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Discernment – Even in Honored Sources

January 31, 2015

One of the most complex and challenging lessons I am Teaching My Kids is Discernment – obtaining the correct understanding of doctrines, and separating those they should accept as Truth from those they should reject, and even fight against.

This lesson is made all the more challenging for me to teach because I have not yet fully learned it myself. I often wish I had far more wisdom from which to guide them on choosing ideas to reject and accept. But it is clear that either my wife and I will fulfill that role, or we leave it to the society to do so.

Sometimes Separation of falsehood is needed from otherwise rich and trustworthy sources

The notion of “separation” is a critical aspect of discernment, and it sometimes requires separation of ideas from within the same author or even the same source – even when those sources and authors are correct on most or all of their other teachings.

Such is the case with the concept that Christ descended to hell after His crucifixion, a claim added hundreds of years later into the world’s most popular Christian Creed: the Apostle’s Creed, and later supported and taught by John Calvin, among other theologians.

…Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven… – excerpt, the Apostle’s Creed

But, apart from the Creed, we must seek for a surer exposition of Christ’s descent to hell: and the word of God furnishes us with one not only pious and holy, but replete with excellent consolation. Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgement, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance. Whence also it was necessary that he should engage, as it were, at close quarters with the powers of hell and the horrors of eternal death… — Institutes, John Calvin – Book II, Chapter 16, Section 10

What more beautiful and straightforward summary of Christian faith is there than the Apostle’s Creed? What more learned and stalwart Reformer of true Biblical faith than John Calvin? And yet Discernment is needed with both to separate out this incorrect doctrine.

The hardest falsehoods to see are those with what seems like Biblical support

There are several Bible passages used to support the idea that Christ went down into hell after his crucifixion, although each has a more consistent orthodox interpretation:

…that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. — Acts 2:31 – the whole point of the verse is that Christ was not put there, as other dead would be. Also the Greek word “hades” means only “place of the dead”, not “hell” (the place of eternal punishment).

In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? — Ephesians 4:9 – I heard an excellent sermon recently on this, making it clear that this passage is really not speaking about the crucifixion at all, but Christ’s descent to earth in the Incarnation.

For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does. — 1 Peter 4:6 – preached to those who are dead need not mean when they were dead; the verse before this one is speaking of the judgment coming on those who are living and dead when it comes.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water. — 1 Peter 3:18-20 – the reference to Noah’s days (about 2300 years before the crucifixion) makes it clear that the proclamation was made to those people who now are imprisoned in hell, by Christ through the words and actions of Noah in those days. This is the sense in which 1 Peter 1:10-11 talks of the prophets speaking “with the Spirit of Christ” earlier in the same book.

Even Honored Sources sometimes miss clearer passages in which Truth is Revealed

What could be a clearer way to discern this doctrine than with Christ’s own words on the cross?

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” — Luke 23:42-43

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. — Luke 23:46

These passages make it clear that Jesus went to be with His Father in heaven (paradise) immediately after he died on the cross. When he was “raised” on the third day it was not “from hell below” but back to earthly life, to walk His last days on earth.

Calvin’s error comes right after an excellent insight which has long resonated with me

Just prior to this error regarding Christ’s supposed descent into hell (a step “too far” not at all supported by other Biblical passages), John Calvin articulates an excellent point about the critical nature of Christ’s spiritual death, which I feel has a significant Biblical basis, despite the fact that most modern theologians disagree with it: Although His “corporeal” death was important in fulfilling much Old Testament prophecy, sacrificial foreshadowing and symbolism, it is Christ’s spiritual death (that moment when He is forsaken by God the Father – Mark 15:34) which was the true turning point of history. Here is Calvin’s statement:

Nothing had been done if Christ had only endured corporeal death. In order to interpose between us and God’s anger, and satisfy his righteous judgement, it was necessary that he should feel the weight of divine vengeance… — Institutes, John Calvin – Book II, Chapter 16, Section 10

To me this seems to be proved by the fact that Christ is obviously still alive physically as He exclaims “It is finished!” (John 19:30); i.e. He does not claim that “it will soon be finished…” only once His body has died. It seems clear that it is the spiritual death while on the cross of the only man who lived a perfect life, unstained by sin, which saves His elect.

This also seems the best understanding of the “cup” Jesus asks to pass by Him in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42). It makes little sense to consider Christ as fearful of physical death or severe physical pain. And He knew He would be resurrected on the third day (Luke 9:22). We cannot believe that Christ had less courage than Roman Christians, just a generation later, possessing only a fractional understanding of ultimate reality compared to Christ’s, who went to their physical deaths mauled by wild animals while singing hymns. But it makes an enormous amount of sense that contemplating spiritual death – separation from His Father – was an anguish sufficient to cause Him to sweat “like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44) and to ask if the cup might pass.

Understanding the centrality of spiritual death also makes sense of God’s promised punishment that Adam and Eve would die “in the day” they ate the forbidden fruit. That very day they did not die physically, but they did die spiritually; further, the very existence of the Tree of Life from the moment the Garden was created seems to be strong proof Adam and Eve were mortal all along, prior to the Fall.

…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. — Genesis 2:17

Perhaps the most compelling fact when considering this view is that it is not physical death, but spiritual death, from which Christ saves us. All people, saved and unsaved, must die physically. It seems somewhat of a stretch to use the phrase “saved from death” when what is meant is that the death will still occur, but a resurrection will restore the body to life later.

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” — John 3:5-6

Understanding that we are saved from spiritual death brings this entire concept into focus, which in turn aligns with understanding Christ’s payment for our sins as His endurance of spiritual death. For if believers all drink from the same cup as Christ, how have we been “saved” in any sense?

Let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. — James 5:20

The fact that this great insight was written as the line just prior to one of Calvin’s greatest theological errors is a testament to man’s fallen condition and our inability to fully grasp the Truth in God’s Word while here on earth.

Even our best theologians and most articulate statements of faith cannot be read without Discernment

Nothing but Holy Scripture is perfect and without error. Discernment is critical even when reading the very best Christian thinkers and the very best works of past generations.

And please realize – discernment is most critical when reading the blog post of one man who has invested very little time when compared with so many others in studying those Scriptures and drawing out the strongest foundation of doctrine.

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. — 2 Timothy 3:16-17

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From → Bible, Creation

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