An internet search for “suffering” turns up an astonishing array of results. Because of the internet we are now aware of global suffering in a way, with an immediacy that no other generation has ever experienced. Despite our increased awareness, history tells us that there is nothing new about the degree of suffering that occurs in the world. Something else has changed: our attitude toward suffering and our expectations regarding suffering. One gets the impression that we, more than previous generations, we expect not to suffer. That’s a big change in attitudes. Pre-World-War II generations expected to suffer. They experienced not only World War I but The Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Life expectancy was shorter. Medical treatments were harsher, less successful, and less available. There is another sort of suffering, however, that we should consider: Christ’s suffering on our behalf.
The prophet Isaiah foreshadowed the suffering of our Lord Jesus when he wrote,
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind (Isa 52:14; ESV)
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes 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.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him;
he has put him to grief… (Isa 53:3–10a)
This is suffering on a different order altogether. As sinful humans we all suffer the consequences of the fall. That is not to say that there is a direct, one-for-one correlation between a sinful act and our suffering in particular. Christ taught us explicitly not to make such a correlation (John 9; Luke 13). Nevertheless, Jesus was born innocent, sinless, and righteous. His humanity was conceived by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the virgin. Still, he suffered and in a way that none of us shall suffer—in this life anyway. When he was an infant Herod, the governor, sought to murder him (Matt 2:13). He was homeless: “The birds have nests” he said, “and foxes have holes but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20). He was utterly righteous and true in all that he said and did and yet the authorities unjustly sought not only to silence him but to murder him (John 5:18; 7:1, 19, 25; 8:37, 40). Eventually, he allowed himself to be arrested. He was tried in a mockery of judicial procedure. He was stripped and beaten. He was humiliated. Finally, when they had exhausted their rage against the Righteous One, they made him carry his own cross up Golgotha, until he could carry it no farther. Then they crucified him and even as they did they mocked him. The concluding chapters of the gospels record the heart-rending scenes. The Apostle Peter, who witnessed much of this, summarized the suffering at the end of his life:
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 (1 Pet 2:22–23; ESV).
It is with such prophecies and their realization in mind, that we confess:
37. What do you understand by the word “suffered”?
That all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race; in order that by His passion, as the only atoning sacrifice, He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness and eternal life.
What the Holy Spirit gave to Isaiah in types and shadows our Lord fulfilled in his body:
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Isa 53:10b–12)
It was not he but we who sinned. It was not we who suffered for it but he. Our sins for his righteousness. That is the “great exchange” of which the writer to Diognetus (c, 150 AD) wrote. As Peter said, “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” (1 Pet 2:24; ESV). His wounds are our healing. He was our substitute. He is our righteousness. That which we earned, suffering and death, the wrath of God against sin, was given to him. To those who believe, what he earned, righteousness, is given. That is why the Apostle John described him as “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” ( John 2:2).
Believers are redeemed people, bought with the life and death of our Lord Jesus. It is not that we shall be redeemed or that we might be redeemed. Believers are redeemed presently and nothing or no one has the power to change that reality. We have been bought with a great price: the life and death of Christ.
Things to note in closing:
- We confess that there is but one atoning sacrifice. The Roman doctrine of the continuing, memorial, propitiatory (turning away wrath) sacrifice is irreconcilable with that great truth. Rome confesses: §414 “As a sacrifice the Eucharist is also offered in reparation for the sins of the living and the dead to obtain spiritual or temporal benefits from God;” §612 “Christ’s death is the unique and definitive sacrifice.”
- The doctrine of the atonement is anti-Gnostic. We affirm the reality of Jesus’ true humanity and the reality and ultimate value and virtue of his bodily suffering. It is Gnostic to deny either.
- When we say “obtained” we mean “earned.” Anyone who denies that Jesus earned our acceptance with God has denied the gospel of our Lord Jesus. Anyone who says or implies that Jesus was accepted by grace denies the gospel. On this see the essays in CJPM (link below). See also the HB resources on the self-described Federal Vision movement.
- The catechism was published 7 years before the controversy arose over Karg’s denial of the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. Nevertheless, it’s worth observing that the catechism does not make a chronological distinction between Jesus active and passive (suffering) obedience. The catechism does not suggest that some of his obedience was for himself, to qualify himself (Anselm) to be our Savior. No, the catechism always wants us to think that what Christ, he did for us (pro nobis). Insofar as that it is true, it leads us away from the sorts of categories and distinctions used by Karg and Piscator et al who denied the imputation of Christ’s active obedience. The catechism wants us to think that all of Christ’s obedience was actively suffered for us and is reckoned to us. This is certainly the force of question and answer 60. For more on this see the essay in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.
- We confess a penal substitutionary atonement. This is not a new or even peculiarly Protestant doctrine. Cyril of Alexandria taught it. Ignatius of Antioch taught it. Athanasius taught it. Thomas Aquinas taught it (see below).
- There is no need to juxtapose Christ’s victory over death (Christus Victor) with the substitutionary atonement. He conquered death as our sin-bearing substitute. It’s not either/or but both/and.
- It’s true that John and the catechism both speak of Christ’s death relative to the whole world or human race. Christ’s death is sufficient for every human who ever lived. The question is what he and his Father intended by the atonement. We don’t confess a universal atonement.
- There were advocates, in the 17th century, of hypothetical universalism but they were not the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy. Our confessions did not adopt that doctrine nor did most of our theologians. Heidegger and Turretin and with them the Swiss Reformed Churches rejected it in 1675.
- If we study John’s usage carefully, we will see that “world” in John 3:16 was never intended to mean “everyone who ever lived.” Here is B. B. Warfield on love and world in John 3:16.
- We do not need to choose between atonement and common grace.