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Does Jesus Still Sympathize with Sinners?

The Compassion of the Risen Christ

ABSTRACT: In his exalted state, the risen Christ no longer suffers pain or distress; immortal and impassible, he dwells in heaven with perfected affections, no longer burdened by the sorrows he felt as he walked among us. Nevertheless, as a faithful high priest, he still feels deep compassion for his tempted and suffering people. This glorified compassion, far from detracting from the good news of Christ’s high priesthood, gives great hope to those who need his compassion most. For though Christ is not distressed by his people’s distresses, he is moved by them, and the compassion he offers is a powerful sympathy, supplying all the grace his people lack in all their times of need, until they finally dwell perfected with him.

During Christ’s life on earth, from the womb to the tomb, he lived what theologians call a “life of humiliation.” There are many aspects to his humiliation, his suffering chief among them. Keeping in mind that we are talking about a person who is the Lord of glory (James 2:1), the beautiful and glorious one (Isaiah 4:2), the radiance of God’s glory (Hebrews 1:3), full of grace and truth (John 1:14), it is remarkable that he was also at one time “a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people” (Psalm 22:6). Our Lord was “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).

His sorrows and griefs were ordained by his Father for a time to equip him to be a complete Savior — a faithful high priest. As Stephen Charnock once wrote, “He was a man of sorrows, that he might be a man of compassions.”1 The author of Hebrews makes this plain to us:

He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:17–18)

Christ’s sufferings, temptations, trials, and other sorrows during his life of humiliation enable him now to be a “merciful and faithful high priest” toward his brothers (Hebrews 2:11). And indeed, he is now in heaven what he was on earth: compassionate, merciful, and sympathetic. In his classic essay The Emotional Life of our Lord, B.B. Warfield makes the claim that the “emotion which we should naturally expect to find most frequently attributed to that Jesus whose whole life was a mission of mercy, and whose ministry was so marked by deeds of beneficence . . . is no doubt ‘compassion.’ In point of fact, this is the emotion which is most frequently attributed to him.”2 The compassion of Christ toward his bride is integral to his faithful calling as a high priest.

But an important question arises from this consideration of our Lord as a compassionate high priest — namely, How do his human compassions differ in his state of exaltation compared to when he lived on earth and showed mercy and compassion as a fellow sufferer? Is Christ pained at our pains in his state of glory, or is he now, according to his human nature, impassible — that is, no longer able to suffer? If he no longer suffers, is this good news for us in terms of his compassion toward us?

Our Lord’s Sympathy in Heaven

In one of the greatest works of pastoral Christology ever written in the English language, The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth, Thomas Goodwin addresses the human nature of Christ in relation to his sympathy and compassion toward sinners, in both his state of humiliation and his state of exaltation.

Christ’s affections, according to his manhood, are personal properties of his person in both his state of humiliation and his state of exaltation, though with some important differences. The differences and similarities between Christ’s affections in both states are due largely to Christ’s resurrected body being a “spiritual” body: “It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44). By “spiritual,” Paul does not mean the body is now immaterial, but rather that the body arrives at its goal of being fully animated and perfected by the Holy Spirit.

“There is now no weakness to characterize Christ as there once was in his state of humiliation.”

Jesus did not lose or shed his humanity upon his ascension into heaven, but rather his resurrected body is now “powerful” (i.e., Spirit-animated): “[He] was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). Paul does not mean to say that only his flesh is powerful, but that his human nature, consisting of both body and soul, is powerful; there is now no weakness to characterize Christ as there once was in his state of humiliation. Christ’s affections are “spiritual” because they belong to his spiritual body. Charnock notes that his resurrection body was made immortal, “and had new qualities conferred upon it, whereby it had acquired an incorruptible life.”3 His body is a “glorious body” (Philippians 3:21).

The affection of loving, faithful compassion — of being able to sympathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15) — is not merely metaphorical. In reference to God, especially in the Old Testament, the affection of sympathy is indeed metaphorical, based on anthropomorphic speech, because God in his essence cannot sympathize with humans since he is not a human. God cannot suffer in order to sympathize with our suffering. However, since Jesus is still truly human, his compassion and sympathy are truly human. We cannot therefore explain them as only metaphorical in his state of glory. What then can we say of the compassion of the glorified Christ toward sinners on earth?

The sympathy Christ shows toward us is not merely based on a past remembrance he has of his own temptations and sufferings, though it does include that. Rather, his affection is a present affection that leads to an ongoing compassion to those who need it. It is true and real; in fact, after asking how far and deep this affection reaches toward us, Goodwin says, “I think no man in this life can fathom.”4 His desire to help us does not, however, cause him any harm or suffering.

To understand this affection in glory more fully, Goodwin sets forth, using his scholastic apparatus (in a pastoral work), the matter negatively, positively, and privatively.

Impassible and Immortal

Negatively speaking, as noted above, the sympathy Christ now possesses toward his bride on earth is not completely synonymous with the compassion he had while living and suffering among us. In Hebrews 5:7, we read of Jesus “in the days of his flesh,” when he prayed with “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). The “days of his flesh” refers not so much to the fact that he lived as human, but to “the frail quality of subjection to mortality”5 — that is, to the days before his glorification. Since he no longer can be said to be living “in the days of his flesh,” there is no need for loud cries or tears.

Also commenting on Hebrews 5:7, John Owen observes that Christ “is no more in a state of weakness and temptation; the days of his flesh are past and gone.”6 While he still possesses a “compassionate sense upon his holy soul of the . . . distresses” that we undergo on earth, he is free of temptations now.7 And while many still mock and ridicule his name, “He is far above, out of the reach of all his enemies. . . . There is none of them but he can crush at his pleasure.”8 This was not always so, of course; in his “days of flesh” he was subject to the cruel physical brutality of his enemies (Matthew 27:30–31). But now he is both impassible and immortal.

Glorified Affections

Positively speaking, the affections in his glorified humanity work not only in his soul but also in his body. The affections of Christ are truly human, but they arise from a body-soul composite, not just from one or the other. According to Goodwin, Christ’s body is “so framed to the soul that both itself and all the operations of all the powers in it are immediately and entirely at the arbitrary imperium and dominion of the soul.”9 That is to say, the infirmities that Christ possessed on earth during his humiliation, including hunger, weakness, and sadness, do not affect his soul now in glory because his body has been raised in power. He cannot suffer like he did in the wilderness temptation because he is not in the wilderness and does not have a body that is subject to wilderness pain!

Perfected Compassion

Owen likewise affirms that all the perfections that Christ’s humanity is capable of, in both body and soul, belong to Christ in glory. Retaining the same body that was formed in the womb of the virgin, Christ’s human nature remains truly human and therefore finite. His body now is the most glorious body that can be conceived, for the fullness of the Spirit dwells in him, and the glories of the deity, by virtue of the hypostatic union, shine forth. Owen says of Christ’s glorified humanity that it is “filled with all the divine graces and perfections whereof a limited, creature nature is capable. It is not deified.”10 Love is the highest perfection a creature can receive from God, and so Christ’s love, exhibited in many ways, including that of compassion, is heightened, not lessened, by his entrance into glory.

Goodwin explains that Christ’s affections (e.g., compassion, sympathy) move his “bowels and affect his bodily heart” both in his states of humiliation and exaltation.11 Yet there is an important difference: his affections in heaven “do not afflict and perturb him in the least, nor become a burden and a load unto his Spirit, so as to make him sorrowful or heavy.”12

In heaven, we will not suffer. We will be impassible. Christ, who has already undergone his glorification, cannot suffer now. While he is still sympathetic toward us, his glorification “corrects and amends the imperfection of [his affections].”13 “Perfected affections” now belong to Christ. When we are glorified, we too shall have perfected affections. Nothing indecent or unbefitting of a state of glory will accompany our affections in heaven. Sadness is an affection, sometimes entirely appropriate to this world. But sadness will not be appropriate in heaven because there will be no reason for sadness (Revelation 21:4).

Man of Succors

Adam, in his state of innocence, was endowed with natural affections. He loved, desired, and rejoiced, for example. Because he was created in holiness and righteousness, his natural affections did not have the taint of sin, but his reason allowed him to channel his desires to their appropriate end — until, of course, he sinned. Until that point, Adam did not possess the affection of grief because there was no reason for him to grieve. But he had the affection of joy because God was his end.

As a Savior of his people, Christ’s affections must be channeled to their appropriate end. He delights to be a Savior to his people, and so his affections of compassion in glory “quicken and provoke him to our help and succour.”14 Jesus was once a “man of sorrows,” but now he is no longer that. Instead, he is a “man of succors” (a man of reliefs) to his people.

On earth, the church goes through many trials and tribulations. We are people of sorrows because we are following in the footsteps of our Savior. He suffered in various ways while on earth, and so do we. We cannot escape this reality until we go to be with him in glory. Christ understands this about our condition in this world because he once lived in this world of sin and misery. Therefore, as a merciful high priest, he necessarily possesses affections suitable to our condition while he is in heaven.

If heaven were suited only for Christ’s personal happiness, then there would be no need for Christ to possess the affections of sympathy and mercy. But as Goodwin observes, Christ’s relationship to his people is a part of his glory. Therefore, these types of affections are required to be in him if he is to be a good husband to his bride. Moreover, far from being a weakness, Christ’s affections of pity and mercy are his strength. “It is his glory to be truly and really, even as a man, sensible of all our miseries, yea, it were his imperfection if he were not.”15

Enlarged and Undivided

The beauty and glory of good Christology emerges precisely at this point. Though Christ has shed affections that were once a burden to him and are thus not compatible or suitable to his state in heaven, there are nonetheless other affections that possess a “greater capaciousness, vastness” that more than make up for his lack of the former affections. In fact, Goodwin argues that just as Christ’s knowledge was “enlarged” in heaven, “so his human affections of love and pity are enlarged in solidity, strength, and reality. . . . Christ’s affections of love are as large as his knowledge or his power.”16 It was to our advantage that Christ ascended into the heavenly places.

Another way to look at this would be to argue that, since Christ is freed from oppressive affections, it gives greater scope to his effective affections — being free from grief allows you to be more compassionate. So, for example, when you yourself are desperately hungry, other people’s problems don’t receive your best attention because you have your own worries. When Christ was being attacked in the wilderness by the devil, he was not in towns and villages healing diseases.

Fullness of Joy Now and Later

Privatively speaking, if in the heart of Christ he is no longer suffering, how can we explain his joy being full when he knows full well that those he loves on earth are suffering and being tempted? Surely Christ will have a greater fullness of joy in his heart when we are fully glorified and in his presence?

There are two ways of looking at Christ’s fullness of joy in heaven as he shows compassion to us on earth. Christ has what Goodwin calls a “double capacity of glory, or a double fulness of joy.”17 One belongs to his person as God-man, “as in himself alone”; the other is “additional, and arising from the completed happiness and glory of his whole church.”18 Until all his people are fully glorified, Jesus “remains under some kind of imperfection.” In the same way, when we depart from this world to be with the Lord, we are away from our body and await the reunion of soul and body. This is a type of imperfection in us until we receive our resurrected body. From this, Goodwin reasons, “Although Christ in his own person be complete in happiness, yet in relation to his members he is imperfect, and so accordingly hath affections suited unto this his relation, which is no derogation from him at all.”19

Christ desires that we should see his glory (John 17:24), and until that prayer is answered there is some desire and expectation that is unfulfilled. When we all receive the answer to Christ’s prayer, he will receive a greater glory in relation to his bride. Because, however, he knows when this will all happen, and the certainty of it happening is infallibly known to him, he does not possess any anxiety or distress concerning its accomplishment. So, again, his perfected affections in heaven are a result of his perfected knowledge of all things that will be accomplished according to their intended ends.

His Proper Abode

Heaven is the only suitable place for the Lord in his resurrected glory. A perfected, glorified body requires a perfected, glorified place to dwell. As Charnock memorably wrote, “The most perfect body . . . should be taken up into the most perfect place.”20 True, in his life of humiliation, he had a body suitable to the condition in which he lived and the work required of him; but as Charnock says,

When he had put off his grave-clothes, and was stripped of that old furniture, and enriched with new and heavenly qualities, heaven was the most proper place for his residence. Again, had the earth been a proper place for him, it was not fit the Divinity should stoop to reside in the proper place of the humanity, but the humanity be fetched up to the proper place of the Deity, where the Deity doth manifest itself in the glory of its nature. The lesser should wait upon the greater, and the younger serve the elder.21

“That he no longer suffers is our hope that one day we will join with him.”

The greatest part of Christ’s exaltation is the manifestation of his divine nature; the veiling of his divinity had to be temporary while he accomplished our redemption as a man of sorrows. Now, in heaven, the glory of his divinity shines forth in a way that would have destroyed us had it not been veiled before his death (Exodus 33:20). Heaven is the only suitable place at this point for Christ’s glory to be revealed in its splendor and majesty. Therefore, it is nonsensical to think, with the glorification of Christ in glory, that he should suffer or feel perturbed in his being. His good news — his resurrection life — is our good news. That he no longer suffers is our hope that one day we will join with him and possess those affections that have been perfected as we are fully conformed to the image of our Savior.

‘Uses’ of Christ’s Exalted Compassion

Where does this lead Goodwin, one might ask? In his “uses” section after writing so profoundly on the heart of Christ in heaven toward sinners on earth, he makes the following contention about believers: “Your very sins move him to pity more than to anger.” Now, this statement might sound nice as a tweet or a Facebook post, but written in the context of what has gone before, the statement has a weight that crushes the Christian with God’s overflowing mercy, love, and compassion toward us in Christ Jesus. Goodwin adds,

The object of pity is one in misery whom we love; and the greater the misery is, the more is the pity when the party is beloved. Now of all miseries, sin is the greatest; and whilst yourselves look at it as such, Christ will look upon it as such only also in you. And he, loving your persons, and hating only the sin, his hatred shall all fall, and that only upon the sin, to free you of it by its ruin and destruction, but his bowels shall be the more drawn out to you; and this as much when you lie under sin as under any other affliction.22

The impassibility of Christ’s human nature in glory is good news for us insofar as he can fully succor us without any hindrance or pain in himself to distract him from the full care of his flock. We have his absolute, undivided attention.

Another example of the value of good Christology in relation to a believer’s personal frailties comes from Charnock. Commenting on Hebrews 4:15, he argues that because of the incarnation “an experimental compassion” was gained which the divine nature was not capable of because of divine impassibility.23 As our sympathetic high priest, Christ “reflects” back on his experiences in the world, and so the “greatest pity must reside in him” because the “greatest misery was endured by him.” Christ is unable to forget above what he experienced below.24 Charnock does not intend to say that Christ’s human nature suffers in any way. Instead, he is speaking about Christ’s knowledge and memory of his sufferings as the means by which he is able to be sympathetic to his people in a way that would otherwise be impossible if he did not assume a human nature.

“Our Savior is more compassionate to us now than we can ever be to ourselves.”

Such is Christ’s compassion toward us that “our pity to ourselves,” says Charnock, “cannot enter into comparison with his pity to us.”25 His compassion toward his bride is a powerful compassion whereby he can give us grace in our time of need because he truly knew what it was to be in need.

Good Christology is not a matter only for theologians and pastors, but also for all of God’s children. In meditating upon the glories of Christ in heaven, we not only have hope for what we will one day experience, but we also can rejoice in the knowledge that our Savior is more compassionate to us now than we can ever be to ourselves; we can rejoice that his compassion to us is not mere sentiment, but a powerful compassion whereby he can supply us with his grace in our times of need, just as the Father supplied Christ with the Spirit in his time of need.

  1. Stephen Charnock, The Works of Stephen Charnock (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2010), 5:105. 

  2. B.B. Warfield, “On the Emotional Life of Our Lord,” in Biblical and Theological Studies: A Commemoration of 100 Years of Princeton Seminary (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1912), 40. 

  3. Charnock, Works, 5:59. 

  4. Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin (Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria, 2021), 4:143. 

  5. Goodwin, Works, 4:137. 

  6. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William Goold, vol. 20, Exposition of Hebrews, 3:7–5:14 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1991), 513. 

  7. Owen, Works, 20:514. 

  8. Owen, Works, 20:514. 

  9. Goodwin, Works, 4:144. 

  10. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William Goold, vol. 1, The Glory of Christ (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1965), 345. 

  11. Goodwin, Works, 4:145. 

  12. Goodwin, Works, 4:145. 

  13. Goodwin, Works, 4:145. 

  14. Goodwin, Works, 4:145. 

  15. Goodwin, Works, 4:146. 

  16. Goodwin, Works, 4:146. 

  17. Goodwin, Works, 4:146. 

  18. Goodwin, Works, 4:146. 

  19. Goodwin, Works, 4:147. 

  20. Charnock, Works, 2:59. 

  21. Charnock, Works, 2:59. 

  22. Goodwin, Works, 4:149. 

  23. Charnock, Works, 5:106. 

  24. Charnock, Works, 5:106. 

  25. Charnock, Works, 5:106.