Sin and the Sinned Against
In order to understand the work of the Holy Spirit in healing prayer, it is vital to grasp the theology of sin and its transmission. There is a profound, destructive relationship between the sinner and the sinned against, and this requires some study of and commentary on relevant Scriptures to ascertain the roles of salvation, sanctification, confession, forgiveness, and healing for the sinner and the sinned against. The biblical passages examined in this chapter are representative of and foundational to the theology and practice of healing prayer. They are intended to clarify the nature and scope of healing prayer, grounding the project in the theological conviction that healing prayer touches both sides of the problem of sin, but focuses primarily on the sinned against.
During their wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites rebelled against God again and again. At Kadesh-barnea, God was about to destroy them for their numerous sins, but then Moses reminded Him of what He had said about His judgment and mercy:
And now, I pray, let the power of my Lord be great, just as You have spoken, saying, “The Lord is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.” Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.
Then the Lord said: “I have pardoned, according to your word; but truly, as I live, all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord—because all these men who have seen My glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have put Me to the test now these ten times, and have not heeded My voice, they certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who rejected Me see it.” (Numbers 14:17–23)
At Moses’ plea for pardon, God withdrew the death sentence, but the physical consequences and the lesson of the Israelites’ sin persisted: They would not see the Promised Land. The translation of “visiting the iniquity” in this passage is consistent with much of Hebrew thought, which held that God, being sovereign and omnipotent, is responsible for everything, including the evil we experience. This is not to say that He is the author of evil, but that everything, in order for it to happen at all, must be a part of His will. Therefore, “visiting the iniquity,” or punishing future generations for the sins of their parents, would not mean that God unjustly intended the harm, but that it required His assent, which is righteously given, for the harm to occur.
This view of God is expressed frequently in Hebrew Scripture, and many Christian theologians agree with it. For example, in considering Romans 8:20 (“For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope.…”[KJV]), John Wesley commented, “The creation was made subject to vanity—Abuse, misery, and corruption. By him who subjected it—Namely, God, Gen 3:17, 5:29.” That is, God made creation, and us, subject to abuse, misery, and corruption.
This idea is often difficult for modern readers to grasp. They read this and ask, “Why is God so mean that He punishes children for the sins their parents commit?” A historical parallel might help account for this difference in thought. In ancient times people believed that God or His angels pushed the stars and planets across the sky. The assumption was that if God stopped pushing, everything would stop. The modern view is that God established the laws of physics and that stars and planets alike obey those laws. Just as a ball continues on it own after a baseball pitcher throws it toward home plate, God does not have to run behind the stars and planets moment by moment for them to continue to move. Both the ancient and modern views are attempts to explain what people observe, but whatever the explanation, the stars and planets still move. This can help us understand the passage from the book of Numbers.
The substrata of the Hebrew are worthy of consideration. The Hebrew words for visiting ( dq;P' paqad ) and iniquity ( !wO[' `avon) are important. The first can mean not only to reckon or to punish, but also to witness or watch over. The second can mean not only fault or sin, but also the consequences of sin. So another way to say that God is “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation” is to say that God witnesses the consequences of sin committed by one generation as sin infects and flows through subsequent generations.
This is clearly true in families and nations. Sin does not stop with its perpetrators. Not only does it harm its victims, but it also harms—and even leads into sin—those in its wake. It has a ripple effect in the networks of relationships surrounding the sinner and in the lives of children, grandchildren, and so on “to the third and fourth generation.” Everyone has seen and experienced this truth, and whether it occurs because God makes it happen or because He allows it and witnesses and testifies to it does not change the reality that it does happen. It might be more useful simply to realize that because people are created in God’s image, they are made to be in relationship with one another, and thus the sins (and love and good deeds) of the individual always affect more than just that person. They affect the people the sinner touches, and the people they touch, and so on and so on.
This is an extraordinarily important insight because much of the theology and teaching in the church (the Western church in particular) has been focused on sinners and their need for repentance. This is a vital concern, to be sure, but of equal importance is the consequence of sin on its victims. Not only are they often crippled physically, emotionally, or spiritually by the sin of the sinner, but they are also often drawn into sin—either the same one or another—in reaction to it. Thus, the abused often become abusers or, conversely, they express their wounding in (to name a few) eating disorders, promiscuity, self-injury, drug or alcohol abuse, or bitter, fearful, or icy relationships with others and with God. The truth is that just as all are sinners, all are also sinned against. This can help us understand and empathize—to a degree—with even the greatest victims of sin and suffering.
Most Western theology has focused on the redemption and restoration of sinners. Sin separates people from God, and no amount of “being good” can make them holy enough to live in His presence. But when they confess, they are forgiven, even if the confession is merely implicit in accepting forgiveness. God extends His grace to them on the basis the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross—His willingness to die as a sinner though He is Himself God (Philippians 2). Jesus’ standing in for men and women so God can declare them righteous and set them free is a gift that need only be accepted.
This, however, is not the end of the story. God’s passion and plan for His people is that they move beyond salvation into sanctification—that they be healed and reformed and matured into His likeness. For this, He gives them the Holy Spirit as their advocate, counselor, intercessor, and sanctifier. After salvation, the Holy Spirit, who worked in them to set them free from slavery to sin, now works to free them progressively from sin’s influence and its worldly consequences.
It is in this light that Western Protestant theologians have often based their understanding of the expression “He came to set the captives free,” which is based on Luke 4:18, where Jesus, reading from Isaiah 61:1, says:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.
Christ did come to free sinners from their sins and from the often intolerable consequences of them. But this is not the meaning of the passage in which this saying has its roots. The language of Luke 4:18 and of the original text in Isaiah 61:1 are focused not on sinners and freeing them from their sin, but on the victims of sin and misery. Here Jesus is not a philosophical abstraction of humanity and divinity residing in one body, however theologically correct that abstraction might be. Rather, here is Jesus, a poor carpenter, who touches real people who are really ill, suffering, and oppressed—and He heals them. He lives not in royal splendor befitting a God-man, but in the ghetto with the dregs of society, and right there He reveals the very heart of the Father.
Note that the underlying Hebrew word translated visiting has broader implications as well. It is God’s presence that brings blessing or judgment (and even both at the same time).
Earl Wilson et al., Restoring the Fallen (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 41–51.
Bryan P. Stone, Compassionate Ministry, Theological Foundations (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996), 70.