March 29, 2018

God Was in Christ Reconciling

Our Lord's death isn't just a work of the members of the Trinity all working together but also as the person, the single living God, saving us.

This article originally appeared at

The heart of our Christian faith is this momentous fact: God saves sinners. This Holy Week, we memorialize the historic events that make that salvation possible. Because Jesus Christ’s death is the “crux” (Latin for “cross”) of that salvation,[1] we rightly focus attention on him, our Savior and Lord. But we dare not lose sight of the equally vital truth that the Godhead, God as Trinity, saves us. The Father, Son, and Spirit[2] — are all our Savior(s). A folk shorthand goes something like this: God the Father planned our salvation, God the Son secured our salvation, and God the Spirit applies our salvation.

This construction is not wrong, but it’s not entirely right either, or at least not complete. It doesn’t take into account the unified work of the Godhead in saving us.[3] It correctly perceives that each member of the Trinity occupies a unique role, but it marginalizes the truth that the person of God saves us, not just the person(s) of God.[4] In other words, our Lord’s death isn’t just a work of the members of the Trinity all working together but also as the person, the single living God, saving us.

Jesus is the fullness of God

Hear what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10: “…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself…” There is no “Godness” deeper or more profound than Jesus Christ.[5] There is no God with higher or more exalted attributes than the Son. There is no greater God than Jesus. Jesus the Messiah reveals God because he is God. He and the Father are one (Jn. 10:30). To see Jesus is to see the Father (Jn. 14:9). Jesus is the express image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:1–3). Jesus is entirely man, and his deity never mixed with his humanity to produce a weird, third amalgam: a deified human or humanized deity. Yet his deity and humanity are forever united in one person.[6] In Matthew 3 we read of the angel that appeared in a dream to Joseph, declaring that Jesus would be the name of the child whom Mary, his espoused wife, would deliver. We also read that this birth would fulfill the prophet’s word that his name should be called “Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.” The birth of Jesus is the incarnation of God. Wherever Jesus is, there God is. Jesus “is the human presence of the Eternal God.”[7]

In the famous Christmas hymn “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley exhorts, “veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” But this quote implies the opposite of what John teaches in his first epistle:


That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life — the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us — that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. (vv. 1–4)

The Godhead was not veiled in flesh. The Godhead was revealed in flesh. God makes himself known, not hidden, in flesh. Man is not God and can never be God, but man was created in God’s image and is therefore a specially suitable means for God to reveal his very person. John saw and touched God, just as Thomas did (Jn. 20:28), because it was no less than God who was in Christ reconciling.

One God-man person only

In an effort to ensure the transcendence (exalted otherness) of God, Christians have tended for purposes of explanation to separate out his two natures from his one person and attribute certain actions and experiences of Jesus Christ to his humanity and not his deity.[8] Since Jesus was not a sinner, they could never say these traits are sinful, only that they are human and not divine. Examples would be anger, hunger, weariness, and grief. These all imply change and emotion, and change and emotion are not attributes of God according to many Christians. However, the Bible does in fact depict God, and not only Jesus, as sometimes changing and emotional. God grieves that he created humanity that had fallen into abject depravity (Gen. 6:5–6). God repented of his decision to obliterate the idolatrous Jews (Ex. 32:14). God is even sometimes weary, in his own way (Is. 1:14). I could multiply similar examples.

Many of the changes and emotions Jesus experienced do not sound much different from those that God experiences. Nor will it suffice to say that these are all anthropomorphisms, word pictures, which while not literally true, accommodate truth to us finite humans by depicting God with human qualities. After all, would we say that God’s traits of truthfulness, omniscience, love, justice, and kindness are anthropomorphic? And even if they all were, every anthropomorphism signals a referent. We read, for example, in Deuteronomy 33:27 of God’s “everlasting arms.” Because God is a spirit, this language is incontestably anthropomorphic. But what does it mean? It means that just as human arms might bear up those we love, so God’s love is everlasting in bearing up his people. Similarly, even if the language of God’s emotions and repentance is anthropomorphic, it refers to something very much like emotion and repenting. Jesus’ “actions are always those of divinity-humanity.”[9] Jesus sleeps (Mk. 4:38). God does not sleep (Ps. 121:4). But God-as-Jesus sleeps, and not merely Jesus-as-man sleeps. The person of Jesus is God.

Because Jesus is God in the flesh, when we see Jesus acting, we see God, and not just man, acting — or, rather, God and man unmixed, but united in one person.[10] We tend to reverse the order and in this way become perplexed. We develop ideas about what God is like and then try to conform Jesus Christ to those ideas. This has things just backwards. Jesus is the one who reveals the Father: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him” (Jn. 1:18).[11] We need to get our most extensive ideas about God from Jesus the Messiah. Make no mistake: God reveals himself truly in the Old Testament. There is nothing in the Old Testament that deceives us about God. (He also reveals himself truly in creation.) However, in Jesus Christ God gives us his fuller and final revelation (Heb. 1:1–3).[12]

There is no more comprehensive display of God than we observe in Jesus. When we see Jesus acted on, we see God acted on. To say differently is really to say that Jesus is less than and different from God. To say that we are seeing only the humanity in his display of emotion but only his deity in (for instance) his forgiving others their sins, is to divide Jesus into two persons. When Jesus experiences grief, God grieves. When Jesus is angered over sin, God is angry. When Jesus feels compassion, God is compassionate. We learn of God by watching Jesus Christ. God was in Christ reconciling ….

God and death

Now back to Holy Week. You might be old enough to remember the short-lived “Death of God” theology in the ‘60s, championed by radical theologians.[13] I once owned a book curiously titled The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann is a theological liberal, and I found the book unimpressive, as I do most books by theological liberals (see a summary of the thesis is here). Moltmann sees the immanence (presence in the world) of God in Jesus, but sees almost nothing of the majesty and transcendence of God. Much of his theology and its social implications reflect this absence of the power and might of the sovereign God. This is an error of most liberals. They exalt man at God’s expense. This is false theology. A book with a similar title that I did find impressive was Richard Bauckham’s God Crucified.[14] He is much more conservative than Moltmann and persuasively argues that precisely in our Lord’s death is his deity best understood. Bauckham argues that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah reveals Messiah as God in the most powerful way. Our Lord’s death is a striking exhibition of his deity, not just his humanity.

God is immanent, both in the Old Testament and most profoundly in Jesus Christ, and we must affirm that where Jesus is, there God is. To say otherwise is equally false theology, no less heretical than the denying-God’s-majesty of theological liberalism. This God-as-Christ-and-God-in-Christ is not less true of the Cross. Even in his anguished cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46), Jesus is not less than God[15] — unless we are prepared to embrace the adoptionist heresy that Jesus became God at some point and lost his deity at another, a blasphemous notion. But Jesus died on the cross. Did God die? He cannot die. He is the living God (Dt. 5:26; Ac. 14:15). But God as Christ certainly dies, and if he does not die, there is no salvation, no gospel, no hope. Death is God’s penalty for sin, and his eyes are so pure that he cannot look (gaze) on evil (Hab. 1:13). But Jesus was (is) God and was not less than God on the cross. This means that while God is always and ever the living God, he in his Son died.[16] Jesus tasted death for every man (Heb. 2:9). God tastes what his Son tastes. The fact that he is fully transcendent does not mean he stands aloof from us, even (perhaps especially) in our pain and suffering (Heb. 2:16–18).

My godly mother died of pancreatic cancer last year. As I observed her final days, body emaciated to bones by disease, breath arriving and departing in tiny gasps, pain held at bay by morphine, I wondered how God felt. Could he merely empathize? No. Not merely empathize. In his Son he entered into all the pains and agonies and abandonment of death. In Jesus Christ, the ever-living God knows what it is like to die, just as the ever-holy God knows what it is like to suffer the consequences of sin.

Temporal omnipresence

A key to understanding these sobering and profound truths is what John M. Frame terms God’s temporal omnipresence.[17] God is a-temporally omnipresent (in eternity), but he’s also present in time and history, which he created and sustains. He is a participant in history, and his participation isn’t as a play-actor or illusion. God is really here. And being here, he experiences time and its sequence of change, though, of course, only as God can, and not as man does. He experienced what his Son experienced, including death. How can the ever-living God, who cannot cease to exist, experience death? Because he is God.

This is how to grasp biblical statements that might otherwise perplex us. We read in Acts 20:28, in Paul’s final exhortation to the Ephesian elders, the curious statement: “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” The antecedent of “his” is “God”: God’s own blood. God is a Spirit, so he has no blood. But Paul knew that Jesus is fully God. God’s blood was reconciling.

[1] Leon Morris, The Cross of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 1.

[2] The Holy Spirit’s work is just as vital, but that’s not my theme here.

[3] P. T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ (n.p.: Beloved Publishing, 2017), 34.

[4] I hold with Cornelius Van Til that God is not simply an essence that each member of the Trinity shares but that he is himself a person. See John M. Frame, Cornelius Van Til (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R, 1995), ch. 5. To hold this view is to not suggest four members of the Trinity, since the personhood of the unified God is not defined precisely as it is in the case of each member of the Trinity.

[5] Michael Reeves, Rejoicing in Christ (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 2015), 15.

[6] On the historical development of what became orthodox Christology (the doctrine of Jesus Christ), see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 37–90.

[7] P. T. Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (London: Independent Press, 1909, 1961), 73.

[8] While no human creed is revelationally authoritative, it is notable that the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 condemned this view as heresy. See Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Peabody: Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1900, 1999) 14:211.

[9] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 2:735.

[10] I agree with Donald G. Bloesch that Jesus’ was a true but impersonal humanity. The Son of God took to himself a human nature. “Jesus was not autonomous or self-existent. God is the acting Subject in Jesus.” This does not mean that Jesus’ humanity was impersonal. It means that the person of Jesus Christ is the Son of God. See Jesus Christ, Savior & Lord (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1997), 56–57.

[11] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 2:737.

[12] This truth formed the basis of Martin Luther’s early Reformation theology. However, in his battle with Erasmus, he later drifted from it, tragically seeing not Jesus Christ but the secret, inscrutable will of God, sometimes in direct conflict with his revelation in Jesus Christ, as God’s final word. See Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985, 1990), 161–175.

[13] Colin Brown, “Death of God School,” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, J. D. Douglas, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974, 1978), 287–288.

[14] Richard Bauckham, God Crucified (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), see especially pages 45–79.

[15] Bauckham argues that it is precisely in our Lord’s death, forsaken (until the resurrection) by God, that he most fully exhibits his deity. See his Jesus and the God of Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 254–268.

[16] A common way historically of addressing this issue is to say that Jesus Christ’s human nature died but not his divine nature, which cannot die. The person died, and since both the divine and human natures are united in the person, some action of one or the other can be attributed to the person. A careful and self-professed scholastic explanation of this view can be found in Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg,NJ: P & R Publishing, 1994), 2:321–332. This is a second-order theological verdict (as with the early ecumenical creeds) that cannot be found in the text of the Bible but which can illuminate our understanding of the Bible’s broad teaching. A recurring problem has been that the patristic church took up the issue of the Trinity and the two natures in Christ without primary reference to Jesus Christ’s redemption, which they fit in later. They marginalized the gospel at the point at which it should have been at front and center.

[17] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R, 2002), 570–572.

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