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“‘Tis mystery all, the Immortal died… Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” (Charles Wesley).
These beautiful lyrics by Charles Wesley have been banned in some Chinese Reformed circles.
Did the Son of God really die on the cross? Most Chinese Reformed Christians would say: No. Many, if not most, Chinese teachers of Reformed theology insist that we must not speak of the death of the Son of God on the cross. They maintain that since God is immortal, Christ’s death pertains strictly to his human agency, and the Son of God was completely insulated from Christ’s human experience of death. What they do not realise is the implicit Nestorianism this entails.
As a note of explanation, Nestorianism is the heresy that Christ’s two natures are so distinct from one another, that there is no communication between the two whatsoever. Nestorius himself rejected the term Theotokos (God-bearer) as a description of the Virgin Mary and opted for the term Christotokos (Christ-bearer) instead. The term Theotokos, later adopted by the Definition of Chalcedon, expresses the understanding that the person who entered and came out of Mary’s womb was the person of God the Son, and not a human person. According to Chalcedon, Christ’s two natures are united in the one person of God the Son, not separated into two persons. Nestorius’s teaching of Mary as Christotokos was taken by his opponents to imply that for him, Christ was two natures in two persons, rather than in one person of the Son.
In Chalcedonian vocabulary, persons are the agents that perform actions and undergo experiences, not natures. Christ’s death was indeed human and not divine—God cannot die and never died—and yet Christ underwent human death not as a nature (that would have made no sense) but as a person. If we deny that the person of God the Son really experienced human death, then Christ must have undergone death in another person—a human person—for human nature could not have been the active agent that underwent death. Yet, to separate Christ’s divine and human natures into two persons would be blatantly Nestorian. In other words, to deny that God the Son died on the cross would be to commit the error of Nestorianism.
So did the Son of God die on the cross? The right Reformed answer would be: Yes. Hence the Canons of Dort: “The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin” (Canons of Dort, II.3). This profound statement acknowledges that the Mediator between God and sinners is one person, not two, for otherwise there could have been no satisfaction for sin made to God on behalf of God’s elect in Christ. It acknowledges that Christ underwent human death in his one unabridged person as the Son of God. Indeed, confessional Reformed theology speaks explicitly of “the death of the Son of God” to avoid the heresy of Nestorianism that takes away the salvific significance of Christ’s death.
At the same time, Reformed theologians are careful to honour the Chalcedonian principle of the abiding distinction between Christ’s two natures. Properly speaking, Christ’s death is a human death, as God cannot die and never died. It is only by virtue of the inseparable union of the two natures in the one person of Christ that we can speak, secundum quid, of the death of the Son of God.
John Frame is well-balanced in his presentation of the confessional Reformed view, which sheds light on the dispute among Chinese Reformed Christians: “In his incarnation, the Son suffers injury and loss: physical pain, deprivation, and death… As we have seen, the doctrine of God’s impassibility should not be used to deny that God has emotions, or to deny that God the Son suffers real injury and death on the cross. But God in his transcendent nature cannot be harmed in any way, nor can he suffer loss” (John Frame, Systematic Theology, 417).