17. Why must he also be true God?
That by the power of His Godhead He might bear in His manhood the burden of God’s wrath,1 and so obtain for 2 and restore to us righteousness and life.3
1 Isaiah 53:8. Acts 2:24. 2John 3:16. Acts 20:28. 3 1 John 1:2.
The sub-text of Satan’s offer, in the garden, was power. You see, the covenant of works offered glorified, everlasting, consummated fellowship with God on condition of absolute submission and obedience to God. Adam had to trust God’s promise and he had to obey. The faith that Adam called to exercise was not like the faith that we, after the fall, are called to exercise. Confusing these two things is one of the great errors of all forms of covenantal moralism (e.g., the self-described “Federal Vision” movement and it appears not infrequently among writers who don’t necessarily identify with the FV movement but who share a common rejection of the historic Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works) is that it conflates Adam’s duty to trust the promise of life made to him with the faith believers after the fall have in Christ the Mediator and substitute, the Last Adam. By confusing these two kinds of faith the moralists become Pelagians, they put us after the fall in the same state as we were before the fall.
Glorified union and communion with the Triune God is a kind of power. It is conferred, derived power but it is real power. The Evil One knew that and thus he offered to us an alternative power without submission to God. It was a false, competing, alternative covenant of works. All we had to do was to submit to him, obey him. Follow him. Trust him. In this way a covenant of works was unavoidable. In his case the offer was not actually life, even if it was ostensibly life. The offer was ostensibly of knowledge but it was actually darkness. He offered an alternative source of power.
Thus, it is significant that we confess that by the power of his deity he, Jesus, God the Son, might bear in his humanity the burden of God’s eternal wrath. Power was offered and power is required. In the beginning only God had the real authority and real power to confer eternal life. The Evil One is a complete liar. That’s one of the more remarkable aspects of the fall: the Evil One is and has always been nothing more than a creature. A powerful and dangerous creature to be avoided and ultimately defeated but a creature nonetheless. No mere creature has ever had the authority or the ability (power) to offer or confer eternal life. Only God has that power and only God has that authority.
It is a great proof of Christ’s deity that he repeatedly offered eternal life on his own authority and on the authority of his Father and in his own name, through faith in himself. Why do you think that was? It infuriated the rabbis (and still does). It seemed like impossible arrogance! But where was that outrage in the garden? It’s quite misplaced. Here, in the incarnation, was a wonderful re-enactment of the Garden drama all over again. God the Son came to us and once again offered eternal life, union, and communion. This time the “condition” (mutatis mutandis) of the offer was not “do this and live” but “whosoever believes in me shall never perish.” The “condition” (sole instrument) was trust (resting and receiving) in the Second Adam, the Final Adam, who would obey for us and who had in himself the power of an indestructible life. This Adam would refuse the temptation of the Evil One. This Adam is once again the Mediator of a covenant—not a covenant of works but a covenant of grace.
Before glory, however, there is death and the business of obtaining righteousness and life for us. The same Son who, in the garden, offered to us consummated glory and life now had to “obtain” or earn for us righteousness and life. Life, of the sort under discussion here, always had to be “obtained.” Adam had to obey, he had to submit in order to receive consummated life. Do you see the difference between life before the fall and life after the fall? Before the fall we had no need of “righteousness” because we were righteous. We confess (because Scripture teaches) that we were created “in righteousness and true holiness.” Now, however, righteousness had to be obtained. That’s why our tradition spoke of a covenant of works or a covenant of life or a covenant of law. The first Adam had to obey the law, to fulfill a covenant of works, to do battle with the Evil One in his Father’s holy place (the garden). He refused and made a false covenant with a false god—who is no god at all.
We should not miss the implied force of the expression “for us.” The “us” there are those who believe. Jesus came for, obeyed for, died for, and was raised for “us,” i.e., those who believe. The intent of the incarnation, actively passive (suffering) obedience and extent of the atonement is not addressed in detail in the catechism but there are clues. Those who struggle with Q. 37 should remember to read it in light of Q. 17 and globally in light of the expression “for us” (QQ. 31, 42, 45, and indeed in Q. 37 itself!). That prepositional phrase communicates a great deal about the original intent of the framers of the catechism and indicates how it ought to be understood today. Truly, the Synod of Dort was not changing Reformed doctrine of but elaborating upon what we already confessed.
Like the First Adam, the Second and Final Adam had to trust his Father but, like the first Adam, the faith he exercised was not the faith that we sinners exercise. The faith he exercised was that his Father’s promise was good, that he would reward his obedient Son with life. The empty tomb and the ascension of Christ are all the evidence we need that our Father’s promise was good. The obedience he rendered to his Father was not, as the moralists would have it, for himself, to qualify himself. He was born qualified! No, as Paul says, he was born of a woman, under the law, for us not for himself.
The faith we exercise is also that the Father will reward us with life if we meet the condition of the covenant but the difference for sinners is that the condition is not “do this and live” but “trust him him who has done for sinners.” The difference between the gospel and its corruption is the difference between saying “do this and live” and “trust him him who has done.” The Mediator makes all the difference but all moralists want us to take our eyes off of the Mediator or they want to make the Mediator just another believer, a mere example. The faith we exercise is not that if we do, God will give but that Jesus, God’s Son, our one Mediator, obeyed for us and that he gives life freely, unconditionally to those who have not done but who trust in him who has done for us.
Jesus, the Second Adam (Rom 5), the Final Adam (1 Cor 15:45) is the life-giving Spirit. He was raised from the dead. He has life in himself to give. He earned the right to give to us life. He has the authority and he has the power and because Adam (and we in him) did not put to death the Evil One the Righteous One had to taste death for us. He did but he also tasted life, on the third day.
Your people will offer themselves freely,
on the day of your power,
in holy garments;
from the womb of the morning,
the dew of your youth will be yours
…He will drink from the brook by the way;
therefore he will lift up his head (Ps 110)