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Pastorally Speaking the Deep Things of the Cross: Tim Keller, What Christ Lost, & How To Talk About It

Earlier this week, Pastor Tim Keller restarted a minor controversy when he tweeted, “If you see Jesus losing the infinite love of the Father out of His infinite love for you, it will infinitely melt your hardness.” Traditional Christian orthodoxy has maintained that Jesus never lost the love of the Father, and Keller’s rhetoric also had the potential to imply that the Trinity experienced change or rupture, a suggestion incompatible with orthodox Trinitarian and Christological theology. Others argued that this was much ado about nothing, as the tweet was clearly a case of pastoral speech. It shouldn’t be held to strict theological standards. “Of course” Pastor Keller did not intend to say anything heretical.

Now if this all sounds a bit too familiar, it is because the same thing happened two-and-a-half years ago. We drew attention to it here and here. Keller was aware that his tweet caused a controversy at that time, as he wrote something of an explanation of his intent here. Keller’s longer explanation is less objectionable, though some of his statements about Calvin’s views are still imprecise. Still, it seems odd that, given this history, he would choose to retweet the very same thing with no new qualifications. One might ask, is it a good thing for history to repeat itself here?

Pithy Pastoral Speech

We are quite sure that pastor Keller was not trying to challenge any point of standard orthodox theology. His tweet was an example of “pastoral” speech. He was trying to make a basic point in emotive language. But at a certain point we have to ask if this approach is actually effective. After all, the retweet raised all of the same old questions, creating more confusion than clarity.

Pastor Keller gave a brief explanation, saying, “Of course the Father continued in his love for his Son, but on the cross Jesus lost all sense and experience and any practical possession of it. He felt like a soul in hell.” This is a helpful follow-up in some ways, but notice what has happened. The first tweet said that Jesus lost the Father’s love. The “explanation” says that “Of course the Father continued in his love for his Son…” The force of the original statement has been taken away. Indeed, we learn that “lose” can be used to indicate at least two meanings. The first tweet meant only to express the sense and experience of love, not the reality of its existence. Additionally, this follow-up does not actually reflect the Calvinian view which Keller cited two years ago. Calvin would not agree that Christ lost “all sense and experience and any practical possession of [the love of the Father].” Calvin argues that Christ lost some sense of God’s presence but, at the same time, also retained some sense of it. And so again, the tweets in question create at least as much confusion as they do clarity.

No we can certainly understand that Twitter does not lend itself to overly precise theological conversations. Discussing the specifics of Christology in the death of Christ quickly becomes complicated. It requires nuance. But this observation cuts both ways. Readers can be encouraged to cut Pastor Keller some “slack” in how they interpret his tweets, but he might also consider whether his speech in this cases was actually effective. How prudent is it to continue to tweet in such a way that requires an overly generous interpretation to overcome what would otherwise be the prima facia meaning?

Keller’s rhetoric on this point is not confined to Twitter. He has put a similar expression into print on at least one occasion. In a 2015 TGC post, Justin Taylor quotes from Keller’s book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God:

The only time in all the gospels that Jesus Christ prays to God and doesn’t call him Father is on the cross, when he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus lost his relationship with the Father so that we could have a relationship with God as father.

This passage is perhaps more troubling that Keller’s tweets because the framing of fatherhood and adoption strongly suggests that the “relationship” that “Jesus lost” was precisely the relationship of a son to a father. But this is surely unacceptable, indeed unthinkable! To suggest that Jesus stopped being the Son of God while on the cross would be to agree with those who jeered and mocked Him! No Christian should state that Jesus lost His “sonship” at any point.1 But if Keller does not mean to imply this, then most of his rhetorical punch is lost and the observation that Jesus doesn’t call God “Father” is left without much meaning. If that’s not what Keller is saying, then it is, again, imprudent for him to frame the discussion in this way.

This observation highlights a problem with much of what we call “pastoral rhetoric.” Pastors want the freedom to speak in summary form and to use biblical language without extra qualifications. They don’t want to lose their audience with overly technical language. Neither do they want to have to say five or six sentences in place of one. This is understandable. However, pastoral rhetoric can and often does use its appeal to the emotions and its claim to rhetorical simplicity as a cover for confusion and even error. To be perfectly honest, it takes more intellectual work to derive the orthodox meaning from Keller’s statements here than it does the heretical meaning. The “common” or “ordinary” listener is most likely to interpret those sentences along objectionable lines. In this case, the simplest interpretation is the wrong one.

I would argue that such a state of affairs is actually not good for pastoral ministry. If a certain mode of communication fails to assist the ordinary reader or listener in grasping proper spiritual truth, but instead leaves them with a false or even dangerous impression, then that communication is not pastorally helpful. It is bad for the care of souls. Pastors should strive as much to be clear and accurate as they do to be convicting or encouraging. These objectives should work together. Good theology is pastorally applicable and good pastoral speech is theologically accurate. We need to unite our theology with our pastoral ministry and vice versa.

Theses Concerning Christ on the Cross

Before we can discuss “how to talk about” Christ on the cross, it is important to state our theological convictions clearly and carefully. In what follows, I would like to give 10 theses explaining the theology of Christ’s experience on the cross and the proper meaning of His cry of dereliction. I am presuming classical Nicene theology and Chalcedonian Christology, as well as the pan-Reformational consensus about Christ’s work of atonement being a vicarious legal satisfaction for sinners. I will give a brief explanation under each affirmation to further illustrate my meaning. Much of my conceptual framework has been drawn directly from the thought of John Calvin, but I have also learned much over the years from Athanasius and Augustine, as well as Zacharius Urinus, Girolamo Zanchi, John Davenant, John Owen, and Thomas Goodwin. Hopefully these statements and discussions will provide further insight on what we are talking about and therefore help us find better ways to say it.

1 Christ’s divine nature remained always as it is, even on the cross: united with the Father and Spirit in perfect communion, being simple, infinite, and unchanging.

This affirmation follows from the basic confession of the deity of Christ. Since Christ’s divine nature is the divine nature, it is the same nature as that of the Father and the Spirit. Christ’s nature is the singular divine nature, existing as the Son in its fullness. Being the divine nature, Christ’s deity was impassible. The eternal Son of God was fully united to His Father and His Spirit while on the cross at Calvary. The Trinitarian Communion remained perfect as it ever was.

2 Christ’s divine nature, being one with the Trinity, was active in the judgment against Christ. Christ’s divine nature possessed wrath which was satisfied by the unified work of atonement in the composite person of Christ.

While this affirmation may sound odd to some, it follows from the doctrine of the inseparable operations of the godhead. There is only one energy in God, and when one person in the Trinity acts, the whole Trinity acts. The various hypostases can take a particular prominence in how this is revealed, and theologians will even talk about the external acts terminating in one person or another. Still, proper Nicene theology maintains that the external operations of God are indivisible and inseparable. The persons or hypostases relate to one another within these acts, moving from the Father, through the Son, and in the Spirit. This applies to all of God’s external actions, and so it applies to the atonement and the judgment carried out upon Christ. This is a great mystery, and yet all of our theology must follow from our theology proper.

Both natures of Christ were active in His mediation and atonement, each working according to their respective attributes. On the cross, both of Christ’s natures must be addressed, and while they worked together, their acts were distinct. Whatever is said about Christ’s human nature is unique to the Second Person of the Godhead. Whatever is said about Christ’s divine nature is common to the Godhead. Thus as unfamiliar as it may sound, it is correct to say that Christ’s deity was acting in unity with the Father in the act of judging the sin which Christ Himself bore. Jesus is not only making atonement to the Father. He is making atonement to God, the Holy Trinity.

This is also true when it comes to the act of satisfying divine justice. Reformation theology does not say that Christ as man satisfies the justice of God but that Christ as godman does so. The divine nature is active in the satisfaction as well. The Westminster Larger Catechism addresses this aspect of the discussion in this way:

Q. 38. Why was it requisite that the mediator should be God?
A. It was requisite that the mediator should be God, that he might sustain and keep the human nature from sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death; give worth and efficacy to his sufferings, obedience, and intercession; and to satisfy God’s justice, procure his favor, purchase a peculiar people, give his Spirit to them, conquer all their enemies, and bring them to everlasting salvation.

Q. 39. Why was it requisite that the mediator should be man?
A. It was requisite that the mediator should be man, that he might advance our nature, perform obedience to the law, suffer and make intercession for us in our nature, have a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; that we might receive the adoption of sons, and have comfort and access with boldness unto the throne of grace.

Q. 40. Why was it requisite that the mediator should be God and man in one person?
A. It was requisite that the mediator, who was to reconcile God and man, should himself be both God and man, and this in one person, that the proper works of each nature might be accepted of God for us, and relied on by us, as the works of the whole person.

Notice that one of the reasons the mediator had to “be God” was “to satisfy God’s justice.” Modern readers might expect this to only apply to Christ’s humanity, but there it is. According to the Westminster Larger Catechism, God satisfied the justice of God. In addition to this, the catechism also affirms that Christ suffers and makes intercession for us in His humanity, having performed obedience to the law in that nature.

3 Christ’s human nature, consisting of body and spirit, was sinless and impeccable, though it bore the common infirmities of its nature, including bodily needs as well as spiritual burdens, and these attributes are demonstrated on the cross.

I have written more about this topic here. Christ was a true man, but He was a perfect man. He had all of the attributes and properties of human nature with none of the sin. Christ could be hungry and even afraid, but He never sinned in the process. He never doubted God. He could have dark moments, but the darkness never caused Christ to lose faith. While expressing the true agony of Hell, Christ could also say, “You will not leave my soul in Sheol, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption” (Ps. 16:10). In fact, He could say, “I have set the Lord always before me; Because He is at my right hand I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoices” (Ps. 16:8-9).

In saying this, we do not in the least denigrate or underemphasize the human sensations, emotions, and passions of Christ. Christ agonized. Christ wept. Christ was on occasion deeply troubled in spirit (John 11:33). He feared and sweat like blood (Luke 22:44). We fallen men cannot understand how such emotions can exist in perfect righteousness without sin, but Christ’s example shows that they can.

4 Christ, in His humanity, always possessed a true faith, trusting God’s love, power, and promise. This was not lost on the Cross.

Reformed theology has historically distinguished itself in it insistence that the humanity of Christ be fully and truly human. Jesus has the full range of human attributes, and these are truly human. One are in which this is seen is in Reformed theology’s affirmation that Christ did indeed possess the virtue of faith, and that His human knowledge grew and developed over time. Bavinck explains, “[Christ] walked by faith and hope, not by sight” (Reformed Dogmatics vol. 3, pg 312). This faith was not a trust in God’s mercy in the face of sin, since Christ had no sin, but it was, in the words of Bavinck, “the act of clinging to the word and promises of God, a holding on to the Invisible One.”

The Scriptures speak of Christ’s faith in several places. Hebrews 3:4 says that Christ was “faithful to Him who appointed Him.” Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus is “the originator and perfecter of our faith” and it goes on to hold Him up as example for how we should use faith to overcome trials and affliction. If we believe that Christ is in some sense the speaker of the messianic psalms, then we can see that He has faith in Psalm 16:1, “Preserve me, O God, for in You I put My trust.” And there is, of course, Psalm 22, the same Psalm Christ chose to quote from the cross. It begins with the lament about being forsaken, but it goes on to say:

All those who see Me ridicule Me;
They shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,
“He trusted in the Lord, let Him rescue Him;
Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!”

But You are He who took Me out of the womb;
You made Me trust while on My mother’s breasts.
I was cast upon You from birth.
From My mother’s womb
You have been My God.

…But You, O Lord, do not be far from Me;
O My Strength, hasten to help Me!
Deliver Me from the sword,
My precious life from the power of the dog.
Save Me from the lion’s mouth
And from the horns of the wild oxen!

You have answered Me. (Ps. 22:7-10, 19-21)

Psalm 22:1 must not be pressed so absolutely that it contradicts Psalm 22:9 or 22:21.

5 Christ’s humanity bore the full wrath of God, in body and soul, as He was reckoned to be a sinner and thus received the full just judgment against sin.

As the Scriptures say, “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities… For the transgressions of My people He was stricken” (Is. 53:5, 8). Also, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13) and “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). 

The “forsaken” feeling that Christ confessed on the cross was the fact of being judged a sinner. He bore the full wrath of God against sin, and that judgment penetrated His body down to His human soul. Christ’s knows this reality from experience.

6 Because of divine simplicity, Christ’s humanity experienced both divine love and divine wrath at the same time on the cross.

As mentioned earlier, whenever we speak of God’s actions, we should strive to connect this to our overall doctrine of God. Thus one problem with saying that Christ “lost” God’s love when He felt God’s wrath is that it supposes that love and wrath are truly different attributes in God. However, God’s attributes are one. His wrath is a reflection of His justice, which is a reflection of His nature. Wrath is simply what happens when sin encounters the presence of God without a mediator. God is just (Is. 45:21, Dan. 9:14, Rom. 3:26, 1 John 3:7). Justice is Who God is. But the same is true for love. God’s love is also a reflection of His nature. As 1 John teaches us, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). God is both justice and love, and He is both simultaneously and coterminously. These attributes can have different effects in the creation, but in God they are one and the same.

As a man, Christ’s experiences were finite. He did not experience all of God’s attributes at the same time and in the same way. When He felt God’s wrath, He did not equally feel God’s love. And yet, in God, the love and wrath were always co-equal. And Christ knew this truth. Indeed, His sacrifice was itself the “bridge” between these attributes. Righteousness and peace kissed. Christ said that the Father loved Him because He would lay down His life for the purpose of taking it up again (John 10:17). Knowing this simple truth in a finite way allowed Christ to have a wholly appropriate yet complex experience on the cross.

7 In His “flesh,” the aspect of His humanity experiencing common afflictions, Christ felt abandoned or forsaken, because He was truly undergoing judgment, and yet He also knew that He was not truly or fully abandoned, as He continued to trust God. Christ’s experience of God’s presence was complex.

Most of the controversy over Christ’s use of Psalm 22:1 has to do with the assumed meaning of “forsaken.” When pastors say things like “Jesus was separated from God” or (worse) “The Father turned His face away,” they rarely explain what they mean. They assume that their people understand “of course” what they can’t possibly be saying, but they feel that they need to use such language in order to be true to the biblical text.

Words are capable of carrying various levels of meaning, however, and when we speak of human experiences, we should also admit that experiences are complex. Humans can have multiple experiences in the same moment, and it is not always easy to “explain” them. In the case of Christ on the Cross, we can say that He both “felt abandoned” and “knew that God would never abandon Him.” In our own lesser experiences, we often feel the potential conflict of these two feelings. If we lose a child, or if some great disaster hits a city, we could imagine ourselves saying, “God has forsaken us,” all the while adding to that, “but I know that He will never leave, nor forsake us.” If we can possess such complex thoughts and feelings, then Christ, in His humanity, could as well. And He did.

Calvin explains this complex reality when he writes, “Though the perception of the flesh would have led him to dread destruction, still in his heart faith remained firm, by which he beheld the presence of God, of whose absence he complains” (Commentary on Matt. 27:46). By “perception of the flesh,” Calvin does not mean that Christ had any kind of sin. Instead he refers to Christ’s human nature which was capable of possessing common weaknesses and afflictions. There is, as Calvin says, a “distinction between the sentiment of nature and the knowledge of faith.” In Christ’s natural emotions and affections perceived God to be “estranged” from Him, and yet, at the same time, Christ continued “to be assured by faith that God was reconciled to him.” All of this is spoken according to Christ’s human nature. He both experienced God being far off from Him and knew that God was with Him. He lacked some natural knowledge, but He possessed the knowledge of faith.

8 In His cry of dereliction, Christ calls God “My God.” At the same hour, Christ also calls God “Father.” This reveals Christ’s state of mind, even at that darkest hour.

To further support the claim that Christ’s experience was complex, we should notice that while feeling forsaken by God, Christ continued to call Him “my God.” He does not express doubt, nor suppose that He has lost His covenantal relationship. And at the same “ninth hour” that He made His famous cry of abandon (Matt. 27:46), Christ also did indeed call God “Father” (Luke 23:44, 46). There was no loss of sonship at the Cross, and Christ knew and believed that God was His Father even in His deep agony.

9 Thus, even in His anguish, Christ’s humanity did not fall into total despair, nor did He lose the fatherly love of God.

There is a difference between sincere grief and despair. Christians will and should grieve. They should never despair. A fundamental characteristic of faith is trusting that God is in control, that God is just, and that God is good. Despite the reality and gravity of affliction, pain, and death, God never stops loving His children. Faith knows what the senses do not. As Calvin again explains, “by the shield of faith He courageously expels that appearance of forsaking which presented itself on the other side” (Commentary on Matt. 27:46).

10 Christ’s experience on the Cross was both totally unique and also an example for believers on how to bear times of darkness and spiritual affliction.

On the Cross, Christ did what we could never do. He bore the full weight of God’s wrath. This experience would have overwhelmed any mortal man. Christ’s divine nature sustained and kept His human nature from “sinking under the infinite wrath of God, and the power of death” (WLC 38). And this was done so that the divine justice against our sins might be satisfied.

And yet Christ is also an example for believers. He shows us how we should bear our crosses in life. Heb. 12:4 says that we have not had as severe a testing and affliction as Christ, and thus we should strive to at least approximate His example. Indeed, Peter uses Christ’s example as a model for how we should bear with unjust persecution (1 Peter 3:17-18, 4:1-2. Christ’s experience on the cross is good and appropriate for pastoral ministry. Believers will have to balance their perception of God’s displeasure against sin with the firm knowledge that He will never stop loving them, nor will He abandon them. It is not possible for them to be separated from the love of God (Rom. 8:35, 38-39). God treats His sons differently than He treats slaves or strangers (Heb. 12:7-8). When the darkness causes us to feel forsaken by God, we should, like Christ, continue to call him “My God” and “Father.” We should continue to trust in Him, knowing that resurrection is more powerful than any death. We too should take the shield of faith and drive out every appearance of darkness.

Because of how Christ bore His judgment, we can bear all affliction.

What Pastors Should And Shouldn’t Say

Having laid out some boundaries and explained further our theological understanding of Christ’s experience of the cross, how might we put this into more practical language? What sorts of things can pastors say about Christ’s cry of abandonment? What shouldn’t they say?

Things that can be said about Christ on the cross:

He was imputed to be a sinner.
He bore the curse of the law and God’s judgment.
He experienced the torture of Hell, even in His soul.
He was abandoned by God.
He was not abandoned by God.

The apparent contradiction of the last two statements shows the potential ambiguity of a word like “abandoned.” It can carry multiple meanings, as we have explained above. And this observation is important. Multiple meanings can be correct, depending on what else is meant and, importantly, what else is understood by the audience. Thus a reasonable estimation of how a word or expression will be interpreted is necessary for effective communication.

Things you can’t say about Christ on the cross:

He lost the Father’s love.
He lost His relationship as Son, or even as beloved Son with whom God was well-pleased.
He doubted God.
He lost faith.
The Trinity was broken.

None of these statements can be correct, even with additional explanation. Even if intended “pastorally,” these statements are still incompatible with orthodoxy. As such, any such pastoral speech can only be equivocal speech.

Other things you can say about Christ on the cross:

He had faith.
He trusted God.
He knew God would be faithful to deliver Him.
The communion of love in the Trinity remained, same as it always is.
Christ’s humanity had a limited but accurate understanding of what was happening.
Christ both knew God’s presence and God’s absence.

This last expression again highlights the complexity of human experience and various meanings of certain terms. The kind of “knowledge” Christ had of God’s presence during the judgment on the cross was the knowledge of faith. His “knowledge” of God’s absence was the knowledge of experience.

Conclusion

Among other things, this essay demonstrates that common expressions like “abandoned,” “forsaken,” “deserted,” and even “know” or “perceive” are not precise terms. They are good and appropriate terms, but they are capable of various meanings. Some of these meanings depend upon other necessary information. And they all depend upon the audience’s understanding.

Pastors understand that religious words need to be explained. This is one reason the pastoral office exists, to teach and explain the content of Scripture. When pastors preach and teach, they should feel free to use Biblical language and expressions, but they should also seek to discover which of those expressions might be confusing to their audience. And when this is discovered, whether through personal experience or collective experience in church history, pastors should use the best tools to give the best explanation. It does mean that they should refine their common language so that it is clear and consistent, so that it reduces misunderstanding. Simply taking pleasure in unclear or provocative speech does not add to anyone’s knowledge, no matter how much “conviction” it may indicate. Good pastoral language should strive to be clear, memorable, motivational, and accurate.

None of this means that pastors can only use technical language. However, they might be surprised at how helpful some technical language can be, and pastors might find themselves consulting such language as they work to craft their own more personal deliveries.

  1. There are some biblical theologians who argue that the concept of “sonship” sometimes refers not to the natural relationship between a father and a son but to the office of king, and they will argue that Christ’s humanity only attained this “son” status at the resurrection. This is a different point, but if one were to hold such a view, they would still not maintain that Jesus lost His sonship. They would say He retained His divine sonship and forfeited its outward manifestation until the resurrection, at which time His humanity received the reward of sonship, thus also making His divine sonship manifest. They would not say that Jesus temporarily lost either sort of sonship on the cross.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.