Results tagged “substitution” from Reformation21 Blog

Love and Anger at the Cross?

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Last week, Wyatt Graham published a post titled, "The Father Was Not Angry at the Son of the Cross," in which he rightly explained that God the Father never stopped loving the Son--even when the Son hung on the cross. While there are many good and helpful statements in Wyatt's post--and, while he cites John Calvin for support--quite a number of them raise more questions than they answer. For instance, he says, "To build a case that the Father was angry with the Son goes beyond Scripture and the consensus of orthodox Christianity." Here we need to pause and ask, "Is it, in fact, unorthodox to believe that, in some sense, the Father was angry with the Son when He hung on the cross in the place of His people to atone for their sin and propitiate the wrath of the Father for their eternal redemption?" 

That the Father never stopped loving the Son--even when he hung on the cross--is one of the most important Christological truths upon which we can meditate. After all, it was Jesus who said, "Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down my life that I may take it again" (John 10:17). Herman Witsius, the 17th century Dutch theologian, explained that the Son "never pleased the Father more, than when he showed himself obedient unto death, even the death of the cross."1 In his sermon, "The Saddest Cry from the Cross," Charles Spurgeon explained, 

"If it had been possible for God's love towards His Son to be increased, He would have delighted in Him more when He was standing as the suffering Representative of His chosen people than He had ever delighted in Him before."2

It is impossible for one member of the Godhead to look upon another without infinite and eternal love...even for one second. 

While it is undeniable that the Father never stopped loving the Son (even when the Son bore the wrath of God on the cross), the way we should speak about the Son as our substitute in relation to the Father when he hung on the cross has been long debated. Is it right, in any sense whatsoever, to say that the Father was angry with the Son when He punished the Son in our place and for our sin? Was he ever the subject of the holy anger of which we, as hell-deserving sinners, are the proper objects?

When we take up the question about God's disposition toward his people, we must first seek to embrace all that Scripture has to say. The Apostle Paul made quite clear that we are all "by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind" (Eph. 2:3). John Calvin wrote, 

"Children of wrath are those who are lost, and who deserve eternal death. Wrath means the judgment of God; so that the children of wrath are those who are condemned before God. Such, the apostle tells us, had been the Jews,--such had been all the excellent men that were now in the Church; and they were so by nature, that is, from their very commencement, and from their mother's womb."3

Why did Jesus have to bear the wrath of God on the cross when he hung there as our representative? Simply put, Jesus had to step in the place of filthy (Job 15:16; Lam. 1:8; Isaiah 64:6; ), ungodly (Rom. 4:5; 5:6); God hating (Rom. 1:30) enemies (Rom. 5:10) who "deserve eternal death," those who are "condemned before God." There was nothing in us to commend us to God. The Apostle puts it in the strongest of terms when he said, "I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells (Rom. 7:18)." When we read these statements, and the many others like it, we are meant to say, "This is who I am by nature--an enemy of God, alienated from Him and under His wrath and just displeasure." 

Nevertheless, God sent His Son because of "the great love with which He loved us" (Eph. 2:4). The Apostle marveled at what God had done in Christ crucified and he said, "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). Paul's identity was bound up in the love of God in Christ. He wrote, "The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20). God does not love us because of Jesus; rather, God loved us and so He gave His Son for us. As John Murray put it, "The death of Christ does not constrain or elicit the love of God but the love of God constrained to the death of Christ as the only adequate provision of this love. The love of God is the impulsive force and its distinctive character is demonstrated in that which emanates from it."

When we take these two things together we have to say that the cross shows me that I am, by nature, the object of God's just anger and displeasure and that I am the object of His eternal and unmerited love, by grace. The cross reveals a both/and rather than an either/or. This is essential to understanding that the Father never stopped loving the Son on the cross and that He made the Son the object of His just displeasure and anger as the representative who stood in our place to atone for our sin and to propitiate God's wrath. 

In his "Conciliatory, or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies agitated in Britain, under the Unhappy Names of Antinomians and Neonomians" (They were quite luxurious with the printing press back then), Witsius explained the longstanding difference of opinion among orthodox theologians over how to speak about the Son in light of the fact that He was bearing the wrath of God for His people on the cross. He first asked whether or not it was proper to say that "Christ on account of the pollution of our sins was also polluted and odious, and placed in such a state that God abhorred him?" After explaining that the Father never stopped loving the Son, but did, in fact, love him most when he was on the cross, Witsius wrote:

"Christ, not because of the susception of our sins, which was an holy action, and most acceptable to God, but because of the sins themselves which he took upon him, and because of the persons of sinners whom he sustained, was represented not only under the emblem of a lamb, inasmuch as it is a stupid kind of creature, and ready to wander; but also of a lascivious, a wanton, and a rank-smelling goat, Lev. 16:7. yea, likewise of a cursed serpent, John 3:14. and in that respect, was execrable and accursed, even to God. For this is what Paul expressly asserts, Gal. 3:13. on which place Calvin thus comments, "He does not say that Christ was cursed, but a curse, which is more; for it signifies that the curse due to all, terminated in him. If this seem hard to any, let him also be ashamed of the cross of Christ, in the confession of which we glory!"4

Witsius then suggested that even if we agree that "God abhorred the Son" when he legally represented us on the cross, we should be willing--for the sake of peace--to limit ourselves to the language of Scripture (e.g. Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:21), 

"What cogent reason is there, why we should say that Christ was odious and abominable to the Father, when we may adhere to the dictates of the Holy Spirit, who pronounces that he was an execration (i.e. an angry denouncement or curse) of God? But I would wish also to know what there is in these words of human invention, except that they are of human invention, for the sake of which others are so much offended. If we love the thing itself, is there more of emphasis or of weight, in the names filthy, odious, abominable, than in the name cursed, or execrable? Why do we strive about words, which may be safely omitted, if found to give offense; but being also innocently said, ought not to be wrested to another sense."5

Next, Witsius set out an important section of the "Formula of Concord" as, what he deemed to be, "a convenient method of agreement" in this debate, 

"Since there is an exchange of persons between Christ and believers, and since the guilt of our iniquities was laid upon him, the Father was OFFENDED AND ANGRY with him. Not that he was ever moved with any PASSION against him, which is repugnant in general to the perfection of the Divine nature, under whatever consideration: neither that he was by any means offended at him, much less abhorred him, so far as he was considered IN HIMSELF, for so he was entirely free from all sin; but as considered IN RELATION TO US, seeing he was our SURETY, carrying our sins in his own Body. Thus, if by an OFFENDED AND AN ANGRY mind, you understand a holy WILL TO PUNISH, Christ the Lord felt and bore the displeasure of God, and the weight of his wrath, in the punishment of our sins, which were translated to him. For it pleased the Father to bruise him, having laid the iniquities of us all upon him."6

Witsius concluded, "If these things are granted on both sides, as is just, what controversy can remain?" 

In short, it is right for us to both affirm that the Father never stopped loving the Son when he hung on the cross and that the Father was justly angry with the Son "because of the sins themselves which he took upon him, and because of the persons of sinners whom he sustained." It would be unorthodox to insist that within the Godhead, the love of the Father for the Son was ever diminished or ceased. That would be a denial of the doctrine of Divine simplicity. It would be equally unorthodox to insist that--insomuch as Jesus was the representative of a people who are, by nature, under the wrath and curse of God and rightly the objects of his just anger and displeasure--the Son was not the object of the Father's just wrath. 


1.Herman Witsius, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions on the Controversies Agitated in Britain, trans. Thomas Bell (Glasgow: W. Lang, 1807), 44. 

2. An excerpt from Charles Spurgeon's sermon "The Saddest Cry from the Cross," Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit #2803

3. Jon Calvin Calvin on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and the Ephesians (Edinburgh: Thomas Clark, 1841) p. 203

4. Witsius, Conciliatory or Irenical Animadversions pp. 44-45.

5. Ibid. p. 46.

6. Ibid., pp. 46-47. 

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.