Dear Church Family,
Continuing in our Sunday school lessons in the Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC), this past Sunday we covered questions 36-37. Here is a brief review.
Here, we begin a series of lessons on the Lord Jesus Christ’s Person (WLC 36-45) and work (WLC 46-56) as the only Mediator of the covenant of grace.
WLC 36 Who is the Mediator of the covenant of grace?
A. The only Mediator of the covenant of grace is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, of one substance and equal with the Father, in the fulness of time became man, and so was and continues to be God and man, in two entire distinct natures, and one person, for ever.
There are two main teachings about the Lord Jesus Christ in this question and answer. First, we are reminded that While the covenant of grace may have been administered differently in the old and new covenants (WLC 33-35), Christ always has – and always will be – the only Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). This is also a reminder for us today that while some churches and denominations look to earthly priests to mediate for them before God, or even pray to Mary or other supposed “saints” for intercession, Jesus is the only priest that we need. His heavenly priesthood is permanent and without end; He is the only one who is “able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:24-25).
The second main teaching here is regarding the mystery of what theologians call the hypostatic union (how the human and divine natures of Christ are united in His one Person). The incarnation is indeed a mystery. It is difficult for our minds to comprehend how one Person may have both a divine and human nature. Yet, the Scriptures are abundantly clear on this matter. The angel declared to Mary that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit and her child would be the Son of God (Luke 1:35). The Son of God is divine who eternally existed (John 1:1), and He is also man – God sent for His Son in the fulness of time to be born of a woman, born under the Law (John 1:14; Galatians 4:4). “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
WLC 37 How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?
A. Christ the Son of God became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance, and born of her, yet without sin.
This question and answer describes three aspects of how the Son of God became man: (1) by taking to himself a true body and a reasonable soul; (2) conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary; and (3) born without sin.
A True Body and a Reasonable Soul
We’ve already mentioned above how the angel explained to Mary how she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit and her child would be the Son of God (Luke 1:35). Also, the Word of God explicitly teaches that Jesus was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). So, let’s consider a bit more deeply what it means that the Son of God took to himself “a true body, and a reasonable soul.” The word “true” (as in, a true body) refers to the fact that Jesus’ physical body was not a projection or some kind of trick, but a body just like ours (Hebrews 2:14-17). The word “reasonable” (as in, a reasonable soul) refers to rationality, or having the power to think, reason, and feel (Matthew 26:38). Understanding these phrases helps us to better understand our own human nature, as well as that of the Person of Jesus Christ.
First, consider how this phrase (“a true body, and a reasonable soul”) summarizes and explains the dichotomy, or two-sidedness, of human nature: body and soul. Anthony Hoekema explains, “Though the Bible does see man as a whole, it also recognizes that the human being has two sides: physical and nonphysical. He has a physical body, but he is also a personality. He has a mind with which he thinks but also a brain which is part of his body, and without which he cannot think. When things go wrong with him, sometimes he needs surgery, but at other times he may need counseling. Man is one person who can, however, be looked at from two sides.” (Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image, 1986, p 217). In order to do full justice to the two sides of man, while stressing man’s unity, Hoekema prefers the term “psychosomatic unity” (spirit-body unity).
*To read a more thorough explanation of the dichotomist, as opposed to the trichotomist, view of human nature, and how the terms “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably in Scripture, I recommend this article, “Man as Body-Soul Composite” by Kim Riddlebarger.
Second, consider how this phrase (“a true body, and a reasonable soul”) summarizes and explains the nature of Christ’s incarnation. The eternal Son of God took to himself the complete human nature (body and soul) in His incarnation. The divine nature (the Son of God) was united with the human nature (body and soul): two natures in one Person. And though we may distinguish between the two natures of Christ in order to better understand Him, these two natures are never separated or divided. He is one Person.
Application and Ramifications
Understanding that human nature is comprised of a true body and a reasonable soul helps protect us from some common errors of our day – errors which are in the world, but unfortunately, have also made their way into the church and Christian thinking. Specifically, some think of the physical body as being insignificant and simply a shell that contains the “true essence” of a person, the soul. This is often expressed in the erroneous statement that a human being is a soul and has a body. This, however, denies the psychosomatic unity of the human person. In keeping with the teaching of God’s Word, it is better to say that the human being is both body and soul. Both the physical and non-physical aspects are essential to human nature.
Burial or Cremation?
The ramifications of this understanding teach us how, contrary to the Gnostic tendencies of our culture, we ought to treat the human body with dignity and respect. A good example of a way in which many Christians have been influenced by the world’s understanding of human nature and not the Bible’s is regarding the question of burial versus cremation. If you haven’t thought about this or think the question is irrelevant (it doesn’t matter how we treat the bodies of those who are deceased), then I would encourage you to read and think about this question more deeply. While it is true that God’s power in the final resurrection is not determined or limited by the disposition of the body, how we treat the body is not inconsequential. How we treat the body – even after death – communicates certain things that we believe about human nature, personhood, and our hope in the resurrection.
In Scripture and throughout history, God’s people have always buried their dead; however, cremation is an historically pagan practice that communicates a more gnostic way of thinking. In his paper, “To Bury or to Burn? Toward an Ethic of Cremation,” David W. Jones provides the following concluding thoughts (note especially his third conclusion as it bears on our present discussion):
“After reviewing some of the key historical, biblical, and theological considerations that have been a part of the moral discussion of cremation within the Judeo-Christian tradition, ultimately the practice must be viewed as an adiaphora issue. This being said, however, it seems legitimate to draw the following three conclusions. First, church history witnesses considerable opposition toward cremation with the normative practice of the church being burial. Second, while Scripture is silent on the specifics of how to treat the deceased, both the example of biblical characters and the general trajectory of related passages seem to be in a pro-burial direction. Third, the body is theologically significant; thus, both the act of and the imagery conveyed by the treatment of the deceased ought to be weighed carefully.”
For further reading, I recommend a very interesting booklet published by Banner of Truth called Burial or Cremation: Does it Matter? by Donald Howard (you may find a short synopsis and link to purchase this booklet here). Richard D. Phillips, a minister in the PCA, has also written an article entitled, “What Should Christians Think about Cremation?” which offers pastoral guidance for thinking through these issues.
As has been the case throughout our study of the Westminster Larger Catechism, we begin by studying a particular doctrine of Scripture and will often find ourselves discussing and learning about another related doctrine. This is because there is always a reciprocal give and take between the various things that we believe. I refer to this inter-weaving of ideas and doctrines as “sweater theology” – pull the thread of a particular doctrine, and you eventually change or destroy the ‘sweater’ of your theology.
So, there are many very practical ways in which Christology (the study of the Person and work of Christ) also affects what we believe about various other doctrines: anthropology (the study of man), soteriology (the study of salvation), ecclesiology (the study of the church), hamartiology (the study of sin), hermeneutics, redemptive history, covenant theology, and the list goes on and on. This is one of the benefits of studying theology and doctrine through the lens of the Confession and Catechisms. We learn Biblical doctrine, doctrinal categories, and their relation to one another. This, then, helps us to build a more coherent understanding of God’s Word, subsequently making us better able to discern truth and defend against false teaching.
The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch