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Are we Co-Redeemers?

Question: I can assure you that we Catholics believe in His completed work and suffering at Calvary’s cross. However, as the Bride of Christ, His Body, our sufferings are so united with Christ's that we can offer them in union with His redemptive work for the salvation of souls (Colossians 1:24). The Lord Jesus Christ uses the suffering of his people to draw souls to salvation to be found only through Christ. That is what redemptive suffering is all about.

Answer: There is great value in the Christian’s work and suffering in Christ. For one thing, as you said, the Lord Jesus brings souls into His kingdom, and builds them up in grace, through the painstaking work of His ministers and His people. Sadly, the idea of “redemptive suffering” as used in Catholic theology, is not limited to this sense. The Catholic Church teaches that the works, prayers and sufferings of the saints are united with that of Christ to merit our redemption (see Catechism paragraphs 618, 1476, 1477). That idea is wrong.

We must make a very clear distinction between the finished work of Christ on the cross for our redemption, and His work in and through us for the edification of the church.

Christ redeemed His people, that is, paid the ransom for their liberation and forgiveness, by His death on the cross. He came to give "His life a ransom for many,” and believers say, “we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins,” and He “has redeemed us to God by Your blood,” and again, “by His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” (Matthew 20:28; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14, Revelation 5:9; Hebrews 9:12).

So redemption has been obtained, once for all, by the death of Christ on the cross. His preaching or His miracles did not achieve redemption. Neither is Christ now obtaining redemption by working in or through His people. To be sure, the Lord is intimately involved in the lives of His children, and being spiritually united with them, their afflictions are also His. Moreover, there is value in the Christian suffering - for mortification of sin, the strengthening of faith and character. At the end, the Lord will also recompense and glorify His people for their suffering on earth. Yet nowhere does the Scripture teach that Christians participate with Christ in His sacrifice, suffering and death to achieve redemption. His blood has already obtained that.

So, briefly,

  1. By His death, Christ has already obtained redemption

  2. The purpose of the Christians' suffering is not redemptive.

Nonetheless, Catholic apologists quote Colossians 1:24 ("now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church"), and other verses, as evidence that we must co-operate by our suffering with Christ to accomplish redemption. Let’s see if this is the case or not. Please read the verse in its context:

For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight— if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister.

I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus. To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily. For I want you to know what a great conflict I have for you and those in Laodicea, and for as many as have not seen my face in the flesh, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, and attaining to all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the knowledge of the mystery of God, both of the Father and of Christ (Colossians 1:19 - 2:2).

It is clear that there is a sense in which the afflictions of Christ for His church are incomplete. Christ still suffers for His church. How? He is so united with His people that the suffering of the members of His body are in a very real sense His own! Thus the sufferings of the apostle Paul for the sake of the church are the afflictions of Christ.

The apostle Paul was suffering for the sake and benefit of the Christians in Colosse. We must ask this important question: What was the purpose of his suffering? Was Paul’s suffering added to the merits of the death of Christ to achieve redemption, the forgiveness of sins? Or did Paul’s suffering benefit the Christians in Colosse in some other way?

First, the apostle writes about the redemptive work of Christ (Colossian 1:19-23). He assures the believers in Colosse that reconciliation and peace with God were achieved “through the blood of His cross” and “in the body of His flesh through death.” Reconciliation was not achieved through the work and suffering of Christ's ministers. Neither was reconciliation brought about by the suffering of His mystical body, the church, but "in the body of His flesh," that is, by the sacrifice of His human physical body and the shedding of His blood. Paul does not instruct Christians to add something to the work of Christ to be reconciled with God. Rather, the apostle assures the believers that they are already at peace with Him on account of His blood.

After speaking about the sacrifice of Christ, the apostle Paul changes subject and speaks about his apostolic role (Colossians 1:23 – 2:5). He presents himself as a minister of the Gospel. His mission was to preach and teach to make known the Good News of Christ to everyone. And to do so, the apostle Paul had to suffer much hardship of every sort. In this sense he was suffering for the sake of Christians for the purpose of teaching and edifying the church. The fanciful idea that he was contributing something to the redemptive work of Christ would not even cross his mind. The thought was anathema to him! “Was Paul crucified for you?” (1 Corinthians 1:13). No, of course not! Jesus was crucified for us, and what He achieved for us by His cross (reconciliation, peace with God and redemption) could not be attributed to Paul, or any other creature.

In a word, believers are redeemed by the blood of Christ alone. The work and suffering of the apostle Paul, as well as other ministers and Christians, serve for the proclamation of the Gospel and the edification of the church, but not for redemption. Christ is the Redeemer. Christians are the redeemed, not co-redeemers!

© Dr Joseph Mizzi