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Ministry Monday: Suffering and Faith-Union

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 11 Jul 2016

The glorious gospel truth of faith-union provides a powerful perspective on suffering for afflicted Christians that is under-used in our pastoral response.

As apologists and pastors, nothing is more important than being able to talk biblically and sensitively about suffering. Our usual way to deal with the personal crises, existential angsts and intellectual debates that provoke questions about suffering is to say that suffering is the result of the Fall; the outworking of human sin causing creation to be subject to a curse. We then counsel hope for a new creation without suffering (Ro 8.18-21) and confidence that God can use suffering to develop Christian character (Ro 5.3-4), adding that Christ sympathises with us in our suffering since he too suffered (He 4.15). These are true and valuable biblical principles that indeed help suffering Christians understand and begin to process their experience. But there is a rich vein of New Testament material that we rarely employ in this connection: suffering as an aspect of faith-union.

Faith-union itself, when taught, is most often understood and expressed in terms of ‘the great exchange’ effected at Calvary: the believer’s sin and guilt becomes Christ’s, Christ’s righteous life and reward the believer’s. That is, faith-union serves as the logic or principle that underlies justification by faith. Faith-union, however, is much more than the mechanism of the forensic imputation of an alien righteousness, but is employed in the New Testament to describe election, regeneration, justification, sanctification, preservation, future glorification, and - yes - suffering.  Faith-union is not only instrumental, but constitutive of Christian identity (both individually and corporately) and vital to Christian spirituality and experience.

In this connection, Martin Luther’s ‘Theology of the Cross’ is especially illuminating. In the theses of his explosive Heidelberg Disputation (April 1518), Luther declared that the true theologian is one who constructs his theology not from abstract speculations about divine essence and attributes, but at the foot of the cross of Christ:

“That person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God through suffering and the cross.”

Adopting this approach begins to change the way we think about suffering. Our default approach both apologetically and experientially is to start with the premise that suffering is an evil – indeed, to fold the questions posed by suffering into theodicy.  Talking about suffering then becomes an exercise in attempting to absolve God of direct involvement or responsibility. But the ‘theologian of the cross’ starts instead with the premise that suffering is precisely what God’s glory, love, wisdom and power looks like. Suffering, in view of the cross, becomes not a problem to be solved – but the very revelation of God Incarnate and the nature of the salvation he offers.

Luther applies this first to the question of atonement. ‘Suffering’ in its now obscured etymology means ‘being acted upon’ – being passive is from the same root as the word Passion. Luther’s argument that we must suffer to be saved, understood as ‘passively receive the action of God upon us,’ is straightforward Protestant monergism.  Suffering saves us, both in terms of the merits of Christ’s suffering a substitutionary death, and in terms of our ‘suffering’ its effect.

But Luther will not, as we tend to, separate the cross as instrument of salvation from the cross as experience of salvation.  To begin with, to suffer in terms of ‘passively receive’ the divine action of the cross is also necessarily (in Luther’s mind) to suffer in terms of ‘feel the pain of’ an utterly bleak despair of self that made the cross the necessary and only means of salvation; it is to experience the terrifying sentence of death that we might throw ourselves wholly on the mercy of Christ crucified, and thus be joined to him in his resurrection life-through-death.

Moreover, the cross is the pattern of life a Christian should expect to live as disciples following their suffering Lord. If suffering is not an evil to be avoided or reluctantly endured, but the essence of Christ’s – and therefore the Christian’s – glory, wisdom and strength, then the expectations of what a saved Christian life looks like are utterly recalibrated. “The more Christian a man is,” writes Luther, “the more evils, sufferings, and deaths he must endure.”

But in addition, there is an essential, mystical connection between Christ’s sufferings and the Christian’s. Though we might bristle at this suggestion – lest it suggest that Christ’s cross-work was unfinished and that somehow we are contributing to our own salvation – we must concede it is undeniably biblical!

Colossians 1.24:
“I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

Philippians 3.9-10:
“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.”

Following Paul, Luther sees the Christian’s suffering as participating in the sufferings of Christ as an outworking of faith-union.  Faith-union does not only communicate the legal status of believer and Christ; rather, by a mystical ‘one-flesh’ union like marriage, “everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil.”  Luther insisted that it is not only the saving benefits of Christ’s work that is communicated to the believer in faith-union – but the very person of the God-Man Jesus Christ. Christ is not, says Luther, present “‘causally,’ so that he grants righteousness and remains absent himself.” Christ’s righteousness can only be ours by faith-union if “Christ himself is present.”

This means that Christ’s righteousness is indeed truly ours by virtue of faith-union: well and good. But it also means that Christ’s suffering is truly ours by faith-union – and (Paul and Luther insist) that is well and good too! In fact, if suffering does not come with Christian profession, it is not – says Luther – true, vital faith. Indeed, suffering became for Luther a distinguishing mark of the true church.

Faith-union understood in this mystical manner provides a perspective on suffering that supplements (it need not supplant) our more established tropes. While it is true to say that Christ identifies with us in our pain because he, too, suffered; we can say something further: the Christian who suffers is one who identifies with Christ in his suffering. This is pastorally very powerful. As well as saying to the grieving, the burdened, and the broken-hearted that Christ comes near to them in their suffering and that God may yet turn their suffering to profit somehow (Ro 8.28), we might also say that their suffering is God’s ordained way for them to draw nearer to their Beloved saviour in his suffering, and that God has decisively and certainly turned this suffering in which they participate into glory (Ro 8.17).

Suffering is then not only endured, but dignified; not only redeemed, but beautified. Suffering as beheld by the theologian of the cross is no longer experienced as distance from God but as drawing near to Him in Christ crucified. Suffering is not that which obscures knowledge of God and his purposes, but that which supremely subjectively reveals it.  Suffering becomes the experience of communion and an act of worship.  This perhaps begins to explain those strange but common testimonies (of which I have my own) of times of suffering leading Christians to greater assurance, commitment, and sense of God’s love and nearness.

By understanding suffering as a theologian of the cross, I am better prepared spiritually and emotionally not just to expect and endure suffering, but to embrace it and rejoice in it. I am liberated from having to find the positives to come out of seasons of suffering – because the experience of suffering itself is holy, powerful and glorious: the cross tells me so.  By faith-union, I suffer in Christ and Christ suffers in and through me, and that is enough.

Tom Woolford is a Blackburn Diocese Ordinand studying at Oak Hill.

Photo by Livia Korandy

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