Heidelberg 38: Why Did Christ Suffer Under Pontius Pilate? (2)

Last time we looked at what is known from Scripture and from extra-biblical documents about the Roman governor who sentenced our Lord to death. The question remains, however, why our Lord permitted this? Indeed, “permitted” may not be strong enough a word. When it was time, our Lord virtually orchestrated the events leading up to his arrest and persecution. This point has been made by others so there’s no need to cover all of that here. What is important is that our Lord was not a mere victim of a series of gross injustices. He took on true human nature, suffered obediently all his life in order to redeem his people from divine judgment. Paul says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…”(Gal 3:13; ESV). That phrase “for us” is most important. Jesus had no need to suffer and die for himself. Even though he is true man (and true God) he was categorically different from the rest of us. He belonged to a category of one, insofar as he was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary” (Apostles’ Creed). Inasmuch as he was the holy, righteous, federal head of a people we may say that he was a member of a class of two: The First Adam and the Last (Rom 5:12–21; 1 Cor 15:45).

Thus, we confess

38. Why did He suffer “under Pontius Pilate” as judge?

That He, being innocent, might be condemned by the temporal judge, and thereby deliver us from the severe judgment of God, to which we were exposed.

Our Lord Jesus was innocent of all civil crimes just as he was innocent of all spiritual crimes. His civil innocence, to which even Pilate testified, was another confirmation that our Savior, our substitute, our Mediator, was truly a spotless lamb. His trial before Pilate was more than a civil trial. We say that “thereby” he delivered all his people, all the elect, all who have believed, believe now, and shall believe until he returns, from God’s wrath. That was his purpose. That was his intent.

This doctrine, that God has wrath against sin and sinners, is a hard one to receive in our age. One of the three or four planks of the modern creed is human goodness and perfectibility. Modernity rejected the biblical narrative of our creation in the image of God, the probation (test), and our fall as a “saga” (Barth). It is a deeply held conviction in the modern period (after the Enlightenment) that humans are essentially good—not just by creation but at birth. Thus, the Biblical, Pauline, and Augustinian notion that humans are, by virtue of their union with Adam, dead in sins and trespasses (Eph 2:1–4) is deeply offensive. The catechism thus has become unintentionally ironic. We all tend to believe that we are naturally innocent when, in reality, only Jesus was innocent. The rest of us are children of Adam and rightly subject to divine judgment. It is not Jesus but we who needed a Savior.

Since we tend to consider ourselves naturally innocent we don’t reckon with the reality that every single human being is, as we say, “exposed” to divine judgment. Nevertheless, we are. Deuteronomy 27:26 and Galatians 3:10 both say to Israelites and to everyone “cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything which is written in the book of the law.” Paul says in Romans 1–3 that all humans are born corrupt. Our throats are an open grave. Our hearts are corrupt. We exchanged the glory of God for idolatry. We’ve all turned to disobedience and death. Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? There is no one good but God alone?” (Mark 10:17).

Indeed. Our Savior Jesus is true man and true God and he was good. He was good for us sinners.

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  1. Dr. Clark,

    Thanks for your faithful labors as you continue to teach and give perspective to Reformed and covenantal orthodoxy and orthopraxy (is that a word?).

    While enjoying the postings and comments, I come away enriched by your insightful articles (e.g., “Why Did Christ Suffer…).

    Fraternally in Christ,

    Ron Beabout, Pastor
    Trinity Reformed Church (OPC)
    Gaithersburg, MD

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