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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:The promises of the gospel revealed in Christ's deepest humiliation
Text:LD 16 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Christ's Suffering
 
Preached:2010
Added:2010-06-17
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 61:1-3
Hymn 1A
Psalm 23
Psalm 138
Hymn 61:4-6

Readings: Acts 6:8-15, Acts 7:54-60, Galatians 5
Text: Lord's Day 16
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ Jesus,

 

Death can be a difficult thing to speak about.  Many people today would rather avoid the harsh reality that some day your heart stops beating.  Part of that is undoubtedly because they don’t want to think about what follows.  To cope, some sentimentalize death and they say things like “Death is just a natural part of life.”  Others cope by making the most of the here and now, since this life is all we have.  Still others are just calloused to the reality and the prospect of death.  When it comes to death, they have the attitude of “whatever.”  Albert Camus portrayed these people in his book The Stranger, “Today mother is dead.  Or maybe yesterday; it doesn’t matter.” 

 

Obviously, we’ve just been speaking about physical death.  It’s an ugly, frightening reality for many people.  But there is another sort of death that many Christians also find it difficult to speak about.  They can speak about it perhaps in general terms, with impersonal theological language.  But when it comes to actually speaking about how it is happening in their own lives, many have a hard time finding the words.  This is the death of the old nature.  The reasons for our difficulty in speaking about this are quite varied, no doubt.  And most likely the older you are the more difficult it is – there is a generation gap at work here. 

 

This afternoon, we’re going to speak candidly about death, both physical death and the death of our old nature.  The Catechism summarizes the teachings of the Bible about these subjects and brings us to the right words that we need to begin thinking about and speaking about these matters.  Most importantly, the Catechism brings our hearts to the right place – to the promises of the gospel in Jesus Christ.  Remember, that’s what the Apostles’ Creed is all about:  “all that is promised us in the gospel.” 

 

Today we’ve come to the articles of the Creed that speak of his death, burial, and descent into hell.  As you know, Christ’s ministry can be divided into two parts:  his humiliation and his exaltation.  Today, with these articles of the Creed, we’ve come to the lowest points of his humiliation.

 

“He descended into hell” is the place to start, even though it’s the last article.  Historically, there have been different views of what this means.  The Roman Catholics believe that this means that Christ went to hell after his death and then took the souls of Old Testament believers who had died to heaven.  The Lutherans believe that Christ went to hell and there proclaimed victory over Satan and his forces.  Even though those views are very old, they both have a problem with a key statement of the Lord Jesus in Luke 23:43.  He says to the repentant criminal, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”  Jesus Christ went to paradise, to heaven when he died.  He did not go to hell. 

 

So, what does it mean then that “He descended into hell”?  It means that our Lord Jesus experienced the spiritual reality of hell on the cross.  God’s wrath was poured out on him in the same degree as it is poured out on sinners who are in the place called hell.  He suffered God’s wrath in body and soul – this was his descent into hell.  The promise of the gospel is that he has done this in your place.  We should have received an lethal injection of eternal anguish and torment.  But throughout his entire life and especially on the cross, Christ took it for us, for you.  Loved ones, hear that and believe it.  Embrace it again as the truth, not only for others, but also for yourself.  Let your heart be drawn again to the great love of your Saviour for you.  He descended into hell.  Amazing love, how can it be? 

 

Then he went all the way and died for us.  As Hebrews 2:9 puts it, he tasted death for all of us.  By doing that, he made the satisfaction for our sins that was necessary because of God’s justice and truth.  God’s justice demanded that sin be paid for.  God’s truth was in his Word testifying to this demand.  A sacrifice had to be made which would atone for sin and the Lord Jesus was the perfect sacrifice that satisfied all of God’s demands.  He died so that we might live and live eternally.  The promise of the gospel here is that his death has become our life, your life.    

 

The lowest point of his humiliation however, came with his burial.  He was the Son of God.  But now he was dead.  His body and soul were separated, subject to an unnatural consequence of sin.  Bodies that are separated from their souls or spirits are buried – this is unnatural and not normal, this is not the way that it should be.  Death was not supposed to be here.  No one should have to stand at a graveside.  Yet because of Adam and Eve’s sin, we do.  The Lord Jesus was subject to this too.  Not only did he stand at the tomb of Lazarus weeping, but he himself was placed in a tomb.  As the Catechism says, this signified that he was truly dead.  He went to the grave as all dead men do.  The gospel promise here is connected with his death.  Through the burial of our Saviour, we can be confident that he did truly die for us.  There are no illusions or mirages here – this is the real thing.  A real Saviour who really died and his burial proves it.

 

Now I want to spend the rest of the sermon looking at how these promises that I’ve just outlined intersect with our lives.  We’ll do that in a chronological way, thinking about the past, the present and the future.

 

As we think about the past, there are at least two ways in which Christ’s deepest humiliation speaks.  The first way is with regards to our own sins of the past.  As we look back over our lives, we can all think of times when we’ve gone our own way and done things that are displeasing to God.  We’ve sinned in small ways and big ways.  We’ve sinned in our youth and we’ve sinned in our adult years, and even in our more mature adult years.  We’ve sinned as children and we’ve sinned as parents.  The list goes on.  It would be easy to get burdened with this if we didn’t constantly focus on Christ and his perfect work for us.  He descended into the shame and anguish of hell for us.  He died for us.  All our sins of the past have been paid for in full – there is no outstanding amount that remains for you to pay, or that you still have to atone for somehow.  When your conscience still accuses you, you can breathe a sigh of relief and answer right back, “The gospel says that it is all done!  My Saviour has paid it all.  I have no need to fear.”

 

The other way these promises speak is with regards to believing loved ones whom the Lord has called home to himself.  Their death was an entrance into eternal life for them.  That’s the way it was with Stephen too in Acts 7.  Stephen was put to death for testifying to the gospel.  His was the death of a martyr.  But it was also the death of a believer, someone who rested and trusted in the Lord Jesus.  While he was being stoned, he had a vision of heaven – the place where he would soon be.  As he was about to die, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  We have every reason to believe that the Lord Jesus answered that prayer.  Just as with the criminal on the cross, so also with Stephen – he was taken immediately into the presence of God in heaven. 

 

We can be confident that the same has happened with all of our beloved family and friends who have died in the Lord.  When they stopped breathing and their heart stopped beating, their souls were received by the Lord Jesus in heaven.  They entered into eternal life and that’s where they are right now. 

 

Death hurts and it leaves an empty space in our lives.  It is unnatural and it doesn’t belong.  We should never forget it or undermine it.  But yet Christ transforms death through the gospel so that we can be comforted in the face of it.  As 1 Thessalonians 4:13 tells us, we still grieve (grieving is okay), but we grieve differently, we grieve as those who have hope in Christ Jesus and his victory.  Ultimately, death is not the end, but a new beginning, an entrance.

 

That brings us to think about the present and how these gospel promises intersect with us today.  Here again, we can think of at least two ways.  The first ties into physical death again.  We sang Psalm 23.  It has those well-known words about the “valley of the shadow of death.”  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”  You have a divine Shepherd who loves his sheep and cares for them, who cares for you.  There are moments in your life when it is like walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  But the Good Shepherd who has conquered death is with you.  He will never leave you or forsake you.  Therefore, chase your fears away with these gospel promises.  Let your heart rest on the truth that death and all of its friends have nothing on you, nothing that can shake your confidence.

 

The second way brings us to the death of the old nature and what that means for our lives.  This is really the focus of QA 43.  We confess that Christ’s death on the cross benefits us because it means that our old nature has been crucified with him and buried.  That’s simply paraphrasing the teaching of the Bible in Romans 6.  In Romans 6:6, the Holy Spirit tells us that “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with.”  The Catechism says that all this takes place “so that the evil desires of the flesh may no longer reign in us, but that we may offer ourselves to him as a sacrifice of thankfulness.” 

 

Now, loved ones, there are two aspects to this benefit.  The first has to do with the curse of sin.  The curse of sin has been definitively cancelled by Christ in his death on the cross.  Our sins were nailed with him to the cross and are null and void.  They cannot condemn us any longer.  Another way of looking at this is to speak in terms of justification.  Through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and by faith in Christ, we are declared right with God.  This is a present reality and nothing can add to it or take away from it.  Believing in Christ, you are always right with God and always will be.  The cancellation of the curse of sin is connected with the crucifixion of our old nature in Christ on the cross of Golgotha.  That happened once.

 

The second aspect to this benefit has to do with the power of sin.  The curse of sin has been dealt with.  We have peace with God through the blood of the cross.  But this is a peace that has started a war --  it is a war with the remnants or the left-overs of the sinful nature that are still in us.  Sanctification is another way of speaking about this war.  This war is described in a number of places in the Bible, and one of them is Galatians 5.  We see it in especially in verses 16 and 17.  Paul encourages the Galatians to live by the Spirit, so that they will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.  Then he speaks of a conflict between the Spirit who lives in every Christian and the sinful nature.  They are at war with another and this is something that is going in the life of every single Christian.  Martin Luther came up with that famous expression that Christians are at the same time justified and sinners.  We are justified before God, but we continue to face a struggle with sin in our lives, we are sinners.      

 

Unfortunately, this has often been denied.  John Wesley was a Methodist preacher from 18th century England.  At best he was unclear about whether Christians are both justified and sinners.  While he didn’t believe that he himself had reached that point, he did believe that Christian could develop so far spiritually on this earth that they would no longer sin.  John Wesley was once asked about great Christians who had sinned in some way.  He denied that they had sinned and said that they had just made mistakes in judgment.  Others went much further than Wesley and today there are many popular authors who claim that the idea that Christians are both justified and sinners is a big lie. 

 

Loved ones, the Bible teaches us that as long as we live on this earth we have a struggle, a war against the devil, the world, and most significantly, our own flesh.  We have a peace that has started a war, and anyone who undermines that is undermining the clear teaching of Scripture and giving false hope and misguided expectations for what the Christian life holds.  The power of sin is still there in the remnants of our sinful nature.  Therefore, the battle must be waged and we have to be open and honest about this battle. 

 

But this battle is intimately connected to what happened on the cross.  Christ conquered the curse of sin in his death, and he is also the one who conquers the power of sin in our lives.  He does that through us and in us through the resources that he provides.  He gives us first of all the gospel, he gives us himself.  The gospel is not only a message about what happens in the hereafter – it is that, but it is also about what happens in the here and now in your life as you fix your eyes on Christ.  We saw a few minutes ago that amazing love of our Lord Jesus.  A believing heart clings to that and rejoices in it.  A believing heart goes on to respond with love and gratitude.  You love your Saviour and you want to follow him and listen to his Word in whatever it says.  Listening to the Word is not so much a matter of duty for God’s children, but more a matter of love, a matter of the heart.  Your life is transformed by constantly coming back to the gospel and fixing your eyes on the Saviour who loved you and gave himself for you.  The gospel gives the resources for the great warfare against the evil desires of our flesh.  Brothers and sisters, this is why it is so important to keep coming back to the basics, to keep coming back to the gospel.  It is the power of salvation for everyone who believes, a power for dealing not only with the curse of sin, but also its power in our lives.           

 

Last of all, these gospel promises also intersect with your future.  Here we want to think specifically about the fact that, unless the Lord Jesus returns first, we will all die.  There are two ways to die, even for Christians.  You can die poorly, leaving nothing of spiritual worth behind, leaving nothing of hope and strength for your loved ones.  Or you can die well.  You can leave your family and friends with hope and confidence, leave them with the knowledge that nothing was more important to you than Christ and the gospel.  Which way of dying do you think is more glorifying to God?  While we don’t want to be morbid and obsess with death, it is still good for us to speak openly about it and be prepared for it.  As the Catechism says, “we still have to die.”  The promises of the gospel intersect with and speak to that fact in our future.

 

First of all, there is no need for fear of death.  People fear death in different ways.  They can be afraid of the way that they will die – whether there will be pain and suffering.  They can be afraid of what will happen to their loved ones after they’re gone.  They can be afraid of the unknown.  If they’re not confident of their salvation in Christ, they can be afraid of judgment.  But brothers and sisters all of these fears are squashed under the weight of the gospel.  God promises grace for the hour of your death, so that you don’t need to be afraid of what it will be like.  We can say those words of faith that Jehoshaphat prayed in 2 Chronicles 20:12, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”  Trust God for this grace.  Similarly, because of what Christ has done, you can trust God that he will take care of your family when you’re gone.  There are some unknowns that come with death, true, but there are also many things that we know for certain.  We know that those who are absent in the body are present with the Lord and that his presence is a wonderful place to be, a place that we will be too.  As for fear of judgment, looking to Christ in faith, such a fear is irrational and unreasonable and needs to be chased out with these words:  “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  (Romans 8:1).  So, there is no need for fear of death.  That’s the first way.

 

Second, death is in your future and the gospel promises beg to be proclaimed in the face of it.  Let me speak especially now to the adults, and especially those who have children and grandchildren – although I do think this applies equally (but differently perhaps) to those who are single or who don’t have children.  Listen.  We should all have a will.  A will is a crucial part of planning for the future with regards to our material belongings and also with regards to who will raise our children if we’re not able to.  It’s a matter of Christian stewardship.  A will is a legal document usually drafted by a lawyer.  Let me suggest that you add a preface to your will.  You don’t need a lawyer for that.  Consider this your spiritual last testament.  It will be read to and by your family after your death.  In it you can testify of the grace of God in your life through Christ and the gospel.  You can encourage your spouse, your children and grandchildren to continue resting and trusting in Christ.  In the light of eternity, this is something of far more value than anything material that you own, or your money, or whatever.  Your death can be a powerful tool in God’s hands to reinforce the gospel promises in the lives of those you care deeply about.  This is a suggestion, it’s not a biblical command, but I think it’s in the line of what we read in Proverbs 13:22, “A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children...”  If that’s true in material things, how much more shouldn’t it be true in spiritual? 

 

Think also of the example of the apostle Paul.  In 2 Corinthians 6, he spoke of the Corinthian believers as his spiritual children.  He also wrote to Timothy in similar terms.  In passages like 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Paul gave a testimony of God’s grace to him for the benefit of his spiritual son Timothy.  The most moving spiritual testament of Paul is in Philippians 3 – written from prison when Paul was unsure whether he would live or die.  If Paul would leave these testaments behind for his spiritual children, why wouldn’t we also leave something like that behind for our children?  Again, it’s not a command, but it would seem to be a practice commended by Scripture. 

 

Loved ones, it’s true, the gospel intersects with our lives at every moment.  The deepest shame and humiliation of our Lord Jesus, his descent into hell, his death, his burial, – these are all part of that precious gospel.  Death is not easy to swallow.  The Lord Jesus not only tasted it, he swallowed it for us.  As a result, we can speak openly about death, and even our own death.  We can look forward to seeing the final victory of our Lord over death.  Revelation 21:4 gives us that hope:  “there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.”  That hope is good news.  AMEN. 

 

Prayer:

 

Our Father in heaven,

 

We’re thankful to you, overwhelmed with love for you.  Your Son took your wrath against us.  Your Son died for us and was buried for us.  We’re glad that through all of that we can be your children.  Father, please help us with your Spirit to believe these promises and to embrace them with our heart, soul, and mind.  Father, please let this gospel transform our lives as we grow in love for you.  And we also pray that you would help us so that we would not be afraid of death, but know that you have conquered it.  Please give us grace in the hour of our death.  Father, we also pray that our death would be an opportunity for more glory to be given to you and a way that the gospel can advance in the lives of those we love.       




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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