Q. 37. What dost thou understand by the words, “He suffered?”

A. 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.

Q. 38. Why did he suffer under Pontius Pilate, as judge?

A. That he, being innocent, and yet condemned by a temporal judge, might thereby free us from the severe judgment of God to which we were exposed.

Q. 39. Is there anything more in his being crucified, than if he had died some other death?

A. Yes there is; for thereby I am assured that he took on him the curse which lay upon me; for the death of the cross was accursed of God.

Chapter 1: Atoning Suffering

As to the text of this fifteenth Lord’s Day, we may note the following: 1. The original of “propitiatory sacrifice” can be more correctly rendered by “atoning sacrifice,” or “sacrifice of reconciliation.” The German text has Suhnopfer. 2. “Mankind” can be more fully translated by “the whole human race.” The original has: ganzen mensehliehen Gcbschlechts. 3. The original translated by “favor” is: Gnade, and there is no reason why this should not be rendered by “grace.” All these remarks concern the answer to the thirty-seventh question. The text of the other questions and answers is quite correct.

Modernism, emphasizing the goodness of the Man of Galilee, and glorying in Jesus as an example for us to follow, cannot but be disappointed and very much dissatisfied with the account of Jesus’ life and ministry as presented by the Apostolic Confession: born, suffered, crucified, dead, and buried! From the viewpoint an attempt to write a biography of Jesus, or even to furnish the necessary material for a description of Jesus’ character, the Apostolicum, it must be admitted, made a rather poor selection of facts. Or what human being ever lived of whom this same review might not be written: born, suffered, died, buried? There would seem to be nothing special or distinctive in all this.

And yet, it is exactly in these words that one must find the revelation of Jesus Christ as far as His earthly life and ministry are concerned. It is true, many other works may be attributed to Him, and could be mentioned here, so many, in fact, that if all were written the whole world could not contain the books. He taught and revealed the Father; He performed many wonderful works; and He stands out in the midst of all men as the One Whom no one could ever convict of sin. But all this would have no significance for us, if He had not suffered and died. And if the revelation of Jesus Christ is to be expressed in a brief confession, the words of the Apostolicum must surely have the preference to any “Leben Jesu” or character description of the Man of Galilee.

Of course, these words of the Confession dare not be divorced from the preceding declarations concerning Jesus Christ, nor from what is stated subsequently, for it is only in their connection that their special significance is discerned. Taken by themselves, they describe only what is common to all men. All men are born, suffer, and die. And although all men are not crucified, there is nothing unique even in this. Thousands of men were crucified about the time of Jesus’ life, and untold thousands more have suffered even greater agonies, were tortured, sawn asunder, torn apart limb by limb on the cruel rack, burnt alive, or left to rot slowly in dark dungeons. And that was the end of them, as far as human history is concerned. But the special significance of the words “suffered, was crucified, dead and buried,” must be found in the subject of this suffering. It was He that was born, that suffered, was crucified, and buried. And He is Jesus Christ, our Lord, the only begotten Son of God, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary. God Himself came in the flesh, and was born. God Himself suffered in the flesh! God Himself was crucified in the flesh, died in the flesh, and was buried in the flesh! Therein, and therein alone, lies the altogether unique and tremendous power and significance of the words of the Confession.

Only because it is the Subject of the only begotten Son of God in the flesh that suffered, can the explanation of this suffering offered by the Catechism in its answer to the thirty-seventh question be maintained. For only the Son of God could truly bear the wrath of God in His suffering, and taste the awful reality of that wrath in all His passion; only the Son of God in the flesh could sustain that wrath of God to the end, without being crushed under it, and becoming utterly lost in everlasting desolation; only the Son of God in the flesh could make of that suffering an act, and that, too, an act, of perfect obedience, so that His passion and death became the perfect Yes over against the No of sin, the only atoning sacrifice. And so, only by the suffering of the Son of God in the flesh could our redemption from everlasting damnation be accomplished, and could there be obtained for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.

Moreover, only when we first confess that it is Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, our Lord, that was born, suffered, was crucified and died, is it possible to continue this confession concerning the revelation of Jesus Christ. With mere man this is impossible. You can, indeed, write the real biography of every man, no matter how illustrious a name he may have made for himself among men, in these words: born, suffered, died. For such is the reality of human existence that in these words the most important facts concerning it are related. All is vanity. Death is in all man’s life and activity. And there is no way out. You cannot continue the description. Man’s existence ends in (death, and that, too, in everlasting death. But the revelation of Jesus Christ is not finished with death and burial. Exactly because it is the only begotten Son of God that suffered and died, the confession of the Church continues: “on the third day he was raised again from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God, the Father, Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead!”

That, and not the modern good Man of Galilee, is emphatically the revelation of Jesus Christ.

No wonder that Modernism, which begins by denying the true and essential divinity of Christ, is loath to speak of Christ’s atoning suffering and -death, and rather extols Him as the great teacher, and the perfect example, from whom we can all learn to be good, and whom we may all follow to establish the brotherhood of man, and to realize the kingdom of God on earth. When a man babbles much about the goodness of Christ, and about the lovely Jesus, and avoids to emphasize His suffering and death, you must inquire of him at once whether he believes the confession of the Church that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God, co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Ghost.

If the cross is not the cross of the Son of God, is is foolishness!

Turning now to the explanation of the Catechism in its answer to the thirty-seventh question, we cannot but notice that it elaborates upon the words of the Confession, and ascribes to them a wider meaning than they can literally have. The Apostolicum, evidently, refers only to the suffering of Christ at the end of His earthly sojourn and ministry, when it declares: “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” The phrase “under Pontius Pilate” must probably be understood as a temporal modifier, an indication as to the time when Jesus suffered. At all events, the entire expression is one, and is, according to the intent of the Apostolic Confession, not to be split up. It refers, therefore, definitely to the final suffering of our Lord. The Heidelberger, however, divides the phrase of the Confession, and in its answer to the thirty-seventh question treats the words “He suffered” separately, thus making it possible to speak of the passion of the Savior as extending over “all the time he lived on earth.”

Further, it is to be noted that the Catechism mentions the following elements in explanation of the suffering of our Lord: 1. The real essence of this suffering consists in the fact that He bore the wrath of God. 2. This wrath of God He not merely suffered, but He sustained it; in German: Er hat den Zorn Gottes wider die Siinde des ganzen mensehliehen Geschlechts getragen. 3. That He bore and sustained this wrath of God) during His whole life, but especially at the end. 4. That He sustained the wrath of God against the sin of all mankind, of the whole human race. 5. That thus His suffering constitutes the atoning sacrifice whereby we are redeemed from damnation, and obtain the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life. These various truths now demand our attention.

First of all, then, the suffering of Christ was essentially a sustaining of the wrath of God against sin, the sin of the whole human race, and thereby it becomes the sacrifice of reconciliation.

For a proper understanding of this mystery of salvation, it may be well, first of all, to recall the distinction that is frequently, and very properly, made in theology between state and condition. For this distinction is important with a view to the question as to how Christ could bear and sustain the wrath of God. In popular speech the two words are often used promiscuously, but in theology they should be carefully distinguished. By state is meant one’s legal position as determined by the sentence of the judge or magistrate, while condition denotes mode of being, the sum total of the accidental properties of any being at a given time. When someone enters this country as an immigrant, his state is that of a foreigner, under the American law he has no rights of citizenship. When, a few years later, he receives his naturalization papers, his state is changed. His condition, however, remains practically unchanged: he still has foreign blood in his veins, and his outward appearance reveals that he is foreign born. Such modes of existence, however, as sickness and health, soberness and drunkenness, integrity and depravity, are conditions.

Now man is a sinner both as to his state and as to his condition. As to his states, i.e. his legal position according to the judgment of God, he is guilty; as to his condition, he is totally depraved. In his state of guilt he is worthy of death, object of the just wrath of God; as to his condition, he is incapable of doing any good, and inclined to all evil.

Applied to Christ, this means that He entered into the state of sinners, but not into their ethical, corrupt condition. In God’s eternal decree, He was ordained to be the head of His sinful people, so that He represented them before the law of God, and before the bar of the Judge of heaven and earth, He assumed their guilt. And in the fullness of time He willingly entered into that state of guilt decreed for Him in God’s eternal good pleasure. For “when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law.” Gal. 4:4. He, who is in Himself the eternal Lord, became a servant, entered into the state of a servant, so that He was obliged to fulfill the law. He, who was above the law, placed Himself under the law. Moreover, seeing that He placed Himself under the law, and that, too, according to God’s decree, as the representative Head of His sinful and guilty people, He entered the state of guilt, and in that state He was obliged to bear the wrath of God to the end, to fulfill all the demands of the justice of God against the sin of His own.

It must be remembered that in and through all this His personal state remained that of perfect righteousness before God. He was born without guilt, for He was the Person of the Son of God; and while under the law, and even while under the wrath of God, He remained perfectly righteous: He was the obedient servant of Jehovah. And, as to His ethical condition, He was and remained holy and blameless. While He entered into the state of sinners, He remained separate from sinners as to His condition, except in so far as He must bear the wrath of God, and, therefore, be subjected to suffering and death. The Son of God, who is Lord and above the law, came under the law, and entered into the state of a servant. The holy Child Jesus, who was personally righteous both as to His state and condition, entered into the state of sinners, and, therefore, into their condition as far as their suffering and death are concerned. This is the meaning of that rich and profound passage in Philippians 2:6; “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:  And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”

If we bear this in mind, we will be able to understand a little of the profound mystery of redemption and reconciliation.

Christ, so the Catechism teaches us, bore the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race.

What does that mean?

Let us put the question this way: does it mean that God was ever angry with Christ personally? But how could this possibly be? In His person, our Lord is the only begotten Son of God, who is in the bosom of the Father eternally. Certainly, it would; be blasphemy to assert that the Father is ever angry with the Son. But was He, perhaps, angry with the Man Jesus? Was His anger directed against Christ as the Servant of Jehovah personally? Again, we say that this is equally impossible, and, besides, it is contrary to all we ever read of the Savior as Man in relation to God. If He suffered the wrath of God all His life, this certainly cannot mean that God was angry with His holy child Jesus during His entire lifetime, and that our Savior was conscious of this anger of God against Him. All His life is one testimony of the fact that He lived in perfect fellowship with the Father, and was conscious of His approval and favor. What was announced from heaven at His baptism, and again at His transfiguration on the mount, covers His relationship to the Father during His whole life: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!” Was He not the obedient Servant? And, was not God always well pleased with Him, even as Man? Yea, was there ever a moment in which He was so perfectly obedient, so deeply in harmony with the will of God, as that very moment in which He cried out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

What does it mean, then, that our Savior bore the wrath of God?

It implies, first of all, that He suffered the expression, the concrete effect of the wrath of God against sin against the sin of others, of the human race. God’s wrath is the reaction of His holiness against the workers of iniquity. God is the Holy One. For He is the only Good. He is the implication of all infinite perfections. Hence, He is consecrated to Himself. He seeks Himself, knows Himself, loves Himself, glorifies Himself. He seeks His glory also in the creature. For man this means that it is his everlasting obligation to be consecrated to God only. He must love God, seek Him, and glorify Him, with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength. If he does this, God embraces him in His blessed lovingkindness and favor, and he is unspeakably happy. But if he fails to do just that, if he turns against the Holy One, rejects Him, rebels against Him, ignores Him, tramples His glory under foot, He reacts against that rebellious sinner in His anger, pursues Him constantly with fear and terror, makes him inexpressibly miserable, casts him down into everlasting darknesses of desolation. This is His attitude toward the sin of all mankind. And the expression of this wrath, i.e. the pain and agony, the suffering and misery, the sorrow and anguish of soul, the desolation and darkness, the fear and terror, the death and hell, that becomes the experience of him against whom God directs His wrath, Christ experienced!

That is the explanation, but at the same time the paradox of the cross!

At the moment of His deepest and most perfect obedience, He endures the agonies of the damned!

At the moment when God is most highly pleased with Him, He experiences all the terror of being forsaken of God!

But this is exactly why hell is still a question, an outcry to God for an answer! And that is the reason, too, why, even from the darkness of hell, and in the condition of utter desolation, the obedient Servant can still cry out: “My God, My God!”

He, that knew no sin, is made sin!

And that is also the reason, why his question, pressed from His utterly forsaken and agonized soul, has an answer. In the hell of mere sinners there is no question. It is the answer, the final answer, the answer of everlasting wrath. But the suffering Servant of Jehovah, because He is obedient and yet forsaken, has a question: Why me? And it receives an answer presently, an answer to which the Servant responds even at the cross: It is finished!

Christ, then, bore the wrath of God in that He bore all the agonies of soul and body which are the expression of that wrath.