Atonement and suffering

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood —to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Romans 3:22-26

Atonement (Leviticus 16:15-16; 1 Peter 3:18) is the reality that Christ has taken our place and received the suffering and punishment for our sins so that we don’t have to. Atonement is necessary for our redemption. Christ isn’t the example or model for us to follow to atone for our own sin, He is the atonement once and for all. Our sinful lives can never atone for our own sin, only Christ can. John Piper puts it this way, “The death of Christ is in our place, not for our inspiration.”

But what about the suffering for Christ that the Bible often mentions? If it isn’t for atonement of sins, why do we suffer? I want to look at a few of the times when suffering is mentioned to see if any of these is for our sins:

  • Take up our cross daily (Mark 8:34-38, Luke 9:23-26): Self-denial and taking up the cross daily is opposed to saving his own life and gaining the world. What Jesus is denouncing and discouraging in these verses is self-protection (saving his own life, Luke 9:22) and self-provision (gaining the whole world).  Notice that denying oneself and taking up his cross comes before following Christ; we need to pay these things before coming to Christ. If “our cross” is interpreted as atoning for our own sin, absolutely no one would be able to come to Christ. Instead, if denying oneself from self-protection and self-provision means denying oneself from atoning from his own sin and denying oneself from providing his own atonement that makes the Gospel truly good news.
  • Suffering for our allegiance to Christ in doing good (1 Peter 2:18-25): It says in that “Christ also suffered for you, leaving an example for you to follow in his steps.” (v21) So Christ suffering is a model for our suffering. However, the reason for this suffering is not our atonement; it is for our allegiance to Christ and our allegiance to our earthly masters (in a slave-master relationship). The explanation is that even though Christ did what was good – he suffered for our sake so that we may “cease from sinning and live for righteousness” (v24). In that way, we should do good and endure suffering for doing good, if we have to (v20). God favours the good done and the suffering endured through it (v19-20).
  • Suffering granted on behalf of Christ (Philippians 1:27-30): The church was under persecution and Paul was imprisoned and speaking about the hesitation, hope and joy of His own possible death or release, belief is put alongside suffering. To believe is to suffer. Does that mean that belief in Christ requires suffering to atone for our sin? Philippians 1:10-11 gives us a clue of Paul’s frame of mind when he writes the introduction to his letter, it says “So that you… may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ”. Paul acknowledges that righteousness comes through Christ, not through our own atonement. What’s more, this suffering is persecution due to external opposition to the truth that righteousness comes from Christ (v28)!
  • Enduring hostility (Hebrews 12:1-13): Here suffering is from allegiance to the Gospel and from external opposition (Hebrews 10:32-34, 11:36-38) and is seen as God’s rod of discipline. And this discipline produces the “fruit of peace and righteousness” (v11). Does that mean that our suffering can produce righteousness? That suffering is then atonement, isn’t it? Not quite. This passage is seen in the light of the entire Hebrews. Particularly Hebrews 10:17 where God says He doesn’t even count our sins anymore and is therefore no more offering or atonement required for sin. Hebrews 12 cannot then be talking about suffering to atone for our sin, then what is it? Verse 7-9 says that suffering for Christ is evidence of our sonship. Our faith in Christ is increased in spite of suffering, because suffering confirms more and more our sonship; suffering thus trains us to trust in Him and His promise – that is the mechanics behind suffering producing “the fruit of peace and righteousness”.
  • Present suffering (Romans 8:15-18): The “present suffering” spoken about here is the bondage of sin and its effects (Romans 8:20-22), not suffering to atone for our sin. That is pretty obvious once the context if taken into account.
  • A chosen vessel to suffer for Christ (Acts 9:14-16): Paul is Christ chosen vessel to carry the gospel to the Gentiles, this includes suffering for being God’s vessel. Does that mean that Paul is atoning for His sins (Acts 9:13)? Absolutely not. 2 Corinthians 12:23 – 13:10 gives us as clue of what this suffering is and what it attains. His conclusion is that his suffering allows him to boast about his weaknesses, thereby exalting the strength of Christ. It doesn’t exalt his ability to atone for his own sin, instead it magnifies Christ!  

To label Christ’s suffering for our atonement as an inspiration for us to follow for our own atonement belittles Christ and the cross. It distorts the gospel and makes it bad news. The gospel is only good news if the only boasting we can ever do is on the Lord. We must acknowledge that we, as unrighteous sinners, can never atone for our own sin and righteousness comes at no other cost than Christ and

God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not —to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 1:28-31

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith —and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.
Ephesians 2:8

Blood

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life.
Leviticus 17:11:

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
1 Peter 1:18-19

God made blood. He created the idea of a liquid in creatures that carries life. It was created with a purpose – for atonement of sin. Since death is the penalty of sin, the loss of blood (which is the life) of a creature is the only way to meet that penalty (Hebrews 9:22). The loss of life of the creature is the loss of it’s blood  (Genesis 9:4-6). In God’s Covenant (Old Testament Law and New Testament Law of Grace), blood is the central and only way by which sin is atoned for.

God remains above the Laws he created; in His very nature, He had no obligation towards us or His Law, which He put in place for created beings. Yet He choose to submit Himself under His own Law and atone for our sin with His own blood – the blood of Christ. The very blood of God was used to atone for my sin. The precious blood of Jesus Christ was given for the redemption of my life. 

His blood is central to everything that has been accomplished for us:

  • Redemption (1 John 1:7; Hebrews 9:12)
  • God’s presence (Hebrews 10:19-20; Hebrews 12:22-24)
  • Reconciliation (Colossians 1:20)
  • Justification (Romans 5:9)
  • Sanctification (Hebrews 13:12)
  • Glorification (Revelation 7:14-15)

There is no other way to respond to this than to accept His grace and be utterly grateful.

What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus;
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.