Jesus Christ embodies the heights of exaltation, and the depths of humiliation. As the eternal Son, He is the most high God; as Son incarnate, He was meek and lowly of heart (Matt. 11:29). As God, He does all things for His own glory; as man, He did all things for the glory of His Father (John 8:49–50). Christ is the eternal Son of God who became man. The eternal Son of God became the man Christ Jesus to be the Mediator of the covenant of grace.

The Westminster Larger Catechism teaches us that Christ is our Mediator in His states of humiliation and exaltation. Christ’s states are just as important for our salvation as His identity and office as Mediator are. According to questions 46–50, Christ saves us by His humiliation through His conception and birth, through His entire life, through His death, and through His burial. In and through all these things, Christ as our Prophet, Priest, and King acted in our place to remove the miseries of sin and to reconcile us to God in every possible way.

What Was Christ’s Estate of Humiliation?1

Christ’s humiliation encompassed His entirely earthly ministry, spanning from His incarnation to His burial. Christ was “in the form of God” (Phil. 2:6). We have seen in earlier questions of the catechism that this means that He is God equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit. Yet, He did not grasp on to His divine rights. He “emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (v. 7). He who was the “form of God” became the “form of a servant” without ceasing to be the eternal God. If He could lay aside His divine attributes by His incarnation, He would never have been God, because God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.2 The incarnation, instead, consisted in the veiling of His divine glory in human flesh. Paul concludes that “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (v. 8). This included “his conception and birth, life, death, and after his death, until his resurrection.”

If He could lay aside His divine attributes by His incarnation, He would never have been God, because God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.

Becoming man was a great act of humiliation in the humanity of the Son of God, who remained unhumbled and irreducible deity. The circumstances of His birth were lowly (Luke 2:7). His parents gave the offering prescribed for the poor at His circumcision (Lev. 14:22; Luke 2:24). He was persecuted as an infant (Matt. 2:16–18) and throughout His life. He suffered shame, scorn, and ultimately crucifixion (Matt. 27:16–26). Even His burial and His time in the grave were humiliation, since death is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). Death could not ultimately hold the righteous Lord (Acts 2:24). All these aspects of His humiliation were “for our sakes.” Jesus bore the curse of God in every way in His humiliation, so that we might not bear it in any way through our union with Him.

How Did Christ Humble Himself in His Conception and Birth?3

Jesus became man in order to bear the curse of God for sinners. The astonishing fact is that “the Son of God . . . was pleased in the fullness of time to become the Son of Man.” God did not have to save us. Yet God the Son became the man Christ Jesus to save His people from their sins. We have already seen that His mother was poor and that the circumstances of His birth showed “more than ordinary abasement.” His conception and birth are astonishing facts that should lead us to marvel at His glory even in His humiliation.

How Did Christ Humble Himself in His Life? 4

Christ was humiliated for us throughout His life. Herman Witsius (1636–1708) once noted that if we only stress the fact that Christ died on the cross for us, then we make too little of His sufferings for us.5 Christ suffered and obeyed for us throughout His life for us because sin brings miseries to us in this life as well as in the next. Christ obeyed the law for us where we disobeyed it, and He suffered the penalty for our lawbreaking. Christ kept the terms and bore the curse of the covenant of works to fulfill the covenant of redemption and to establish the covenant of grace. By becoming man, He subjected Himself to the law of God and fulfilled it perfectly (Gal. 4:4). God could not be subject to the law; the law reflects His own glorious character. The God-man could and was subjected to the law to save those who were under the law (Gal. 4:5). He bore the indignities of this world and the temptations of Satan. While Satan tempted the first Adam in a garden where Adam had every possible advantage, he tempted Jesus in the wilderness where Jesus had every possible disadvantage (Matt. 4:11). Christ bore the infirmities of the flesh, such as hunger (Mark 11:12), weariness (4:38–40), grief at losing loved ones (John 11:35), betrayal (Ps. 41:9; Luke 22:48), abandonment (John 16:32), being misunderstood (John 14:9), being falsely accused (Mark 14:26), and many other things “common to the nature of man.” Jesus delivers His people from the miseries of sin in this life by bearing the miseries of this life in their place. Jesus transforms our trials, temptations, and sufferings. As many have noted, while Christians and non-Christians suffer many of the same things, there is a difference in the sufferers. “In all these things [Christians] are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).

Jesus became man in order to bear the curse of God for sinners.
How Did Christ Humble Himself in His Death?6

The cross marks the high point of Jesus’ lowliness in His humiliation. We know what love is because Christ “laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). He was lifted up to glorify God when He was lifted up in humiliation on the cross (John 3:14) in order to draw all men to Himself (John 12:32). No one took His life from Him, but He laid down His life of Himself (John 10:18). Yet in God’s sovereign providence, human beings had a role to play. Judas betrayed Him, His disciples forsook Him, the world scorned and rejected Him, and Pilate condemned Him. This is an allusion in the catechism to the Apostles’ Creed. It is important for us to confess in the creed that He “was crucified under Pontius Pilate” because His death was a real historical event that happened under a real historical governor. He not only died under the painful and shameful death of the cross, but He was “tormented by his persecutors,” who scourged Him (John 19:1), spit in His face (Matt. 26:67–68), and plucked out His beard (Isa. 50:6).

Yet, while Christ acted on the cross, and man crucified Christ, God poured out His wrath on the incarnate Son. Jesus “conflicted with the terrors of death and the powers of darkness” in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36–56). He felt and bore the weight of God’s wrath (Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46). While there is no suffering or separation in the Godhead, the God-man was separated from the comfortable presence of God and endured grievous torments in body and soul. Christ suffered according to the human nature, but as a divine-human person. He became a curse for us so that God’s curse fell on Him instead of on us (Gal. 3:13).

We killed Jesus through our sins, Satan killed Him out of hatred, God killed Him in the place of His people.

Although mankind and Satan murdered Christ, Christ laid down His own life and the Father appointed Christ to die for His people. This was why Peter said in a sermon, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). We killed Jesus through our sins, Satan killed Him out of hatred, God killed Him in the place of His people (Isa. 53:10), and Jesus “laid down his life as an offering for sin” for our sakes (Matt. 20:28; John 10:18).

How Was Christ Humiliated After His Death?7

While Jesus was obedient to the point of death on the cross (Phil. 2:8), His humiliation did not stop at His death. Christ was humiliated for us in His burial. He remained in “the state of the dead” for three days (Matt. 12:40). This is the place of the dead, which the Old Testament referred to as “Sheol.” This is why even though people either go to heaven or hell when they die, Ecclesiastes could say: “All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return” (Eccl. 3:20). The catechism says that this is an appropriate reading of the phrase in the Apostles’ Creed that says, “He descended into hell.” Reformed theologians have interpreted the phrase either to refer to the entirety of Christ’s sufferings or to His time in the grave. The authors of the catechism simply note that the second of these options is an acceptable way of understanding the creed and that some have understood it this way. Jesus was buried for us so that He might remove the sting of death for us (1 Cor. 15:55–57).


Jesus said that everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 14:11). Christ’s humiliation takes the sting of the curse from every stage of our lives, including our deaths. There is something glorious in every aspect of Christ’s humiliation as well. The Son of Man was glorified in His death and God was glorified in Him (John 12:23; 13:31). Just as Christ’s humiliation preceded His exaltation, so we must humble ourselves before God can lift us up (1 Peter 5:6). “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5).

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on Christ as Mediator. Previous post. Next post. This post was originally published on November 8, 2021.

  1. “The estate of Christ’s humiliation was that low condition, wherein he for our sakes, emptying himself of his glory, took upon him the form of a servant, in his conception and birth, life, death, and after his death, until his resurrection” (WLC 46). ↩︎
  2. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many liberal theologians taught that Christ “emptied himself” by divesting Himself of divine attributes. This was known as the kenosis theory. This is not only contrary to what we have seen about the person of Christ in treating earlier catechism questions, as well as to the proper interpretation of Philippians 2:5–8, but the Westminster divines would have been unaware of it. ↩︎
  3. “Christ humbled himself in his conception and birth, in that being from all eternity the Son of God, in the bosom of the Father, he was pleased in the fullness of time to become the son of man, made of a woman of low estate, and to be born of her; with divers circumstances of more than ordinary abasement” (WLC 47). ↩︎
  4. “Christ humbled himself in his life, by subjecting himself to the law, which he perfectly fulfilled; and by conflicting with the indignities of this world, temptations of Satan, and infirmities in his flesh, whether common to the nature of man, or particularly accompanying that his low condition” (WLC 48). ↩︎
  5. Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, ed. Joel R Beeke, trans. William Crookshank (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2010), 1:210. ↩︎
  6. “Christ humbled himself in his death, in that having been betrayed by Judas, forsaken by his disciples, scorned and rejected by the world, condemned by Pilate, and tormented by his persecutors; having also conflicted with the terrors of death, and the powers of darkness, felt and borne the weight of God’s wrath, he laid down his life as an offering for sin, enduring the painful, shameful, and cursed death of the cross” (WLC 49). ↩︎
  7. “Christ’s humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath otherwise been expressed in these words, He descended into hell” (WLC 50). ↩︎
  8. For an excellent analysis of the historical and biblical issues surrounding this phrase, see Daniel R. Hyde, In Defense of the Descent: A Response to Contemporary Critics, Explorations in Reformed Confessional Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Reformation Heritage, 2010). ↩︎

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