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The Importance of Christ's Exaltation

As we consider the Day of Atonement and its fulfillment in Christ, we can discern a distinctly cosmic bent to the whole matter. To a certain degree, I try to draw that out in the sermon so that we can appreciate just a bit more the glory of Christ’s atoning sacrifice of himself. I rely heavily on Herman Bavinck’s articulation of the cosmic consequences of Christ’s particular atonement. There is more to be said, though, and there is also a further consequence that I want to take this reflection to present.

Beginning with the cosmic consequences of Christ’s particular atonement, Bavinck turns his attention to its significance for the lost and for creation in general. He begins with a helpful reminder that “although vicarious atonement as the acquisition of salvation in its totality cannot therefore be expanded to include all persons individually, this is not to say that it has no significance for those who are lost.”[1] Indeed,

all human beings owe a great deal to Christ. The light shines in the darkness and illumines every person coming into the world. The world was made through him and remains so, though it did not recognize him. Also as the Christ, he gives to unbelievers many benefits: the call of the gospel, the warning to repent, historical faith, a virtuous life, a variety of gifts and powers, offices and ministries within the church, such as, for example, even the office of an apostle in the case of Judas.[2]

But even beyond humanity, “The liberation of the created world from the bondage of decay, the glorification of creation, the renewal of heaven and earth—all this is the fruit of the cross of Christ (Rom 8:19ff).”[3] Summarizing his points, Bavinck writes, “The whole creation as one day it will stand perfect—without spot or wrinkle—in God’s presence is the work of Christ, the Lord of lords and the King of kings (Heb 12:22-28).”[4]

In Bavinck’s mind, the implication of all of this is that we are impoverished if we only ever dwell on Christ’s atoning work, as though it was the only thing that he has done. We end up having a truncated view of Christ if he is only ever the man of sorrows, only ever considered in his estate of humiliation. But actually, he considers such a view not only truncated but hostile to true faith:

It must be a poor idea of Christ’s person and work that is held by those who believe they can abandon the resurrection, the ascension, and the seating at the right hand of God without injury to faith and life and are content with the historical image of Jesus, which, like that of other great men, lives on and exerts influence in history. On the other hand, it is understandable that those who view Jesus as no more than a particularly pious person and his work as nothing other than a religious-ethical reformation consider the entire state of exaltation worthless for the Christian life and deny and oppose the facts of the resurrection and ascension.[5]

The better way is to recognize that the Lord Jesus Christ is presently exalted at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and to understand his person and his work through the lens of his present and eternal state of exaltation.

This does have a practical impact on our view of Christ, which I want to present by way of the symbol of the cross. While the cross has value as a symbol, its full value has to be appreciated in that it is an empty cross. Beyond matters pertaining to the second commandment, a crucifix, especially in worship, has the strong potential to speak so much of Christ’s humiliation that it comes at the expense of his exaltation. If the Lord Jesus is always hanging on a cross, then there is a risk of theologically fixing him there, never getting to the point when he is off the cross, resurrected, ascended, and seated. To be sure, there is no Christianity without the cross, but there is also no Christianity without an empty cross, i.e. without an exalted Lord.

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 3.470. [2] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3.471. [3] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3.471. [4] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3.473. [5] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 3.473.

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