Protestants are convinced that Christ’s crucifixion is utterly sufficient to atone for our sins. For many, this is the gospel: Nothing can be added to the cross—not my works or my penance, not self-denial, sacraments, or sacrifice.
Then along comes Paul to disrupt our complacency: “I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ in my flesh” (Col. 1:24).
We compile New Testament citations—mostly from Paul himself—to prove that Jesus’s death accomplished our salvation once and for all. The Father sets forth Christ as a propitiation. We have been justified by his blood. Christ died for our sins, was wounded for our transgressions, bore our sins in his body on the tree, freed us from sin by his blood. The blood of Jesus—not the blood of Peter, Paul, or Polycarp—cleanses us from all unrighteousness.
And yet Paul stubbornly says, “I fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ in my flesh.” It’s right there on the page.
Whatever can he mean?
Let’s start with the obvious. Whatever Paul means, he doesn’t believe that Jesus’s sufferings relieve him of the need to suffer. Jesus didn’t die so that we wouldn’t have to go through the messy inconvenience of dying ourselves. The opposite is true. Jesus died and rose so that we might share in his death and resurrection. The head suffered so that his body and each member could participate in his sufferings.
Nor does he think his suffering has any value by itself. He’s confident that his trials benefit the Church because he’s convinced they are not his sufferings. Paul labors, is beaten times beyond number, continually faces death; he is lashed, shipwrecked, in danger from Jews and Gentiles, threatened in city and country, hungry, thirsty, cold. Paul is the subject of all these miseries, but they aren’t his own. They are the “afflictions of Christ,” though they occur in Paul’s own flesh. Paul’s passions are Christ’s.
Even when Paul experiences the limit of affliction by dying a martyr’s death, even then Paul’s suffering isn’t his own. The Image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation, became flesh and died on a cross to become the firstborn from the dead (Col. 1:18). It’s not enough for Jesus to be the first from the Father; he has to be the first to burst from the grave, so that in everything he must have preeminence. Jesus is Lord of life. He has become also Lord of death.
Heidegger was wrong: Not even your death belongs to you. Your death belongs to Jesus, the Living One who holds the keys of Death and of Hades.
All of this means that there’s no contradiction between saying that Jesus died for sins once and for all, and saying that we fill up what is lacking in Christ’s suffering. On the contrary: Our sufferings have meaning because they are encompassed by the sufferings of Jesus. Jesus’s afflictions enable us to suffer affliction in him.
Christ’s death is sufficient for all time, but time goes on, and until the end of time the Spirit will inscribe Christ’s one sufficient death into more and more lives; the Spirit will keep dealing out shares in Christ’s sufferings. The Spirit will work his way into the flesh of countless future disciples to mold them into the shape of a cross. What is lacking in Christ’s afflictions is filled as believers suffer for Jesus and for his Church.
Lent focuses our attention on the sufferings and death of Jesus, but these aren’t an icon or altarpiece, to be gazed at from a safe distance. We contemplate Jesus’s sufferings so that they can be incorporated into us. Lent is a school of suffering, a discipline for death, an annual invitation to share in Christ’s afflictions. We observe Lent so we can learn to rejoice with Paul as we fill up in our flesh what is lacking of Christ’s sufferings, for the sake of his Church, the body of the One who fills all in all.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.