This is another in a series of excerpts from “What Every Christian Should Know About the Trinity,” available through Amazon and other booksellers.
Lorenzo Snow, fifth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, once claimed the Spirit of God fell upon him and revealed a principle that has become an apt summary of Mormonism: “As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be.”
In other words, the LDS god of this world once was a mere human who attained deity, showing us the path to our own godhood. This principle of “eternal progression” is a stunningly unbiblical doctrine that sets Mormonism outside the boundaries of historic Christianity. At the same time, it raises questions, not only about God, but about the Son of God: Who is Jesus? Where did He come from? Why and how did He become human?
The doctrine of the Incarnation – God becoming a human being in Jesus of Nazareth – is central to Christianity. Get it wrong and many other non-negotiable doctrines of the Christian faith quickly veer into counterfeit territory.
When we talk about the “Incarnation,” we mean the eternal Son of God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As such, Jesus is one person in two distinct but undivided natures: human and divine.
These two natures work together as the eternal Son of God adds sinless humanity to His deity via the miracle of the virgin birth, which we celebrate tomorrow.
Let’s briefly explore six key passages of Scripture that help us understand what it means when the apostle John writes, “the Word became flesh.”
John 1:14 – “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The eternal Son of God always had a divine nature. He was with God in the beginning, and John makes it clear He was God (John 1:1). In the Incarnation, He added a real human nature and thus became both God and man.
The word “dwelt” may be translated “tabernacled.” Just as the divine presence was with ancient Israelites in the pillar of cloud and fire, the tabernacle, and the temple, Yahweh now manifested Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, the God-Man.
Rom. 1:3-4 – “concerning his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh and was appointed to be the powerful Son of God according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection of the dead.”
Paul recognizes Jesus’ humanity through His ancestry as a descendant of King David. His divine nature as the unique Son of God, however, is proven through His miraculous resurrection from the dead.
Rom. 9:5 – “The ancestors are theirs [Israelites], and from them, by physical descent, came the Christ, who is God over all, praised forever. Amen.”
Jesus’ human nature is linked to His Jewish lineage, and His divine nature makes Him “God over all.”
A few translations try to soften this clear claim of deity. The Contemporary English Version, for example, renders it, “I pray that God, who rules over all, will be praised forever!”
However, as Kenneth Samples points out in God Among Sages, “Contextually, this reference to ‘God over all’ applies to the person of Christ and is not a separate doxological reference to God.”
With respect to Jesus’ ancestry, we should note that Matthew and Luke list different genealogies. While much has been written about this, it may help to consider that Matthew is writing to a predominantly Jewish audience and thus follows the line of Joseph (Jesus’ legal father) through David’s son Solomon. Meanwhile, Luke has a broader audience in mind, so he follows the line of Mary (Jesus’ blood relative) through David’s son Nathan.
Phil. 2:5-7 – “Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.”
This passage reflects a primitive Christian hymn. From all eternity, Jesus is of the same essence as God and thus is God. Even though, in eternity past, Jesus possessed the nature and prerogatives of deity, He did not cling to His privileged position at the Father’s right hand. Rather, He humbled Himself, adding sinless humanity to His deity and thus becoming the God-Man.
Col. 2:9 – “For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ.” As the NIV renders it, “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”
In this passage, the apostle Paul responds to heretical views that later found their place in Gnosticism – namely, the categorical denial that Christ had come in the flesh. Paul emphatically states that Jesus is full divinity wrapped in human skin. The Incarnation is central to Paul’s writings here and elsewhere.
1 John 4:2– “This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God …”
The apostle John counters first-century Docetics, a heretical group that embraces the deity of Christ but denies His humanity, arguing that Jesus only appears to be human (from the Greek dokeo, “to seem”). John makes “God in the flesh” a true test of Christian orthodoxy, arguing that every true “spirit” – a person claiming divine gifting for service – upholds the doctrine of the God-Man.
These verses illustrate the significance of the Incarnation. As theologian Gerald Bray writes, “The Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father and fully equal to him in every respect, became a man so that he could unite us to himself, pay the price for our sins, and bring us back to God.”
This is the last in a series of articles on the Incarnation.
Over the last six columns, we have examined the doctrine of the Incarnation. As we complete our study, let’s test what we’ve learned about the person and work of Jesus. Answer the following questions (feel free to refer to previous columns). The correct responses are listed at the end of each question.
- What is the Incarnation?
(a) The state of living in a country that’s crazy about automobiles
(b) The eternal Son of God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth
(c) A floral decoration; a boutonniere
(d) The creation of Jesus as an archangel
Correct answer: (b)
- Which of the following are heretical views of the Incarnation (choose all that apply):
Correct answers: (a) and (d)
This is the sixth in a series of articles on the Incarnation. Previously: Six key passages on the Incarnation.
As we complete our examination of the Incarnation – the eternal Son of God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth – it’s important to identify a number of heretical views that have plagued the church throughout its history. Some of these heresies effectively have been countered, while others continue to rear their ugly heads and cause people who sincerely seek the truth to embrace “another Jesus” (2 Cor. 11:4).
In God Among Sages, Kenneth Samples highlights eight historical heresies with respect to the Incarnation.
Docetism. This was an early form of Gnosticism, a heresy that threatened the fledgling church throughout its first three centuries. Docetism advanced a type of dualism, expressing the belief that spirit is good and matter is evil.
Docetists argued that Jesus only appeared to be human. In fact, their name comes from the Greek word dokeo, which means “to seem.” They asserted that Jesus had a “phantom-like body.”
Docetism denied the true humanity of Jesus, which undermined the reality of His death on the cross, burial, and physical resurrection – all necessary elements in the gospel message. The apostle John countered Docetism head-on in 1 John 4:1-3.
This is the fifth in a series of articles on the Incarnation. Previously: Six key passages on the Incarnation
In the previous column, we examined six key passages of Scripture that help us understand the Incarnation – the eternal Son of God taking on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Bible is clear that Jesus is one person with two distinct, but undivided, natures: human and divine. This means, at least in part, that by adding sinless humanity to His deity, Jesus did not become less than co-equal with the other members of the Trinity.
At the same time, we must address several verses of Scripture that seem to say Jesus is a lesser being than God. Those who promote this false view of Jesus, and who use these Scriptures to support their position, are known as “ontological subordinationists.”
These are people who believe that Jesus is less than God by nature of who He is. Rather than the eternal Son of God, Jesus either is a created being, a lesser god, or both.
This should not be confused with “relational subordination,” a biblically faithful position also known as “economic subordination.” According to this view, the three persons of the Godhead are equal in nature, but they voluntarily submit to each other respecting the roles they play in creation and salvation.
We should embrace relational subordination and reject ontological subordination.
Counterfeit Christian groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) reject Christ’s deity, along with the doctrine of the Trinity. Instead, they believe Jesus is subordinate in nature or essence to the Father. JWs insist that Jesus is the first of Jehovah’s creations, Michael the archangel.