The Holy One Bore God’s Wrath But Did Not See Corruption

The writer of Hebrews tells us that Christ qualifies to be our eternal High Priest because he has “the power of an indestructible life” (Heb 7:16).

Text: Acts 2:22-24, 36-38; Psalm 16:1-11 Download PDF sermon

Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 17; Belgic Confession Article 19
December 18, 2011

"The View from the Cross" by James Tissot (1896-1904) (click to enlarge)

"The View from the Cross" by James Tissot (1896-1904) (click to enlarge)

Recently, in some of our theological discussions, some pastors asked, “Since God cannot die, and if Christ is God, did Christ really die on the cross?” This is a valid question posed by those who want to protect the attributes of God. We will expand on this discussion later.

This question is relevant to this our fourth sermon in the Advent series “Why the God-Man?” In other words, why did the Son of God come down from heaven and assume human flesh? We first looked at man’s hopeless condition of sinfulness, and God’s holiness and justice which demanded satisfaction. Next, we learned that since man sinned, man has to be punished, so God sent his beloved Son to be assume human flesh and blood. Then, last week we studied how the Son qualified to be the Savior and Mediator, first, by becoming true and righteous man who dwelt with his people on earth.

Today, we continue with the discussion on how the Son qualified to be the Savior: he came also as true God. Many controversies and false teachings on this subject have arisen even in the early church. Arius, in the 4th century denied that Christ is eternal God, but was only a created being, even if he was the first created being. His teaching was condemned as a heresy, but still today, it is advocated by major sub-Christian cults: Iglesia Ni Cristo, Mormonism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Why He is the Holy One

Let us go back to the first controversy mentioned above: If Jesus was the God-Man when he died on the cross, and if God cannot die, then how can the God-Man suffer and die? The answer for some is that God suffered and died on the cross. For Jurgen Moltmann, a twentieth century German theologian, God was “a crucified God.” This is very popular among liberals because of the question of suffering and evil in the world. If God is love, he must be involved and concerned about all these evil things. He sympathizes and suffers with his beloved creation. For some, the death of Jesus represents God’s identification with the suffering and deprived poor in the world.

For example, in the flood disaster today in Mindanao, God suffers with the people who are suffering. This is why the Son had to be born on Christmas day: he had to live, suffer and die among his own people. But this is an incomplete picture of his incarnation, death and resurrection. First, if Moltmann is right, Christ’s incarnation was for social and economic oppression and injustice, not for individual salvation. Second, he views God as partial to the poor and oppressed over the rich; not everyone is equal in salvation before God. Third, his emphasis on the poor results in the notion that the most important task for a Christian is not the preaching of the gospel, but the doing of the social gospel for the poor, clearly the focus of many churches today. 1

In Charles Wesley’s popular hymn, “And Can It Be?“ is a believer’s awe-filled question: “How can it be that thou, my God, should die for me?” But is it Biblical to say that God died on the cross? Biblical data says no, for several reasons. First, God’s character, substance and nature cannot die or even change at any point in time. This is why the heresies of a suffering and dying God were soundly denied by the early church.

Second, if God ceased to live or exist for a moment, the whole universe would be destroyed because he is the only one who preserves and sustains it by his power. Paul said, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Nothing exists apart from God. Obviously, then, if God was dead in the grave for three days, the world would have ceased to exist.

Third and last, if the Trinity works in harmony, the Second Person of the Trinity could not have died. The very being of the Trinitarian God is that they are one in substance and character, and death is a change in substance and character. The death of God as the Second Person of the Trinity would have involved a change in the substance of God. 2

So we should be horrified at the idea that God actually experienced death on the cross. To be sure, it is Christ the God-Man Who died, but the atonement for sin was offered by the human nature of Christ. Even when he left his glorious existence in heaven to be born in humility as a human being, he came with his full divine nature. This is why we read Article 19:3 of the Belgic Confession of Faith which says:

However, these two natures are so closely united in one person that they were not even separated by His death. Therefore, what He, when dying, committed into the hands of His Father was a real human spirit that departed from His body. Meanwhile His divinity always remained united with His human nature, even when He was lying in the grave. And the divine nature always remained in Him just as it was in Him when He was a little child, even though it did not manifest itself as such for a little while.

The divinity of Christ never left him in his birth, suffering and death, although he did not use that divine nature in his suffering and death. This is why Peter calls Jesus in verse 27 of our reading as “the Holy One” who did not see corruption (quoted from Psalm 16:10). God did not abandon his body to corruption, because God raised him from the grave “and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4).

The Scriptures are filled with texts that affirm the divinity of Christ. So I will not cite many Scriptures, just the following two verses as examples:

John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”

Colossians 1:15-19: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together… He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

In his three years of earthly ministry, Jesus performed many miracles, signs and wonders. This is why Peter preaches that he was “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst” (v 22). Note that the human name of Jesus is used, and Peter calls him a man. But he also says that he performed God’s “mighty works and wonders and signs” among them, which only his divine nature can do. Other examples of this usage:

John 3:13: No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.

John 6:62: Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?

Romans 9:5: To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever.

Sometimes, the reverse is used: he is called by his divine names, but doing or exhibiting human deeds:

Acts 20:28: Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

1 Corinthians 2:8: None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

Col 1:13-14: He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

From the above, it is clear that it is the whole Person of the God-Man who died on the cross. But the Bible is also clear that the divine nature, even while united to the human nature in death, did not die. The Council of Chalcedon saw this, and affirmed that Christ must be “acknowledged in two natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably” at all times.

Furthermore, according to Peter, the incarnation, suffering and death of Jesus was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” before the creation of the world. He was already with God and was God existing from eternity past. But here is the paradox between God’s predestination and human responsibility: the unbelieving Jews and lawless Romans were still responsible for their evil deed of crucifying an innocent man. Both are clearly affirmed in Scriptures and no one can escape from his evil deeds or use God’s sovereignty as an excuse on Judgment Day. In fact, Paul says that God’s wrath is already

revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them… So they are without excuse (Rom 1:18-20).

What He Did and What Was Done to Him

When he came down from heaven, Christ assumed true human flesh and blood and lived among his people. For three years, he preached his gospel of repentance and faith and performed “mighty works and wonders and signs.” These he did to attest that he is truly God who is sovereign over the universe and is almighty. He did not perform signs and wonders as an example for us to follow, so we could also perform them. This is why Hebrews 2:4-5 says, “[Salvation] It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”

But this God-Man was despised and rejected by his own people. He was mocked, beaten, and shamed all throughout his life. Through all these sufferings and temptations, he perfectly obeyed God’s law and was perfectly righteous before his Father in heaven. Then he willingly obeyed all the way to his cruel death on the cross. This was part of his mission on earth, because as we have learned in the past three Lord’s Days, only a true Man and at the same time true God is qualified to be the Savior and Mediator of mankind.

A few significant questions emerge: how would one act of righteousness by one Man satisfy God’s eternal wrath against countless unrepentant sinners? How would his sacrifice on the cross for a few hours satisfy God’s judgment of eternal hell for them? The Heidelberg Catechism succinctly answers these big questions. Q&A 44 answers the question about Christ’s descent into hell: “Christ my Lord, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which He suffered in His soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell.”

Contrary to Roman Catholic and Lutheran belief, Christ did not physically descend into hell between his death and resurrection. But his suffering was the equivalent of what all the millions of repentant sinners would have had to suffer in hell. He suffered God’s wrath for all believers.

Q&A 17 also tells us why a Man who is also true God is the only one Who could satisfy God’s eternal wrath on sinners:

That by the power of His Godhead He might bear in His manhood the burden of God’s wrath, and so obtain for and restore to us righteousness and life.

Why must the Savior and Mediator also have to be true God? First, his sacrifice is of infinite value and perfection, which is why the historic faith constructed this formula about the extent of the death of Christ: “Sufficient for the whole world but efficient for the elect alone.” This was reaffirmed by the Synod of Dort, which stated that the sacrifice of Christ “is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world… [but] that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect” (Canons of Dort III:3, 8).

Second, if Jesus was only a true and righteous man, and not God, he would have no power to sustain God’s eternal wrath. He would be destroyed by God’s wrath and would not be able to raise himself from the grave. Man will not be able to withstand God’s consuming fire, as the psalmist says, “But you, you are to be feared! Who can stand before you when once your anger is roused?” (Psa 76:7) The writer of Hebrews tells us that Christ qualifies to be our eternal High Priest because he has “the power of an indestructible life” (Heb 7:16).

Peter says, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” The Bible attributes the resurrection of Christ to the Triune God. God the Father raised him up (Acts 2:32; 5:30). Christ is able to willingly sacrifice his own life and take it back again, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again… I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). And Paul says that the Holy Spirit also raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11). The lesson here is that in all the work of God—creation, redemption, resurrection, restoration—the three Persons of the Trinity are intimately involved.

Because Jesus is God, he did not sin, and he was not bound by death.

What He Did for Us

By bearing God’s wrath on the cross for our sins, “God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). How is he Lord? Jesus God himself (1 Cor. 7:34; Phil. 4:4, 5) and Lord of the Church (Rom 1:7; Eph 1:17). How is he Christ? He is the fulfillment of the Old Testament “Messiah,” “the Anointed One,” who was ordained to hold all three offices of Prophet, Priest and King (1 Kings 19:16; Exod 29:7; 1 Sam 10:1).

Especially as our great High Priest, Jesus obtained or gained for us two things: righteousness and eternal life (Acts 20:28). He restored us to righteousness before God by offering, not animal sacrifices, but his own broken body and shed blood on the cross. By being “wounded for our transgressions [and] crushed for our iniquities… [he made] many to be accounted righteous” (Isa 53:5, 11). By being made sin for us, we have the “become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).

By giving his only-begotten Son, God has given his people eternal life (John 3:16). The life that Christ lived was for us was his proclamation that his eternal communion with the Father will also be given to those who believe in him (1 John 1:2).

What must one do to obtain righteousness and eternal life? Peter answers, “Repent and believe for the forgiveness of your sins.” But even this repentance and faith are gifts of God to the elect. Faith is a gift from God (Eph 2:8), and a person will not repent of his sins unless God grants him repentance (Acts 11:18; 2 Tim. 2:25). They do not come from us, because we have to first be given new hearts in order to repent and believe (Ezek 36:26; Jer 31:33). In fact, Jesus taught that no one is able to come to the Father in faith and repentance unless the Father first draws him, that is, God gives the desire and inclination to come to Christ in faith (John 6:44).

He also gives those who believe “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” He teaches, helps and comforts us, and intercedes for us in our sufferings and temptations. Although God himself does not suffer with us, Christ is able to sympathize with us because he was made to be like us.

This Christmas season, remember that Jesus the God-Man came down from heaven to be our Redeemer and Mediator. This is incomprehensible to us: how can God himself become like us in everything and suffer for our own sins, not his? Let us be thankful this day and all the days of our lives because of God’s unspeakable gift of righteousness eternal life through the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Christ who bore God’s wrath on our sins.

 


Notes:

  1. Letham, Robert, The Work of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 172-4.
  2. Sproul, R. C., “Is it Accurate to Say that God Died on the Cross?” Ligonier Ministries, April 3, 2010.
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