Suffering Shepherd: H.C. Lord's Day 15

Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 15

Q 37. What do you understand by the word “suffered”?
A 37. That during his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race.

This he did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might deliver us, body and soul, from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God’s grace, righteousness, and eternal life.

 

Q 38. Why did he suffer “under Pontius Pilate” as judge?
A 38. So that he, though innocent, might be condemned by an earthly judge, and so free us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us.
Q 39. Is it significant that he was “crucified” instead of dying some other way?
A 39. Yes. By this I am convinced that he shouldered the curse which lay on me, since death by crucifixion was cursed by God.

Did Christ die to save everyone?  Or did He die to make everyone saveable?  This is an interesting question of what is, perhaps, an important play on words.  What exactly did Christ’s suffering, both in life and in His death, accomplish and how does that impact us?

Before we answer that question, however, it is important to note that the Heidelberg Catechism doesn’t do a lot to cover the ministry of Jesus.  This is primarily due to the fact that the most significant part of Jesus’ life is His death.  Nearly 1/3 of the Gospels spend their time looking specifically at the final week of Jesus’ life.  Given Jesus’ 33 years on earth, that is a disproportionate amount of time spent on just one week of His life.  However, the authors of the catechism, as well as many of the great theologians throughout Christian history, knew that the ministry of Jesus’ life finds its true meaning and fulfillment in and through His death.

So what exactly does that death accomplish?  Well, often we call what happened in Jesus’ self-sacrifice the “atonement.”  There is a tenant of the Reformed faith, particularly put forth by John Calvin, that the atonement itself is limited.  His purpose and understanding of this was not an attempt to limit the power and love of God that is exhibited and accomplished in Jesus Christ, but rather to make a distinct understanding that the forgiveness of sins is made possible for all people in Jesus death but does not actually take place in our lives until we put our faith in Jesus Christ.

While this may seem like semantics, it is a vitally important part of what Scripture reveals to us about Jesus’ death on the cross.  Nowhere in the Bible do we find the notion of “universal salvation” in that everyone, no matter whether they have faith or not, is saved by Jesus.  It is important, then, to understand what exactly is accomplished by Jesus’ death.

A helpful term here might be “particular redemption.”  Scripture says that the “Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.”  John 6:37 points out that Jesus came to save those that the Father had given to Him.  So, does that mean that Jesus’ work on the cross is only accessible for a particular group of people?  No… John 3:16, the most well know Scripture in the world, makes it clear that God’s love that is poured out in Jesus Christ extends to the whole world; every human man, woman, and child that has ever and will ever live.  In the same way that sin is present in every human, the offer of grace is extended to every human in Jesus Christ.

What we are not saying, however, is that every person is saved because Christ died on the cross.  Scripture is very clear that those who are saved become so because they place their faith in Jesus Christ.  The Bible is also very clear that, while this offer is available to all, sadly there are those who will not accept it.

This brings us back to our original question: Did Christ come to save us or to make us saveable?  Well, without Christ there is no hope for our salvation, no hope for a restored relationship with God.  So, in one sense, we need the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for that restored relationship and our salvation to be possible.  We receive this gift of salvation through faith, but it is not faith that saves us from our sins, it is Jesus’ death that does that too.

So, the answer to our original question is “yes.”  Jesus says, “I Am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Indeed, the way to the Father is opened because of Him and in His death He conquered both sin and death for us.  Now, Jesus offers that salvation to us, and calls us to receive it by faith.


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