put on incorruptibility, we will be perfect as Christ is perfect.

The very same holds true for our sicknesses and infirmities: Christ took them upon himself, just as he took our sins, and hence we have imputed to us Christ’s health. We still get sick, we still die in this mortal body, but in Christ Jesus we have eternal health and eternal life. We sometimes see God break through our mortality with miracles of healing which amaze us, but even when this doesn’t happen we do know, by faith, that our mortal bodies will eventually put off their mortality ... we will cease being corruptible and will become incorruptible.

The challenge for our faith, as Christians, is in accepting that we are truly healed even when the fruition of that healing is yet to be seen. By Faith we can know it will be seen, known, and experienced at our glorification in heaven. If no where else, that is where God has promised to heal us completely. Is healing possible here? You bet. But healing is only assured to us in glory, when we put off our mortality and accept Christ’s eternity.

In this life, healing may be manifested in ways that we least expect: emotional and spiritual rather than physical. Either way, the promise is sure and true and we can depend upon it. We should give thanks to God that the healing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is present to make us whole again. That is the true essence of healing ... it’s not just the mending of broken bodies, it’s the “making whole” of lives that have been torn asunder by sin.

Evelyn knew that she was healed. She knew it long before she entered the hospital for her last chemotherapy treatments. Even though she wasn’t cured, she knew that through the grace of God she had been “made whole.” For her, the reality of having been healed was just as certain as the reality of her salvation. Indeed, as we have seen through the insight that we have gained from Isaiah 53, forgiveness and healing really go hand in hand as a blessing to all of God’s children.

© 2005 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

Stacks Image p13_n9
The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from