Posted by: stpowen | December 17, 2015

The Presence of God and the Desertion of Christ

The Presence of God and the Forsaking of Christ

Hebrews 13:5.  ‘For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”’

Matt. 27:46. ‘And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying…….., “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me.”’

Over the past week or two I have been engaged in discussions of a Christian discussion forum concerning the doctrine of Penal Substitution and in what sense God the Father forsook Jesus on the cross.  I have been rather surprised at the lack of understanding, even by some intelligent-seeming people on the forums, so I have thought that it might be helpful to rehearse some of the arguments here in case these doctrines are less well known and accepted that I had supposed.

I want to start first with the question of the presence of God.  This can be understood in four ways.

Firstly, God is everywhere; He is ‘omni-present.’  This is one of His ‘incommunicable attributes,’ meaning that it is something that He is that mankind never can be.  ‘”Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Says the LORD’ (Jer. 23:24).  The Locus Classicus for this doctrine is Psalm 139:7-12, but it is found all through the Bible.  God is not only present in this sense with believers, but with all mankind.   Paul could tell the pagan philosophers in Athens, “…..He is not far from each one of us’ (Acts 17:27).  I have heard atheists joke that at least in hell they won’t be bothered with God any more, but that isn’t strictly true.  They will indeed know nothing of His blessing or His guidance through all eternity, but that does not mean that they will be free of Him.  ‘’If anyone worships the beast and his image………he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb’ (Rev. 14:9-10).

Secondly, there was the Shekinah Glory which was the visible presence of God in the Pillar of Cloud and the Pillar of Fire that led the Israelites through the desert (Exod. 13:21-22).  In Exodus 33, Moses pleaded with God not to withdraw His presence from the people.  “If Your presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here.  For how then will it be known that Your people and I have found grace in Your sight unless You go with us?” (vs. 15-16).  It was also the presence of God in the Temple (2 Chron. 7:1-2) until Ezekiel saw it withdraw shortly before the destruction of the Temple because of the sins of the Israelites (Ezek. 10).  This glory was something external to the people.  God had made His dwelling-place among them, but not within them, and it had no power to conform them to God’s righteous requirements and therefore they fell into sin.

Thirdly, God indwells His people today (John 14:23-24).  When someone is born again, God makes His home within his heart by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19).  This is not necessarily something experiential, but it is permanent and unchangeable, ‘For He Himself has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you”’ (Heb. 13:5), and, ‘The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’ (Rom. 11:29).  This presence of God is not confined to the New Testament.  The O.T. saints who looked forward to the coming of the Messiah also possessed it.  When David had committed sins for which the Mosaic Law offered no forgiveness (Lev. 15:30-31), He was able to go directly to God and plead for mercy (Psalm 51).

Fourthly, there is the felt presence of God; our experience of God’s indwelling. ‘For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.”  The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God’ (Rom. 8:15-16).  The Christian should ‘walk in the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:16)- that is, he should live his life in the consciousness of being a child of God.  But there are times when the Holy Spirit comes alongside us and whispers to us, “You believe you are a child of God?  Well, I’m telling you that you are one.”

So is this felt presence of God something that is regular and permanent, or does it come and go?  Well, I think the experience of the saints is that God sometimes seems very near, and sometimes distressingly far away.  The Psalmist cries out, “Return, O LORD!  How long [will it be]?” (Psalm 90:13).  There would be no point in asking God to return, if He was always present in exactly the same way.  We are instructed, ‘Draw near to God and He will draw near to you’ (James 4:8).  How could God draw near if He is always at the same distance?  Is it not your own experience, if you are a Christian, that sometimes God seems so near that praise and prayer and worship just pours out of you, but at other times, and all too  often, the heavens seem as brass and you have to push yourself to express your love to God as you should?  This lack of, and yearning for, experiential fellowship with God is found in Psalm 42.  ‘As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and appear before God?’  When David fell into sin, he lost the close fellowship with God that he had known.  He could not lose God altogether, but he had lost His felt presence.  Therefore he cried out, “Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me by Your generous Spirit’ (Psalm 51:11-12).

Very often the loss of God’s felt presence is our own fault.  As James 4:8 suggests, it is we who have wandered away from Him into our own Bypath Meadows, and quenched the Holy Spirit (1 Thes. 5:19) by our worldliness, or grieved Him (Eph. 4:30) by our petty sins and perfunctory repentance.  The Holy Spirit is just that- holy.  He will not remain in close contact where there is sin without true repentance.  This temporary withdrawal is designed to bring the errant Christian back to Him.  ‘For His anger is but for a moment; His favour is for life; weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning’ (Psalm 30:5).

But at other times, the loss of this experiential relationship with God has nothing to do with our sinfulness.  It seems that God at times withdraws His felt presence from us to test us, so that we may know what it is truly to walk by faith.  ‘The crucible for silver and the furnace for gold, but the LORD tests the hearts’ (Prov. 17:3).  When God seems so far away, will we trust in Him and worship Him still in spirit and in truth, or will we seek substitutes for Him as the Israelites did with the golden calf?  ‘Who among you fears the LORD?  Who obeys the voice of His Servant?  Who walks in darkness and has no light?  Let Him trust in the name of the LORD and rely upon his God.  Look, all you who kindle a fire; who encircle yourselves with sparks:  walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks you have kindled- this you shall have from My hand: you shall lie down in torment’ (Isaiah 50:10-11).

So let us now turn our minds to the words of the Lord Jesus Christ upon the cross.  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’  In what way was our Lord forsaken by the Father?  Surely it can only be in in the way of the loss of the Father’s felt presence.  It goes without saying that the three Persons of the Trinity must always have enjoyed the closest relationship.  ‘He [Christ] was in the beginning with God’ (John 1:2).  ‘When He marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside Him as a master craftsman; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him’ (Prov. 8:29-30).   And the Lord Jesus could say, “And He who sent Me is with Me.  The Father has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that please Him’ (John 8:29; cf. also John 16:32; 17:23-26).

But there on the cross, the Son is left utterly alone.   Why did The Father remove His felt presence from Him?  Was it to test Him?  Or was it because of sin?  Without doubt it was the latter.  God had no reason to test His Son, although He was indeed tested when He faced the devil in the desert and resisted Him faithfully.  No, it was because of sin that the Father forsook His sinless Son.  He was the sin-bearer;  ‘For [God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him’ (2 Cor. 5:21).  There on the cross, God laid all our sins upon the Saviour’s sinless shoulders and He paid the penalty in full.  Part of that penalty is separation from God.  ‘These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power’ (2 Thes. 1:9).  As described earlier, the wicked in hell will know nothing of God’s presence but His abiding wrath.  This is the sentence we all deserve (Rom. 3:9), and so Christ endured upon the cross something He had never known before- utter loneliness; the silence of heaven; total separation from His Father.  He endured our hell that we might gain His heaven, saved by grace at measureless cost.  Because He was deserted, His people will never be deserted.  Because He has suffered, not one of those for whom He died will undergo the suffering their sins deserve.  What a Saviour, who, when there was nothing in us to recommend us to Him, ‘died for the ungodly’ (Rom. 5:6).  What a God, ‘who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us  all’ (Rom. 8:32).


  1. I have always thought Jesus’ use of Psalm 22 on the cross interesting, not because of the bit that he said, but because of the rest of it which he did not. Those listening, brought up in a way alien to us, would instinctively have known where the Psalm ends up, and that despite its statement of ‘apparent’ abandonment by God it concludes with a statement of praise for God and of salvation found in God alone.

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