True Theology: Knowing and Loving God
The study of theology is considered by many to be dry, boring, irrelevant, and complicated. But for those who want to know God, the study of theology is indispensable. The word “theology” comes from two Greek words, theos (“God”) and logos (“word”). The study of theology is an effort to make definitive statements about God and his implications in an accurate, coherent, relevant way, based on God’s self-revelations. Doctrine equips people to fulfill their primary purpose, which is to glorify and delight in God through a deep personal knowledge of him. Meaningful relationship with God is dependent on correct knowledge of him.
Any theological system that distinguishes between “rational propositions about God” and “a personal relationship with God” fails to see this necessary connection between love and knowledge. The capacity to love, enjoy, and tell others about a person is increased by greater knowledge of that person. Love and knowledge go hand in hand. Good lovers are students of the beloved. Knowledge of God is the goal of theology.
Knowledge without devotion is cold, dead orthodoxy. Devotion without knowledge is irrational instability. But true knowledge of God includes understanding everything from his perspective. Theology is learning to think God’s thoughts after him. It is to learn what God loves and hates, and to see, hear, think, and act the way he does. Knowing how God thinks is the first step in becoming godly.
Many would like to think that just being a “good” person and “loving” God, without an emphasis on doctrine, is preferable. But being a good person can mean radically different things depending on what someone thinks “good” is, or what constitutes a “person.” Loving God will look very different depending on one’s conception of “God” or “love.” The fundamental connections between belief and behavior, and between love and knowledge, demand a rigorous pursuit of truth for those wanting to love God and to be godly. Hebrews 5:11–6:3 teaches that deepening theological understanding equips one to be able to differentiate good from evil, and it exhorts believers to mature in their knowledge of God and his ways:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity (Heb. 5:12–6:1).
Good theology is based in the belief that God exists, is personal, can be known, and has revealed himself. These presuppositions motivate theologians to devote themselves to a passionate pursuit of knowledge from God’s Word. Unfortunately, the word “theologian” is used almost exclusively for vocational theologians rather than for anyone earnestly devoted to knowing God. On one level everyone who thinks about God is a theologian. But a believer whose life is consumed with knowing his Lord is most certainly a theologian, and theologians are committed to truth.
Loving God means loving truth. God is a God of truth; he is truth. In Scripture, all three persons of the Trinity are vitally related to truth (see chart).
All Three Persons of the Trinity Vitally Related to Truth
|Father||“What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, ‘That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged’” (Rom. 3:3–4).|
|“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs” (Rom. 15:8).|
|Son||“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6).|
|“But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:20–21).|
|Spirit||“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me” (John 15:26).|
|“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13).|
In light of this relationship between God and truth, it should be no surprise that the Great Commandment includes loving God with one’s mind: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30, quoting Deut. 30:6). Fully loving God and obeying the Great Commandment requires actively engaging the mind in the pursuit of truth.
The second half of the Great Commandment—love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31)—also requires a great commitment to truth. Love, kindness, and compassion must include profound concern that people understand the truth, since their lives depend on it. God meets man’s greatest need of relationship with him through an understanding of truth: “Of his own will [God] brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:18; cf. 1 Pet. 1:23). Sanctification also happens by means of the truth: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17; cf. Rom. 12:2). Authentic discipleship is marked by knowing and obeying truth: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32). Therefore, loving others involves having a deep desire that they understand truth. This is the reason the Great Commission has a vital teaching element. Making disciples of Christ involves teaching them to observe all he has commanded (Matt. 28:20). Jesus wants people to understand and obey truth and thereby find life in him. Failure to care whether or not loved ones understand the truth is failure to care about their abundant and eternal lives. People are judged and go to hell because they fail to love and obey God’s truth (2 Thess. 2:11–13; cf. Rom. 1:18, 21, 25; James 1:18; 1 Pet. 1:23).
Systematic theology seeks to summarize biblical teaching on particular topics in order to draw definitive conclusions that intersect with life. God has revealed himself to his people in human history, which is why he can be known personally. He has not only revealed himself in facts and statements, but what is objectively true of him has also been revealed in the subjective experience of historical events. The experiences God’s people had with him in the Bible become the basis for all believers experiencing him now.
God’s revelation in history is rich, personal, and wedded to real life. It can also be more difficult to understand than mere facts and propositions because the historical context of the revelation is often foreign to modern people. Because revelation of God is personal and historical, the biblical understanding of God is progressive and cumulative. The theologian then must consider the historical context and progressive nature of revelation at every stage. The theological process must include careful exegesis of passages that are relevant to the question being answered. Furthermore, exegesis should be done with great sensitivity to the historical context of the passages being studied. This theological method has produced several focused areas of study.
The Theological Process
The theological process can be categorized under several aspects and disciplines, as shown on the chart. In particular, systematic theology (the focus of these articles) builds on the conclusions of exegesis and biblical theology. It attempts to summarize the teaching of Scripture in a brief, understandable, and carefully formulated statement. It involves appropriately collecting, synthesizing, and understanding all the relevant passages in the Bible on various topics, and then summarizing their teachings clearly so that God’s people know what to believe and how to live in relation to theological questions.
The Theological Process
|Exegesis||The process of seeking to determine the correct meaning out of a particular passage of Scripture.|
|Biblical theology||The study of scriptural revelation based on the historical framework presented in the Bible.|
|Systematic theology||A study that answers the question, “What does the whole Bible teach us today about a given topic?”|
|Historical theology||The study of how believers in different eras of the history of the church have understood various theological topics.|
|Philosophical theology||The study of theological topics primarily through the use of the tools and methods of philosophical reasoning and information gained from nature and reason (“general revelation”) apart from the Bible.|
|Practical theology||The study of how to best apply theological truths to the life of the church and the world (including preaching, Christian education, counseling, evangelism, missions, church administration, worship, etc.).|
|Apologetics||The study of theology for the purpose of defending Christian teaching against criticism and distortion, and giving evidences of its credibility.|
Reference to this sort of whole-Bible theology can be seen in Paul’s insistence that he did not shrink back from declaring “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) and in Jesus’ Great Commission that the church should “make disciples of all nations” by “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20).
Major Categories of Study in Systematic Theology
The major topics covered in the study of systematic theology can be seen in the chart.
Studies in Systematic Theology
|Area of Study||Technical Title|
|Method and foundation||Prolegomena|
|Humanity (or man)||Anthropology|
Essential vs. Peripheral Doctrine
The ability to discern the relative importance of theological beliefs is vital for effective Christian life and ministry. Both the purity and unity of the church are at stake in this matter. The relative importance of theological issues can fall within four categories: (1) absolutes define the core beliefs of the Christian faith; (2) convictions, while not core beliefs, may have significant impact on the health and effectiveness of the church; (3) opinions are less-clear issues that generally are not worth dividing over; and (4)questions are currently unsettled issues. These categories can be best visualized as concentric circles, similar to those on a dart board, with the absolutes as the “bull’s-eye” (see diagram).
Where an issue falls within these categories should be determined by weighing the cumulative force of at least seven considerations: (1) biblical clarity; (2) relevance to the character of God; (3) relevance to the essence of the gospel; (4) biblical frequency and significance (how often in Scripture it is taught, and what weight Scripture places upon it); (5) effect on other doctrines; (6) consensus among Christians (past and present); and (7) effect on personal and church life. These criteria for determining the importance of particular beliefs must be considered in light of their cumulative weight regarding the doctrine being considered. For instance, just the fact that a doctrine may go against the general consensus among believers (see item 6) does not necessarily mean it is wrong, although that might add some weight to the argument against it. All the categories should be considered collectively in determining how important an issue is to the Christian faith. The ability to rightly discern the difference between core doctrines and legitimately disputable matters will keep the church from either compromising important truth or needlessly dividing over peripheral issues.
The Bible and Revelation
Knowing God is the most important thing in life. God created people fundamentally for relationship with himself. This relationship depends on knowing who he is as he has revealed himself. God is personal, which means he has a mind, will, emotions, relational ability, and self-consciousness. Because he is personal, and not merely an impersonal object, God must personally reveal himself to us. He has done this in general revelation (the world) and special revelation (the Word of God).
General revelation is revelation of God given to all people at all times. This revelation is found both in the external creation (Ps. 19:1, “the heavens declare the glory of God”) and in internal human experience (Rom. 1:19–20, “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse”). General revelation shows attributes of God—such as his existence, power, creativity, and wisdom; in addition, the testimony of human conscience also provides some evidence of God’s moral standards to all human beings (Rom. 2:14–15). This means that from general revelation all people havesome knowledge that God exists, some knowledge of his character, and some knowledge of his moral standards. This results in an awareness of guilt before God as people instinctively know that they have not lived up to his moral requirements. Thus in the many false religions that have been invented people attempt to assuage their sense of guilt.
But general revelation does not provide knowledge of the only true solution to man’s guilt before God: the forgiveness of sins that comes through Jesus Christ. This means that general revelation does not provide personal knowledge of God as a loving Father who redeems his people and establishes covenants with them. For this, one needs special revelation, which God has provided in his historical supernatural activities, in the Bible, and definitively in Jesus Christ.
The Bible is God’s written revelation of who he is and what he has done in redemptive history. Humans need this divine, transcendent perspective in order to break out of their subjective, culturally bound, fallen limitations. Through God’s written Word, his people may overcome error, grow in sanctification, minister effectively to others, and live abundant lives as God intends.
The Inspiration of Scripture
The Bible is “God-breathed” (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16) and gets its true, authoritative, powerful, holy character from God himself, who inspired human authors to write exactly what he wanted them to write. Instead of merely dictating words to them, God worked through their unique personalities and circumstances. Scripture is therefore both fully human and fully divine. It is both the testimony of men to God’s revelation, and divine revelation itself. “No prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20–21). Because the Bible is God’s Word in human words, it can be trusted as the definitive revelation from the mouth of God himself.
The Inerrancy of Scripture
The doctrine of inerrancy means that the Bible is entirely truthful and reliable in all that it affirms in its original manuscripts. Another way of saying this is that the Bible does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact. Because God is the ultimate author of the Bible, and because God is always perfectly truthful, it follows that his Word is completely truthful as well: He is the “God who never lies” (Titus 1:2). It would be contrary to his character to affirm anything false. God is all-knowing, always truthful and good, and all-powerful, so he always knows and tells the truth and is able to communicate and preserve his Word. “O Lord God, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant” (2 Sam. 7:28). “Every word of God proves true” (Prov. 30:5; cf. Ps. 12:6; 119:42; John 17:17).
Inerrancy does not require twenty-first-century precision or scientifically technical language. The following quotation from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy summarizes what inerrancy doesnot mean:
We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture. We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Art. XIII).
The inerrancy of Scripture gives the believer great confidence in the Bible as his sure foundation for understanding all God wants him to know and all that he needs for godliness and eternal life.
The Clarity of Scripture
The Bible itself acknowledges that some passages of Scripture are “hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16, referring to some aspects of Paul’s letters). In general, however, with the illumination of the Spirit (2 Tim. 2:7), the teaching of the Bible is clear to all who seek understanding with the goal of knowing and obeying God. OT believers were instructed to teach God’s commands continually to their children with the expectation that they would understand it: “These words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deut. 6:6–7). God’s Word is said to “make wise the simple” (Ps. 19:7; 119:30). Jesus based his teaching squarely on the OT Scriptures: he assumed its teaching was clear and would often ask, “Have you not read … ?” (cf. Matt. 12:3, 5; 19:14; 21:42; 22:31).
Because of the basic clarity of the Bible, when Christians disagree over the meaning of a passage they can assume that the problem is not with the Bible but rather with themselves as interpreters. Misunderstandings may be due to various factors such as human sin, ignorance of enough of the relevant data, faulty assumptions, or perhaps trying to reach a definite conclusion about a topic where the Bible has not given enough information to decide the question. Yet the emphasis of the Bible is not on difficulties in understanding but on the fact that ordinary believers are capable of comprehending Scripture for themselves. In addition, God provides teachers of his Word to further help his people’s understanding (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11). Believers have the responsibility to read, interpret, and understand the Bible because it is basically clear. This was an assumption of the Protestant Reformers who sought to translate the Bible into the language of the common people. They believed that all true Christians are priests who are able to know God for themselves through his Word and to help others do the same.
The Sufficiency of Scripture
Scripture provides all the words from God that we need in order to know God truly and personally, and everything we need him to tell us in order for us to live an abundant, godly life (Ps. 19:7–9; 2 Tim. 3:15). God has given his people a sufficient revelation of himself so that they are able to know, trust, and obey him. “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). God commands that nothing be added or taken away from the Bible, which indicates that it has always been exactly what he has wanted at each stage in its development throughout the history of salvation. “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you” (Deut. 4:2; cf. Deut. 12:32; Prov. 30:5–6). The powerful admonition against tampering that stands at the conclusion of the entire Bible (Rev. 22:18–19) applies primarily, of course, to the book of Revelation, but in a secondary sense what it says may be applied to the Bible as a whole: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Rev. 22:18–19).
Believers should find freedom and encouragement in the knowledge that God has provided all of the absolutely authoritative instruction that they need in order to know him and live as he intends. God’s people should never fear that he has withheld something they might need him to say in order for them to know how to please him, or that he will have to somehow supplement his Word with new instructions for some new situation that arises in the modern age. (The NT allows for the activity of the Holy Spirit in leading and guiding individuals, as in Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:16, 18, 25; but this guidance is always in line with Scripture, never in opposition to scriptural commands.) Therefore believers should be satisfied with what Scripture teaches and what it leaves unsaid. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29).
Jesus’ View of Scripture
The most convincing reason to believe that the Bible is inspired, inerrant, clear, and sufficient is because this is what Jesus believed. His teaching assumed that the OT was the authoritative Word of his Father: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17–18). Jesus referred to dozens of OT persons and events and always treated OT history as historically accurate. He quoted from Genesis as his Father’s Word when he said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:4–6). Jesus not only assumed that the creation story was true, he also freely quoted words from the OT narrator as words that God himself “said.” It is not uncommon for Jesus’ theological arguments to depend on the truthfulness of the OT account (Matt. 5:12; 11:23–24; 12:41–42; 24:37–39; Luke 4:25–27; 11:50–51; John 8:56–58). Jesus’ view of the OT as the Word of God aligns with the way the OT regularly speaks of itself.
Jesus saw his entire life as a fulfillment of Scripture (Matt. 26:54; Mark 8:31). Throughout his life, Jesus used Scripture to resist temptation (Matt. 4:1–11) and to settle disputes (Matt. 19:1–12; 22:39; 27:46; Mark 7:1–13; Luke 10:25–26). At the end of his life, Jesus died quoting Scripture (cf. Matt. 27:46with Ps. 22:1). On his resurrection day he explained Scripture at length on the Emmaus road and to his disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 24:13–17, 44–47).
Conscious of his identity as God the Son, Jesus saw his teaching as no less divinely inspired than the OT. Jesus taught with an authority that distinguished him from other teachers of the law. He interpreted the law on his own authority rather than depending on rabbinic sources (Matt. 5:21–48). He described his teaching and the law as sharing the same permanence: “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35, cf. Matt. 5:17–18; John 14:10, 24). Jesus viewed both the OT and his own teaching as the Word of God. The NT apostolic witness was a result of Jesus giving his disciples authority and power through the Holy Spirit to impart spiritual truths in writing no less than by word of mouth (Mark 3:13–19; John 16:12–14; Acts 26:16–18; 1 Cor. 2:12–13).
Jesus took Scripture to be the authoritative Word of God upon which he based his entire life. Those who follow Christ are called to treat Scripture (OT and NT together) in the same way. For Christians, the Bible is a source of great delight and joy. God is to be diligently sought in his Word (1 Pet. 2:2). The Word of God is a precious treasure that deserves to be studied, meditated upon, and obeyed:
My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God (Prov. 2:1–5).
What It Means to Know God
In the quest to know God, it is vital to understand just what it means to really know him. Methods, expectations, and attitudes in studying theology are determined by one’s definition of “knowing God.” Central to understanding this is the fact that God is both incomprehensible and knowable.
The Incomprehensibility of God
Scripture teaches that we can have a true and personal knowledge of God, but this does not mean we will ever understand him exhaustively. The Bible is clear that God is ultimately incomprehensible to us; that is, we can never fully comprehend his whole being. The following passages show this:
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable (Ps. 145:3).
“Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:14).
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9).
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Rom. 11:33–34; cf. Job 42:1–6; Ps. 139:6, 17–18; 147:5; Isa. 57:15; 1 Cor. 2:10–11; 1 Tim. 6:13–16).
These verses teach that not only is God’s whole being incomprehensible but each of his attributes—his greatness, power, thoughts, ways, wisdom, and judgments—are well beyond human ability to fathom fully. Not only can we never know everything there is to know about God, we can never know everything there is to know about even one aspect of God’s character or work.
Why God Is Incomprehensible
The main reasons for God’s incomprehensibility are: (1) God is infinite and his creatures are finite. By definition, creatures depend on their Creator for their very existence and are limited in all aspects. Yet God is without limitations in every quality he possesses. This Creator/creature, infinite/finite gap will always exist. (2) The perfect unity of God’s attributes is far beyond the realm of human experience. God’s love, wrath, grace, justice, holiness, patience, and jealousy are continually functioning in a perfectly integrated yet infinitely complex way. (3) The effects of sin on the minds of fallen humans also greatly inhibit the ability to know God. The tendency of fallen creatures is to distort, pervert, and confuse truth and to use, or rather abuse, it for selfish ends rather than for God’s glory (Rom. 1:18–26). (4) A final reason God can never be fully known is that in his sovereign wisdom God has chosen not to reveal some things: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). Many would label it unloving for God to decide to withhold some information from his people. They wrongly believe God should reveal everything they may want to know. Yet, as with all good fathers, God’s wisdom leads him to refrain from answering all the questions his children ask him, and this contributes to his incomprehensibility.
In heaven, God’s incomprehensibility will no doubt be lessened when the effects of sin no longer ravage minds and when he will most likely share some of his secrets. However, God will always be infinite and humans will always be finite, so he will always be beyond human ability to know exhaustively.
Implications of God’s Incomprehensibility
Because God can never be fully known, those who seek to know God should be deeply humbled in the process, realizing that they will always have more to learn. The appropriate response to God is a heart of wonder and awe in light of his incomprehensible greatness. God’s incomprehensibility also means that beliefs can be held with firm conviction even though they may be filled with inexplicable mystery. The Trinity, the divine and human natures of Christ, divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and many other core teachings of the Christian faith are profoundly mysterious; believing them requires a robust affirmation of the incomprehensibility of God.
The Knowability of God
The incomprehensibility of God could lead to despair or apathy in the quest to know God, but the Bible also teaches that God is knowable. While God can never be exhaustively understood, he can be known truly, personally, and sufficiently. God is personal, has definite characteristics, and has personally revealed himself so that he can be truly known. The multiplication of grace and peace in our lives is dependent on knowing God (2 Pet. 1:2–3), and this knowledge provides sufficient resources for life and for becoming the people God wants us to be.
Knowledge of God in Christ should be our greatest delight (Jer. 9:23–24; 1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 6:14). It is the basis of attaining eternal life (John 17:3); it is at the heart of life in the new covenant (Heb. 8:11–12); it was Paul’s primary goal (Phil. 3:10); and it leads to godly love (1 John 4:7–8). God will never be known absolutely, but we can know things about him that are absolutely true, so much so that we can be willing to live and die for those beliefs. God has provided knowledge of himself that is personal, relational, and sufficient for fruitful, faithful, godly living. No one will ever be able to say he lacked the necessary revelation to know God and to start living as God intends.
Implications of the Knowability of God
God’s personal and sufficient revelation of himself should foster solid conviction among believers. We need not live in ambiguity and uncertainty about who God is and what he demands of his creatures. The increasing influence of Eastern religions on the West, certain postmodern views of truth, and religious pluralism all emphasize God’s incomprehensibility so much that he is eventually made to seem unknowable. It then becomes impossible to say anything definitively true or false about him, and people then think that the only heresy is claiming that there is any heresy at all! On the contrary, because of his gracious revelation and illumination, God can indeed be known. God’s knowability should lead to eager, diligent, devoted study of God’s Word so that we can understand him as he has revealed himself and avoid any false view of God that will dishonor him. We should never grow apathetic in seeking to know God because we are in fact able and equipped to know him and to please him with our lives.
The Character of God
“Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb. 11:6)—but it is also impossible to have faith in Godwithout knowing the character of God. Faith is belief in God’s promises, which in turn are grounded in his character.
Ways in Which God Reveals Himself
God has revealed himself primarily in four overlapping ways: (1) actions; (2) names; (3) images; and (4) attributes, as seen in the chart. God reveals himself through actions, names, and images because they carry vivid, experiential, creative, and situational power. However, it is God’s attributes that are the fundamental descriptions of who he is.
|Means of Revelation||Examples|
|actions||creating, judging, redeeming|
|names||“Lord” (Hb. YHWH, or Yahweh)|
“God Almighty” (Hb. el Shadday)
“Master, Lord” (Hb. ‘Adon)
|images||Father, Rock, Husband, Shepherd|
|attributes||holiness, goodness, love, grace, wrath|
Actions of God
God shows who he is in what he does. In creating the world, God shows his power, wisdom, beauty, goodness, and prodigious creativity. After the creation of humanity God talks to, walks with, and seeks out humans, even when they lapse into rebellion against him, showing that he is relational, personal, engaged, and caring. God demonstrates his holiness, wrath, and justice when he curses human rebellion in the garden and judges the unrighteous through the flood in Noah’s day. He shows his grace and mercy in establishing a covenant with Noah and Abraham. In sending his Son to live and die for humanity, he shows amazing love and compassion. Whenever God acts, we see his character displayed.
Names of God
God offers his name as a personal introduction and as a window into his character. This is why David says, “Those who know your name put their trust in you” (Ps. 9:10). To know his name is to know he is trustworthy. God’s act of naming himself is a profoundly gracious act of accommodation and engagement.
Among the many names for God in the Bible, there is none more important than Yahweh (translated “Lord”), a name that was revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:15). Linguistically related to the verb “I am,” Yahweh is packed with theological import. It most likely communicates God’s self-existence, independence, self-sufficiency, eternality, and unchanging character. These transcendent qualities are powerfully complemented when God also tells Moses to refer to him as “the God of your fathers” (Ex. 3:15). God is both majestic and intimate, the great, eternal “I am,” the God who knows his children by name and keeps his covenant promises. Christian worship, discipleship, and preaching must maintain both healthy fear of the Lord and freedom and confidence in his presence.
Another striking and revealing name for God is “Jealous” (Hb. ’El qana’). God tells Moses that he is so jealous for his glory expressed in the faithfulness of his people that “Jealous” is an appropriate name for himself. The reason God gives for his commandment against idolatry is grounded in his character as a jealous God: “For you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Ex. 34:14). God deserves and demands absolute, exclusive loyalty and hates spiritual adultery. In his jealous love he refuses to allow his people to be supremely devoted to anything but himself. Because he is absolutely worthy of worship, allowing his people to love anything more than him would compromise his justice and love.
Images of God
Images of God are analogies from daily life that serve to illustrate his attributes. Among many other images, God is: Father, King, Consuming Fire, Judge, Husband, Shepherd, Potter, Farmer, Refiner, Landowner, Lion, Bear, Light, Water, Tower, and Lamb! These amazingly diverse descriptions from a multitude of human experiences offer pictures of God that reach minds and hearts in ways that abstract definitions do not. Images, like attributes and names, must be considered in relation to one another. If certain images are emphasized at the expense of others, God’s character will be misunderstood. The varied images in the Bible are all complementary to each other, and each is vital for understanding God. For example, God as the Rock points out his strength, stability, and justice, while God as Husband gives insight into his loving, faithful, committed heart for his covenant people.
The image of God as a Rock is used in both OT and NT. Deuteronomy 32 especially highlights God as Rock in light of Israel’s unfaithfulness: “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth” (Deut. 32:18; cf. Deut. 32:4, 13, 15, 30, 31, 37). Paul uses this image as a title of strength and applies it to Christ in 1 Corinthians 10:4: “and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” Although the Rock (Hb. tsur) of Deuteronomy 32 is Yahweh, Paul applies the same title to Jesus. The Rock that followed and provided for the Israelites in the wilderness in the old covenant was the Christ who provides for the Corinthian believers in the new covenant. The Rock in the wilderness shares the same attributes as the Rock of the table, cup, and bread.
The strength and stability of the rock imagery is beautifully complemented by the tender, compassionate image of God as the Husband of his people. “For your Maker is your husband, the Lordof hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called” (Isa. 54:5; cf. Jer. 2:2; Hosea 1–3). God’s relational involvement with his people is so intimate and personal that he is jealous when his people are unfaithful. God speaks with the jealous voice of a husband who has been betrayed by an adulterous wife: “Surely, as a treacherous wife leaves her husband, so have you been treacherous to me, O house of Israel, declares the Lord” (Jer. 3:20). The idea of God as a rock could lead to impersonal, static, cold conceptions, were it not for the intensely loving, engaged husband imagery. The marriage metaphor could reduce God to being weak, vulnerable, and pathetic if not for images like a rock (and a king, warrior, fire, etc.). Images of God bring his attributes from being mere abstractions into vivid clarity because they are based on our experiences of life.
Attributes of God
The attributes of God are the normative descriptions that images, names, and actions illuminate from different perspectives. His attributes are his essential characteristics that make him who he is. God’s attributes are typically classified as either incommunicable or communicable. Incommunicable attributes are not shared by humans as are communicable attributes. The attributes can be organized using the classifications shown in Incommunicable Attributes and Communicable Attributes.
|Independence (self-existence, self-sufficiency, aseity)|
|Attributes Describing God’s Being|
|Attributes of Purpose|
The Unity of God
This list of classified attributes of God can be helpful in developing an organized perspective on God’s character. However, his character cannot be reduced to a quantifiable list of properties. Maintaining the unity of God’s attributes is essential in the study of his character. His unity means that although we experience certain attributes more clearly at certain times, nevertheless, his attributes are not divided into parts and must always be understood interdependently. His attributes are not petals on a flower to be plucked off and viewed in isolation from the rest. The unity of God requires finite creatures to pursue a holistic understanding of him. When God expresses judgment and wrath, he does not cease to be merciful, patient, or kind in that moment. He never expresses certain attributes at the expense of others. Fallen humans tend to emphasize attributes that affirm our personal inclinations, experience, and contemporary sensibilities. Considering God’s attributes independently of each other leads to unbalanced idolatrous conceptions of God. A biblically integrated understanding of God involves, along with a list of attributes, the work of the Spirit, the whole counsel of God’s Word accurately interpreted, the input of church history, and the input of believers from diverse cultures.
Examples of Application to Life
The two charts labeled “Practical Implications” offer a brief survey of some of God’s attributes. Each section of the charts provides a basic definition of an attribute (based on Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology), a key passage of supporting Scripture, and one basic implication for daily life.
Practical Implications of the Incommunicable Attributes of God
|Independence: God does not need us or the rest of creation for anything, yet we and the rest of creation can glorify him and bring him joy.||“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24–25; cf. Ex. 3:14; Job 41:11; Ps. 50:9–12; 90:2).||God never experiences need, so serving God should never be motivated by the thought that he needs us. He is the provider in everything.|
|Immutability: God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes, and promises, although as he acts in response to different situations he feels emotions.||“For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed” (Mal. 3:6; for “being,” cf. Ps. 102:25–27; Mal. 3:6;James 1:17; for “purposes,” cf. Ps. 33:11; Isa. 46:9–11; for “promises,” cf. Num. 23:19; Rom. 11:29).||God can always be trusted because he always keeps his word, and is never capricious or moody.|
|Eternity: God has no beginning or end and is in no way bound by time, although he sees events and acts in his world in time, which is in fact one dimension of the created order.||“Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2; cf. Ex. 3:14; Job 36:26; Ps. 90:4;Isa. 46:9–10; John 8:58; 1 Tim. 6:16; 2 Pet. 3:8; Jude 24–25; Rev. 1:8; 4:8).||Those who trust the God of eternity can know peace, rest, and comfort in the busyness of life and in spite of impending death, for God keeps them in safety and joy forever.|
|Omnipresence: God does not have spatial dimensions and is present everywhere with his whole being, though he acts differently in different situations.||“Am I a God at hand, declares the Lord, and not a God far away? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jer. 23:23–24; cf. 1 Kings 8:27; Ps. 139:7–10; Isa. 66:1–2; Acts 7:48–50).||God can be sought anywhere regardless of place. Believers should never feel lonely, and the wicked should never feel safe.|
Practical Implications of the Communicable Attributes of God
|Holiness: God is absolutely and uniquely excellent above all creation (majesty) and without sin (purity).||“And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Rev. 4:8; for “majestic holiness,” cf. Ex. 15:11; 1 Chron. 16:27–29; Isa. 57:15; for “moral holiness,” cf. Isa. 5:16; 6:1–8; Acts 3:14; Heb. 7:26).||God should be feared and obeyed, and his people should earnestly pursue moral purity.|
|Omnipotence:God is able to do all his holy will.||“Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose’” (Isa. 46:9–10; cf. Ex. 6:3; Job 37:23; 40:2; 42:1–6; Ps. 24:6; 33:10–11; 91:1; Dan. 4:34–35; Matt. 28:18).||God’s ultimate will is never frustrated by evil, so there is peace and confidence in the face of suffering for those who trust God.|
|Sovereignty:God has absolute rule over creation as King and total control and determination over all that happens.||“His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (Dan. 4:34–35; cf. 1 Chron. 29:11–13; Ps. 22:28; 24:1; 47:7–9; 103:19; Prov. 16:19, 21, 33; Dan. 4:25; 7:1–28; 12:1–13; Matt. 6:13; 10:29; Acts 17:26; Eph. 1:11; 1 Tim. 6:15; James 1:13–15).||Mankind should obey and submit to God as humble subjects of his kingdom.|
|Omniscience:God fully knows himself and all things actual and possible—past, present, and future.||“Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20; cf.Job 28:24; 37:16; Ps. 139:1–3; 147:5; Isa. 55:8–9; Matt. 10:29–30; Rom. 11:33–34; 1 Cor. 2:10–11; Heb. 4:13).||All God’s thoughts and actions are perfectly informed by perfect knowledge, so he is perfectly trustworthy.|
|Wisdom: God always knows and chooses the best goals and the best means to those goals. Wisdom is a moral as well as an intellectual quality.||“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might” (Dan. 2:20; cf. Job 9:4; 12:13; Ps. 104:24; Rom. 11:33; 16:27; 1 Cor. 1:21–29;Eph. 3:10–11).||God’s wisdom is not always clear to us, but it is great, deep, valuable, and should be highly desired and sought, and we should not doubt its reality even in circumstances that upset us.|
|Love: God freely and eternally gives of himself. The ultimate historical demonstration of God’s love is seen in the cross of Christ.||“Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:8–10; cf.John 3:16; 15:13; 17:24; Rom. 5:8; 8:31–39; Gal. 2:20; 1 John 3:16; 4:16).||God is eager to extravagantly give of himself to meet the needs of lost sinners, so they should flee to him with confidence (cf. Rom. 8:32).|
|Wrath: God intensely hates and responds with anger to all sin and rebellion. God hates every threat to what he loves.||“Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb’” (Rev. 6:15–16; cf. Ex. 34:7; Rom. 1:18; 2:4; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Thess. 1:5; 2 Pet. 3:9).||God should be greatly feared. Unbelievers should fear his judgment and turn to Christ for salvation. Believers should fear God’s fatherly discipline. The God who loves us is also the holy God who hates sin (1 Pet. 1:17).|
God’s Attributes Are Seen Most Clearly in Christ
Jesus Christ is the most definitive revelation of all of these attributes. To see God’s character we look ultimately to God incarnate: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). In the cross of Christ all God’s major attributes are displayed in condensed lucidity. His wrath, grace, justice, mercy, sovereignty, goodness, love, holiness, compassion, wisdom, and power meet there for the world to see. When discussions of God’s attributes become esoteric and sterile, it is the face and cross of Christ that restores radical clarity, reality, and compelling beauty.
The biblical teaching on the Trinity embodies four essential affirmations:
- There is one and only one true and living God.
- This one God eternally exists in three persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
- These three persons are completely equal in attributes, each with the same divine nature.
- While each person is fully and completely God, the persons are not identical.
The differences among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are found in the way they relate to one another and the role each plays in accomplishing their unified purpose.
The unity of nature and distinction of persons of the Trinity is helpfully illustrated in the diagram.
God Is One God: Monotheism
There is nothing more fundamental to biblical theology than monotheism (the biblical belief that there is one and only one God): “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4). This verse, known as the Shema in Hebrew (from the opening verb of the verse, meaning “hear” or “listen”), is one of the most familiar and foundational verses in the OT. God rejects polytheism (belief in many gods) and demands exclusive devotion: “I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isa. 45:5; cf. Deut. 4:35, 39; 1 Kings 8:60; Isa. 40:18; 46:9). The NT affirms the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as we shall see, but does not waver from OT monotheism (John 17:3; 1 Cor. 8:4–6; 1 Tim. 2:5; James 2:19). Jesus quotes the Shema in a debate with the Jewish leaders (Mark 12:29), and Paul continues to teach that there is one God while recognizing Jesus as the divine-human Mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5).
Implications of Monotheism
Because there is only one God, idolatry of any kind is evil, foolish, wrong, and harmful. Worship of other “gods” robs the true God of the devotion and glory he alone deserves. Idolatry can take many forms. Idols are not only man-made objects but are anything allowed to compete with God for ultimate loyalty. According to Jesus, money can become an idol: “You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Greed, lust, and impurity can also become indicators of idolatry (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). Idolatry is foolish, deceptive, and dangerous—and may even involve demonic activity (1 Cor. 10:19–20).
Because there is only one God, he alone should be the ultimate object of the believer’s affections. He alone deserves absolute allegiance and obedience. The Great Commandment that follows the Shema is the obvious implication of monotheism: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). The one true God deserves all we are and have. He deserves wholehearted love because nothing compares with him.
God Is Three Persons: The Tri-unity of God
As the nature of God is progressively revealed in Scripture, the one God is seen to exist eternally in three persons. These three persons share the same divine nature yet are different in role and relationship. The basic principle at the heart of God’s triune being is unity and distinction, both coexisting without either being compromised. Anything that is necessarily true of God is true of Father, Son, and Spirit. They are equal in essence yet distinct in function.
The doctrine of the Trinity is most fully realized in the NT where the divine Father, Son, and Spirit are seen accomplishing redemption. But while the NT gives the clearest picture of the Trinity, there are hints within the OT of what is yet to come. In the beginning of the Bible, the Spirit of God is “hovering over the face of the waters” at creation (Gen. 1:2) and is elsewhere described as a personal being, possessing the attributes of God and yet distinct from Yahweh (Isa. 48:16; 61:1; 63:10). Some interpreters think that the plurality within God is seen in the Hebrew word for God, ’Elohim, which is plural in form (though others disagree that this is significant; the word is used with singular verbs and all agree that it has a singular meaning in the OT). In addition, the use of plural pronouns when God refers to himself hints at a plurality of persons: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image’” (Gen. 1:27; cf. Gen. 3:22; 11:7; Isa. 6:8). The plurality of God also seems to be indicated when the Angel of the Lord appears in the OT as one who represents Yahweh, while yet at times this angel seems to be no different in attributes or actions from God himself (cf. Gen. 16:7, 10–11, 13; 18:1–33; Ex. 3:1–4:31; 32:20–22; Num. 22:35, 38; Judg. 2:1–2; 6:11–18). There are also passages in the OT that call two persons God or Lord: “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness; you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your companions” (Ps. 45:6–7). David says, “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’” (Ps. 110:1). The God who is set above his companions (Ps. 45:6) and the Lord of Psalm 110:1 are recognized as Christ in the NT (Heb. 1:8, 13). Christ himself applies Psalm 110:1 to himself (Matt. 22:41–46). Other passages give divine status to a messianic figure distinct from Yahweh (Prov. 8:22–31; 30:4; Dan. 7:13–14).
The OT glimpses of God’s plurality blossom into the full picture of the Trinity in the NT, where the deity and distinct personalities of Father, Son, and Spirit function together in perfect unity and equality (on the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, see The Person of Christ). Perhaps the clearest picture of this distinction and unity is Jesus’ baptism, where the Son is anointed for his public ministry by the Spirit, descending as a dove, with the Father declaring from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:13–17). All three persons of the Trinity are present, and each one is doing something different.
The NT authors employ a Trinitarian cadence as they write about the work of God. Prayers of blessing and descriptions of gifts within the body of Christ are Trinitarian in nature: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:14); “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4–6). The persons of the Trinity are also linked in the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19–20, “baptizing them in [or into] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” There are many other passages that reveal the Trinitarian, or at least the plural, nature of God (e.g., John 14:16, 26; 16:13–15; 20:21–22; Rom. 8:9; 15:16, 30; 2 Cor. 1:21–22; Gal. 4:4–6; Eph. 2:18; 4:4–6; 1 Pet. 1:1–2; 1 John 4:2, 13–14; Jude 20–21).
Differences in roles also appear consistently in biblical testimonies concerning the relationships between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The uniform pattern of Scripture is that the Father plans, directs, and sends; the Son is sent by the Father and is subject to the Father’s authority and obedient to the Father’s will; and both Father and Son direct and send the Spirit, who carries out the will of both. Yet this is somehow consistent with equality in being and in attributes. The Father created through the Son (John 1:3; 1 Cor. 8:6; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:2), and the Father planned redemption and sent the Son into the world (John 3:16; Rom. 8:29; Gal. 4:4; Eph. 1:3–5). The Son obeyed the Father and accomplished redemption for us (John 4:34; 5:19; 6:38; Heb. 10:5–7; cf. Matt. 26:64; Acts 2:33; 1 Cor. 15:28; Heb. 1:3). The Father did not come to die for our sins, nor did the Holy Spirit, but that was the role of the Son. The Father and Son both send the Holy Spirit in a new way after Pentecost (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:7). These relationships existed eternally (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:4; Rev. 13:8), and they provide the basis for simultaneous equality and differences in various human relationships.
Within God there is both unity and diversity: unity without uniformity, and diversity without division. The early church saw this Trinitarian balance clearly. For example, the Athanasian Creed (c. a.d. 500) says:
We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity; we distinguish among the persons, but we do not divide the substance. … The entire three persons are co-eternal and co-equal with one another, so that … we worship complete unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.
This unity and diversity is at the heart of the great mystery of the Trinity. Unity without uniformity is baffling to finite minds, but the world shows different types of reflections of this principle of oneness and distinction at every turn. What is the source of the transcendent beauty in a symphony, the human body, marriage, ecosystems, the church, the human race, a delicious meal, or a perfectly executed fast break in basketball? Is it not, in large part, due to the distinct parts coming together to form a unified whole, leading to a unified result? Unity and distinction—the principle at the heart of the Trinity—can be seen in much of what makes life so rich and beautiful. Woven into the fabric of the world are multiple reflections of the One who made it with unity and distinction as the parallel qualities of its existence.
Historical Misunderstandings of the Trinity
One of the most fundamental ways to misunderstand the Trinity is tritheism, which overemphasizes the distinction between the persons of the Trinity and ends up with three gods. This view neglects the oneness of the natures of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At the other end of the spectrum is the heresy ofmodalism (also known as Sabellianism, named after its earliest proponent, Sabellius, 3rd century), which loses the distinctions between the persons and claims that God is only one person. In this view, the appearance of the three persons is merely three modes of existence of the one God. For instance, God reveals himself as Father when he is creating and giving the law, as Son in redemption, and as Spirit in the church age. A contemporary version of modalism is found in the teaching of Oneness Pentecostalism. Both tritheism and modalism fail to maintain the biblical balance between the one reality of God and his eternal existence in three persons. A third error is to deny the full deity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and to say that they were at some time created. This is the heresy of Arianism(after a teacher named Arius, c. a.d. 256–336), and it is held today by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Practical Implications of the Trinity
What are some of the practical implications of the doctrine of the Trinity?
- The doctrine of the Trinity makes definitive revelation of God possible as he is known in Christ: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). No man can see God and live (Ex. 33:20; 1 Tim. 6:16), but God the Son provided an actual manifestation of God in the flesh.
- The Trinity makes the atonement possible. Redemption of sinful man is accomplished through the distinct and unified activity of each person of the Godhead: “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14).
- Because God is triune, he has eternally been personal and relational in his own being, in full independence from his creation. God has never had any unmet needs, “nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25). Personhood becomes real only within realized relationships, and the reality of relationship can only exist where one has something or someone that is not oneself to relate to; if, then, God had not been plural in himself he could not have been a personal, relational God till he had begun creating, and thus would have been dependent on creation for his own personhood, which is a notion as nonsensical as it is unscriptural. Between the persons of the Trinity, there has always existed total relational harmony and expression; God is, from this standpoint, a perfect society in himself. Apart from the plurality in the Trinity, either God’s eternal independence of the created order or his eternally relational personal existence would have to be denied.
- The Trinity provides the ultimate model for relationships within the body of Christ and marriage (1 Cor. 11:3; 12:4–6; Eph. 4:4–7).
The doctrine of the Trinity is well beyond human ability to ever fully comprehend. However, it is central to understanding the nature of God and the central events in the history of salvation, in which God is seen acting as, in effect, a tripersonal team. Biblical Christianity stands or falls with the doctrine of the Trinity.
The Person of Christ
Four statements must be understood and affirmed in order to attain a complete biblical picture of the person of Jesus Christ:
- Jesus Christ is fully and completely divine.
- Jesus Christ is fully and completely human.
- The divine and human natures of Christ are distinct.
- The divine and human natures of Christ are completely united in one person.
The Deity of Christ
Many passages of Scripture demonstrate that Jesus is fully and completely God:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:1, 14).
No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known (John 1:18).
Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen (Rom. 9:5).
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (Phil. 2:5–7).
… waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13).
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power (Heb. 1:3).
But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever.” … And, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands” (Heb. 1:8, 10).
Simeon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 1:1).
Jesus’ Understanding of His Own Deity
Even though the passages cited above clearly teach the deity of Christ, this truth is often challenged. Some say that Jesus never claimed to be God and that these verses were written by his disciples who deified him because of the impact he had on their lives. Jesus, it is claimed, only saw himself as a great moral teacher on a par with other religious leaders. However, Jesus’ understanding of his own deity in the Gospels does not support this perspective. He clearly saw himself as God. This can be seen primarily in six ways.
- Jesus taught with divine authority. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28–29). The teachers of the law in Jesus’ day had no authority of their own. Their authority came from their use of earlier authorities. Even Moses and the other OT prophets and authors did not speak in their own authority, but would say, “This is what the Lord says.” Jesus, on the other hand, interprets the law by saying, “You have heard that it was said. … But I say to you” (see Matt. 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44). This divine authority is shown with staggering clarity when he speaks of himself as the Lord who will judge the whole earth and will say to the wicked, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matt. 7:23). No wonder the crowd was amazed at the authority with which Jesus spoke. Jesus recognized that his words carried divine weight. He acknowledged the permanent authority of the law (Matt. 5:18) and put his words on an equal plane with it: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:18); “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35).
- Jesus had a unique relationship with God the Father. When he was a young boy, Jesus sat with the religious leaders in the temple, amazing people with the answers he gave. When his distraught parents finally found their “lost” adolescent, he replied by saying, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Jesus’ reference to God as “my Father” is a radical statement of a unique, intimate relationship with God, of which he was already fully conscious. Such a reference by an individual was unprecedented in Jewish literature. Jesus took this unique personal address to another level by referring to God the Father using the affectionate Aramaic expression ’Abba’.
- Jesus’ favorite self-designation was the title Son of Man. The phrase “a son of man” could mean merely “a human being.” But Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man (implying the unique, well-known Son of Man), which indicates that he sees himself as the Messianic Son of Man in Daniel 7 who is to rule over the whole world for all eternity:
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was givendominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed (Dan. 7:13–14).
Jesus establishes his divine authority as the glorious Messianic Son of Man by declaring that he has the power to forgive sin and is lord of the Sabbath: “‘But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’—he said to the paralytic—‘I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home’” (Mark 2:10–11); “And he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath’” (Mark 2:27–28).
- Jesus’ teaching emphasized his own identity. Jesus came teaching the kingdom of God, and in it he was the King. His teaching dealt with many topics but was centrally about himself. His question to his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15), is the ultimate question of his ministry.
- Jesus received worship. Perhaps the most radical demonstration of Jesus’ belief that he was God is the fact that when he was worshiped, as he sometimes was, he accepted that worship (Matt. 14:33; 28:9, 17; John 9:38; 20:28). If Jesus did not believe he was God, he should have vehemently rejected being worshiped, as Paul and Barnabas did in Lystra (Acts 14:14–15). That a monotheistic Jew like Jesus accepted worship from other monotheistic Jews shows that Jesus realized that he possessed a divine identity.
- Jesus equated himself with the Father, and as a result the Jewish leaders accused him of blasphemy:
But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (John 5:17–18).
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” [a clear allusion to the sacred divine name of Yahweh; cf. Ex. 3:14]. So they picked up stones to throw at him (John 8:58–59).
“I and the Father are one.” The Jews picked up stones again to stone him. … The Jews answered him, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:30–33).
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” [a reference to Daniel 7; see point 3]. And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death (Mark 14:61–64).
Implications of Christ’s Deity
Because Jesus is God, the following things are true:
- God can be known definitively and personally in Christ: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18); “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
- Redemption is possible and has been accomplished in Christ: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
- In Christ risen, ascended, and enthroned we have a sympathetic high priest who has omnipotent power to meet our needs: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15).
- Worship of and obedience to Christ is appropriate and necessary.
Historical Misunderstandings of Christ’s Deity
The earliest and most radical denial of the deity of Christ is called Ebionism or Adoptionism, which was taught by a small Jewish-Christian sect in the first century. They believed that the power of God came on a man named Jesus to enable him to fulfill the Messianic role, but that Christ was not God. A later and more influential Christological heresy was Arianism (early 4th century), which denied the eternal, fully divine nature of Christ. Arius (c. 256–336) believed Jesus was the “first and greatest of created beings.” Arius’s denial of Jesus’ full deity was rejected at the Council of Nicea in 325. At this council, Athanasius showed that according to Scripture Jesus is fully God, being of the same essence as the Father.
The Humanity of Christ
From the moment of Mary’s virginal conception of Jesus, his divine nature became permanently united to his human nature in one and the same person, the now incarnate Son of God. The biblical evidence for Jesus’ humanity is strong, showing that he had a human body, and a human mind, and experienced human temptation.
Jesus had a human birth and a human genealogy: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5).
Jesus had a human body that experienced growth (Luke 2:40, 52) as well as physical susceptibilities like hunger (Matt. 4:2), thirst (John 19:28), tiredness (John 4:6), and death (Luke 23:46).
As an old man, the apostle John was still in awe of the fact that he had been able to experience God the Son in the flesh. Like an excited child, he keeps repeating himself as he describes the incarnation:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life wasmade manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1–3).
John has known about the incarnation for over 50 years when he writes this letter, yet he still writes with wide-eyed wonder as he reflects on walking the shores of Galilee, fishing, eating, and laughing with, and having his feet washed by, a carpenter who was God in flesh!
Jesus continues to have a physical body in his resurrected state, and he went to great lengths to make sure his disciples realized this: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39; cf. Luke 24:42–43; John 20:17, 25–27). After his resurrection, Jesus returned to the Father by ascending in his divinely reanimated body before his disciples’ wondering eyes, thus affirming his ongoing full physical humanity (Luke 24:50–51; Acts 1:9–11). The ascension has been included in every important creed of the church because it teaches the enduring complete humanity of Jesus as the only mediator between God and man.
Jesus had a human mind that, according to the will of the Father, had limitations in knowledge: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). His human mind grew and increased in wisdom (Luke 2:52), and he even “learned obedience” (Heb. 5:8–9). To say Jesus “learned obedience” does not mean he moved from disobedience to obedience, but that he grew in his capacity to obey as he endured suffering.
Jesus experienced human temptation: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15; cf. Luke 4:1–2). While Jesus experienced every kind of human temptation, he never succumbed to sin (John 8:29, 46; 15:10; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 7:26; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5).
Jesus practiced spiritual disciplines. He regularly prayed with passion (Mark 14:36; Luke 10:21; Heb. 5:7), worshiped at services in the synagogue (Luke 4:16), read and memorized Scripture (Matt. 4:4–10), practiced the discipline of solitude (Mark 1:35; 6:46), observed the Sabbath (Luke 4:16), obeyed OT ceremonial laws (John 8:29, 46; 15:10; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15), and received the fullness of the Spirit (Luke 3:22; 4:1). These religious activities were done earnestly (Heb. 5:7) and habitually (Luke 4:16) as the means of a truly human spiritual growth process.
Given Jesus’ divine nature, the normality of most of his earthly life is staggering. It seems that Jesus spent the first 30 years of his life in relative obscurity, doing manual labor, taking care of his family, and being faithful to whatever his Father called him to do. In his public ministry Jesus performed miraculous signs and delivered authoritative teaching that could only come from God, and this was shockingly offensive for the people of his hometown, who saw Jesus’ simplicity and humility as incompatible with messianic wisdom and power:
Coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household” (Matt. 13:54–57).
Jesus did not cease to be fully human after the resurrection. He will be a man forever as he represents redeemed humanity for all of eternity (Acts 1:11; 9:5; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; 1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 7:25; Rev. 1:13).
Implications of the Humanity of Christ
Humans have obviously been sinful ever since the fall. Therefore, it is easy to assume that being sinful is an essential, necessary part of being a “human being.” But this is not true. Jesus was human and yet did not sin. The fact that he became man reveals the nature of true humanity. His humanity gives a glimpse of what our humanity would be, were it not tainted with sin. He shows that the problem with humanity is not that we are humans, but rather that we are fallen. Jesus’ human nature shows the potential of humanity as God intended. This display of sinless humanity reaffirms God’s declaration that creation in all its original dimensions (material and spiritual), including humanity, is by divine definition very good (Gen. 1:31).
Jesus’ humanity enables his representative obedience for us. “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:18–19). Because Jesus is truly human, his perfect life of obedience and overcoming all temptations—culminating in his perfect substitutionary death—can take the place of human rebellion and failure.
Because of Jesus’ humanity, he can truly be a substitutionary sacrifice for mankind. “Therefore 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” (Heb. 2:17). A man died on the cross when Jesus died, and his death truly atones for the sin of human beings, whose nature he shared.
Jesus’ humanity makes him the only effective mediator between God and man: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). Jesus’ divine and human natures enable him to stand in the gap between fallen humans and a holy God.
Jesus’ humanity enabled him to become a sympathetic high priest who experientially understands the difficult plight of humanity in a fallen world: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15–16; cf. Heb. 2:18).
Jesus’ humanity means he is a true example and pattern for human character and conduct. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Pet. 2:21; cf. 1 John 2:6).
Historical Misunderstandings of the Humanity of Christ
A second-century heresy called Docetism denied the true humanity of Christ. Docetism (from the Gk. verb dokeō, “to seem, to appear to be”) was based on the presuppositions of Gnosticism, which held to a radical dichotomy between the physical and spiritual realms, and a very negative view of the physical order as worthless. These beliefs led to denying any real physical substance to Jesus’ humanity. Docetic Christology taught that Jesus’ physical humanity was just an illusion; one of their statements was that “when Jesus walked on the beach, he left no footprints.” Docetism has devastating effects on the correct view of Christ, salvation, revelation, and creation. In this view, Christ does not represent humanity in his atoning work, nor does he show us God in human form. It also erodes a biblically positive view of creation which leads to either a negative or an indifferent perspective on life in the body. The NT refutes the seeds of what later became Gnosticism, with its Docetic view of Christ. John strongly condemns any view that denies Christ’s full, physical humanity: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already” (1 John 4:2).
Apollinarianism was another early heresy that denied Christ’s full humanity. Apollinarius (4th centurya.d.) believed humans had bodies, animal souls, and rational spirits. He thought the divine logos in Christ took the place of the rational spirit of a human. This view was successfully opposed in the fourth century by Gregory of Nazianzen and Athanasius, and rejected at the Council of Constantinople in a.d.381. The council showed that if Jesus is only, as it were, two-thirds human, full redemption of fully human people is lost. Gregory’s famous quotation was “that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” Jesus had to assume every element in a human nature in order to fully redeem humanity.
These two heresies teach believers to appreciate the importance of the humanity of Christ as well as provide a lesson on theological method. Both of these views bring presuppositions about humanity to the Bible and conform biblical teaching to them, rather than allowing Scripture to dictate everything, including the presuppositions. Evangelical theological method must always allow the teaching of Scripture to shape theological conclusions rather than transform its teaching on the basis of alien assumptions. Countless theological errors have occurred by imposing human ideas on the Bible.
The Distinction and Unity of Christ’s Two Natures
Along with Jesus’ full deity and humanity, the third and fourth necessary affirmations of biblical Christology are that in the incarnation, the divine and human natures remain distinct, and the natures are completely united in one person. The best evidence of these two realities are passages of Scripture where Jesus’ divine glory and human humility are brought together:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6).
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).
… concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 1:3–4).
None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified theLord of glory (1 Cor. 2:8).
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Gal. 4:4–5).
These verses present the profound mystery of the eternal, infinite Son of God stepping into time and space and taking on a human nature. There is no greater thought that could ever be pondered than this.
Implications of the Two Natures of Christ
The belief that Jesus is one person with both divine and human natures has great significance for the possibility of fallen people entering into a relationship with God. Christ must be both God and man if he is to mediate between God and man, make atonement for sin, and be a sympathetic high priest:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col. 1:19–20).
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5).
Therefore 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 (Heb. 2:17).
In his seminal work Why God Became Man, Anselm of Canterbury (c. a.d. 1033–1109) summarized the importance of the two natures of Christ for his atoning work by saying, “It is necessary that the self-same Person who is to make this satisfaction [for humanity’s sins] be perfect God and perfect man, since He cannot make it unless He be really God, and He ought not to make it unless He be really man” (Book II, ch. 7).
Historical Misunderstandings of the Unity of Christ’s Natures
There are six historical heresies related to the person of Christ listed in the chart. The first four heresies are explained above. Nestorianism emphasized the distinction between the natures of Christ so much that Christ was made to appear as two persons in one body. Eutychianism stressed the unity of the natures to the point where any distinction between them was lost, and Christ was thought to be some new entity, with only one nature, greater than mere man while being fully God in a novel way.
Heresies Concerning the Person of Christ
|Ebionism||denies the deity of Christ|
|Arianism||denies the fullness of the deity of Christ|
|Docetism||denies the humanity of Christ|
|Apollinarianism||denies the fullness of the humanity of Christ|
|Nestorianism||denies the unity of the natures in one person|
|Eutychianism||denies the distinction of the natures|
In a.d. 451, leaders of the church assembled at Chalcedon (outside of ancient Constantinople) and wrote a creed affirming both Jesus’ full humanity and his full deity, with his two natures united in one person. Hereby all six Christological heresies were rejected. This creed, formulated at Chalcedon, became the church’s foundational statement on Christ. The Chalcedonian Creed reads as follows:
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us (emphasis added).
Implications of Chalcedonian Christology
The Chalcedonian Creed teaches the church how to talk about the two natures of Christ without falling into error. In particular, Chalcedon teaches the church to affirm that:
1. One nature of Christ is sometimes seen doing things in which his other nature does not share.
2. Anything that either nature does, the person of Christ does. He, God incarnate, is the active agent every time.
3. The incarnation is a matter of Christ’s gaining human attributes, not of his giving up divine attributes. He gave up the glory of divine life (2 Cor. 8:9; Phil. 2:6), but not the possession of divine powers.
4. We must look first to the Gospel accounts of Jesus Christ’s ministry in order to see the incarnation actualized, rather than follow fanciful speculations shaped by erroneous human assumptions.
5. The initiative for the incarnation came from God, not from man.
While this creed does not solve all questions about the mystery of the incarnation, it has been accepted by Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches throughout history, and it has never needed any major alteration because it effectively articulates the biblical tension of Christ’s two natures, completely united in one person.
The Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is a fully and completely divine person who possesses all of the divine attributes. God the Spirit applies the work of God the Son. The Spirit’s distinct role is to accomplish the unified will of the Father and the Son and to be in personal relationship with both of them.
The Personality of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is a distinct personal being with definite characteristics. He is not merely an impersonal force or an emanation of the power of God. (See the article on the Trinity and the discussion of modalism.)
The baptismal formula of Matthew 28:19–20, “baptizing them in [or into] the name [singular; not, names] of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” puts the Spirit on an equal plane with the Father and the Son in his deity and personhood (cf. also Matt. 3:13–17; Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 12:4–6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4–6; 1 Pet. 1:2; Rev. 1:4–5).
The personal nature of the Holy Spirit is evident in his title “Comforter” or “Helper” (Gk. Paraklētos) found in John 12:26; 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7. Jesus says he will send the Comforter, who will take his place as his disciples’ helper: “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). An impersonal force could never provide as good a comfort as Jesus. The Holy Spirit must be personal in order to fulfill this most personal ministry.
Scripture speaks of several activities of the Spirit (see chart) that can only be performed if he is a personal agent. All of these activities of the Holy Spirit are profoundly personal and interrelate with the Father and Son in a way that could only be through the Spirit’s distinct personal nature.
Personal Actions of the Holy Spirit
|The Spirit comforts||John 12:26; 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7|
|The Spirit teaches||John 14:26; 1 Cor. 2:13|
|The Spirit speaks||Acts 8:29; 13:2|
|The Spirit makes decisions||Acts 15:28|
|The Spirit grieves over sin||Eph. 4:30|
|The Spirit overrules human actions||Acts 16:6–7|
|The Spirit searches the deep things of God and knows the thoughts of God||1 Cor. 2:10–11|
|The Spirit determines the distribution of spiritual gifts||1 Cor. 12:11|
|The Spirit interprets and brings human prayer before the throne of the Father||Rom. 8:26–27|
|The Spirit assures believers of their adoption||Rom. 8:16|
|The Spirit bears witness to and glorifies Christ||John 15:26; 16:14|
The Deity of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit possesses all the divine attributes, as shown in the chart. When the Holy Spirit works, it is God who is working. Jesus taught that regeneration is the work of God: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). The divine agent that brings this rebirth is the Spirit: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). God’s speaking through the prophets is accomplished through the work of the Spirit. As Paul says in Acts 28:25–26, “The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people, and say, You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.’” This is a quotation from Isaiah 6:9–10, which is an address from Yahweh to Isaiah. Here in Acts 28:25–26, Paul attributes the words to the Holy Spirit.
Divine Attributes of the Holy Spirit
|The Holy Spirit is eternal||Heb. 9:14|
|The Holy Spirit is omnipresent||Ps. 139:7–10|
|The Holy Spirit is omniscient||1 Cor. 2:10–11|
|The Holy Spirit is omnipotent||Luke 1:35–37|
|The Holy Spirit is holy||Rom. 1:4|
Furthermore, the Bible equates a believer’s relationship to the Spirit and his relationship with God. To lie to the Spirit is to lie to God: “But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God’” (Acts 5:3–4). The Holy Spirit is the one who guarantees God’s redeeming work in the lives of believers, and he is the one directly grieved by their sin: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph. 4:30).
The Work of the Holy Spirit
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal in nature but distinct in role and relationship. The distinct roles typically have the Father willing, the Son accomplishing, and the Spirit applying the work of the Son. The Spirit is clearly at work in the key events throughout the history of salvation, including the creation, Christ’s incarnation, Christ’s resurrection, human regeneration, the inspiration and illumination of Scripture, and the believer’s sanctification.
The Spirit’s Role in the Ministry of Jesus
The Spirit’s role in the human life of the incarnate Christ is often underappreciated. The Spirit brings about the incarnation (Luke 1:35), anoints Jesus for his public ministry at his baptism (Matt. 3:16;Mark 1:10; Luke 3:21–22), fills Jesus (Luke 4:1), leads and empowers Jesus throughout his earthly life (Luke 4:14, 18), and raises Jesus from the dead (Rom. 8:11). The atoning work of Christ is also a Trinitarian accomplishment, with the Spirit playing a prominent role, as seen in Hebrews 9:14: “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”
The Spirit’s Work in God’s People
The reality of God’s presence is brought to God’s people by God’s Spirit. His work is central in the promises of new covenant realities. “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions” (Joel 2:28); “And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God” (Ezek. 39:29). These promises are inaugurated at Pentecost when the Spirit’s power is poured out on all nations.
The Spirit is the primary person of the Trinity at work in applying the finished work of Christ in the lives of God’s people. The acts of the Holy Spirit—rather than the acts of the apostles—are the focal point of the book of Acts. He is the one who enables the apostles to accomplish all their kingdom-advancing work. The power of the Spirit is the catalyst of spiritual transformation. Prayer, church attendance, moral living, coming from a Christian family, and knowing all the right religious words are not a sufficient basis for assurance of one’s salvation. But one clear guarantee that someone has passed from death into life is the Spirit’s work transforming that person’s manner of living. He marks the life and character of believers in a definitive way, as seen in Ephesians 1:13: “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (cf. 2 Cor. 1:21–22).
In the book of Acts, the Spirit’s work was often immediately manifested in miraculous gifts such as speaking in tongues and prophesying. While the Spirit may still choose to work in these ways, it is the fruit of the Spirit that is the normative and necessary evidence of God’s work in someone’s life: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:22–23). After the inward renewal that makes someone who has trusted Christ a new creation, the Spirit also brings spiritual understanding, convicts of sin, reveals the truth of the Word, brings assurance of salvation, empowers for holy living, teaches, and comforts.
Although the Holy Spirit’s work is evident in the life of someone who is truly born again, even believers can operate “in the flesh” (i.e., by their own self and natural ability apart from God), rather than by Spirit-empowered transformation. God is pleased when his people walk in the Spirit and thus show evidence of his work. God-honoring, unified Christian community is possible only when believers walk in the Spirit. This is why Christians are reminded to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1–3).
The Holy Spirit Glorifies Christ
The Holy Spirit’s work can easily be neglected. Perhaps the reason for this is that one of his primary roles is to glorify Christ by testifying to his kingdom and his saving work, past, present, and future: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13–14). Because the Holy Spirit’s purpose is to glorify Christ, he is honored when this objective is accomplished. The Spirit’s deepest longing is that the Son be honored. Jesus is the focus of the Spirit’s ministry, and believers honor the Spirit by depending on his help in order to honor Christ. The Holy Spirit works to advance the work of Christ to the glory of the Father, and he empowers and anoints the people of God to do the same.
As seen in the chart, the Holy Spirit glorifies Christ in four fundamental ways. The Spirit continually points to the beauty and wonder of the Son so that people will be drawn to him, become like him, and point others to him as well: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).
How the Holy Spirit Glorifies Christ
|The Spirit illumines the Bible (the centrality of Christ)||Luke 24:27, 44–48|
|The Spirit empowers gospel preaching (proclamation of Christ)||Acts 1:8|
|The Spirit brings regeneration (new life in Christ)||John 3:5–8|
|The Spirit sanctifies the believer (transformation into the image of Christ)||Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:2|
Humans become like what they adore. The Spirit works to foster adoration of Christ so that people will become like him. Thus, sanctification flows from adoration, and both are accomplished by the Spirit in the believer’s life.
Implications of the Spirit’s Work
The ultimate goal of all of life is to know and love God, make him known, and thereby glorify him. This goal is accomplished primarily through the work of the Holy Spirit. Reading the Bible, going to church, Christian fellowship, spiritual disciplines, service, and worship are merely playing at religion if all of these activities are not empowered, guided, and filled by the Spirit. If he is not present, even these good things are fleshly, empty, and repugnant to God: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13). A life pleasing to God involves daily dependence on the precious Holy Spirit. He is to be known, sought, and loved. His awakening and empowering have always been the essential ingredients of true and lasting works of God in the lives of his people. His work in the transformed lives of believers is the key to a Christian life that experiences God’s blessing and becomes an effective witness to a cynical, skeptical world. Because of the Spirit’s presence, true Christians are no longer slaves to sin: “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rom. 8:9).
It is often too quickly assumed that Jesus’ holiness and power in ministry were because of his divine nature rather than the work of the Holy Spirit in his human life. As a result, believers may discount Jesus as their true example. In his holy living and powerful ministry, Jesus often drew on the same resources as are available to all believers, especially the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit.
The three persons of the Trinity have now been fully revealed in redemptive history, and the Holy Spirit is bringing their work to a magnificent consummation. Many believers expect a world revival in the last days that will include all peoples. Even if such a revival does not come in the generation that is now alive, God’s people should be giving glimpses of that coming revival in the character of their lives even today. Such glimpses contribute to fulfilling the Great Commission. Jesus sent his followers even as the Father sent him (John 20:21), and living under and in that authority they are able to say with Jesus, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18). When the Spirit works, the gospel will be boldly proclaimed and God’s kingdom will advance.
The Work of Christ
The doctrine of the work of Christ is traditionally organized by the offices he fulfilled and the stages of his work.
The Offices of Christ
Christ perfectly fulfilled the OT offices of prophet, priest, and king. These offices or roles in the OT reveal aspects of God’s word, presence, and power. The anointing and empowering of the Holy Spirit and favor of God was essential if these offices were to truly represent God. OT prophets, priests, and kings foreshadowed the Messiah who would one day ultimately and definitively be manifest as God’s Son and Word, bringing access to God’s presence and inaugurating the kingdom of God.
The Prophetic Work of Christ
A true prophet of God proclaims God’s word to people. God promised Moses that he would raise up a messianic prophet who would authoritatively speak for him: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him” (Deut. 18:18–19). Those in Jesus’ day expected the Messiah to fulfill the prophetic role the OT foretold. As the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus’ prophetic ministry brought all that previous prophets of God had proclaimed to a definitive culmination: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world” (Heb. 1:1–2). Jesus equated his own words with the authoritative words of the Hebrew Scriptures, showing that he knew his words were the very words of God. He recognized the unchanging authority of the Mosaic law (Matt. 5:18) and gave his teaching the same weight: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my wordswill not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). Because Jesus’ words are the very words of God, they are divinely authoritative, eternal, and unchangeable.
Jesus’ prophetic authority is vastly superior to that of any other prophet because he speaks God’s wordsas God. The divine authority of his words is based on his identity as God incarnate. He proclaimed God’s truth as the One who is the Truth (John 14:6). His word is the ultimate Word.
Implications of the Prophetic Office of Christ
Since Jesus Christ is the true and perfect prophet, he is the ultimate source of truth about God, ourselves, the meaning of life, the future, right and wrong, salvation, and heaven and hell. The voice of Jesus in the Word of God should be eagerly sought and obeyed without reservation or delay. Even though Jesus perfectly fulfills the office of prophet, God’s plan is for the church to represent him with its own ongoing prophetic voice, proclaiming truth into the world. Paul certainly saw his own ministry as speaking for God: “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
The Priestly Work of Christ
While a prophet speaks God’s words to the people, a priest represents the people before God and represents God before the people. He is a man who stands in the presence of God as a mediator (Heb. 5:1). The priestly work of Christ involves both atonement and intercession.
The Atonement of Christ
The atonement is central to God’s work in the history of salvation (1 Cor. 15:4). Atonement is the making of enemies into friends by averting the punishment that their sin would otherwise incur. Sinners in rebellion against God need a representative to offer sacrifice on their behalf if they are to be reconciled to God. Jesus’ righteous life and atoning death on behalf of sinners is the only way for fallen man to be restored into right relationship with a holy God.
Even with the extensive requirements for the priesthood in the OT, there was nevertheless a realization that these human priests were unable to make lasting atonement (Ps. 110:1, 4; cf. Heb. 10:1–4). Jesus alone was able to make an offering sufficient for the eternal forgiveness of sins. Because Jesus was without sin, he was uniquely able to offer sacrifice without needing atonement for himself. In offering himself as the perfect, spotless Lamb of God, he could actually pay for sins in a way that OT sacrifices could not. Jesus’ atoning offering was thus eternal, complete, and once-for-all. No other sacrifice will ever be needed to pay the price for human sin.
The Necessity of the Atonement
Jesus died because of human sin, but also in accordance with God’s plan. The reality of human sin is vividly seen in the envy of the Jewish leaders (Matt. 27:18), Judas’s greed (Matt. 26:14–16), and Pilate’s cowardice (Matt. 27:26). However, Jesus gave his life of his own initiative and courageous love: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. … For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father” (John 10:11, 17–18; cf. Gal. 2:20).
The Father’s divine initiative also led to Jesus’ atoning work: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32; cf. Isa. 53:6, 10; John 3:16). As in all events of human history, God’s sovereign determination works in a way compatible with human decisions and actions. Even human sin is woven into God’s divine purposes, as is seen in verses that say Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23), and that “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” were gathered together to do “whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28).
Christ came to save sinners in order to accomplish God’s will. Christ died in accordance with God’s sovereign, free, gracious choice—not because he was in any way compelled to offer salvation to mankind because of something inherent in us. God did not save fallen angels (2 Pet. 2:4), and he would have been entirely justified in condemning all of fallen humanity to hell; only by reason of his amazing mercy and grace can anyone be saved.
Atonement in the Bible is explained with numerous metaphors and images. The chart shows the varied images the Bible uses to describe the achievement that is at the heart of the gospel.
Biblical Descriptions of the Atonement
|Type of Language||Biblical Words||Human Need||The Result|
|Language of OT sacrifices||Blood, lamb, sacrifice||We are guilty||We are forgiven|
|Language of personal relationships||Reconciliation||We are alienated from God||We are brought back into intimate fellowship with God|
|Language of righteous anger at wrongdoing||Propitiation||We are under God’s holy wrath||God’s wrath is satisfied/quenched|
|Language of the marketplace||Redemption, ransom||We are enslaved||We are set free|
|Language of the law court||Justification||We are condemned||We are pardoned and counted as righteous|
|Language of the battlefield||Victory, deliverance, rescue||We are facing dreadful enemies||We are delivered and are triumphant in Christ|
Throughout church history, various aspects of the atonement have garnered particular attention. For instance, at different times theologians have stressed the ransom imagery, the selfless example of Christ, and the victory of Christ over evil. These aspects of the atonement, rightly understood, contain true and important insights, but the crux of the atonement is Christ taking the place of sinners and enduring the wrath of God as their substitute sacrifice. This is evident in passages like 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”) and Isaiah 53:4–5 (“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed”; cf. Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). The fundamental problem of human sin has been solved in Christ’s dying for sinners who deserved eternal judgment. Any attempt to diminish the importance of the penal substitution of Christ for us (i.e., the truth that Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins) will diminish God’s holiness and wrath, as well as the heinous depth of human sin.
Christ’s physical suffering on the cross was outweighed by the emotional, psychological, and spiritual anguish of bearing the sin of mankind and having the wrath of the Father poured out on him. The abandonment and bearing of God’s wrath that Jesus experienced on the cross is beyond our comprehension. On account of this merciful, substitutionary sacrifice he will be worshiped for all eternity by those who are his (Rev. 5:11–12). While Jesus’ death for sinners was the basis of his atoning work, his life of perfect righteousness in their place was also necessary to win their forgiveness. He not only died for rebels, he also lived for them (Rom. 5:19; Phil. 3:9).
The Intercession of Christ
Jesus’ priestly work on the cross atoned for sin once for all. Grounded in that atoning work, his priestly work of intercession continues now and forevermore on behalf of his people: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34); Christ “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:25). Jesus is alive and always at work representing and bringing requests for believers before the throne of God, intervening in heaven for them. He is the God-man who mediates and represents fallen people based on his fully sufficient work on the cross, and his intervention never fails. Jesus, the sinner’s divine lawyer, never loses a case: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
As the people who constitute the church are intended to have a prophetic voice as Christ’s ambassadors, God also intends to use the church in a priestly role to usher people into his presence. Because of Christ’s work, all of God’s people are viewed as priests with priestly access into his presence and with the privilege of representing people before God (1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 5:9–10). Prayer, preaching, gospel proclamation, and taking initiative in personal, spiritual ministry are all ways in which God’s people can encourage others to seek and know God and can thereby fulfill their call to represent Christ as a kingdom of priests.
The Kingly Work of Christ
Christ is not only the ultimate prophet and priest, he is also the divine king. Unlike the kings of Israel who were intended to foreshadow the Messiah, Jesus’ reign as messianic King is in no way limited. He rules over all creation and for all time (Luke 1:31–33; Col. 1:17). This rule most directly touches believers at present, but one day all peoples will bow to his royal authority (Phil. 2:9–10). In addition to his comprehensive rule, Christ the King also defends, protects, and shepherds his people and will one day judge all the world’s inhabitants—past, present, and future.
God’s people represent their King when they work to see kingdom realities spread in the world. When they seek social justice—fighting to relieve the plight of the poor, disenfranchised, or unborn—they are working to spread the values of their King. When they work hard and live as good citizens, they are salt and light in a dark world, ultimately serving the interest of their King. One day, when Christ makes all things new, those who are in him will reign with their King: “The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2 Tim. 2:11–12a; cf.Rev. 5:9–10).
The Stages of Christ’s Work
There is perhaps no more comprehensive yet concise statement on the work of Christ than Philippians 2:5–11:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
These verses teach the profound humility and eventual exaltation of Christ in the history of salvation. The key sequence set out here has been described as the 10 stages of Christ’s work, divided into a humiliation phase and an exaltation phase. The stages are: (1) preincarnate glory; (2) incarnation; (3) earthly life; (4) crucifixion; (5) resurrection; (6) ascension; (7) sitting at God’s right hand; (8) second coming; (9) future reign (some think this will be a millennial reign; see Introduction to Revelation); (10) eternal glory.
The 10 stages and two phases can be visualized as shown in the diagram.
The Humiliation and Exaltation of Christ
The Humiliation of Christ
|Incarnation||“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).|
|Earthly Life||“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).|
|Crucifixion||“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).|
The Exaltation of Christ
|Resurrection||“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25–26).|
|Ascension||“Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).|
|Heavenly Session||“Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34).|
|Second Coming||“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first” (1 Thess. 4:16).|
|Eternal Glory||“And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’” (Rev. 5:13).|
To truly understand the humility of Christ in becoming a man, one must ponder what he gave up in order to make this possible. While we know very little about the experience of God before this world’s creation, we do know that he has always existed as one being, the three persons within his being perfectly relating in mutual love and glorification as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (John 1:1; 17:5, 24). Along with this intra-Trinitarian glorification, angelic beings (creatures themselves) unceasingly worship the infinite worth of the triune God. Jesus consented to surrender this perfect heavenly state so he could represent humanity in his incarnation. When he took the role of a servant and assumed a human nature in addition to his divine nature (Phil. 2:5–11), his divinity was veiled in his humanity. He willingly surrendered the continuous heavenly display and acknowledgment of his glorious divine nature. This amazing humility is taught in 2 Corinthians 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he become poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Only when the glories of heaven are finally revealed will what Jesus temporarily gave up in coming to earth as a man be most fully understood. What amazing, loving condescension!
The Humiliation of Christ
In the incarnation (lit., “in flesh”) Christ took on a full, complete human nature, including a physical body, so that he could truly represent humanity (Phil. 2:6; Heb. 2:17). God the Son chose to come to earth in the most humble way, defying all expectation. His contemporaries saw him as the son of a poor couple, born in a small, obscure village, and with nothing in his appearance to attract them to himself (cf. Isa. 53:2). In the incarnation, God shows in striking manner that he does not value what the world so often values.
Christ’s earthly life was one of continual humiliation. He subtly and selectively revealed his divine glory, even keeping it a secret at times (Matt. 9:30; Mark 1:44; 5:43). He radically altered the prevalent conception of the Messiah, combining the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 with the glorious Conquering King of Daniel 7. Throughout his life Jesus was poor and at times homeless: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). His life was one of great and consistent service for the good of others. The last grand gesture of his life before going to the cross was washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–17). Although multitudes followed him during his public ministry, he also faced frequent persecution and rejection, at times even in his hometown (Luke 4:28–29). The creatures’ rejection of their Creator epitomizes human rebellion. John 1:10–11 describes this tragedy: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
Jesus’ earthly life ended with some of his closest friends betraying him (Judas), denying him (Peter), and deserting him (all the disciples, Matt. 26:56). His life was filled with rejection, loneliness, poverty, persecution, hunger, temptation, suffering, and finally death.
Christ’s humiliation reached its greatest depth when he gave his life on a criminal’s cross for sinful humanity. The cross stands at the center of human history as God’s supreme act of love (1 John 4:10, 17) and the only source of redemption for lost and fallen humanity (Rom. 14:9).
The Exaltation of Christ
While Jesus’ life of humiliation represented the life of human beings living in a fallen world, his victorious exaltation represents a pattern that will someday be reproduced (and is partially reproduced already) in those who believe in him. The exaltation of Christ began when he left his grave clothes in an empty tomb. Sin, Satan, and death were decisively defeated when Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus foretold his resurrection (e.g., Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34) and then actually did rise from the dead (as is shown by convincing historical evidence, such as the empty tomb, numerous eyewitness accounts, the radical change in the disciples’ lives, etc.). In addition to defeating sin and death, the resurrection was the Father’s validation of the Son’s ministry (Rom. 1:3) and demonstrates the complete effectiveness of Christ’s atoning work (Rom. 4:25).
First Corinthians 15 provides the most comprehensive treatment of the benefits of the resurrection. By explaining what would be lost if Jesus had not risen from the dead, Paul provides abundant reason for hope in the truth of the resurrection because “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20). Because Christ rose from the dead, the sins of those who rely on him are forgiven (v. 17), the apostolic preaching is true (v. 15), faith in Christ is true and he can be fully trusted (v. 14), those who follow Christ are to be emulated and their preaching is of great value (v. 19), and those who die in Christ will be raised (v. 18). Because of the resurrection, the Christian has great hope that generates confidence in all circumstances. The resurrection is not merely a doctrine to be affirmed intellectually; it is the resounding affirmation that Jesus reigns over all, and the power that raised him from the dead is the Christian’s power for living the Christian life on earth and the assurance of eternal life in heaven.
The ascension is Christ’s return to heaven from earth (Luke 24:50–51; John 14:2, 12; 16:5, 10, 28; Acts 1:6–11; Eph. 4:8–10; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 4:14; 7:26; 9:24). The incarnation does not cease with Christ’s ascension. Jesus lives, now and forever, as true man and true God to mediate between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). He will come again as he left, fully God and fully man (Acts 1:11).
Jesus’ ascension is a crucial event in his ministry because it explicitly shows his continual humanity and the permanence of his resurrection. The importance of the ascension is seen in the fact that it is taught in all of the essential creeds of the church, beginning with the Apostles’ Creed. The ascension guarantees that Jesus will always represent humanity before the throne of God as the mediator, intercessor, and advocate for needy humans. Because of the ascension, we can be sure that Jesus’ unique resurrection leads the way for the everlasting resurrection of the redeemed. A human face and nail-scarred hands will greet believers one day in heaven.
Jesus also ascended to prepare a place for his people (John 14:2–3) and to enable the Holy Spirit to come (John 16:7), which he said was more advantageous for the church than if he had stayed on earth (John 14:12, 17).
Sitting At God’s Right Hand
The current state of Christ’s work is called his “heavenly session,” meaning that he is seated at the right hand of the Father, actively interceding and reigning over his kingdom, awaiting his second coming (Acts 2:3–36; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20–22; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3, 13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet. 3:22; Rev. 3:21; 22:1). The OT foretold this phase of the Messiah’s work: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’” (Ps. 110:1). Jesus told of the heavenly session which would precede his return when he referred to the messianic imagery of Daniel 7: “from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). The right hand of God is the symbolic place of power, honor, distinction, and prestige. Jesus “sits” to portray the sufficiency of his saving work on earth; he continues a vital, active ministry as he reigns over all creation.
Jesus’ current ministry is a great source of comfort, authority, and encouragement for the believer because it ensures that his ministry as Prophet, Priest, and King continues and will one day be acknowledged by all creation. From his current exalted position Jesus pours out his Spirit on his people: “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33). His precious intercession on behalf of his people takes place at the right hand of the Father so that the believer need never fear condemnation: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34).
Second Coming and Future Reign
Biblical interpreters are divided as to whether Jesus’ coming will occur in one stage or two (see the article on Last Things). But all agree that someday Christ will return in great glory and there will be a definitive, comprehensive acknowledgment that he is Lord over all. He will then judge the living and the dead. All people and forces that oppose him will be vanquished, including death itself (Matt. 25:31; 1 Cor. 15:24–28), “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11).
Prior to the incarnation Jesus was glorious. But by displaying his holy character through his incarnate life, death, and resurrection, he received even greater glory. Jesus’ preincarnate glory was taken to a new level when he entered into his eternal glory not only as God but now as God-Man. Jesus displayed his divine character through the human actions of his incarnate life, death, and resurrection. His majesty, mercy, love, holiness, wisdom, and power have been manifested sinlessly in a true man, and for this Jesus will be praised for all eternity. Therefore, the worship of heaven focuses on the work of Christ as the worthy Lamb who was slain:
And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth. … Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev. 5:9–10, 12)
Christ’s eternal glory, which he shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is the supreme goal of all that he did. In redeeming a people for himself, he displayed his many perfections in such a way that he will now receive the glory he deserves. That glory will be displayed and acknowledged around his throne, in the songs of heaven forever!
God as Creator
God created human beings and everything else that has ever existed in distinction from himself. From the first verse of the Bible (which declares that God created the heavens and the earth) to the last chapters of the Bible (where God brings about a new heaven and earth), God is seen as the praiseworthy source of all that is. Worship is the right response to God’s creative and sustaining power. Often in the Bible the praise of God’s people arises out of the recognition that God made the heavens and the earth:
“You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Neh. 9:6).
Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! (Ps. 95:6; cf.Acts 14:15).
God’s personal, wise power is clearly seen in creation, especially in humanity:
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth (Ps. 139:13–15).
The key passage for understanding the nature of mankind is Genesis 1:26–28:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Cf. Gen. 2:7; 5:1–2; 9:6; Matt. 19:4; Acts 17:24–25).
Both men and women are made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), and therefore they are more like God than anything else in all creation. Human beings are intended to live as God’s created analogy for his own glory. God did not create humans because of any need within himself (Job 41:11; Ps. 50:9–12; Acts 17:24–25) but primarily so that he would be glorified in them as they delight in him and reflect his character. We were created primarily to be in relationship with our Creator and find our greatest joy in him. When people are supremely satisfied in him, God is rightly honored and delights in his creation. God describes his people as “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isa. 43:7; cf. Eph. 1:11–12).
Although God has no unmet needs, humans bring delight to his heart as they trust and obey him.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. … As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you (Isa. 62:3–5).
The Lord your God is in your midst … he will rejoice over you with gladness … he will exult over you with loud singing (Zeph. 3:17).
God’s delight in the Spirit-empowered faithfulness of his people is the believer’s greatest motive for holy living in the Christian life. Unbiblical motives for obeying God’s commands include pragmatism, legalism, utilitarianism, and man-centeredness. But biblical ethics insists that our deepest desire should be to find our greatest joy in bringing joy to the heart of our Creator.
Implications of Being Created in God’s Image for His Glory
1. Humility, Purpose, and Accountability
When God is recognized as the Creator of everything, he takes his rightful place as the one upon whom we are utterly dependent for all we are and have. Nothing exists apart from the creative and sustaining power of God, and all things owe honor and submission to him. This dependence should lead to deep humility and accountability before the God who made us (Rom. 9:20–21). God’s personal creation of all humans (Ps. 139:13–16) is the basis for human purpose and meaning. The doctrine of creation ensures that we recognize God as majestic and great, and recognize that we are very small before him. When people truly understand God as Creator, they recognize that he is eternal, powerful, wise, good, the owner of all things, and the judge of all. Because God is Creator, all people must answer to him; he, however, need not answer to anyone: “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Rom. 9:20–21).
2. Seeing the Gifts and Glory of God in Creation
At the culmination of God’s creation he declared it to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31), but it was later marred and distorted by the fall and God’s curse (Genesis 3; Rom. 8:20–23). Nevertheless, the heavens continue to declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1–14), God continues to give bountiful gifts to be gratefully enjoyed (1 Tim. 6:17), and God’s image-bearers are encouraged to see and glorify him in all things (1 Cor. 10:31).
3. Hope Due to God’s Creative Work and Power
The NT compares God’s work of redemption with his work in creation: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). When God redeems someone, he is re-creating with the same power with which he spoke the world into existence (2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 2:10). God is the powerful, wise, good God who made everything; knowing this provides great hope for personal and cosmic transformation. There is never room for a believer to despair over his or her own level of sanctification, nor is it legitimate to doubt God’s ability to change someone we are ministering to, because God’s power as Creator is more than able to change rebellious hearts into worshipful ones. We can also be sure that this fallen and cursed world will one day be made new by the One who created it in the first place.
4. Philosophy of Ministry
Because God created everything with his glory as the ultimate goal, bringing honor to his name is the appropriate, explicit, overarching objective of all life and ministry: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). When planning a worship service or church program, thinking through a business plan, raising a family, creating art, or running a farm, the fundamental question must always be, “Will God be glorified?”
Man Made in the Image of God
Man is made in the image of God, which means that he is like God and represents God on the earth:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen. 1:26–27).
While everything in creation to some degree reflects something of who God is (Ps. 19:1–6), humans stand alone as made in the image and likeness of God. People are intended to live as God’s created analogies, showing his character more clearly than anything else can show it. Being made in the image of God distinguishes mankind from all other living things.
While humans are the pinnacle of creation, to say we are like God also means that we are not and will never be God. We have great dignity because we are made in God’s image, but our worth is not autonomous. God is the source of all human value.
The fall and curse of humanity distorts the image of God in man but does not remove it from him. After the fall, the image of God remains the basis for human dignity and biblical ethics (Gen. 9:6; James 3:8–9).
The image of God is evident in our unique spiritual, moral, mental, relational, and physical capacities. Humans reflect the image of God in varying degrees and ways, but no one is made in more of God’s image or less of God’s image. The foundation of Christian ethics is the assumption that all humans are made in God’s image regardless of the presence or absence of certain abilities. From conception to death all human beings are God’s image-bearers, and all are creatures of profound dignity and value, equally worthy of protection and respect. The value of human life is not affected or determined by age, disability, race, intellectual ability, emotional or mental state, relational powers, or gender.
The Great Commandment—to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength—obviously entails the second greatest commandment: to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37–40). Love for Godmust be expressed in love for people, even one’s enemies (Luke 6:27). “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20–21). Christians are called to see beyond mankind’s fallen condition to the image of God in the people they interact with every day, and to love them based on what God says is true of them. This means they no longer regard anyone from a worldly point of view but rather see them with God’s eyes: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer” (2 Cor. 5:16). As Augustine wrote, “Yet men go out and gaze in astonishment at high mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad reaches of rivers, the ocean that encircles the world, or the stars in their courses. But they pay no attention to themselves” (Confessions 10.8).
Jesus, who in his divinity is already the image of the invisible God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15), perfectly reflects the divine image in his true humanity and holy life on earth. Jesus shows perfect humanness in his perfect fellowship with and obedience to the Father, which leads to his selfless love for others. These characteristics of Christ’s life are foundational to all other God-glorifying manifestations of the image of God in humanity. Therefore, to experience true humanity, God’s people should pattern their lives after Jesus’ exemplary relationship to God the Father. In this way, they will be conformed more and more to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29; cf. 1 John 3:2).
The Constitutional Makeup of Human Beings
Biblically, there are at least two distinct aspects of a human being—spiritual (spirit/soul) and physical (body). Some interpreters hold that the “soul” and “spirit” are distinct parts of a human being, and therefore that we are composed of three parts: body, soul, and spirit. This view is called “trichotomy.” However, the vast majority of evangelical scholars today hold that “spirit” and “soul” are basically synonymous and are two different ways of talking about the immaterial aspect of our being, “soul” pointing to our personal selves as responsible individuals and “spirit” pointing to those same selves as created by and dependent on God. This view is called “dichotomy” (see note on 1 Thess. 5:23–28). It is important to see that there is a fundamental unity between the physical and spiritual within humans. While a distinction is made in the Bible between the material and immaterial parts of the human being, the emphasis is on the necessary connection between body and soul. Regeneration and sanctification for the Christian is a spiritual experience intended to be expressed in the physical body in and through which we have been made to live. The separation of body and soul caused at death is an unnatural tragedy, which will be remedied when the body is resurrected, allowing humans to exist as they were intended to do.
Humanity as Male and Female
God made man (Hb. ’adam) as male and female from the beginning, completely equal in their value and in their full humanity (Gen. 1:26–27; 9:6), and yet distinct in the way they relate and function. The distinct roles of men and women are grounded in the nature of God (1 Cor. 11:3) and were part of God’s very good creation before the fall (1 Cor. 11:8–10; 1 Tim. 2:13). These role distinctions in no way minimize the worth of men or women. Both are equally made in God’s image, equally fallen (Genesis 3;Rom. 3:23), equally redeemable (Gal. 3:28; 1 Pet. 3:7), and are equally to be resurrected and glorified (1 John 3:2). This equality is expressed, however, with the husband serving in his God-ordained role as authority and servant leader (Gen. 2:23) and with the wife fulfilling her vital role as supporter and helper (Gen. 2:18; 1 Pet. 3:1–6) in the family and the church. Male authority is to be exercised with love, humility, and respect, under the authority of Christ (Eph. 5:25–33; Col. 3:19; 1 Pet. 3:7). Female submission is not servile weakness but rather a display of strength and trust in God as the woman uses all her God-given abilities while refusing to usurp the male authority in her life (Eph. 5:22–25; Col. 3:18; 1 Tim. 2:12; 3:2; Titus 2:4–5; 1 Pet. 3:1–6). The fall greatly distorted the harmonious yet distinct way men and women were intended to function together (Gen. 3:16), and God’s people are called to show the world how men and women are meant to relate in mutually beneficial ways for the glory of God. When men and women function in this complementary way, they display something profoundly and mysteriously like the relationship between Jesus and his Bride, the church. After quoting a verse from Genesis 2:24 that refers to the marriage between Adam and Eve as God originally created it, Paul gives a theological explanation that shows God’s purpose for all marriages, namely, to be a picture of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:32).
God’s Relationship with Creation
Transcendence and Immanence
God is both transcendent (majestic and holy, far greater than his creatures) and immanent (near and present, fully involved with his creatures). To understand the God of the Bible, this vital biblical tension must be appreciated. God is distinct from and far above all he has made: “The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens! Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?” (Ps. 113:4). Yet he is also always actively, personally engaged with his creation: “Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring’” (Acts 17:27–28). Those most humbled by God’s majesty and holiness most experience personal closeness with him: “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place [transcendence], and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite [immanence]’” (Isa. 57:15).
Non-Christian religions tend to one extreme or the other; either to a god who is so “other than” creation that nothing meaningful can be said about him (e.g., Eastern and New Age religions) or who is so “identified with” creation that his majestic holiness is lost (e.g., Greco-Roman and much current Western religion). An accurate understanding of God deeply appreciates both his awesome otherness and his intimate nearness. Christians relate to a God who is both the great “I am” and the “God of our Fathers” (Ex. 3:14–15). He is the eternal, infinite God who has stepped not only into time and space but also into covenant relationship with his people through the incarnation of Christ. The biblical balance between God’s transcendence and his immanence is hard to maintain, but the best worship, prayer, and daily relating to God is that which has in it a deep recognition of both God’s majestic holiness and his personal engagement with the creatures he has made.
The Providence of God
God is always personally involved with his creation in sustaining and preserving it, and acting within it to bring about his own perfect goals. Everything that takes place is under God’s control. He “works all things according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11). His providential dominion is over all things (Prov. 16:9; 19:21; James 4:13–15)—like weather (Job 38:22–30), food (Ps. 145:15), and sparrows (Matt. 10:29), as well as kings (Prov. 21:1), kingdoms (Dan. 4:25), and the exact times and places in which people live (Acts 17:26). Salvation is a work of God’s governing power: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8–9; cf. Ezek. 36:24; John 6:37–40; Acts 13:48; 16:14; Rom. 9:16; Phil. 1:29; 2 Pet. 1:1). God’s providential power also brings about sanctification (Phil. 2:12–13) and fruitfulness in ministry (Col. 1:28–29).
God is able to work out his sovereign will within the distinctive characteristics of what he has created. He moves a rock as a rock, and moves a human heart as a human heart. He does not turn a person into a thing when he brings about his sovereign intentions in a person’s life. Paul describes sanctification as the result of both human effort and ultimate divine enabling when he commands believers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12). He sees no conflict between divine and human activity. Rather, God is uniquely able to bring about his purposes within human beings so that they are fully engaged as persons and responsible for their own decisions, attitudes, and actions.
God’s Relationship to Evil
God controls and uses evil but is never morally blameworthy for it (Ex. 4:11; Deut. 32:39; Isa. 45:7;Amos 3:6). However God’s relationship to evil is understood, both his complete sovereignty and his complete holiness must be maintained. In his great suffering, Job says, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). We are told that Job’s assessment of God’s providence over evil is correct in that “in all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong” (Job 1:22). Joseph expresses a similar attitude of the God-ordained evil actions of his brothers toward him when he says, “as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen. 50:20). The greatest evil ever done, the crucifixion of Christ, happened because of unspeakable human sin, but all within God’s perfect plan. “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; cf. Acts 4:27–28). Even human rebellion unintentionally ends up serving the perfectly wise purposes of God. Nothing—not even sin and great evil—can ever ultimately frustrate God’s sovereignty. Christians can be sure that God will one day defeat all sin, evil, and suffering. Until then, God can be trusted because he is wise, holy, sovereign, and powerful and is always working out his plan to perfection (Rom. 8:28)—even when in the short term it may not seem to be so from our earthly, human perspective.
Biblical Terms for Sin
The Bible explains human rebellion against God from several perspectives and with various images:
“doing … evil” (Judg. 2:11)
“disobedience” (Rom. 5:19)
“transgression” (Ex. 23:21; 1 Tim. 2:14)
“iniquity” (Lev. 26:40)
“lawlessness” (Titus 2:14, 1 John 3:4)
“trespass” (Eph. 2:1)
“ungodliness” (1 Pet. 4:18)
“unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9)
“unholy” (1 Tim. 1:9)
“wickedness” (Prov. 11:31)
The Definition of Sin
Sin is anything (whether in thoughts, actions, or attitudes) that does not express or conform to the holy character of God as expressed in his moral law.
Elements of the Definition of Sin
1. Sin is moral evil (e.g., murder) as opposed to natural evil (e.g., cancer). Moral evil is personal rebellion against God, and it is what brought natural evil into the world.
2. Sin is always and ultimately related to God. While sin has devastating societal, relational, and physical ramifications, the central problem of sin is that it offends and incurs the wrath of God. David demonstrates this understanding in his confession of adultery and murder: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4). This is not to minimize his sin against Bathsheba, her husband Uriah, or the people of Israel, but rather to recognize that, relatively speaking, it is God he has ultimately offended, and it is to God alone that he must finally answer. Sin is a personal attack on the character and ordinances of God.
3. Sin is breaking God’s law, which can take several forms. There are sins of omission (not doing what we should) as well as sins of commission (doing what we should not do). Breaking one of God’s commandments is rebellion against the entire character of God, and in that sense it is equivalent to breaking all of the commandments: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10; cf. Gal. 3:10). God’s unified law is a reflection of his personal nature and claims, which means that rejecting one of his laws amounts to rejecting him.
Although breaking one commandment makes one guilty of breaking God’s entire law, God recognizes that there are gradations of sin. These gradations are based on differences in knowledge (Ezek. 8:6, 13;Matt. 10:15; Luke 12:47–48; John 19:11), intent (Num. 15:30–31), kind, and effect. Nevertheless, even sin done in ignorance is still sin, and everyone still equally needs Jesus to pay the penalty for their sin. While God recognizes degrees of sin on a human, ethical level, it remains the case that all people are equally guilty before God and equally in need of Christ’s atoning work.
4. Sin is rooted deep in our very nature, and sinful actions reveal the condition of a depraved heart within: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19; cf. Matt. 7:15–19). Internal attitudes are frequently identified as sinful or righteous in the Bible, and God demands not only correct outward actions but also that the heart be right (Ex. 20:17; Heb. 13:5).
- Sin has brought about a guilty standing before God and a corrupted condition in all humans. The pronouncement of guilt is God’s legal determination that people are in an unrighteous state before him, and the condition of corruption is our polluted state which inclines us toward ungodly behavior. By the grace of God, both this inherited guilt and this inherited moral pollution are atoned for by Christ: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
The Origin of Sin
Sin entered the human race in the Garden of Eden through an attack of Satan, who led Adam and Eve to doubt God’s word and trust their own ability to discern good and evil (Genesis 3). Sometime prior to this, Satan (a fallen angel) must himself have rebelled against God and become evil, though Scripture does not say much about that event (cf. notes on 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). Satan’s strategy was to bring disorder to the created order by approaching Eve and getting her to lead her husband away from God. Adam, so it appears, allowed his wife to be deceived by failing to take up his God-ordained responsibility to lead and protect her. Satan then questioned God’s goodness, wisdom, and care for Adam and Eve by suggesting that God was a miserly legalist in his prohibition of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Satan then simply lied, saying, “you will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). Such deception and rebellion against God stem from a failure to trust him and be satisfied with him and his commands and arrangements. Satan and our first parents demanded autonomy and rejected God’s authority, and this has been the source and shape of human sin ever since. Unbelief (Rom. 14:23; Heb. 11:6), pride, and selfishness lead us to think we know better than God and to try to put ourselves in his place. All people, in their fallen condition, are indeed “lovers of self … rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim. 3:2, 4).
The Consequences and Condition of the Fall
God rightly judged the rebellion of Adam and Eve and brought a curse on them and all their offspring. The curse brought physical and spiritual death, separation from God, and alienation from him and others. All people are now conceived, born, and live in this fallen, depraved condition: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10–12); “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6).
Inherited guilt and corruption leave every person completely unable to save himself or to please God. There are at least six ways this pervasive inability affects everyone. Until God intervenes with his sovereign, gracious, saving power, mankind is totally unable to:
- repent or trust Christ (John 6:44; cf. John 3:3; 6:65)
- see or enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3)
- obey God and thereby glorify him (Rom. 8:6–8)
- attain spiritual understanding (1 Cor. 2:14)
- live lives pleasing to God (Rom. 14:23; Heb. 11:6)
- receive eternal or spiritual life (Eph. 2:1–3)
Because of God’s common grace (that is, his kindly providence whereby sin’s energies within us are partly restrained), total depravity does not mean that every person apart from Christ is as bad as possible. It does mean, however, that none by nature can fulfill man’s primary purpose of glorifying God in relationship with him.
When the Bible speaks of “salvation” (Gk. sōtēria) in a spiritual sense, the thought can embrace the whole broad range of God’s activity in rescuing people from sin and restoring them to a right relationship with himself. Because of this broad sense, we find that the noun “salvation,” and the verb “save,” are used in the Bible with past, present, and future reference.
Thus, salvation may signify any or all of the blessings outlined in the chart. While the subjective experience of being saved may have degrees and look very different from person to person, the objective state of being saved is categorical and absolute. From God’s perspective there is a definite point in time when those who have trusted in Christ pass from death into life (1 John 3:14). This, however, is not where salvation starts. From God’s vantage point salvation begins with his election of individuals, which is his determination beforehand that his saving purpose will be accomplished in them (John 6:37–39, 44, 64–66; 8:47; 10:26; 15:16; Acts 13:48; 16:14; Romans 9; 1 John 4:19; 5:1). God then in due coursebrings people to himself by calling them to faith in Christ (Rom. 8:30; 1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Tim. 1:9; 1 Pet. 2:9).
The Blessings of Salvation
|Justification||has been saved||from the guilt of sin||Eph. 2:8|
|Sanctification||is being saved||from the power of sin||1 Cor. 1:18|
|Glorification||will be saved||from the presence of sin||Acts 15:11|
God’s calling produces regeneration, which is the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in which a spiritually dead person is made alive in Christ (Ezek. 11:19–20; Matt. 19:28; John 3:3, 5, 7; Titus 3:5). The revived heart repents and trusts Christ in saving faith as the only source of justification. To be a Christian means one has traded in his “polluted garment” of self-righteousness for the perfect righteousness of Christ (Phil. 3:8–9; cf. Isa. 64:6). He has ceased striving and now rests in the finished work of Christ—no longer depending on personal accomplishments, religious pedigree, or good works for God’s approval, but only on what Christ has accomplished on his behalf (Phil. 2:8–9). A Christian understands with Paul that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). As regards Jesus paying the penalty for our sins, the Christian believes that when Jesus said, “it is finished” (John 19:30), it really was. Because of this, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), and they have been “saved to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25). A miraculous transformation has taken place in which the believer has “passed from death to life” (John 5:24). The Holy Spirit empowers the transformation from rebellious sinner to humble worshiper, leading to “confidence for the day of judgment” (1 John 4:17).
Much of Protestantism in the last two centuries has been influenced by revivalism, which puts a great emphasis on “making a decision for Christ” in a public and definitive way. These “moments of decision” often come to be treated as the crucial evidence that one is truly saved. Other Protestant traditions, less influenced by revivalism, are often content to leave the conversion experience less clearly identified, and put the focus rather on Christian experience, identification with the church, or reliance upon the sacraments. Both of these traditions have benefits and strengths, as well as potential problems. The “decision” approach rightly emphasizes the need for personal commitment to Christ Jesus and the idea that regeneration takes place at a specific time. The potential downside is that this view can lead to a simplistic, human-centered understanding of being saved where one depends too heavily on the initial, specific act of trusting Christ as the primary evidence of conversion. As a result, one can doubt that the “decision” was real, leading to numerous journeys down the aisle (just in case), or else to total dependence on the onetime walk down the aisle, even in the absence of the necessary fruit of salvation. Other traditions appreciate the sovereignty of God and role of the church in the salvation process but can leave conversion so vague that the need for personal trust in Christ and the resulting evidence of a changed life can be neglected.
God uses vastly different circumstances and experiences to bring people to himself. As C. H. Spurgeon said, “God’s Spirit calls men to Jesus in diverse ways. Some are drawn so gently that they scarce know when the drawing began, and others are so suddenly affected that their conversion stands out with noonday clearness.” The best evidence of true salvation is not having raised a hand or prayed a prayer,or having been baptized or christened. Instead, the true test of an authentic work of God in one’s life issanctification as God continues the moral transformation he began in regeneration. This transformation will continue until the redeemed person is resurrected and made completely holy in heaven (glorification; cf. Rom. 8:28–30; Phil. 1:6; 1 John 3:2).
God’s sanctifying work is seen in growing Christlike character, increasing love for God and people, and the fruit of the Spirit (John 14:2; 15:1–16:33; Gal. 5:22–25; James 2:18). Of course, a memorable conversion experience may serve as an important reference point for a saving work of God in one’s life, but it is only the obvious, ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in making one more and more like Jesus that gives sufficiently clear indication that a person has been made a new creation in Christ. While a Christian should never be satisfied with his current state of holiness, he should be confident that through God’s sovereign, sanctifying grace he will one day have totally won the victory over sin once and for all. This will be the moment of entering by death into a larger life in which our sinful heart is finally purified. Meanwhile, living with this hope as one battles sin daily is true Christian perseverance (1 Cor. 1:8–9; Eph. 1:13–14; 1 Thess. 5:23–24; 1 Pet. 1:4–5; 1 John 2:19; Jude 1, 24–25), which is itself a sign that one has been born again.
The church is the community of God’s redeemed people—all who have truly trusted Christ alone for their salvation. It is created by the Holy Spirit to exalt Jesus Christ as Lord of all. Christ is the Head, Savior, Lord, and King of the church. The relationship between its members results from their common identity as brothers and sisters adopted into God’s family. The identity of this family is grounded in Christ’s person and work and therefore transcends any earthly distinctions of race, class, culture, gender, or nationality. True Christian fellowship is divinely brought about by God, for the purpose of displaying and advancing God’s kingdom on earth. As Christians love one another and submit to the lordship of Christ, they show glimpses of heavenly realities that are to come.
There is ultimately only one church, the global community of believers on earth plus those already in glory. In this world, however, the one church takes the form of countless local churches, each of which must be viewed as a microcosm, outcropping, and sample of the larger whole. Jesus Christ’s headship of the church that is his body is a relationship that applies both to the universal church and to each local church. Denominational identities are secondary to these primary and fundamental realities.
The Visible Church and the Invisible Church
Theologians sometimes distinguish between the “visible church” (the church as Christians on earth see it) and the “invisible church” (the church as God in heaven sees it). This distinction emphasizes two truths. First, only God, who reads hearts, knows the ultimate makeup of the “invisible church”—those whom he has called (“The Lord knows those who are his,” 2 Tim. 2:19). Second, there are some within the “visible church” who are not genuine believers, though they may look as if they are (cf. Matt. 7:15–16; Acts 20:29–30; 1 John 2:19).
Images of the Church
The Bible explains the profound mystery of the church (Eph. 5:32) using varied images and illustrations. Among the most important are the church as the building, body, bride, and family of Christ.
The Building of Christ
Jesus Christ is building his church, and even the gates of hell will not defeat it (Matt. 16:18). He is the foundational cornerstone providing unyielding stability (Matt. 21:42 par.; Acts 4:11; Eph. 2:20; 1 Pet. 2:6–7), and he promises that he will complete the building he is making (Eph. 2:21–22). Therefore, even when the church appears weak, corrupt, and lost, there is always reason for deep confidence in its continued growth and enduring strength. God’s people are “living stones” (1 Pet. 2:5) who have received their life from the Cornerstone, who is the giver of life. The building image is grounded in the temple imagery of the OT, as the place where God’s presence and glory were most often seen. The church is now the place on earth where God primarily dwells and makes himself known. This temple is not made with human hands but exists in the corporate life of those who have been transformed through faith in Christ. The presence and work of God in worship, the ministry of the Word, service to others, discipline, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and gospel proclamation are now the primary source of the presence and glory of God in the world: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor. 3:16–17; cf. 2 Cor. 6:16; 1 Pet. 2:4–10). The church will last even beyond the time of Christ’s return, and any predictions that warn of the demise of the church of Jesus Christ are greatly mistaken.
The Body of Christ
Christ is the head of the church, which is his body (Eph. 1:22–23; 4:15; 5:23). He has authority over his people and determines their direction and destiny. Each member of Christ’s body serves an important and distinct role, and none have life, power, or ability of any kind apart from Christ (1 Corinthians 12).
The Bride of Christ
Christ saves and sanctifies his people through his sacrifice on the cross, which serves as the model of the relationship between a husband and wife (Eph. 5:25). Christ’s self-sacrificial love for his bride continues as he feeds and cares for her; she who will one day be presented to him in spotless perfection (Eph. 5:29; Heb. 12:23). As the bride of Christ, the church should strive for undiluted devotion to Christ, who is her jealous husband (2 Cor. 11:2–4). God’s people should be motivated by and longing for the great wedding banquet as they await the return of their Bridegroom (Rev. 19:7–9; 21:1–4).
The Family of God
God’s adoption of lost and unworthy children of wrath into his family is a key aspect of his redeeming work (1 John 3:1–2). This adoption through new birth leads to astounding privileges that come with being fellow heirs with Christ. Those in God’s family become full beneficiaries of all his promises to his children! As adopted children of God, believers are bound by a family relationship as brothers and sisters that is greater and more enduring than biological family ties (Mark 3:31–35; cf. Matt. 19:29 par.). Earnest brotherly love should characterize relationships within the church (Rom. 12:10; 1 Tim. 5:1–2;Heb. 13:1; 1 Pet. 1:22). Such love is one of the primary ways Christians know they have truly been saved by God: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers” (1 John 3:14). All earthly obstacles to brotherly affection (e.g., differences in culture, race, income, personality, and nationality) are done away with when God adopts his people into his family (Gal. 3:28).
To love Christ means to love his church and seek to build it by word and deed. The sin and apathy often seen in the church may at times require strong criticism and be a cause for grief. But Christ shed his own blood to create the church (Acts 20:28), and the church is God’s primary conduit of his grace and glory to the world. There should be no doubt that by the grace of God his community of unworthy redeemed sinners will be triumphant and beautiful one day. Meaningful local church involvement is not an optional spiritual discipline; it is the essential context within which believers are intended to find Christ and grow in him.
The Return of Christ
The return of Jesus Christ is the central hope of the NT. His second coming will be sudden (Matt. 24:44;2 Pet. 3:10), personal, bodily (John 14:3; Acts 1:11; 1 Thess. 4:16), and visible to the whole world (Rev. 1:7). He will come again to reign in power as the King of kings for all eternity (Phil. 2:9–11). While he has given signs that will indicate that the end times are near (Matt. 24:14, 23–29; Mark 13:10, 19–26; 2 Thess. 2:1–10), God has not revealed the time of Christ’s return (Matt. 24:44; Mark 13:32–33; Luke 12:40). Therefore, the setting of dates is fruitless and unbiblical speculation. The warnings that Christ will come unexpectedly and suddenly are intended to motivate believers to live in eager expectation and preparedness, which involves holy living and an eternal perspective. Followers of Christ are to “renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:12–13). As good as life in this world may be at times, it can never compare to the ultimate liberation from sin and the unhindered fellowship with Christ that his return will bring (1 John 3:2). This does not preclude Christians from deeply investing in and appreciating this world; it only means that believers should realize that the best is yet to come and they should ultimately live for the day when Christ returns. Their greatest hope and the definitive solution to present suffering is to be found in the hope of Christ’s return. On that day “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:16–18). Christians are commanded to “encourage one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:18), which are words of great hope.
The Millennial Reign of Christ
Revelation speaks of Christ reigning for “a thousand years” when Satan is bound and some of God’s people come to life to reign with him (Rev. 20:1–10). Christians have interpreted this millennium in one of three ways: amillennialism, premillennialism, and postmillennialism (for details, see Introduction to Revelation: Millennial Views). (1) Amillennialists believe that the thousand years in Revelation 20 is figurative language, showing that the reign of Christ from heaven is presently being fulfilled in the church age and will continue until the return of Christ. In this view, all the end-time events, such as Christ’s return and the final judgment, happen at once. (2) Premillennialists believe that, long before the final judgment, Christ will first return and establish his millennial kingdom—that is, his reign as King over all the earth for 1,000 years. Within this view there are various views of the timing of the great tribulation (whether Christians will go through it or will escape it by being suddenly removed from the earth before the tribulation begins), and of whether the 1,000 years is a literal or a symbolic number. (3)Postmillennialists believe the millennial reign of Christ will be ushered in after remarkable gospel progress establishes Christ’s reign on earth, not with Christ physically present but with the majority of the world obedient to him, and that at the end of that “millennium,” Christ will return in bodily form to reign over the new heavens and new earth forever.
While there has been much debate over the nature and timing of the millennial events, what is certainly clear in Scripture is that Christ will return and establish his kingdom and that all mankind will finally acknowledge his lordship over all creation. Once and for all, creation will undeniably submit to Christ the King, and he will reign on earth as already he does in heaven (Matt. 6:10; Phil. 2:10).
The Final Judgment and Hell
God expresses both personal (Rom. 1:18–32) and national judgment (Isaiah 13–23), and his judgments have taken place throughout history and in the heavenly realm (2 Pet. 2:4). But after the millennium (or, according to amillennialists, after the present age) Christ will judge the whole world once and for all (Matt. 25:31–33; 2 Tim. 4:1; Rev. 20:11–15). At this time the righteous wrath of a holy God will be unleashed on a rebellious world (Rom. 2:5; 3:19). Jesus often warned that he would usher in the day of wrath (Matt. 10:15; 11:22, 24; 12:36; 25:31–46), and other NT writers repeated this idea (1 Cor. 4:5;Heb. 6:2; 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). Unbelievers will be judged, and the result will be punishment for even careless words that were spoken (Matt. 12:36). Those who refuse God’s gracious offer of forgiveness in Christ will suffer eternal conscious punishment in hell, a condition of torment cut off from the presence of God (Matt. 25:30, 41, 46; Mark 9:43, 48; Rev. 14:9–11). Christian believers, who understand the holiness and justice of God and the depth of human sin, should be able to relate to the martyrs in heaven who long for the day of judgment (Rev. 6:10). However, in this age, the church is primarily called to warn people everywhere to repent and flee the wrath that will come when Christ returns as Judge: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).
Believers, as well as unbelievers, will be judged by Christ. As the apostle Paul writes to the Christians at Corinth, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10; cf. Rom. 2:6–11; 14:10–12;Rev. 20:12, 15). The judgment of believers will test the worth of the way they lived. It will reveal some tragic lack of true good works in the sanctification process and will show that some were saved “but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15). Here the testing (“fire”) of God’s judgment at the return of Christ will reveal the quality of a believer’s works, and some will have little to show for their salvation. On the other hand, what was done to glorify God will be rewarded (1 Cor. 4:5; Col. 3:23–24). Although God seeks to motivate his people to holy living by the rewards they will receive, ultimately, believers can stand before God only because of Christ’s finished work on their behalf. The basis for justification is only the perfect righteousness imputed to believers and the diverting of sin’s penalty from them to Christ, and never the false security of self-righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:8–9). There is no fear of the final judgment for those who have trusted Christ for salvation because there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), which means they “have confidence for the day of judgment” (1 John 4:17).
The New Heavens and New Earth
God’s creation of the new heavens and earth is the final phase of his redeeming work. The restored creation will be freed from the tragic effects of sin and the curse, and perfect fellowship with God will be restored. The OT promised this wonderful reality as the culmination of the new covenant: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isa. 65:17). The NT writers still long for God to finish his work in this way, as Peter says, “but according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). John’s Revelation gives a powerful glimpse of the end of all things: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:1–2). The entire world that was subjected to futility and decay in the fall will be freed from this bondage “far as the curse is found” when God recreates everything anew (Rom. 8:19–23; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1). There will be a joining together of heaven and the renewed earth (Rev. 21:1–3), and in company with Jesus Christ their Lord God’s people will work, play, eat, learn, and worship in their resurrected, glorified bodies (Luke 22:18; Rev. 19:9; 22:1–2) in the place that the church down through the ages has always called heaven, but which the Bible calls “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1). The very goodness of the original creation (Gen. 1:31) will here be restored and redeemed to perfection.
The knowledge of God’s future restoration of all creation should deepen one’s appreciation of the created order now. The created physical realm, although marred by the fall, maintains a goodness that is redeemable and is intended to be enjoyed now as God’s abundant blessing: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4–5). However, hope for the world to come motivates the believer to live ultimately for that world rather than this one. As Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19–21). The tremendous blessing of a restored heaven and earth will be cause for extravagant praise, but the greatest blessing will be the glorious presence of God himself, and of Jesus our Lord and Savior. Fellowship with Jesus, it has been said, is what makes heaven to be heaven, and that is something that Christian people will be proving true for all eternity.