Propitiatory Suffering

by | Dec 17, 2009

~What is propitiatory suffering and how is it different from other suffering?

~You said some of our suffering is required to fit us for having compassion on others in their suffering. But why do others have to suffer in the first place?

Multiple questioners

Dear Friends,

Propitiation is “the satisfaction of God’s righteous wrath against sin.” Propitiatory suffering is suffering that satisfies God’s righteous wrath against sin. Only two kinds of suffering can satisfy the demands of divine justice: the suffering of the sinner or substitutionary suffering by one who is innocent, righteous, and infinite.

  1. In the first case, sinners will suffer eternal punishment as recipients of God’s justice.
  2. In the second case, Jesus alone, as the God-man, qualified.

In his passion, Jesus suffered as the Lamb of God bearing in his body the wrath of God against the sins of the whole world (John 1:29; 1 John 2:2). I understand this suffering to be the punishment all humanity’s sin deserved.

(By the way, in regard to eternal punishment, I wonder if persons in the lake of fire perpetuate their suffering eternally by perpetually sinning. Just as Satan has perpetually set himself against God and thus sins in all he does, so sinners who go into eternity with their will set against God continue to sin in their thoughts and will. If this is correct, eternal punishment is eternal not only because of the magnitude of sin’s offense but also because of the ceaselessness of sinners sinning! That “hell” is eternal is a mind-boggling testimony to the corruption of those who endure it.)

Though I stand ready and willing to be corrected, it seems then that much of the suffering of Jesus on earth was not propitiatory—intended to satisfy God’s righteous wrath. Rather, it was preparatory—intended to fit Jesus for the purposes God had for him. If some of our suffering has similarly glorious purposes, then it is not to be despised but blessed.

That leads me to the second question. There are multiple reasons why other do suffer. All of them relate to human sin. First, the entire physical universe suffers because Adam, as its first ruler, rebelled against God and brought God’s curse upon it (Rom. 8:18-22). Natural evil (tsunami’s, disease, death) and all the pain it produces are the direct results of Adam’s sin. But why does God allow the consequences of Adam’s sin to continue to affect the sons of Adam?

Some argue that it is necessary to make clear to us the gravity of sin. It isn’t clear to me that Scripture answers that question. What is clear to me is that Scripture says God is good in all he does. Thus it is goodness, not impotence or malevolence, that lies at the heart of divine providence.

Second, all men suffer because all men have sinned (Rom. 3:23). “He that sows to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption” (Gal. 6:7). Although it is probably true that the KJV misunderstands Prov. 21:4—“the plowing of the wicked is sin” (compare the NASB), I think that translation points to a theological truth: everything wicked people do is sinful. I don’t mean everything they do is inherently bad, but that all that a sinner does is tainted by his sinfulness.

Isaiah says it this way: “all our righteousness [our best deeds] are as a menstrual rag” (Isa. 64:6). That shocking line teaches us how repugnant sinners are to God. In that light, we should be astonished at how little we suffer here because of our sins.

Third, all men suffer because of others’ sins. I didn’t say suffer for others’ sins. We are all affected, not only by Adam’s sins but by the sins of many others around us. This is deeply troubling to many. The answer I currently live with is this: it was not possible for God to create a world in which meaningful relationships exist, which mirror the Trinity’s mutual indwelling, without creating a world in which both our righteous and our sinful actions affect others.

That God chose to create this world implies that He will not allow evil persons to thwart His purposes for good. Hallelujah!

Dr. Phil