The Atoning Sufferings of Christ: Second Letter

 •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 6
My dear Brother:
Your letter shows that I had judged correctly as to the difference between us in regard to the sufferings of Christ. And the latter part shows that in your own soul you feel and realize that there was something more in the sufferings of Christ than merely what He suffered at the hands of men and of Satan; that there was suffering of a deeper and more awful character. I might ask, then, Whence was this last character of suffering? It was not from man; it was not from Satan. Was it not, then, from God? And was it not in divine judgment and judicial wrath because of sin? This is just the point. You realize that the death of Christ was not the death of a mere martyr. A martyr suffers from man and Satan; but instead of suffering from God, he is sustained of God, and kept joyful in soul, even amid the most excruciating physical sufferings. Many who have suffered for Christ’s sake have witnessed to this truth, as I am sure you know as well as I.
These martyrs were smitten. Did God smite them? They were forsaken. Did God forsake them? Did they ever utter the cry that Jesus uttered in that hour of sorrow which no martyr ever could fathom? God “permitted” them to suffer every torture that human ingenuity could devise, but instead of forsaking them, He stood by them, and they bore their sufferings with a fortitude that God alone could give. They were forsaken in the sense that God left them in the hands of their enemies, to do with them as they pleased; that is, He allowed their enemies to carry out all their wicked designs against them, and to inflict upon them all the sufferings their wicked hearts could conceive. And yet, while God “permitted” all this, He never left them to themselves, but sustained and comforted them, and strengthened them with might by His Spirit in the inner man, so that they suffered joyfully.
Is there no difference between this and the forsaking of Christ on the cross? He was left in the hands of His enemies, and not delivered; but was this all? Did God stand by Him to comfort and support Him in the hour of His deep sorrow? And when Christ cried out, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46) was it only an appeal to be delivered from His enemies?
I think you will see it was more than this. Not only did God permit His enemies to do as they would, but He Himself abandoned that blessed One on the cross, and the darkness was but the expression of that abandonment. He looked for comforters, but found none. He cried to God, and was not heard. The floods came into His soul, and He sank in deep mire, where there was no standing. He came into deep waters, and the floods overwhelmed Him. All was darkness amid the overwhelming floods. There was not one ray from God’s face to lighten the gloom. He was truly abandoned of God.
How immensely different from, and how infinitely beyond, the sufferings of the martyred saints! But why was this? In the deep anguish of His holy soul He appealed to God with the question, “Why?” God helped the martyrs in the agonies of death, but He was far from helping Jesus in His sorrow on the cross. “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? Why art Thou so far from helping Me, and from the words of My roaring?” Here there was something between Him and God, so that God had forsaken Him. What was it? Was it not sin? Had not our iniquities been laid upon Him? Why did God forsake Him? Why did He not help Him? Why did He not hear Him? Does not your heart and mine join with the Word of God, and say, It was because He was bearing our sins? Do you question that the sins of His people were laid on Him, and that God dealt with those sins judicially on the cross? God’s Word is plain: “He hath made Him to be sin for us” (1 Cor. 5:21). “The LORD hath laid upon Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). “Who His own self bare our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24). He “was delivered for our offenses.” (Rom. 4:25). The sins, then, of His own people were laid upon Him, and He bore them. What was this for? Was it not that they might be dealt with in righteous judgment, and put away through His sacrifice?
But who could do this? Who could measure the just desert of sin? God alone. None else could lay it on Jesus. None else could deal with it. None else could judge it and put it away. And this is what He has done through the sacrifice of Christ. In virtue of that sacrifice, God is just, and the Justifier. Because He has dealt with my sins righteously in the Person of Christ, He righteously justifies me from my sins when I believe in Jesus. It was God that judged sin, and it is God that justifies the believing sinner. But God’s judgment of His people’s sins on the Person of Christ as a sacrifice, involved judicial wrath from God, when our sins were on Him.
I know that God “permitted” Christ to suffer from His enemies; and I know that they were the instruments of His death; that “by wicked hands” He was “crucified and slain,” having been “delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23); but apart from all these instruments God was dealing with sin, bruising, smiting, forsaking, and Jesus took all from His hand. In obedience to His Father’s will, He drank the dreadful cup, and in the unfathomable sorrows of that hour, all that was merely from man’s hand was lost, as it were, in the floods of judicial wrath which came from God, just as the rivulet on the sea shore is lost in the great tide that rolls in from the sea.
You think that when it speaks of God smiting, bruising, etc., it does not mean “the doing” of it, but the “permitting it.” As to the actual infliction of physical suffering, heaping reproaches on Him, etc., this might be so; but the thing to see is, that beside all this, there was God’s judicial wrath against sin — God dealing with sin in judgment according to the requirements of His own holiness and majesty. And all this Christ took, not from the hand of man, but of God. This is the foundation of eternal redemption. Leave it out, and atonement is gone, and salvation is gone too. All the requirements of God’s majesty and holiness were righteously met by that blessed sacrifice. On this our salvation is founded, and on this alone. In virtue of this sacrifice God is satisfied, and so are we. On this ground God and the believing sinner meet. God has provided the sacrifice, and dealt with the sin, and thus reveals Himself, and reconciles us to Himself through the death of Jesus. And here our souls have rest, as it is said in the hymn: —
“The storm that bow’d Thy blessed head,
Is hushed forever now,
And rest divine is ours instead,
Whilst glory crowns Thy brow.”
You ask if He cried to God for help against God, or against His enemies, and you think it was the latter. No doubt, when the bulls of Bashan roared upon Him as a ravening and a roaring lion, and the dogs were piercing His hands and feet, He appealed unto God, committing His soul to Him who judges righteously, though this was not all. When you ask if He cried to God for help against God, this is not putting the matter fairly, for no one so speaks. When forsaken of God, the burden of His cry was, “WHY?” He did not ask for help against God, but His holy soul asked, “Why halh Thou forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). Need I say more as to this? Surely it is plain that it was not merely a question of His enemies, but of why God had abandoned Him, was far from helping Him, and did not hear the words of His roaring. He was not heard until transfixed on the horns of the unicorns, when, atonement having been accomplished, and God glorified about sin, He was answered in resurrection, and gathering the scattered flock, He declared His Father’s name in the midst of His brethren. The battle was fought, the victory was won, and the divine Conqueror gathered His ransomed ones, and made His victory theirs, and set them in His own position and relationship before the. Father. Blessed and Almighty Redeemer! May our souls adore Him as the One who is worthy!
I beg you again to read Matthew 26:31, “For it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad.” You say, Jesus did not say it was God who smites, but “I will smite.” Does this mean that Jesus was to smite the shepherd? or what? The reference is to Zechariah 13:7, where it is said, “Awake, 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.” Here it is plainly Jehovah who speaks. He commands His sword to awake. I would ask, Who wields Jehovah’s sword? Was He not there Himself with His sword to smite the shepherd? Again, I would ask, Whom does Jesus mean by “the shepherd”? Does He not mean Himself? Was not He the Shepherd of Jehovah’s sheep? And whom does He mean, when He says, “ will smite”? Does He not mean Jehovah, who commanded His sword to awake? Surely all this is plain. Learned professors may try to change the plain reading of Isaiah 53. I confess I cannot tell why; but I apprehend the words, “It pleased the LORD to bruise Him,” will stand when all the wisdom of the wise shall have perished in the grave. The plain teaching of Scripture is that Jesus, when on the cross, and under the weight of our sins, was bruised by Jehovah, and smitten by the sword of Jehovah.
You say you do not find in Scripture the expression, “He made propitiation,” but always, “He is the propitiation” (1 John 2:2). It is not found in the common translation, but it is in the Greek. The word “propitiation” occurs twice: in 1 John 2:2;4:10, “He is the propitiation for our sins”; “Sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” In Romans 3:25, it should be a “propitiatory” or “mercy seat.” In Hebrews 2:17, however, we have the verb “to make propitiation,” wrongly translated, “to make reconciliation.” It should read “to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Compare Greek, and also the Revised Translation.)
In Hebrews 2:17, it is what the Lord Jesus, our “merciful and faithful high priest” accomplished on the cross, in presenting Himself a propitiatory offering to God. He made propitiation for the sins of the people. In 1 John the value of this work is connected with the Person of the Son of God who was sent to accomplish it, and who now, in the presence of God, as risen and glorified, is the abiding Witness of that propitiatory work by which He glorified God. The glorified Son of God is the One who was offered as a propitiatory sacrifice. “He is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2).
You represent me as saying, “the death of Christ was the death under God’s judgment.” I do not think you quite understood the force of my statement. What I said was this, “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.” I was not speaking of the death of Jesus for all men, but for His own people. No doubt His death for all was under judgment, though you could not say He bore the judgment of all. He was made sin, and glorified God about sin as a whole by the sacrifice He offered. He died for all, for the whole world — is the propitiation for the whole world; but it is never said He bore the sins of the whole world. Where the bearing of sins is in question, it is always limited in its application. He “bare our sins”; that is, of believers. He “was once offered to bear the sins of many.” Hebrews 9:28. It does not say all. You say He died for the “ungodly,” for “sinners,” for “enemies,” and ask if He died that death for them too. Well, we were all “ungodly,” “sinners,” and “enemies.” In this respect there was no difference; and He died for all, and gave Himself a ransom for all; but it never says He bore the sins of all. Had He done so, all would have been saved; but we know this is not the case. He bore the sins of His own people, of all who through grace would repent and believe the gospel; and because He bore their sins under God’s judgment, they do not come into judgment (John 5:24). They get the remission of their sins when they believe, and God remembers sins against them no more. “Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin” (Rom. 4:8). He is the propitiation for the world (1 John 2:2), but that is a different thought. By His propitiatory offering He has glorified God about sin, and on the ground of this, salvation is offered to all. The gospel goes out to all the world, and God beseeches all to be reconciled on the ground of the death of Christ. And thus, all are without excuse; yet only those who believe are entitled to say that Christ has borne their sins. Thank God, they can say it, and rejoice in the sovereign grace that has met their need. “Who 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. For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” (1 Peter 2:24-25).
I think I have noticed all the points. May God in His grace clear away all the difficulties. I am sure of this, that when you see the true character of the atoning work of Christ, and fully bow to it in your soul, it will give you a sense of sin, and God’s awful hatred of it, such as you never could have otherwise, and also of the magnitude of God’s grace in meeting our guilty need at such a cost to Himself; and, I may add, of His unsullied holiness and majesty displayed in dealing with sin according to His own character and glory.
Your affectionate brother in the Lord,