In 2004 Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ took the world by storm. It was a hit. The tragedy and the triumph of the story of Jesus finally on the big screen. Those of us with our reformed convictions on the second commandment have our objections to Jesus being on the big screen but let's leave that for another day. What I want to focus on is this word that is rightly used in the title — passion. It is The Passion of the Christ. But what is passion?
What's in a Passion?
We use the term passion or passionate in a very broad way. Sometimes it's used to convey any sort of strong emotional investment. "I am passionate about baseball." Yet, that isn't what's going on when we say that Christ had a period of passion - his final hours of suffering. So what then is passion?
Simply speaking, it is an emotion that overcomes you. Being subject to passions is to be subject to emotional change. We can get a better understanding by digging into the etymology a bit. Its origin lies in the Latin word pati which means to suffer. Though that is not simply a pain word but to suffer something is to have something overcome your status whether you like it or not. It's something that happens to you.
C.S. Lewis once illustrated this with the human experience of love. He writes, "The passion of love is something that happens to us, as "getting wet" happens to a body". This is precisely why we use terminology like "I fell in love". You didn't rationally decide to be in love with someone. It happened to you without you intellectually inquiring of it. All of this is involved in what is called a passion. It is an emotional reality that overcomes someone and they are subject to it.
Passions and the Creator-Creature Distinction
It is for these reasons that orthodox theologians have long said that God is without passions. He is impassionate (WCF 2.1). Things do not overcome God. He is the Lord who does not change (Mal 3:6), he does all that he pleases and no man nor emotion forces his hand (Ps 115:3). Thus the orthodox have for centuries said that God is without passions. Passions are a uniquely human reality and they are one of the chief ways of observing the creator-creature distinction.
The creator-creature distinction is the fact that God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth and we are not (WSC 4). We, as creatures, are finite, temporal, and changeable. Notice how the Westminster Standards put God's unchangeability right in their definition of what God is. Thus, changeability (and that of the emotional variety which involves passions) is a uniquely human, or creature, description. The creator-creature distinction is one of impassionate vs. passionate.
We then can see the covenant of works in these terms. That Adam must rule over the passions as presented to him through the deceiving serpent. He was in the estate of innocence wherein he was able to sin and able not to sin. As image-bearer created in true righteousness and holiness he could rule over his passions. But you know the story. He didn't. He let his passions overtake him, he sinned and thus broke the covenant.
Passions and Redemption
Entering then the estate of sin and misery, the natural man is utterly incapable of ruling over his passions. He gives in at every corner and they rule over him. The story of Cain and Abel is a masterclass story of a man being ruled by his passions. What then should happen? Is this the forever sorry state of mankind?
It is on this stage that we find the wonder and power of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. The high and lifted up creator who took on flesh and became lower than the angels (Heb 2:9). The eternal creator was born of a woman (Gal 4:4). The impassionate Son of God came and was tempted as we are, yet without sin. He became subject to the passions of temptation that plague us (see the usage of sympathy in Heb 4:15). On the cross the immutable and impassionate Son of God truly suffered as man. Truly experienced passion. It is a holy mystery that such an unthinkable thing could actually take place. On the cross, Jesus endured the passion of the wrath of God for us.