On the Suffering of Christ by John Arndt

Therefore find comfort in this: Christ suffered such anguish for all of your sins. Yes, His soul was sorrowed for you. He was troubled for you. He was deeply distressed for you, so that you do not need to sorrow forever, nor be troubled, nor be deeply distressed.

John Arndt (1555-1621) was a Lutheran pastor and the author of the most popular devotional book in Europe since Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471). True Christianity, which eventually grew to six books, is Arndt’s Lutheran reworking of the fairly popular Theologia Germanica (German Theology), an anonymous writing following the German mystic John Tauler (1300-1361). Luther had recommended German Theology early in the Reformation, publishing it in 1516 and 1518. Luther introduced the 1518 edition with these words, “For this noble book, though it be poor and rude in words, is so much the richer and more precious in knowledge and divine wisdom. And I will say, though it be boasting of myself and ‘I speak as a fool,’ that next to the Bible and St. Augustine, no book has ever come into my hands where I have learnt, or would wish to learn more of what God, and Christ, and man, and all things are…”1

Like German Theology, Arndt’s True Christianity focuses on the inward life of a Christian, on repentance, denying yourself, and recognizing the perfect and complete love only in Christ and God. It exhorts the Christian to humble himself and take up Christ’s example of self-denial and humility by teaching the whole counsel of God. Much of Luther is seen in both books, including his treatment of the old and new man, the uses of the law, the freedom of the Christian, and many other themes. While Arndt was criticized for his book (Polycarp Leyser saying, “The book is good only when the reader is good”),2 yet John Gerhard, who had been his parishioner for two years, generally defended his former pastor, despite his penchant for mystical literature.

Lesser known are Arndt’s sermons, which cover not only the Gospels for the Sundays and Feasts of the Church Year, but also include many sermons on the Passion of Christ. Nearly every sermon Arndt writes introduces the Gospel lesson with shadows, portrayals, and prophecies of the Old Testament. Arndt’s use of allegory is exemplary as he finds types and shadows in nearly every word of the Old Testament. John Gerhard’s postils show that he likely borrowed a lot from his onetime mentor.

While Arndt’s regular Sunday sermons focus especially on repentance and applying the promises of the Gospel to the Christian life, his Passion Sermons spend a beautiful amount of time savoring the grace of God in every detail of the history of Christ’s suffering and death in the four Gospels. In over forty sermons, of which thirty-eight were reprinted in 1860, Arndt shows the Old Testament revealed Christ’s Passion. Hidden from English for too long, we are pleased to present this translation of one sermon by Seminarian Peter Preus. – M. Preus

The Sorrow of the Lord in Gethsemane, His Prayer, and His Disciples. The Kindness of Christ towards His Enemies, and His Omnipotence.

Our dear God commanded Moses to build three different altars upon which he was to sacrifice. The first altar which God commanded to be built was an altar of earth (Exodus 20). The second was an altar of stone (Exodus 20). The third was an altar of wood overlaid with fine gold on all sides, upon which the High Priest was to offer the incense offering. These three distinct altars provide for us a beautiful example of the holy offering of Christ. First, He would be a sacrifice on the altar which was made of earth, namely, in the Garden on the Mount of Olives. Thereafter on the altar of stone, which was the High Priest’s palace and Pilate’s court house. And finally on the altar of wood overlaid with gold, namely, the cross sprinkled with Christ’s own blood, as with the most precious of gold. Upon this last altar the true incense offering was offered, where Christ allowed Himself to be sacrificed as a sweet aroma ascending up to God for the reconciliation of the human race. God considers the aroma sweet, because this offering brings about reconciliation. 

Now since we began these Passion sermons with the verse, “Come and see the works of God; He is awesome in His doing upon the earth” [cf. Ps. 66:5-6], we shall now take a closer look at the altar of earth that is the Garden, and what transpired there.

I. The location, the sorrow, the prayer, and the Lord’s disciples. 

II. How the way in which Christ was caught demonstrates both His omnipotence and His kindness to both friend and foe; how He does not want to be vindicated by the sword; how the disciples abandon Him. 

1. The Place of the Garden

The reason why Christ wanted to begin His suffering in the Garden is deduced from the comparison of the battles of the first Adam, who was driven from the Garden, and Christ, who came to the Garden to do His work. The first Adam sinned in the Garden; the second Adam atoned for sin in the Garden. The first Adam became disobedient towards God in the Garden; the second Adam, with His obedience towards God, fulfilled the law and made atonement for every disobedient sinner. The first Adam lost his freedom in the Garden and became a slave to sin and Satan; the second Adam allowed Himself to be bound and seized, that by His bondage we may be made free. In the Garden, the first Adam incurred the verdict of damnation, where he heard and felt the curse; in the Garden, the second Adam took onto Himself both the verdict of damnation and the curse. In the Garden, the promise of the One who would crush the serpent’s head was given to the first Adam. Now behold, this One who crushes the serpent’s head has come into the Garden.

2. The Sadness of the Lord

Let us take a look at the great sadness of the Lord, which He first reveals with these words, “My soul is sorrowed unto death” (Mt. 26:38). Here, the Lord bewails the sorrow of His soul, because every sorrow on earth had fallen onto Him. Thus, He said, “unto death.” Alas, if only this deathly sorrow and fear lasted only but a little while! But this sorrow weighed down on Him more than anything anyone can imagine or express. The wrath of God against the sin of the world was placed upon His neck, terrifying His soul. Thereafter followed the curse, the verdict of God’s justice, the various disgraces, and the shameful death on the cross. He also revealed His sorrow to others by His behavior. For He began not only to sorrow, but also “to be troubled and deeply distressed” (Mk. 14:33).

These are some memorable words in the Greek text. The first, namely “sorrow,” would have caused such terror in His body that His every limb would have frozen, thoroughly penetrated to the bone with terror, with every hair standing straight up. The second word, meaning “to be troubled,” happens when one knows neither counsel, help, nor comfort. Such a man is unable to rest anywhere. The third word means “deeply distressed,” that is, to feel and suffer fear and anguish. Thus the Psalms explain this anguish of the soul. Psalm 18 says, “The pangs of death surrounded me, and the floods of ungodliness made me afraid. The sorrows of hell surrounded me; the snares of death confronted me.” The wrath of God is also described in Psalm 38. Again, in Psalm 88, “For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to the grave. I am counted with those who go down to the pit; I am like a man who has no strength,…Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and You have afflicted me with all Your waves.” And again, in Psalm 116, “The pains of death surrounded me, and the pangs of hell laid hold of me; I found trouble and sorrow.” Also Psalm 55, “My heart is severely pained within me, and the terrors of death have fallen upon me. Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me, and horror has overwhelmed me.” 

You should learn to recognize three things from this. First, the magnitude and weight of your sin, how serious a matter it was for your Savior to pay for sin. Do not make light of sin. For here you see that it is no light matter. 

Secondly, learn to recognize the comfort you have in times of great affliction. When your soul feels the terrors of God’s wrath, do not despair. For Christ suffered this same wrath, but to the greatest possible degree for you. This He did lest you despair over your sin and fall to ruin. He overcame the terrors and the anguish of His soul. Therefore find comfort in this: Christ suffered such anguish for all of your sins. Yes, His soul was sorrowed for you. He was troubled for you. He was deeply distressed for you, so that you do not need to sorrow forever, nor be troubled, nor be deeply distressed. 

Thirdly, also learn to recognize the comfort you have here concerning temporal death. For the real death is great terror and anguish of the soul. And this Christ suffered, so that you do not need to suffer these terrors when you die. Christ made these same terrors powerless, lest they overpower you in death. You shall not taste death forever.

3. The Prayer of the Lord

Let us take a look at the prayer of the Lord: 1. He “fell to the ground.” 2. He says, “Abba, Father.” 3. “All things are possible with You. Take this cup away from Me.” 4. “Nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will” (Mk. 14:35-36).

Firstly, He fell to the ground with the greatest humility and sacrificed Himself upon His heavenly Father’s altar of earth. He prostrated Himself most humbly before His heavenly Father. He fell on His face (Mt. 26:39). Because of His fear and terror, He cannot even look up to His heavenly Father. He feels the great heartache of despair. The load of sin was so heavy that it pressed this strong Hero down to the earth, who otherwise would have carried both heaven and earth. 

Secondly, He says, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You.” Behold the firm faith, the burning love, the continual hope. He calls God His Father amidst His greatest cross and extreme terrors, even as He feels God’s wrath against the sin of the world. He says, “My Father” (Mt. 26:39, 42). Such is the love, the purest of love, with which He loved God in His time of greatest need. 

Thirdly, He says, “All things are possible for You.” This is hope. All things are possible for You, so it is also possible for You to take this cup from Me. You have laid this cross on Me, how easy it would be to take it away. Alas, God must be the One to ease and take away the cross, for He is the One who gives it. It is up to Him. To Him we too must pray.

Fourthly, “Nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.” Here, we see His obedience, His denial of His own will, and His denial of Himself.

Thus, we too should pray in faith, love, hope, obedience, humility, and in accordance with the will of God. Indeed, this is the greatest possible medicine for every cross: that one turns to Him who sent the cross and believes that God Himself is in the cross. Yes, our Father is in the middle of death, and everything is possible with Him. Entrust and yield yourself to His will, and you will endure through the cross. 

The other Evangelists add to the prayer of the Lord that as He was in deep prayer, wrestling with death, His sweat fell to the earth like drops of blood. Who can imagine or express the Lord’s suffering in body and soul? Indeed, here both body and soul suffer the greatest terror and agony. The Lord’s soul greatly struggled in prayer against the fear of death, dread, and terror. However, the Lord’s holy body also wrestled with the pains of death. The power of death so utterly consumed Him, including His holy limbs, and caused Him inexpressible pain. But His soul could not yet be separated and torn from His body, because He needed to die on the cross. There, on the cross, His holy body suffered the anguishing fear of death so severely, with His holy blood flowing forth from His veins and His whole body, just as if it had gone through a presser and was drained. His face and His entire body were dripping drops of blood. (This happens in the sweat of death, that a dying man will sweat both from his face and in his heart.) And this holy blood, which the fear of death presses from the Lord (from which blood His heart was of course already gripped by great terror), this blood thickens through the chill of death and the clotted drops of blood fall upon the earth. For so they are called in the Greek text, “clotted drops of blood,” and this comes from the terrifying, horrible, cold fear of death.

Behold then, in the Garden the fear of death raged in the members of Christ the Lord with unspeakable pain. And since fear could not here take His soul, it took His blood.  

Behold, Adam, what red apples this tree bears! Here is the Tree of Life who, because of the lovely apples from which you ate death, bears now blood-red apples. Yours was the fruit of transgression. His is the fruit of payment. 

The Lord needed to suffer in this way to fulfill Scripture, as recorded in Isaiah 63, “Who is this who comes from Edom, with dyed garments from Bozrah…Why is Your apparel red, and Your garments like one who treads in the winepress? ‘I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with Me…Their blood is sprinkled upon My garments, and I have stained all My robes.’” He suffered thusly so that the power and fear of death would be made powerless in His holy body, so that when we die we need not truly taste death.

4. The Disciples

Let us also take a look at the disciples. What do they do? They abandon and leave the Lord alone in His unwavering prayer to fight death and to sweat drops of blood.

Firstly, this is because the Lord was to receive no comfort from man; His comfort was to come from heaven alone. That is why an angel from heaven appeared to Him and strengthened Him, that is, comforted Him. In times of great distress, comfort must come to faithful Christians from heaven. In this world they will find no comfort.

Secondly, the Lord serves as an example that we ought not be alone when distressed. Rather, we should have a devout friend near us, who helps by praying for us and with us. Nevertheless, for Christ it cannot be so.

Thirdly, the disciples are a picture of fleshly and secure people. Such people do not themselves care when Christ and the Church are persecuted, when they sweat blood, or when they are choked and scattered. Thus, the children of this world choose the good days. They do not help to toil or to pray. They let Christ and His Word stand only when they are living in good days, when they can rest and sleep.


Peter Preus

Peter Preus is a seminarian at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN.

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