“Why the Lord Jesus Christ freed the human race through harsh suffering, not through power.” A Translation of Caesarius of Arles by Ben Wheaton

This holy week I am pleased to present this sermon translation of Bishop Caesarius of Arles’ sermon, “Why Christ Redeemed Man Not through Power, But Through Suffering,” by Dr. Ben Wheaton. Dr. Wheaton has recently completed a Ph.D. in Medieval studies at University of Toronto, and I’m very grateful he has allowed me to share the fruit of some of his work. Besides being a perfect meditation for the time, it’s also an excellent example of finding atonement as penal substitution wonderfully synthesized with Christ’s victory in the Fathers.

caesariusBio: One of the more remarkable figures in Late Antique Christianity, Caesarius of Arles was born in 470 in the city of Chalons in southern Gaul (modern France). He was appointed as bishop of Arles in 502. Arles was at this time the administrative and ecclesiastical capital of southern Gaul, making Caesarius immediately the leading figure in the southern Gallic church. He remained there as bishop until his death in 542, leading his congregants and ecclesiastical subordinates through the politically tumultuous times that followed the dissolution of Roman power in Gaul.


Sermon XI 

Why the Lord Jesus Christ freed the human race through harsh suffering, not through power.

This question, dearly beloved brothers, occurs to many; the thought of this matter sends many men of little understanding into anxiety.  For they say: “Why did the Lord Jesus Christ, the Power and Wisdom of the Father, work the salvation of man not by his divine power and sole authority but rather by his bodily humility and human struggle?  For without a doubt he would have been able by the heavenly power and majesty to overthrow the Devil and to free man from his tyranny.”  Certain others ponder: “Why did he who is proclaimed to have given life in the beginning by his word not destroy death by his word?  What reason was there that lost men should not be brought back by the same majesty which was able to create things not yet existing?  Why was it necessary for our Lord Christ to receive so harsh a period of suffering when he was able to free the human race through his power?  Why his incarnation?  Why his infancy?  Why the course of his life?  Why the insults?  Why the cross?  Why his death?  Why his burial?  Why?  Why did he take up all these things for the sake of man’s restoration?”

This is what men of little understanding say.  Without a doubt our Lord would have been able to triumph over the Devil by his divine authority and to free man from his rule.  He would have been able, yes; but reason resisted, justice did not give its permission: and these are more important to God than all power and might.  These two attributes are praised even among men; how much more are they praiseworthy to God, who is the Creator and Judge of reason and justice!  Now it was in the mind of God to restore man, who had been deceived by the Devil, to eternal life.  This then had to be kept in mind: compassion must not destroy justice, love must not destroy equity.  For if He had finished off the Devil and rescued man from his jaws by His majesty and power, there would indeed have been power, but there would not have been justice.  For the Enemy of the human race would have been able to say: “O Lord, you are just and true; you made man in your goodness, you who created me as well as a good not an evil angel.  You gave to me as much as to man the free power of the will; you gave the law with this threat of judgment: if we touched something forbidden, we would die the death.  I ruined myself at the very beginning by a voluntary envy; then I persuaded man to do a wicked deed.  I persuaded, I did not force; for I was not able to force one having the freedom of his own will.  I was listened to more than your word was preserved.  We received by your judgment sentences befitting our merits: I the eternal word sent into evil, man was sent with me to death and terrible punishment.  Man joined himself to me by his own will; he separated from you not unwillingly but by the same will: he is mine.  Together we are destined for punishment; if he is torn away from me, it is not justice but violence, it is not grace but an injury, it is not compassion but plunder.  Why should man, who did not wish to live when he had the ability, be made alive unwillingly?  I presume to say this, O Just Judge: it is not fitting for there to be unequal sentences in the same case.  Ultimately, if it pleases you that man be saved against all justice and reason, we ought both to be saved—both he who perished and I who was ruined.”

Should that speech of the Devil not have seemed to God to be just and reasonable, since He did work and still works all things justly and reasonably?  And so in order that this criminal voice should not have any place and that all the deeds of God should be consistent with justice and reason that very Strength came from heaven; it came not to tear man away from the Devil through power, but rather only after it had preserved equity in all things.  This is just as the Lord Himself reminded John the Baptist at the time of his baptism—when John wished to decline—saying: “Without delay; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all justice.”  Therefore for this reason our Lord and Saviour came “in the likeness of sinful flesh” as the apostle teaches and endured all things without sin; so that thus with justice having been fulfilled he might condemn sin in his flesh, since his flesh was taken up without sin from a sinful substance.  That encounter in the desert orchestrated by the Spirit proves this, when the Devil was conquered not by divine majesty but by the memory of a command, by fasting and by a lawful response.  The many different tests of the Pharisees also prove this, by whom the Lord was often challenged.  When He benefits the ungrateful, when he does not resist an injury, when by his patience he overcomes an insult, by his goodness conquers ill-will, all justice is necessarily fulfilled and every sin is condemned.  Because of this the same Lord preached: “The Prince of this world comes, and he possesses nothing in me.”  This is the first victory: that the flesh, assumed from a sinful race, stands forth as having no part in a misdeed; and so in that same flesh sin was condemned, in which it had believed itself able to reign; the same flesh, which at one time sin had conquered, conquered sin.  For if divinity alone had conquered, the Devil would not have been in great confusion, and it would not have inspired confidence in bodily men that it would conquer.

Let us see what the cross might want from itself, how the sin of the world is remitted upon it, how death is destroyed and the Devil triumphed over.  The cross is certainly not deserved, insofar as it pertains to the form of justice, unless by sinners; for both the law of God and of the world is recognized to have decreed the cross for guilty men and criminals alone.  Therefore with the Devil hurrying about working through Judas, through the kings of the earth and through the princes of the Jews, who “came together as one” to Pilate “against the Lord and against his Christ,” Christ was condemned to death; an innocent man was condemned just as the prophet says in the Psalm: “But the righteous man, what has he done?”  And again, “They will seek against the spirit of the righteous and will condemn innocent blood;” the man guilty of not even a trivial sin is condemned, since the serpent was able to leave no trace in this rock.  He patiently endured both insults and blows, the thorny crown and scarlet robe, and the other mockeries which are contained in the Gospel.  He endured this without any guilt, so that filled with patience, as “a sheep to the sacrifice,” he might come to the cross.  He received this in a dignified manner who would have been able to inflict injury upon his enemies.  He endured very powerful forces, as David sings, “as a man without help,” who would have been able to avenge himself by his divine majesty.  For he who withered the fig tree to its roots by his word would much more easily have immediately withered all flesh, which was reckoned as grass, if he had wished to resist.  For if even those who had come to capture him retreated backwards when they were questioned with a gentle speech, that is, “Whom do you seek?” and they were made like dead men, what would he have done if he had wished to resist?  But he fulfills the mystery of the cross, for which purpose he also came into this world; so that by means of the cross, by means of a salvific justice and reason, the note of our indebtedness to sin might be cancelled, the enemy power be captured after being enticed by the bait of the cross and the Devil lose the prey he used to hold.

Now, it is necessary for this to be believed to have been done in this way.  Christ the Lord without any guilt, without any blame, underwent a penal sentence; the innocent man is crucified without sin.  The Devil is made guilty by the death of an innocent man; the Devil is made guilty by bringing the cross upon a righteous man who owed nothing.  The death of Christ benefitted man: what Adam owed to God Christ paid by undergoing death, having been made without any doubt a sacrifice for the sin of men and for their race, just as the blessed Paul taught: “Christ,” he says, “loved us and handed himself over for us as an offering and sacrificial victim to God in a pleasing aroma.”  For that original sin was not easily able to be dismissed unless a sacrificial victim had been offered for the fault, unless that holy blood of propitiation had been poured out.  For the saying of the Lord at the time of the Exodus remains in force now: “I will see the blood, and I will protect you.”  For that figure of the lamb points to this Passion of the Lord Christ.  When blood is paid out for blood, death for death and a sacrificial victim for a fault, even so did the Devil lose what he was holding.  It is now rightly said to him: “O enemy, you do not have that on account of which you had a legal case.  The first Adam sinned but I the last Adam did not receive the stain of sin; let my righteousness benefit the sinner, let my death, imposed upon me unowed, benefit the debtor.  You are no longer able to hold man in endless death, for he conquered, overcame and crushed you through me.  You were not truly conquered through power, but by justice; not by domination, by rather by equity.”  Thus the Enemy vomited up what he had gulped down and justly there was taken away from him what he used to hold, since unjustly he dared to infringe upon that which under no arrangement was his concern.

Behold, dearly beloved brothers, how much I deem that a reason has been given for why our Lord and Saviour freed the human race from the power of the Devil not through power but through humility, not through violence but through justice.  For this reason let us, to whom the divine compassion gave so many benefits with no preceding merits of our own, labour as much as we are able with the help of that same divine compassion so that the grace of so great a love should not produce a judgment for us but a reward.

Soli Deo Gloria

11 thoughts on ““Why the Lord Jesus Christ freed the human race through harsh suffering, not through power.” A Translation of Caesarius of Arles by Ben Wheaton

  1. Pingback: He Made the World by His Word; Why is Salvation by Suffering? | Brandywine Books
  2. This is a great sermon, but it isn’t quite penal substitution. In this sermon, Jesus is consistently described as suffering the penal sentence unjustly, and the devil loses his rights over humanity because he condemned a righteous man. On penal substitution, the sin of man is imputed to Jesus such that he actually becomes legally guilty, or even sinful in some sense, (as Bruce McCormack says, Jesus becomes “the sinner”), and suffers condemnation justly, in order to satisfy the wrath of God, to appease his wrath, to fulfill the requirements of retributive justice. On penal substitution, the devil loses his rights over humanity because the punishment due humanity has been carried out on Jesus instead. In other words, it is not that he punished an innocent man, as in this sermon, but that he cannot have a just punishment carried out twice (see Michael Horton “The Christian Life, and Mark Driscoll “Death by Love” for this distinction).

    The decision that must be made is whether Jesus dies unjustly as an innocent man, as in this sermon, or dies justly as a guilty man, as in penal substitution.

  3. Hi gaberenfro,

    Not quite. What you describe as the message of Caesarius’ sermon is a typical “Christus Victor,” or, “mousetrap” image of the atonement. However, I urge you to look more carefully at the second-to-last paragraph and see how Caesarius explains why Christ’s death benefits humanity. Yes, Christ was innocent; but he also paid to God what Adam owed. He was a sacrifice made to God that was required in order for our sins to be forgiven. The Devil attacking an innocent man and so losing his rights over humanity was insufficient for our forgiveness; God had to be propitiated as well. This was done through Christ’s blood, which protects the guilty from judgment. Caesarius’ point is that the Devil performed the very sacrifice that was necessary for human sin to be forgiven and human beings saved from hell, even as he was losing his rights over humanity.

    Now, is this penal substitution? Not exactly. But the sermon contains many key elements of penal substitution, especially those rejected by its critics.

    • Thanks for your response. But I think there needs to be much more than what you have pointed out to say this sermon provides any support for penal substitution. In fact, the more I read it, the more I feel it serves better as a refutation of penal substitution.

      “Propitiation” just means “wrath aversion” or “wrath reversal.” It means that a threatened punishment is either not carried out (averted), or that a punishment that has been carried out will be reversed/alleviated. To provide evidence for penal substitution, you would have to show that propitiation specifically means that one party avoids wrath because the wrath is displaced on a substitute party to whom guilt has been imputed. I don’t see that in the sermon. What Caesarius describes is that the punishment of death that is justly upon humanity is suffered unjustly by Jesus, and so the punishment is reversed/alleviated. That actually serves as a refutation of the penal substitution definition of propitiation.

      Regarding the “debt” that is paid, what is required for evidence of penal substitution is specifically that Jesus pays a “debt” of retributive punishment. But Caesarius’ numerous statements emphasizing the injustice of Jesus’ death, and Christ’s payment of active obedience, clearly indicate that is not what he would affirm. Biblically speaking, the concept of humanity owing a “debt of death” is problematic, as the Bible makes clear that death is EARNED by humanity, not owed. “The wages of sin is death.” Jesus receives wages (death) that he does not deserve, so justice demands that those wages be returned, that death be reversed, hence his resurrection.

  4. Three points:
    1. Speaking Scripturally, the suffering of punishment and judgment is the suffering of wrath. It’s one reality considered under different aspect. The punishment of sin is the wrath of God. If Christ suffers punishment, he suffers wrath.
    2. Caesarius says, “what Adam owed to God Christ paid by undergoing death.” Jesus pays God what Adam owed, which is death, the punishment of sin. In his suffering of death, Jesus undergoes what Adam owed. He does, in fact, undergo what retributive justice demands of Adam.
    3. Caesarius’ numerous statements about Jesus’ innocence serve to establish that Jesus did not owe his own death due to his own sin and that on the level of human justice, it was an unjust act in that sense, but that is the precondition for it being able to satisfy the demand of justice against Adam.

    • 1. The central point of contention is whether Jesus suffered the punishment of death justly or unjustly. The narrative of Jesus’ uniquely unjust death is what carries the theological weight, in the Bible and in this sermon, not whether you call it “punishment of death” or “wrath of God” or whatever. It is fine to say that Jesus suffered the wrath of God unjustly, as long as there is clarity that the agents of the wrath of God are sinners (for example, Hebrews 2:14 says that the devil was given the power of death).
      2. Again, Biblically speaking, death is not owed to God. Death is earned from God as wages. If you think that distinction is irrelevant, I dare you to have the word “wages” replaced with “debts” on your next paycheck (!). Can you point to any place in the Bible in which death is spoken of as something humanity “owes” God? But even if Caesarius’ has a “debt of death” view that is inconsistent with Scripture, he is still clearly saying “For Adam’s debt of a sinner’s death, Jesus paid the death of an innocent person.” That is not penal substitution, which says that Jesus became guilty by imputation and paid to God the sinner’s death required to satisfy his just wrath.
      3. 1 Peter 2:18-25 speaks of Jesus’ death as unjust on a divine level, not simply on a “human level.” How does one find a gracious God? Unjust suffering, which is something only Jesus can do. Jesus’ death is not unique in that he dies, for we all die, and we are called to be crucified in him and with him. Jesus’ death is unique in that only he dies as a truly innocent and righteous party, and so only his death enacts the reversal of death, and secures grace with God for humanity. Justice requires the reversal of Jesus’ unjust death, hence the resurrection.

  5. Pingback: Thoughts Of Redemption – Sunshine Blogger Award Winner! – Thoughts Of Redemption

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s