The Atoning Sufferings of Christ: First Letter

 •  18 min. read  •  grade level: 6
The main point which seems to be between us is, as you say, the sufferings of Christ; and this is really the most important of all subjects, because it is the foundation of all our blessings.
Now I will drop the word “substitute,” and the expression “in our stead,” for the present, because we shall never help each other by discussing these words. I believe they express certain phases of truth correctly enough; but the main thing is to understand the doctrine as taught in the Word of God. What was the character of the sufferings of Christ by which He made atonement, or made propitiation, for our sins? The word “atonement” is used in the Old Testament, and “propitiation” in the New Testament. But I am not concerned about words if we get God’s thoughts about the death of Jesus. We want His thoughts, His mind, His truth; and we must get these from the words He uses. And when we have got these, it will be easier to find words to express ourselves when speaking of these things. But the first thing is to understand God — to understand His Word to us. And then, if I can use words or illustrations to help another to understand God’s Word, surely it is all right; for you may have a person using the very words of Scripture when he has altogether a wrong thought in his mind.
Now, if I have understood your letter well, I think the great question is — Did Christ, when suffering on the cross in atonement for sin, suffer directly at the hand of God? Did He drink a cup of judicial wrath which God, and not man, poured out for Him? Or were all the sufferings which He endured inflicted on Him by man? or by man and Satan?
I suppose we are agreed on this point, that He did suffer from both man and Satan; that Satan, the prince of this world, came and pressed Him, but found nothing in Him; that, as its prince, he led the world against Christ, uniting Jews and Gentiles against Him, both rulers and people; and that thus Christ suffered from man under Satan’s power.
There were His physical sufferings from the nails piercing His hands and feet, and His hanging on the cross. There was bodily weakness too, so that He could say, “I am poured out like water, and all My bones are out of joint: My heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of My bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and My tongue cleaveth to My jaws; and Thou hast brought Me into the dust of death” (Psa. 22:14-1514I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. 15My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death. (Psalm 22:14‑15)).
Then there were sufferings of another class, such as reproach, and mockery, and opposition of men: “I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. All they that see Me laugh Me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, He trusted on the LORD that He would deliver Him: let Him deliver Him, seeing He delighted in Him” (Psa. 22:6-86But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. 7All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying, 8He trusted on the Lord that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him. (Psalm 22:6‑8)). “Bulls of Bashan” (the leaders of the people) encompassed Him, and roared upon Him, as lions on their prey; He became a stranger to His brethren, an alien to His mother’s children; when eaten up with the zeal of Jehovah’s house, the reproaches of those who reproached Jehovah fell upon Him; when He wept and chastened His soul with fasting, this was to His reproach; when He made sackcloth His garment, He became a proverb to them; those who sat in the gate (the rulers) spoke against Him, and He was the song of the drunkards (Psa. 22 and 69).
These scriptures express something of the sufferings He endured at the hand of man. Now the question is, Were these His atoning sufferings? Was it by these sufferings that He made propitiation for our sins? Or was there another class of sufferings outside of all these, which was the result of sin bearing?
Take the class of sufferings just referred to. Are they not sufferings such as any martyr might be called upon to pass through? Have not thousands of God’s servants endured just such sufferings-and endured them joyfully, too? What was it then that wrung that cry of anguish from the Savior’s lips, when on the cross: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matt. 24:4646Blessed is that servant, whom his lord when he cometh shall find so doing. (Matthew 24:46); Mark 15:3434And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)). Was it not something more than what He had endured from man? Did any Christian martyr ever utter such a cry? Did Stephen, when they were battering his body with stones? On the contrary, these men felt the presence of God with them, and sustaining them in the hour of their trial. Did Jesus realize this support at the cross? Assuredly not.
Ever before, He had realized God’s presence with Him, sustaining Him in His path of suffering as the Man of sorrows, while fulfilling His will. Tempted by the devil in the wilderness, and an hungered, an angel was sent to minister to Him; at the Jordan, when taking His place with the repentant remnant of Israel, the heavens opened over Him, and a voice from the glory saluted Him, “Thou art My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:1111And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. (Mark 1:11)); so also on the mount of transfiguration, when. Peter would have put Him on a level with Moses and Elias, that same voice again proclaimed His true glory; and in Gethsemane, when He was exceeding sorrowful even unto death, and was sweating as it were great drops of blood, an angel was sent to strengthen Him. Thus it was all along the path. But how was it during those hours of darkness on the cross? Was there any ministering or strengthening angel? Was there any voice from the excellent glory expressing untold delight in His blessed Person? Was there any ray of light from that glory to relieve the awful gloom? No, God had abandoned the Man Christ Jesus. This is an hour that stands alone. There is none like it in the annals of eternity.
But why? God’s Word answers: “He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:2121For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Corinthians 5:21)). He “bare our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:2424Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. (1 Peter 2:24)). He “was delivered for our offenses” (Rom. 4:22For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. (Romans 4:2)). “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:55But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)). “The LORD hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:66All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)). This, then, is the reason. Christ was made sin for us — a sin offering. “Our sins,” “our iniquities,” were laid on Him, and He bore them on the tree. When we were under condemnation, He was “made a curse for us,” to redeem us from the condemnation.
Now, who “made Him to be sin”? Who made Him to be “a curse for us”? Who laid our iniquities on Him? Who smote Him? Who bruised Him? Was it man, or was it God? Of course Scripture must answer. Let us then see if Scripture furnishes an answer to these questions.
It will be seen that it is all connected with the question of sin. I might ask then, in the first place, Who could deal with the question of sin? Of course, God alone could do this. Man neither could nor would. Blessed be God, He Himself has dealt with it in the Person of Christ when He made Him to be a sin offering on the cross.
It was Jehovah that laid our sins on Jesus. He bruised Him, He smote Him.
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Load [Jehovah] hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:66All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)).
“Awake, O sword, against My shepherd, and against the man that is My fellow, saith the LORD [Jehovah] of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered” (Zech. 13:77Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the Lord of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones. (Zechariah 13:7)).
You will see from this that Jesus interpreted the smiting of Zechariah 13:77Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, and against the man that is my fellow, saith the Lord of hosts: smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered: and I will turn mine hand upon the little ones. (Zechariah 13:7) as Jehovah’s own smiting: “I will smite the shepherd.” It is not man, nor Satan, but Jehovah Himself who smites. So in Isa. 53:1010Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:10), it is Jehovah who bruises the Messiah. I know you say some professor translates it, “It pleased Jehovah to let Him be bruised.” Dear brother, have you looked at the Hebrew of this yourself? You will find that the Hebrew, Septuagint, and Vulgate all give the verb in the active infinitive, “to bruise Him,” not “to let Him be bruised.” On what pretext could this professor change it thus? What, unless to get rid of something that stood in his way? And what are we to think of such a course? Suppose I should say to you that “to bruise Him” means “to let Him be bruised,” and then ask you to show that it does not! What would you say to me? Would you not say to me, “Show that it does”? Or, perhaps you would say I had lost my senses, and very rightly, too! No, my brother; the passage is plain — as plain in Hebrew as in English — “It pleased the LORD [or, Jehovah was pleased] to bruise Him” (Isa. 53:1010Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. (Isaiah 53:10))
The wounding, the bruising, the chastisement, the stripes, the smiting, the forsaking, and, I may add, the indignation and wrath (Psa. 102:1010Because of thine indignation and thy wrath: for thou hast lifted me up, and cast me down. (Psalm 102:10)), were all from Jehovah — from God who was dealing with sin as having been laid on Christ at the cross.
You say, “Think of a father who pleased to bruise his own only son.” But, dear brother, we must not set Scripture aside by our feelings and reasonings. It is in this way that an infidel or universalist reasons against the doctrine of eternal punishment.
But I do not think that this expression of yours illustrates truly God’s bruising of Christ. It does not say, “The Father was pleased to bruise His Son.” And Jesus did not say, “My Father, My Father, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” He said, “My God.” And is it not remarkable that this is the only time mentioned in the gospels where He addresses Him as “God”? Always before it was “Father.” This is not without instruction. When you say, “Father,” there is the thought and feeling of relationship. When Jesus uttered the cry on the cross, it was not this. At the cross He took the place of a victim — a sacrifice for sin — to meet the claims of God. And in John 3:1414And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: (John 3:14) Jesus says, “Even so must the Son of man be lifted up”; while when it is a question of God’s love to the world it is said, “He gave His only begotten Son” (v. 16). In the three hours of darkness on the cross, Jesus was forsaken of God, and that on account of sins, not His own sins, but ours, which had been laid on Him in order that at once God’s majesty and holiness in dealing with sin, and His great love to the world, might be displayed in consistency with His own character.
I trust I need hardly say that I believe God was infinitely delighted with His own Son when, as a man, He hung upon the cross, because it was there more than anywhere else that the sweet savor of His perfect obedience was displayed. But the cross was the awful expression of God’s judgment against sin, and that was the reason of the untimely “darkness,” and His forsaking of Christ. Sin was so horrible in God’s sight that, even when it was laid sacrificially on Christ, He had to withdraw the light of His face, and command the sword to awake. As in the flood in Noah’s day, “All the fountains of the great deep” (Gen. 7:11And the Lord said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation. (Genesis 7:1)) were broken open, “and the windows [floodgates] of heaven were opened”; so one may say, at the cross there were waves from beneath and waves from above, meeting and rolling in upon the holy soul of our blessed Savior. The floods of the ungodly were there, and all God’s waves and billows, in judgment against sin, were there also.
But it was just here that the perfection of Jesus was displayed, and the moral value of His sacrifice. In His sacrifice — in His holy obedience unto death — the sweet savor of what He was in His own personal perfection ascended as a cloud of incense to God. This we see in type in Leviticus 16:12-1312And he shall take a censer full of burning coals of fire from off the altar before the Lord, and his hands full of sweet incense beaten small, and bring it within the vail: 13And he shall put the incense upon the fire before the Lord, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is upon the testimony, that he die not: (Leviticus 16:12‑13). Here, there was first the killing of the bullock; then the burning of the incense; and then the sprinkling of the blood. Now, the burning incense and the sprinkled blood both express what was presented to God in the death of Jesus; the incense expressing the personal glory and moral perfections displayed in His death, and the blood, the value of His death for the putting away of sin. Both of these in the type are connected with death. As I have said, the first thing was the killing of the bullock. There must be death. Without it there could be no atonement. But the burning incense, and the blood sprinkled on the mercy seat, tell what was presented to God in that death. There must be that which answered to His glory, and which could meet the claims of His glorious majesty. In the type, the incense was burnt on the censer of the high priest with fire from the altar before the Lord. Out of this burning a cloud arose and covered the mercy seat. It was a cloud of glory rising up and meeting the cloud of glory between the cherubim — glory answering to glory. And then the blood was sprinkled on and before the mercy seat by the high priest under the cover of this cloud of glory which rose out of the fire.
Does not this burning incense, then, typify the sweet savor and personal glory of Jesus ascending up to God in connection with His death on the cross? The holy fire — the fire of God’s judgment — that which tried Him to the uttermost — fell upon Him there. The effect of the testing of that fire was the bringing out of the intrinsic glory and moral worth of the Person of Jesus — the bursting forth, as it were, of an incense cloud of glory, answering to the glory and majesty of Him who was there dealing with sin according to the necessity of His own nature and holiness.
Now compare Psalm 22. There we see Christ suffering on the cross. And, as we have seen, our iniquities were laid upon Him then, and He suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God. There were smiting, wounding, bruising, chastisement, stripes, and waves and billows of wrath, because of sins — sins not His own, but ours — laid upon Him by Jehovah Himself. Who can tell what the feelings of that blessed One were at that moment, as stroke after stroke fell upon Him, and wave after wave of judgment rolled over His soul? It wrung from His lips the cry that opens the psalm: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:3434And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? which is, being interpreted, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)). But is there nothing beside this cry of sorrow? Look at the third verse. He, the pure, the holy, the undefiled, the spotless One, is abandoned of God; waves and billows encompass Him; stroke after stroke falls upon Him; wounded, and bruised, and smitten, He cries and is not heard until, as transfixed on the horns of the unicorn (see vs. 21), He is heard and answered in resurrection. What was the utterance of His holy soul amid all this sorrow? Did He condemn God because of the smiting and bruising and forsaking? No. “But Thou art holy, O Thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel” (Psa. 22:99But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother's breasts. (Psalm 22:9)), were His words, “BUT THOU ART HOLY”! Such was His utterance under those terrible, atoning sufferings when forsaken of God, and the iron entered His soul. This was the incense cloud of glory ascending up to God out of His death, from the testing by fire under God’s judgment. The testing of that fire brought out just what He was in Himself in all the moral perfection of His being; and God was glorified in Him.
How different with sinful man when given up to suffer the judgment of God for his own sins, as we see in Revelation 16:8-118And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire. 9And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory. 10And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain, 11And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds. (Revelation 16:8‑11). They blaspheme God, and repent not of their deeds. God’s judgment brings out what is in their hearts too; but how infinitely different from what was in the heart of Christ! These blaspheme when smitten for their own sins; Christ, when smitten for the sins of others, acknowledged the holiness of the hand that smote.
Could, then, God smite this blessed One forever? Could He keep on smiting when every stroke only brought out the absolute perfection of the smitten One? — when the burning caused a cloud of glory to ascend in His own presence, answering to His own glory, and when His infinitely precious blood had met the holy claims of His insulted Majesty? Impossible! “Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in Him. If God be glorified in Him, God shall also glorify Him in Himself, and shall straightway glorify Him” (John 13:31-3231Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32If God be glorified in him, God shall also glorify him in himself, and shall straightway glorify him. (John 13:31‑32)).
If you ask what death Jesus died “in our stead,” I only answer, Death under the judgment of God. This was the death He suffered for me and, as a consequence, I shall never suffer that death. For me to suffer that would be death eternal, because I never could expiate my guilt; and, as we have seen from Revelation 16, judgment never changes the heart of man. He goes on blaspheming God still. But Christ drank the cup on the cross; and when those hours of darkness were ended, the work was done, the cup was empty, the judgment exhausted, God glorified. In those hours of sorrow on the cross, Jesus accomplished what you and I and all the millions of the human race could never have done through all eternity. He drank the cup for me; and if you will now pardon the expression, I will say, He drank it “instead” of me — drank it that I might not drink it; and I never shall drink it, just because He has done so in my stead.
The idea that this leads to the thought of His “praying in our stead” is simply nonsense. What truth will not men pervert? But shall we give up truth because people pervert it, or turn it into nonsense? Christ was a substitute only on the cross, and in one phase of His sufferings. We must not confound this with something else. He was an “example” to us who believe, as well as a substitute for us (see 1 Peter 2:2020For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. (1 Peter 2:20)). In all that He suffered from man, and in all His holy obedience and prayerful dependence on God, He was an “example” to us. But He was not an example in what He suffered in atonement for our sins. That character of sufferings we shall never enter into. That was judgment from God, and He bore it that we might not — bore it in our stead, or as our substitute, not as our example.
But, as I said in the beginning, it is not mere words, but truth that I am contending for. What I am contending for, is not what I have learned from the word “substitute,” but what I have learned from the Word of God about the sufferings of my blessed Redeemer. And you will see from this letter that what I hold is that, while He suffered from man and Satan, He also suffered in atonement directly from God; that He suffered stripes and bruising and smiting and judicial wrath; that He drank the cup that God — not man — filled up for Him; drank it that I might not drink it; bore the judgment of God against sin, that I might not bear it; took my place substitutionally to bear my sins, and the judgment due to them, that I might be released forever from those sins and that judgment, and so in this sense died as my “substitute.”
Substitution expresses only one phase of Christ’s death for us. There is much else connected with His death which is not expressed by that word. But I speak of this only by way of explanation. What we need to contend for is the blessed truth taught in God’s Word, not mere uninspired words. If the truth as to Christ’s sufferings under judicial wrath and judgment from God is clearly held according to Scripture, I have nothing to press as to mere words not found there. But if Christ’s sufferings are reduced to His being bruised only under man’s hand, I could only reject this with abhorrence as undermining the value of His sufferings, and doing away with their really atoning character; as it would also enfeeble our apprehension of what sin is, and of God’s abhorrence of it as expressed in the cross, and of the greatness of His love in providing for our deliverance from the guilt and dominion of sin.