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The realities of life in a fallen world hit hard when we experience unforeseen and unjust suffering. This is even more so when the suffering is not a result of personal sin. It is not uncommon even for believers in Christ who experience such a kind of suffering to ask, “Why do I have to suffer if Jesus has already suffered on my behalf?” Given our understanding of the substitutionary nature of the atoning work of Jesus Christ, it is not far-fetched to think that the suffering of Christ is indeed for his people.
After all, the Word of God does teach us that the suffering of Christ is vicarious in several passages. The locus classicus is perhaps Isaiah 53:2-5. This passage lists out a broad range of suffering — mental, emotional, and physical suffering — which the Christ would experience on behalf of others. Therefore, we do have a biblical warrant to think that the suffering of Christ was indeed substitutionary; it was for us!
The New Testament, interpreting the Old Testament, teaches that the suffering of Jesus was specifically for sin. “Christ suffered once for sins” (1 Pet. 3:18) and He “was delivered up for our trespasses” (Rom. 4:25). In other words, the New Testament teaches that the substitutionary suffering of Christ is tied to the atonement of Christ. The eternal suffering that God pours out through His judgment on sinners is not experienced by believers because Christ has suffered on behalf of them. Therefore, the suffering of Christ on our behalf has to do specifically with redeeming us from the eternal judgment of sin and not from the temporary effect of sin. This is the hidden assumption in the question, that the suffering of Christ supposedly redeems us from both the judgment of sin and from the effect of sin.
This hidden assumption is an incorrect assumption since the Bible teaches that the effect of sin is erased only at our glorification (Rom. 8:18). As Revelation 21:4 says, “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.”
Jesus himself teaches that we will experience suffering in this world (Jn. 16:33) and that we, therefore, ought not to be surprised when we do suffer (1 Pet. 4:12). However, the Bible also teaches that such suffering is for our good since the benefits of suffering are manifold. Suffering produces perseverance and endurance in the faith (Rom. 5:3), it enables us to receive the comfort and consolation of Christ (2 Cor. 1:5), it is a means appointed by God (Phil 1:29) to make us more like Christ (Phil. 3:10), it is a means of displaying God’s righteous judgment against our enemies in measuring out the same trouble with which they trouble us (2 Thess. 1:4-6), it orients our affections and desire for eternity (2 Cor. 4:17). And all this is just but the tip of the iceberg.
However, the greatest blessing of suffering is the comforting and reassuring evidence for our faith: We are united with Christ (1 Pet. 4:13, Rom. 8:17) and, consequently, we are united with each other (1 Pet. 5:9, 1 Cor. 12:26). Thus, the question we need to ask ourselves, especially those among us who are not experiencing suffering of any kind, is not: why should Christians suffer if Christ has already suffered for them? No. Rather, the real question that should provoke us to contemplate on the suffering of Christ is: why am I not suffering as a Christian if Christ has suffered for me?
The substitutionary nature of Christ’s suffering on behalf of us necessarily means that we will and will not experience suffering. Believers will not experience eternal suffering because Christ suffered on behalf of them, atoning for their sins and reconciling them back to God. Yet, believers will experience suffering because it is a God-ordained means to make us more like Christ and share in fellowship with others in His body. Ultimately, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ inevitably is a call to suffering (1 Pet. 2:21). As Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes,
The cross is laid on every Christian. The first suffering-for-Christ which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but the cross meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.1
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 2nd ed. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1979), 99.