************ Sermon on Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 40-44 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on December 5, 2010
Q & A 40-44
1 Timothy 1:15-17
"I Believe Christ Died and was Buried ..."
There is no way around the truth of it: unless Christ comes soon we are all going to die. By grace, there is a great deal we don't know: whether we will suffer much or little, whether death will come early or late in life, whether it will be instantaneous or slow. If we knew more we would only sleep less. But the simple fact is clear: every person here is going to die.
Over the years, I've noticed different reactions to death. There are those who deny it and cover it up with a ton of flowers and never really come to terms with it. There are those who welcome it and cannot wait for it. There are those who are fascinated by it; I remember a woman who looked at obituary columns in the newspaper plotting out what funerals she could attend. There are those who prepare for it by touring funeral homes, testing caskets, buying grave-sites, and prepaying for the service. And, there are those who fight it every step of the way.
I Death and Burial
A Let's start off by admitting that death is a mystery. Time and again, all over the world, people have to face the incomprehensible character of death. A person who was full of life and vigor gives a last sigh. Then there is silence. The heart stops. It is finished. Who can explain what really happens?
To complicate matters, doctors and theologians argue over exactly when death occurs. Does life end when the heart stops? Does life end when there are no more brain waves? Or, does life end when the soul leaves the body; if so, when does that happen? What about those people who have allowed themselves to be frozen – hoping that sometime in the future they will be awakened because a cure has been discovered for whatever it is that afflicts them.
B Death is not only a mystery; according to the Bible it is also an enemy (1 Cor 15:26). Most, if not all, of us are afraid of death. Some philosophers have spoken of death as being sweet. However, no one has ever been successful in making death a friend instead of an enemy. Even Jesus faced death with horror and agony. He pleaded with His sleepy disciples to keep watch with Him. He begged His Father in a night-long prayer session, accompanied by great sweat-drops, to find some other way. Finally, on the cross, He cried out as One Who had been forsaken by God. Death is an enemy. We need to remember it is an enemy. Death is not part of God's original design for people created to live in His image. We are always more busy prolonging life and postponing death than in hastening death and ending life.
C The Bible teaches us, my brothers and sisters, that death is also punishment. It is God's punishment. This is the reason man is scared of death – and rightly so. Punishment is never something to which anyone looks forward. Every time someone dies, man hears an echo of the words of God to Adam and Eve in the Garden: "when you eat of it you shall surely die" (Gen 3:17). Ever since the first sin every death is God's punishment for sin. Paul speaks of this when he says, "the wages of sin is death" (Rom 6:23). That's the result of sin. That is what we earn, what we deserve, what we have coming to us, all because of sin.
Sin explains why we all will physically die. We are all sinners. We are all part of the sinful human race. Therefore, we must go through God's punishment for sin – namely, death. The Catechism hastens to add, however, that "Our death does not pay the debt of our sins." Our death is not to be seen as even a partial payment for the debt of sins. Only the death of Jesus pays for sins. Our death, instead, is the punishment that follows the crime.
Few things in life are one hundred percent certain. It is joked by some that only death and taxes are certain. This joke certainly is true in regards to physical death. Unless Christ comes again, all of us will die on account of sin. That is certain. None of us can stay in our present state forever. Man's fall and God's curse in the Garden makes this certain.
D According to the Catechism, Christ had "to go all the way to death." God's justice and God's truth demand that the Son of God die to pay the debt of our sins. In dying, Christ was our substitute. He died the death of death to pay the price that we – with our death – cannot pay.
There is a reason Christ's death is able to pay for sin when ours cannot. For us death is punishment for sin. But Christ did not sin so His death becomes payment for sin – for our sin
What a loving gift this is. It would have been so easy for Christ to leave earth and enter heaven the same way Elijah and Enoch did – without first dying. Instead, Christ voluntarily gave His blessed body over to death. As Paul puts it in our Scripture reading, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim 1:15). In this season of advent, we remember that He came into the world to suffer and die for our sins.
Think about this. His holy hands which had healed so many, which had given strength to the lame and sight to the blind, became cold and motionless. His feet, that had walked on errands of mercy, became rigid and unmoving. His voice, that had spoken words of grace, became silent. His body, which had carried Him through three decades of holy service, became lifeless. No doctor would have trouble filling out His death certificate: "Dead through crucifixion."
II Descent to Hell
A Now, you should realize that there are two kinds of death as judgment against sin. There is physical death where the body dies and returns to dust (Gen 3:19). And, there is also spiritual death where man is separated from God (Mt 10:28; Rev 20:11-15). The Apostle Paul can say that we are all dead in our transgressions and sins (Eph 2:1); in other words, in this life every single person experiences spiritual death on account of sin. But even worse is to experience spiritual death in the life to come – in the fires of hell.
B Christ suffered physical death at the hands of men: this includes Judas who betrayed Him, the Sanhedrin who condemned Him, Pilate who sentenced Him, the soldiers who struck Him, and Joseph who buried Him. A couple of years ago, many of you watched Mel Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ." This movie did an excellent job of portraying Christ's physical sufferings and death. How awful were those sufferings. I will never forget the whipping and the crown of thorns. Gibson brought alive the teaching of the Creed that Jesus "was crucified, died, and buried."
C However, what Gibson did not and could not depict was the spiritual death that Christ suffered. This death Christ suffered at the hand of God rather than the hand of man. Christ suffered spiritual death when He "descended to hell."
This line of the Apostles' Creed – that Jesus "descended to hell" – is one of the church's most misunderstood and controversial doctrines. At the time of Calvin, this statement was called into question by more than one theologian. Even Augustine omitted discussing it in a sermon on the Apostles' Creed.
Some argue this line means Christ went to a place called "hell" between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Others say the word "hell" is another word for "grave" and the Creed is thereby emphasizing the burial of Christ; seen this way, the statement is a poetic expression that expresses the same idea as the burial but in different words.
Because of this controversy, some churches have removed the descent into hell from the Apostles' Creed. Despite the controversy, however, the line "he descended to hell" needs to be retained because it is based upon the Bible. In fact, Christ's descent to hell is one of the most significant aspects of the doctrine of redemption.
Now, let's back up a moment and remind ourselves of the place of the Apostles' Creed in the Christian church. It is a summary of the Gospel and gives us the content of true faith. Those who formulated the Creed were concerned with high and mighty things. They were not prone to repetition or poetic license. They meant every line and every phrase.
D So, then, when did Christ descend into hell? According to the Catechism, Christ descended into hell when He suffered "unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul, especially on the cross but also earlier."
Do you remember the three hours of darkness while Christ hung upon the cross? What did Christ cry out after the three hours were over? Didn't He scream, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mt 27:46). It was during those three hours that Christ experienced separation from God. It was during those three hours that Christ experienced the anguish and torment of hell. It was during those three hours that Christ experienced spiritual death.
It is awful to be forsaken. We like to say that no man is an island; that is to say, it isn't natural for anyone to be totally alone. We have a God-given and a God-created need for others and for God Himself. But when you are forsaken you are on your own, you are an island in the flowing stream of humanity. To be forsaken means you are totally alone.
So many today are forsaken. Babies are abandoned on someone's doorstep or in a park or garbage dumpster somewhere. An increasing number of people abandon or forsake their marriage partner. Elderly parents are abandoned in a nursing home or hospital – rarely thought of or visited.
I know there are some in our church family who have gone through tough times or tense situations. In the midst of those circumstances they have felt forsaken by all. Even in these worst possible moments of life, though, when all seem to have forsaken us, we can usually comfort ourselves with the thought that our parents or our spouse or our children still understand and care. And, even if those closest to us forsake us, we know there is always One – God – Who will never leave us or forsake us (Deut 31:6; cf Heb 13:5b).
At the end of His life Jesus didn't have any of this comfort. He was totally on His own. The crowds had turned against Him. His disciples had left Him. His family did not believe in Him. And now, now He cries out that even His God has forsaken Him! Of everything He suffered, this was His greatest pain and sorrow.
Spiritual death – like physical death – was something Christ did not deserve. Remember, He is the perfect Mediator. He is sinless. So, He did not deserve punishment for sin. He did not deserve either physical death or spiritual death. Yet, He suffered both. He took upon Himself God's punishment for our sin.
III A Two-Pronged Attack on Death
A "I believe ... Jesus ... was crucified, died, and was buried." "I believe ... Jesus ... descended to hell." Let's think about this.
Christ suffered two kinds of death. Why?
In order to save us from our sins, Christ had to undergo both kinds of death: He had to suffer physical death, including burial, to overcome the grave; and, He had to suffer spiritual death in order to overcome hell.
The death and burial of Christ tells us how Christ waged war on our behalf against physical death. The descent into hell tells us how Christ waged war on our behalf against spiritual death.
To redeem both body and soul, Christ had to launch a two-pronged attack on death. The result? Not only the grave but also hell was overcome.
B What would have happened, do you think, if Christ suffered only the physical death depicted by Mel Gibson? Christ would have overcome the grave for us but the other half of God's death sentence upon human sin would have gone untouched.
And, what would have happened, do you think, if Christ suffered only spiritual death? Christ would have conquered hell for us but the other half of God's death sentence upon human sin would have gone untouched.
Thank God that we don't have to choose between salvation from the grave and salvation from hell. We don't have to choose because Christ died body and soul in order to redeem us body and soul. He redeemed us fully. He accomplished all.
Now, let me ask you a question: Are you included in the death of Christ? Is His death for you? If you cannot answer "yes" then you remain in your sins and have not overcome death. But, if you believe in Jesus then I want you to know that His death is also for you.
IV Present Blessings
Let's sum this up. If you believe in Jesus you are saved body and soul because Christ suffered physical and spiritual death for you. This means that someday you can look forward to the resurrection of the body. This means that before the judgment throne of God you don't have to fear the fires of hell.
But what about right now? What benefit is there right now because Christ suffered both kinds of death?
One of the boldest of all Christian teachings concerns our union with Christ. Paul makes a big point of this in Romans 6. Believers are united with Christ in His death. And, we are united with Christ in His burial. The Catechism puts it this way: "our old selves are crucified, put to death, and buried with him, so that the evil desires of the flesh may no longer rule us ..."
When exactly does or did this happen? When is it that I died with Christ? When is it that I become dead to sin?
There are three parts to the answer. First, Paul says in Romans that "we died with Christ" (Rom 6:8). He means that because of my union with Christ I died on Golgotha when Jesus died. Second, Paul says "we died to sin ... [when] we were baptized into Christ Jesus" (Rom 6:2,3). Baptism is a sign that we died with Christ. Third, Paul says we "crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires" (Gal 5:24) when we were converted. So, we died with Christ on Golgotha. His death is guaranteed as ours when we are baptized. And we personally taste this death only when we are converted.
"I believe," says the man and woman of faith. "I believe ... Jesus ... was crucified, died, and was buried." "I believe ... Jesus ... descended to hell."
To this Jesus be the praise and the honor and the glory. Because, for me, He died physically. And, for me, He died spiritually. So that I am saved body and soul.
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