The Effects of Christ’s Ascension: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 18

49. What benefit do we receive from Christ’s ascension into heaven?
First, that He is our Advocate in the presence of His Father in heaven.1 Second, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge, that He as the Head, will also take us, His members, up to Himself.2 Third, that He sends us His Spirit as an earnest,3 by whose power we seek those things which are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God, and not things on the earth.4
[1] 1 Jn. 2:1; Rom. 8:34. [2] Jn. 14:2; 20:17; Eph. 2:6. [3] Jn. 14:16; Acts 2:33; 2 Cor. 5:5. [4] Col. 3:1; *Jn. 14:3; *Heb. 9:24.

50. Why is it added: “And sits at the right hand of God”?
Because Christ ascended into heaven for this end, that He might there appear as the Head of His Church,1 by whom the Father governs all things.2
[1] Eph. 1:20–23; Col. 1:18. [2] Jn. 5:22; *1 Pet. 3:22; *Ps. 110:1.

The Effects of Christ’s Ascension
Every aspect of the work of Christ is important. Each of Christ’s great acts has a vital role to play in our salvation. These events are not told to us for idle curiosity, and all of the Gospels record the ascension of Christ. It may be something we think about less than we should, less than the nativity or certainly the death of Christ, but it is nonetheless vital. If we do not think about it much, that identifies a deficiency in our understanding of our salvation. The Catechism can help us here.

The first thing to realize is that Jesus’ ascension has a particular purpose. He didn’t just go to heaven to have a place to wait out the church age until it was time to come back. He told His disciples that they were actually better off with Him leaving (John 16:7) because then He would send the Holy Spirit to them. The Holy Spirit is tremendously important for us, because the Spirit of God is the “earnest” of our salvation, the down payment of all the benefits we will receive in eternity (2 Cor. 5:5). The Spirit of God works in the lives of believers post-Pentecost in a new and greater way than was ever the case before, showing the huge importance of the ascension of Christ and how much closer we are to the consummation of our salvation. The Old Testament saints certainly had the influence of the Holy Spirit in their lives; nobody can know anything true about God without the Spirit’s aid. But the level of understanding and the power of the believer to turn away from sin is much higher after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit than before.

Revelation 12 shows us a battle in heaven that is kicked off by the ascension of Christ. The result of that battle is that Satan loses much of his influence and power. He is thrown out of heaven, can no longer accuse the brethren and is limited to the earth. He still causes much death and destruction, but his power over the earth is greatly limited. This is also the “binding” of Satan spoken of in Revelation 20. Why is the knowledge of the true God so much greater and so much more widespread in the earth today than it was before Christ’s coming? It is because of the ascension and the resulting change in the way God works in creation, and the limit that was put on Satan’s influence.

The great focus of Christ’s ascension is in the church. When He ascended, He told His Apostles that all authority was given to Him, and that they were therefore to go out into all the nations of the world, build the church and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). He promised to be with them throughout their work. The work Christ commissioned is ongoing; more of God’s elect are joined to the church every day. When the Great Commission is completed, the end will come. Therefore, the whole purpose of this present age is the building of the church. Everything that happens serves that end. Nothing can stop it, for no power can challenge Jesus, who has been given all authority and power. Therefore we sing,

For this is His word, His saints shall not fail.
But over the earth, their power shall prevail.
All kingdoms and nations shall yield to their sway.
To God be the glory and praise Him for aye.

This is an adaptation of Psalm 149. It does not speak of the physical power of Christian people. It’s not through armies or politics or money that we will exercise this power, but through the preaching of the gospel, empowered by the Holy Spirit, commissioned by Christ to exercise His rule throughout the world, through the church of Jesus Christ.

His ascension therefore helps us understand everything happening in the world. It is so easy to get discouraged by the headlines and the affairs of this life; I suspect this is intentional on Satan’s part, to discourage us into thinking that Christ is not really in control. But consider the last two thousand years of history. There have always been these evil things happening. Nations have been evil and corrupt. The church has often been filled with hypocrites and liars. Man’s inhumanity to man has been a constant feature. And yet the church has spread and the gospel goes forth. However it may look at any given moment, Jesus is ascended, and no power on earth can challenge His rule. He will finish the salvation that He began until all of His lost sheep are brought home to Him.

The Power of His Resurrection: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 17

45. What benefit do we receive from the “resurrection” of Christ?
First, by His resurrection He has overcome death, that He might make us partakers of the righteousness which He has obtained for us by His death.1 Second, by His power we are also now raised up to a new life.2 Third, the resurrection of Christ is to us a sure pledge of our blessed resurrection.3
[1] 1 Cor. 15:15,17, 54–55. Rom. 4:25; 1 Pet. 1:3–4, 21. [2] Rom. 6:4; Col. 3:1–4; Eph. 2:5. [3] 1 Cor. 15:12; Rom. 8:11; *1 Cor. 15:20–21.

46. What do you understand by the words “He ascended into heaven”?
That Christ, in the sight of His disciples, was taken up from the earth into heaven,1 and continues there in our behalf2 until He shall come again to judge the living and the dead.3
[1] Acts 1:9; Matt. 26:64; Mk. 16:19; Lk. 24:51. [2] Heb. 4:14; 7:24–25; 9:11; Rom. 8:34. Eph. 4:10. [3] Acts 1:11; Matt. 24:30; *Acts 3:20–21.

47. But is not Christ with us even unto the end of the world, as He has promised?1
Christ is true man and true God. According to His human nature He is now not on earth,2 but according to His Godhead, majesty, grace, and Spirit, He is at no time absent from us.3
[1] Matt. 28:20. [2] Matt. 26:11; Jn. 16:28; 17:11. [3] Jn. 14:17–18; 16:13; Eph. 4:8; Matt. 18:20; *Heb. 8:4.

48. But are not, in this way, the two natures in Christ separated from one another, if the manhood is not wherever the Godhead is?
Not at all, for since the Godhead is incomprehensible and everywhere present,1 it must follow that the same is not limited with the human nature He assumed, and yet remains personally united to it.2
[1] Acts 7:49; Jer. 23:24. [2] Col. 2:9; Jn. 3:13; 11:15; Matt. 28:6; *Jn. 1:48.

Lord’s Day 17
The Power of His Resurrection
There are some modern versions of Christianity that try to get along without a belief in the resurrection of Christ. This is usually portrayed as a nod to modern sensibilities, especially a skepticism about miracles. Such versions of Christianity usually die out fairly quickly, and rightly so, for without these historical events and the benefits we receive from them, Christianity, as we have said before, just becomes another set of pious ideas about how we ought to get along. It loses all its force and power.

The Catechism draws our mind to this truth by asking us what benefits we receive from the resurrection. It is always vital to remember that it is the historical event itself by which God achieved these gifts for His people. If the resurrection didn’t actually happen, then God’s people receive no benefits from it.

What are those benefits? The first that the Catechism mentions is that the power of death is broken. Death reigns over the human race because of the curse of God for sin, for the wages of sin is death. But Christ received those wages, drunk the cup in full, and did not remain under death’s power. Thus, death’s absolute claim on every human being is broken. Death has no more power over Jesus, or over any of those who are united to Him by faith.

Being united to Him means being joined to His glorious resurrected life, so that Jesus’ life is now at work in us, resurrecting us as it did Him. That principle of death which works so much evil and destruction in the human race is being replaced by new life in Christ in all those who believe in Him, so that we are being made like Him. And we know that as He is now in heaven in His perfected human body, so too we will one day be reunited to Him in a glorified state as well. That gives us courage and strength to endure the sufferings of the present time, because we know that all of this is just temporary. One day Christ will return, will purge this earth of all evil and suffering, and will bring the glories of heaven with Him for all of His people to enjoy forever. Once again, if Christ is not actually returning in the flesh, then Christians are just deluded fools. The belief in the event brings no benefits if the event itself is a lie.

But even though Christ is at the present time not with us in the flesh, the Catechism points out that by His Spirit He is never absent from us. He is God, and thus everywhere present. It is truly a mystery how Jesus can be physically limited to heaven and also everywhere present since He is God, but this is the mystery of the incarnation. We can affirm what the Scriptures tell us fairly simply- that “He is not here, for He is risen, just as He said!” and, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the ends of the earth.” We don’t need to know how that can be or to understand all the ins and outs of it to know that it is true. But it is true and is important, and not in the sort of vague “he’ll always be with you in your memories” kind of way. He is really and powerfully with us. His Spirit is a constant force in our own hearts and also in history and in the spread of the church. The Spirit of God is sent by the Son to implement the Son’s will, and the Spirit does so. The next Lord’s Day of the Catechism will explain in more detail how it is that Jesus works through His Spirit to achieve His will on earth. But by His Spirit, and in His Godhead, the power of His risen Humanity is at work throughout creation, bringing to fruition all the results and benefits of His resurrection.

The Curse of Death Borne by our Savior: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 16

40. Why was it necessary for Christ to suffer “death”?
Because the justice and truth1 of God required that satisfaction for our sins could be made in no other way than by the death of the Son of God.2
[1] Gen. 2:17. [2] Heb. 2:9; *Rom. 6:23.

41. Why was He “buried”?
To show thereby that He was really dead.1
[1] Matt. 27:59–60; Jn. 19:38–42; Acts 13:29.

42. Since, then, Christ died for us, why must we also die?
Our death is not a satisfaction for our sin, but only a dying to sin and an entering into eternal life.1
[1] Jn. 5:24; Phil. 1:23; Rom. 7:24–25.

43. What further benefit do we receive from the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross?
That by His power our old man is with Him crucified, slain, and buried;1 so that the evil lusts of the flesh may no more reign in us,2 but that we may offer ourselves unto Him a sacrifice of thanksgiving.3
[1] Rom. 6:6–8; Col. 2:12. [2] Rom. 6:12. [3] Rom. 12:1; *2 Cor. 5:15.

44. Why is it added: “He descended into hell”?
That in my greatest temptations I may be assured that Christ my Lord, by His inexpressible anguish, pains, and terrors, which He suffered in His soul on the cross and before, has redeemed me from the anguish and torment of hell.1
[1] Isa. 53:10; Matt. 27:46; *Ps. 18:5; 116:3.

Lord’s Day #15 taught us that Christ suffered in body and soul the penalty due to mankind for our sin and rebellion against God. In Genesis 2:17 God told Adam that on the day he eats of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil he would surely die. Adam surely did die as a consequence of his disobedience, for God cannot lie. The first few Lord’s Day articles showed us how that death plays out in Adam and Eve and in the human race in general. It is the source of all our misery, so that the terror of death hangs over the human race perpetually. The knowledge of God’s justice and the guilt of our own sin is inborn, and that knowledge is the driving force behind man’s self-destructive behavior.

If Jesus did not actually die, then my sin and guilt remain. God is true and just, and man must die for his sin. He must die to the uttermost. So Jesus, our substitute, died, and He died to the uttermost. His cry to His Father on the cross shows what death is, being forsaken and abandoned by God, our source of life. How it is possible for the second Person of the Trinity to experience such a thing, even only in His humanity, is a mystery that will remain unsolved until eternity, if even then. Nonetheless, we know it happened, for the Scriptures record for us the truth. He was cut off from the land of the living, cut off even from His Father.

He died for His people, and we know He did because He was innocent, and thus did not die for His own sins. His resurrection proves His innocence, that He is approved of God. With that witness, I can know that my sin is paid for to the uttermost.

The death that hangs over the human race need no longer terrify the one who knows he is redeemed in Christ. I need never fear having my own life torn away from me. I do not have to live with the dark cloud of impending doom lurking in the future. I need not fear the judgment of God crashing down on me in full force, revealing all my shame and guilt and separating me forever from all life, from all that is good which comes from Him alone. I will never face being torn away from my Father as He was.

We still die, of course, but only in a physical sense. The death we experience as believers is but a small shadow of that death promised to Adam, just the last remnant of the curse falling away from us, as our sin-corrupted bodies finally fall into the ground, like seed to be reborn into something far more glorious in the age to come.

The sentence is executed, the guilt of sin is punished, and the law is satisfied. Our life in Christ, therefore, is the fading away of the power and the guilt of sin. The stink of the grave is still on us; all believers will still wrestle with sin in their lives, but no longer does that slavery define us as it would outside of Christ. As question 43 tells us, the sentence of death is executed not only against Christ on our behalf but against the old sinful nature as well, so that having died with Him we can also rise from the dead with Him, and our new life in Christ is then the becoming of what we are. We can begin to put away sin, to have our eyes opened to the truth of what a human being really is created to be, and to start being that.

The death of Christ is a great victory for Christ and for the believer. Only because He underwent that trial and descended all the way to the grave on our behalf is the believer’s hope secure. He died, and therefore we live.

The Paid Debt: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 15

37.  What do you understand by the word “suffered”?
That all the time He lived on earth, but especially at the end of His life, He bore, in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sin of the whole human race;1 in order that by His suffering, as the only atoning sacrifice,2 He might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the grace of God, righteousness, and eternal life.
[1] 1 Pet. 2:24; Isa. 53:12. [2] 1 Jn. 2:2; 4:10; Rom. 3:25–26; *Ps. 22:14–16; *Matt. 26:38; *Rom. 5:6.

38.  Why did He suffer “under Pontius Pilate” as judge?
That He, being innocent, might be condemned by the temporal judge,1 and thereby deliver us from the severe judgment of God, to which we were exposed.2
[1] Acts 4:27–28; Lk. 23:13–15; Jn. 19:4. [2] Ps. 69:4; 2 Cor. 5:21; *Matt. 27:24.

39.  Is there anything more in His having been “crucified” than if He had suffered some other death?
Yes, for thereby I am assured that He took upon Himself the curse which lay upon me,1 because the death of the cross was accursed of God.2
[1] Gal. 3:13–14. [2] Deut. 21:22–23; *Phil. 2:8.

The great Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo, before he converted to Christianity, was a Neoplatonist, a mystical philosophy based on the teachings of Plato.  He always thought there was a lot of truth to Neoplatonism, and it influenced him throughout his life.  What turned him against it, though, and to Christianity instead, was that while Neoplatonism had a lot of good ideas about how people ought to live their lives, it had no mechanism to help people get there.  It was just that, a bunch of good ideas.  Augustine saw that Neoplatonism would never actually enable him to overcome his miserable state.

The central truth of the Christian faith, the sine qua non, is the death and the resurrection of Christ.  Without this, Christianity is just another moralism, just another set of ideas about how people ought to be, and you can pretty much take your pick.  One is as valid as another.  But Christianity is all about Christ and what He did to ensure the salvation of His people.  This is what sets Christianity apart.  It is not first and foremost about what you need to do, or how you need to think, in order to overcome your problems.  It is about what God did to overcome your problems. God became man, the incarnate Messiah, so that God Himself could suffer and die to rescue man from his fallen state.

Jesus’ suffering was the bearing in His body the wrath of God against sin.  Even living in this sin-cursed world at all was an aspect of the suffering, as the Catechism says in question 37.  He was the “Man of sorrows” and experienced the misery of man’s state throughout His life.  That culminated in His intense agony of anticipation in the Garden of Gethsemane, the betrayal and abandonment of His friends, the slander, the severe beatings, the shame of mockery and humiliation, all ending being nailed to a cross to die in the hot Palestinian sun.  But even that physical suffering that He experienced in His death was topped by the greatest suffering of all, the separation from His Father and the outpouring of God’s wrath on Him which He revealed by crying out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  How the Son of God could experience true separation from His Father must ultimately remain a mystery, and it is a great mercy that we will never know what exactly that would feel like, since He suffered all that He experienced in our place.

Pilate said He was innocent.  The Jewish leaders knew He was, which is why they had to bribe people to make false accusations against Him.  The declaration by the civil authority that Jesus was innocent, and His subsequent punishment by that same authority, draws our attention to this central aspect of Jesus’ death, that He suffered as an innocent man.  A guilty man could not suffer for any sin but his own, but Jesus suffered for us, in our place.

Jesus was a real and true human being, and thus all the punishment due to human beings for sin could be suffered by Him.  Jesus was and is also God Himself, and thus can bear all of the wrath of God against sin and emerge victorious, which He did.  That entirely changes my relationship with God, so that I no longer need fear any punishment for sin.  His disposition toward me is now entirely benevolent, and any suffering I receive from His hand is for my good, like the discipline a loving parent gives to a straying child, not the punishment the civil authority dishes out to a criminal.  I can put away the dread and anxiety about what the future holds, a fear driven by guilt and alienation from God.  The one who can be totally confident in the goodwill of the One who determines the future has nothing to fear from the future.  I can stop listening to the lies of Satan, the “accuser of the brethren,” who says that God could never love one such as me.  I can have total confidence that Jesus’ sufferings have completely paid my debt and put me right with God forever.

Redeeming all that He Assumed: Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 14

35.  What is the meaning of “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary?”
That the eternal Son of God, who is1 and continues true and eternal God,2 took upon Himself the very nature of man, of the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary,3 by the operation of the Holy Spirit;4 so that He might also be the true seed of David,5 like unto His brethren in all things,6 except for sin.7
[1] Jn. 1:1; Rom. 1:3–4. [2] Rom. 9:5. [3] Gal. 4:4; Jn. 1:14. [4] Matt. 1:18–20; Lk. 1:35. [5] Ps. 132:11. [6] Phil. 2:7. [7] Heb. 4:15; *1 Jn. 5:20.

36. What benefit do you receive from the holy conception and birth of Christ?
That He is our Mediator,1 and with His innocence and perfect holiness covers, in the sight of God, my sin, wherein I was conceived.2
[1] Heb. 2:16–17. [2] Ps. 32:1; *1 Jn. 1:9.


Redeeming all that He Assumed
The Incarnation of Christ is one of the most vitally important doctrines of Christianity.  The gospel itself stands or falls with it.

In the long debates about the exact nature of the incarnation of Christ, Gregory of Nazianzus said, “What is not assumed is not redeemed.”  This quote brilliantly shows the need for Christ to have adopted the whole nature of humanity in the incarnation, and also helps us understand what it is Jesus accomplished in the incarnation.

“Incarnation” refers to Jesus becoming a real and true human being, and as a true human being, He lived a life of perfect obedience and died the death of a sinner, the death we deserved.  The wrath of God against sinners will be exercised against the whole human being, body and soul, and therefore Christ suffered as a whole human being, body and soul.  In addition to the obvious physical suffering He experienced on the cross, we also see Him crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”  But how could the second Person of the Trinity, eternally coexisting with the other two Persons in one divine Essence, ever be separated from God?  He IS God.  And His cry here is not the cry of merely physical suffering, but spiritual suffering as well.  Only if He possessed a true human nature could He experience anything like this.

But this goes beyond the suffering He experienced on the cross, but also to His life.  As question 36 says, it was His innocence and perfect holiness which covers me in God’s sight.  Jesus lived a life of innocence and holiness, and in doing so He positively fulfilled the demands of the law of God and “covered” (q. 36) my failure to do so.  He was what a man is supposed to be, a perfect servant of God, bringing glory and honor to the Father’s name.  Jesus did this throughout His life, even to His death.  He “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:8)  In doing so He redeems the very idea of humanity.  He proves that God didn’t make a mistake in making us, that a human being could be a perfect servant of God.  He fulfilled the “righteous requirement of the law” (Romans 8:4) on our behalf, so that our salvation is truly complete in Him with nothing left for us to add.

He is truly a complete Savior.  I can rest easy that the demands of God’s law are perfectly met, and the curse of sin has no more hold on me.  Further, His perfect human life is now communicated to me by the Holy Spirit so that His righteousness will be worked in me, to conform me to His image.  If He is the perfect human, then being made like Him means that I will become a perfect human as well.  All my sorrows, all my failures, all my weaknesses will one day be gone, and all the things I long for as a human being will be achieved.  Following Him now, striving to be like Him, is simply fulfilling my reason to exist and attaining my true nature.  Repenting from sin is merely being rid of an infection that is foreign to me, a slavery that is against me.

If Jesus is not both fully human and fully divine, then we cannot say this.  As Gregory of Naziansus said, whatever is not assumed is not redeemed.  Unless Jesus was fully human, I can have no confidence that all of the obedience that I as a human being owe to God was achieved by Him on my behalf, and no confidence that all of the punishment due to me for my failure in both body and soul to obey God’s law was suffered by Him in my place.  With this precious doctrine of the incarnation, though, I can have total confidence in my perfect redemption, and joy and hope in my ongoing and future restoration in Him.