Chapter 3: Dead to Sin (continued)

This question, however, the apostle most emphatically answers in the negative.

He does so, first of all, by an indignant “God forbid!”

The apostle is horrified at the very thought that such a conclusion should be drawn from his doctrine of justification by faith. Not only so, but in this well-known, emphatic exclamation, he also expresses what must rise spontaneously from the heart of every justified believer when the possibility is suggested to him to continue in sin, in order that grace may abound. Such a possibility is far from his mind. It is directly contrary to his very experience of the grace of justification. For he that is freely justified by grace through faith is not at all inclined to abide and continue in sin. The very opposite is true. He principally hates and abhors sin, and fights it, that he may walk according to the precepts of the living God. Hence, he is at once ready to take the exclamation of the apostle on his own lips: God forbid that I should assume so profane an attitude as to have any desire to continue in sin.

But the apostle does not consider this mere exclamation of emphatic denial sufficient. The opponent, who by his question would calumniate the truth of justification without works, must have an answer. And, therefore, the apostle continues to explain that he that is justified by faith is also dead to sin, and that, therefore, it is forever impossible that he should abide and continue in sin. “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”

But how is the believer dead to sin? This the apostle expounds in the verses that follow: “Know ye not,, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death ? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall also be in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Rom. 6:3-9.

We need not enter into a detailed exposition of this passage. Two points, however, are evident. First of all, that the old man of believers is crucified. And, secondly, that this crucifixion of the old man is the direct result of the death of Christ. Believers are engrafted into Christ. And thus they are partakers of His death. They are crucified, dead, and buried with Him. And thus the passage does, indeed, support the teaching of the Catechism, that from the Sacrifice and death on the cross we receive this further benefit that “our old man is crucified, dead, and buried with him.”

Now, this must mean, first of all, that the death of Christ is the crucifixion of the old man; and, secondly, that when the power of the death of Christ is applied unto the elect, the old man also dies in them.

Let us try to understand this a little more fully.

What is “the old man” that is crucified, dead, and buried with Christ? It is man in his corrupt and sinful nature, in the human nature as we are all partakers of it in Adam. In this nature man lives unto sin. He is not free from sin, but bound in and to sin. Sin has dominion over him. Sin is the queen that is enthroned in his heart, that issues her precepts, to whom he is enslaved, willingly enslaved to be sure, but enslaved nevertheless; and whom he does obey, whose will he honors, whose direction he follows, whose wages he receives. For the human nature in Adam is wholly corrupt. The understanding is darkened, the will is perverted, the heart is obdurate, the desires and inclinations are impure, it is motivated by enmity against God throughout.

But more must be said in order to understand how the crucifixion and death of Christ are the death of the old man. We must remember that this corruption, this being enslaved to sin of the old man, is death. And as such it is punishment of sin. The “old man” is guilty, and guilt is liability to punishment, and the punishment of sin is death. And to this death also belongs the corruption of the human nature. The “old man” is man as he has no right to life, no right to be delivered from the bondage of sin and death. He is legally, that is, according to the very sentence of the Judge of heaven and earth, a slave of sin. He is under “the law of sin and death.” In this sense, it may be said that sin is legally his lord, that it is the power that is legally enthroned in his heart, and that it cannot and may not be dethroned, until the guilt of sin is blotted out.

Such is “the old man.”

If we bear this in mind, we will be able to understand that and how the death of Christ is the crucifixion, death, and burial of “the old man” for all the elect. For the death of Christ is the satisfaction for sin, the complete and final blotting out of the guilt of sin for all the elect, for the whole Church of all ages, and the establishment of a basis of eternal righteousness. Hence, the very basis of sin’s dominion in the human nature of the elect was removed by the death of Christ. Legally sin has no more dominion over them. On the basis of righteousness, of the righteousness of Christ, the throne of sin in the human nature cannot stand, it must fall. When Christ died, therefore, all the elect were freed from sin, as the apostle writes: “he that is dead is freed from sin.” Rom. 6:7.

This is the meaning of Scripture in Rom. 8:3: “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh.” Notice that it is sin, not the sinner, that is here said to be condemned. Notice, too, that this condemnation of sin in the flesh could not be accomplished by the law, on account of the weakness of the flash. And, finally, observe that this condemnation of sin in the flesh was accomplished by God, through the sending of His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and that, too, for sin, that is, for its destruction. In what respect, then, was sin condemned? It was juridically deprived of its dominion in the flesh, deprived of its right to rule in human nature. This the law could not do. Seeing that it can only condemn the sinner to the slavery of sin, it rather sustains sin in its claim of dominion over the sinful nature of guilty man. But when God through His Son had blotted out the iniquity of His people, sin was condemned. It could no longer reign in human nature.

Thus, then, the “old man” of all God’s own is crucified, dead, and buried for ever through the death of the Son of God.

And it is by Christ’s own power that this freedom from the dominion of sin through the sacrifice of the Cross is applied to the individual elect in this world.

For Christ is raised, and death has no more dominion over Him. And He is exalted at the right hand of God, clothed with all power in heaven and on earth. And having received the promise of the Spirit, He poured out that Spirit into the Church, and through Him dwells in His own, and makes them partakers of all His benefits. He gives them the justifying faith, and by that faith they become partakers of His death and resurrection. They receive the forgiveness of sins, and the everlasting and perfect righteousness He obtained for them by His perfect obedience even unto death. And in this righteousness they possess their legal liberation from the dominion of sin over them, and they are conscious of this freedom. And being legally freed from sin’s dominion, they are also actually delivered from the power of corruption, raised with Christ, and inducted into the glorious liberty of the children of God through the power of grace and by the calling of the gospel. And thus it is “by his power” that “our old man is crucified, dead, and buried with him; that so the corrupt inclinations of the flesh may rib, more reign in us; that so we may offer ourselves unto him a sacrifice of thanksgiving.”

In the light of all this, we can understand the intimate and inseparable connection between justification by faith and a walk in newness of life.

It is clear now why, in answer to the question, whether those that are freely justified had not better continue in sin, Paul so emphatically exclaimed: “God forbid.” For exactly in being justified the believer is freed from the dominion of sin, that he may live unto God.

An indulgence granted by mere man, though he be the pope, may induce the sinner to live wantonly in sin; the mighty power of the death of Christ has the very opposite effect. By it, sin is condemned, dethroned, its power destroyed, and the believer is become dead to sin. The corrupt inclinations of the flesh no more reign in him. He may now serve the living God, and offer himself a living sacrifice unto Him.

But it may not be superfluous to ask the question: how does this freedom from the dominion of sin reveal itself in the present life of the believer in this world? What does it mean, then, to be dead to sin, and no longer to live in it?

In answer to this question we may state, negatively, that to be dead to sin does not mean that sin is dead in us. Bitter disappointment must needs be the result, if we imagine that when we are engrafted into Christ, crucified and raised with Him, the death of sin follows, is the sure fruit. For sin is not dead in the believer as long as he is in this life. It does not die, until he dies. Till then it is very much alive. The motions of sin are in our members, in fact, in opposition to the new beginning of life in the believer, they are often more active, assert themselves more emphatically and insistently, as the believer grows in the knowledge and grace of the Lord Jesus. He has but a small beginning of the new obedience, and a small beginning it remains even in the very holiest of God’s children. And the believer must understand this, that he may watch and pray, lest he fall into temptation. Paradoxical though it may sound, though the old man is dead and buried with Christ, yet, throughout his whole life in this world, until the very moment of his death, he must constantly fight to put off the old man, and to put on the new man in Christ Jesus.

And yet, though sin is not dead, he is dead to sin. The old man is very really dead and buried. That old man was characterized by his being legally and ethically enslaved to sin, and the believer is a free man: death has no longer dominion over him. The old man was known by his inner harmony with sin. Sin was his proper sphere. He lived in sin. He loved iniquity. He found his delight in the service of unrighteousness. He hated the light, and loved the darkness. Though he often was filled with sorrow of the world, and dreaded the wages of sin, he was a stranger to the sorrow after God, and never knew repentance. After forgiveness and righteousness he did not yearn. The kingdom of God he could not see. In the world he found his delight, and the things that are above he did not seek, neither did he perceive them.

That old man is dead!

He that is in Christ Jesus is a new creature; old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.

Yes, the motions of sin are still in his members, but he hates them. He still sins, but he is sorry for his sin, and the cry for forgiveness is on his lips daily. He does not live in sin, abide in sin, finds his proper sphere in sin anymore. Where formerly he agreed with sin, there is now in his inmost heart a deep, a radical disagreement between sin and him. Whereas formerly he found his delight in sin, he now abhors it, eschews it, opposes it, and takes God’s side in the judgment of his own iniquities. And he has an inner delight in the precepts of his God. He hears His Word, he tastes that the Lord is good, he seeks His fellowship, and He is a companion of all them that fear Him. And he seeks the things that are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God. It is true that he often finds himself doing what he would not, but fact is that he does not will it. He frequently must confess that he does that which he hates; It Is true, however, that he hates it. And he longs in hope for the day when he shall be delivered from the body of this death, and be like unto his Lord in perfection, that he may offer himself for ever unto God a sacrifice of thanksgiving!

Such is the manifestation in this life of the fact that the old man is crucified, dead, and buried with Christ.

And it is all the fruit of the death of the Son of God!

Chapter 4: The Descension Into Hell

The final article of the Apostolicum that speaks of Christ in His humiliation concerns His descension into hell. And this article our Catechism, explains in the forty-fourth question and answer: “Why is there added, “he descended into hell?’ 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.”

We may note here that the Catechism only indirectly and by implication explains the article as it occurs in the Confession, laying all the emphasis on the spiritual benefit believers derive from this part of the work of Christ: assurance of salvation and full comfort even in their greatest temptations. Nevertheless, the implication is that the article about the descension into hell as it occurs in the Apostle’s Creed signifies that on the cross Christ suffered “inexpressible anguish, pains, terrors, and hellish agonies.” This is Calvin’s explanation of the article, and this interpretation was generally adopted by the Reformed Churches.

The article itself is not found in the older copies of the Apostles’ Creed, though the matter itself was believed by the Church, and the expression occurs in some isolated confessions. In our Apostolic Confession it was not introduced until the beginning of the sixth century. Our readers may have noticed that in the worship of many American churches, when this creed is recited, the words “he descended into hell” are omitted. And, let it be remarked that if they are explained as referring to the agonies and hellish sufferings of Christ during His whole life, and especially on the cross, there is little reason why they should not be omitted. It must be evident that, after all that the Catechism has explained concerning the sufferings and death of Christ in this and in the preceding Lord’s Day, there is little or nothing to add. In the answer to question thirty-seven, the Heidelberger already explained the sufferings of Christ as meaning “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.” But what else is this bearing of the wrath of God than the suffering of pain and terror and hellish agonies? In answer to the question concerning the special significance of the death of the cross, the Catechism explained that through the cross God laid the curse upon Him, and that He took it upon Himself, for the death of the cross was accursed of God. But is not the curse of God the suffering of hellish terrors? If, therefore, we adopt the explanation of the Catechism, the omission of this article from the recital of the Apostolicum in public worship is not a serious one, the more so because, as we have said, in the older copies of this creed the article does not occur.

The article has been explained in more than one way.

One explanation gives to it the meaning that Christ was in the state of the dead. The Greek word for “hell” is Hades, a word that is translated and that, too, usually correctly, in our English Bible by hell, but which may signify the same as grave, or the state of the dead before the resurrection. Hence, the explanation is linguistically possible: he descended into the state of the dead. The context in which the article occurs, however, would seem to be opposed to the idea that this was actually the meaning of the article historically, that is, according to the faith of the early Church. For it occurs at the end of the series: suffered was crucified, dead and buried. The last of these terms already declares that Christ descended into the place of the dead, and to add another article virtually expressing the same thing, would appear to be a rather useless repetition.

The second explanation is that offered by our Heidelberg Catechism, that Christ suffered the agonies of hell in our stead. We have, of course, no objection whatever to the doctrinal contents of this explanation. And as part of our Catechism, we shall have to refer to it again. Nevertheless, in view of the position of this article in the Apostolicum, between the burial and the resurrection, it may be seriously doubted, whether this was the intention of the early Church.