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Not everything we suffer as Christians is Christian suffering. By nature, we are fallen creatures in a fallen world, subject to sin and its consequences in and around us. Under such circumstances, all suffer in measure, and all far less than we deserve. We suffer as sinners and as creatures in a world wrecked by sin. Apart from God’s free favor, we would face the eternal sufferings of hell.

By grace, Christians are no longer what we were by nature. Once dead in trespasses and sins, now we are alive together with Christ. We still suffer some of the temporal consequences even of forgiven sins. We still face creaturely sufferings in a fallen world. We have been spared the eternal sufferings of the hell we deserve, a punishment laid on our Redeemer instead of us. Cleansed by His blood and raised with Him to newness of life—the life of the age to come—we live united to Christ by faith. We have become citizens of heaven, pilgrims on our way to the world in which all suffering is forever ended and all is joy and gladness. Now it is our privilege to suffer as Christians.

Christian suffering is distinctive: it arises from our union and association with Christ. It lies in those pressures, pains, and persecutions that follow when we cling to the name of and walk in the way of the Lord (Acts 14:22). Such trials and tribulations in connection with the Savior are honorable and profitable.

When the Apostles were beaten and forbidden to speak in the name of Jesus, those men “left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41). Peter reminded believers that such trials are typical; Christians should “rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13). Deserved suffering as an evildoer ought to be no part of Christian experience: “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Peter 4:16).

The Apostle Paul first glimpsed this when the risen Jesus confronted him on the Damascus road: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). When Saul assaulted the members of his body, our Head was Himself assaulted. But the corollary is that when the members of the body are afflicted, they are not separated from their Head. Christ is not suffering as when He once paid the price for the atonement of His people. Rather, He enters into and understands the experience of His suffering people (Isa. 63:9).

True Christianity is no easy sell. We do not call people first to a crown but first to a cross.

Our experience, then, is more than simply suffering for Christ. We also suffer with Christ. Our suffering is not salvific or mediatorial. We do not add to His saving work. That is all His, and His alone. But our Savior suffered, and we follow in His footsteps and so suffer together with Him. Paul would say that “as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ” (2 Cor. 1:5, NKJV), and that His affliction was for the benefit of the saints. Paul wanted to know Christ “and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10).

We do not need to seek suffering. If we are faithful in following Christ, it will come to us. Christian suffering brings us close to Christ, and it brings Christ close to us. This is part of what it means when our Lord assured His obedient people that He would be with them to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20), when He promised that by His Spirit He would be present with them (John 14–16), when He repeatedly made clear the union and communion that bind Him and His beloved saints together.

If we suffered apart from Christ, we could not bear it. When we suffer for Him and with Him, our communion with Him means that even then we rejoice. Our suffering cannot separate us from Him but draws us closer together. A young Scottish woman named Margaret Maitland was drowned for her faith in Christ. Her persecutors bound her to a stake in the sea nearer to the land than her companion in suffering, hoping that Margaret would be terrified into renouncing Christ. As the tide came in, they asked her, “Margaret, what do you see yonder?” She replied, “I see Christ suffering in the person of one of His saints.” Margaret knew that Christ would be with her when her turn came and would never leave her or forsake her. As He did for Stephen, the glorified Christ would sustain His suffering saint through the trial and then receive her into glory.

That glory is the inevitable sequel of suffering with Christ. Our life is hidden with Christ in God. We are His children, “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified together” (Rom. 8:17). The Christ who once suffered for sins, and who now enters into our suffering as His servants, is sympathizing with us. Taking up our cross and following Him, we shall soon come to be with Him. Our sufferings shall then cease.

True Christianity is no easy sell. We do not call people first to a crown but first to a cross. The path to glory is a path of suffering. Our joyful suffering with Christ will be swallowed up by glory with Christ still to come. That first moment of resurrection life will make the worst that the world has done fade into insignificance. Then all present suffering with and for Christ will be seen as worthwhile, for He is worthy indeed.

Covenant Theology Applied

Church Family and Fellowship

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From the October 2020 Issue
Oct 2020 Issue