For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 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, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
- 1 Peter 3:17-22
Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he breaks down gates of bronze
and cuts through bars of iron.
- Psalm 107:15-16
As for you, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
I will free your prisoners from the waterless pit.
- Zechariah 9:11
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
- Isaiah 53:4-6
44. Q. Why is there added: He descended into hell?
A. In my greatest sorrows and temptations I may be assured and comforted that my Lord Jesus Christ, by His unspeakable anguish, pain, terror, and agony, which He endured throughout all His sufferings but especially on the cross, has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.
 Ps. 18:5, 6; 116:3; Matt. 26:36-46; 27:45, 46; Heb. 5:7-10.  Is. 53.
- Heidelberg Catechism, Question 44
“Here we must not omit the descent to hell, which was of no little importance to the accomplishment of redemption. For although it is apparent from the writings of the ancient Fathers, that the clause which now stands in the Creed was not formerly so much used in the churches, still, in giving a summary of doctrine, a place must be assigned to it, as containing a matter of great importance which ought not by any means to be disregarded. Indeed, some of the ancient Fathers do not omit it, and hence we may conjecture, that having been inserted in the Creed after a considerable lapse of time, it came into use in the Church not immediately but by degrees.
“That Christ descended to the souls of the Patriarchs who died under the law, to announce his accomplished redemption, and bring them out of the prison in which they were confined. To this effect they wrest the passage in the Psalms, ‘He hath broken the gates of brass, and cut the bars of iron in sunder’ (Ps. Cvii. 16); and also the passage in Zechariah, ‘I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water’ (Zech. ix. 11). … I readily admit that Christ illumined them by power of his Spirit, enabling them to perceive that the grace of which they had only had a foretaste was then manifested to the world. And to this not improbably the passage of Peter may be applied, wherein he says, that Christ ‘went and preached to the spirits that were in prison’ (or rather ‘a watch-tower’) (1 Pet. iii. 19).
“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 judgment, 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.”
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (translated by Henry Beveridge)
Right after this last sentence in Calvin’s Institutes, he starts breaking down Isaiah 53:5, of Christ being punished by God, pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities. Note that the exposition of the 44th question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism, that the reasons for believing that Jesus descended into hell, was essentially Isaiah 53, the entire chapter.
Of all the things that I could have written about in the 280 pages of Calvin’s document since last week’s installment, why did I pick the descent into hell? It is quite simple. When I grew up in the Presbyterian faith, we said the Apostle’s Creed practically every Sunday, with switching it to the Nicene Creed on rare occasions for variety. We always said, “He descended into hell,” but then I visited another church that omitted that line. I was told, after questioning why the line was omitted, that some churches thought that the Biblical background was a bit weak (even Calvin admits that the concept is not spelled out plainly, only by inference) and some people thought the line to be too stern (part of the watering down of the faith, and moving away from Biblical teaching).
I was puzzled. In my young mind at a very early age, probably single digit in years, I understood the line, just as Calvin did in the last paragraph that is quoted above. Jesus did not just die. We all die. Jesus had to go to hell if He were to pay the penalty for our sin. I have heard many pastors argue against that concept, but I find solace in what Calvin said, backing up the child-like belief of my youth.
And I also find solace that this phenomenon of modifying the Creeds of the church is not a new thing. We continually have our Josiah moments (2 Kings 22) when the ancient scrolls are found in some footlocker somewhere and we must rend our garments in shame for moving away from a strict belief in God’s Holy Word. This one line in the Apostle’s Creed has been in, then out, then in, then out, and now, for our church among many, in again.
And how it got there is a story of its own. We had a Thursday night Bible study led by an ordained pastor at the church. Only two of those attending were ruling elders, on the session of the church, although there were over 20 elders on the session and the Bible study was suggested as part of understanding church leadership. After finishing one study, it was decided that we would study the Heidelberg Catechism next. We would even look up the Scripture references for each question. In other words, we were digging deep in the Scriptures. These Catechisms, Confessions, and Creeds that some denominations use are not adding something to the Bible, but explaining what is meant by certain things within the Bible. Not adding but illuminating and explaining.
When we got around to the Apostle’s Creed, the other elder attending the Bible study asked about why this line was omitted from our reciting of the Creed at the worship services. I had been a member of the denomination since the early 60s and had attended churches that had the line or omitted the line. My view was that those within the church who wanted to keep church attendance and membership up at any cost were watering down what the church believed and this line in the Creed was one among many things jettisoned in the hopes of attracting people to the church. The pastor who led the Bible study used the above Scriptures from Psalm 107, Zechariah 9, and 1 Peter 3, along with the logical argument in Calvin’s middle paragraph above, where all three Scriptures are mentioned.
At the next session meeting, the other elder suggested we correct the egregious error of omitting “He descended into hell” from our liturgy when we say the Apostle’s Creed. He quoted the necessary Scripture, and I seconded his motion. There was anger and hatred that spewed from the money people on the session. They demanded a full investigation. The pastor looked at those who were arguing for and against and figured it was going to be a 50:50 decision and many would feel betrayed. So, in true liberal fashion, the pastor (not a liberal pastor, but one who understood church politics) buried the proposal in committee, a committee led by one of the liberals that did not want the subject brought forward ever again, thus killing the proposal forever, or so it seemed.
That pastor left, we went through a prolonged period with an interim pastor during which time I left the ruling body, and then we finally got a new senior pastor. The head of the pastor nominating committee leaned into me at a meeting and whispered that I was going to like the new pastor. Even though this guy was my best friend, I still had my doubts, until we had church communion on the 3rd or 4th Sunday that the new pastor preached. We said the Apostle’s Creed and “He descended into hell” was right there in the middle of the Creed. My friend was wrong. I loved the new pastor. He did not ask the session ‘by your leave.’ He simply used the Creed as was originally written, or at least translated into English. The congregation stumbled. Most of the congregation just did not say the line. I was laughing, softly, quietly. I was no longer a ruling elder, but one small defeat at a meeting was now turned to victory.
While Calvin argues that with or without the Creed, the concept is necessary for redemption, this trip down memory lane reminds me that prayer works and God’s power is greater than anything that mankind or this world can muster.
If you like these Tuesday morning essays about philosophy and other “heavy topics,” but you think you missed a few, you can use this LINK. I have set up a page off the home page for links to these Tuesday morning posts. I will continue to modify the page as I add more.
Soli Deo Gloria. Only to God be the Glory.
Wow I read this with intense interests. You are the most Confessional abiding member of the PCUSA that I know!
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