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Christ Confusion

Six Common Errors About Jesus

ABSTRACT: Jesus Christ, the God-man, is the central glory of the Christian faith. Yet the very fact that he is both God and man has become the occasion of many misunderstandings and distortions, even among sincere Christians. Some speak as if he were not fully human; others as if he were not fully divine; still others as if he is no longer both God and man. Christians throughout the centuries have taken care to correct such common errors — not because they enjoyed splitting hairs, but because they knew that less-than-precise views of Jesus always work to our spiritual detriment.

The belief that Jesus of Nazareth is both fully God and fully man has invited indifference, intrigue, debate, speculation, mockery, and confusion for roughly two thousand years. Quite appropriately, however, this belief has also invited worship, devotion, and rejoicing all over the world since the time of his incarnation (Luke 1:41). But even among those who worship and adore Christ, there remains a great deal of ignorance, misunderstanding, and error concerning his identity. Today, many have less-than-precise views of who Jesus is, always (to varying degrees) to their spiritual detriment.

All true knowledge of the Savior is both necessary and useful for our enjoyment of God. To the degree that we know Jesus Christ, we shall know God. To the degree that we misunderstand our Lord, we shall be ignorant of God. Ignorance is no friend of spiritual growth. Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), so that those who see Jesus see the Father (John 14:9). No one can claim to truly know God who does not truly know his Son.

“To the degree that we misunderstand our Lord, we shall be ignorant of God. Ignorance is no friend of spiritual growth.”

To his disciples, Jesus asked perhaps the most important question that can be asked of any person: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Has any question been more vigorously contested, completely or partially misunderstood, willingly ignored to one’s peril, and correctly answered to one’s eternal gain? In response to Christ’s question, Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). John refers to Jesus as “the Word” who became flesh (John 1:14). Thomas confessed Jesus as his “Lord” and “God” (John 20:28). The author of Hebrews had much to say about who Jesus is, including referring to him as “the radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3), who partook of flesh and blood (Hebrews 2:14). The apostle Paul can speak of “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5), who is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15), and the recipient of the divine name as the resurrected Lord (Philippians 2:9–11).

These declarations, and the many more we find in the Scriptures, provide us with a rather shocking reality: the man Jesus of Nazareth is no ordinary man, but God in the flesh. He is the God-man, a distinction that no one else can or will have. He is a unique person, not in the ordinary sense we might call someone unique, but truly unique insofar as there is no one else like him. This happens to be the glory of the Christian faith, but it has also been the occasion of some regrettable misunderstandings. The church has over the course of its history tried to explain this glorious mystery of the God-man, but for various reasons many continue to forget history and perpetuate errors that really ought not to be made. So, who do you say that Jesus is?

1. Is he truly human?

In the late first century, the heresy of Docetism arose through Serapion, bishop of Antioch (190–203). He claimed that the flesh of Jesus was “spiritual.” Jesus did not have a true human nature, but only appeared (Greek, dokeō = “to appear”) human. Later, in the fourth century, Apollinaris of Laodicea (c. 315–392) advanced another false view of Christ. The Nicene Creed is in part a response to his views. Apollinaris contended that the Logos, the eternal Son, assumed a human body, but not a human mind. This meant, said his opponents, the incarnation was simply the divinity of the Son inhabiting mindless/soulless flesh. Even in the seventeenth century, the Puritan theologian John Owen grieved that there were people “in these days” who “destroy the verity of his human nature.”1 What does it mean to be truly human? It means we are body-souls. Jesus was and is truly human.

As the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) states, he is “truly man; the same of a reasonable soul and body . . . the same consubstantial with us in manhood; like us in all things except sin.” The Lord is like us “in every respect” (Hebrews 2:17). There is no shortage of biblical evidence concerning Christ’s humanity. He experienced physical reactions, such as hunger (Matthew 4:2), thirst (John 19:28), and weariness (John 4:6). He wept (John 11:35), wailed (Luke 19:41), sighed (Mark 7:34), and groaned (Mark 8:12). As B.B. Warfield said, “Nothing is lacking to make the impression strong that we have before us in Jesus a human being like ourselves.”2 This is vital for us to believe, for, as Gregory of Nazianzus said in Epistle 101, “That which he has not assumed he has not healed.” Do we have souls that need redeeming? Jesus had to possess a soul. Do we have bodies with rational faculties and powers? Jesus had to possess a body with rational faculties and powers.

Responding to the various errors concerning Christ’s humanity, Owen affirmed,

The Lord Christ, as man, did and was to exercise all grace by the rational faculties and powers of his soul, his understanding, will, and affections. . . . His divine nature was not to him in the place of a soul, nor did immediately operate the things which he performed, as some of old vainly imagined; but being a perfect man, his rational soul was in him the immediate principle of all his moral operations, even as ours are in us.3

Christ’s moral actions were truly human acts. He even developed as a true human being, going from strength to strength, wisdom to wisdom. New and greater degrees of knowledge were appropriate to his growing in wisdom and knowledge (Luke 2:52). This is possible only if he possesses a true human nature, including a finite mind and soul that reflects our own finite minds and souls. This is an essential article of our faith, otherwise his obedience was not truly human obedience to God, which raises all sorts of questions concerning our salvation.

“The Holy Spirit was Christ’s inseparable companion, never leaving him nor forsaking him once.”

The blood, sweat, and tears of our Savior were not some mere phantom, something the writers of the Gospels and Hebrews threw in for rhetorical effect. His blood was real blood that would pour from you or me if we were cut, stabbed, or pierced; his sweat, like drops of blood, was the effect of a soul in anguish over the terrifying reality of the cross; and his tears were from a truly broken heart over the effects of sin upon humanity, which he alone could fix through the cross. He took on our nature, a truly human nature, forever, that he might heal us forever.

2. Did he have help?

If Jesus was helped in his obedience to God by doing the Father’s will (John 4:34; 5:19, 30; 6:29, 42, 57), who are the two most likely persons to help our Lord? It must be the other two persons in the blessed Trinity, the Father and the Spirit, who love him most. In Isaiah, we are told that the Spirit of the Lord will rest on the Messiah, the servant of the Lord:

The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
     the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
     the Spirit of counsel and might,
     the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Isaiah 11:2)

This is later affirmed in Isaiah 42:1, the first servant song:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
     my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
     he will bring forth justice to the nations. (see also Isaiah 61:1)

God the Father upholds his servant (the Son) by putting his Holy Spirit upon him. As we read in the third servant song in Isaiah, “The Lord God helps me” (Isaiah 50:7). This is a beautiful Trinitarian reflection of the work of God in our salvation.

In the New Testament, we read of many references to the Holy Spirit’s work on Christ. Beginning with the incarnation (Luke 1:31, 35), to his baptism (Mark 1:10), to his wilderness temptation (Mark 1:12; Luke 4:14), to his preaching (Luke 4:18), to the performance of miracles (Matthew 12:28), to his death (Hebrews 9:14), to his resurrection (Romans 1:4; 8:11), and to his ascension and enthronement (Acts 2:33; Psalm 45:1–7), we find that the Holy Spirit was Christ’s inseparable companion, never leaving him nor forsaking him once. He was a gift given to him from the Father so that Jesus could, as a true human, obey and please the Father.

There’s a sense in which Jesus shows us what it means to live a fully dependent life upon God. Could he have chosen to rely directly upon his own divine nature? Of course. But that misses the point of his true servanthood. He came as God’s servant, to do God’s will, and to do the work given to him on God’s terms. In response, God the Father fitted and equipped him to serve him. Augustine’s famous saying “Give what you command, and command whatever you wish” is preeminently true of the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit. God gives the Son the giftings (of the Spirit) necessary to obey him, and so can command whatever he wishes because it is not outside of the ability of the man Christ Jesus. Christ reveals to us not only that he alone is the Savior, but also what it means to live a truly religious life in full dependence upon God.

3. Could he have sinned?

Could Jesus, because he was truly tempted, have possibly sinned? There are a number of reasons why it was impossible for Jesus to sin, two of which are crucial and should quiet the debate.

First, if we say that Christ could sin, then we are creating a problem between the relationship of Christ’s two wills. He has two wills, each appropriate to his two natures: a divine will and a human will. The definition of faith from the Sixth Ecumenical Council says, “These two natural wills are not contrary the one to the other (God forbid!) as the impious heretics assert, but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will.” Jesus’s human will cannot be contrary to his divine will. The divine will — shared by the Father, Son, and Spirit — is one. Christ’s human will is subject to the divine will, but it cannot be contrary to it.

This leads to the second reason — namely, that because Christ is one person, he could not sin without implicating the entire Godhead. The unity of Christ’s person has certain implications that are frightening to think about on the one hand, but glorious to meditate upon on the other hand. In short, Christ could not sin without implicating God. Christ’s human nature may be peccable (able to sin) in the abstract, but we actually never can consider the acts of Christ in the abstract because he is a person acting, not a nature acting. In his personhood, he is the God-man, and therefore an impeccable person.

As W.G.T. Shedd says, “When the Logos goes into union with a human nature, so as to constitute it a single person with it, he becomes responsible for all that this person does through the instrumentality of this nature. . . . Should Jesus Christ sin, incarnate God would sin.”4 Just ask yourself: Can we conceive of saying that God sinned? Because if we say that it is theoretically possible for Jesus to sin, then we are saying God can possibly sin. And nothing could be more awful to consider.

He was tempted in all ways, as we are, but without (the possibility of) sin (Hebrews 4:15). The reality of his temptations is as real as the fact that he could not and would not sin against God. This is not only a mystery to us, but also a glorious declaration of who Jesus is.

4. Is he still fully human?

Many believers are correct to affirm that Jesus was truly human on earth, even if they fail to adequately understand what that means. But some get a little confused when you ask them whether Jesus is still fully human now that he is seated at the right hand of the Father in glory. The crassest misunderstanding that one typically hears is that Jesus goes back to being God after his ascension. Even worse, some will say, “What need is there for his humanity anymore?”

“Christ’s human nature will always be truly human, even in his glorified state in heaven.”

Owen remarked, “That he is still in the same human nature wherein he was on the earth, that he has the same rational soul and the same body, is a fundamental article of the Christian faith.”5 Christ’s continued existence as the God-man is a fundamental article of our religion. The brilliant Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, meditating on John 1:14, once wrote, “The Word has become flesh! It has become flesh never to be separated from that flesh again! Not even presently on the Throne.”6

According to Owen, Christ’s human nature is not now “deified” (i.e., not made a god); it does not “in heaven coalesce into one nature with the divine by a composition of them.”7 He is and forever will be both fully God and fully man. His human nature does not have any divine attribute or property communicated to it in such a way that it is no longer human. Christ’s human nature will always be truly human, even in his glorified state in heaven. And this is good news for us who await our Savior, “the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20–21). In other words, we will see his glorified humanity with the eyes of our own glorified human bodies.

For us now, it means that the glorified Christ has a human compassion toward us; he looks at us as one who is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses because he once lived in weakness (Hebrews 4:15). He is still a priest, one possessing a humanity that he himself enjoys as he is able to do all things in power for the sake of his bride, the church.

5. Is he fully God?

Allegedly, a sizeable number of professing evangelical Christians question whether Jesus is fully God. “A great man, appointed by God to be a Savior, yes! But certainly not God in the way the Father is God,” they argue. Arius of Alexandria (c. 250–336) seems to be the most famous heretic who denied that the Son, the Logos, was coequal with the Father. Arius suggested that there was a time when the Son of God was not, thus denying Christ’s true divinity.

The evidence that Jesus of Nazareth is fully divine — homoousios (same substance) with the Father — is so overwhelming that it makes it difficult to sympathize with those who struggle with this truth. If Jesus is not fully God, the New Testament writers went to extreme lengths to confuse and lie to the church (e.g., see Philippians 2:5–11; Hebrews 1:1–14; Colossians 1:15–20).

The prologue to John’s Gospel provides enough explicit evidence by which the church can rest its case that Jesus is truly God. Consider the opening words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Later in the prologue, John makes the startling point — perhaps the most unbelievable verse for any first-century Jew to believe — that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). “Was” in verse 1 should be contrasted with “became” in verse 14. The Word (Logos) did not “become” in the sense of coming into existence. Rather, the Word simply “was.” Other passages in John’s Gospel serve to confirm and buttress this truth (John 3:13; 6:62; 8:57–58; 17:5; 20:28).

Later, John references the time when Isaiah saw “the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5). After quoting a section from Isaiah 6, he asserts that Isaiah “said these things because he saw [Jesus’s] glory and spoke of him” (John 12:41). Moreover, in Isaiah we are told that God gives his glory to no one else but himself (Isaiah 42:8); and yet Jesus asks the Father to glorify him in his Father’s presence “with the glory that [he] had with [his Father] before the world existed” (John 17:5). If Jesus is not God, then he is not only deluded, but his request is an abomination.

In the book of Revelation, John makes a number of statements that demonstrate Christ’s divinity by explicitly connecting Jesus and Yahweh:

Yahweh (Isaiah) Jesus (Revelation)
“I, the Lord, the first, and with the last; I am he” (41:4). “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one” (1:17–18).
“I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (44:6). “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life’” (2:8).
“I am he; I am the first, and I am the last” (48:12). “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (22:13).

What do these parallels teach us? Jesus is none other than Yahweh himself.

As very God of very God, equal in essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, Jesus necessarily possesses all of the divine attributes. Is the Father majestic? So is the Son. Is the Father infinitely, eternally, and unchangeably powerful? So is the Son. Is the Father holy, holy, holy? So is the Son. Regarding the divine nature, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are coequal in essence. He is not just glorious, but infinitely and unchangeably glorious.

6. Is Mary ‘the mother of God’?

But what of the language that Mary is the mother of God (theotokos)? The truth of this statement should not be rejected because of how it has been misunderstood by Roman Catholics. When the Son became flesh (John 1:14), he assumed a human nature, not a human person. The human nature subsists in the personhood of the Son of God: “not divided or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only Begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ” (Council of Chalcedon).

Theologians have called the incarnation of the Son of God the “hypostatic union.” The union of the two natures in the one person means that when we speak about Jesus, we do not say, “His human nature did this,” or “His divine nature did that.” Rather, we say that Jesus did this or that, according to either his human or divine nature. Paul makes this point at the beginning of Romans: “. . . concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh” (Romans 1:3). The subject is the person, the Son, who performs actions according to either his human nature (e.g., eating, Luke 24:43) or his divine nature (e.g., upholding the world, Hebrews 1:3).

“The only hope for the church today is not a mere man, but the God-man.”

Therefore, Mary did not give birth to a human nature in the abstract, but to a person. That person is the Son of God, which means that Mary is the mother of God, which is the teaching of the Chalcedonian Creed (AD 451) and a test of orthodoxy for Christian believers. This is why, in Acts 20:28, Paul can exhort the Ephesian elders “to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” God the Son obtained, through his death and resurrection, the church with his own blood.

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Because of the entrance of sin into the world through man, man must make satisfaction to God. But sinful man cannot make satisfaction for his sin. A mere sinless man could only potentially make restitution for one sinful man. Satisfaction for many men (“as the sand that is on the seashore,” Genesis 22:17) can take place only through the God-man, Jesus Christ. He is God’s appointed Messiah, who alone can bring salvation to sinners.

Peter recognized this great truth to his great gain. By faith, Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 16:16). By sight, Peter now beholds the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Those who behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ in this life by faith can confidently expect to do the same in the life to come by sight. That is why the only hope for the church today is not a mere man, but the God-man, who asks you, “Who do you say that I am?”

  1. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, 24 vols., ed. William H. Goold (1850–1853; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 1:40. 

  2. B.B. Warfield, “The Emotional Life of Our Lord,” in The Person and Work of Christ (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1950), 139. 

  3. Owen, Works, 3:169. 

  4. W.G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888), 2:334. 

  5. Owen, Works, 1:344–45. 

  6. Abraham Kuyper, In den Kerstnacht [On Christmas Night] (Wormser, 1887), 127–28. 

  7. Owen, Works, 1:345.