Author: Ron Graham
Many folk, even professing Christians, have the idea that you can somehow expunge sin with suffering. By yielding yourself to pain or deprivation, you purchase for yourself some grace with which to pay off your debt of sin.
Some even believe that you can store up unused grace for future privilege; and if you die without balancing the books, you can pay with punishment in a temporary hell.
In this lesson, we examine the question of “expiation” —of how we compensate for our sins to God’s complete satisfaction.
The real issue is sufficient suffering —can we suffer sufficiently for our sins to get rid of them and no longer be held to account for them?
Christians are told to "Consider it all joy my brethren when you encounter various trials" (James 1:2). James goes on to say, "Let endurance have its perfect work so that you may be perfect and complete lacking nothing" (James 1:4).
Does this mean that by enduring ordeals in this life we can expiate our sins and become perfect before God? No, it does not mean that. Peter explains that in any fiery ordeal or tribulation we "share the sufferings of Christ" (1Peter 4:1-17).
Peter is very clear that it is Christ's sufferings (not our own) by which we are justified and redeemed. Peter says, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross... by his wounds you were healed" (1Peter 2:21-25).
However, our sufferings do have a purpose. They lead us to trust in Jesus rather than ourselves, and to appreciate his sufferings. By enduring the test of our own sufferings, we better understand and identify with our Saviour who suffered for us.
In his suffering Jesus was able to achieve what we could never achieve in ours —namely a sufficient sacrifice, that paid a sufficient price, for the forgiveness of our sins.
There are two reasons why we cannot clear our sins by our own suffering...
Firstly, punishment for our sins is the very thing we are "saved" from. "We are saved from wrath through him" (Romans 5:9). Suffering ourselves for our own sins is the problem nor the solution.
The idea that we can expiate our own sins through our own suffering, makes the doctrine of salvation (essentially salvation from punishment) quite meaningless. Suffering for ones own sins to save oneself, is like a condemned criminal hanging himself to escape the gallows.
Secondly, the punishment for sin is eternal. The unjust "will go away into everlasting punishment" (Matthew 25:46). In God’s judgment, the due punishment for sin is everlasting.
Clearly therefore, any temporary punishment we suffer is insufficient to satisfy God and expiate our sins. Only eternal punishment will do, but since by definition eternal punishment is never finished, God is never satisfied by it, and so God does not see any solution in us suffering for our own sins.
The solution God saw is beautifully summed up by Peter: "For it is better, if it is the will of God, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death..." (1Peter 3:17-18).
That's the heart of the gospel. You should meditate on that, even though you might exclaim with hymn writer, “I scarce can take it in”.
This, then, is the meaning of being justified. God addressed the hopeless situation where every sinner would suffer over and over, for ever and ever, yet never get one wrong righted. Instead God ordained that one sinless person (his own beloved Son) suffer once on behalf of all, and make it possible for every wrong to be made right by forgiveness.