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Catechism Class, LD15, Q37 ‘Who Died?’

28/09/2021

Catechism Class: LORD’S DAY 15C, Q37.

Did God Die at the Cross?  

We have been looking at Lord’s Day 15, Q37, – What do you understand by the word “suffered?” That all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race; in order that by His suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice, He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.

It’s an important doctrinal statement, which is why we have been spending so much time on it.  It forces us to explore difficult issues and theological positions that that challenge our thinking, that perhaps make us question some of the utterances we hear from our evangelical pulpits.  So far we have looked at the EXTENT of the atonement, questioning what Ursinus meant when he wrote, “He bore… the wrath of God against the sins of the whole human race.”  Then in our last catechism lesson, we examined the DURATION of Christ’s suffering, for our instructor tells us that Christ suffered “…all the time that he lived on earth.”

Can the God who is infinite and eternal, who by His almighty power sustains and preserved the universe, ever change, or die?

Now, we must look at another salient issue that arises from this question – an issue addressed by Zacharias Ursinus himself in his commentary on the catechism.  In this podcast, we will ask, when Christ suffered, did he suffer in BOTH natures, – in other words, to be more stark, when Jesus died at the cross, did God die?  

-oOOo-

But, why would we need to torture our feeble minds with a divine perplexity like this?  In church history there have been heresies concerning the ‘death of God on the cross.’  In his classic and important book, ‘The Cross of Christ’ John Stott writes about two serious Christological errors that occurred in history because of errant views on this issue.  The first of those was:-

  • PATRIPASSIONISM.  We learned about this error in our recent bonus episode on Christological errors.   The word Patripassionaism literally means ‘the death of the Father.’  It was a serious error held by the modal monarchians, of the second and third centuries. (The modalists, were similar to modern-day Oneness Pentecostals). They believed and taught that at Bethlehem God the Father became God the Son, – God acting in another temporal ‘mode.’  Praxeus, the modalist refuted by Tertullian, seemed to teach that the Father himself came down into the virgin, was himself born of her, and himself suffered, and indeed was himself, Jesus Christ.  To refute this Tertullian wrote, “Let us be content with saying that Christ died, the Son of the Father; and let this suffice, because the Scriptures have told us so much.”  The other heresy is known as 
  • THEOPASSIONISM, the belief that God himself died at Calvary.  It’s a similar deviation, which arose in the sixth century.  These heretics rejected the orthodox view that Jesus was one person with two natures, truly God and truly man.  Instead they taught that Christ had only one ‘mixed’ or composite nature – ie that the human and divine were merged into one nature.  The technical term is MONOPHYSITES.  That composite nature was essentially divine, so they emphasised the suffering of God the Father on the cross.

The point is that a misunderstanding of this doctrine can lead to serious Christological errors – and a failure to truly understand what was actually happening at the cross – especially in those who claim to be pastors or teachers in the church, can lead to spiritual dangers for those who hear them.  Stott writes, “An over-emphasis on the sufferings of God on the cross may mislead us either into confusing the persons of the Trinity and denying the eternal distinctiveness of the Son, like the modalists…, or into confusing the two natures, like the monophysites…. (The Cross of Christ, p183) 

-oOOo-

Psalm 102:23-28
Tune: Hereford.

23 My strength he weakened in the way,
My days of life he shortened.
24 My God, O take me not away
In mid-time of my days, I said:

Thy years throughout all ages last.
25 Of old thou hast established
The earth's foundation firm and fast:
Thy mighty hands the heav'ns have made.

26 They perish shall, as garments do,
But thou shalt evermore endure;
As vestures, thou shalt change them so;
And they shall all be changed sure:

27 But from all changes thou art free;
Thy endless years do last for aye.
28 Thy servants, and their seed who be,
Established shall before thee stay.

So, let’s go back to the substantive issue and ask again…

Did God Die on the Cross?

In a previous lesson, we learned that when Christ was in this world, from Bethlehem to Calvary, he was both perfect man and perfect God, – simultaneously.  Let’s quickly recap that.  We found out that Christ did not cease being God, when he entered into the virgin’s womb and became man, and we learned that from Mary, he took his human nature, – so that he was the seed of the woman, and without the inherited sin of Adam, that we all pass down to our children, and we have even seen a little of the process of virginal conception, – the truly miraculous event through which the Holy Spirit brought about Mary’s pregnancy.  Jesus then, we say again, is fully God and fully man, two natures in one person.  We call this, the HYPOSTATIC UNION.  

Now when we think of Christ’s suffering, from Bethlehem to Calvary, we are confronted with a problem.  We know that Christ suffered as a man, he suffered just as we have and do suffer.  We learned that he suffered in his humiliation, in sharing our infirmities, want and poverty, the mockery and scorn of mankind, the temptation of the devil, his cruel death on the cross and he suffered the wrath of God against our sins.  It is because he suffered in our human flesh, that he can sympathise with us when we too suffer.  Hebrews 4:15 For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. 

But we also have learned that his two natures are ‘inseparably united’ in Christ’s person.  Does that mean that, because Jesus was truly God, that God suffered and died for us?  There is an old hymn, written by Charles Wesley, that is still sung in many churches, “And Can it Be that I should gain an interest in the Saviour’s blood?” contains a line that asks a question that is very much pertinent: “How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” Jesus is fully God, but can we then conclude from that, that GOD died on the cross?  Let’s look at one or two texts that might just suggest this:

  • 1 Corinthians 2:8 Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.  One commentator sought to argue that this verse may have led some astray, thinking that ‘crucify the Lord of Glory was a reference to the glorious God, the father.  I can’t see this at all.  The phrase only occurs twice in Scripture, in this text and again in James, where the context clearly points to Jesus, as the Lord of Glory.  James 2:1-3 My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.  Or AMP: My fellow believers, do not practice your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of partiality.
  • Acts 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.  God has purchased the church ‘with his own blood.’  A phrase that on the face of it would seem to be a proof-text for someone who wanted to believe that God the Father had died, in Christ, at Calvary.  The English words ‘HIS OWN’ translate a single Greek word – ἴδιος (idios).- it’s a noun in the genitive – we might say possessive case.  So, it could well be rendered, “with the blood of his own…”. So, many English translations render the verse like this, from the very excellent New English Translation (or NET Bible), 28 Watch out for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. The translators explain: “Or “with his own blood”; Greek “with the blood of his own.”  The genitive construction could be taken in two ways:  
    • As an attributive genitive (second attributive position) meaning “his own blood”; or 
    • A possessive genitive, “with the blood of his own.” In this case the referent is the Son, has been specified in the translation for clarity.  This is one of only two explicit statements in Luke-Acts highlighting the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death (the other is in Luke 22:19 19 Then he took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”).  Let’s look at another verse:-

So, who died on the cross, that terrible day?  Was it God the Father, since the human and divine natures in Christ are indivisible?  The answer to this strange conundrum is a resounding NO!  Lets look at just one more of those difficult texts…

  • Colossians 2:9 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily.  The AMP helps us to understand this statement, For in Him all the fullness of Deity (the Godhead) dwells in bodily form [completely expressing the divine essence of God].  Everything that God is, Christ was.  Now, what do we know about the divine essence of God?  (We more often speak of His ATTRIBUTES – what we can say about him that can truly express his nature) We cannot compare God to one of us!  We cannot even correctly or adequately describe him, Isaiah 40:25 To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One. What we know about him is what He has chosen to reveal to us in his word.  So we know that God is ETERNAL, UNCHANGING, ALL-POWERFUL, ALL-KNOWING, HOLY, JUST, MERCIFUL, LOVING,  He is sovereign.  All of these divine attributes were present in Jesus.  So, 
  • God is IMPASSIBLE and IMMUTABLE.  His impassibility means that he is never swayed by ‘feelings’ as we are, therefore HE CANNOT SUFFER.His immutability means that there is no change in the substantive nature or character of God at any time and thus he NEVER CHANGES He is INFINITE. The WCF describes the being of God for us: “There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute; working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal, most just, and terrible in his judgments, hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.  The list of scripture references in the Confession, fill the alphabet from A to Z.  Here’s just two that prove his impassivity and immutability, Malachi 3:6. For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed. James 1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.    Psalm 147:5 Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.  Now, death is a CHANGE IN BEING.  It simply stands to reason that God cannot die.
  • God is OMNIPOTENT.  That means that he is all powerful.  It is because of God’s mighty power that the universe continues to exist.  He sustains it by his power.  Acts 17:28 For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.  If God died – if he ceased to exist for just one second, the universe would collapse, would implode and would cease to exist. Nothing can exist apart from the sustaining power of God. If God dies, everything dies with Him.

RC Sproule: We should shrink in horror from the idea that God actually died on the cross. The atonement was made by the human nature of Christ. Somehow people tend to think that this lessens the dignity or the value of the substitutionary act, as if we were somehow implicitly denying the deity of Christ. God forbid. It’s the God-man who dies, but death is something that is experienced only by the human nature, because the divine nature isn’t capable of experiencing death. https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/it-accurate-say-god-died-cross

At the cross Jesus died, – God in the person of his only begotten Son, for to quote Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20 And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation.- but God the Father did not die – he remained immutable, unchanging, infinite, and in his omnipotence continuing to sustain this universe.  Let’s return to Stott, (Op. Cit, p184-189), who thought that it is wise to stay with wha the NT authors wrote, faithfully echoed by the Apostles’ Creed, namely that he who was  conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and was buried,’ was not God, but was ‘Jesus Christ, his Only Son, Our Lord.’   He concludes that only God in Christ, God the Father’s own and only Son could take our place.  “The love, holiness and will of the Father, are identical with the love, holiness and will of the Son.” 

Stott, J. 2008.  ‘The Cross of Christ’ Inter-Varsity Press, Nottingham

Ok, so I know that this has been a difficult lesson.  But an important one.  I promise that in our next lesson, we shall deal with a more practical aspect of the sufferings of Christ, asking, what did the suffering and death of Christ achieve?

Podcast to air on 16th November 2021

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