Examining the Prosperity Gospel #6: The Misapplication of the Atonement

Jesus’s atonement for sins lies at the very heart of the Christian message. The Christian faith proclaims that, on the cross, Jesus gave up his life and atoned for the sins of his people that he might free them from the bondage of sin and reconcile them to himself. This is the truth declared in the gospel message. However, Word of Faith teachers have a different view of the atonement; not only did Jesus atone for the sins of the people, but furthermore, he atoned for the evils of poverty and sickness. In other words, Jesus’s atonement means that healing is guaranteed and that wealth and success may be assured because they were already bought on the cross. While the direct teaching on prosperity being purchased in the atonement is typically reserved for hard prosperity preachers, the notion that healing was purchased in the atonement appears to be a universal opinion of both hard and soft prosperity preachers.

Prosperity Preachers on the Atonement

The atonement of Jesus guarantees your physical healing, the prosperity gospel says. Joyce Meyer writes, “A proper and thorough study of God’s Word reveals that healing as well as forgiveness of sin is included in the atonement of Christ (see Isaiah 53:4-5).”[1] This passage (Isaiah 53:4-5) is the classic proof text that prosperity preachers rely upon to promote this position on the atonement, with special emphasis on verse 5 and the statement that “by his stripes we are healed.” Here is the passage for consideration:

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 (KJV).

While a number of prosperity preachers will extend the application of this passage to poverty and gaining prosperity (as Joseph Prince does below), I will primarily focus on how they apply it to healing as this is far more common and openly taught. These teachers focus on the word “healed” and thus determine that healing is paid for and ours to receive because of the work of Christ. Prince writes,

I don’t have to tell you that sicknesses, diseases, and accidents aren’t good gifts! They are from the devil, and because of Jesus’ finished work, we have been redeemed from every evil work and curse. We can receive protection from every evil occurrence, sickness, and disease. By the stripes on Jesus’ back, we are healed![2]

He goes on later to say,

That is what happens when believers know that they have been made righteous by the blood of Jesus. They begin to understand that they have the blood-bought right to be healed, to experience financial breakthroughs, and to enjoy restoration in their marriages![3]

Notice that Prince uses the word “right”; according to the prosperity gospel’s system, because of the death of Jesus, you have the right to be healed, to have prosperity, and to live the good life. These rights (again, most often health and healing), are simply yours for the taking. You just need to learn how to claim them.

Going farther back in the history of the prosperity gospel, Kenneth Hagin, the father of the Word of Faith movement, taught the same application of the atonement as Prince (though really it’s Prince teaching the same application as Hagin). This quote is from a supposed conversation Hagin had with Satan:

 You said I wasn’t going to get my healing, but why do I want to get it when Jesus has already gotten it for me? I’m not planning on getting healing ever. Mr. Devil, in 1 Peter 2:24 the Bible says, ‘Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye are healed.’ I was healed nearly 2,000 years ago by the stripes of Jesus and that belongs to me. I’m not trying to get it. I have it.[4]

This doctrine is found in soft prosperity circles as well. Joel Osteen presents the same teaching as Hagin: your healing is guaranteed. It’s not a matter of whether it’s God’s will, it is a matter of simply claiming what is yours in faith: 

We think it’s being humble to say, “God, if it is Your will, You can heal me.” Some people say, “If God wants me to endure this disease to show that I trust Him, I’ll gladly do it.” But you don’t have to carry it; God’s already carried it. Isaiah 53:4  says, “Jesus carried our sickness and took our infirmities.” He already paid the price. It’s not faith to pray “if it is Your will.” You have to have the boldness to say, “God, I know it is Your will.” That Scripture goes on to say, “By His stripes you were healed.” Jesus took those stripes before He was crucified. He didn’t leave anything out. “By His stripes you were healed.” Past tense. He’s already done it.[5]

This aspect of the prosperity gospel’s teaching on the atonement interfaces with its teachings on faith and the power of words. Because of Jesus’s atonement, it teaches, you are already healed. It is never not the will of God to heal. You already have your healing. All you need to do is access your healing through the power of faith released through your words. Boldly claim it. As Joyce Meyer has said, “We release God’s power to heal by speaking His Word with confidence in His ability and willingness to heal our condition.”[6]

Think about the implications this teaching on the atonement has. If you have cancer, according to the prosperity gospel, you already have your healing. You just need faith to get your healing. But say you aren’t healed? The issue lies not with God; it lies with you. You don’t have enough faith. This false doctrine is destructive and does not accord with the true Christian experience.

The Inconsistency of the Doctrine

Before I offer a refutation and correction of the prosperity gospel’s view of the atonement, I want to point out an inconsistency in it. I would ask the question, If Jesus paid for both my sin and my sickness on the cross, why is the atonement not applied uniformly? Why is my justification (the greater benefit) granted upon my confession that Jesus is Lord, but my healing (the lesser benefit) is based upon some other faith factor and not applied at the same time as my justification? Prosperity preachers struggle with this inconsistency in their doctrine, for it is apparent that not everyone who is a Christian is healed.

Kenneth Hagin, in attempting to explain why healing does not always occur, says, “We need to distinguish the difference between healings obtained through supernatural gifts or manifestations and by exercising faith in God’s Word alone.”[7]Hagin understands healing obtained through the atonement of Christ to be something separate from any gifts of healing: “Healing belongs to us. It isn’t just a matter of prayer. It isn’t just a matter of some spiritual gifts in operation. Healing belongs to us because it has been provided for us by the Lord Jesus Christ.”[8] Hagin very clearly considers the removal of our sicknesses to be equivalent to the removal of our sins: “God laid on Jesus our sicknesses and diseases and He bore them. He actually bore them just as He bore your sins.”[9] If this is all true, what is his explanation for the differences in results? Hagin explains it this way: 

Why doesn’t the manifestation [of healing] always come instantly? There are a variety of reasons. One is that healing is by degree, based on two conditions—first, the degree of healing virtue ministered; second, the degree of the individual’s faith that gives power, or action, to that healing virtue. If there is no faith to give action to it, it will not be manifested at all, even though the healing virtue is actually ministered. Many people have said, “When you laid hands on me, I felt the power of God go through me just like a bolt of electricity. I felt it all right for two or three days, but now every symptom has come back to me.” There was no faith on the part of the individual to give action to that power.[10]

What’s the problem? It’s a lack of faith, he says. Your healing is only guaranteed, provided you have the right kind of faith, which if you remember, is ultimately a correct and positive state of mind.

As an aside, I also want to point out that Hagin explains away healings that don’t “stick” in this way too. The people in the example’s symptoms came back because they did not have enough faith. This teaching has led to a response in prosperity circles of “claiming” and “keeping” your healing whereby you must act as if you have been healed, even if you have not been. To give voice to doubts would be to lose your healing. Kate Bowler has documented this type of reaction and writes regarding this phenomenon, “Saints who had ‘claimed their healing’ must maintain their faith until the physical evidence corresponded to the mind’s assent, a process known as ‘keeping their healing.’ Spiritual vigilance was essential during this period, as believers had to be careful not to speak or act in any way that might hinder their blessing.”[11]

Hagin is hardly isolated in this teaching, but I use him here as an archetype since many prosperity preachers have been heavily influenced by him. I hope the inconsistency is palpable in the way this doctrine is applied. On the one hand, they teach that our sicknesses are borne away just as surely as our sins. On the other hand, they teach that healing and removal of infirmity is not applied equally to God’s people in the same way the removal of their sin is. Consider a further application if this is applied consistently: if I don’t have enough faith to be healed, do I have enough faith to be saved from my sins? 

Even if prosperity preachers who teach this faulty doctrine of the atonement do not teach the negative corollary of faith, the conclusion is still inescapable. To teach that healing has already been paid for, that sickness is removed in the atonement, and that it is always God’s will to heal in light of this, the only conclusion that can be reached if healing does not come is that there is something deficient in that person. Few teachers on this point are truly consistent. 

A Refutation of Word of Faith Teaching on the Atonement

The prosperity gospel’s view of the atonement is what may be termed an “over realized eschatology.” Another way of saying this is that they teach that we may expect benefits now that Scripture only promises we may expect later, at the end of time. They oversell what it is that Jesus bought for his people, and then take their overselling and actually make it the attractional point of the gospel. The actual benefit in the atonement, our justification and reconciliation with God, becomes denigrated as the supposed physical benefits, most prominently health and healing, are peddled as alternatives. “Salvation is much more than just forgiveness of sin and the born-again experience,” Creflo Dollar writes. “God doesn’t just deliver you from sin. He delivers you from sickness, addiction, poverty, and everything else the enemy tries to use to attack you.”[12] The gospel becomes inherently changed with this shift in the atonement; it becomes a false heretical gospel.

I will not address any ideas of “financial breakthroughs” or suggestions that the atonement has bought the good life. I think considerations of whether healing is encompassed in the atonement in the following discussion is sufficient to show the absurdity of these other supposed benefits.

Now I want to provide a corrective Word of Faith’s reading of Isaiah 53 and its view on the atonement. Simply put, Isaiah 53 does not teach in any way that your healing is guaranteed now; it teaches of the atonement and healing of the curse of sin. While yes, it may speak also to future healing, it says nothing of the now. Before looking at Isaiah 53 in further detail, I would like to present three comments from Paul that indicate an attitude that he did not assume healing was guaranteed in the atonement.

I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. – Philippians 2:25-27

No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments. – 1 Timothy 5:23

Erastus remained at Corinth, and I left Trophimus, who was ill, at Miletus. – 2 Timothy 4:20

We could also potentially add to this list Paul’s reference to his thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:7, though he doesn’t explicitly state what he is referring to. While it’s entirely possible it was a health matter, I will refrain from speculation.

In these comments, we see matter of fact statements regarding the health of his companions. In the case of Epaphroditus, Paul indicates that he had quite a genuine concern that Epaphroditus might die and that it was only by God’s mercy that he lived. Timothy seems to have been a man beset by frequent ailments of some sort. Trophimus was simply ill and had to remain behind. Paul does not assume any category of Jesus atoning for all illness in the now; sickness was a reality he had to live with. 

As for Isaiah 53, what is it actually teaching? The chapter is that of the Suffering Servant and describes the significance of Jesus’s death on the cross. Let’s look at 53:4-6 to get a better sense of the context:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

We also want to consider how the New Testament interprets this passage, as it will give us an understanding of how we should view it. Isaiah 53 is quoted seven times in the New Testament, though the verses in question are quoted twice. We look here at them:

That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” – Matthew 8:16-17

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. – 1 Peter 2:21-25

In Matthew, there is indeed a link between what Isaiah says and actual physical healings performed. The healings that Jesus performed were a direct fulfillment of what Isaiah had spoken of in Isaiah 53:4. Does that then imply that all healing for all time is bought in the atonement? From this passage alone, you would be unable to draw a conclusion since it is referring only to Jesus’s earthly ministry.

The reference in 1 Peter 2 provides a much more explicit interpretation of the significance of the passage. Peter speaks of Jesus’s suffering in view of sin. It is the curse of sin that we have been healed of. Peter does not promise healing to his readers, but rather tells them of their standing before God. They have been healed, set free from sin. They have now been returned to God through the work of Jesus.

We also don’t look at the atonement in a vacuum. There are many other passages that describe the work of Jesus and the effects of his death on the cross:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. – 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. – Galatians 1:3-5

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. – Hebrews 1:3

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. – 1 Peter 3:18

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. – 1 John 2:2

Notice the common language employed and what the atonement of Christ accomplished: he gave himself for our sins. He did not give himself for our present physical healing or wealth or happiness. He gave himself for our redemption. In light of the overwhelming Scriptural focus on Jesus’s death for our sins, we must also view Isaiah 53 in this light, as Peter does, and as is also the clear reading.

What do we do with Matthew linking Isaiah 53:4 to physical healing then? There is Scriptural warrant for linking Isaiah 53:4 to physical healing, but not in the way that prosperity preachers teach. In Matthew 8, the passage is linked to the healing ministry of Jesus rather than to the crucifixion. Matthew makes a typological application to Jesus fulfilling the Old Testament in his ministry; Matthew is replete with these kinds of typological fulfillment. He makes no universal application regarding healing in the death of Jesus, though it is entirely likely that this typological application looks forward to the actual crucifixion and the greater healing of the sins of the world. 

The healing purchased is not in the here and now; Jesus did not guarantee our present physical healing. What he did guarantee, though, is the believer’s justification and reconciliation with God, which leads to the ultimate physical healing at the resurrection. Sin, disease, and pain will all be done away with. This is what Jesus bought as part and parcel in his atonement for our sins. John gives us an image of what our healing will be like:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4

Conclusion

The prosperity gospel’s view of Christ’s atonement is compromised theologically and is incompatible with the average Christian experience, let alone that experience throughout Church History. Asserting that physical health (or wealth and physical success) are guaranteed aspects of the atonement is to create a false system. The prosperity gospel ultimately creates an inconsistent doctrine that, if applied consistently, condemns Christians. May we recognize the awesome gravity of what Jesus worked in the atonement, and not be tempted to try to add to it as if that would make it more attractive.


[1] Joyce Meyer, Unshakeable Trust: Find the Joy of Trusting God at All Times, in All Things (New York, NY: Faith Words, 2017), 92.

[2] Joseph Prince, Destined To Reign: The Secret Effortless, Wholeness, and Victorious Living (Tulsa, OK: Harrison House Publishers, 2007), 68.

[3] Ibid. 273.

[4] Kenneth E. Hagin, What Faith Is (Kenneth E. Hagin, 1972), 25-26.

[5] https://www.joelosteen.com/Pages/Blog.aspx?blogid=13973

[6] Joyce Meyer, Be Healed in Jesus’ Name (New York: FaithWords, 2000), 8.

[7] Kenneth Hagin, Healing Belongs to Us (Kenneth Hagin, n.d.), 4.

[8] Ibid. 8.

[9] Ibid. 16.

[10] Ibid. 22.

[11] Kate Bowler, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 151.

[12] Creflo Dollar, 8 Steps to Create the Life You Want: The Anatomy of a Successful Life (New York, NY: FaithWords, 2008), 22.

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