One of the clearest teachings of the New Testament is the sufficiency of Jesus’ death in its atoning value. As the REACH SA Prayer Book says in the prayer before communion, “Almighty God our heavenly Father, of Your infinite mercy You gave Your only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there by His one offering of Himself, never to be repeated, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.”
This great doctrine of the sufficiency of Jesus’ death was rediscovered during the Reformation in the 1600’s. No amount of merit, or mass, or good deeds, or holy relics could somehow place the sinner in a better standing before God. The death of Christ completely and totally atoned for all our sin and is able to impute a perfect righteousness to us before God. The sufficiency of the atoning value of the death of Christ is a doctrine on which the church stands or falls.
Yet, in at least two New Testament passages, the death of Christ is said to be insufficient or incomplete. How are we to understand these to texts? (Before you brand me as a heretic, please read on!)
Insufficient in public display
Now 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. (Colossians 1:24)
What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions? Its atoning value for our sins? No. What is lacking is its see-ability, its known-ness, its proximity to the people we meet every day. There was no YouTube video clip of the cross to go viral. People can’t see the cross. They can’t feel the cross. But they can see you. And as you, in the midst of your suffering, persevere in trusting in Jesus, the truth of the gospel is seen. When we suffer and still trust in Christ, our family and friends see how precious Christ is and how precious his sufferings are to us. Jesus’ suffering is made known to more people and God is made more famous. The Apostle Paul saw his sufferings as “filling up” Jesus’ suffering, for the ultimate benefit and growth of the church.
Insufficient in public visibility
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:12)
The Apostle John has been writing about love. He has said that God is love and we know that we are Christians when we love each other despite our faults and sins. After all, God sent his only Son to be the propitiation for our sin. If God showed us love while we were his enemies, surely we must bear with each other. V12 says that when we love another, God’s love is “perfected” or “completed” in us.
What does this mean? Certainly this does not in any way refer to to the atoning value of Jesus’ death. John has already told us that Jesus’ death is sufficient for the sins of the “whole world” (1 John 2:2).
What John means is that as the church loves each other, despite our sin and selfishness, as we forgive each other and serve each other in practical ways, the love of God in Jesus is made tangible to a watching world. God’s love in Jesus is perfected. The God who is unseen (v12) is made publically “visible” when his people love (not necessarily like) each other.
The year ahead
What a honour that God would choose to use us lowly, fallible creatures to “fill up” and “complete” God’s own love shown in Christ. May you and I suffer well and love much in 2016.