As the eternal Son of God, Christ’s kingship begins in creation; but in redemption, Christ is shown to be Head and Mediator for the church as well. This is not another creation but a new creation—redeemed creation looking forward to the consummation. Although there is a certain order in Christ’s exercise of his offices, they are true of him at all times: he is never Prophet without being King, or King without being Priest. Nonetheless, we should distinguish Christ’s present reign in grace from his future reign, which will also manifest glory and power. The kingdom is currently like its King before his exaltation, appearing weak and foolish to the world. It is visible not in majesty but in Word and sacrament, discipline, discipleship, and fellowship. As in his other offices, Christ exercises kingship as both divine and human. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords not only as God but as the faithful and last Adam, David’s greater son, whose reign has begun even now and will be realized fully in the age to come.
The most direct account of Christ’s ascension is in Luke 24:13–51 (reiterated in Acts 1). In these passages, it becomes clear that Christ’s ascension and return in glory are part of the gospel itself. Christ continues to exercise all three offices in his heavenly exaltation, proclaiming and bringing about his Word, interceding for his people, and ruling all things for our good, by the Holy Spirit.
The ascension is not simply an exclamation point to the resurrection; it is a distinct event in redemptive history, grounding the significance of eschatology (we are already seated with Christ in the heavenly realms but do not yet see him face-to-face), pneumatology (Christ is now present to us by the Spirit’s activity through Word and sacrament), and ecclesiology (the church is a community between two ages, already belonging to the new creation but still on our pilgrimage). Christ’s ascension both grounds the church’s present struggle and guarantees our future triumph.
Since Pentecost, the Spirit has come to apply the benefits of Christ through the preaching of the gospel, ushering in the new creation, in and through the individual and corporate life of believers, their children, and those who are “far off” (Acts 2:39). This means that the Spirit’s application of redemption can never be separated from the history of redemption. Nor can the doctrine of salvation ever be separated from the doctrine of the church; the same King creates and sustains both by the same means: Word and sacrament.
Covenant and Kingdom
Unlike the covenant at Sinai, which Israel violated against her Great King, God’s covenant with Abraham and David depended on God’s own unwavering faithfulness despite the unfaithfulness of his human subjects. This covenant and all its promises are fulfilled in the new covenant in Christ, who fulfilled the Sinai covenant as well, since he is himself the faithful King and the faithful subject.
The Kingdom and Eschatology
The kingdom of God is “from above”; it is an inbreaking of the age to come rather than a developmental progression drawn from the resources of the present age. Since it is a kingdom we are receiving from God rather than building for ourselves, it cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:25–29). We must avoid both underrealized and overrealized eschatology. Underrealized eschatologies, like dispensationalism, fail to see the real presence of Christ’s kingdom breaking into the present age before his return; overrealized eschatologies, like liberation theology, expect Christ’s present reign to include blessings—such as a fully just and godly civil society—that he has promised to bring only at his return. As difficult as it is in practice, we must affirm that Christ’s kingdom is already truly present, but not yet in its consummated form.
Christological heresy arises through failing to affirm of Christ all that Scripture asserts: by either denying the divine or human nature at the expense of the other, confusing or conflating his natures, or dividing his person. I remember Sinclair Ferguson teaching at PRTS on the importance of knowing Jesus Christ to the ends of the page found in chapter 8 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, but then strongly warning us, anything beyond that page is heresy. Looking back to that lesson from 2010, it still surprises me that I receive more questions regarding Christology than any other loci. Just like the title Son of Man, the scope of Son of God encompasses Jesus’ humanity as well as deity. Jesus Christ is both the eternal Son and the true and faithful human son; he is both the one who speaks the divine law and the one who answers the summons with perfect obedience for us.
Sonship: Ontological and Official
The New Testament claims Adamic and Abrahamic senses of sonship for Christ: he is Son upon condition of obedience, according to the image of God, and he is Son unconditionally and forever—except that in the latter sense, Jesus’ unique divine sonship is not by grace but is his very nature as the one and only Word and Son, eternally begotten of the Father (e.g., Matt. 22:41–46; John 1:1–3, 14, 18). The narratives of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration, Paul’s consistent witness to the humbled and exalted Lord (e.g., Rom. 1:3–6; 8:3–4; Gal. 4:4–5; Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–17, 18–23), and many similar passages clearly testify to the character of Jesus’ relationship with the Father and the Spirit, as the fully divine and fully human Son of God.
The trajectory of liberal theology since the Enlightenment has been essentially Arian (or Adoptionist, discussed below). In this view, “the Jesus of history” was a pious rabbi who was transformed into “the Christ of faith” through the influence of Greek philosophy on developing Christian orthodoxy. Yet even critical scholarship has found no basis for any sharp distinction between Jewish and Hellenistic Christologies in the early church. Jesus was crucified for claiming equality with God; he claimed to be “Lord” prior to David (Matt. 22:41–45), the “Word” prior to creation, and the “I AM” prior to Abraham (John 8:58). The New Testament authors urge faith in and worship of the man Jesus as God and Lord. The doctrine of the incarnation is the center of Christology, bringing together Scripture’s testimony to the full humanity and full deity of Jesus Christ, as summarized in the Definition of Chalcedon (451).
While the Word “was” God (John 1:1), he “became” flesh (v. 14) by taking to himself our human nature in all its aspects in Mary’s womb, yet he was without sin (Heb. 4:15), by the power of the Spirit. Each nature is entirely preserved in its distinctness, in an incomprehensibly intimate union in and as one integral person, Jesus Christ. Scripture gives no place to a view of Christ that pits his divine nature against his humanity, nor assigns some actions of Christ to one nature and some to the other. Jesus, God and man, does all things from the Father by the Spirit. Likewise, Jesus’ growth and limitations and temptations were real; without surrendering or compromising his divinity, the Son fully assumed our humanity and redeemed us in and through it.
This section concerns the main traditional heretical christological views, rather than specific persons who may be associated with them. As with the doctrine of the Trinity, the formal delineation of Christology arose, not from academic or philosophical speculation, but from the concrete faith and practice of the Christian community. The chief historical heresies regarding denial of the incarnation (defined above) are the Ebionite heresy, Adoptionism, Docetism, Gnosticism, and Arianism. The chief heresies regarding the relation between Christ’s divinity and humanity in one person (also defined above) are Apollinarianism, Monophysitism (or Eutychianism), and Nestorianism. The Monophysite and Nestorian heresies represent the extremes of two tendencies of christological reflection: the Alexandrian and Antiochene, respectively. Alexandrian Christologies tend to emphasize the unity of Christ’s person, sometimes to the extent that his humanity is absorbed into his divinity. Antiochene Christologies, on the other hand, emphasize the distinction of Christ’s natures, sometimes to the point that Christ seems to be two persons acting in tandem, one divine and one human. The Council of Chalcedon condemned both views, affirming the ancient catholic consensus that Christ is one person in two natures. During the Reformation, as a result of controversy over the Lord’s Supper, the Reformed came to suspect Lutherans of Monophysitism (because they affirmed the omnipresence of Christ according to both natures), while the Lutherans suspected the Reformed of Nestorianism (because they affirmed the omnipresence of Christ’s divine nature only). The Lutheran-Reformed debate turns on two key concerns: (1) the communicatio idiomatum and (2) the extra Calvinisticum. With the rise of Socinianism and then Protestant liberalism, Arianism returned to the fore; often by way of either Nestorian or Monophysite trajectories, Jesus’ true and full divinity was rejected.
Barth did much to revive a salutary emphasis on Christology “from above,” stressing that God was at work in Christ for redemption and that the Son is eternally divine and became fully human (but not without problematic elements in his views). Theologians like Karl Rahner and Wolfhart Pannenberg have come from a different direction in line with broader modern trends, emphasizing Christology “from below” by beginning with the character of Jesus’ humanity to illuminate the character of his divinity. The latter approach, however, tends to end up with a divinized man who is quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, distinct from all other persons. Only in the distinctiveness of each nature, united in one person, do we find the complete Savior who can bring total redemption from sin and death.
Christ as Prophet
The prophetic vocation is not only to accurately predict future events, but more fundamentally, to speak God’s actual judgment and deliverance into history. Although Jesus is the “prophet like Moses” promised in Deuteronomy 18:15, he is not simply another Moses. He speaks on his own authority, which is the same as the Father’s; he forgives sins in his own person; he not only has stood in God’s counsel but has eternally and personally come from God. Jesus speaks God’s active word as the prophets did, but wholly unlike them, he is himself the hypostatic Word of God. He is the message as well as the messenger.
Christ as Priest
Christ’s priestly ministry is inseparable from his representation of the elect in the eternal covenant of redemption. Christ was “born under the law”—whether the covenant of creation or its recapitulation at Sinai—“to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5 ESV).
A. Christ’s Priestly Life
Jesus was appointed everlasting High Priest “after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, 10 ESV)—that is, according to the “better covenant” of God’s unchangeable oath to Abraham rather than the Mosaic covenant’s Levitical priesthood, which depended on the mediation of sinful human beings (Heb. 7:11–22).
Jesus is both the great High Priest and the spotless, once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin. Beginning with the incarnation, he continually accomplished his Father’s will on our behalf as the unsurpassable thank offering. This is his active obedience or law-keeping (Matt. 20:28; John 8:29; Heb. 10:7). Simultaneously, he bore our sins—especially the curse of sin and God’s wrath for sin—as the unrepeatable guilt offering. This is his passive obedience or suffering.
Christ’s Priestly Death: The Meaning of the Cross
While the event of the cross cannot be divorced from the accounts of Christ’s life, teaching, and ministry that precede it in the Gospels, none of the other important aspects of Christ’s saving work can be established unless his death is acknowledged as a vicarious substitution of himself in the place of sinners. Christ’s cross is a sacrifice and satisfaction for sin. Though God’s sinful, covenant-breaking people could do nothing to reconcile themselves to God or avoid his sentence of just condemnation for unfaithfulness, Jesus offered himself on our behalf to usher in the new covenant whose standing is dependent on his steadfastness rather than ours. Blood atonement lies at the heart of both the offense and the wonder of the Christian proclamation. God’s motive is not abstract or arbitrary (much less bloodthirsty); sacrifice for sin and loving gratitude to God are fundamental to the covenantal context of God’s holy and righteous law. The substitutional nature of sacrifice is clearly seen in the Mosaic law’s description of the transference of sin and guilt before God to sacrificial animals (e.g., Lev. 1:4; 4:20, 26, 31; 6:7), vicariously representing the worshipers and their need for atonement. In Christ’s life and death, we have a thank offering that restores what we owe to God and a guilt offering that propitiates God’s wrath.
Christ’s cross is also a military conquest—despite all appearances, Christ was the victorious King even when Satan and the powers of this evil age thought they had won their age-old war with God. The meaning of the cross is multifaceted. All of the following have been proposed as theories of the atonement, and while each by itself has significant problems, several identify something important about Christ’s work—although the truth in any of them hangs together only in light of the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice.
- Ransom theory—Because of human rebellion, Satan became our rightful lord; Christ triumphed over Satan by luring him into the trap of killing him at the cross (thinking Jesus was a mere man), though he would triumph in resurrection (through his deity).
- Recapitulation—Christ redeems by becoming the true Adam and representing in himself the true life of humanity before God on our behalf, even unto death.
- Christus Victor—Through the seeming defeat of the cross, Christ conquered all the demonic and sinful powers arrayed against God.
- Satisfaction theory—Christ’s crucifixion was his just payment for sin’s affront to God’s dignity and majesty.
- Moral influence theory—Peter Abelard’s view, taken up by Socinians and many Enlightenment thinkers, that the purpose of Christ’s death was to provide a powerful example of God’s love for sinners that would provoke our repentance and imitation.
- Governmental theory—Hugo Grotius’s view that Christ’s death is not substitutionary or atoning but rather the basis on which the righteous character of God’s will and his rule are exhibited.
In modern theologies, various versions of the moral influence and governmental theories have dominated, in principle or in practice. These views have gone hand in hand with a denial or downplaying of the doctrine of justification—forgiveness is necessary only in light of real personal transgression. In all of their iterations, they rest on three false premises.
- A denial of God’s wrath and the necessity of his justice being satisfied.
- A rejection of the possibility of vicarious substitution in the relationship between God and sinners.
- An emphasis on the exemplary, at the expense of the expiatory, character of Christ’s death.
We should therefore bear the following points in mind when defending the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. The cause of the atonement lies in God’s own pleasure and love; God’s free expression of his love and mercy, as well as his holiness, justice, and wrath, flow from his own character, and none can be pitted against the others. Sin is not merely a weakness that needs to be reformed but also a guilt that is incurred, invoking covenant sanctions. The atonement is grounded not only in God’s moral character and freedom but in the united determination of the persons of the Trinity; vicarious atonement is misunderstood as a vengeful Father taking out his rage on a passive Son. Christ’s sacrifice is both a guilt offering and a thank offering, a whole life of representative service.
Finally, the question of the extent of the atonement has been answered in three ways in the history of the church: universalism, hypothetical universalism, or definite (limited) atonement (defined above). The following are the two main arguments in favor of definite atonement. It emphasizes the relationship between the Trinity and redemption; those who are actually redeemed in time have been mercifully chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. It emphasizes the efficacy and objectivity of Christ’s saving work; Christ did not die for the abstract possibility of the redemption of sinners (although his death is sufficient to atone for all sin whatsoever); rather, he died for the concrete accomplishment of the redemption of everyone who belongs to him.
All of God’s covenantal purposes converge in Jesus Christ. As the eternal Son who would take on our humanity, he is Mediator of the covenant of redemption; as the second Adam, he has fulfilled the covenant of creation on behalf of the elect; as the incarnate, crucified, and risen Savior and Lord, he is head and heir of the covenant of grace, along with all whom he has redeemed.
The Faithful Adam and True Israel
Like Adam, Israel failed to drive the serpent out of God’s sanctuary, succumbing to his seduction. But God promised to preserve a remnant from destruction, from whom the Messiah would come, who would finally crush the serpent’s head and deliver not only Israel but the nations.
Messianic Savior: Son of David
The Davidic covenant is like that with Abraham: an unconditional, unilateral promise of God’s own faithfulness to his Word—in David’s case, the promise of an heir who would reign everlastingly (2 Sam. 7:11–17 and reiterated throughout the prophets). The New Testament takes pains to identify Jesus as this royal son of David’s line. Yet he would not restore the temporal theocracy of the Jewish nation but rather would reign over all the earth in righteousness and peace, bringing Jews and Gentiles together in the unending kingdom promised to David.
Son of Man, the Second Adam
The Son of Man is God’s earthly messianic representative, who is given everlasting dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth—although his kingdom does not arise from any earthly regime (see esp. Dan. 7:9–27). In the Gospels, this title is Jesus’ favorite self-designation, emphasizing his mission to judge, to save, and to reign. Although Son of Man, as the fulfillment of Adamic sonship, often emphasizes Jesus’ humanity (e.g., Matt. 20:28; Mark 2:27–28), especially in John’s gospel this title carries a simultaneous emphasis on Jesus’ deity (e.g., John 3:13; John 6:53–58; 8:28).
Servant of the Lord
In Isaiah’s Servant Songs (esp. chaps. 42, 49, 50, 52–53, 61), Israel’s corporate commission as God’s covenant servant is embodied in the person of the Messiah to come, the true and faithful Israel, who will secure redemption through obedience and suffering. Jesus proclaimed himself to be this servant (Luke 4:16–21), as did the apostles (e.g., Matt. 12:17–21).