Question: What dost thou understand by the words, “He suffered”?
Answer: That He, all the time that He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind: that so by His passion, as the only propitiatory sacrifice, He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the favor of God, righteousness and eternal life. Heid. Catechism, Lord’s Day 15.
When one of God’s saints leaves this vale of tears to join the church before the throne we naturally ask, what uniquely charaterized his or her life? Scripture leads the way in this, for we read of Enoch that he walked with God, of Noah that he was a just man and perfect in his generations, of Abraham that he was a friend of God. We couldmention many more, such as the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Dorcas, Lydia, and others. Compare this to what the Catechism says of the life of Jesus. His whole earthly sojourn and ministry are summed up in the two words, “He suffered.” We speak so highly of the departed saints. We speak so disparagingly, it would seem, about our Savior. Who of us stands at the coffin of a dear one and sums up his whole life in just two words, “He suffered”?
Yet, on second thought, how entirely proper is this description of Him Whom Scripture calls the “Man of Sorrows,” the “Suffering Servant of God.” This becomes evident when we read the Psalms, particularly such Psalms as 22, 42, 69, and 86. This becomes still more evident when we read the prophets, especially the prophecy of Isaiah 53. And this is sealed by the testimony of all four gospel writers as well as by the epistles. In deepest humility and in holy adoration we confess: “He suffered.”
Christ’s unique suffering.
Our Catechism lays the confession on our lips, that “all the time that He lived on earth, …He sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind.”
There are expressions here that we cannot ignore:
He sustained the wrath of God.
He sustained the wrath of God in body and soul.
He sustained the wrath of God all the time that He lived on earth.
This wrath is against the sin of all mankind.
God’s wrath is His Self-vindication. God loves Himself as the fulness of all infinite perfections. He cherishes His Name, which is the revelation of all His virtues. He defends that Name over against all the attempts of Satan and his cohorts to belittle and destroy it. He would not be God if He did not do that. God is righteous, also in maintaining His Name, for His own sake, for Christ’s sake, for our sake. God is Truth. He cannot deny Himself. He declares, “I, Jehovah thy God, am a jealous God.” He is jealous of His Name, jealous of His glorious perfection as God above all, blessed forever. God’s Self-vindication is like a powerful electric current. When God’s love flows freely and unhindered through the power line of the Spirit of Christ to His people it pours forth blessings continually and abundantly. But when that love of God comes in contact with the opposition of the workers of iniquity it is like a power line that is short-circuited, its current flashes, burns, destroys. Our holy God is the overflowing Fountain of every good and perfect gift to His people in Christ, but He is a consuming fire in wrath against the wicked.
Scripture tells us that we are by nature children of wrath, even as all others. We are guilty of willful disobedience and rebellion in Adam. This is enough to condemn us before the tribunal of God. Moreover, we are conceived and born in sin, so that the depravity of all mankind is our depravity. We increase our guilt daily, for we are prone to all evil. We transgress all God’s commandments. There is not a single sin committed by the human race that we do not commit in some form or degree. Sometimes we sin with forethought, even while our conscience warns us that we are offending God. Sometimes we sin inadvertently. And we are also guilty of a host of character sins, unknown to us, but recognized by others and certainly regarded as sin by God. How abhorrent we must be in God’s sight! How abominable our sins! How great is the debt of sin that we increase every moment of our lives!
Do not think lightly of that. Often when we sing the well-known words of Psalm 50 we have others in mind rather than ourselves. Well may we do a bit of introspection when we sin:
Thus speaks the Lord to wicked men:
My statutes why do ye declare?
Why take My covenant in your mouth,
Since ye for wisdom do not care?
For ye My holy words profane
And cast them from you in disdain.
Thus have ye done; I silence kept,
And this has been your secret thought,
That I was wholly as yourselves,
To take your evil deeds as nought;
I will reprove you and array
Your deeds before your eyes this day.
(Psalter no. 138)
We are children of wrath. Christ sustained God’s wrath in our stead. At His incarnation He humbled Himself, taking on the form of a Servant. He took upon His mighty shoulders the burden of divine wrath against our sins, which grew heavier as He went, until all the horrible billows of divine wrath had swept over His soul during the three hours of horrible darkness on the cross. He was indeed the Man of Sorrows, the suffering Servant of God.
He suffered physically. He had a human nature like ours, ravaged by the results of sin. He was extremely poor; the poorest of the poor. He suffered hunger, thirst, weariness, and all the frailties of a human being. He had to die, even as we. And He did die.
He experienced intense soul-suffering. Did you ever find yourself thrown unexpectedly in the company of filthy, blasphemous mockers, who offended you with their repulsive talk and music? Then you know a wee bit of the bitter offence that our Lord suffered when He as the Sinless One rubbed elbows day after day with such as we are.
He experienced that in His family, among His disciples, but especially among those who hated Him without a cause. He was not understood by those nearest to Him. He was mocked, falsely accused, condemned as a deceiver and a blasphemer, as one who, mind you, was not fit company for such as we are.
Yet the most intense suffering that He experienced was the daily bearing of the wrath of God. All His life He saw the cross loom up before Him in growing proportions. From us God mercifully hides the future, so that we do not know what awaits us an hour from now. I wonder how many of us would have the courage to carry on if we knew the trials that lie ahead of us. Our Savior knew. He knew that every step He took brought Him closer to the day when He would be delivered into the hands of sinners to be crucified. Willingly He walked that way, veering neither to the right nor to the left, with His face set toward Jerusalem, the city that killed the prophets. He Who knew as we never can know the intimate fellowship between the Son and the Father, also knew the dreadful horror of being forsaken of God and being cast into the isolation of hell.
Our Catechism states that Christ bore the wrath of God “against the sin of all mankind.” This is often taken to mean that Christ bore the sins of every individual of the human race, thereby making salvation possible for anyone who will accept the free offer of salvation. The next step must be a denial of the atoning power of Christ’s suffering. For when the debt is paid and the sinner is restored into the favor of God, that sinner is righteous in Christ and has the right to eternal life. Then one of two things is true: either all men finally are saved and there is no hell for the wicked, or Christ’s death is no atoning death. Both are contrary to Scripture. Yet the Word of God does speak of “all men,” “the world,” and “all mankind.” Whenever Scripture does this it plainly refers to the organism of the human race, including the Jew but also the Gentile from every nation of the earth. After all, the fallen human race is saved, not as so many individuals, but as those who are chosen from eternity and redeemed in Christ Jesus. When we speak of a tree, we speak of the entire tree, excluding the dead branches which are removed and burned. In a field of wheat both the grain and chaff grow up together, but at harvest time the wheat is separated and preserved, while the chaff is destroyed. Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of that entire organism of mankind. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Begotten Son, that those who receive the gift of faith, and thus believe in His perfect sacrifice, can rest assured that they will not perish, but have and always will have eternal life. In faith we may humbly add that that includes such a wretch as I am.
A propitiatory sacrifice.
Therefore our Book of Instruction speaks of Christ’s suffering as a propitiatory sacrifice, that is, a sacrifice that satisfies God’s justice and restores us to favor with God. God’s justice must be satisfied. * That justice demands that the transgressor must die both a physical death and the everlasting death of hell under God’s wrath. 0 how our proud nature rebels against that divine justice. Yet every mouth must be stopped and every tongue confess that God is just in all His ways and works. God’s justice is a righteous justice. The demands of justice can only be satisfied by atonement; the debt must be paid and we must be brought back into God’s favor. That can only be realized by the suffering of death and the curse, obedient suffering that atones for sin and merits righteousness and eternal life. You and I cannot make that atonement. We need a substitute. No creature can satisfy for us. The only possible substitute is God’s own beloved Son, Whom God gave as a ransom for our sins.
What an amazing sacrifice He was! In spite of Satan’s offer, “Command that these stones be made bread,” He hungered. In spite of the challenge of a hissing mob, “Come down from the cross,” He remained until all was accomplished. In humble shame and holy adoration we confess with the church of the ages, “He suffered.”
*We are reminded of Lord’s Day 5, question 12.