Question 17. Why must he in one person be also very God?
Answer: That he might, by the power of his Godhead (a) sustain in his human nature, (b) the burden of God’s wrath; (c) and might obtain for, and restore to us, righteousness and life. (d)
In the previous question and answer Caleb we examined why it was that Christ must be very man of very man (100% man) in order to qualify as someone who could rescue the descendants of Adam from their sins. In this question the Catechizers (principally Zacharius Ursinus, and secondarily Caspar Olevianus) explain why it is that Christ must be very God of very God in order to successfully become our deliverer.
Before we get to the issue of Christ’s divinity in relation to accomplishing our deliverance we should say a brief word about the the combination of Heidelberg questions 16 and 17. In these two question and answers we have taught what is known as the doctrine of Christ’s Hypostatic Union. This is the doctrine that affirms that the Lord Jesus Christ was one person with two natures. We could get lost in all of the implications of this Caleb but suffice it to say that this is an important doctrine to embrace even if we will not understand it completely in this life. The doctrine is so important that the Church has an ancient creed that teaches on it (creed of Chalcedon) and is so important that one cannot be a Christian without embracing Scripture’s teaching on Christ’s hypostatic union.
The doctrine of the hypostatic union teaches that at one and the same time the Lord Jesus Christ has both a human and divine nature and yet within one person. The early church argued about this for centuries before affirming that Christ was perfect in Godhead while at the same time being perfect in manhood. Teasing out the Scriptures, the Church went on to affirm, as against a party in the Church called “the Eutychians” that these two natures of Christ were not co-mingled so that the Lord Christ was a kind of a being with a hybrid single nature that was partly God and partly man. Continuing to embrace Scripture, the Church, at the same time, had to correct another party that was on the other extreme from the Eutychians, and who, instead of giving us a Christ whose natures were blended into a hybrid, gave us a Christ who was two persons as well as two natures. What the Scriptures affirm and what the Heidelberg catechism teaches is that Christ is one person with two natures.
That Christ has both natures can seen with a simple glance at Scripture,
Very God of Very God
He is worshiped (Matt. 2:2,11; 14:33)
He was called God (John 20:28; Heb. 1:8)
He was called Son of God (Mark 1:1)
He is prayed to (Acts 7:59).
He is sinless (1 Pet. 2:22; Heb. 4:15)
He knows all things (John 21:17)
He gives eternal life (John 10:28)
All the fullness of deity dwells in Him (Col. 2:9)
Very Man of Very Man
He worshiped the Father (John 17).
He was called man (Mark 15:39; John 19:5)
He was called Son of Man (John 9:35-37)
He prayed to the Father (John 17)
He was tempted (Matt. 4:1)
He grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52)
He died (Rom. 5:8)
He has a body of flesh and bones (Luke 24:39)
This doctrine of the Hypostatic Union also insists, as against yet a different heretical school of thought (Apollonarians) that the Lord Christ is human as to both body and soul. Some of the errant teaching yet today, following the errant teaching from centuries ago, insist that Jesus Christ has a human body but that His Spirit was the divine spirit logos.
The denial of this important doctrine continues with us today. The same errors are taught today that were taught thousands of years ago. This is true, not only of the example mentioned in the paragraph above but it is also true of Jehovah Witnesses and Christian Scientists for example. The Jehovah Witnesses deny Christ’s divinity while affirming His humanity. The Christian Scientists deny Christ’s humanity while affirming His deity. All of these sects will marshal Scripture to prove their heresy, conveniently leaving out other Scripture that is against them.
I can’t stress enough how important this teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism is. If a person denies this Hypostatic Union of Christ they have no reason to be considered a Christian. A great deal more could be said here, but I don’t want to bog you down. For our purposes here it is important to remember that, in the words of the Chalcedon Confession that is confessed by all Christians everywhere,
(Christ is) to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ;
Now, as the Catechism deals with this issue it wants to emphasize that Christ had to be God in order to able to provide deliverance for His people. If Christ was merely human he could not have successfully undergone the intense wrath of the Father against sin. Scriptures teaches the character of God’s just wrath against sin that the Lord Christ bore for His Father’s glory,
Deut.4:24 For the LORD thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God.
Nah.1:6 Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger? his fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him.
Ps.130:3 If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?
This was the wrath of God against our sins that the Lord Christ suffered in our place. That just wrath of God against sin would have consumed a merely human Jesus before the penalty against sin had been fully recompensed. So, the catechism teaches that Christ had to likewise be very God of very God in order to receive in His person the just penalty against sin.
Note a matter important here though Caleb. Note the way the catechism carefully phrases the truth,
“by the power of his Godhead sustain in his human nature the burden of God’s wrath”
Reformed theology, following Scripture, has always taught that God can not suffer, nor can God die. If God dies all the lights in the universe go out. Since this is true, Biblical theology affirms that it was Christ’s divine nature (HC — “by the power of His Godhead”) that sustained Christ’s human nature so that the person of Christ could pay for the sins of His people. Some people will say, in a sloppy manner, that “God died on the cross,” but it is more accurate to say that the person of the Lord Christ, as the lamb of God, died on the cross, if only because by definition the God of the Bible can’t die.
Clearly, what HC #17 is concerned about is the fact that the death of the Lord Christ, who is very God of very God, is a substitutionary death (a death in our place) and is so successfully, in part, because as sustained by His divine nature the person of Christ could bear our penalty in full, and win for us the life and acceptability before God that had been forfeited by Adam. That Christ was there dying in our place (in our stead, on our behalf) is clearly taught by Scripture,
Isa.53:4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted….
Isa.53:11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
And that the consequence of that death in our place (in our stead, on our behalf) is acceptability again before God and a restoration of life is likewise taught in Scripture,
Our healing is in His wounding
Isa.53:5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
Acceptability before God dependent upon Christ’s Death
1 Pet.3:18 For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:
John 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Restored brought to the elect because of Christ’s Death
Acts 20:28 Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.
John 1:4 In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
So, Heidelberg Catechism question and answer #17 teaches us that if were to be saved, then He who would serve as our deliverer must be very God of very God.