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Westminster Shorter Catechism Project

The Presbyterian Standards

Francis R. Beattie




This chapter leads to the exposition of what is usually called the estates of the Redeemer. So far, at least, as the Confession is concerned, some of the same things will come up for discussion as have engaged attention in the two preceding chapters. It is in the Catechisms that special and very complete statements are to be found. The Shorter has two suggestive questions upon this subject, while the Larger has no fewer than ten, which cover the whole ground very fully, and give a more extended statement of the same facts as are set down in the fourth section of the eighth chapter of the Confession.

In a general way, the estates of Christ embrace all those stages of experience and activity through which the Redeemer passed, specially during the period from his incarnation till his glorification. They describe all that he was, did, and suffered from the time that he left his Father's bosom till he returned to his Father's right hand. It is evident, therefore, that a knowledge of what is involved in these estates is very necessary in order to obtain a complete view of what Christ was, what he became, and what he endured, and how he triumphed as the Mediator of the covenant and Redeemer of his people. These estates are, therefore, considered with some care in this chapter.

I. Christ's Estate of Humiliation.

In this estate the prophetic office comes clearly into view in the personal teaching of Jesus Christ on the earth, but the priestly work of the Redeemer is still more prominent, especially towards the close of his ministry among men. As a great teacher sent from God he was exercising the prophetic office when he spake as never man spake; and then, in the obedience which he rendered and in the sufferings he bore, and specially in the death which he endured, he was discharging the important functions of the priestly office. It is at the same time to be remembered that the kingly office was not in abeyance, though it was in the background, in this estate, whose particulars are now to be explained.

1. Christ Humbled Himself in his Birth.

The humiliation of Christ, which is that low condition in which for our sakes he emptied himself of his glory, and took upon him the form of a servant, really begins with his incarnation and birth, although in the divine purpose it was ideally in view from all eternity. All that was involved in emptying himself of his glory, and in assuming humanity into union with his deity, of course, cannot be fully understood or explained. The Standards state the fact, but do not offer any elaborate explanation of it. In his conception and birth it is evident that he greatly humbled himself. The second person of the adorable Trinity appeared as a helpless babe at Bethlehem. He was the eternal Son of God, and dwelt in the bosom of the Father; yet, in the fulness of time he became the Son of man and was found in fashion as a man. Then he was born of a woman in the lowly walks of life. He was not born of princely parentage or of lofty lineage, though he was of the house of David, for that once royal house was now in decadence. His advent, too, was marked by not a few circumstances of more than ordinary abasement. He was born among strangers, far from home, and in a stable. He was cradled in a manger with the dumb animals about him, yet out on the plains near by the heavenly hosts, with their divine anthem, heralded his advent. The Lord of glory was a babe in the lowly manger.

2. Christ Humbled Himself in his Life.

Here the whole of that wonderful life of Jesus of Nazareth might be properly described, and this would give a picture such as men had never seen, or the world never known. He subjected himself to the stern demands of law, although as its author he was really above the law under whose claims he voluntarily passed for a time. Having thus taken his place under the law, there came to him as a matter of course much of hardship and humiliation. He submitted to the ceremonial law, and so was circumcised, observed the Passover, and lived as a Jew. He also came of his own volition under moral law, and assumed his place under the legal conditions of the covenant of grace, and thus undertook to render the perfect obedience which was required in all these relations.

Thereby he perfectly fulfilled all forms of legal obligation thus assumed. He came to fulfil and not to destroy the law and the prophets. His life was in perfect conformity, both in its form and spirit, with the moral law of God. He was holy, harmless, and undefiled. He also completely fulfilled all the conditions of the covenant of grace of which he was the mediator, so that he could say that he had finished the work which the Father gave him to do. With the cold and heartless indignities of the world he was in constant conflict. The spiritual dullness and actual unbelief of his disciples, the impenitence of his own people, and the cunning and cruel opposition of the Jewish rulers, all laid heavy burdens upon him during his life. And worse than all, the temptations of Satan, especially in the wilderness of Judea, were one of the severest conflicts, and no doubt one of the sorest humiliations, of his earthly career. This temptation, let it be remembered, was real, and one specially painful factor in it, doubtless, was the close contact with sin and suffering which must have been so abhorrent to his holy soul. He was also subject to the usual infirmities incident to the estate of man. He was weary, hungry, thirsty, and often kept his sleepless vigil upon the mountains. And all this was aggravated by the fact that in his lowly earthly condition he had no temporal resources to support him, or to afford relief amidst it all. He was dependent upon others for many of the ordinary necessaries and supports of this life.

3. Christ Humbled Himself in his Death.

At this stage the humiliation of the Redeemer becomes still deeper. All the sufferings associated with his closing days on the earth come into view at this stage, and of these the Larger Catechism gives a good summary. The description of these sufferings may begin with Gethsemane and the agony there. Then comes the betrayal by Judas, one of the twelve, by means of which he was put into the hands of his enemies. This perfidy must have pierced his true and trustful soul with sore sorrow. Worse still, in some respects, was the fact that all the rest of his disciples forsook him and fled, and one of them who had sworn that he would never leave his Master denied him in that trying hour. He was thus left to tread the winepress of his humiliation alone; and how deeply he must have felt the isolation of that season! In addition, by the cold and heartless world he was scorned and rejected. He was scourged, mocked, smitten, spat upon, and crowned with thorns, at the hands of the Jews and Eomans, who may be taken to represent the world. He was condemned by Pilate on the testimony of false witnesses, and to appease the clamor of the Jewish rulers he was sorely tormented by his persecutors. Then of a still deeper nature was the humiliation which arose at this point from his conflict with death as the penalty of sin, and as he stood face to face with the powers of darkness in deadly spiritual combat. He felt the pangs of the penalty of sin and he bore the awful weight of the wrath of God, and this led him, in the desolation of his soul, to cry out, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me ?" This wrath of God which he bore is not to be understood as passionate anger or revengeful rage, but as the inexorable moral antagonism of God against sin, expressed by the necessary infliction of penalty. In this sense he endured the wrath of God, and the measure of the shame and humiliation which this entailed no tongue shall ever be able to tell. Finally, he laid down his life as an offering for sin. He laid it down willingly, for he was not forced to die. He had power to lay down his life, and he had power to take it again. Hence, he made his soul an offering for sin, and presented himself as a sacrifice without spot unto God. Nor can the fact be overlooked that the mode of his death wag painful and humiliating in the extreme. It was the cursed death of the cross, with all its shame and woe. The Lord of life and glory was nailed as a malefactor to the tree.

4. He Humbled Himself after his Death.

This brings us to the deepest depths of his humiliation. His body was taken from the cross by kind-hearted strangers, who were, perhaps, secret disciples, and buried in a new-made tomb. He remained in the state of the dead and under the power of death for a time. It is the midnight of his humiliation now. It seemed as if now, surely, the powers of darkness had gotten the victory, and that Satan had triumphed. Death, the penalty of sin, had laid him low, and the grave held him firmly in its grasp. He was really dead. His spirit had gone to God who gave it, and his body lay cold and lifeless in its rock-hewn tomb.

It is in this connection that the phrase in the Apostles' Creed, "and he descended into hell," which is alluded to in the Larger Catechism, properly comes up for some brief remarks. This much-discussed phrase does not mean that Christ, in his disembodied spirit, actually went, after his death and prior to his resurrection, to the spirit world, and to that region of the unseen abode where the spirits of the saints of the Old Testament dispensation were held for the time, to declare the full gospel message to them, and so to bring them into the enjoyment of the felicity of the heavenly state. Nor does the phrase mean that the human soul of Christ went really into hell, there to secure a victory over Satan in his own proper abode. Nor, again, can it be rightly taken to signify that his human soul actually went to that place of punishment where the souls of the lost are kept, that he might there fully endure all that was needed to make a full penal satisfaction for sin. To understand the phrase, the meaning of the word hell must be observed. It does not mean the place or state of the finally lost, but it rather denotes the invisible world of departed spirits. Hence, the meaning of the phrase is, that during the period between his death and his resurrection Christ's human spirit, or soul, was in the region of departed disembodied souls in the unseen world, and at the same time his body was lying in the tomb. In his case, of course, the departed human spirit would go to the estate of the blessed, for he had said to the thief on the cross, who died penitent, that they would be together that day in paradise. And all through even these experiences, the personal union of the human and the divine natures was not destroyed in the God-man. This completes the teaching of the Standards in regard to the humiliation of the Redeemer.

II. Christ's Estate of Exaltation.

The humiliation of Christ leaves him under the power of the last enemy in the state of the dead, and it is just at this point that the description of his exaltation given in the Standards finds him. This estate embraces several important particulars as follows:

1. Christ was Exalted in His Resurrection.

Though he came under the power of death, he was not suffered to see corruption, for on the third day he rose from the dead, even as he said he would. By his resurrection the very same body in which he was crucified was reanimated, as he rose triumphing over the grave. This body, thus raised, possessed all the essential properties which it had prior to his death on the cross, but after the resurrection it was to die no more, so that it did not possess mortality, or other common infirmities incident to this present mortal life. In the article of the resurrection the human soul of Christ was reunited with the reanimated body, thereby constituting the complete human nature which remained all the time in indissoluble union with the second person of the Trinity. He also raised himself by his own power, having power to take up his life again, even as he willingly laid it down. By this fact he gave forcible proof that he was truly the Son of God. Moreover, by the fact of his resurrection Christ gave final and convincing proof that he had conquered death, and vanquished him who had the power of death, and so became the Lord of the quick and the dead.

All this, the Larger Catechism says, he did as a public person and as the head of the church. By this fact the representative and vicarious nature of Christ's office and work is further evident. By the resurrection of Christ the justification of all his people is assured, for as he died for their sins, he also rose again for their justification. Thus, by virtue of his atoning death and triumphant resurrection, he secured the virtual justification of all his elect covenant seed before his Father's face. In like manner, by the resurrection of Christ from the dead, his people have the assurance of quickening grace in their hearts, the promise of almighty support against their enemies, and a sure pledge of their own resurrection at the last great day. The resurrection of Christ, therefore, has much meaning and great comfort for the believer.

2. Christ was Exalted in His Ascension.

In this important fact the exaltation of Christ appears more distinctly. After his resurrection he was often seen by his disciples, conversed much with them, especially in regard to the things pertaining to the kingdom of God, and at the close of forty days he gave them the commission to preach the gospel to all nations, and added the promise that the Spirit would be poured out upon them. Having done these things, he ascended up into heaven from the Mount of Olives, near Jerusalem. He ascended still in the human nature; and he was also the federal head of his people, and mediatorial king of his kingdom. Triumphing over all his foes, he went up into heaven visibly, and entered the highest heavens, there to receive gifts for men at his Father's gracious hand. It is further said, that by the fact of his resurrection and ascension Christ raises the affections of his people heavenward, and that he has gone to his Father's house of many mansions to prepare a place for them. There he now is, and shall continue to be, till his second coming, at the end of the world, when he shall come to judge the quick and the dead at the appointed day.

Two interesting questions are suggested by the statements of the Standards at this point. The first relates to the precise time when the body of Christ was really changed into the glorious body, and the second has reference to the time and purpose of the second advent of Christ. As to the first of these questions, the Standards do not directly speak. Some things seem to indicate that the body was at least partly changed soon after the resurrection, but definite conclusions cannot be drawn from what even the Scriptures say. It is clear, however, that in connection with the ascension the change was completed, and that his body was then glorified, and made meet for its heavenly estate. As to the second question, it is evident that the Standards teach what is now known as the post-millennial view of the time and purport of the second advent of Christ. Their teaching is, that he has ascended to the right hand of the Father, where he shall remain till the end of the world, and that when he shall come again it shall be to judge the quick and the dead.

3. Christ is Exalted by Sitting at the Right Hand of God.

This fact marks a distinct onward stage in the exaltation of the Redeemer. It is in his theanthropic person, as the God-man, that he sits at the Father's right hand, where he is advanced to the very highest favor with God the Father. And, as he wears the nature of his people, and represents them, he makes them sit together with him in the heavenly places. There he is also granted fulness of joy, and invested with divine glory, and at the same time he is given power over all things in heaven and on earth. He is thus in the place of honor, power, and glory, at the right hand of the majesty on high.

The kingly office comes now more and more distinctly into view, though the prophetic and priestly are, of course, still exercised. At the right hand of the Father he administers the affairs of his great spiritual kingdom. He gathers in his people, as the subjects of his kingdom, and then defends them by his good providence and powerful grace, and at the same time subdues all their enemies under him. He also furnishes his ministers with gifts and graces, so that they may be fitted for their work. This section closes by adding that Christ makes intercession for his people at his Father's right hand; but as this point was fully explained in last chapter in connection with the priestly office of Christ, nothing more need now be added. It will suffice to observe that intercession seems to be a priestly function exercised specially by Christ in his estate of exaltation, just as atonement is a priestly function exercised in his estate of humiliation.

4. Christ is to le Exalted in Coming to Judge at the Last Day.

This is the final factor or stage in the exaltation of the Redeemer. The exercise of this stage lies yet in the future, for the stage of the exaltation now in progress is the one described in last section. In coming again to judge, it is eminently appropriate that he who was unjustly judged, condemned, and put to death by wicked men, should be the judge of men and angels in the end. The Standards say that he shall come in great power, and in the full manifestation of his own glory, and of his Father's as well. The contrast between his first and second advents is indeed very marked. Then he was an infant in the manger, now he is the judge upon the throne. Of his first advent the angels were the attendant heralds, of his second all the holy angels are also to be attendants at the world's last great assize. He shall come with a shout, and wrth the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God, to judge the world in righteousness. The resurrection of the dead, which will be treated at length in its proper place later on, will come to pass, and then the judgment will be set. Thus, in the midst of this august scene, Christ will appear on the highest summit of the estate of his exaltation. He is now the judge upon the throne. The whole race of mankind will be assembled for its final judgment. The holy angels, as has been seen, are to be there as attendants, and all mankind, both the just and unjust, the former on the right hand, and the latter on the left hand of the judge, shall be present. The apostate angels, with Satan at their head, will also be there, to have meted out to them their final and irrevocable doom. The elements shall melt with fervent heat, and the heavens shall be rolled up as a scroll. The membership of the invisible church shall then be found complete, ready to hear its last joyful welcome, and to enter upon its eternal home. Then time shall be no more, and when the judgment is over the destiny of men and angels will be forever fixed. Then, last of all, Christ will deliver up to the Father the kingdom of which he is the mediator, and the purposes of redemption will enter on their final and eternal stage.

With the close of this chapter an important stage in the exposition of the doctrines of the Standards is reached. What they have to say in regard to the work of Christ as mediator, in itself considered, is complete. In the next, and some subsequent chapters, that aspect of Christ's work according to which it is considered in its application to his people for whom he purchased redemption will engage attention. It is at this stage that the Confession considers the exceedingly difficult and very important question of man's freedom, or the problem of the moral agency of men. The Catechisms do not directly discuss this question, but later on they deal with man's ability to keep the law of God, and thus really raise one important phase of the same question. This being the case, it may be best to exhibit what the Standards teach upon this subject in a complete statement at this stage. And it seems all the more fitting to do so in this connection, when the question of the application of the benefits of the redemption which is in Christ Jesus to sinful men is raised, and when their ability in the case should be understood. At this stage, therefore, what the Catechisms say upon this knotty point will be incorporated with the teaching of the Confession, although this will rearrange the order of the topics in the Catechisms, which has been followed quite closely thus far in the exposition.

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