Keith Mathison

Jesus Christ: Truly God, Truly Man

The Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon are vitally important subordinate theological standards in the Church. Both have been received and confessed by the historic Reformed churches. Their doctrinal content was affirmed by the early Reformed theologians and embedded in our confessions of faith because they express the teaching of Scripture.

When we open any of the four Gospels, we read of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If we look closely at what we read, one thing that will catch our attention is that Jesus often says and does things that only a human being can say or do, and He also often says and does things that only God can say or do. For example, He ate (Mark 2:15–16). He drank (John 19:30). He grew weary (John 4:6) and slept (Mark 4:38). In other words, He was truly human.
Yet, what else does Jesus say and do? He says things that imply He eternally existed prior to His incarnation (e.g., John 3:13; 6:62; 8:42). He forgives sins (Matt. 9:6; Mark 2:10; Luke 5:24). He hears and answers prayer (John 14:13–14). He receives worship and praise (Matt. 21:16). In short, He says and does things indicating that He understands Himself to be truly God.
After the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the Church found itself having to answer questions about Jesus—questions that came not only from inquirers and skeptics outside the church but also from catechumens and laity within the church. How can we say both kinds of things about Jesus? Is He a human being? Is He a divine being? Is He a third kind of being, some mixture of deity and humanity? Scripture was forcing the Church to ask and answer philosophical questions, specifically, metaphysical questions about being.
The Docetist and Ebionite Heresies
These kinds of questions and others resulted in a large number of wrong answers. These wrong answers are the early Christological heresies. All of them are wrong because they all either fail to take into account everything Scripture says about Jesus or else deliberately reject one part or another of the biblical testimony. Some, for example, attempted to solve the difficulty by rejecting the true humanity of Jesus. These were the Docetists. The Ebionites solved the difficulty in the opposite way by denying the true deity of Christ.
The Adoptionist and Modalist Heresies
Adoptionists argued that Jesus was not the eternal Son of God. Instead He was a human being who was adopted as the Son of God at His baptism. Modalists, such as Noetus and Sabellius, argued that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were different “modes” of the one God. Sometimes this one God wears the Father mask. Sometimes He wears the Son mask. Other times He wears the Holy Spirit mask. All of these views were decisively rejected by the Church as being out of accord with the teaching of Scripture.
The Arian Heresy
The suggested solution offered by Arius ignited the fourth century Trinitarian controversy. In brief, Arius argued that the Son is a creature. He did not exist eternally, so there was a “time” when the Son was not. Various forms of Arianism developed during the fourth century. What they all have in common is a strong subordinationist strain. For example, the Second Creed of Sirmium, written by fourth-century Homoian Arians, states:

There is no uncertainty about the Father being greater: it cannot be doubted by anyone that the Father is greater in honor, in dignity, in glory, in majesty, in the very name of ‘Father.’

This teaching stood in direct contrast to the Nicene Creed which was produced at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Because the controversies did not immediately end after 325, another council, the Council of Constantinople was called in AD 381. The original Nicene Creed was expanded into the form most are familiar with today:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

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5 Things You Should Know about the Doctrine of the Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity, along with the doctrine of the incarnation, is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. This means that it exceeds the ability of finite human minds to fully grasp…There is nothing in creation that is a precise analogy to the doctrine of the Trinity.

1. The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most fundamental doctrines in Christianity.
The Christian doctrine of God is the doctrine of the Trinity, and the Christian doctrine of God is foundational to every other Christian doctrine. There is no doctrine of Scripture (bibliology) apart from the doctrine of God because Scripture is the Word of God. Human beings are created in the image of God. Sin is rebellion against the law of God. Soteriology is the doctrine having to do with the redemptive work of God. The church is the people of God. Eschatology has to do with the final goals and plans of God.
2. The doctrine of the Trinity was not invented at the Council of Nicaea.
There is a popular myth today that the doctrine of the Trinity was invented in the fourth century at the Council of Nicaea. This is not true. In the first centuries of the church, Christians were already teaching the fundamental doctrines they found in Scripture. Scripture teaches that there is one—and only one—God. Scripture also teaches that the Father is God. Scripture teaches that the Son is God and that the Holy Spirit is God. Furthermore, Scripture teaches that the Father is not the Son or the Spirit, that the Son is not the Father or the Spirit, and that the Spirit is not the Father or the Son. Anybody who held these basic propositions of Scripture held to the foundations of the doctrine of the Trinity. Over the centuries, there arose those whose teaching denied or distorted one or more of those biblical teachings. The Council of Nicaea was called to respond to one such teaching—the teaching of Arius, who had denied that the Son is God. The Nicene Creed provided boundaries to ensure that the church teaches everything Scripture affirms.
3. The doctrine of the Trinity is not fully comprehensible to human minds.
The doctrine of the Trinity, along with the doctrine of the incarnation, is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. This means that it exceeds the ability of finite human minds to fully grasp. If we treat the doctrine of the Trinity like some kind of math puzzle, requiring only the right amount of ingenuity to solve, we will inevitably fall into one heresy or another. The doctrine of the Trinity is not a Rubik’s Cube. There is nothing in creation that is a precise analogy to the doctrine of the Trinity.
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One of the most prevalent errors made when discussing holiness is to slide into the view that we are somehow justified before God by our holiness. Ryle is careful to observe throughout this book the distinction between sanctification and justification. Justification is by faith alone in Christ alone. But those who have been justified bear the fruit of the Spirit and grow in holiness. In other words, they are sanctified by God. They are now to love Christ and the things He loves. This is very easy to forget in our day and age when walking an aisle is equated with conversion and walking in the light is considered optional.

In the early centuries of the church’s existence, Christian apologists would sometimes appeal to the distinctively holy lives of Christians as evidence for the truth of Christianity. Would such an appeal be of any use today? According to numerous surveys, the behavior of professing Christians is not discernibly different from the behavior of those who profess other religions or no religion at all. The phrase one often hears on the lips of pagans who observe contemporary Christian behavior is: “The church is full of hypocrites.” This should not be. We worship a holy God who calls His people to be holy and who has provided the means by which they may be holy.
The problem of lax and hypocritical Christianity is not a new one, and one of the best treatments of the entire subject is a classic written by J.C. Ryle (1816–1900), who served as the Anglican Bishop of Liverpool for twenty years. Ryle was a deeply committed and non-compromising evangelical Christian. In fact, Charles Spurgeon referred to him as an “evangelical champion.” His book Holiness has been reprinted numerous times since its original publication in 1879. It is deservedly considered a Christian classic on the subject of sanctification. It ranks up there with the work of John Owen on the mortification of sin.
I first read Bishop Ryle’s Holiness some twenty years ago. The book was deeply convicting and made a lasting impact on my thinking. Ryle’s work is convicting because he does not appeal to silly gimmicks and other manmade answers to the problem of sin. He appeals over and over to Scripture, to the Word of the living God, and he drives the Word of God home through careful and direct application. If you are complacent in your sin and do not want to be disturbed in your enjoyment of it, do not read Ryle. This is a book about the necessity of sanctification, the necessity of holiness. It deals with weighty subjects, the weightiest in fact: God, sin, Jesus Christ, the gospel, the Holy Spirit, justification, sanctification, heaven, and hell. It is a book for those who want to move beyond milk and get to the meat of the Word.
Frankly, some older Christian books are difficult to read because of the style of writing that was common in previous ages. To contemporary readers, many of these works seem dry and wordy, tedious and dull. I have run across many such books myself. Ryle does not fall into that category. Ryle’s writing is more comparable to that of someone like Charles Spurgeon. He writes with such an intensity and passion that the reader cannot easily become bored.
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No One Shared the Gospel with Me

As Christians, one of our primary tasks is to share the good news with those who desperately need it, and who needs it more than those who are lost. In order to do this our attitudes need to be completely re-shaped and conformed to Christ.

You wake up in the morning, scratch your back and stretch. You grab some coffee and then sit down to read the news. The first story that catches your eye includes a photograph of people doing something that makes your blood boil. You grit your teeth and mutter something under your breath and then share the link with your friends on your favorite social media site with some choice comments.
You decide to go shopping. While walking through the local store, you see a group of teenagers. They are brash, loud, and obnoxious. Several of them have multiple tattoos and piercings. The band logos and art on their clothing are offensive to you. They cast a sneering glance at you as you walk by. You can feel your blood pressure rising. You pull out your phone and write a quick tweet about how much you dislike the younger generation.
I was one of the lost people we see every day.
I could go on, but the point I want to make concerns our attitude as Christians towards the lost people we see every day. This is important to me because I was one of those lost people, and not once did any Christian even attempt to talk with me about the Gospel of Christ. I’ve often wondered why.
I grew up near Houston, Texas, deep in the southern part of the United States. It’s often called “the Bible Belt” because there are so many churches and so many Christians. Presumably, I ran across some of them during those years. If so, not one of them spoke a word to me about Jesus. (While in high school, I did encounter an elderly gentleman handing out Gideon’s pocket New Testaments to students. He gave me one but didn’t speak. I’m thankful that he showed at least that much care because several years later, God used that New Testament to draw me to Christ).
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Remembering the Reformation

Stephen J. Nichols’ The Reformation (Crossway, 2007). For those who find history difficult, Nichols’ style of writing is a breath of fresh air. He does not fill page after page with dry lists of names and dates. Instead, his gift is the ability to draw readers into the lives of the people about whom he writes, allowing us to see these great historical figures, warts and all.

Does the Protestant Reformation still matter? If so, why? These are important questions, especially in our day and age, because for many living today in the twenty-first century, what is important is not the past, but the future. We live at an unusual time in history. In terms of technology, the world has changed faster in the last one hundred years than it did in the previous two thousand years combined. This has affected us in many ways. Our generation no longer looks to the wisdom of the past for guidance; instead, we look for the next new invention. History is “yesterday’s news.” What matters is tomorrow.
Sadly, the same way of thinking has influenced Christians. We look at church history with a jaundiced eye, finding it boring or irrelevant, but we must understand that this is an unwise approach. God has always called his people to remember his gracious works in the past. Israel was called to remember the exodus. Christians are called to remember the death of Christ. The same principle holds true with the lessons of church history. It has been rightly said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The church simply cannot afford to forget the lessons of the Reformation.
There are hundreds of books on the Reformation, but if one coming to the subject for the first time were looking for the best place to start, he would be hard pressed to find a better introduction than Stephen J. Nichols’ The Reformation (Crossway, 2007). For those who find history difficult, Nichols’ style of writing is a breath of fresh air. He does not fill page after page with dry lists of names and dates. Instead, his gift is the ability to draw readers into the lives of the people about whom he writes, allowing us to see these great historical figures, warts and all.
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5 Things You Should Know about Creeds

Most Christians have heard of things like the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed, but many Christians also have a number of misconceptions about creeds. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the nature, history, and purpose of creeds. Here are five things you should know about creeds.
1. The word “creed” comes from the Latin word credo, which simply means “I believe.”
The plural form is credimus, which means “we believe.” In short, when we recite a creed, we are simply making a statement concerning what we believe. What this means is that if you believe anything, you have a creed. What if you say, “I believe in no creed but Christ”? Well, then, that’s your creed. It’s a short creed, but it is a creed. When we understand that creeds are human statements of faith, it also helps us better understand the relationship between Scripture and creeds. Holy Scripture is inspired. The Greek word in 2 Timothy 3:16 is theopneustos, which literally means “God-breathed.” Scripture is the inspired Word of God. Creeds are non-inspired words of men. In the Scriptures, we hear God saying, “Thus saith the Lord . . .” In the creeds, we respond, “We believe you . . .”
2. The Bible itself uses creed-like summaries.
Probably the most well-known example of this is the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4, which begins “Hear, O Israel: The lord our God, the lord is one.” This short creed-like statement is expanded upon by Paul in 1 Corinthians 8:6 to take account of the further revelation concerning Jesus Christ. Other creed-like statements in the New Testament are found in Romans 10:9–10 (“Jesus is Lord”) and 1 Corinthians 15:3–4.
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Modern Cultic Tendencies

Since the nineteenth century, the U.S. has proven to have a cultural soil that is particularly well-suited to the growth and spread of diverse cultic movements. The nineteenth century alone witnessed the rise of numerous small cults as well as several significant ones, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons. A number of factors—discussed in another article in this issue of Tabletalk—help us to understand why this happened when it did. But what of our own era? Is there anything in our contemporary way of thinking, or way of living, that is similarly conducive to the proliferation of cults and cult-like tendencies?
On the one hand, several aspects of nineteenth-century culture and religion that contributed to the rise of numerous cults continue to this day. We remain a hyper-individualistic culture that is attracted to populist ideals. We have retained our deep suspicion of all traditional authorities, including the church and her creeds. Within the church, the cry “No creed but Christ” (which, ironically, is itself a creed) has not lost any of its emotional appeal. Overly pietistic tendencies in the church continue to encourage the idea of a conflict between the heart and the mind resulting in antagonism toward anything doctrinal or intellectual. These basic misunderstandings led to a severe lack of discernment in the nineteenth century, and to the degree that the same misunderstandings continue today, so too do the same dangers.
The anti-intellectual trend that existed in the nineteenth century picked up steam in the twentieth. We have witnessed the “dumbing down” of our culture. The advent of television, as Neil Postman explains, by itself contributed greatly to the transition from an “Age of Exposition” to the “Age of Show Business” (Amusing Ourselves to Death, Penguin Books, 1985, p. 64). The dumbing down of the culture has been followed by the dumbing down of the church. Sadly, many churches have surrendered to the standards of contemporary culture and become places of entertainment rather than places of worship. Deeply exegetical and theological sermons have become an endangered species, having been replaced by vacuous therapeutic messages and mindless pop-psychology. In the eighth century B.C., the prophet Hosea declared the word of the Lord to Israel, saying: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hos. 4:6). Such a lament is not inappropriate in today’s anti-intellectual climate in which many Christians have lost the ability to think.
The antipathy and antagonism toward theology that began to gain ground in the nineteenth century also strengthened during the twentieth century. Some continued to argue that theology was detrimental to true “heart religion,” while others began to argue that language about God was simply impossible. Gradually theology moved from the center to the periphery of the church’s life. Christians are no longer regularly taught the foundational truths of the Christian faith and are therefore left vulnerable to cultists and others who cleverly twist Scripture.
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Causing Little Ones to Stumble

According to numerous polls, many children of believers in Europe and North America are leaving the church once they reach young adulthood. Older Christians do not need polls to tell them this. It is evident in the pews. When we think about the reasons why, we often start by pointing outward—to the influences of the world on our children. It’s Hollywood’s fault. It’s the schools’ fault. It’s his fault. It’s her fault. Many external things certainly are contributing factors, but how often do we stop pointing at others and look at ourselves to ask whether we have said and done things that have caused these little ones to stumble? Is any of it our fault?
Our little ones watch us and listen to us. They are quick to notice inconsistencies in speech and behavior. Have they ever heard their parents, pastor, or other Christian adults say one thing to them about the kind of behavior and speech God requires, only to witness these same adults contradicting what they claim to believe in their own speech and behavior?

Important Contexts for Understanding Reformed Theology

Our twenty-first century historical, philosophical, and theological context is very different from that of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If we are not aware that there are differences, it can be very easy to read our contemporary context back into the writings of those centuries. If we are aware that there are differences but remain ignorant of the sixteenth and seventeenth century contexts, we can easily miss the true import of some of their teachings.

Most Christians understand the importance of context for properly interpreting Scripture. We realize that the books of Scripture were written thousands of years ago in cultures very different from ours and in languages we do not grow up speaking. Those things that were simply given, everyday realities for the original human authors and their audiences are things we have to study and learn about. We know that if we are studying the Old Testament, we have to learn Hebrew and Aramaic (or trust the translators who learned those languages). We have to learn about ancient Near Eastern history, geography, culture, and practices in order to understand what the biblical authors are talking about. If we are studying the New Testament, we have to learn Greek. We have to learn about the first century world under the Roman Empire. All of this is simply part of the nature of grammatical-historical interpretation.
Context is also important if we are to properly understand Reformed theology. Reformed theology was a fruit of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, and that Reformation took place in a particular historical and cultural context. The authors writing at that time wrote within a particular philosophical and theological context. Having a grasp of these various contexts is important for understanding Reformed theology. I want to briefly mention three such contexts: the historical, philosophical, and theological contexts.
Historical Context
The Protestant Reformation did not occur one afternoon because a bunch of Roman Catholic monks got bored and decided to throw a party that got out of hand. The Protestant Reformation was the culmination of numerous historical events that reached back over the course of many centuries. Conflicts between the church and various political entities (imperial as well as more local) in addition to various conflicts among the political entities themselves played a role. Conflicts within the church itself resulting from corruption and numerous reforming attempts played a role. Cultural changes, including economic changes and technological changes, played a role.
We can see the direct relevance of the historical context when, for example, we read Martin Luther’s To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation or his Babylonian Captivity of the Church, two of the most important Protestant writings of the early Reformation. We can see the relevance when we read John Calvin’s “Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France” at the beginning of his Institutes. That preface is important context for understanding the content of the Institutes.
In addition, many of the Reformed confessions address issues that assume specific historical conditions or that are responding to specific historical conditions. The clearest example of the impact of historical context on the content of Reformed theology can be seen in the difference between the original Westminster Confession of Faith and the American revision of the same Confession on the subject of the civil magistrate and the relation between church and state. We have to understand that historical context is important for understanding Reformed theology. If a believer desires to have a better grasp of Reformed theology, he or she should take some time to study the history of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—the two hundred years immediately preceding the Reformation—and then study the history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries themselves. Theology does not exist in a historical vacuum.
Philosophical Context
In order to understand the importance of the philosophical context of Reformed theology, it is necessary to remember the historical timeframe of the Reformation. The Protestant Reformation began in the early sixteenth century with the work of Martin Luther. The first Latin edition of John Calvin’s Institutes was published in 1536 and the final Latin edition in 1559. The major writings of Reformed theologians such as Zwingli, Musculus, Vermigli, Bullinger, Beza, Zanchius, and Ursinus were published in the sixteenth century. All of the works of the Reformed scholastic theologians in the period of Early Orthodoxy and the majority of the works published in the period of High Orthodoxy were published before the end of the seventeenth century. This includes the works of Reformed theologians such as Polanus, Ames, Wollebius, Maccovius, Witsius, Turretin, and Mastricht.
All the major Reformed confessions and catechisms were also published in these two centuries. For example, the Tetrapolitan Confession (1530), the First Helvetic Confession (1536), the French Confession (1559), the Scots Confession (1560), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Canons of Dordt (1618–19), the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), the Westminster Larger Catechism (1647), and the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) were written in the sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century.
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Is the World’s Hatred a Guarantee That We Are Following Jesus?

Too many Christians behave and speak obnoxiously at times, and then when the world responds with hatred, we automatically attribute that hatred to our faithfulness to Christ.

There seems to be a common misconception among many Christians that if the world hates them, it’s incontrovertible proof that they must be doing something right. They must be faithfully following Jesus.
It is true that the world hates those whom Christ has chosen out of this world (John 15:18–25). It is true that the world hates Christians because it hates Christ.
What is the logical fallacy known as “affirming the consequent”?
The problem is that many Christians commit a logical fallacy when thinking about this issue. They assume that if the world hates them, then it must be the case that they are faithfully following Jesus. Let me lay out the statements to make this easier to see.
True Conditional Statement:
If you faithfully follow Jesus, then the world will hate you. (If P, therefore Q).
Logically Fallacious Conclusion:
The world hates me, therefore I must be faithfully following Jesus (Q, therefore P).
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