How Christ Has Fulfilled the Function of Redeemer to Acquire Salvation for Us
BY JOHN CALVIN
ALSO, HIS DEATH AND RESURRECTION ARE DISCUSSED, AS WELL AS HIS ASCENT INTO HEAVEN
(Alienated by sin from God, who yet loved us, we are reconciled by Christ, 1–4)
- The Redeemer
What we have said so far concerning Christ must be referred to as this one objective: condemned, dead, and lost in ourselves, we should seek righteousness, liberation, life, and salvation in him, as we are taught by that well-known saying of Peter: “There is no other name under heaven given to men in which we must be saved” [Acts 4:12]. The name “Jesus” was bestowed upon him not without reason or by chance, or by the decision of men, but it was brought from heaven by an angel, the proclaimer of the supreme decree. The reason for it is added: he was sent to “save the people from their sins” [Matt. 1:21; cf. Luke 1:31]. We must note in these words what we have touched upon elsewhere: the office of Redeemer was laid upon him that he might be our Savior. Still, our redemption would be imperfect if he did not lead us ever onward to the final goal of salvation. Accordingly, the moment we turn away even slightly from him, our salvation, which rests firmly in him, gradually vanishes away. As a result, all those who do not repose in him voluntarily deprive themselves of all grace. Bernard’s admonition is worth remembering: “The name of Jesus is not only light but also food; it is also oil, without which all food of the soul is dry; it is salt, without whose seasoning whatever is set before us is insipid; finally, it is honey in the mouth, melody in the ear, rejoicing in the heart, and at the same time medicine. Every discourse in which his name is not spoken is without savor.”
But here we must earnestly ponder how he accomplishes salvation for us. This we must do not only to be persuaded that he is its author, but to gain a sufficient and stable support for our faith, rejecting whatever could draw us away in one direction or another. No one can descend into himself and seriously consider what he is without feeling God’s wrath and hostility toward him. Accordingly, he must anxiously seek ways and means to appease God—and this demands a satisfaction. No common assurance is required, for God’s wrath and curse always lie upon sinners until they are absolved of guilt. Since he is a righteous Judge, he does not allow his law to be broken without punishment, but is equipped to avenge it.
- The awareness of God’s wrath makes us thankful for his loving act in Christ
But, before we go any farther, we must see in passing how fitting it was that God, who anticipates us by his mercy, should have been our enemy until he was reconciled to us through Christ. For how could he have given in his only-begotten Son a singular pledge of his love to us if he had not already embraced us with his free favor? Since, therefore, some sort of contradiction arises here, I shall dispose of this difficulty. The Spirit usually speaks in this way in the Scriptures: “God was men’s enemy until they were reconciled to grace by the death of Christ” [Rom. 5:10 p.]. “They were under a curse until their iniquity was atoned for by his sacrifice.” [Gal. 3:10, 13 p.] “They were estranged from God until through his body they were reconciled.” [Col. 1:21–22 p.] Expressions of this sort have been accommodated to our capacity that we may better understand how miserable and ruinous our condition is apart from Christ. For if it had not been clearly stated that the wrath and vengeance of God and eternal death rested upon us, we would scarcely have recognized how miserable we would have been without God’s mercy, and we would have underestimated the benefit of liberation.
For example, suppose someone is told: “If God hated you while you were still a sinner, and cast you off, as you deserved, a terrible destruction would have awaited you. But because he kept you in grace voluntarily, and of his own free favor, and did not allow you to be estranged from him, he thus delivered you from that peril.” This man then will surely experience and feel something of what he owes to God’s mercy. On the other hand, suppose he learns, as Scripture teaches, that he was estranged from God through sin, is an heir of wrath, subject to the curse of eternal death, excluded from all hope of salvation, beyond every blessing of God, the slave of Satan, captive under the yoke of sin, destined finally for a dreadful destruction and already involved in it; and that at this point Christ interceded as his advocate, took upon himself and suffered the punishment that, from God’s righteous judgment, threatened all sinners; that he purged with his blood those evils which had rendered sinners hateful to God; that by this expiation he made satisfaction and sacrifice duly to God the Father; that as intercessor he has appeased God’s wrath; that on this foundation rests the peace of God with men; that by this bond his benevolence is maintained toward them. Will the man not then be even more moved by all these things which so vividly portray the greatness of the calamity from which he has been rescued?
To sum up: since our hearts cannot, in God’s mercy, either seize upon life ardently enough or accept it with the gratefulness we owe, unless our minds are first struck and overwhelmed by fear of God’s wrath and by dread of eternal death, we are taught by Scripture to perceive that apart from Christ, God is, so to speak, hostile to us, and his hand is armed for our destruction; to embrace his benevolence and fatherly love in Christ alone.
- God’s wrath against unrighteousness; his love precedes our reconciliation in Christ
Although this statement is tempered to our feeble comprehension, it is not said falsely. For God, who is the highest righteousness, cannot love the unrighteousness that he sees in us all. All of us, therefore, have in ourselves something deserving of God’s hatred. With regard to our corrupt nature and the wicked life that follows it, all of us surely displease God, are guilty in his sight, and are born to the damnation of hell.6 But because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love. However much we may be sinners by our own fault, we nevertheless remain his creatures. However much we have brought death upon ourselves, yet he has created us unto life. Thus he is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace. Since there is a perpetual and irreconcilable disagreement between righteousness and unrighteousness, so long as we remain sinners he cannot receive us completely. Therefore, to take away all cause for enmity and to reconcile us utterly to himself, he wipes out all evil in us by the expiation set forth in the death of Christ; that we, who were previously unclean and impure, may show ourselves righteous and holy in his sight. Therefore, by his love God the Father goes before and anticipates our reconciliation in Christ. Indeed, “because he first loved us” [1 John 4:19], he afterward reconciles us to himself. But until Christ succors us by his death, the unrighteousness that deserves God’s indignation remains in us, and is accursed and condemned before him. Hence, we can be fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him. If, then, we would be assured that God is pleased with and kindly disposed toward us, we must fix our eyes and minds on Christ alone. For actually, through him alone we escape the imputation of our sins to us—an imputation bringing with it the wrath of God.
- The work of atonement derives from God’s love; therefore it has not established the latter
For this reason, Paul says that the love with which God embraced us “before the creation of the world” was established and grounded in Christ [Eph. 1:4–5]. These things are plain and in agreement with Scripture, and beautifully harmonize those passages in which it is said that God declared his love toward us in giving his only-begotten Son to die [John 3:16]; and, conversely, that God was our enemy before he was again made favorable to us by Christ’s death [Rom. 5:10]. But to render these things more certain among those who require the testimony of the ancient church, I shall quote a passage of Augustine where the very thing is taught: “God’s love,” says he, “is incomprehensible and unchangeable. For it was not after we were reconciled to him through the blood of his Son that he began to love us. Rather, he has loved us before the world was created, that we also might be his sons along with his only-begotten Son—before we became anything at all. The fact that we were reconciled through Christ’s death must not be understood as if his Son reconciled us to him that he might now begin to love those whom he had hated. Rather, we have already been reconciled to him who loves us, with whom we were enemies on account of sin. The apostle will testify whether I am speaking the truth: ‘God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us’ [Rom. 5:8]. Therefore, he loved us even when we practiced enmity toward him and committed wickedness. Thus in a marvelous and divine way he loved us even when he hated us. For he hated us for what we were that he had not made; yet because our wickedness had not entirely consumed his handiwork, he knew how, at the same time, to hate in each one of us what we had made, and to love what he had made.” These are Augustine’s words.
(The effects of the obedience and death of Christ, 5–7)
- Christ has redeemed us through his obedience, which he practiced throughout his life
Now someone asks, How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience.8 This is proved by Paul’s testimony: “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience we are made righteous” [Rom. 5:19 p.]. In another passage, to be sure, Paul extends the basis of the pardon that frees us from the curse of the law to the whole life of Christ: “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, subject to the law, to redeem those who were under the law” [Gal. 4:4–5]. Thus in his very baptism, also, he asserted that he fulfilled a part of righteousness in obediently carrying out his Father’s commandment [Matt. 3:15]. In short, from the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us.
Yet to define the way of salvation more exactly, Scripture ascribes this as peculiar and proper to Christ’s death. He declares that “he gave his life to redeem many” [Matt. 20:28 p.]. Paul teaches that “Christ died for our sins” [Rom. 4:25 p.]. John the Baptist proclaimed that he came “to take away the sins of the world,” for he was “the Lamb of God” [John 1:29 p.]. In another passage Paul teaches that “we are freely justified through the redemption which is in Christ, because he was put forward as a reconciler in his blood” [Rom. 3:24–25 p.]. Likewise: “We are … justified by his blood … and reconciled … through his death.” [Rom. 5:9–10.] Again: “For our sake he who knew no sin was made sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” [2 Cor. 5:21.] I shall not pursue all the testimonies, for the list would be endless, and many of them will be referred to in their order. For this reason the so-called “Apostles’ Creed” passes at once in the best order from the birth of Christ to his death and resurrection, wherein the whole of perfect salvation consists. Yet the remainder of the obedience that he manifested in his life is not excluded. Paul embraces it all from beginning to end: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, … and was obedient to the Father unto death, even death on a cross” [Phil. 2:7–8 p.]. And truly, even in death itself his willing obedience is the important thing because a sacrifice not offered voluntarily would not have furthered righteousness. Therefore, when the Lord testified that he “laid down his life for his sheep” [John 10:15 p.], he aptly added, “No one takes it from me” [John 10:18]. In this sense Isaiah says, “Like a sheep that before its shearer was dumb” [Isa. 53:7; cf. Acts 8:32]. And the Gospel history relates that he went forth and met the soldiers [John 18:4], and that before Pilate he did not defend himself, but stood to submit to judgment [Matt. 27:12, 14]. Not, indeed, without a struggle; for he had taken upon himself our weaknesses, and in this way the obedience that he had shown to his Father had to be tested! And here was no common evidence of his incomparable love toward us: to wrestle with terrible fear, and amid those cruel torments to cast off all concern for himself that he might provide for us. And we must hold fast to this: that no proper sacrifice to God could have been offered unless Christ, disregarding his own feelings, subjected and yielded himself wholly to his Father’s will. On this point the apostle appropriately quotes this testimony from a psalm: “It is written of me in the Book of the Law [Heb. 10:7] … ‘that I am to do thy will, O God [Heb. 10:9]. I will it, and thy law is in the midst of my heart’ [Ps. 39:9, Vg.]. Then I said, ‘Lo, I come’ ” [Heb. 10:7]. But because trembling consciences find repose only in sacrifice and cleansing by which sins are expiated, we are duly directed thither; and for us the substance of life is set in the death of Christ.
(The condemnation through Pilate)
The curse caused by our guilt was awaiting us at God’s heavenly judgment seat. Accordingly, Scripture first relates Christ’s condemnation before Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, to teach us that the penalty to which we were subject had been imposed upon this righteous man. We could not escape God’s dreadful judgment. To deliver us from it, Christ allowed himself to be condemned before a mortal man—even a wicked and profane man. e(b)For the title “prefect” is mentioned, not only to affirm the faithfulness of the history, but that we may learn what Isaiah teaches: “Upon him was the chastisement of our peace, and with his stripes we are healed” [Isa. 53:5]. To take away our condemnation, it was not enough for him to suffer any kind of death: to make satisfaction for our redemption a form of death had to be chosen in which he might free us both by transferring our condemnation to himself and by taking our guilt upon himself. If he had been murdered by thieves or slain in an insurrection by a raging mob, in such a death there would have been no evidence of satisfaction. But when he was arraigned before the judgment seat as a criminal, accused and pressed by testimony, and condemned by the mouth of the judge to die—we know by these proofs that he took the role of a guilty man and evildoer. Here we must note two things that had been foretold by the oracles of the prophets, and which greatly comfort and confirm our faith. When we hear that Christ was led from the judge’s seat to death, and hanged between thieves, we possess the fulfillment of the prophecy to which the Evangelist referred: “He was reckoned among the transgressors” [Mark 15:28, Vg.; cf. Isa. 53:12]. Why so? Surely that he might die in the place of the sinner, not of the righteous or innocent man. For he suffered death not because of innocence but because of sin. On the other hand, when we hear that he was acquitted by the same lips that condemned him (for Pilate was more than once compelled to give public testimony to his innocence [e.g., Matt. 27:23]), there should come to mind the utterance of another prophet: that he repaid what he did not steal [Ps. 69:4]. Thus we shall behold the person of a sinner and evildoer represented in Christ, yet from his shining innocence it will at the same time be obvious that he was burdened with another’s sin rather than his own. He therefore suffered under Pontius Pilate, and by the governor’s official sentence was reckoned among criminals. Yet not so—for he was declared righteous by his judge at the same time, when Pilate affirmed that he “found no cause for complaint in him” [John 18:38]. This is our acquittal: the guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God [Isa. 53:12]. We must, above all, remember this substitution, lest we tremble and remain anxious throughout life—as if God’s righteous vengeance, which the Son of God has taken upon himself, still hung over us.
The form of Christ’s death also embodies a singular mystery. b(a)The cross was accursed, not only in human opinion but by decree of God’s law [Deut. 21:23]. Hence, when Christ is hanged upon the cross, he makes himself subject to the curse. It had to happen in this way in order that the whole curse—which on account of our sins awaited us, or rather lay upon us—might be lifted from us, while it was transferred to him. This was also foreshadowed in the law. Now the sacrifices and expiations offered for sins were called “Ashmoth,”10 a Hebrew word properly signifying sin itself. By using this term figuratively the Holy Spirit intended to intimate that these were like sacrifices of purification, which take upon themselves and bear the curse due for sins. What was figuratively represented in the Mosaic sacrifices is manifested in Christ, the archetype of the figures. Therefore, to perform a perfect expiation, he gave his own life as an Asham, that is, as an expiatory offering for sin, as the prophet calls it [Isa. 53:10; cf. v. 5], upon which our stain and punishment might somehow be cast, and cease to be imputed to us. The apostle testifies this more openly when he teaches: “For our sake he who knew no sin was made sin by the Father, so that in him we might be made the righteousness of God” [2 Cor. 5:21]. The Son of God, utterly clean of all fault, nevertheless took upon himself the shame and reproach of our iniquities, and in return clothed us with his purity. It seems that Paul meant the same thing when he says of sin, “He condemned sin in his flesh” [Rom. 8:3 p.]. The Father destroyed the force of sin when the curse of sin was transferred to Christ’s flesh. Here, then, is the meaning of this saying: Christ was offered to the Father in death as an expiatory sacrifice that when he discharged all satisfaction through his sacrifice, we might cease to be afraid of God’s wrath. Now it is clear what the prophet’s utterance means: “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” [Isa. 53:6]. That is, he who was about to cleanse the filth of those iniquities was covered with them by transferred imputation. The cross, to which he was nailed, was a symbol of this, as the apostle testifies: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, when he became a curse for us. For it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree,’ that in Christ the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles” [Gal. 3:13–14; Deut. 21:23]. Peter means the same thing when he teaches: “He himself bore our sins … on the tree” [1 Peter 2:24], because from the very symbol of the curse we more clearly understand that the burden with which we had been oppressed was laid upon him. Yet we must not understand that he fell under a curse that overwhelmed him; rather—in taking the curse upon himself—he crushed, broke, and scattered its whole force. Hence faith apprehends an acquittal in the condemnation of Christ, a blessing in his curse. Paul with good reason, therefore, magnificently proclaims the triumph that Christ obtained for himself on the cross, as if the cross, which was full of shame, had been changed into a triumphal chariot! For he says that “Christ nailed to the cross the written bond which stood against us … and disarmed the principalities … and made a public example of them” [Col. 2:14–15 p.]. And no wonder! For “Christ … through the eternal Spirit offered himself,” as another apostle testifies13 [Heb. 9:14]. From this came that transmutation of nature. But that these things may take root firmly and deeply in our hearts, let us keep sacrifice and cleansing constantly in mind. For we could not believe with assurance that Christ is our redemption, ransom, and propitiation unless he had been a sacrificial victim. Blood is accordingly mentioned wherever Scripture discusses the mode of redemption. Yet Christ’s shed blood served, not only as a satisfaction, but also as a laver [cf. Eph. 5:26; Titus 3:5; Rev. 1:5] to wash away our corruption.
- “Dead and buried”
There follows in the Creed: “He was dead and buried.” Here again is to be seen how he in every respect took our place to pay the price of our redemption. Death held us captive under its yoke; Christ, in our stead, gave himself over to its power to deliver us from it. So the apostle understands it when he writes: “He tasted death for everyone” [Heb. 2:9 p.]. By dying, he ensured that we would not die, or—which is the same thing—redeemed us to life by his own death. He differed from us, however, in this respect: he let himself be swallowed up by death, as it were, not to be engulfed in its abyss, but rather to engulf it [cf. 1 Peter 3:22, Vg.] that must soon have engulfed us; he let himself be subjected to it, not to be overwhelmed by its power, but rather to lay it low, when it was threatening us and exulting over our fallen state. Finally, his purpose was “that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” [Heb. 2:14–15]. This is the first fruit that his death brought to us.
The second effect of Christ’s death upon us is this: by our participation in it, his death mortifies our earthly members so that they may no longer perform their functions; and it kills the old man in us that he may not flourish and bear fruit. Christ’s burial has the same effect: we ourselves as partakers in it are buried with him to sin. The apostle teaches that “we have been united with Christ in the likeness of his death” [Rom. 6:5, KJV], and “buried with him … into the death” of sin [Rom. 6:4]; that “by his cross the world has been crucified to us, and we to the world” [Gal. 2:19; 6:14 p.]; that we have died together with him [Col. 3:3]. By these statements Paul not only exhorts us to exhibit an example of Christ’s death but declares that there inheres in it an efficacy which ought to be manifest in all Christians, unless they intend to render his death useless and unfruitful.
Therefore, in Christ’s death and burial a twofold blessing is set forth for us to enjoy: liberation from the death to which we had been bound, and mortification of our flesh.
(Explanation of the doctrine of the descent into hell, 8–12)
- “Descended into hell”
But we ought not to omit his descent into hell, a matter of no small moment in bringing about redemption. Now it appears from the ancient writers that this phrase which we read in the Creed was once not so much used in the churches. Nevertheless, in setting forth a summary of doctrine a place must be given to it, as it contains the useful and not-to-be-despised mystery of a most important matter. At least some of the old writers do not leave it out. From this we may conjecture that it was inserted after a time, and did not become customary in the churches at once, but gradually. This much is certain: that it reflected the common belief of all the godly; for there is no one of the fathers who does not mention in his writings Christ’s descent into hell, though their interpretations vary. But it matters little by whom or at what time this clause was inserted. Rather, the noteworthy point about the Creed is this: we have in it a summary of our faith, full and complete in all details; and containing nothing in it except what has been derived from the pure Word of God. If any persons have scruples about admitting this article into the Creed, it will soon be made plain how important it is to the sum of our redemption: if it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost. On the other hand, there are some who think that nothing new is spoken of in this article, but that it repeats in other words what had previously been said of his burial, the word “hell” often being used in Scripture to denote a grave.18 I grant that what they put forward concerning the meaning of the word is true: “hell” is frequently to be understood as “grave.” But two reasons militate against their opinion, and readily persuade me to disagree with them. How careless it would have been, when something not at all difficult in itself has been stated with clear and easy words, to indicate it again in words that obscure rather than clarify it! Whenever two expressions for the same thing are used in the same context, the latter ought to be an explanation of the former. But what sort of explanation will it be if one says that “Christ was buried” means that “he descended into hell”? Secondly, it is not likely that a useless repetition of this sort could have crept into this summary, in which the chief points of our faith are aptly noted in the fewest possible words. I have no doubt that all who have weighed this matter with some care will readily agree with me.
- Christ in the nether world?
Others interpret it differently: that Christ descended to the souls of the patriarchs who had died under the law, to announce redemption as accomplished and to free them from the prison where they were confined.19 To back up this interpretation, they wrongly adduce evidence from a psalm: “He shatters the doors of bronze and … the bars of iron” [Ps. 107:16]. Likewise, from Zechariah: “He will redeem the captives from the waterless pit” [ch. 9:11 p.]. But the psalm foretells the liberation of those who are cast into bondage in far-off countries; Zechariah, moreover, compares the Babylonian disaster, into which the people had been cast, to a deep, dry pit or abyss, and at the same time teaches that the salvation of the whole church is a release from the nether depths. Thus, it has happened in some way or other that later generations thought it to be a place under the earth, to which they gave the name “Limbo.”20 But this story, although it is repeated by great authors, and even today is earnestly defended as true by many persons,21 still is nothing but a story. It is childish to enclose the souls of the dead in a prison. What need, then, for Christ’s soul to go down there to release them?
I readily admit that Christ shone upon them with the power of his Spirit, enabling them to realize that the grace which they had only tasted in hope was then manifested to the world.22 In this way the passage in Peter can probably be explained wherein he says: “Christ came and preached to the spirits who were in a ‘watchtower’—commonly rendered ‘prison’ ” [1 Peter 3:19, cf. Vg.]. The context leads us to suppose that believers who died before that time shared the same grace with us. For Peter extols the power of Christ’s death in that it penetrated even to the dead; while godly souls enjoyed the present sight of that visitation which they had anxiously awaited. On the other hand, the wicked realized more clearly that they were excluded from all salvation. Now, while Peter does not clearly distinguish between the godly and the ungodly, we are not therefore to understand that he mixes them indiscriminately. He only means to teach that both groups have a common awareness of Christ’s death.
- The “descent into hell” as an expression of the spiritual torment that Christ underwent for us
But we must seek a surer explanation, apart from the Creed, of Christ’s descent into hell. The explanation given to us in God’s Word is not only holy and pious, but also full of wonderful consolation. If Christ had died only a bodily death, it would have been ineffectual. No—it was expedient at the same time for him to undergo the severity of God’s vengeance, to appease his wrath and satisfy his just judgment. For this reason, he must also grapple hand to hand with the armies of hell and the dread of everlasting death.23 A little while ago we referred to the prophet’s statement that “the chastisement of our peace was laid upon him,” “he was wounded for our transgressions” by the Father, “he was bruised for our infirmities” [Isa. 53:5 p.]. By these words he means that Christ was put in place of evildoers as surety and pledge—submitting himself even as the accused—to bear and suffer all the punishments that they ought to have sustained. All—with this one exception: “He could not be held by the pangs of death” [Acts 2:24 p.]. No wonder, then, if he is said to have descended into hell, for he suffered the death that God in his wrath had inflicted upon the wicked! Those who—on the ground that it is absurd to put after his burial what preceded it—say that the order is reversed in this way are making a very trifling and ridiculous objection. The point is that the Creed sets forth what Christ suffered in the sight of men, and then appositely speaks of that invisible and incomprehensible judgment which he underwent in the sight of God in order that we might know not only that Christ’s body was given as the price of our redemption, but that he paid a greater and more excellent price in suffering in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.
- Defense of this explanation from Scripture passages*
In this sense Peter says: “Christ arose, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held or conquered by them” [Acts 2:24 p.]. Peter does not simply name death, but expressly states that the Son of God had been laid hold of by the pangs of death that arose from God’s curse and wrath—the source of death. For what a small thing it would have been to have gone forward with nothing to fear and, as if in sport, to suffer death! But this was a true proof of his boundless mercy, that he did not shun death, however much he dreaded it. There is no doubt that the apostle means the same thing when he writes in The Letter to the Hebrews: Christ “was heard for his … fear” [Heb. 5:7 p.]. (Others render it “reverence” or “piety,”26 but how inappropriately is evident from the fact itself, as well as the form of speaking.) Christ, therefore, “praying with tears and loud cries, … is heard for his … fear” [Heb. 5:7 p.]; he does not pray to be spared death, but he prays not to be swallowed up by it as a sinner because he there bore our nature. And surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him, not to be heard. It is as if God himself had plotted your ruin. We see that Christ was so cast down as to be compelled to cry out in deep anguish: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” [Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46]. Now some would have it that he was expressing the opinion of others rather than his own feeling.27 This is not at all probable, for his words clearly were drawn forth from anguish deep within his heart. Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, “in whom his heart reposed” [cf. Matt. 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” [cf. Isa. 53:5] by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God. Therefore, Hilary reasons: by his descent into hell we have obtained this, that death has been overcome. In other passages he does not differ from our view, as when he says: “The cross, death, hell—these are our life.” In another place: “The Son of God is in hell, but man is borne up to heaven.” 28 And why do I quote the testimony of a private individual when the apostle, recalling this fruit of victory, asserts the same thing, that they were “delivered who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage”? [Heb. 2:15 p.]. He had, therefore, to conquer that fear which by nature continually torments and oppresses all mortals. This he could do only by fighting it. Now it will soon be more apparent that his was no common sorrow or one engendered by a light cause. Therefore, by his wrestling hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell, he was victorious and triumphed over them, that in death we may not now fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up [cf. 1 Peter 3:22, Vg.].
- Defense of the doctrine against misunderstandings and errors
Here certain untutored wretches, impelled more by malice than by ignorance, cry out that I am doing a frightful injustice to Christ. For they hold it incongruous for him to fear for the salvation of his soul. Then they stir up a harsher slander: that I attribute to the Son of God a despair contrary to faith. First, these men wickedly raise a controversy over Christ’s fear and dread, which the Evangelists so openly relate. For before the hour of death approached, “he was troubled in spirit” [John 13:21] and stricken with grief, and when it came upon him, he began to tremble more intensely with fear [cf. Matt. 26:37]. To say that he was pretending—as they do—is a foul evasion. We must with assurance, therefore, confess Christ’s sorrow, as Ambrose rightly teaches, unless we are ashamed of the cross. And surely, unless his soul shared in the punishment, he would have been the Redeemer of bodies alone. But he had to struggle to lift up those who lay prostrate. His goodness—never sufficiently praised—shines in this: he did not shrink from taking our weaknesses upon himself. Hence, it in nowise detracts from his heavenly glory. From this also arises the comfort for our anguish and sorrow that the apostle holds out to us: that this Mediator has experienced our weaknesses the better to succor us in our miseries [Heb. 4:15a].
They claim that it is unworthy to attribute to Christ something evil of itself. As if they were wiser than God’s Spirit, who harmonizes these two things! “Christ in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning.” [Heb. 4:15b.] There is no reason why Christ’s weakness should alarm us. For he was not compelled by violence or necessity, but was induced purely by his love for us and by his mercy to submit to it. But all that he voluntarily suffered for us does not in the least detract from his power. These detractors are, moreover, deceived in this one point: they do not recognize in Christ a weakness pure and free of all vice and stain because he held himself within the bounds of obedience. Our fallen nature, whose violent and turbulent emotions know no bounds, is without moderation. Hence, our opponents wrongly measure the Son of God by that standard. But since he was uncorrupted, a moderation that restrained excess flourished in all his emotions. Hence, he could be like us [cf. Heb. 2:17] in sorrow, fear, and dread, yet in such a way as to differ from us by this characteristic.
Our opponents, refuted, jump to another misrepresentation: although Christ feared death, he did not fear God’s curse and wrath, from which he knew himself to be safe. But let godly readers consider how honorable it would be for Christ to have been more unmanly and cowardly than most men of the common sort! Thieves and other wrongdoers arrogantly hasten to death; many despise it with haughty courage; others bear it calmly. What sort of constancy or greatness would it have been for the Son of God to be stricken and almost stupefied with the dread of death? Something commonly considered miraculous was related about him: from the fierceness of his torment, drops of blood flowed from his face [Luke 22:44]. And he did not do this as a show for others’ eyes, since he groaned to his Father in secret. This banishes all doubt: he had to have angels descend from heaven to encourage him by their unaccustomed consolation [Luke 22:43]. What shameful softness would it have been (as I have said) for Christ to be so tortured by the dread of common death as to sweat blood, and to be able to be revived only at the appearance of angels? What? Does not that prayer, coming from unbelievable bitterness of heart and repeated three times—”Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” [Matt. 26:39]—show that Christ had a harsher and more difficult struggle than with common death?
From this it appears that these quibblers with whom I am contending boldly chatter about things they know nothing of. For they have never earnestly considered what it is or means that we have been redeemed from God’s judgment. Yet this is our wisdom: duly to feel how much our salvation cost the Son of God.
Suppose someone should now ask whether Christ descended into hell when he prayed that death be averted. I reply: this was the beginning from which we may gather what harsh and dreadful torments he suffered, when he knew that he stood accused before God’s judgment seat for our sake. Although the divine power of his Spirit remained hidden for a moment to give place to weakness of flesh, we must know that the trial arising from the feeling of pain and fear was not contrary to faith. And in this way the statement in Peter’s sermon was fulfilled: “He could not be held by the pangs of death” [Acts 2:24 p.]. For feeling himself, as it were, forsaken by God, he did not waver in the least from trust in his goodness. This is proved by that remarkable prayer to God in which he cried out in acute agony: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46]. For even though he suffered beyond measure, he did not cease to call him his God, by whom he cried out that he had been forsaken. Now this refutes the error of Apollinaris, as well as that of the so-called Monothelites. Apollinaris claimed that Christ had an eternal spirit instead of a soul, so that he was only half a man. As if he could atone for our sins in any other way than by obeying the Father! But where is inclination or will to obey except in the soul? We know that it was for this reason that his soul was troubled: to drive away fear and bring peace and repose to our souls. Against the Monothelites,33 we see that he did not will as man what he willed according to his divine nature. I pass over the fact that, with a contrary emotion, he overcame the fear of which we have spoken. This plainly appears to be a great paradox: ” ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify thy name” [John 12:27–28]. Yet in his perplexity there was no extravagant behavior such as is seen in us when we strive mightily to control ourselves.
(Christ’s resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session, 13–16)
- “On the third day he rose again from the dead”
Next comes the resurrection from the dead. Without this what we have said so far would be incomplete. For since only weakness appears in the cross, death, and burial of Christ, faith must leap over all these things to attain its full strength. We have in his death the complete fulfillment of salvation, for through it we are reconciled to God, his righteous judgment is satisfied, the curse is removed, and the penalty paid in full. Nevertheless, we are said to “have been born anew to a living hope” not through his death but “through his resurrection” [1 Peter 1:3 p.]. For as he, in rising again, came forth victor over death, so the victory of our faith over death lies in his resurrection alone.34 Paul’s words better express its nature: “He was put to death for our sins, and raised for our justification” [Rom. 4:25]. This is as if he had said: “Sin was taken away by his death; righteousness was revived and restored by his resurrection.” For how could he by dying have freed us from death if he had himself succumbed to death? How could he have acquired victory for us if he had failed in the struggle? Therefore, we divide the substance of our salvation between Christ’s death and resurrection as follows: through his death, sin was wiped out and death extinguished; through his resurrection, righteousness was restored and life raised up, so that—thanks to his resurrection—his death manifested its power and efficacy in us. Therefore, Paul states that “Christ was declared the Son of God … in the resurrection itself” [Rom. 1:4 p.], because then at last he displayed his heavenly power, which is both the clear mirror of his divinity and the firm support of our faith. Elsewhere Paul similarly teaches: “He suffered in weakness of the flesh, but rose again by the power of the Spirit” [2 Cor. 13:4 p.]. In the same sense Paul elsewhere discusses perfection: “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection.” Yet immediately thereafter he adds, “The fellowship of his death” [Phil. 3:10 p.]. With this Peter’s statement closely agrees: “God raised him from the dead and gave him glory so that our faith and hope might be in God” [1 Peter 1:21 p.]. Not that faith, supported by his death, should waver, but that the power of God, which guards us under faith, is especially revealed in the resurrection itself.
So then, let us remember that whenever mention is made of his death alone, we are to understand at the same time what belongs to his resurrection. Also, the same synecdoche applies to the word “resurrection”: whenever it is mentioned separately from death, we are to understand it as including what has to do especially with his death. But because by rising again he obtained the victor’s prize—that there might be resurrection and life—Paul rightly contends that “faith is annulled and the gospel empty and deceiving if Christ’s resurrection is not fixed in our hearts” [1 Cor. 15:17 p.]. Accordingly, in another passage—after glorying in the death of Christ against the terrors of damnation—he adds by way of emphasis: surely “he who was dead has risen, and appears before God as our mediator” [Rom. 8:34 p.].
Further, as we explained above that the mortification of our flesh depends upon participation in his cross,35 so we must understand that we obtain a corresponding benefit from his resurrection. The apostle says: “We were engrafted in the likeness of his death, so that sharing in his resurrection we might walk in newness of life” [Rom. 6:4 p.]. Hence, in another passage, from the fact that we have died with Christ [Col. 3:3] he derives proof that we must mortify our members that are upon the earth [cf. Col. 3:5]. So he also infers from our rising up with Christ that we must seek those things above, not those on the earth [Col. 3:1–2]. By these words we are not only invited through the example of the risen Christ to strive after newness of life; but we are taught that we are reborn into righteousness through his power.
We also receive a third benefit from his resurrection: we are assured of our own resurrection by receiving a sort of guarantee substantiated by his. Paul deals with this at greater length in 1 Cor. 15:12–26.
We must, by the way, note that he is said “to have risen from the dead.” These words express the truth of his death and resurrection, as if it were said: he suffered the same death that other men naturally die; and received immortality in the same flesh that, in the mortal state, he had taken upon himself.
- “Ascended into heaven”
To the resurrection is quite appropriately joined the ascent into heaven. Now having laid aside the mean and lowly state of mortal life and the shame of the cross, Christ by rising again began to show forth his glory and power more fully. Yet he truly inaugurated his Kingdom only at his ascension into heaven. The apostle shows this when he teaches that Christ “ascended … that he might fill all things” [Eph. 4:10, cf. Vg.]. Despite the apparent contradiction, Paul shows that there is a remarkable agreement. For Christ left us in such a way that his presence might be more useful to us—a presence that had been confined in a humble abode of flesh so long as he sojourned on earth. Therefore John, after he related that notable invitation, “If any one thirst, let him come to me,” etc. [John 7:37], added that “the Spirit had not yet been given” to believers, “for Jesus had not yet been glorified” [John 7:39]. The Lord himself also testified this to his disciples: “It is expedient for you that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Holy Spirit will not come” [John 16:7 p.]. He consoles them for his bodily absence, saying that he will not leave them orphans, but will come to them again in an invisible but more desirable way [cf. John 14:18–19; 16:14]. For they were then taught by a surer experience that the authority he wielded and the power he exercised were sufficient for believers not only to live blessedly but also to die happily. Indeed, we see how much more abundantly he then poured out his Spirit, how much more wonderfully he advanced his Kingdom, how much greater power he displayed both in helping his people and in scattering his enemies. b(a)Carried up into heaven, therefore, he withdrew his bodily presence from our sight [Acts 1:9], not to cease to be present with believers still on their earthly pilgrimage, but to rule heaven and earth with a more immediate power. But by his ascension he fulfilled what he had promised: that he would be with us even to the end of the world. As his body was raised up above all the heavens, so his power and energy were diffused and spread beyond all the bounds of heaven and earth. I prefer to explain this in Augustine’s words rather than my own: “Christ was to go by death to the right hand of the Father, whence he should come to judge the living and the dead. This he would do in bodily presence, according to pure doctrine and the rule of faith. For his spiritual presence with them was to come after his ascension.” Elsewhere he expresses it more fully and clearly: “According to ineffable and invisible grace what he has said will be fulfilled: ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world’ [Matt. 28:20]. According to the flesh that the Word took upon himself, according to the fact that he was born of the virgin, according to the fact that he was seized by the Jews, fastened to a tree, taken down from a cross, wrapped with linen, laid in a sepulcher, manifested in the resurrection, these words were fulfilled: ‘You will not always have me with you’ [Matt. 26:11]. Why? Because he went about in the flesh for forty days with his disciples, and while they were in his company, seeing him but not following him, he ascended into heaven [Acts 1:3, 9], and is not here: for there ‘he sits at the right hand of the Father’ [Mark 16:19]; yet he is here, for the presence of majesty has not withdrawn [cf. Heb. 1:3]. Therefore, we always have Christ according to the presence of majesty; but of his physical presence it was rightly said to his disciples, ‘You will not always have me with you’ [Matt. 26:11]. For the church had him in his bodily presence for a few days; now it holds him by faith, but does not see him with the eyes.”
- “Seated at the right hand of the Father”
Consequently, these words come immediately after: “Seated at the right hand of the Father.” The comparison is drawn from kings who have assessors at their side to whom they delegate the tasks of ruling and governing. So it was said that Christ, in whom the Father wills to be exalted and through whose hand he wills to reign, was received at God’s right hand. This is as if it were said that Christ was invested with lordship over heaven and earth, and solemnly entered into possession of the government committed to him—band that he not only entered into possession once for all, but continues in it, until he shall come down on Judgment Day. For the apostle so expounds it when he states: “The Father made him sit at his right hand … far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come” [Eph. 1:20–21; cf. Phil. 2:9]. Also, “He has put all things in subjection under his feet” [1 Cor. 15:27] and “has made him the head over all things for the church” [Eph. 1:22]. You see the purpose of that “sitting”: that both heavenly and earthly creatures may look with admiration upon his majesty, be ruled by his hand, obey his nod, and submit to his power. Here is what the apostles meant to teach when they often recalled it; all things were entrusted to his decision [Acts 2:30–36; 3:21; ch. 4; Heb. 1:8]. Therefore, they are wrong who think that it designates simply his blessedness. It makes no difference that in the book of The Acts, Stephen declares that he saw him standing [Acts 7:55]. For here it is a question, not of the disposition of his body, but of the majesty of his authority. Thus “to sit” means nothing else than to preside at the heavenly judgment seat.
- Benefits imparted to our faith by Christ’s ascension
From this our faith receives many benefits. First it understands that the Lord by his ascent to heaven opened the way into the Heavenly Kingdom, which had been closed through Adam [John 14:3]. Since he entered heaven in our flesh, as if in our name, it follows, as the apostle says, that in a sense we already “sit with God in the heavenly places in him” [Eph. 2:6], so that we do not await heaven with a bare hope, but in our Head already possess it.
Secondly, as faith recognizes, it is to our great benefit that Christ resides with the Father. For, having entered a sanctuary not made with hands, he appears before the Father’s face as our constant advocate and intercessor [Heb. 7:25; 9:11–12; Rom. 8:34]. Thus he turns the Father’s eyes to his own righteousness to avert his gaze from our sins. He so reconciles the Father’s heart to us that by his intercession he prepares a way and access for us to the Father’s throne. He fills with grace and kindness the throne that for miserable sinners would otherwise have been filled with dread.
Thirdly, faith comprehends his might, in which reposes our strength, power, wealth, and glorying against hell. “When he as ended into heaven he led a captivity captive” [Eph. 4:8, cf. Vg.; cf. Ps. 68:18], and despoiling his enemies, he enriched his own people, and daily lavishes spiritual riches upon them. He therefore sits on high, transfusing us with his power, that he may quicken us to spiritual life, sanctify us by his Spirit, adorn his church with divers gifts of his grace, keep it safe from all harm by his protection, restrain the raging enemies of his cross and of our salvation by the strength of his hand, and finally hold all power in heaven and on earth. All this he does until he shall lay low all his enemies [1 Cor. 15:25; cf. Ps. 110:1] (who are our enemies too) and complete the building of his church. This is the true state of his Kingdom; this is the power that the Father has conferred upon him, until, in coming to judge the living and the dead, he accomplishes his final act.
(Christ’s future return in judgment, 17)
- “From whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead”
Christ gives to his own people clear testimonies of his very present power. Yet his Kingdom lies hidden in the earth, so to speak, under the lowness of the flesh. It is right, therefore, that faith be called to ponder that visible presence of Christ which he will manifest on the Last Day. b(a)For he will come down from heaven in the same visible form in which he was seen to ascend [Acts 1:11; Matt. 24:30]. And he will appear to all with the ineffable majesty of his Kingdom, with the glow of immortality, with the boundless power of divinity, with a guard of angels. From thence we are commanded to await him as our Redeemer on that day when he will separate the lambs from the goats, the elect from the reprobate [Matt. 25:31–33]. No one—living or dead—shall escape his judgment. The sound of the trumpet will be heard from the ends of the earth, and by it all will be summoned before his judgment seat, both those still alive at that day and those whom death had previously taken from the company of the living [1 Thess. 4:16–17].
There are some who explain the words “the living and the dead” in another way. We see, of course, that some of the old writers were in doubt over how to explain this expression. But as the meaning just set forth is plain and clear, it is far closer to the Creed, which obviously was written to be understood by the common people. And this does not disagree with Paul’s statement: “It is appointed to all men to die once” [Heb. 9:27]. For even though those remaining in mortal life at the Last Judgment will not die in a natural way and order, yet the change that they will undergo, because it will be like death, is not inappropriately called “death.” It is certain that “not all shall sleep, but … all shall be changed” [1 Cor. 15:51]. What does this mean? Their mortal life will perish and be swallowed up “in a moment,” and be transformed directly into a new nature [1 Cor. 15:52]. No one would deny that this perishing of the flesh is death; yet it still remains true that living and dead will be called to judgment. “For the dead in Christ will rise first; then those who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them … to meet the Lord in the air.” [1 Thess. 4:16–17.] Now it is quite likely that this expression was taken from the sermon of Peter that Luke relates [Acts 10:42], and from Paul’s solemn protestation to Timothy [2 Tim. 4:1].
(Concluding remarks on the Apostles’ Creed and the sufficiency of Christ, 18–19)
- The Judge is the—Redeemer!
Hence arises a wonderful consolation: that we perceive judgment to be in the hands of him who has already destined us to share with him the honor of judging [cf. Matt. 19:28]! Far indeed is he from mounting his judgment seat to condemn us! How could our most merciful Ruler destroy his people? How could the Head scatter his own members? How could our Advocate condemn his clients? For if the apostle dares exclaim that with Christ interceding for us there is no one who can come forth to condemn us [Rom. 8:34, 33], it is much more true, then, that Christ as Intercessor will not condemn those whom he has received into his charge and protection. No mean assurance, this—that we shall be brought before no other judgment seat than that of our Redeemer, to whom we must look for our salvation! Moreover, he who now promises eternal blessedness through the gospel will then fulfill his promise in judgment. Therefore, by giving all judgment to the Son [John 5:22], the Father has honored him to the end that he may care for the consciences of his people, who tremble in dread of judgment.
Thus far I have followed the order of the Apostles’ Creed because it sums up in a few words the main points of our redemption, and thus may serve as a tablet for us upon which we see distinctly and point by point the things in Christ that we ought to heed. b(a)I call it the Apostles’ Creed without concerning myself in the least as to its authorship. With considerable agreement, the old writers certainly attribute it to the apostles, holding it to have been written and published by the apostles in common, or to be a summary of teaching transmitted by their hands and collected in good faith, and thus worthy of that title. I have no doubt that at the very beginning of the church, in the apostolic age, it was received as a public confession by the consent of all—wherever it originated. It seems not to have been privately written by any one person, since as far back as men can remember it was certainly held to be of sacred authority among all the godly. We consider to be beyond controversy the only point that ought to concern us: that the whole history of our faith is summed up in it succinctly and in definite order, and that it contains nothing that is not vouched for by genuine testimonies of Scripture. This being understood, it is pointless to trouble oneself or quarrel with anyone over the author. Unless, perchance, it is not enough for one to have the certain truth of the Holy Spirit, without at the same time knowing either by whose mouth it was spoken or by whose hand it was written.42
- Christ alone in all the clauses of the Creed†
We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ [Acts 4:12]. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is “of him” [1 Cor. 1:30]. If we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion; if purity, in his conception; if gentleness, it appears in his birth. For by his birth, he was made like us in all respects [Heb. 2:17] that he might learn to feel our pain [cf. Heb. 5:2]. If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross [Gal. 3:13]; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if the newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven; if protection, if security, if an abundant supply of all blessings, in his Kingdom; if the untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abound in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other. Some men, not content with him alone, are borne hither and thither from one hope to another; even if they concern themselves chiefly with him, they nevertheless stray from the right way in turning some part of their thinking in another direction. Yet such distrust cannot creep in where men have once for all truly known the abundance of his blessings.