Earlier this week, I kicked off this year’s Lent series with a question.
This season, we’ll be meditating on the biblical idea that Jesus, in some mysterious way, was slain in eternity past. And so, I asked what this means for the Cross of Jesus:
Was it an eternal truth breaking into the temporal realm, or was it itself such a powerful event that it echoed backwards and forwards through the past and future?
My vote? Jesus’ suffering and “slain-ness” is an eternal attribute of who he is, and the Cross was this aspect of the nature of God breaking into our reality. The Crucifixion was, in effect, God drawing the curtain back on a heavenly reality that had, until that point, only been hinted at.
I side with this for two main reasons: the essence of God, and the election of God.
the essence of God
The Bible talks about these eternal things that then become present as decrees of God that proceed from him into this world. Just as with the Son, the Holy Spirit, and his Law, those things that proceed from God, proceed from his very essence (that’s a very helpful article I just linked to, by the way).
They are not like our “decrees”. Something outside of us arises, and it causes a desire, and so we decree something so that desire might be fulfilled. God does not work this way. The fact that God does not change by definition means that there are no decrees that would be “added” to God as a situation arose.
We struggle as humans to have our thoughts and actions seamlessly flow from who we most truly are. Something in us knows that the highest of life and being is to do this. We long for that because that is the nature of the God in whose image we’re made.
God’s decrees are a perfect expression of his very eternal essence, not an expression of a desire that’s been added to the life of his affections as time has gone on. Nothing happens on earth that then echoes back and changes God at the essential level of his decrees.
And so to decree that Christ be slain before the foundation of the world is for God to express that there is an aspect of suffering, lamenting, and dying to His very essence.
the election of God
Another way of looking at this idea of Jesus’ eternal suffering and slain-ness, is to say that Jesus was “elected” by God to die. And so how does God elect?
Now, this is where there are some disagreements, but I really don’t believe that election is when God looks down the annals of time, sees something that will be done (or chosen) and then elects something based on that.
This is a confusion of God’s “foreknowledge” and “foresight”. They are not the same thing. God’s “foreknowledge” is not a passive knowledge of future things. Peter says in Acts 4 that the foreknowledge of God is actually what brought the crucifixion of Jesus to pass.
What that means is that “foreknowledge” does not simply know things. It decides things and effectively brings them about.
And “foreknowledge” is intimately tied in Scripture to this idea of God “electing” things. God “foreknowledge-ing” things and then electing them, then, means that God (in an expression of his essence) decrees a future event, the means to bring it about (even if those means are the free will of humans), and then effectively works to make it happen.
And so, Jesus being “slain before the foundation of the world” is not God looking into the future, seeing that Jesus would need to die, and then saying “Hey, Son, I need to elect you to die because you’re going to in the future”. That’s silly.
why should we care?
I’ve tried to write this stuff as briefly, casually, and accessibly as possible. I purposefully didn’t bog the post down with tons of quotes and Scripture references (if you need them, just email me). There is so much more to be said and many rather big implications of what I’m saying that I didn’t tease out at all here.
This is because I wanted to drive home one simple point: suffering and slain-ness are part of the very nature of God, and have been for eternity.
As we move forward talking about the staggering and mind-blowing implications of this truth, I want us to keep in our minds that this is not simply what God has done but it is who He is. What’s more beautiful and secure? Someone does a loving act for you because they have seen you and wants to become the kind of person who loves you, or, they do that act because their very nature is as a lover of you?
This is not a kind of love we can attain (this “loving from essence”), but it’s one that we can experience and taste in the Being of God. He has moved towards us, loved us, and chosen us, not based in any way upon our actions (past, present, or future). He has done this wholly because “to love us” is Who He is.
Who we are, in our essence, is to reject him. Even those of us that might want to love God (and others) are painfully ill-equipped with the more and willful resources to let this freely flow from our nature. Our nature is broken, and when we let our self “flow from its essence”, it flows away from God and to things that will destroy us.
And so, in this season, let us repent in dust and ashes.
Resources used for this post:
- God’s Greater Glory The Exalted God of the Historic Biblical Faith || Bruce Ware
- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance || Bruce Ware
- The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 12: James-Revelation
- Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Vol. 1 || Francis Turretin
- Institutes of the Christian Religion || John Calvin
- Dogmatics, Vol. 1: The Christian Doctrine of God || Emil Brunner
[image credit: “Black Fire” by Barnett Newman] (thanks, Jen Huber)