Friday, April 25, 2014

Commentary on Lord's Day 16










SIXTEENTH LORD’S DAY


Question 40. Why was it necessary for Christ to humble himself even unto death?

Answer. Because with respect to the justice and truth of God, satisfaction for our sins could be made no otherwise than by the death of the Son of God.

EXPOSITION


Under this question we are to consider:

          I.      How Christ is said to have been dead:
          II.      Whether it was necessary that Christ should die:
          III.      For whom he has died.


I. HOW CHRIST IS SAID TO HAVE BEEN DEAD

The exposition of this question is necessary on account of hereties who have corrupted the sense of this article. Marcion denied that Christ did truly die, and affirmed also that the whole dispensation of the word in the flesh, and all those things which Christ endured for us were imaginary, and that he had only the appearance of a man, but was not such in reality. Nestorius separated the natures in Christ, and would not admit that the Son of God was crucified, and died; but said that this was true only of the man Christ. “Do not exult and glory O thou Jew, (said he) thou hast not crucified God, but man.” The Ubiquitarians believe that the human nature of Christ, from the moment of the incarnation, was so endowed with all the properties of Deity, that the only difference between this and the Godhead of Christ, is that the former has by accident what the latter has by and of itself. Hence it is, that they imagine that Christ in his death, yea, when he was concealed in the womb of the virgin, was not only as to his Deity, but also as to his body, in heaven, and everywhere. And this is what they call the form of God, concerning which Paul speaks in Phil. 2:6.
1. But in opposition to all these we believe what is affirmed in the Creed, that Christ was truly dead, and that there was a real separation between his soul and body, and that of a real local character, so that his soul and body were not only not together everywhere, but they were not at the same time in one place; the soul was not where the body was, and the body was not where the soul was. “And Jesus when he had cried again with a loud voice yielded up the ghost.” “And Jesus cried with a loud voice and gave up the ghost.” “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit; and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.” “And he bowed his head and gave up the ghost.” (Matt. 27:50. Mark 15:37. Luke 23:46. John 19:30.)
Obj. But he gave up the ghost just as virtue, that is, his Divinity is said to have gone out of him. Ans. There is a difference here which we must observe; for the Divinity whilst united with the humanity did, nevertheless, operate beyond and without it, but the soul departed from the body. The reason of this difference is, that the Divinity is something uncreated, and therefore infinite, whilst the soul is created, and therefore finite.
2. This is also to be added to what has been said, that although his soul was truly separated from his body, yet the Word did not desert the soul and body, but remained, notwithstanding personally united to each; so that, in this separation of soul and body, the two natures in Christ were not disjoined, or severed.
Obj. But if there was no such separation between the natures of Christ, why did he exclaim, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Ans. This cry was extorted from the suffering Son of God, not on account of any separation of the two natures, but on account of the delay of help and assistance: for the two natures in Christ ought not to be disjoined, because it is written. “God hath purchased the church with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28.) And it was necessary that he, who would die for our sins, should be the Son of God, that there might thus be a sufficient ransom. So it is also clearly manifest, that the union of the natures in Christ is no ubiquity: for his soul, being separated from his body, was not in the sepulchre with his body, and consequently not everywhere; because that which is everywhere can never be separated. And yet the union of the natures remained complete even in death, and in the grave.


II. WHETHER IT WAS NECESSARY THAT CHRIST SHOULD DIE FOR US

It was necessary for Christ, in order that he might make satisfaction, not only to suffer, but also to die:
1. On account of the justice of God. Sin is an evil of such magnitude, that, according to the order of justice, it merits, and demands, the destruction of the sinner; for the reason, that that which is an offence against the highest good, can only be expiated by the most severe punishment and extreme destruction of the sinner, which is by his death according as it is written, “the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23.) Christ now assumed our place, and took upon himself the person of those who had sinned, and deserved death not only eternal, but also temporal; for we had merited that destruction which consists in a dissolution between the soul and the body, which being once effected, the body itself is also dissolved, as a house is said to be destroyed when the parts are separated from each other. It was necessary, therefore, that the Son of God should die in order that a sufficient ransom might thus be made, which could not have been effected by a mere creature.
Obj. But we have merited eternal death; therefore our souls ought not to be separated from our bodies, that they might suffer eternal condemnation. Ans. This is not a just conclusion, because nothing more can be properly inferred, than that it is necessary that our souls and bodies should be again united that they may suffer eternal death, which will also, at length, come to pass. Therefore it was necessary that Christ should die for us, and that his soul should be separated from his body.
2. On account of the truth of God. For God had declared that he would punish sin with destruction, and the death of the transgressor: “In the day thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Gen. 2:17.) It was necessary that this threatening of God should be fulfilled after sin was once committed.
Obj. But Adam did not immediately die. Ans. He did not, indeed, instantly suffer temporal death, yet he straightway became mortal, and by degrees died, whilst he already experienced the beginning of eternal death: “I heard,” said he, “thy voice, and was afraid, because I was naked.” (Gen. 3:10.) There was a fear, and sense of the wrath of God, a struggling with death, and a loss of all the good gifts which God conferred upon man. And yet the lenity, and compassion of the gospel was not wanting; for God had not expressly declared that he should certainly die wholly, and immediately. If this had been wanting he would have perished for ever. The Son of God offered, and brought in a mitigation, and raised man to a new life, that, notwithstanding he remained subject to temporal death, this was no longer injurious or fatal to him.
3. On account of the promises made to the fathers, by the prophets, such as that contained in Is. 53:7: “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep is dumb before her shearers, so he opened not his mouth;” and also on account of the types and sacrifices, by which God signified that Christ should die such a death as would be a sufficient ransom for the sins of the world. This, now, was the work of no creature; but of the Son of God alone. Hence it became him to suffer such a painful death in our behalf.
4. Lastly, Christ himself foretold that his death was necessary. “For if I go not away the Comforter will not come unto you.” “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” (John 16:7; 13:8; 12:32.) Three things, therefore, concur in this question: that it was necessary to make satisfaction to the justice and truth of God—that this satisfaction could only be made by death—and that by the death of the Son of God.
From what has now been said the following conclusions may be drawn: 1. That sin should especially be avoided by us, inasmuch as it could not be expiated except by the intervention of the death of the Son of God. 2. That we ought to be grateful to the Son of God for this great benefit which he has, out of his great goodness, conferred upon us. 3. That all our sins, however great, however many, and grievous they may be, are expiated by the death of Christ alone.


III. DID CHRIST DIE FOR ALL?

In answering this question we must make a distinction, so as to harmonise those passages of Scriptures which seem to teach contradictory doctrines. In some places Christ is said to have died for all, and for the whole world. “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” “That he, by the grace of God, should taste death for every man.” “We thus judge that if one died for all, then were all dead; and that he died for all that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him that died for them, and rose again.” “Who gave himself a ransom for all,” &c. (John 2:2. Heb. 2:9. 2 Cor. 5:15. 1 Tim. 2:6.) The Scriptures, on the contrary, affirm in many places, that Christ died, prayed, offered himself, &c., only for many, for the elect, for his own people, for the Church, for his sheep, &c. “I pray for them; I pray not for the world; but for them which thou hast given me, for they are thine,” that is, the elect alone. “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” “I am not sent, but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” “He shall save his people from their sins.” “This is my blood of the New Testament which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” “Christ was once offered, to bear the sins of many.” “By his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many, for he shall bear their iniquities.” “Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it.” (John 17:9. Matt. 20:28; 15:24; 1:21. Heb. 9:28. Is. 53:11. Ep. 5:25.)
What shall we say in view of these seemingly opposite passages of Scripture? Does the word of God contradict itself? By no means. But this will be the case, unless these declarations, which in some places seem to teach that Christ died for all, and in others that he died for a part only, can be reconciled by a proper and satisfactory distinction, which distinction, or reconciliation, is two-fold.
There are some who interpret these general declarations of the whole number of the faithful, or of all that believe; because the promises of the gospel properly belong to all those that believe, and because the Scriptures do often restrict them to such as believe: “Whosoever believeth in him shall not perish.” “The righteousness of God, which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all, and upon all them that believe.” “That through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins.” It is in this way that Ambrose interprets those passages which speak of the death of Christ as extending to all: “The people of God,” says he, “have their fulness, and although a large portion of men either neglect, or reject, the grace of the Saviour, yet there is a certain SPECIAL UNIVERSALITY of the elect, and fore-known, separated and discerned from the generality of all, that a whole world might seem to be saved out of a whole world; and all men might seem to be redeemed out of all men,” &c. In this way there is no repugnancy, or contradiction; for all those that believe are the many, the peculiar people, the Church, the sheep, the elect, &c., for whom Christ died, and gave himself.
Others reconcile these seemingly contradictory passages of Scripture by making a distinction between the sufficiency, and efficacy of the death of Christ. For there are certain contentious persons, who deny that these declarations which speak in a general way, are to be restricted to the faithful alone, that is, they deny that the letter itself, or the simple language of Scripture does thus limit them, and in proof thereof they bring forward those passages in which salvation seems to be attributed, not only to those that believe, but also to hypocrites and apostates, as it is said: “Denying the Lord which bought them.” And, also, where it is said that they “have forgotten that they were purged from their old sins.” (2 Pet. 2:1; 1:9.) But it is manifest that declarations of this kind are to be understood either concerning the mere external appearance, and vain glorying of redemption, or of sanctification; or else of the sufficiency, and greatness of the merit of Christ. That it may not, therefore, be necessary for us to contend much with these captious and fastidious persons concerning the restriction of those passages which speak so generally (although it is most manifest in itself) and that those places which speak of the redemption of hypocrites may the more easily be reconciled, some prefer (and not without reason according to my judgment) to interpret those declarations, which in appearance seem to be contradictory, partly of the sufficiency, and partly of the application and efficacy of the death of Christ.
They affirm, therefore, that Christ died for all, and that he did not die for all; but in different respects. He died for all, as touching the sufficiency of the ransom which he paid; and not for all; but only for the elect, or those that believe, as touching the application and efficacy thereof. The reason of the former lies in this, that the atonement of Christ is sufficient for expiating all the sins of all men, or of the whole world, if only all men will make application thereof unto themselves by faith. For it cannot be said to be insufficient, unless we give countenance to that horrible blasphemy (which God forbid!) that some blame of the destruction of the ungodly results from a defect in the merit of the mediator. The reason of the latter is, because all the elect, or such as believe, and they alone, do apply unto themselves by faith the merit of Christ’s death, together with the efficacy thereof, by which they obtain righteousness, and life according as it is said, “He that believeth on the Son of God, hath everlasting life.” (John 3:36.) The rest are excluded from this efficacy of Christ’s death by their own unbelief, as it is again said, “He that believeth not shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.” (John 3:36.) Those, therefore, whom the Scriptures exclude from the efficacy of Christ’s death, cannot be said to be included in the number of those for whom he died as it respects the efficacy of his death, but only as to its sufficiency; because the death of Christ is also sufficient for their salvation, if they will but believe; and the only reason of their exclusion arises from their unbelief.
It is in the same way, that is, by making the same distinction that we reply to those who ask concerning the purpose of Christ, Did he will to die for all? For just as he died, so also he willed to die. Therefore, as he died for all, in respect to the sufficiency of his ransom; and for the faithful alone in respect to the efficacy of the same, so also he willed to die for all in general, as touching the sufficiency of his merit, that is, he willed to merit by his death, grace, righteousness, and life in the most abundant manner for all; because he would not that any thing should be wanting as far as he and his merits are concerned, so that all the wicked who perish may be without excuse. But he willed to die for the elect alone as touching the efficacy of his death, that is, he would not only sufficiently merit grace and life for them alone, but also effectually confers these upon them, grants faith, and the holy Spirit, and brings it to pass that they apply to themselves, by faith, the benefits of his death, and so obtain for themselves the efficacy of his merits.
In this sense it is correctly said that Christ died in a different manner for believers and unbelievers. Neither is this declaration attended with any difficulty or inconvenience, inasmuch as it harmonises not only with scripture, but also with experience; for both testify that the remedy of sin and death is most sufficiently and abundantly offered in the gospel to all; but that it is effectually applied, and profitable only to them that believe. The Scriptures, also, everywhere, restrict the efficacy of redemption to certain persons only, as to Christ’s sheep, to the elect, and such as believe, whilst on the other hand it clearly excludes from the grace of Christ the reprobate and unbelieving as long as they remain in their unbelief. “What concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” (2 Cor. 6:15. See, also, Matt. 20:28; 26:28. Is. 53:11. John 10:15. Matt. 15:24.)
Christ moreover, prayed only for the elect, including those who were already his disciples, and also such as would afterwards believe on his name. Hence he says, “I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me.” (John 17:9.) If, therefore, Christ would not pray for the world, by which we are to understand such as do not believe, much less would he die for them, as far as the efficacy of his death is concerned; for it is less to pray, than to die for any one. There are also two inseparable parts of the sacrifice of Christ—intercession and death. And if he himself refuse to extend one part to the ungodly, who is he that will dare to give the other to them.
Lastly, the orthodox Fathers and Schoolmen, also distinguish and restrict the above passages of Scripture as we have done; especially Augustin, Cyril and Prosper. Lombard writes as follows: “Christ offered himself to God, the Trinity for all men, as it respects the sufficiency of the price; but only for the elect as it regards the efficacy thereof, because he effected, and purchased salvation only for those who were predestinated.” Thomas writes: “The merit of Christ, as to its sufficiency, extends equally to all, but not as to its efficacy, which happens partly on account of free will, and partly on account of the election of God, through which the effects of the merits of Christ are mercifully bestowed upon some, and withheld from others according to the just judgment of God.” Other Schoolmen, also, speak in the same manner, from which it is evident that Christ died for all in such a way, that the benefits of his death, nevertheless, pertain properly to such as believe, to whom alone they are also profitable and available.
Obj. 1. The promises of the gospel are universal, as appears from such declarations as invite all men to come to Christ, that they may have life. Hence it does not merely extend to such as believe. Ans. The promise is indeed universal in respect to such as repent and believe; but to extend it to the reprobate, would be blasphemy. “There is,” saith Ambrose, as just quoted, “a certain special universality of the elect, and foreknown, discerned and distinguished from the entire generality.” This restriction of the promises to such as believe, is proven from the plain and explicit form in which they are expressed. “That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” “The righteousness of God, which is by the faith of Jesus Christ unto all, and upon all them that believe.” “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.” “Whosever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” “He became the author of eternal salvation unto all that obey him.” And from the words of Christ: “give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye pearls before swine,” &c. (John 3:16. Rom. 3:22. Matt. 11:28. Acts 2:21. Heb. 5:9. Matt. 7:6.)
Obj. 2. Christ died for all. Therefore his death does not merely extend to such as believe. Ans. Christ died for all as it regards the merit and efficacy of the ransom which he paid; but only for those that believe as it respects the application and efficacy of his death; for seeing that the death of Christ is applied to such alone, and is profitable to them, it is correctly said to belong properly to them alone, as has been already shown.


Question 41. Why was he also “buried?”

Answer. Thereby to prove that he was really dead.

EXPOSITION

There are many causes on account of which Christ was buried:
1. He would be buried in confirmation of his death, that it might be manifest that he was truly dead; for not the living, but only the dead, are buried. Therefore, just as he presented himself after his resurrection to be seen, handled, &c., that there might be clear evidence that his body was raised from the dead, so after his death, he gave himself for the purpose of being felt and buried, that it might be known that he was a real corpse. There are some parts of the history of Christ’s death that pertain to this, as that, when he was dead he was pierced with a spear, was taken down from the cross, was anointed, was wrapt in linen, &c.; for these also demonstrate the truth of his death. We are, therefore, by his burial, assured that he was really dead, and by this of our certain redemption; for our salvation consists in his death, the proof of which is his burial.
2. That the last part of his humiliation might be attained; for this (viz., burial) was a part of the punishment, curse, and ignominy which we had merited, as it is said, “Unto dust shalt thou return.” (Gen. 3:19.) A dead body is, indeed, destitute of feeling and understanding, yet it was ignominious that his body should be laid in the earth as another corpse. Therefore, as the resurrection of Christ from the grave is a part of his glory, so his burial, and interment among the dead, by which he was placed in the same condition with them, is a part of the humiliation and ignominy which he rendered on our account; for he was not unwilling to become a corpse for our sake.
3. He would be buried that we might not be terrified in view of the grave, but might know that he has sanctified our graves by his own burial, so that they are no longer graves to us, but chambers and resting places in which we may quietly and peacefully repose until we are again raised to life.
4. He was buried that it might be apparent, in view of his resurrection, that he had truly overcome death in his own body, and that by his own power he had thrown it off from himself, so that his resurrection was no apparition or imaginary thing, but was a real resuscitation of a corpse reanimated.
5. That we may be confirmed in the hope of the resurrection, as we, after his example, shall also be buried, and shall be raised again by his power; knowing that Christ, our head, has opened up the way for us from the grave to glory.
6. That we being spiritually dead may rest from sin. “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.” (Rom. 6:4.)
7. That the truth might correspond with the type of Jonah, and that the prophecies might be fulfilled in relation to the burial of the Messiah. “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.” “He made his grave with the wicked.” (Ps. 16:10. Is. 53:9.)


Question 42. Since then Christ died for us, why must we also die?

Answer. Our death is not a satisfaction for our sins, but only an abolishing of sin, and a passage into eternal life.

EXPOSITION

This answer is an explanation to the objection which we frequently hear made in the following form: He for whom another has died ought not himself to die, else God would seem to demand a double satisfaction for one offence. Christ now has died for us. Therefore, we ought not to die. Ans. It is conceded that we ought not to die for the sake of making satisfaction; but there are other causes why it becomes necessary for us to die. We do not die for the purpose of satisfying the justice of God, but that we may truly receive the benefits purchased by the death of another, that sin may be abolished, and a passage or transition be made unto eternal life. Our temporal death is then not a satisfaction for sin; but it is, 1. An admonition of the remains of sin in us. 2. An admonition of the greatness of the evil of sin. 3. An abolishing of the remains of sin; and, lastly, a passage into eternal life; for the transition of the faithful to eternal life is effected by temporal death. Reply. Where the cause is removed, the effect can no longer remain in force. But the cause of death in us, which is sin, is taken away. Therefore the effect, which is death, ought also to be taken away. Ans. The effect is, indeed, taken away when the cause is wholly removed; but in us the cause of death, which has respect to the abolishing of sin, is not entirely removed; although it be taken away as it respects the remission of sin. Or, we may reply, that sin, as far as it respects the guilt thereof, is taken away, but not as it respects the matter of sin which is not yet entirely abolished, but remains in us, to be removed gradually, that we may be required to exercise repentance, and be fervent in prayer, until, in the life to come, we be perfectly freed from all the remains of sin.


Question 43. What further benefit do we receive from the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross?

Answer. That by virtue thereof our old man is crucified, dead, and buried with him; so that the corrupt inclinations of the flesh may no more reign in us, but that we may offer ourselves unto him a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

EXPOSITION

This question has respect to the fruits or benefits of Christ’s death. And here also, as in the passion of Christ, the end and fruits are to be regarded as the same, only in a different respect: for the things which Christ proposed to himself as ends, are unto us the fruits, when we receive or apply them to ourselves. It is, therefore, manifest that the benefits of Christ’s death comprehend the entire work of our redemption, of which fruits we may specify the following:
1. Justification, or the remission of sins. The justice of God demands that the sinner should not be punished twice. And as he has punished our sins in Christ, he will not, therefore, punish the same in us. “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin,” original as well as actual, and sins of commission as well as omission. We are, therefore, justified, that is, freed from the evil both of punishment and of guilt on account of the death of Christ, which is the cause of this effect.
2. Regeneration, or the renewing of our nature by the Holy Spirit. Christ, by his death, has merited for us not only the pardon of sin, but also its removal and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Or, we may say that he has, by his own death, obtained for us not only the remission of sin, but the indwelling of God in us. “If I go not away the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart I will send him unto you.” “And ye are complete in him.” “Who is made unto us righteousness and sanctification.” (John 16:7. Col. 2:10. 1 Cor. 1:30.)
But the death of Christ is, in two respects, the efficient cause, as well of our justification as of our regeneration. 1. In respect to God: because he, on account of the merit and death of Christ, remits unto us our sins, grants us the Holy Spirit, and renews in us his own image. “Being justified by his blood.” “Being reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” “Because ye are sons, God hath sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” (Rom. 5:9, 10. Gal. 4:6.) 2. In respect to us the death of Christ is also an efficient cause; because we who believe that Christ obtained for us righteousness and the Holy Spirit, cannot be otherwise than grateful to him, and earnestly desire so to live that we may honor him, which is done by commencing to walk in newness of life. The application of the death of Christ, and a proper consideration of it, will not suffer us to remain ungrateful; but will constrain us to love Christ in return, and to render thanks for such a great and inestimable benefit. Hence we are not to imagine that we can have remission of sins without regeneration; for no one that is not regenerated can obtain remission of sins. He, therefore, who boasts of having applied to himself by faith the death of Christ, and yet has no desire to live a holy and godly life, that he may so honor the Saviour, lies, and gives conclusive evidence that the truth is not in him for all those who are justified are willing and ready to do those things which are pleasing to God. The desire to obey God can never be separated from an application of the death of Christ, nor can the benefit of regeneration be experienced without that of justification. All those that are justified are also regenerated, and all those that are regenerated are justified.
Obj. The apostle Peter, in his first epistle, 1:3, attributes our regeneration to the resurrection of Christ. In what manner, therefore, is it here attributed to his death. Ans. It is attributed to both: to his death as it respects his merit; for by his death he has merited regeneration for us: and to his resurrection as it respects the application of it; for by rising from the dead he applies regeneration unto us, giving us the Holy Spirit.
3. Eternal life is another fruit of the death of Christ. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, (viz., to death) that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” (John 3:16. 1 John 5:11.)
What now is it to believe in Christ, dead? It is to believe that he has not only suffered the most excruciating pains and torments, but also death itself; and that by his death he has obtained for me remission of sins, reconciliation with God, and by consequence the Holy Spirit also, who commences in me a new life, that I may again be made the temple of God, and at length attain unto eternal life, in which God shall for ever be praised and magnified by me.


Question 44. Why is there added, “he descended into hell?”

Answer. 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.

EXPOSITION

There are two things which it is proper for us to consider in relation to this Article of the Creed. The first is: What is its meaning or sense? And the second, What is its use?


I. WHAT IS THE TRUE SENSE OF THIS ARTICLE OF THE CREED; OR, WHAT DOES THE DESCENT OF CHRIST INTO HELL SIGNIFY?

The term hell is used in the Scriptures in three different senses. 1. It is used for the grave. “Then ye shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.” “Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell.” (Gen. 42:38. Ps. 16:10.) 2. It is employed to represent the place of the damned, as in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. “In hell he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off.” (Luke 16:23.) 3. It is employed to signify the most extreme distress and anguish. “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me.” “The Lord bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up,” that is, he brings us into the most extreme pains, from which he afterwards again delivers us. (Ps. 116:3. 1 Sam. 2:6.)
In this Article the term hell is to be understood according to the third signification. That it cannot be taken in the sense of the grave is evident; 1. Because it is already declared in the Creed, he was buried. If any one affirms that this last article is explanatory of the one that precedes, he will affirm nothing thereby; because, whenever two declarations, expressing the same thing, are joined together, in order that the one may explain the other, it is proper that the last be clearer and more easily understood than the former. But here it is just the reverse; for to descend into hell is much more obscure than to be buried. 2. It is not probable, in such a brief and concise Confession as the Creed, that the same article would be expressed twice, or that the same thing would be reiterated in other words. Again, when it is said that Christ descended into hell, it cannot mean the place of the damned, which is the second signification of the term as above considered; as is proven from this division: The Divinity did not descend, because this is, and was everywhere: neither did his body, because it rested in the grave three days, according to the type of Jonah; nor did it arise from any other place than the grave.
Neither did the soul of Christ descend:
1. Because the Scriptures in no place affirm this.
2. Because Christ said in relation to this when dying upon the cross, “Father into thy hands I commend my spirit;” and to the malefactor, he said, “To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:46, 43.) The soul of Christ, after his death, was, therefore, in the hands of his Father in Paradise, and not in hell. Neither has the sophism any force, which affirms that he was also in the hands of his Father in hell, according to\the declaration of the Psalmist, “If I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there;” (Ps. 139:8.) that is, he was there also the object of the divine regard, and was defended that he should not perish: for it is first said, “Into thy hands,” &c., that it might next be declared, “To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise.” But the felicity, and deliverance here spoken of is not found in hell. The meaning is, both of us, who now suffer will this day be in Paradise, in the place of eternal salvation and blessedness, free from all these tortures. But Paradise is neither hell, nor is it in hell, which is the place of torment. Hence it is evident that Christ spoke this to the malefactor, not of his Divinity, but of his soul, which suffered with his body; for his Divinity was now with the thief; neither did he suffer, nor was he delivered according to his Divinity, but according to his soul.
3. If Christ descended into hell, (as to his soul) he descended either that he might there suffer something, or that he might deliver the fathers from that place, as the Papists affirm. But he did not descend for the purpose of suffering any thing, because when hanging upon the cross he said. “It is finished.” (John 19:30.) Neither did he descend to liberate the fathers: 1. Because he did this by suffering for them on earth. 2. He accomplished the same by the power, and efficacy of his Godhead from the very beginning of the world, and not by any local descent of his body, or soul into hell. 3. The fathers were not in hell; therefore they could not be liberated from that place. The souls of the just are in the hands of God, neither do they suffer any pain. “Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed; so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us that would come from thence.” (Luke 16:26.) And Lazarus having died was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom, and not into Limbus Patrum.
There are some who believe that the soul of Christ descended into hell after his death, not to suffer, nor to liberate the fathers, but that he might there make an open display of his victory, and strike terror into the minds of the devils. But the Scriptures no where affirm that Christ descended into hell for such a purpose as this.
Those who hold this view of the subject, and who object to what we have here said in regard to the descent of Christ into hell, bring forward the passage in 1 Peter 3:19, as though it were in opposition to the view which we have presented; “By which also he went, and preached unto the spirits in prison, which sometime were disobedient,” &c. But the meaning of this passage is different from what these persons suppose: for the Apostle says, Christ went, that is, he was sent of the Father to the Church from the very beginning; by his Spirit, that is by his Divinity; to the spirits which are now in prison, that is in hell; he preached in time past, when he hitherto existed, and they were disobedient, viz, before the flood: for then, when they were disobedient, he preached to them being in this condition. But it was in the time of Noah that they were disobedient. Therefore, it was then that Christ preached by the fathers, inviting the disobedient to repentance. And still further, although Peter speaks of the descent of Christ into hell, yet this is not the meaning of those whom we here oppose, but of the Papists who insist that Christ preached to the fathers in hell, and delivered them.
They also object by bringing forward another passage from the same Apostle, who, in another place, says that “the gospel was preached also to them that are dead.” (1 Pet. 4:6.) But to understand this passage as they do, is to lose sight of the figure of speech that is employed; for the gospel was preached to the dead, that is, to those who are now dead, or who were dead when Peter wrote this passage, but who were living at the time when it was preached to them.
Another passage found in the epistle of Paul to the Eph. 4:9, is also wrested from its proper signification by those who hold the above view; where it is said, “that Christ descended into the lower parts of the earth,” which they understand to mean hell. But this is also to disregard the figure of speech that is here used; for the sense of the phrase is, he descended into the lower parts of the earth, that is, into the earth, which is the lowest part of the world; because there is here not an opposition of one part of the earth to another, but of the earth to heaven, by which the humiliation of Christ is signified. This is apparent from the object, and scope of the Apostle, because he here makes a contrast between the highest glory, and the deepest humiliation of Christ. So Christ ascended into the highest parts of heaven, that is, in heaven, which is the highest part of the world.
These passages, therefore, establish nothing in relation to the descent of the soul of Christ into hell, and if they did afford the strongest proof of it, yet still, as we have already said, the testimony which they furnish would not be in favor of those to whom we here refer, but in favor of the Papists who teach that Christ preached in hell, and liberated the fathers. And if the proofs gathered from these passages cannot remove the difficulties which encumber the views of the Papists in relation to this subject, much less can they be of any assistance to these persons; for it is certain that it cannot be proven from them, that Christ descended into hell for the purpose of striking terror into death and the devil. Yet this view, or opinion, of Christ’s descent into hell, has nothing of impiety in it, and has been approved of and held by many of the fathers. Hence it is not proper that we should contend strenuously with any one in regard to it. Yet it is certain, notwithstanding, that it cannot be gathered from the Scriptures, nor established conclusively by solid arguments; whilst reasons to the contrary are at hand. For after his death, when he had said it is finished, the soul of Christ rested in the hands of his Father, to whom he had commended it. And if he descended into hell for the purpose of triumphing over his enemies, this article should be the commencement of his glorification. But it is not likely that the glorification of Christ would take its beginning in hell; for all the preceding articles of the Creed speak of the degrees of the humiliation of Christ, of which the lowest and most extreme is his descent into hell, which is also apparent from the antithesis. Hence we are opposed to this view of the subject. Yet, in the mean time, we confess that Christ struck a great terror and dread in the devils. But this he did by his death, by which he vanquished the devil, sin, and death, and without doubt the devil saw that he was entirely disarmed, and conquered by the death of Christ.
What, therefore, does this descent of Christ into hell signify? 1. It signifies those extreme torments, pains, and anguish, which Christ suffered in his soul, such as the damned experience, partly in this, and partly in the life to come. 2. It embraces also the greatest and most extreme ignominy, which Christ suffered during the whole period of his passion. That these things are signified, and comprehended in the descent of Christ into hell, the testimonies of Scripture which we have already cited in this discussion sufficiently teach and affirm. “The pains of hell gat hold upon me.” “The Lord bringeth down to the grave and bringeth up.” (Ps. 116:3. 1 Sam. 2:6.)
That Christ ought to have suffered, and that he did endure these things is also proven by this same testimony of David: “The pains of hell gat hold upon me,” which is spoken of Christ in the person of David. There are also other portions of Scripture which bear similar testimony, as “It pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief.” “My soul is sorrowful even to death.” (Is. 53:10. Matt. 26:28.) The sorrows and pains which he endured in the garden, when he sweat drops of blood, also demonstrate the same thing: because “the Lord laid upon him the iniquity of us all.” (Is. 53:6.) And still more he eried out upon the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” (Matt. 27:46.) The same thing is proven by these arguments:
1. Christ was to redeem not only our bodies, but also our souls. Therefore it behooved him to suffer not only in body, but also in soul.
2. It was necessary for Christ to deliver us from the anguish and pains of hell. Therefore it became him to experience these. And this he did either before or after his death. That it was not after his death, the Papists themselves confess. Therefore it was before his death. Neither was it in his body that he endured these things; for the sufferings of his body were only external. Therefore he suffered them in his soul.
3. It is proper that the severe torments and anguish of soul, (which were the heaviest part of his sufferings) should not be unnoticed in the Creed. But they would not be mentioned if this article of the descent of Christ into hell did not refer to them; for the preceding articles speak only of the external sufferings of the body, which Christ suffered from without. There is, therefore, no doubt but that the sufferings of his soul are more particularly signified by this article.
This is the true descent of Christ into hell. Therefore we are to hold and defend in opposition to the Papists, that which is certain, viz, that Christ descended into hell in the manner, and sense in which we have here explained. Should any one, however, be able to defend, and establish the fact that he descended in a different sense, it is well. As for me, I cannot.
Obj. 1. The articles of the Creed ought to be understood in their proper and natural sense, and without admitting any figure. Ans. This is true if the articles, when taken in their proper signification, do not conflict with other portions of Scripture. But this article of Christ’s descent into hell when thus interpreted, is, in many ways, opposed to the declaration of Jesus upon the cross, it is finished; for if he finished, and consummated every part of our redemption upon the cross, then there was no cause left why he should descend into hell, the place of the damned.
Obj. 2. The torments and horrors of soul which Christ experienced preceded his burial. But his descent into hell follows it. Therefore it cannot refer to, and designate the anguish of soul which Christ endured. Ans. There is here a fallacy in the minor proposition, in making that a cause which is not designed as such; for the descent into hell in the Creed follows the burial of Christ, not because it was accomplished after his burial; but because it is an explanation of what precedes concerning his passion, death and burial, lest something should be detracted from these; as if it said, he did not only suffer in body—he did not only die a bodily death and was not only buried; but he also suffered in soul the most extreme torments, and hellish agonies such as all the ungodly shall forever endure. The chief, and heaviest part of the sufferings of Christ is, therefore, correctly placed last, according to the order in the Creed; for it proceeds from the pains of the body to those of the soul, and from the sufferings which are visible to those that are invisible, as it were from the lighter to the heavier.


II. WHAT ARE THE FRUITS OF CHRIST’S DESCENT INTO HELL?

Christ descended into hell: 1. That we might not descend thither, and that he might deliver us from the eternal anguish and torments of hell. 2. That he might carry us with himself to heaven.
Therefore to believe in Christ, who descended into hell, is to believe that he sustained for us, in his own soul, hellish agonies and pains, and that extreme ignominy which awaits the ungodly in hell, that we might never descend thither, nor be compelled to suffer the pains and torments, which all the devils and reprobate will for ever suffer in hell; but that on the contrary, we might rather ascend with him to heaven, and there with him enjoy the greatest felicity and glory to all eternity. This is the fruit, and benefit of this article of Christ’s descent into hell.


Ursinus, Z., & Williard, G. W. (1888). The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (pp. 219–232). Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company.