Holy Saturday and Christ’s time in the grave doesn’t have many texts in the New Testament. In fact, the accounts mostly just skip from the crucifixion, the accounts of his burial on Good Friday, through to eyewitness accounts of the Easter Sunday appearances. And yet, the truth of Holy Saturday–the burial of Jesus–is given to us as of particular, gospel significance for us in a couple of place (Romans 6:1-4; 1 Corinthians 15:4). Following these texts, it is even enshrined in the Apostles’ Creed, “He was dead and buried.” What is the significance of his time as a dead man, buried in the ground? What does it mean for us that the Son of God lay in a cold tomb that Saturday, before bursting free from its chains the next morning?
In the Institutes (II.xvi.7), Calvin comments that there is a twofold blessing given to us in Christ’s death and burial: “liberation from the death to which we had been bound, and mortification of our flesh.” In other words, Christ’s tomb is the birthplace of our victory and holiness. Calvin elaborates on the first benefit in this way:
Here again is to be seen how he in every respect took our place to pay the price of our redemption. Death held us captive under its yoke; Christ, in our stead, gave himself over to its power to deliver us from it. So the apostle understands it when he writes: “He tasted death for everyone” [Hebrews 2:9 p.]. By dying, he ensured that we would not die, of — which is the same thing — redeemed us to life by his own death. He differed from us, however, in this respect: he let himself be swallowed up by death, as it were, not to be engulfed in its abyss, but rather to engulf it [cf. 1 Peter 3:22, Vg.] that must soon have engulfed us; he let himself be subjected to it, not to be overwhelmed by its power, but rather to lay it low, when it was threatening us and exulting, over our fallen state. Finally, his purpose was “that through death he might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” [Hebrews 2:14-15]. This is the first fruit that his death brought to us.
For Calvin, Christ destroyed the power of death, by dying and disarming it from the inside. Echoing the Fathers, he speaks of Christ engulfing the death that would have engulfed him. In this way, he not only conquers death, but the author of death, Satan. By assuming responsibility for our sin and suffering the curse on our behalf, he exhausts its power over us, liberating us from the claims of death. Though he committed his spirit to the Father and was with him in paradise that day (Luke 23:43-46), looking at the stone rolled in front of the tomb on Holy Saturday, we see that Christ truly tasted death on our behalf. (By the way, for those of you paying attention, this is Calvin doing the Christus Victor element of atonement, right alongside penal substitution.)
But there is a second benefit for us in Christ’s death and burial:
The second effect of Christ’s death upon us is this: by our participation in it, his death mortifies our earthly members so that they may no longer perform their functions; and it kills the old man in us that he may not flourish and bear fruit. Christ’s burial has the same effect: we ourselves as partakers in it are buried with him to sin. The apostle teaches that “we have been united with Christ in the likeness of his death” [Romans 6:5], and “buried with him …into the death” of sin [Romans 6:4]; that “by his cross the world has been crucified to us, and we to the world” [Galatians 2:19; 6:14 p.]; that we have died together with him [Colossians 3:3]. By these statements Paul not only exhorts us to exhibit an example of Christ’s death but declares that there inheres in it an efficacy which ought to be manifest in all Christians, unless they intend to render his death useless and unfruitful.
Christ’s death and burial is not just something that happens outside of us. I affirm a form of penal substitution such that Christ really does something for us, on our behalf, in our place, that we cannot do for ourselves. All the same, while Christ’s death means we no longer have to die in such a way that we are separated from God, it does not mean there is no death for us. In fact, for those of us who place our faith in him, it means that Christ’s death was our death–the death of our old, sinful nature. All that I’ve been, all that I was, my sins, my failures, my shame, my guilts, my God-denying habits and lifestyle, my lusts, my pride, my insecurities and sin-inducing fears, all have been put to death in the death of Christ and buried along with him in that tomb.
Following Paul, Calvin says we need to know that when we stare at the stone closed over the door of the tomb on Holy Saturday, Christ is forging the foundation of our present and future holiness. Because Christ was dead and buried, I no longer have to live in the clutches of my old life. The World and all of its claims to authority over my life, as well as the inner drives that I feel powerfully threatening to rule over me, have been killed, shoved into the grave and left there. In fact, by union with Christ, his death is not only just an example, but there is a power, an “efficacy”, in it that floods into our lives, purging us of sin and bringing a new life of holiness to be displayed before all. What marvelous good news!
Of course, the reality is that on that first Holy Saturday, nobody saw that. Most of Christ’s disciples were in hiding or observing the Sabbath. The only people around were the guards, who were probably sitting there bored, wondering why they had to guard some fool peasant’s tomb. And that is the way of it much of the time in our own lives, isn’t it? Though we live post-Resurrection, with the Gospel publicly proclaimed before the world, it still can feel quite hidden. Christ has conquered death, but we still see people dying. Christ has put the old man to death, but it feels like he’s still ruling.
Holy Saturday is the reminder that despite all appearances to the contrary, Christ has liberated us from the clutches of sin and death.
Soli Deo Gloria