Thursday, February 14, 2019

"Jesus took all our Hell on the cross" (what the descent clause really means) -- Pastoral Letter from the 2019.02.14 Hopewell Herald

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Dear Congregation,

When we come to the table on the coming Lord’s Day, one of the things that we will want to come having done is examine ourselves. “Am I believing in Christ as He is offered to me in the gospel?” That’s a question that we need to be asking ourselves, and indeed, it is a question that we answered publicly, when we first professed our Christian faith.

This is the focus of the Athanasian Creed, which begins, “Whosoever desires to be saved should above all hold to the catholic faith,” and ends, “This is the catholic faith, that one cannot be saved without believing it firmly and faithfully.”

One of the many blessings of our new Psalter-Hymnal is having the Athanasian Creed ready to hand. Up to this point, we have been confessing the Nicene Creed at the table. The Athanasian creed is more developed than that of Nicaea (325) and declares carefully those truths about the Trinity that we have been studying from Scripture in the Education Hour, as acknowledged by the elders who gathered at the councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451).

In the Reformation, reforming churches wished to demonstrate that they were not inventing some new religion, but still confessed the same historic, biblical faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. So, they retained and confessed such creeds as the Athanasian Creed.

One problem, however, was that as a result both of Roman Catholic contentment to keep the masses (pun intended) in the dark, and the accumulation of contra-biblical Roman Catholic teachings, many in the churches had come to believe that Christ’s human soul went to Hell upon His burial, rather than being dismissed to the paradise of His Father’s hands from the cross.

So, would the Reformed improve the language of the creed, at the cost of appearing to introduce new doctrine in order to correct this erroneous thinking? They chose instead to retain the language, and correct misconceptions by teaching.

So, we are again blessed to have the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. When you read the “descent clause” in the Athanasian Creed on p854 on the Lord’s Day, you may notice a footnote referring you to Heidelberg Catechism 44 (p879), Canons of Dort 2.4 (p904), and Westminster Larger Catechism 50 (p945).

Heidelberg and Dort explain the descent clause the same way that Calvin did—that the confessing of Christ’s humiliation in the “Apostles’ Creed” was not ordered by chronology but rather by intensity—that although He finished (as He Himself declared) enduring Hell upon the cross before He was buried, yet that pouring out of God’s wrath was His humiliation’s greatest extent and so it is named last.

Westminster explains the descent clause historically, basically saying that this was the language used to describe not a place that He went, but His body’s spending three days in the grave under the power of death.

It is vitally important that we believe these two things—that Christ suffered all of the Hell that our souls deserved by the time that He said “it is finished,” and that He indeed continued under the power of death for three days, and on the third day rose again.

As we approach the table, confessing this together, let each of our hearts resoundingly say, “I believe this!” And let us show forth Christ’s death, as we feed upon Him by faith.

Looking forward to Word, sacrament, and prayer with you,


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