The Paid Debt: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 15

37.  What do you understand by the word “suffered”?
That all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race;1 in order that by His suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice,2 He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.
[1] 1 Pet. 2:24; Isa. 53:12. [2] 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10; Rom. 3:25–26; *Ps. 22:14–16; *Matt. 26:38; *Rom. 5:6.

38.  Why did He suffer “under Pontius Pilate” as judge?
That He, being innocent, might be condemned by the temporal judge,1 and thereby deliver us from the severe judgment of God, to which we were exposed.2
[1] Acts 4:27–28; Lk. 23:13–15; Jn. 19:4. [2] Ps. 69:4; 2 Cor. 5:21; *Matt. 27:24.

39.  Is there anything more in His having been “crucified” than if He had suffered some other death?
Yes, for thereby I am assured that He took upon Himself the curse which lay upon me,1 because the death of the cross was accursed of God.2
[1] Gal. 3:13–14. [2] Deut. 21:22–23; *Phil. 2:8.

The great Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo, before he converted to Christianity, was a Neoplatonist, a mystical philosophy based on the teachings of Plato.  He always thought there was a lot of truth to Neoplatonism, and it influenced him throughout his life.  What turned him against it, though, and to Christianity instead, was that while Neoplatonism had a lot of good ideas about how people ought to live their lives, it had no mechanism to help people get there.  It was just that, a bunch of good ideas.  Augustine saw that Neoplatonism would never actually enable him to overcome his miserable state.

The central truth of the Christian faith, the sine qua non, is the death and the resurrection of Christ.  Without this, Christianity is just another moralism, just another set of ideas about how people ought to be, and you can pretty much take your pick.  One is as valid as another.  But Christianity is all about Christ and what He did to ensure the salvation of His people.  This is what sets Christianity apart.  It is not first and foremost about what you need to do, or how you need to think, in order to overcome your problems.  It is about what God did to overcome your problems. God became man, the incarnate Messiah, so that God Himself could suffer and die to rescue man from his fallen state.

Jesus’ suffering was the bearing in His body the wrath of God against sin.  Even living in this sin-cursed world at all was an aspect of the suffering, as the Catechism says in question 37.  He was the “Man of sorrows” and experienced the misery of man’s state throughout His life.  That culminated in His intense agony of anticipation in the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal and abandonment of His friends, the slander, the severe beatings, the shame of mockery and humiliation, all ending being nailed to a cross to die in the hot Palestinian sun.  But even that physical suffering that He experienced in His death was topped by the greatest suffering of all, the separation from His Father and the outpouring of God’s wrath on Him which He revealed by crying out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  How the Son of God could experience true separation from His Father must ultimately remain a mystery, and it is a great mercy that we will never know what exactly that would feel like, since He suffered all that He experienced in our place.

Pilate said He was innocent.  The Jewish leaders knew He was, which is why they had to bribe people to make false accusations against Him.  The declaration by the civil authority that Jesus was innocent, and His subsequent punishment by that same authority, draws our attention to this central aspect of Jesus’ death, that He suffered as an innocent man.  A guilty man could not suffer for any sin but his own, but Jesus suffered for us, in our place.

Jesus was a real and true human being, and thus all the punishment due to human beings for sin could be suffered by Him.  Jesus was and is also God Himself, and thus can bear all of the wrath of God against sin and emerge victorious, which He did.  That entirely changes my relationship with God, so that I no longer need fear any punishment for sin.  His disposition toward me is now entirely benevolent, and any suffering I receive from His hand is for my good, like the discipline a loving parent gives to a straying child, not the punishment the civil authority dishes out to a criminal.  I can put away the dread and anxiety about what the future holds, a fear driven by guilt and alienation from God.  The one who can be totally confident in the goodwill of the One who determines the future has nothing to fear from the future.  I can stop listening to the lies of Satan, the “accuser of the brethren,” who says that God could never love one such as me.  I can have total confidence that Jesus’ sufferings have completely paid my debt and put me right with God forever.