The Death Of GodErwin W. Lutzer | November 1, 2015
Selected highlights from this sermon
“Did your God die on the cross?” It’s a question and an accusation that Christians often hear from others. And it demands an answer.
In this message, Pastor Lutzer helps us to better grasp the nature of Jesus Christ, as both eternal God and sinless man, and how this God-man suffered and died upon a cross in order to atone for our sins against a Holy God.
My topic today is The Death of God. Most of you are far too young to remember that back in 1966 Time Magazine’s cover article was Is God Dead? There were some theologians who thought that it was time to move past the existence of God and choose a different kind of worldview. Actually their ideas were not new. In Germany Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in the year 1900, proclaimed the death of God. You should read his parable of the mad man who notices that the smell of grave diggers is around, and we have killed him, and how shall we, the murderers of all murderers, cleanse ourselves? God died under our knives, and who will wipe the blood from our hands? Very interesting! If there is no God, there’s no one to say to us, “You’re forgiven.”
“With what water can we cleanse ourselves? What are our churches now but tombs of God?” said Nietzsche.
Many years ago I saw a t-shirt that said on one side, “God is dead. Signed: Nietzshe.” On the other side at the back it said, “Nietzshe is dead. Signed: God.” (laughter) It should come as no surprise that God has outlived Nietzsche. God is alive and well.
But it’s not this kind of death that I’m speaking about today. I’m speaking about a different kind of death of God. I was in a university, invited there by a member of our church, and there were five or six other members of various faiths and religions, and there was an imam there representing the Islamic faith. And he said to me, “Do you believe that Jesus is God?” And I said, “Yes, and Jesus died on the cross.” “So your God died?” he said. That’s the question we’re going to answer today.
You know we have a song that we love to sing, and it is entitled “And Can It Be That I Should Gain An Interest in My Savior’s Blood?” And the chorus goes:
Amazing love, how can it be
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
And there are some churches that don’t sing it because they are troubled by that phrase, “that Thou, my God, should die for me.”
Well, the goal of this message today is to say that this is a song we should sing, and this is a song we’re going to sing. And we can sing it with integrity.
The Bible says in Hebrews 2, and I’m going to be referring to this passage, but also others, because we have some very interesting territory to cover today. You’ll notice in the second chapter, and I’m beginning in verse 14, it says: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (The fear of death can subject you certainly to slavery.) “For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”
Let me give you my outline today in advance. First of all, we’re going to speak briefly about the person of Christ, the mission of Christ, and then the death of Christ, and see whether or not we have an answer to the song “That Thou my God shouldst die for me.”
This is part of the series on The Mysteries of God, and we can’t understand and probe these mysteries completely, but we can approach them using biblical data. We can come to certain conclusions that should bless us and enable us to worship better and to love God more.
First of all, the person of Jesus! Who is Jesus? In John 1 we read that Jesus is the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Without Him nothing was created that was created. He is God, a very God.
In the book of Hebrews we read in chapter 1: “He is the radiance of the glory of God, and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of his power.” That’s speaking about Jesus. It goes on to talk about how He made atonement for our sins. He is the eternal Son, as we noticed last time in our message on the Trinity. What happened at Bethlehem was that this infinite eternal Son was now joined to finite human nature. That’s what happened in the womb of Mary. And so what you have is this eternal Son, taking on flesh in such a way that Jesus became the God-man. On the one hand, He was man. Look at Him there as He is on the well, weary with His journey, sleeping – needing to sleep, needing to eat. On the other hand He stands and He says, “Before Abraham was I am,” and He tells people that their eternal destiny is dependent on their relationship with Him. He is the God-man.
Theologians throughout the centuries wrestled with this and they concluded that the divine nature and the human nature were brought together but not fused. They remained distinct but in one person, Jesus is not schizophrenic. He’s one person, but He’s both God and man. Could Jesus have sinned? No, I don’t think so because, you see, even though He was a man, His humanity was so joined to the Deity that He could not have sinned as a man without implicating His divine nature, which was incapable of sin. Maybe an illustration would help. You can easily bend a wire, but if that wire is welded to a steel bar, then you can’t bend the wire. He is God and man.
Now what about His mission? He came to the earth to redeem us. In a book written by Bruce Ware he talks about this question, and then he answers it, and he answers it correctly. Why couldn’t God have just created a perfect sinless human being and have Him die on the cross for our sins? Well, the answer to that is no human being could pay the eternal debt that we owe God.
Do you ever ask yourself the question of why hell is eternal? It’s because as unbelievers, if we were unbelievers, we would be guilty forever because in hell no one ever says regarding his suffering, “It is finished,” because it never is. You are eternally guilty. No human being can do that. No human being can atone for us as humans. We need an infinite being to pay an infinite price so we could be redeemed. And if that was going to happen, God is the one who was going to have to do it.
Look at what the text says here that Jesus did as a result of His sacrifice. You’ll notice it says He destroyed the work of the devil and the power of death, that is the devil. Now the devil is still out on bond, but his sentence has been commuted and his end is sure. And also you’ll notice (Now we’re in verse 17) He made propitiation for the people. That is to say that He made an atoning sacrifice to avert wrath against us, and He could only do that as the God-man.
Let me be clear. He had to become one of us in order to redeem us, to identify with us and to redeem us. And furthermore you can’t take a spirit and nail that spirit to a cross. There had to be flesh. There had to be blood. There had to be sacrifice. So He became one of us.
Could Satan ever be redeemed? The answer is no because it even says here that He took not upon Himself the nature of angels (or He doesn’t help angels). He becomes like the seed of Abraham. When Jesus died on the cross there was an atonement made for all who believe on Him, but fallen angels – Satan - was not included in that atonement. And when Jesus said, “It is finished,” and He had suffered, He suffered an eternal death and hell to meet all of the requirements that you could possibly have for sinners – horrible sinners – to be right with God. He suffered that.
For the first three hours on the cross He suffered under the hands of men. The last three hours He suffered under the hands of God, and during that suffering He bore an eternal hell so that you and I could be redeemed. No wonder the last three hours were in darkness. Darkness covered the earth. That’s why the hymn writer said, “Well might the sun in darkness hide and shut its glories in when Christ, the great redeemer, died for man, the creature’s sin.” What was the mission of Jesus? To destroy the devil? Yes! To reconcile us to God, to make propitiation for our sins! That was his mission. To do it He had to be the God-man.
Well, that’s the mission of Jesus. We’ve talked briefly about the person of Jesus. What about the death of Jesus? Finally we get to the question. Can we sing the song “That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me”?
First of all, we have to back off and realize that the word death does not mean annihilation. It does not mean going out of existence. Death basically is separation - separation of the soul and the body. When we die, our souls and our bodies are separated. It is basically also the separation of the soul and God, if we’re speaking about an eternal death. So the idea that somehow when we say that God died, that God somehow disappeared and was annihilated and no longer existed is absolutely absurd and unthinkable obviously because the Bible says that He upholds all things by the Word of His power. Moment by moment your breath, my breath, the breath of all atheists is in the hands of the living God. And if He would go out of existence, I can assure you everything would go out of existence.
What then happened at the cross? Well, we believe, first of all, that what happened is the human body of Jesus obviously died. It was put in the grave. Three days later it was raised again. Did the divine nature somehow die? Of course not! Not even His human nature died in the sense that His Spirit went to God. Jesus had promised the man next to Him, the thief on the cross, “Today, thou shall be with me in paradise.”
By the way, who in the world has the authority to say something like that except the living God-man? “Today you are going to be with me in Paradise.” I assume that the man had breakfast with his cohort, bad to the bone thief, criminals, and that night he was going to eat with Jesus in the heavenly kingdom because he saw in Jesus not just a man dying. He saw someone die who had authority, someone who was purchasing him, someone who was a king, dying for sinners, and he believed. A glorious truth!
So Jesus, even there, didn’t go out of existence. His divine nature didn’t go out of existence. What about God the Father? Did God the Father suffer at the cross? I believe that the answer is yes. You know during those three hours that I spoke about where Jesus suffered in darkness, do you remember that Jesus said? He said, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Notice that that was actually a cry of distress, not necessarily a cry of distrust because notice that even there He said, “My God, My God.” It’s the only time in all the New Testament where Jesus referred to God as God. Always He referred to God as Father. But now that the fellowship was broken, the fact that the sin was being laid on Jesus, He says, “My God, My God.” Now the fellowship that was apparently broken is indeed again restored because what are the last words of Jesus on the cross? The last words of Jesus are, “Father, into Thy hands I commit my Spirit.”
Did the Father die? Well, He certainly didn’t go into some kind of disappearance or extinction, but He did suffer on the cross. In that sense the Father also was involved in the suffering of Jesus. It is unthinkable to me that your son, and I’m speaking to you now as fathers, that your son could go through the horrors of the crucifixion and you not be affected and emotionally involved. The Father also suffered, though He suffered differently.
I know that we’re in some deep water, and I should have said this last time when I spoke on the Trinity. The members of the Trinity can be recognized. They can be seen to be different, but they can never be separated. Even here we’re not talking about some kind of a… Here’s a big word coming. I’m warning you. There was no ontological separation, as if the being of God was somehow broken, but there was a break in fellowship, I believe, when Jesus died.
Now, having come this far, I need to report that there are some very good theologians who believe that God never can suffer and that God has no emotions basically. You’d be surprised at the number of people who believe that because the Lord said, “I am the Lord, and I change not.” I disagree respectfully with these other theologians. To me God has deep emotions. I mean, you read the Old Testament. God is sometimes angry. God is pleased. God longs for His people. He’s a God of emotions.
Luther said, “If all that happened was a man died for us on the cross, we would not be redeemed.” Yes, a man died, but it was the God-man who died.
What about the unchangeability of God? In the next sermon of this series that’s going to be my topic because, you know, in the Old Testament God seemed to be very harsh. Boy, you broke the Law and you were stoned. In the New Testament, well, it’s grace. So one of the questions I’m going to ask next time is, “Is God more tolerant than He used to be?” Is it safer to sin under grace than it was under Law? That’s the question for the next message in this series. But for now, I say with Bonhoeffer, only a suffering God can help us. I believe that there on the cross there was the suffering of the Son in His body, but there was also the suffering, if I can put it this way, of God. In that sense, God was involved in separation. He was involved in death, though by no means involved in extinction.
There are a couple of huge implications I think that are important for us. The first is this. Remember that God chose to suffer. When I speak about the sufferings of God, I am not referring to the fact that He had this put on Him. You know, you and I suffer because we don’t have circumstances under our control. If we could control our health, if we could control our children, if we could prevent ourselves from accident, we’d never suffer. God has all of that in control, but He chose to suffer for this reason. Knowing that we were sinners, He was faced with either (a) you and I pay for our own sin forever, never paying it off, never being able to say, “It is finished,” or (b) He was going to have to pay the infinite sacrifice Himself. He was going to have to do it, and He did it through Christ. And the Father was involved, the Spirit was involved, and of course, the Son was involved.
Salvation is of the Lord. And what we must realize today is this. John Stott said these words and I think they were very appropriate. He was a theologian of a previous era. Listen to this carefully. It’s a kind of quote I wish I had come up with, but there are people who have better thought processes than the rest of us, who sometimes struggle with the pronunciation of their words even. (chuckles) “The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God. The essence of salvation or grace is God substituting Himself for us. At the cross there was the self-substitution of God done voluntarily, and we should not think that God, the Father, was the wrathful one, and God, the Son, was trying to appease Him. All that, in a certain context, is true, but this was an act of the Trinity. That’s why it says, ‘For God so loved the world that He gave.’ God, the Father, loved the world.”
Now, of course, we are on the edge of mystery, aren’t we? On the one hand, the Son is appeasing the Father. On the other hand, you must realize that the Father wants to be appeased because He loves us and He loved the world. Maybe that’s the best I can do in discussing the death of God.
So, first of all, God chose to suffer. Second, we have a God who understands our suffering because, you see, the God-man came. I’m back in the text. You’ll notice it says, “He became like his brothers (like us) in every respect.” Elsewhere it says, “Like his brothers in every respect apart from sin,” because He never sinned. “He was made like his brothers in every respect so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people for because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Jesus in the flesh experienced in general form every temptation that you and I have had, every temptation that you young people have ever had. And all of us at one time were young.
Every situation! I mean, have you ever been despised? Well, He was despised and rejected of men. Have you ever been betrayed? Well, He was betrayed by his banker, Judas, the one who carried the money. Have you ever felt as if your own family misunderstood you? His own family, according to the book of Mark, thought that maybe He was crazy, and He was rejected by His brothers until after His death. It wasn’t a happy family where everybody was getting along, the family into which Jesus was born, and all of his half-brothers and half-sisters. There were a lot of things going on there.
Have you ever had such emotional distress, such emotional turbulence, either perhaps depression or some other thing laid on you, that you just wished you’d die? I remember a guy telling me that he was in such distress he always prayed before he went to bed at night, “God, I pray that I might die in my sleep.” He never did, and later on he was thankful that he didn’t, but there is that kind of distress.
Look at Jesus there in the Garden of Gethsemane. “My soul is distressed even to the point of death.” My dear friend today, struggling with your depression and your hopelessness, Jesus has been where you are and He understands you perfectly, and because of that He can be a merciful and faithful high priest to actually help us.
Of course, before Jesus came, God knew about all of the distresses, all of the problems people had, but somehow when the God-man came and experienced it directly Himself, the Bible seems to indicate that now this qualifies Him to be that wonderful high priest who can bring us to the Father, who can intercede for us even now, who loves us, and according to my text here, he is able to help all those who are being tempted.
First of all, when we come to the Gospel, let us remember that God chose to suffer because God chose to love. He loved us and so He chose to suffer to redeem us from our sins. But now let’s ask the question directly. Can we sing the song “And can it be,” and “Amazing love, how can it be that Thou, my God shouldst die for me”? The answer is yes, we can sing it as long as we’ve learned that we’re not talking about God somehow disappearing, God dying and going into some oblivion. He remains God, the second person of the Trinity, and the third, all maintaining their ontological unity during this whole experience, but yet as the God-man dying. Not just human suffering but also divine suffering!
Ah yes, “Can it be that God shouldst die for me?” By the way, enlisting the ways in which Jesus identifies with us, have you ever been told that you have a terminal disease? Have you ever had the sentence of death hanging over your head? Jesus did. When He went to Jerusalem He knew that He was to die there, and He knew how many days He had, and He knew the horrible way in which He was going to die - exposed, ridiculed, misunderstood, cursed, beard plucked out, back lacerated. He knew that all that was coming.
And the Bible also says that because He knew that was coming He went into the Holy of Holies. He went into heaven, and according to the book of Hebrews He paved the way for us so that we might also be able to enter into heaven with Him, and He came to destroy the devil that has kept people fearful of death all of their lives. What a Savior we have in Jesus! (applause)
P. T. Forsythe, a pastor, wrote these words: “God dying for man? I am not afraid of that phrase. I can’t do without it. God dying for men, hostile men! God must either inflict eternal punishment on us or assume it for Himself. Thankfully He chose the latter. He took His own judgment.”
Years ago I told you about David Lloyd George, who was a great diplomat in England and ended up actually being prime minister I think, if I remember correctly. When he was a baby his mother was walking along some hills in Wales and this blizzard came up, and later on they were found in the blizzard. The mother was dead. The baby lived because she took off her own coat and wrapped her own coat around her precious son, and he lived. She gave her life for her son.
God says, “You believe on Jesus and I will give you a coat of righteousness that will present you to the Father as if you are Jesus because I’m a redeeming God.” Amazing love, how can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me? In a moment we’re going to be singing it with enthusiasm and joy.
Father, we ask now that You’ll take these words and help us to appreciate once again the drama of redemption. For those who have never believed on Jesus, who have kept Him at an arm’s length, help them to see that He is the only Savior, and that You chose to suffer for us so that we could be with You forever. We worship You. We love You, and we ask, oh God, that we might be able to, with hearts filled with gratitude, wonder at the mystery of Godliness, that Thou, my God shouldst die for me. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.