12. The Danger of Teaching that the Savior Bore Our Sins Prior to Calvary’s Cross

“Who His own self bore our sins in His own body ON THE TREE” (1 Peter 2:24)

A common teaching of Reformed men is that the Lord’s death on the cross was not the only place where sin’s penalty was paid. They connect the payment of this penalty with our Lord’s sufferings apart from and prior to Calvary’s cross. They often point to the Lord’s sufferings in the Garden of Gethsemane as being a time when the Lord Jesus was suffering as the Divine Substitute for man’s sins.

In light of the Reformed doctrine of “vicarious law-keeping,” such a view is not surprising.  If Christ’s righteous acts were substitutionary, and if His law-keeping righteousness was imputed to the believer’s account, then it would follow that our Lord’s non-cross sufferings should also be substitutionary and expiatory.  They teach that His sufferings throughout life were expiatory, but the Bible teaches no such thing. [See the precious section, #11].

Here are some quotes by Reformed men who share this view:

John R. W. Stott, Rector of All Soul Church, London, (British Evangelical) explains that the sufferings of Christ in the Garden of  Gethsemane were of such magnitude that they were equivalent to hell: “We may even dare to say that our sins sent Christ to ‘hell,’ not to the ‘hell’ (hades, the abode of the dead) to which the Creed says he ‘descended’ after death, but to the ‘hell’ (Gehenna, the place of punishment) to which our sins condemned him before his body died…God in Christ endured it in our place” (The Cross of Christ, p. 79, 161).

C. H. Spurgeon – “I do not know whether what Adam Smith supposes is correct, that in the garden of Gethsemane Christ did pay more of a price (for our sins) than he did even on the cross; but I am quite convinced that they are very foolish who get to such refinement that they think the atonement was made on the cross and nowhere else at all” (A Treasury of Spurgeon on the Life and Work of our Lord, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979, p.119).

C. H. Spurgeon – “I feel myself only fit to be cast into the lowest hell; but I go to Gethsemane, and I peer under those gnarled olive trees, and I see my Saviour. Yes, I see him wallowing on the ground in anguish, and I hear such groans come from him as never came from human breast before. I look upon the earth and I see it red with his blood and, while his face is smeared with gory sweat, and I say to myself, ‘My God, my Saviour what aileth thee?’ I hear him reply, ‘I am suffering for thy sin’ ” (A Treasury of Spurgeon on the Life and Work of our Lord, Grand  Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979, p.131).

Matthew Henry – (speaking of His sufferings in the Garden) “He was now bearing the iniquities which the Father laid upon him, and, by his sorrow and amazement, he accommodated himself to his undertaking. The sufferings he was entering upon were for our sins, and they were all to meet upon him and he knew it.” (Commentary on the Whole Bible, Matthew to John, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991, p. 320).

F. W. Krummacher is one of the worst offenders in this regard. His chapters in The Suffering Saviour pertaining to the Garden of Gethsemane are too long to be included here.

There are at least two key reasons why we know that our Lord was not bearing our sins in His own body in the Garden of Gethsemane. 1) In His prayers in the Garden, the Lord always addressed God as “Father” (see Matthew 26:39,42,44; etc.).  It is unthinkable that the Lord Jesus would have addressed God as “Father” at a time when God was acting as the HOLY JUDGE, pouring out His terrible wrath upon the Substitute of sinners. There could be no enjoyment of the Father/Son relationship at such a time (compare Matthew 27:46). If He were forsaken by God in the Garden, then how could He address Him as “Father”?  2) Immediately following His time in the Garden, the Lord Jesus said, “The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11).  Notice that the drinking of the cup of God’s wrath was yet FUTURE. He had not yet partaken of that cup. He would drink of that cup on the tree (1 Pet. 2:24).

The Lord’s anguish in the Garden was anticipatory of Calvary’s cross. It did not involve His suffering for our sins, but it anticipated this awesome event. C.H.Mackintosh’s explanation is helpful:

It is evident there was something in prospect which the blessed Lord had never encountered before,–there was a “cup” being filled out for Him of which He had not yet drunk.  If He had been a sin-bearer all His life, then why this intense “agony” at the thought of coming in contact with sin and enduring the wrath of God on account of sin? What was the difference between Christ in Gethsemane and Christ at Calvary if He were a sin-bearer all His life? There was a material difference; but it is because He was not a sin-bearer all His life. What is the difference? In Gethsemane, He was anticipating the cross; at Calvary, He was actually enduring it.  In Gethsemane, “there appeared an angel unto Him from heaven, strengthening Him”; at Calvary, He was forsaken of all. There was no angelic ministry there. In Gethsemane, He addresses God as “Father,” thus enjoying the full communion of that ineffable relationship; but at Calvary, He cries, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Here the Sin-bearer looks up and beholds the throne of Eternal Justice enveloped in dark clouds, and the countenance of inflexible Holiness averted from Him, because He was being “made sin for us”  [Cited by Chafer, Volume III of the Eight Volume set of Systematic Theology, p. 40].

For a fuller discussion of these important points, see L.S.Chafer, Systematic Theology, Volume III of the Eight Volume set of Systematic Theology, pages 36 and following (the section is entitled “Sufferings in Life”).

William Kelly, in his notes on 1 Peter 2:24 [Two Nineteenth Century Versions of the N.T., Present Truth Publishers, NJ, pages 647-648], answers the unbiblical theory and utterly false doctrine that Christ bore our sins throughout His earthly life:

The hypothesis is incompatible, not merely with the word used by the Holy Spirit here and everywhere else, but with the broadest and most solemn facts which the most unlettered of believers, taught of God, receive with awe and adoring gratitude. What meant that supernatural darkness which in the hours of broad daylight wrapt up the cross from a certain point?  What the cry of Him who had ever, in the fullest enjoyment of love, said “Father,” but now “My God, my God, why didst thou forsake me?”….If He had been all His life bearing our sins, He must all His life have been abandoned by God who cannot look on sin with the least allowance.  But no: Isa. 53:6 attests that Jehovah laid our iniquity on His Anointed when He hung on the tree….How unfounded is the idea that our Lord was bearing sins all His life!

The following is a listing of passages which teach that our Lord’s expiatory work of bearing our sins in His own body took place in connection with His death on the cross, and did not include the many sufferings of His life on earth prior to the cross.

“And, having made peace through the blood of his cross” (Col. 1:20).

“Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3).

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). Please notice that this passage is quoted in 1 Peter 2:24-25 where it is made clear that Christ’s work of bearing the iniquity of us all took place “on the tree.”

As the animals sacrifices took place on the altar [the type], so the Lord’s sacrifice took place on the altar of Calvary’s cross [the antitype].

The strong implication from Matthew 27:45-46 is that the three hours of darkness were the hours when Jesus was forsaken by His Father because it was then that our sins were laid upon Him.   Consider the words of the hymn: “So might the sun in darkness hide, and shut His glories in, when Christ the mighty Maker died, for man the creature’s sin.”

“Who was delivered for our offenses” (Rom. 4:24). Compare Romans 8:32.

“We were reconciled to God by the death of His Son” (Rom. 5:10, and see verse 9, “by His blood”).

“For He (the Father) hath made Him (Christ) to be sin for us, Who (Christ) knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).  Though Christ was not a sinner, He was treated as a sinner when He was made a curse for us. Though we are not righteous, we are treated as righteous because God sees the believing sinner IN HIS RIGHTEOUS SON.

Paul begins Galatians with this statement: “Who gave Himself for our sins” (Gal. 1:4) and near the end of the book makes this statement: “God forbid that I should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14).  The two statements are intimately and vitally connected.

Christ became a curse for us when God poured out His wrath on our Substitute. When did He become a curse for us?  “ON A TREE” (see Gal. 3:13).

Because of our SIN-BEARER we are made NIGH (near) and we have been reconciled to God.  How and where did this take place?  “By the blood of Christ….by the cross” (see Eph. 2:13,16).

We were redeemed with the precious blood of Christ (1 Pet. 1:18-19).

“Who His own self bore our sins in His own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24).

“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but made alive by the Spirit” (1 Pet. 3:18).  Two points to notice about this passage:  1) The phrase “once suffered for sins” clearly limits His bearing of sins to a specific time.  It was a one time act of redeeming love.  The phrase is not at all consistent with a lifetime of suffering for our sins;  2) Christ once suffered for our sins, and this is equated with His being “put to death.”  Thus, it is His death sufferings that are involved, not His sufferings throughout His incarnate life.

“Unto Him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in His own blood” (Rev. 1:5).

Paul did not glory in Gethsemane; He gloried in the cross (Gal. 6:14).  He did not preach the Garden; He preached the cross (1 Cor. 1:18; 2:2).  Peter did not teach that Christ bore our sins in His own body in the Garden, but on the tree (1 Pet. 2:24).

Healed By His Stripes

Isaiah 53:5 is often thought to be a reference to the scourging Jesus received at the hands of the Romans. It says: “by His stripes we are healed.”  Is this really referring to suffering that Christ endured from Roman scourging prior to His going to the cross?   It is better to understand Isaiah 53:5 as referring to the terrible punishment Christ received at the hands of God the Father when He bore our sins in His own body on the tree of Calvary’s cross.

The great emphasis of Isaiah 53 involves not what the Romans did to Jesus but what God the Father did to Jesus. He was stricken and smitten by God (v.4), even though we know that at His trials He was smitten by the Romans.   It is true that Christ was bruised by the Romans during His trials as they struck Him with their hands and their fists and abused Him in other ways, yet Isaiah 53 emphasizes that He was bruised by the LORD (v.10).  The emphasis in Isaiah 53 is upon what GOD did to Him–see verse 6 (“The LORD hath laid on Him the iniquities of us all”). Isaiah 53:5 says that the Messiah “was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities.”

The clear teaching of the Bible is that Christ paid the penalty for our sins when He died on the cross, not prior to the cross. See 1 Peter 2:24 which says that He “bore our sins in His own body on the tree.”  When Isaiah 53:5 says “by His stripes we are healed” it is referring to the punishment inflicted upon Him by the Father when He was punished as our Substitute. This is further confirmed by 1 Peter 2:24 where Isaiah’s phrase, “by whose stripes ye were healed,” is quoted by Peter. This same verse makes it clear that it was on the tree (cross) that He bore our sins in His own body. Thus we conclude that the stripes mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 were blows received from God the Father when He died for our sins and not blows received from scourging at the hands of the Romans prior to the cross.

William Kelly’s comments are helpful:

When it is said, “By His stripes we are healed,” is it credible that a saint could believe they refer to His being scourged by the soldiers? These figures so multiplied in Isaiah 53 express not merely of what man did to Jesus, but what He suffered from Jehovah, when He [placed] the iniquity of His own on the rejected Messiah—figures taken from what is common among men, but above all to express that which He Himself inflicted. It pleased Jehovah to bruise Him, it was He that put Him to grief; and it was for the transgression of His people that He was stricken. He bare the sin of many. [William Kelly’s “The Day of Atonement. Leviticus 16,” as found in R.A. Huebner’s publication, Thy Precepts, Vol. 14, #4, July/Aug 1999, page 123.]