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The suffering of Christ

April 2015 | by John Thornbury

‘For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but made alive by the Spirit?’ (1 Peter 3:18).

In his first epistle, Peter is writing to Christians who are enduring terrible trials of persecution. He writes to encourage them to endure faithfully in their difficulties.

A major point he makes is that their Saviour, Christ himself, suffered at the hands of men. But his sufferings, unlike theirs, was on behalf of his people. Christians are encouraged to endure patiently as he did.

The text above is one of the greatest in the Bible, explaining the meaning of Christ’s sufferings, especially his death upon the cross. It is full of wonderful teaching, in particular, three essential points about Christ’s atoning death.


Christ’s suffering was penal. ‘Penal’ means the punishment of offenders under a legal system. So Jesus died as a substitute for sin: ‘Christ also suffered for sins’. 

‘How can that be?’ you may ask. Was Christ not perfect? Did he ever sin? No, Christ did not die for his own sins, but the sins of others. 

Hebrews 7:26 says that Jesus, as our great high priest, was ‘holy, harmless and separate from sinners’. But he suffered for sins, because God imputed our sins to him: ‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53:7).

God, being the holy being that he is, cannot forgive sin unless there is reparation to justice. The ‘penalty’ (note the likeness to the word ‘penal’) for sin is eternal separation from God. Either the sinner must spend eternity in hell, or he must trust Jesus who was separated from God as he hung on the Roman cross. I have often said that Jesus took our ‘hell’ on Calvary.


The suffering of Jesus was vicarious: ‘the just for the unjust’. ‘Vicarious’ means something done on behalf of others. What Jesus experienced of pain and rejection in his life and agony on Calvary was not for himself, although in the end it brought great reward to him. 

He died as a substitute. He died in the place of guilty people like you and me. We are all sinners, for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). This is the gospel. 

Gospel means ‘good news’, and the good news is that there is hope for people who have sinned and are under the wrath of God. If we receive by faith the One who has taken our place, we are accepted by God and Christ’s righteousness is credited to our account.


The suffering of Christ was expiatory: ‘that he might bring us to God’. ‘Expiatory’ means the effective taking away of sin and its forgiveness. 

God does not just arbitrarily get rid of sin; he puts it away by accepting the payment of the debt by his own Son. 

We must understand that what Christ did on the cross was effectual or effective in the accomplishment of salvation for all his people — all who repent and believe the gospel. God planned from all eternity to save a people by the sacrifice of his Son on Calvary’s cross. Jesus did not die in vain. 

Jesus said, ‘All that the Father gives to me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will, by no means, cast out’ (John 6:37). There has never been a sinner, however heinous his sins may have been, who came to Jesus who was turned away. All given to Jesus Christ will come to him.


These three points are not just theological propositions, but vital in my own life. I know I have sins that need to be pardoned, for never a day goes by that I do not have to confess my transgressions. But, praise the Lord, the blood of Jesus washes them all away.

The record is clean and pure for me, for Jesus died for me. Have you trusted in him for your sins? If not, go to Jesus now and ask him to forgive you because of his penal, vicarious, expiatory suffering.

John F. Thornbury

The author has served for many years as a pastor in Baptist churches in Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

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