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About The Death of Christ

From a Grand Rapids reader we received the following question:

“What death did our Lord Jesus Christ die on the cross? Men that sin are dead; and when they pass on, they pass on into eternal death. The believers’ punishment, including eternal death, is laid upon our Lord and Savior. Did He die our eternal death, and how did He die that death for us?”

Reply 

In reply, I would emphasize that our Lord Jesus Christ died our death in the full sense of the term, that He did so vicariously for all those whom the Father gave Him, and that thus He completely removed the punishment of death for all His elect. 

In briefly explaining this reply, let me point to the following: 

1) Death is one, not several. I think we tend to overlook this sometimes, and unintentionally we begin to think and to speak as though there are several deaths. We speak of physical death, of spiritual death, of everlasting death. And before we realize it, we begin to use these terms as though they refer to three different deaths. Actually, of course, they are butaspects of the one death. 

2) What is more important is that we understand what death really is, whether in its spiritual, its physical, or its everlasting aspect. Death is punishment. It is the visitation of the wrath of God. It is the execution of the sentence of God’s justice against the sinner. It is the experience of the curse of God in all our existence, body and soul, from the cradle to the grave, and then on into everlasting destruction in hell. It is to be banned from God’s fellowship, to be alienated from Him. “To live apart from God is death,”—- that is, in the sense of being apart from His favor and fellowship, of being the objects of His holy wrath and His fierce displeasure. 

3) This death, in the full sense of the word, the death which was our just punishment because of sin, Christ assumed in the stead of and in behalf of all His elect people, and them only; and He obediently and voluntarily endured and suffered that death on the cross to the very end. The fruit is that there is no more death for God’s people; that is, in the sense that there is no more punishment for us. Even as far as our physical death is concerned, the sting of it has been removed: “our death is not a satisfaction for our sins, but only an abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life,” as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it in Lord’s Day 16, Question and Answer 42. 

But notice that in that same Lord’s Day it is plainly taught that our death also in its spiritual aspect and its everlasting aspect has been removed. As far as our being dead in sin is concerned, Question and Answer 43 teaches: “That by virtue thereof (i.e., by virtue of the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross), our old man is crucified, dead and buried with him; that so the corrupt inclinations of the flesh may no more reign in us; but that we may offer ourselves unto him a sacrifice of thanksgiving.” And as far as the anguish and torments of hell are concerned, the Catechism teaches this in Question and Answer 44: “That in my greatest temptations, I may be assured, and wholly comfort myself in this, that my Lord Jesus Christ, by his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings, but especially on the cross, hath delivered me from the anguish and torments of hell. ” 

4) The final question is already answered in the last quotation from the Heidelberg Catechism. How did Christ die that death for us? “By his inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies, in which he was plunged during all his sufferings (“all the time that he lived on earth,” Lord’s Day 15), but especially on the cross.” We must remember that when our Lord Jesus Christ was “born of a woman, born under the law,” He came under the wrath of God immediately — not personally and individually (for He was the sinless Son of God in the flesh), but as our Mediator and Head. As such He suffered under the wrath of God all His lifetime; and this suffering reached its climax and its completion on the cross, especially at the moment of the fourth word from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” 

That our Lord Jesus Christ was able to do this in the place of all His people was due to His being the Son of God in the flesh. That He was able to be the substitute for us and to suffer in our stead was due to His being by divine appointment the Head of all the elect. 

Two concluding remarks: 1) It must be emphasized that Christ died for the elect, and for them only. If the above is the meaning of the death of Christ — and it is! — then it should be plain, too, that as soon as one makes the death of Christ general and universal, he is also compelled to conclude that all men are actually saved. For if Christ died for anyone, there is no more punishment for that person. 2) I always think that the first paragraph of the communion-section of our Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper is a classic description and exposition of Christ’s atoning suffering. I refer to this paragraph: “That we are confidently persuaded in our hearts, that our Lord Jesus Christ (according to the promises made to our forefathers in the Old Testament) was sent of the Father into the world; that he assumed our flesh and blood; that he bore for us the wrath of God (under which we should have perished everlastingly) from the beginning of his incarnation, to the end of his life upon earth; and that he hath fulfilled, for us, all obedience to the divine law, and righteousness; especially, when the weight of our sins and the wrath of God pressed out of him the bloody sweat in the garden, where he was bound that we might be freed from our sins; that he afterwards suffered innumerable reproaches, that we might never be confounded; that he was innocently condemned to death, that we might be acquitted at thejudgement-seat of God; yea, that he suffered his blessed body to be nailed on the cross — that he might fix thereon the handwriting of our sins; and hath also taken upon himself the curse due to us, that he might fill us with his blessings: and hath humbled himself unto the deepest reproach and pains of hell, both in body and soul, on the tree of the cross, when he cried out with a loud voice, ‘My God, my God! why hast thou forsaken me?’ that we might be accepted of God and never be forsaken of him: and finally confirmed with his death and shedding of his blood, the new and eternal testament, that covenant of grace and reconciliation when he said: ‘It is finished.’ ”

About Isaiah 1 

From a west coast reader we received a question which arose in connection with a Men’s Society discussion of Isaiah 1. “In my opinion it is spiritual Israel that we must see fast of all in verse 25 and following. I believe verse 10 shows us carnal Israel. The prophet comes in this verse with judgment. The others did not go along with it. In my opinion carnal Israel cannot be liberalized with spiritual Israel. Judgment cannot be balanced with grace. I believe this leads to a liberalized covenant idea, and the result is common grace.”

Reply 

I am not at all certain that I understand some of the details of this question and of the discussion which evidently went on in the Men’s Society referred to. I would guess that my correspondent could express himself better in his native tongue, the Dutch language; and, incidentally, if there are those who have a little problem expressing themselves in the English language, they are welcome to write me in Dutch. In this particular instance, I am not quite certain what my correspondent means by “liberalized.” I was tempted to put “liberated” in parentheses; but, on the other hand, I don’t want to put words in someone’s pen. 

However, I think the main problem set forth by my correspondent concerns the relation between the spiritual and carnal elements in Israel as it is addressed here in Isaiah 1. On this main problem I think I can shed some light. And then if I have missed the point of the question, or if my correspondent has still more questions about this subject, he may write me again. 

I will quote the particular passage in question, Isaiah 1:25, ff.: but it will be helpful for our readers to get out their Bibles, so that references to other parts of the chapter will be clear. Here is the passage from 25 to the end: “And I will turn my hand upon thee, and purely purge away thy dross, and take away all thy tin: And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness. And the destruction of the transgressors and of the sinners shall be together, and they that forsake the Lord shall be consumed. For they shall be ashamed of the oaks which ye have desired, and ye shall be confounded for the gardens that ye have chosen. For ye shall be as an oak whose leaf fadeth, and as a garden that hath no water. And the strong shall be as tow, and the maker of it as a spark, and they shall both burn together, and none shall quench them.” 

Here are my suggestions: 

1) We must bear in mind that throughout the entire prophecy Isaiah is concerned, from a positive point of view, with the remnant according to the election of grace, graphically pictured in 1: 8, 9 as “a cottage in a vineyard, a hut in a garden of cucumbers, a besieged city.” The positive purpose of the prophecy is the comfort and encouragement of that elect remnant. And to be sure, that which comforts that elect remnant is the promise of salvation, of redemption and deliverance. “Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness,” vs. 27. Or, as you have it in Isaiah 40: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” 

2) Hand in hand with this positive intent goes the purpose of the hardening of the wicked reprobate and the message of reproof and judgment. In fact, this is on the foreground in Isaiah 6 in the account of Isaiah’s calling as prophet. Isaiah is commissioned, “Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed,” Isa. 6:9-10. A very heavy task Isaiah received from the Lord, therefore. And when he asks the Lord, “How long?” he receives the answer that this must go on “Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without men, and the land be utterly desolate, And the Lord have removed men far away, and there be a great forsaking in the midst of the land.” This is all dreadfully negative. Isaiah must preach until and for the purpose of the complete hardening and destruction of the reprobate ungodly element in Jerusalem-Judah. But do not overlook the positive purpose of this all, namely, the salvation through judgment of the remnant: “But yet in it shall be a tenth, and it shall return, and shall be eaten: as a teil tree, and as an oak, whose substance is in them, when they cast their leaves: so the holy seed shall be the substance thereof.” (Isa. 6:11-13

3) Jerusalem-Judah (the church of that day) is spoken of here as Zion. Zion is another name for Jerusalem, the city of God. Jerusalem is frequently designated by this name because in Zion (the mount of the throne of David and of the temple) lay the real significance of Jerusalem. It was the city where God dwelt among His people, and where His people had fellowship with Him; such was the idea of the temple. And it was the city where God reigned as King, and where His people obeyed Him and lived according to His commandments; such was the proper idea of the theocratic throne and kingdom. But we must remember that this Zion never exists historically in the world unmixed. There is always the true, real, elect Zion, but also the reprobate-ungodly shell. And when that reprobate-ungodly element in historical Zion is in the majority and is in control and in positions of power (the throne and the priesthood, for example), then Jerusalem becomes manifest as spiritually Sodom and Gomorrah. That was the situation, to a large extent, during Isaiah’s ministry. This accounts for the description which you find in the first part of Isaiah 1 also: a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, etc. And this accounts for the severe words of reproof in vss. 10, ff., where you have described the abominable hypocrisy of a church that is ecclesiastically and religiously punctual and precise, but which in its walk is wicked and oppresses the poor, the fatherless, and the widow. This accounts, too, for the demand of repentance in the context of vss. 16-20, as well as for the promises of forgiveness and cleansing for the repentant, but also the threats of destruction for the rebellious. 

4) This also accounts for the sudden changes from dire words of judgment and warnings of destruction to beautiful and comforting words of promise and salvation. This is not due to the fact that “judgment is balanced with grace.” This is never the case. And it is plainly not the case in the passage under discussion. According to vs. 27, judgment is not balanced with grace. Not at all! But judgment Sewers grace, serves redemption. Zion shall be redeemed through judgment! Besides, the whole context militates against the idea that judgment is balanced with grace. Notice that judgment goes through! It is executed! The destruction of the transgressors and of the sinners shall be together, and they that forsake the Lord shall be consumed, etc. Or, as Isaiah repeatedly puts it elsewhere: “There is no peace, saith my God, for the wicked!” But it is precisely through this judgment and destruction of the carnal element in historical Zion that the true Zion emerges purged and purified and shall be called “The city of righteousness, the faithful city.” 

5) Centrally, we must remember, this redemption of Zion is accomplished through the judgment of the cross. The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is the judgment and condemnation of the wicked world. At the cross is revealed all the fierce wrath of God over against sin and the sinner. But what about elect Zion, then? How does she escape that wrath and condemnation of God? For the elect remnant, too, remember, are no better than the rest. They, too, are dead in trespasses and sins by nature. They, too are the proper objects of God’s wrath and condemnation. They, too, by nature stand condemned at the cross! The answer is that all the waves and billows of God’s wrath were due to that elect remnant by nature are made to come upon out Lord Jesus Christ. He endured them all, and did so obediently and voluntarily and fully, in our behalf and in our stead. And thus Zion is redeemed through judgment. And thus throughout history, the judgment of the world is at the same time the salvation of the church! 

But to the wicked, saith my God, there is no peace! 

Grace is never common — whether in the gospel or apart from it. 

Well, there my correspondent has a few brief thoughts in connection with a weighty and very important subject. As I said, if he has further questions, he may call again. 

P.S. I have one more letter for Question Box — this one from Canada; but it will have to wait until the next issue, the Lord willing.