“O Sorrow Dread! Our God is Dead!”
“For when we were yet without strength, in due time
Christ died for the ungodly.” — Romans 5:6
What do the Holy Scriptures teach us about this “Christ,” this Christ, who “died for the ungodly”? He was from all eternity true God with the Father and the Holy Ghost, as the Evangelist John, by divine inspiration describes Him, the Eternal Word (I John 1:1), in the first words of his Gospel account: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made” (vv. 1-3). Then in “the fulness of the time” (Galatians 4:4), “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This “Word,” the eternal Son of God, took into His divine person human “flesh and blood” (Hebrews 2:14a) at the moment of His conception by “the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 1:20c). From that moment onward, forever and ever, Christ was, is, and will remain true God and true man, “the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), “one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5).
“What two natures, then, are united in Christ?” we ask in our Catechism. And we reply on the basis of Scripture, “The divine and the human natures are united in Christ, both natures together forming one undivided and indivisible person (personal union)” (Luther’s Small Catechism, 1943 Ed., Q/A 128, page 105). This statement is most certainly true, as we see in Colossians 2, verse 9: “In Him [Christ] dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” This unique personal union of Christ Jesus (this one-of-a-kind relationship) was necessary for Him to be the Redeemer and Savior of sinners, “that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver them who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14b-15). Therefore, St. Paul writes to Timothy: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus [the God-Man] came into the world to save sinners” (I Timothy 1:15). This personal union of our Savior and its purpose are evident already in divine prophecy, in the certain promise of Isaiah 9, verse 6: “Unto us a Child is born; unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” This child’s human nature is manifested to men by His birth; yet in His birth “the Mighty God” is revealed, as the Angel Gabriel told Mary in Luke 1, verse 35: “that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God,” so that the divine and human natures perfectly work together as one person for our redemption and salvation.
The title for this article is from the translation of the original German text of Hymn 167, stanza 2, in The Lutheran Hymnal, as it appears in the Evangelical Lutheran Hymn-Book edition of 1924: “O sorrow dread! Our God is dead!” (or more precisely from the German, “God Himself is dead!”). As shown above, this wording is clearly supported by the clear testimony of Scripture. Our title-text, “Christ [the God-Man] died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6), clearly establishes the blessed fact that on the cross of Calvary God died — in the person of Jesus Christ; and the reports of all four Gospel accounts confirm His true death (Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46; John 19:30). First Corinthians 15, verse 3, in child-like simplicity, announces to us that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,” that is, according to prophetic Scriptures penned by divine inspiration even before the fact, such as Isaiah 53, verses 9a and 12c: “He [Christ, the Messiah] made His grave with the wicked and with the rich in His death. …He hath poured out His soul unto death;” and the infallible witness of II Corinthians 5, verse 15, after the fact, is priceless and never-changing: “He [Christ] died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Him which died for them and rose again.”
In the title-text for this article we are told that “Christ died for the ungodly.” Christ Jesus, the God-Man, “died for the ungodly,” for the wicked, for the world of unbelievers by nature, for those who “were yet without strength” to save themselves from the consequences of both their inherited and their actual sins and, according to the original Greek, continued in that weak and helpless state by nature. Who died for them? To the people standing before him, the Apostle Peter, in Acts 3, said: “The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified His Son Jesus, whom ye delivered up and denied Him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go. But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you, and killed the Prince of Life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses” (vv. 13-15).
God allowed His enemies to “crucify the Lord of Glory” (I Corinthians 2:8b) because of “our offenses” (Romans 4:25a), because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23a), that is, not only spiritual death, not only temporal death, but also eternal death, eternal damnation. The Apostle Peter by inspiration of God conveys to us this good news: “Christ [the one God-Man] also hath once suffered for sins, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the spirit” (I Peter 3:18). As unjust, even according to human standards, as the treatment of Christ, the God-Man, was in the final days and hours before His death, yet He was “delivered [into wicked hands] by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Why? The answer comes in the message of Paul in II Corinthians 5, verse 21, the message of Christ’s vicarious or substitutionary atonement for us unworthy and condemned sinners, that God “hath made Him [Christ Jesus, the God-Man] to be sin for us, who [Christ] knew no sin.” This message declares the fulfillment of what God had revealed already in the Old Testament regarding His plan of Redemption, as if it had already been accomplished: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on Him [on Christ, God’s Son] the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6). This was “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ [the God-Man] once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).
Why was it necessary that our Savior, Jesus Christ, be true God in order to accomplish our redemption? First of all, that His substitutionary work of being perfectly and completely obedient to the Law of God would be sufficient for all sinners, that it would fully satisfy God’s demands, and that it would move Him to declare all sinners righteous in His sight (including each of us). Romans 5, verse 19, assures us that “by the obedience of One [Christ Jesus, the God-Man] shall [the] many be made righteous.” Secondly, it was necessary for our Savior, Christ Jesus, to be true God so that the sinless offering of His suffering and death would be a sufficient ransom price to God for the redemption of all sinners (including each of us). First John 2, verse 2, leaves no doubt that Jesus Christ, the God-Man, “is the propitiation [the payment, the ransom price] for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Our Savior assured us that the full and complete ransom price had been paid to God for all sinners when He cried out from the cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30) — “It has been and therefore continues to stand as accomplished!” [from the Greek]. No further payment or satisfaction is required by God for our sins and for anyone else’s sins in the world. Thirdly, it was necessary for our Savior, Christ Jesus, to be true God so that He might be able to overcome and win the everlasting victory over death and over the devil and hell for all sinners (including each of us). The Apostle John sets forth that specific purpose of Christ’s redemptive work when he tells us: “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested that He might destroy the works of the devil” (I John 3:8b); and St. Paul breaks forth into this grateful declaration of Christ’s accomplishment, saying: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the Law; but thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!” (I Corinthians 15:55-57).
The Scriptural assurance of the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work is our great comfort when from God’s Law we realize the enormity of our sin and guilt, know the condemnation and punishment that we deserve, and, with the jailer at Philippi, cry out: “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). We and all mankind, who “have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) are “justified,” that is, forgiven and made right with God, “freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 24). That’s why “Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son [into death], that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish [in eternal death and damnation in hell], but have everlasting life. For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him [through His suffering and death] might be saved. He that believeth on Him is not condemned [for his sins], but he that believeth not is condemned already [for his sins] because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. …He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life, and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:16-18, 36). God imputed the sins of the world to Christ “for us,” in our place, “that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (II Corinthians 5:21). Here we see the everlasting blessings and benefits of His redemptive work because of the fact that “Christ [the God-Man] died for the ungodly.” And we appropriate to ourselves, apprehend or lay hold on for ourselves, and have those priceless blessings for our own, “by faith without the deeds of the Law” (Romans 3:28), by confidence of the heart in the mercy of God to poor sinners in Christ; “for by grace are ye saved through faith, and that, not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” said Paul to the jailer, “and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31).
Out of gratitude to Christ Jesus, the God-Man, Son of God and Son of Man (Matthew 16:13-17), our Redeemer, what do we owe Him for all that He has done for us and for all other sinners in eternity, “The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8b) and for all that He has done for us and for all other sinners in time — “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3-4)? — First, we should express our on-going joyful gratitude to Him, the God-Man, for laying down His sinless life for us and for the whole world of sinners to reconcile us to God (Romans 5:10), so that God no longer imputes (charges) our sins against us. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them, and hath committed unto us the Word of reconciliation” (II Corinthians 5:19). “I am the Good Shepherd; the Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep” (John 10:11). “Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). — Secondly, we should show our continuing love for Him who “first loved us” (I John 4:19) by listening to and following His voice as He speaks to us in the Holy Scriptures. “My sheep hear My voice and I know them, and they follow Me, and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28). “If ye continue in My Word, then are ye My disciples indeed, and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). “If a man love Me, He will keep My words” (John 14:23a). — And thirdly, we should, as thank-offerings to Him for “His unspeakable gift” (II Corinthians 9:15), dedicate ourselves to Him, body and soul, as “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is [our] reasonable service” (Romans 12:1), because “He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves but unto Him which died for them and rose again” (II Corinthians 5:15).
Christ, the Life of all the living, Christ, the death of Death, our foe;
who Thyself for me once giving to the darkest depths of woe;
through Thy sufferings, death, and merit, I eternal life inherit!
Thousand, thousand thanks shall be; dearest Jesus, unto Thee!
Thou, ah, Thou hast taken on Thee bonds and stripes, a cruel rod;
pain and scorn were heaped upon Thee, O Thou sinless Son of God!
Thus didst Thou my soul deliver from the bonds of sin forever.
Thousand, thousand thanks shall be; dearest Jesus, unto Thee!
Then, for all that wrought my pardon, for Thy sorrows deep and sore;
for Thine anguish in the Garden, I will thank Thee evermore;
thank Thee for Thy groaning, sighing, for Thy bleeding and Thy dying,
for that last triumphant cry, and shall praise Thee, Lord, on high!
(TLH 151, 1-2, and 7)
—R. J. L.