Stephen Wellum

Penal Substitution and Other Atonement Theologies

Of all the atonement views, only penal substitution best captures the God-centered nature of the cross. The alternatives either minimize or deny 1) that God’s holy justice is essential to him, 2) why our sin is first against God (Ps. 51:4), and 3) why Christ as our penal substitute is central to the cross. Before we can speak of the horizontal results of the cross (e.g., moral example, inter-personal reconciliation, etc.), we must first speak of the vertical: namely the triune God, in his Son, taking his own demand on himself so that we, in Christ, may be justified before him (Rom. 5:1–2). The other views miss this point. For them, the object of the cross is either our sin (forms of recapitulation), or Satan (ransom theory), or the powers (forms of Christus Victor). But what they fail to see is that the primary person we have sinned against is God, and as such, the ultimate object of the cross is God himself.

Trying to state all that our Lord Jesus achieved in his glorious work is difficult given its multi-faceted aspects. John Calvin sought to grasp the comprehensive nature of Christ’s work by the munus triplex—Christ’s threefold office as our new covenant head and mediator—prophet, priest, and king. What Calvin sought to avoid was reductionism, the “cardinal” sin of theology. Yet, although there is a danger in prioritizing one aspect of our Lord’s work, Scripture does stress the centrality of Christ’s priestly office and his sacrificial death for our sins (Matt. 1:21; 1 Cor. 15:3–4). And given the centrality of Christ’s cross, it is crucial that we explain it correctly.
However, one problem we face is that, throughout church history, there have been a number of atonement theologies. Unlike the ecumenical confessions of Nicaea and Chalcedon that established orthodox Trinitarian and Christological doctrine, there is no catholic confession regarding the cross. From this fact, some have concluded that no one view best explains what is central to the cross—a conclusion I reject. The truth is that despite an ecumenical confession, all Christians have agreed that Christ’s death “is for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3) resulting in our reconciliation with God.
While conceptual clarity of the doctrine occurred over time, similar to other doctrines, clarity and precision was achieved, as various atonement debates occurred. Specifically, it was during the Reformation and post-Reformation eras, building on the work of people like Anselm, that conceptual clarity occurred in the articulation of penal substitution as the best theological explanation for why the cross was necessary and what it achieved.
Recently, however, some have challenged the claim that penal substitution best explains what is central to Christ’s cross. We are told repeatedly that penal substitution does not account for the richness of the cross. What is needed is not one view but multiple views. Is this correct? My thesis is that it is not, and for at least two reasons. First, views other than penal substitution fail to grasp the central problem that the cross remedies, namely our sin before God. Second, from another angle, other views stress various legitimate results of the cross, but without penal substitution as the foundation, the results alone cannot explain the central problem of our sin before God. Before developing these two points, let me first describe the basic atonement views set over against penal substitution.
Atonement Views in Historical Theology
Over the centuries, five main atonement theologies have been given:
First, there is the recapitulation view, often associated with Irenaeus and Athanasius. This view interprets Christ’s work primarily in terms of his identification with us through the incarnation. By becoming human, the divine Son reversed what Adam did by living our life and dying our death. Adam’s disobedience resulted in the corruption of our nature and the deprivation of Godlikeness. Christ reverses both of these results in his incarnation and entire cross-work. Especially in Christ’s resurrection, immortality and reconciliation with God is restored to us. This view captures much biblical truth. Christ’s work is presented in representational and substitutionary terms. But its central focus is on sin’s effects on us and Christ’s restorative work, not on our sin before God and the need for Christ to satisfy God’s own righteous demand against us by paying for our sin.
Christus Victor (Or Ransom)
Second, Christus Victor is another view of the cross, often associated with the ransom theory to Satan. The primary object(s) of Christ’s death is (are) the powers which he liberates us from, namely, sin, death, and Satan. Like recapitulation, this view captures a lot of biblical truth, especially Christ’s defeat of the powers (Gen. 3:15; John 12:31–33; Col. 2:13–15; Heb. 2:14–16; Rev. 12:1–12), but unlike penal substitution, God is not viewed as the primary object of the cross.
Moral Influence (or Example)
Third, the moral influence view was promoted within non-orthodox theology. It had its roots in the theology of Peter Abelard (1079–1142), but came into its own with the rise of classic liberal theology (eighteenth to nineteenth centuries). It taught that God’s love is more basic than his justice and that God can forgive our sins without Christ satisfying divine justice. God is not the primary object of the cross. Instead, Christ’s death reveals God’s love and sets an example for us.
The Governmental View
Fourth, the governmental view arose in the post-Reformation era and it is identified with Hugo Grotius, John Miley, and the Arminian tradition. Against penal substitution, this view denies that God’s justice necessitates the full payment of our sin since God’s justice is not viewed as essential to him.
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Dispensational or Covenantal? The Promise and Progress of Salvation in Christ

ABSTRACT: Dispensationalism or covenant theology? From the beginning of the church, Christians have wrestled over how best to relate the covenants. In recent generations, two broad traditions have governed the church’s covenantal thinking. In seeking to “put the covenants together” in Christian theology, we need to do justice to the plurality of God’s covenants, each of which reaches its fulfillment in Christ; posit an implicit creation covenant as foundational to future covenants; and seriously account for the newness of God’s new-covenant people. From creation to the cross, God accomplishes his redemptive plan covenant by covenant, progressively revealing the greater new covenant now ratified in Christ.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Stephen J. Wellum (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, to explore how Christians might best relate Scripture’s covenants.

All Christians agree that covenants are essential to the Bible’s redemptive story centered in our Lord Jesus Christ, but we continue to disagree on the relationships between the covenants. This is not a new debate. In the early church, the apostles wrestled with the implications of Christ’s new-covenant work. In fact, it’s difficult to appreciate many of the early church’s struggles apart from viewing them as covenantal debates. For example, the reason for the Jerusalem Council was due to covenantal disputes (Acts 15), especially regarding Jew-Gentile relations (Acts 10–11; Ephesians 2:11–22; 3:1–13) and theological differences with the Judaizers (Galatians 3–4).

Although Christians today share a basic agreement that the Bible’s story moves from Adam to Abraham to Sinai to Christ, we still disagree on how to put together the covenants.1 These differences affect other key theological issues, such as the newness of what Christ has achieved, how the Decalogue and the Sabbath laws apply to the church, and how Old Testament promises are now fulfilled in Christ and the church (a question related to the larger Israel-church relationship). When these differences surface, we discover that there are still significant disagreements regarding how the covenants are put together.

This article addresses the topic of how to put the covenants together, and it does so by answering three questions: (1) Why do we disagree? (2) How do we resolve our differences? (3) How might we put the covenants together in a way that least distorts the data and emphases of Scripture?

Why Do We Disagree?

Why do those of us who affirm Scripture’s full authority disagree on significant truths? The answer is complicated and multifaceted. For starters, theological views are not simply tied to one or two texts. Instead, views involve discussions of how texts are interpreted in their context, interrelated with other texts, and read in terms of the entirety of Scripture.

Furthermore, views are tied to historical theology and tradition. We don’t approach Scripture with a blank slate; we are informed by tradition and a theological heritage, which affects how we draw theological conclusions. Within evangelical theology, two broad traditions often govern our thinking about the covenants: dispensationalism and covenant theology.

Dispensationalism began in nineteenth-century England and has undergone various revisions. However, what is unique to all its forms is the Israel-church distinction, dependent on a particular understanding of the covenants. For dispensationalists, Israel refers to an ethnic, national people, and the church is never the transformed eschatological Israel in God’s plan. Gentile salvation is not part of the fulfillment of promises made to national Israel and now realized in the church. Instead, God has promised national Israel, first in the Abrahamic covenant and then reaffirmed by the prophets, the possession of the promised land under Christ’s rule, which still awaits its fulfillment in the premillennial return of Christ and the eternal state.

The church, then, is distinctively new in God’s plan and ontologically different from Israel. Although the church is presently comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles, she is receiving only the spiritual blessings that were promised to Israel. In the future, Christ will rule over redeemed nations, not the church in her present form. The church will not receive all of God’s promises equally, fully, and forever in Christ. Instead, believing Jews and Gentiles, who now constitute the church, will join the redeemed of the nation of Israel, along with Gentile nations, to live under Christ’s rule according to their respective national identities and the specific promises given to each. Dispensationalism also teaches that the church is constituted as a regenerate community, which entails that the sign of baptism is to be applied only to those who profess faith in Christ.

Covenant theology formally began in the Reformation and post-Reformation era, and it is best represented by the Westminster Confession of Faith and other Reformed confessions. It organizes God’s plan in history by God’s covenantal dealings with humans. Although covenant theology is not monolithic, those who hold to it typically argue for three covenants: the intra-trinitarian covenant of redemption; the temporal covenant of works made with Adam on humanity’s behalf, which, tragically, he broke, resulting in sin and death; and the covenant of grace made in Christ for the salvation of God’s people, which has unfolded over time through different covenant administrations.

Although covenant theology recognizes the plurality of the covenants, it subsumes all post-fall covenants under the overarching category of the covenant of grace. As a result, the Israel-church relationship is viewed in terms of continuity — that is, the two by nature are essentially the same, yet administered differently. For this reason, Israel and the church are constituted as a mixed people (elect and non-elect), and their respective covenant signs (circumcision and baptism) signify the same spiritual reality — hence why baptism may be applied to infants in the church.

Given that we tend to read Scripture in light of our theological traditions, it’s not surprising that people disagree on the covenants. How, then, do we resolve our differences?

How Do We Resolve Our Differences?

Without sounding naive, we resolve our differences by returning to Scripture. Yes, resolution of our differences is not an easy task; it will require us to examine our views anew. But given sola Scriptura, Scripture must always be able to confirm or correct our traditions. Thus, the resolution to covenantal disagreements is this: Is our putting together of the covenants true to Scripture’s own presentation of the covenants from creation to Christ? This raises some hermeneutical questions, especially what it means to speak of Scripture’s own presentation, or its own terms. My brief answer is to note three truths about what Scripture is on its own terms, all of which are important in properly putting together the covenants.

First, Scripture is God’s word, written by human authors and unfolding God’s eternal plan centered in Christ (2 Timothy 3:15–17; 2 Peter 1:20–21; Luke 24:25–27; Hebrews 1:1–3). Despite Scripture’s diverse content, it displays an overall unity and coherence precisely because it is God’s word written. Furthermore, since Scripture is God’s word given through human authors, we cannot know what God is saying to us apart from the writing(s) and intention of the human authors. And given that God has spoken through multiple authors over time, this requires a careful intertextual and canonical reading to understand God’s purposes and plan. Scripture does not come to us all at once. As God’s plan unfolds, more revelation is given — and later revelation, building on the earlier, results in more understanding as we discover how the parts fit with the whole. The best view of the covenants will explain how all the covenants are organically related to each other, and how each covenant prophetically points forward to Christ and the new covenant.

Second, building on the first point, Scripture is not only God’s word written over time, but the unfolding of revelation is largely demarcated by the progressive unfolding of the covenants. To understand the canon, then, we must carefully trace out God’s unfolding plan as unveiled through the covenants. Our exegesis of entire books must put together the canon in terms of its redemptive-historical unfolding, and the best view of the covenants will account for the unfolding nature of God’s plan through the covenants, starting in creation and culminating in Christ and the new covenant.

Third, given progressive revelation, Scripture and the covenants must be put together according to three unfolding contexts. The first context is the immediate context of any book. The second context locates the book in God’s unfolding plan, because texts are embedded in the larger context of what precedes them. The third context is the canonical context. By locating texts (and covenants) in God’s unfolding plan, we discover intertextual links between earlier and later revelation. As later authors refer to earlier texts (and covenants), they build on them, both in terms of greater understanding and by identifying typological relationships — God-given patterns between earlier and later persons, events, and institutions. These patterns are a crucial way God unfolds his plan through the covenants to reach its fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant. Theological conclusions, then, including covenantal formulation, are made in light of the canon. The best view of the covenants will account for how each covenant contributes to God’s plan, starting in creation and reaching its fulfillment in Christ.

Is There a ‘Better’ Way?

To seek a “better” way is not to question the orthodoxy of alternative views. Despite our differences, we agree much more than we disagree, especially regarding the central truths of Christian theology. Instead, to speak of a “better” way is to assert that the two dominant traditions are not quite right in putting together the covenants, which results in various theological differences among us. In this article, I cannot defend my claim in detail.2 Instead, I offer just three reasons why we need a better account for Scripture’s own presentation of the covenants.

Plural Covenants Fulfilled in Christ

First, as covenant theology claims, the covenants are the central way God has unfolded his redemptive plan. But instead of dividing history into two historical covenants — the covenant of works (a conditional “law” covenant) and the covenant of grace (an unconditional “gospel” covenant) — and then subsuming all the post-fall covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and new) under the larger category of the covenant of grace, Scripture depicts God’s plan and promises as progressively revealed and accomplished through a plurality of covenants (Ephesians 2:12), each of which reaches its fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant. This formulation better accounts for how each biblical covenant contributes to God’s unified plan without subsuming all the covenants under one covenant. It also explains better how all of God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ (Hebrews 1:1–3; Ephesians 1:9–10) and applied to the church, along with emphasizing the greater newness of the new covenant.

“God’s plan and promises are progressively revealed and accomplished through a plurality of covenants.”

This formulation is better because it explains the covenants first in biblical rather than theological categories, consistent with Scripture’s presentation of the covenants. After all, there is no specific textual warrant for the covenant of grace; it is more of a theological category. Theological categories are fine, but they must be true to Scripture. By contrast, there is much biblical warrant for God’s plan unveiled through plural covenants (see, for example, Ephesians 2:12; Romans 9:4). No doubt, covenant theology’s bicovenantal structure grounds the theological categories of “law” and “gospel,” and it highlights well the two covenant heads of humanity: Adam and Christ. However, this is not the only way to ground these theological truths, and covenant theology’s primary weakness is that it grounds these truths by a covenantal construction foreign to Scripture.

Furthermore, there is little warrant for the ratification of two distinct covenants in Genesis 1–3, first in Genesis 2:15–17 and then in Genesis 3:15 (as covenant theology contends). Instead, it’s better to view Genesis 3:15 as God’s gracious post-fall promise that, despite Adam’s sin and rebellion, God’s purpose for humans will stand, and that, from humanity, God will graciously provide a Redeemer to undo what Adam did. Thus, from Genesis 3:15 on — and through the covenants — we see the unfolding revelation of the new covenant.

Furthermore, careful readers of Scripture will want to avoid categorizing the covenants as either conditional/bilateral (law) or unconditional/unilateral (gospel), as covenant theology tends to do. Instead, Scripture teaches that each covenant contains both elements, but with a clear distinction between the covenant in creation before and after the fall. Thus, what was demanded of Adam before the fall is not confused with God’s promise of redemption after the fall, and the Christological promise of Genesis 3:15 gets unpacked across the covenants, revealing that redemption is always and only in Christ alone. In fact, it’s because of this blend of both elements that we can account for the deliberate tension that is created in the Bible’s covenantal story — a tension that heightens as God’s plan unfolds and is resolved only in Christ’s perfect obedient life and death for us.

On the one hand, the covenants reveal our triune God, who makes and keeps his promises. As God initiates covenant relationships with his creatures, he is always the faithful partner (Hebrews 6:17–18). Regardless of our unfaithfulness, God’s promises, starting in Genesis 3:15, are certain. Yet God demands perfect obedience from us, thus explaining the bilateral aspect of the covenants. But as the covenants progress, a tension grows between God’s faithfulness to his promises and our disobedience. God is holy and just, but we have sinned against him. And due to Genesis 3:15, God’s promises are tied to the provision of an obedient son who will undo Adam’s disastrous choice. But where is such a son/seed, who fully obeys God, to be found? How can God remain in relationship with us unless our sin is removed? It is through the covenants that this tension increases, and it is through the covenants that the answer is given: God himself will unilaterally act to keep his own promise by the provision of an obedient covenant partner — namely, Christ.

“Christ alone can secure our salvation, and in him alone are the covenants fulfilled.”

If we maintain this dual emphasis in the covenants, we can account for how and why in Christ the new covenant is unbreakable, which also underscores Scripture’s glorious Christological focus. The Bible’s covenantal story leads us to him. Christ alone can secure our salvation, and in him alone are the covenants fulfilled.

How, then, does Scripture present the covenants? Not in terms of a bicovenantal structure, but as God’s one redemptive plan unfolded through multiple covenants that all progressively reveal the greater new covenant. For this reason, we cannot simply appeal to the “covenant of grace” and draw direct lines of continuity, especially regarding circumcision-baptism and the mixed nature of Israel-church, without thinking through how each covenant functions in God’s overall plan, and how Christ brings all the covenants to fulfillment in him, which results in crucial changes across the covenants, reaching their greater fulfillment in the new covenant.

Creation Covenant as Foundation

Second, as in covenant theology (different from dispensationalism), we need to account for why the covenants are more than just a unifying theme of Scripture but the backbone of Scripture’s redemptive plotline, starting in creation and culminating in Christ. Although dispensationalism acknowledges the significance of Genesis 1–11 for the Bible’s story, “The idea of a creation covenant . . . has no role.”3 But this is the problem. There is abundant evidence for such a covenant, and its significance for putting together the covenants is twofold.4

First, the creation covenant is foundational for all future covenants since all subsequent covenants unpack Adam’s role in the world as our representative head (Romans 5:12–21; Hebrews 2:5–18). Adam, and all humanity, is created as God’s image-son to rule over creation (Genesis 1:26–28; Psalm 8). Adam is created to know God as he mediates God’s rule to the world. God demands perfect obedience from his covenant partner, which, sadly, he fails to fulfill (Genesis 2:16–17; cf. Genesis 3:1–6). But God graciously promises that a woman’s seed will come (Genesis 3:15), a greater Adam who will reverse the effects of sin and death. All subsequent covenant heads (Noah, Abraham, Israel, David) function as subsets of Adam, but they are not the greater Adam; instead, they only point forward to him. Without a creation covenant as the foundation, the remaining covenants hang in midair.

Second, the creation covenant is foundational for establishing crucial typological patterns that reach their fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant — for example, the rest of the seventh day (Genesis 2:1–3) and salvation rest in Christ (Hebrews 3:7–4:13); Eden as a temple sanctuary fulfilled by Christ as the new temple (John 2:19–22); and Adam as a prophet, priest, and king fulfilled in Christ (Acts 2:36; 3:22–26; Hebrews 7). As these typological patterns are unveiled through the covenants, they eventually terminate in Christ and his church.

Thus, to put the covenants together according to Scripture, we must start in creation. Genesis 1–11 is framed by God’s creation covenant first made with Adam and upheld in Noah. Then as God’s salvific promise (Genesis 3:15) is given greater clarity through the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, it’s brought to a climax in the promise of an individual, the Davidic son-king who will rule the world forever (2 Samuel 7:14, 19). In this promise of a son, we hear not only echoes of Israel as God’s son (Exodus 4:22), but also echoes of Adam and the initial seed promise (Genesis 3:15). Central to God’s covenantal plan is the restoration of humanity’s role in creation, and by the time we get to David, we know this will occur through David’s greater son.

However, David and his sons disobey, thus leaving God’s promises in question. But the message of the Prophets is that although Israel has violated her covenant, God will keep his promise to redeem by his provision of a faithful Davidic king (Psalms 2; 72; 110; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6–7; 11:1–10; 49:1–7; 52:13–53:12; 55:3; 61:1–3; Jeremiah 23:5–6; Ezekiel 34:23–24). In this king, identified as the “servant of Lord,” a new/everlasting covenant will come with the outpouring of the Spirit (Ezekiel 36–37; Joel 2:28–32), God’s saving reign among the nations, the forgiveness of sin (Jeremiah 31:34), and a new creation (Isaiah 65:17). The hope of the Prophets is found in the new covenant.

For this reason, the new covenant is not merely a renewal of previous ones, as covenant theology teaches. Instead, it is the fulfillment of the previous covenants and is, as such, greater. Since all of the covenants are part of God’s one plan, no covenant is unrelated to what preceded it, and no covenant makes sense apart from its fulfillment in Christ. No doubt, new-covenant fulfillment involves an already–not yet aspect to it. Yet what the previous covenants revealed, anticipated, and predicted is now here. This is why Jesus is the last Adam and the head of the new creation (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22); the true seed and offspring of Abraham, who brings blessings to the nations (Galatians 3:16); the true Israel, fulfilling all that she failed to be (Matthew 2:15; John 15:1–6); and David’s greater son, who rules the nations and the entire creation as Lord.

The Bible’s covenantal story begins in creation, and to put the covenants together properly requires that we start with a creation covenant that moves to Christ and the fulfillment of all of God’s plan and promises in the ratification of a new covenant.

New and Greater Covenant

Third, our putting together of the covenants must also account for the Israel-church relation. Minimally, Scripture teaches two truths about this relation that theologians must account for.

First, against dispensationalism, Scripture teaches that God has one people and that the Israel-church relation should be viewed Christologically. The church is not directly the new Israel or her replacement. Rather, in Christ, the church is God’s new-covenant people because Jesus is the antitypical fulfillment of Adam and Israel, the true seed of Abraham who inherits the promises by his work (Galatians 3:16). As God’s new creation/humanity, the church remains forever, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles, who equally and fully receive all of God’s promises in Christ, realized fully in the new creation (Romans 4:13; Hebrews 11:10, 16). As Ephesians 2:11–22 teaches, the church is not the extension of Israel, or an amalgam of Jews and Gentiles, or merely one phase in God’s plan that ends when Christ returns to restore national Israel and the nations. Instead, the church is God’s new-creation people, Christ’s bride who lasts forever (Revelation 21:1–4). Dispensationalism and its covenantal construction does not sufficiently account for these truths.

But second, against covenant theology, the church is also new and constituted differently from Israel. Covenant theology correctly notes that Israel, under the old covenant, was constituted as a mixed people (Romans 9:6). Yet it doesn’t sufficiently account for the newness of the church. It fails to acknowledge that what the Old Testament prophets anticipated is now here in Christ in his church — namely, that in the new covenant, all of God’s people will know God, and every believer will be born-empowered-indwelt by the Spirit and receive the full forgiveness of sin (Jeremiah 31:31–34).

“One is in Christ not by outward circumcision/baptism but by the Spirit’s work in rebirth and granting saving faith.”

Given its bicovenantal view, covenant theology fails to see that the relationship between God and his people has changed from the first covenant to the new; it’s not by natural but by spiritual birth that we enter the new covenant. For this reason, the church is constituted not by “you and your biological children,” but by all who savingly know God. One is in Christ not by outward circumcision/baptism but by the Spirit’s work in rebirth and granting saving faith. In contrast to Israel, the church is constituted as a believing, regenerate people. This is why baptism in the New Testament — the sign of the new covenant — is applied only to those who profess faith and give credible evidence that they are no longer in Adam but in Christ. Also, it explains why circumcision and baptism do not signify the same realities, due to their respective covenantal differences. To think that circumcision and baptism signify the same reality is a covenantal-category mistake.

This view of the church is confirmed by other truths. Although we await our glorification, the church now is the eschatological, gathered people identified with the “age to come.” For those who have placed their faith in Christ, we are now citizens of the new/heavenly Jerusalem, no longer in Adam but in Christ, with all the benefits of that union (Hebrews 12:18–29). Also, the church is a new creation/temple in whom the Spirit dwells (1 Corinthians 6:19; Ephesians 2:21), which can be true only of a regenerate people, unlike Israel of old. On these points, covenant theology, due to its imprecision in putting together the covenants, doesn’t sufficiently account for how all of the covenants have reached their fulfillment in Christ, resulting in the newness of the church.

In Christ Alone

As we continue to discuss these important matters, we would do well to not only seek to conform our views to Scripture’s own presentation, but even more significantly, to glory in Christ Jesus, who is central to all of God’s plans and purposes. In Christ alone, all of God’s promises are Yes and Amen (2 Corinthians 1:20), and in our covenantal debates we must never forget this truth.

In Christ, the divine Son has become the promised human son, Abraham’s seed, the true Israel, and David’s greater son. By Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and by the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, he pays for our sin and remakes us as his new creation. Ultimately, the central point of the covenants is that, in Christ alone, all of God’s promises are fulfilled, the original purpose of our creation is now accomplished, and by grace, we as the church are the beneficiaries of his glorious, triumphant work, now and forevermore. May this glorious truth unite Christ’s church as we continue to wrestle with how to put the covenants together according to Scripture.

10 Truths Everyone Must Know about the Incarnation

As a result of the incarnation, the divine Son lives and acts within the normal physical, mental, volitional, and psychological capacities of an unfallen, sinless human nature. As the Son, he experienced the wonder and weaknesses of a human life. He grew in wisdom and physical stature (Luke 2:52), experienced tears and joy (John 11:35; 15:11), and suffered death and a glorious resurrection for his people and their salvation (John 11:33, 35; 19:30; 1 Cor. 15:3–4).

In our final essay for “Christology at Christmas” theme, I want to offer a tenfold summary of key truths for a biblical and orthodox Christology.
1. The person or subject of the incarnation is the eternal, divine Son.
John 1:14 states this well: “The Word became flesh.” In other words, it was not the divine nature, it was the divine Son from eternity (John 1:1) who became incarnate. The Son, who has always been in eternal relation with the Father and the Spirit, and who shares the same, identical divine nature with them, freely chose to humble himself by assuming a human nature in order to redeem his people (Phil. 2:6–8), and to reverse all that Adam did by ushering in a new creation (Col. 1:18–20).
2. As the divine Son, the second person of the triune Godhead, he is the exact image and correspondence of the Father, and is thus truly God.
Along with the Father and Spirit, the Son fully and equally shares the one divine nature. As the image and exact correspondence of the Father (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3), the Son is truly God. All of God’s perfections and attributes are his since our Lord is God the Son (Col. 2:9). As the Son, he indivisibly shares the divine rule, receives divine worship, and does all divine works as the Son (Ps 110:1; Eph 1:22; Phil 2:9–11; Col. 1:15–17; Heb. 1:2–3; Rev. 5:11–12).
3. As God the Son, he has always existed in an eternally ordered relation to the Father and the Spirit, which now is gloriously revealed in the incarnation.
It was fitting that the Son alone became incarnate and not the other divine persons (John 1:1–2, 14, 18). In the incarnation, the Son revealed his eternal divine-filial relation to the Father and always acted from the Father and by the Spirit (John 5:19–30; Mark 1:12; Luke 4:1–21). These eternally ordered relations within God are eternal and necessary.

The Father is first, has paternity due to his relation to the Son, and is the one who initiates and sends.
The Son has filiation and is eternally generated from the Father.
The Spirit has spiration and eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son.

In God’s acts, all three persons act inseparably through the one divine nature. Yet each person acts distinctly, with specific actions terminating on the divine persons according to their eternally ordered relations.
The result: every external act of God is one and undivided, yet the Father initiates and acts through the Son, the Son from the Father, and the Spirit from the Father and Son. Thus, from eternity and in the incarnation, the Son never acted independently but always acted in relation to the Father and the Spirit, and he alone became incarnate.
4. The incarnation is an act of addition, not subtraction.
From eternity, the Son, in relation to the Father and the Spirit, subsisted in the divine nature. Now, as a result of the incarnation, the Son, without change or loss of his deity, added—or to use a better term—assumed, a second nature, namely, a human nature consisting of a human body and soul (Phil. 2:6–8). As a result, the Son added a human dimension to his personal divine life and became present to us in a new mode of existence as the incarnate Son. Yet the Son’s subsistence and action in both natures is consistent with the integrity of both, without either nature ever being mutually exclusive of the other. Given the incarnation, the Son is able to act by his two natures and produce effects proper to each nature and thus accomplish our salvation as the divine Son who obeys for us in his life and death as our covenant head and substitute.
5. The human nature assumed by the divine Son is fully human and completely sinless.
Christ’s human nature was unfallen and untainted by the effects of sin. Christ’s human body and soul had all the capacities of original humanity, thus enabling the Son to experience a fully human life.
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Christ over Doctrine

If the church is to fulfill her calling to know and glorify God, we must return to sound theology, and this must begin with a proper understanding of who the triune God is in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ. In its most basic sense, systematic theology, or dogmatics, is the orderly, comprehensive study of the triune God and all things in relation to him. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism rightly answers the all-important question—“What is the chief end of man?”—“Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” There is nothing more urgent for humans as God’s creatures than knowing God. And especially for God’s redeemed people in Christ, there is no higher calling than delighting in our triune God in all of his majesty, beauty, and holy splendor. The life and health of the church is directly dependent on our knowledge of God, which is central to the theological task.

Christ Over All

Whether it is in the first century or the present day, the church quickly departs from Christ and his Word and seeks to establish truth apart from divine revelation. But as Paul warns the Colossians, he warns us: divine revelation, centered in Christ, is the foundation of all knowledge. We do not have truth apart from God and his Word. Ultimately, apart from God creating the world and revealing himself in nature and Scripture, we would have no warrant for what we know. True objective knowledge requires a foundation in the triune God who is there and who speaks, which entails that we must evaluate everything we think and believe in light of Christ and Scripture.

In every era, the church needs sound biblical teaching and faithful theological instruction. Theology, rightly understood, is the lifeblood of the church and necessary for her life and health. Central to theology is the knowledge of our triune God as our Creator, Redeemer, and covenant Lord, and the application of God’s Word to our lives. For us, who are created and redeemed by God, there is no higher calling and greater privilege than to know the only true God in and through our Lord Jesus Christ (John 17:3).
Today, however, the evangelical church is largely in danger of theological drift. No doubt, since its beginning, the church has always faced the perennial threat of theological drift. This is why one of the tasks of faithful biblical teaching is to keep the church from being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). Theology’s task is to expound, apply, and defend the truth of Scripture so that the church continues to love and proclaim the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27) and the unsearchable riches of Christ (Col. 1:28-29). The Christian life and Christian ministry are about knowing God in truth, believing and obeying God’s Word, and being vigilant for the truth of the gospel by “destroy[ing] arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and tak[ing] every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
Yet today, the need for sound biblical and theological instruction is great. On every side, evangelicalism is experiencing a collective identity crisis. Why? There are many reasons, but certainly one of them is due to the waning conviction that theology is vital for the spiritual health of the church, and that biblical truth not only matters but is really true and thus authoritative for our lives. As David Wells has repeatedly warned the evangelical church for nearly three decades, we have traded biblical and theological faithfulness for pragmatic success.[1] The result? Disciplined biblical and theological thinking has taken a backseat to other cultural concerns, so much so that current evangelicalism in the West is a shell of what it used to be.
In fact, if we listen to the polls (e.g., Ligonier’s The State of Theology), we discover that in many of our churches basic biblical and theological knowledge is at an all-time low. Not surprisingly, we have also succumbed to many of the pressures of our culture by modifying our theological convictions to conform to the current “spirit of the age.” This explains why some evangelicals are now flirting with the latest cultural trends: critical race theories; redefinitions of male and female roles in the marriage, the church, and society; embrace of various LGBTQ concerns; an uncritical acceptance of secular-postmodern views of “social justice” in contrast to a biblical view of justice and its outworking in our lives and the larger society; and so on.
Similar to the churches in Revelation 2–3, we, sadly, are in danger of accommodating to the mindset of our day. For example, just as the church at Laodicea began to resemble her city: self-satisfied, content with the status quo, little dependence on God, so also some evangelicals are in danger of replicating the Laodiceans’ impoverished spiritual state (Rev. 3:14–22). Or, similar to the church at Ephesus (Rev. 3:1–7), for some of us who think we are standing faithfully for truth, unbeknownst to us, we have drifted from the Lord because we have lost our first love, namely our love for Christ. We have rightly taught and emphasized sound doctrine but we have done so in such a way that we have drifted away from the Lordship of Christ in our lives, and this observation now leads me to discuss the reason for the name of this website.
What’s in a Name?
Why the name “Christ over All?” Obviously, many reasons could be given, but the main reason is due to our conviction that what the church desperately needs today is to a rock solid commitment to the authority of Scripture in all that it teaches with specific focus on Christ’s lordship over all. In our view, the great need for the evangelical church is unashamedly to retain and in many ways return to what is most central: the glory of the triune God in the face of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As we examine Scripture, we discover that its main message is about how God in his infinite wisdom, power, and grace has chosen to bring all of his purposes and plans to fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Repeatedly, Scripture reminds us that in Christ alone, all of God’s sovereign purposes find their fulfillment (Heb. 1:1–3) and that God’s eternal plan is to bring “all things,” “things in heaven and things on earth,” under Christ’s headship (Eph. 1:9–10), which has already begun in his first coming and which will be consummated in his return.
It is important to remember that to emphasize Christ’s centrality is not to diminish the persons and work of the Father and the Spirit. Instead, Scripture teaches that all the Father does centers in his Son and that the Spirit works to bear witness and bring glory to the Son. Thus, to be truly trinitarian is to be properly Christ-centered. As our Lord reminds us, “whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him” (John 5:23).
This glorious truth, however, is not merely to be confessed; it is to be lived out in every area of our lives. The church first exists to know and proclaim the glory of the triune God in the face of Christ, and a move away from this center will lead the church away from life and health. As such, we constantly need to be reminded about who is central, who is worthy, who is to be obeyed, and who is our only hope and salvation. The purpose of this website is to do this: to call the church back to know, proclaim, and live out Christ’s Lordship over every aspect of our lives.
Scripture teaches the truth about “Christ over All” in many places, but probably the most profound and succinct text is Colossians 1:15–20. Let me first explain how this text teaches the truth of Christ’s Lordship, before I make some application points from Colossians 2:6–10. By doing so, we can explain further what we are seeking to achieve by this website.
The Truth of Christ Over All (Col. 1:15–20)
This is one of the most profound Christological texts in the New Testament that unpacks Christ’s lordship. In the Patristic era, this text was used by the Arians to argue that Christ was the “firstborn,” i.e., the first created being and thus not God the Son. This interpretation continues today among Jehovah’s Witnesses, and sadly, numerous evangelicals are also confused on this point.[2] Against the Arians, however, the text unambiguously teaches the full deity of the Son, and thus Christ’s Lordship.
The text is divided into two main stanzas (vv. 15–17 and 18b–20) with a transitional stanza between the two (vv. 17–18a). In the first main and transitional stanzas, Jesus is presented as Lord because he is the eternal Son, the true image of God, the agent of creation, and the sustainer of the universe. In the second main stanza, Jesus is presented as the incarnate Son, who by his incarnation and cross-work is our only Redeemer. Jesus, then, is supreme over all because he is our Creator and Redeemer. Let’s look further at the text.

In the first of three steps, the Son’s full deity is taught in vv. 15-16 in three affirmations. (1) The Son is described as “the image of the invisible God,” which means that he possesses the very nature of God. The same thought is found in Hebrews 1:3a, where Christ is described as “the exact representation (charaktēr) of his being.” Although different expressions, they both teach that Christ is God the Son. The Son, from eternity, has perfectly reflected the Father, and now in his incarnation reveals the invisible God just as perfectly.
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