Comforting Mourners: The Value of Systematic Theology

Matthew Mason’s new weekly Study Hour on the beatitudes runs for five weeks, with a Tuesday option starting on 13th September and a Thursday one starting on 15th. The links to book are here.

‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted’ (Matt. 5:4)

I recently spoke on the Beatitudes at a church weekend away, and was struck by the beauty of this particular beatitude, in the context of much grief in that particular church family. I was also struck afresh by how pastorally helpful the doctrine of divine impassibility, and a Chalcedonian Christology are. This may seem like a counterintuitive claim. Even if we agree (as we should!) that these doctrines are true, we might be inclined to think of them as rather dry, textbook pieces of doctrine: true enough, important to affirm, but lacking pastoral warmth and relevance. 

How could it be helpful to those who are mourning to know that God is not grieved (he is without passions)? Indeed, much theology in the twentieth century argued precisely the opposite: only a God who suffers can comfort us in our grief. Likewise, it might be fascinating for a certain kind of person to pore over the niceties of patristic Christology, but what pastoral benefit could a grieving widow derive from knowing that, in the words of Chalcedon: 

‘the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood… one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten’ is ‘to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son’?

Yet a firm grasp on these theological and Christological truths is vital if we are to offer true, gospel comfort to those who mourn. Orthodox theology proper and Christology is true, and therefore pastorally powerful.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus describes, and invites us to, a flourishing (blessed; makarios) life. As creatures we have our being from, through and to God (Rom. 11:35), who is the blessed (makarios) and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Tim. 6:15). As redeemed creatures of this God, we find our beatitude in the beatific vision of his beatitude (cf. Matt. 5:8). The gospel, by which God brings us in Christ to the bliss of seeing him face to face, is thus ‘the gospel of the glory of the blessed (makarios) God’ (1 Tim. 1:11), the good news of the manifestation of his beauty and blessed presence. Although I didn’t make this inner-biblical verbal connection between our beatitude and God’s beatitude explicit in my preaching, it informed how I framed the comfort Jesus offers to those who mourn.

As Petrus van Mastricht tells us in his superb treatment of God’s beatitude, beatitude is ‘immunity to corruption’, and entails ‘(1) the absence of all evil, (2) the possession and presence of all good in the highest good, and also (3) the enjoyment of it, that is the sense of it and repose and joy in it’. So, for God it entails, ‘the absence of all evil and imperfection, for he is the light in which there is no darkness (1 John 1:5), as well as the perfect enjoyment of his own self, from which there is said to be fulness of joys with his face (Ps. 16:11)’.1 This has profound pastoral significance, offering (suffering) believers great consolation and hope, for ‘the most blessed God is the highest good and so communicative of his blessedness’. And therefore, ‘God is not only blessed in himself, but also more certainly than certain will be for [us believers] the fount of every blessedness’, so that ‘come diseases, come poverty, persecution, death, and any great evil, they will say, “If God be for us, who can be against us”.’2

Only if God is immune from all harm, all lack, all sadness, all suffering—only if he is impassible—can he be beatitude, and so be our beatitude. Only so can he console us in our distress. But because he is beatitude: full of light, joy and bliss, and so fully at rest in the eternal communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he lacks nothing. Because he has and is all life and good in and of himself, he is entirely invulnerable to suffering and harm.

Because divine impassibility is not an immediately accessible term or concept, I decided not to use it in my sermon. Instead, having articulated something of the sorrow of life in a devasted world, in our devastated human nature, I said something roughly like this: 

We are so vulnerable to life in ‘the devastation’ [my preferred term for the fall, following Paul Griffiths].

But the wonderful news is that God is not. He’s not vulnerable. He can’t be harmed or wounded or devastated. He is so full of life and goodness and joy and delight that he isn’t vulnerable and he cannot be hurt. And therefore he can be an ocean of comfort to us in our grief. God is infinitely happy, and so can always console us in our misery. God is perfect light, and so can lighten our darkness.

That is a wonderful comfort, but only because divine impassibility, or apatheia, is not apathy in our debased sense of the word. God is impassible, untouched by suffering. But he is not indifferent to our suffering. And this is where an adequate Christology comes in.

For God—this God—in the Person of his Son, took on human flesh, and in that flesh bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. Here, it’s vitally important, with Chalcedon, to maintain the unity of Christ’s person—the Person of the eternally begotten Son of God, who shares with his Father fully in the divine nature, including the property if impassibility. And also to maintain that he assumed a true human nature, including properties of weakness, vulnerability, and susceptibility to suffering grief: with the children he shared in blood and flesh (Heb. 2:16). It is vital that in maintaining the unity of his person and the indivisibility of his two natures, we don’t thereby confuse the natures: we must preserve their distinctive properties. And, in doing so, a properly articulated Christology offers immeasurable comfort to those who suffer. 

Again, I wanted to avoid technical terminology, but this is roughly how I explained and applied the comfort of the Christ of Chalcedon to those who mourn:

In the incarnation, that God [the one invulnerable to suffering] took on human flesh. The eternally begotten Son of God remained God, and became a man. And what a man! ‘A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. As one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not’ (Is. 53:3). What a remarkable description of such a great and happy God: a man of sorrows. A God who remained fully God. And yet also a man whose life was in some ways defined by, and engulfed in sorrow. Why? Because he bore our griefs and carried our sorrows (53:4). 

At the heart of our understanding of the cross must be the fact that Jesus bore our sins, he bore our guilt, he bore our punishment, in our place. But in bearing our sin, he also bore all the consequences of sin in this devastated world, which includes our suffering and sorrows. What a consolation this is!

But because the man who bore our sorrows was God the Son—the eternally happy God—acting as a man, he couldn’t be destroyed by them. He wasn’t crushed or overwhelmed forever under the weight of all the suffering of the world. No! Our great God carried our sorrows, in order to carry them away.

And so because the Son of God became the man of sorrows, he knows our sorrow from the inside, and he can sympathise in a way no one else can. But because the man of sorrows is the eternal, joyful Son of God, sorrow cannot win: we look to a future with no more mourning or crying. No more pain. Every tear wiped away (Rev. 21). And now we know the comfort of knowing this Jesus.

None of this is terribly clever. It’s roughly, I hope, what most evangelical preachers would do. But hopefully it illustrates that careful attention to biblical and confessional doctrine is not just a cerebral pursuit for egg-heads. It is a vital pastoral necessity. We study theology in order to be better pastors.

1. Theoretico-Practical Theology, 1. 2. 23. V-VI.

2. Theoretico-Practical Theology, 1. 2. 23. XV.