Results tagged “Propitiation” from Reformation21 Blog

Hell to Pay

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18 years ago, I heard a sermon on Matthew 27:46--Jesus' cry of dereliction on the cross, "My God, My God, Why have You forsaken Me?" At one point, the minister who was preaching this message said, "Jesus wasn't really forsaken; he just felt forsaken by his Father in his soul." I remember sensing anger welling up within me at those words. I thought to myself, "That's a denial of the Gospel. If Jesus wasn't really forsaken, then I have no grounds to believe that I will never be forsaken." Sadly, I have subsequently come to discover that there are quite a number of Protestant theologians who have shied away from asserting that Jesus was really and truly forsaken by his Father when he hung on the cross. Nevertheless, I want to explain what we lose if Jesus wasn't, in fact, forsaken by God when he stood in our place. 

Thomas Brooks, the seventeenth century English Puritan theologian, explained why we must never downplay what truly happened to Christ on the cross. He insisted,

"The more we ascribe to Christ's suffering, the less remains of ours; the more painfully that he suffered, the more fully are we redeemed; the greater his sorrow was, the greater our solace; his dissolution is our consolation, his cross our comfort; his annoy our endless joy; his distress in soul our release, his calamity our comfort; his misery our mercy, his adversity our felicity, his hell our heaven."1

Brooks then proceded to explain exactly what happened to Jesus at Calvary, when he said, 

"Christ did actually undergo and suffer the wrath of God, and the fearful effects thereof, in the punishments threatened in the law. As he became a debtor, and was so accounted, even so he became payment thereof; he was made a sacrifice for sin, and bare to the full all that ever divine justice did or could require, even the uttermost extent of the curse of the law of God. He must thus undergo the curse, because he had taken upon him our sin. The justice of the most high God, revealed in the law, looks upon the Lord Jesus as a sinner, because he hath undertaken for us, and seizes upon him accordingly, pouring down on his head the whole curse, and all those dreadful punishments which are threatened in it against sin."2

Herman Bavinck, in his Reformed Dogmatics, stated the importance of understanding that Jesus did not merely undergo the feeling of forsakenness on the cross. Rather, Jesus experienced "an objective God-forsakenness" at Calvary. He insisted,  

"In the cry of Jesus we are dealing not with a subjective but with an objective God-forsakenness: He did not feel alone but had in fact been forsaken by God. His feeling was not an illusion, not based on a false view of his situation, but corresponded with reality."3

Charles Spurgeon explained that "hell consists in the hiding of God's face from sinners" and that God hid His face from Christ in the moment of his forsakenness on the cross: 

"Christ in that hour took all our sins, past, present, and to come, and was punished for them all there and then, that we might never be punished, because he suffered in our stead. Do you see, then, how it was that God the Father bruised him? Unless he had so done the agonies of Christ could not have been an equivalent for our sufferings; for hell consists in the hiding of God's face from sinners, and if God had not hidden his face from Christ, Christ could not--I see not how he could--have endured any suffering that could have been accepted as an equivalent for the woes and agonies of his people."4

Likewise, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, In his commentary on Romans 8:32, asserted that Jesus underwent "a separation from the face of the Father" on the cross. He wrote,

"[God] has made His Son the sacrifice; it is a substitutionary offering for your sins and mine. That was why He was there in the Garden sweating drops of blood, because He knew what it involved - it involved a separation from the face of the father. And that is why He cried out on the Cross, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'"

While the above citations ought to contain sufficiently convincing theological arguments, we still have to answer several objections to the truth that Jesus endured the infinite and eternal wrath of God on the cross. Some have insisted that Jesus didn't truly endure hell on the cross, because his human nature didn't experience complete annihilation. Others have rejected the teaching that Jesus experienced the equivalent of hell on the cross because his sufferings were temporary rather than eternal in their endurance. The answer to both of these objections is, of course, found in the mystery of the union of the two natures of Christ. 

Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 38 asks the question, "Why was it requisite that the Mediator should be God?" The members of the Assembly gave the following answer:

"It was requisite that the mediator should be God, that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession; and to satisfy God's justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation."

Here, both objections are answered. First, the divine nature of the Son of God sustained and kept the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God while he was the object of the infinite wrath of God. The infinite wrath of God was poured out on the finite human nature of Jesus, while the infinite divine nature of Jesus was upholding his person. Second, the infinite and eternal divine nature of the Son "gave worth and efficacy to his sufferings...to satisfy God's justice." It was not the amount of time that Jesus endured the infinite and eternal wrath of God when he hung on the cross, but the fact that an infinite and eternal being was giving worth to his human soul as Jesus bore the wrath of God in his body on the tree. 

If Jesus wasn't truly forsaken--if he didn't really endure the equivalent of eternal punishment on the cross--then substitutionary atonement is a legal fiction. If Jesus didn't really suffer the pains of hell on the cross then the infinite and eternal wrath of God is not truly propitiated. If Jesus didn't become the object of the righteous indignation of God in our place then we are still the objects of the eternal wrath of God. If Jesus wasn't truly condemned on the cross then we are not truly justified before God. If Jesus did not objectively suffer the equivalent of hell in his body and soul then there will be hell for us to pay. Praise God that there was hell to pay for Jesus when "in my place, condemned he stood. Hallelujah! What a Savior!" 


1.Thomas Brooks, The Complete Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander Balloch Grosart, vol. 5 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; G. Herbert, 1867), 147.

2.Ibid., pp. 147-148.

3. Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 389.

4. An excerpt from Spurgeon's sermon on Isaiah 53:10.

The Incomparable Conjunction of Love and Wrath

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I was recently reading John Murray's profoundly enriching sermon, "The Father's Love"--in the newly released volume of his sermon, O Death, Where is Thy Sting?--and was struck afresh with the wonder of the mystery of the commingling of the Father's love and wrath in His dealings with the Son on the cross. This greatest of all subjects received quite a good deal of attention last year, after Tim Keller tweeted out the following sentiment: "If you see Jesus losing the infinite love of the Father out of His infinite love for you, it will melt your hardness." While I certainly share the concern of those who reacted swiftly to the idea that the Son lost the Father's love when He hung on the cross, I was disheartened to see how many of the responses lacked a strong focus on the simultaneity of the manifestation of the Father's eternal love and divine wrath directed to the Son when He hung on the cross. In his sermon on Romans 8:32, however, Murray held these two seemingly incompatible truths inseparably together. 

When he first gave consideration of the words of the text, "spared not His own Son," Murray explained:

"The Father loved the Son with infinite and immutable love because he did not cease to be the only begotten Son, and the infinite love necessarily flowed out from the very relationship that he essentially and immutably sustained to God the Father" (76). 

Murray insisted that we must distinguish between the two kinds of love that the Father had for the Son. The first is that immutable, "infinite love that flows out from the Father to the Son because of the intrinsic relationship that they sustain to one another" (75) The second is "the love of complacency that flowed out with increasing intensity to the Son because of His fulfillment of the Father's commission" (75). This second kind of love that the Father had for the Son is captured in the words of Christ in John 10:17: "Therefore, the Father loves me because I lay down my life, that I may take it again." From this, we must conclude that the Father loved the Son incarnate the most, precisely at the moment when he was voluntarily laying down His life in connection with the command of His Father in the counsels of eternity. Murray noted:

"Every detail of the suffering endured by the Son constrained the love and delight of God the Father because it was all endured by the Son in obedience to the Father's will and--in the performance of the Father's will--the Son committed no sin." 

There is, however, "an incomparable conjunction" at the cross--"an unheard-of conjunction: infinite love and divine wrath." The Son becomes the object of the commingling of the love of the Father and the unmitigated wrath of the Father. "The essence of sin's curse and judgment," stated Murray, "is the wrath of God. So, if Jesus bore sin and if he bore our curse and if he was made sin, then the vicarious fearing of the wrath of God belongs to the very essence of his atoning accomplishment" (78). Here we see that the doctrine of propitiation is of the very essence of the truth of the Gospel. 

Murray further developed the mystery of the meaning of the conjunction of the manifestation of the Father's infinite love and divine wrath at the cross in this sermon, when he noted: 

"The truth is that it is just because the Son was the object of this immutable, infinite, and unique love that he could at the same time be the subject of the wrath of God... (78)

...It was only because the Son was the object of the Father's unique and immutable love that He could be thus abandoned. No other would be equal to it. The lost in perdition will be abandoned eternally, but not one of them will be able to of have occasion to say, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?" The abandonment of Christ on Calvary's tree was abandonment in pursuance of the commission given him by the Father, and it was abandonment with the unparalleled effect of ending that abandonment. And because it was abandonment with this result, it was abandonment with inimitable agony and reality...(79)

...The determinate purpose of the Father's love was the explanation for the spectacle of the Son's death. But the love that the Father bore to the Son did not diminish the severity of the ordeal that creates this spectacle--the ordeal of the cross and the abandonment vicariously born" (79). 

The Father's love for those for whom the Son bears His wrath is set against the background of this wondrous conjunction of the Father's love and wrath directed to the Son. Murray noted, "The Father loved His people with such invincible love and purpose that he executed the full toll, the full stroke, of their condemnation upon His own Son. That is the Father's love" (77).

All of this should, of course, make us "stagger with amazement...the amazement of believing and adoring wonder" (77). When we come to understand that the Father loved the Son the most while making the Son the object of His full and unfettered wrath--as He stood in our place as our substitutionary sacrifice--our hard hearts are melted. It is the "incomparable conjunction" of the Father's love and wrath directed to the Son that enables believers to grasp something of the greatness of the love that the Father has for us. 

Calvin, Keller and the Westminster Assembly

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Over at Derek Rishmway's blog Reformedish, Tim Keller has posted an excellent article on the reality of Christ's suffering on the cross. Relying on excerpts drawn from Calvin's interpretation of the descent of Christ into hell (Book II.16.8), Keller deals with the question of how Christ could have experienced forsakenness on the cross while never actually having lost the love of the Father. Keller follows Calvin in arguing that the line "He descended into hell"--as stated in the Apostles' Creed--"represents biblical teaching that Jesus suffered not just bodily pain but all the torments that a soul in hell, cut off from God's presence, would experience." Thus Keller affirms that Christ truly felt in his soul the pain of separation from the Father. However, any affirmation of Christ's suffering must not create an actual rift between the Father and the Son, on pain of destroying the doctrine of the Trinity. Keller helpfully offers a solution to this thorny theological issue: Christ ontologically (and hence objectively) did not lose the Father's love in any way, yet experientially (and hence subjectively), Christ's soul experienced all the feeling of anguish as if he had truly and really lost the Father's love. This model maintains the eternal bond of love between the Father and the Son while not selling short the real anguish that the Son experienced on the cross.

Keller is to be commended for his approach, particularly because of the doctrines at stake in the topic. This is no mere intellectual exercise for personal theological entertainment. The doctrines of salvation and the Trinity are at stake in this question. Minimizing the sufferings of Christ is dangerous for our salvation, because it is only in the sufferings of Christ that the wrath of God is propitiated. On the other hand, creating an ontological rift between the Father and the Son destroys the eternal blessedness of the divine nature of the Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit, particularly if one follows Augustine's insight that the Spirit is the "Bond of Love" between the Father and the Son) and entails that the Father and Son have separate substances.

Some might still raise questions such as "How can Christ have an experience which does not line up with reality?" or "How can the Father's love be unfailing while Jesus feels forsaken on the cross?" This is where the eighth chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith further advances Keller's argument. In reflecting on the two natures of Christ the mediator, the members of the Assembly wrote:

"Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature" (WCF VIII.7).

The Chalcedonian logic here is straightforward: the hypostatic union, wherein both natures are united without any confusion, conversion, or composition requires that we predicate truths of the person, while strictly speaking the predicate applies to only one nature. There are numerous reasons why we must understand this to be so. When Jesus was thirsty on the cross (John 19:28), this thirst is attributed to his person because his divine and human natures have been truly united in a personal manner. However, no one would say that Jesus was thirsty in his divine nature. The divine nature is not a physical substance, and hence cannot need water. Moreover, thirst in the divine nature would imply a lack of perfect blessedness, and hence God would cease to be God. So, according to WCF VIII.7, the person of Jesus was thirsty, while strictly speaking only his human nature experienced thirst.

This logic helps to strengthen Keller's ontological-experiential model. When we say that Christ experienced a true sense of separation and dereliction by the Father, this was only true of his human nature. This feeling in Jesus' body--and particularly in his soul--was generated by the full weight of God's wrath coming upon him. While Calvin does not explicitly outline such an approach in his chapter on the descent into hell, it is clearly in his thinking. In Institutes II.14.3, Calvin lays out his understanding of the communicatio idiomatum, the communication of properties in the hypostatic union. He insisted that certain ascriptions such as "before Abraham was, I AM" apply only to his divine nature. And while Scripture speaks of "God's blood" or "crucifying the Lord of glory" we must understand that, "God certainly has no blood, suffers not (emphasis mine), cannot be touched with hands; but since that Christ, who was true God and true man, shed his blood on the cross for us, the acts which were performed in his human nature are transferred improperly, but not ceaselessly, to his divinity."

This emphasis that the human nature alone suffered on the cross is seen in the Reformed Tradition that followed Calvin, as can be seen in the Heidelberg Catechism Q 37: "What do you understand by the words, "He suffered"? Answer: That he, all the time that he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind..." Additionally, the Westminster Divines' clear-cut Chalcedonian categories allow us to further appropriate Keller's ontological-experiential model with clarity and confidence. There was no objective, ontological break between the first and second Persons of the Godhead, even at the worst point of suffering on the cross. But as God's wrath was poured out on the human nature of Christ, He felt the full weight of that wrath. He experienced in those few hours on the cross what it would take us the rest of eternity in hell to experience. The mediator needed to be full God and fully man, so that the divine nature "might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God" (WLC 38). But even the divine nature could not spare the human nature from the anguish of this suffering, or else the human nature would cease to be truly human. No true man could experience this level of suffering and feel anything less than dereliction, and Christ had a true human nature. 

In all of this, the glory of the gospel is revealed: the immortal dies; God purchases us with His own blood; the Impassable suffers for us; the Son who is one with the Father experiences a sense of infinite loss and separation so that we will have perfect, unbroken communion with our Triune God.