Below you will find short interactions with classic theological literature to help introduce you to some of the giants upon whose shoulders we stand. There will also be irregular posts formed out of sermons, Bible studies, or coffee after 5:00pm.
The church rightly focuses on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. His name is the only name under heaven by which men are saved. His sacrificial substitution on our behalf absorbed the wrath of the Father so that we might be justified. But we also don’t want to relegate Christ’s work to the resurrection. Christ is the eternal Son of God. He existed before the incarnation, and of course, he is now seated at the right hand of the Father.
We say that Jesus Christ “preexisted” eternally. Of course that’s just in reference to the incarnation, hence the “pre-.” In his preexistent state, Christ was often present as the angel of the Lord throughout the Old Testament. Also, Paul says that Christ was the rock that Moses struck to give the Israelites water.
But what about now? What’s Christ doing now, as he sits in authority at the right hand of the Father? That leads us to today’s definition.
Exaltation of Christ. noun. Beginning with his resurrection, Christ received all authority and power. After a period of 40 days, Christ ascended to the Father in his glorified body and to exercise dominion. His exaltation will result in his return to earth to finalize the defeat of sin and death.
We may not often wonder what Christ is doing right now, but Scripture does not keep it from us. He is our greatest intercessor. He prays for his church, that we might not fall away. And because that is the prayer of the Son, we can be assured that the Father will do what the Son asks.
Hebrews 4:14-16 says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Christ is our great high priest. Because he was tempted like us but without seeing that temptation through to evil behavior, he can satisfactorily be our perfect priest before God. He has truly earned the right to mediate between God and sinful man.
Isaiah 49:5-6 says, “And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’”
Israelite priests were just priests for Israel. Old Testament prophecy about Christ made statements like that that did in fact say that the nations would be saved through the servant that God would send, or, the messiah, the anointed one. In fact, how amazing is it that God says “it is too light a thing” that the messiah would be just for Israel. God is in the business of doing amazing things, so why not save a few nations while he’s at it?
Luke 24:50-53 says, “And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”
The final act of Jesus was to bless his disciples. As he ascended and was exalted to the right hand of the Father, the Son of God began his ministry of prayer for them. And he continues that ministry of prayer for us.
We may at times be discouraged with the state of affairs in which we find ourselves. Sometimes it’s because of our own doing, and sometimes it’s because stupid people are promoted to the highest level of incompetence, thereby making life hard on everyone. Either way, we often don’t know what to say. We worry that because we’ve made our own lives such a wreck or because other people have made life so hard in general that we’re at a loss for words.
The exaltation of Christ means many things, but one of them is that even as you stare into the void and have no words to say to God, even as you try, your great high priest, who was tempted like you and was faced with the same kind of discouragement, is seated next to our Father and having a prayerful conversation.
The exaltation of Christ also means that he is returning. The coming age is an earthly age, where heaven descends, the new Jerusalem comes out of heaven to the new earth, and Christ rules eternally. The nations are being converted and discipled so that the elect of the world will one day enter into the heavenly city.
One comedian joked that as he grew up in the church, he knew that the stories the preacher included in his sermons were totally made-up. They were always the same nondescript kind of people doing things no that one really does. Why were the sermons so boring and predictable? After all, as the comedian humored, the preacher had a week to work with a book that’s 2,000 years old.
So what exactly is a sermon supposed to be? Is it a book report? Is it a bunch of good advice? Is it the declaration of the greatest truth in world history?
Book reports are boring, and good advice doesn’t pay the debt of sin. When you listen to a sermon, what are you listening for? We should’t be hyper-critical, but surely there is a purpose to listening to one man speak for 30 minutes. What exactly makes up the content of a sermon?
Kerygma. noun. The necessary components of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Kēryssō, which gives us kerygma, is a Greek word from the New Testament itself that describes what people like John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter, and Paul did as they proclaimed the good news. If you were to read the sections of the New Testament where that word is used to describe what they’re saying, you’ll come across a clear pattern of what preaching is supposed to be. Theologian Gregg Allison summarizes the five consistent themes in the New Testament kerygma:
You can find New Testament sermons in Matthew 5-7, Luke 4, Luke 24, Acts 2, Acts 7, Acts 8, Acts 17, as a few examples. Other places, such as 1 Timothy 4, gives some basic instruction on what is necessary in preaching. Those passages aren’t relevant only for preachers.
New Testament preachers realized that what they were preaching was simply the continuation and fulfillment of God’s promises to his people. So, they often followed an Old Testament pattern, which we get a glimpse of in Nehemiah 8:8, which says, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
When Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is at hand in Matthew 4:17, Jesus is declaring that his presence is the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. It has begun, even if there is a consummation yet to come. That hope the Old Testament saints had believed in? We are witnesses to it.
The kingdom of heaven was inaugurated through the person and work of Christ. He taught what the kingdom was like in places such as the sermon on the mount, he died an obedient and substitutionary death on our behalf, and he was resurrected to be vindicated and receive all authority in heaven and on earth. Jesus Christ is the king of the cosmos.
The Holy Spirit was sent at Pentecost, as promised by Christ before his ascension. The Spirit is the seal on the church and the guarantor of our inheritance. While the new covenant was instituted in Christ’s blood, the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son to apply that redemption to us.
The second coming of Christ will be the end of the new covenant era and the beginning of the eternal state. Christ’s second coming will be public, every eye will see him, he will destroy the enemies of righteousness, and sin and death will no longer have any power.
Participation in the kingdom of God requires repentance from sin, belief in the one God has sent, and baptism into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Predestination and election cannot be defined apart from this.
It may very well be that not every specific sermon has an entire section devoted to simply reviewing Christ’s ascension and session, but do some? Any? Do the sermons at least assume that truth?
And of course, sermons will have substantial points of application. James warns us about being the kind of people who look in a mirror, turn our head, and forget what we look like a moment later. But where does that application come from? The latest show the preacher binge-watched, or the clear implication of the gospel?
The point is that there is one gospel, and the church proclaims that one gospel in everything we do. We may say many things, but if they are removed from the central truth of Christ and him crucified, we have strayed from the kerygma.
Mission work is hard work. And it’s not just overseas anymore. Our own nation needs its own missionaries. It can be difficult to do mission work or evangelize your own people group because you yourself are often as unaware of the culture’s influence on your own thinking as a fish is unaware that he’s in water. You’ve been in it so long that you make all kinds of concessions or capitulations between Scripture and culture.
When you do evangelism or mission work, you are bringing to bear the eternally significant word of God that was given 2000 years ago to a new people group that may have little to no context for understanding it. While this can be exciting, missionaries and evangelists have to keep an eye on the ways they proclaim Scriptural truth to modern people. Which brings us to today’s word.
Syncretism. noun. Contextualizing the gospel or biblical practices in a way that compromises essential truths as the gospel is sent into a new area or people group.
Note that syncretism is not on its face the same thing as contextualizing the truth of the gospel. Every culture will do that. I’ve even heard of rural Asian cultures that use rice and water for communion instead of bread and wine. Is that an appropriate mode of using contextual elements to make the same point? Well that begs the question, what’s the point of communion, and do the specific elements play a role in that? Some might say that bread specifically refers to Christ’s body in a way that rice does not or that wine is an image of Christ’s blood in a way that water is not. There are biblical patterns and types that are rich with meaning and significance. But, some might say that we’re making it hard for the Gentiles to turn to God.
That’s an example where good, well-meaning Christians might disagree but could part ways and not excommunicate the other. But what about something more serious and detrimental to the core of the faith?
When Catholicism went to Haiti, it blended with natural elements of the previous pagan religions. This resulted in the creation of Haitian voodoo. Ancient African pagan gods are equated with Roman Catholic saints. The people will hold a Catholic mass, leave the building, and go out back to sacrifice an animal to Bondye, the supreme god. They believe that the dead are still present and active. They also have priests and priestesses who can speak to the dead and even angels, or Iwa. This is all while they assume the identify of a Catholic.
That might seem extreme and obviously problematic for us, but, what about us? Surely we’re the pure church and do everything just like how the Bible tells us to, nothing more and nothing less. I mean, after all, we’re Baptists, so we baptize by immersion, just like Jesus was. But he was also baptized outside in flowing water. Why aren’t those aspects reflected in our current practice? Is being baptized, albeit by immersion, inside of a tub of stagnant tap water what Jesus had in mind? Why or why not? What’s the relationship between imagery and practice? What about using grape juice instead of wine? What are the considerations in making that choice? We should be convinced by Scripture that these changes are warranted, even if they seem as innocuous as water instead of wine.
Think about the way we tell the story of the birth of Christ. When we try to tell it in a way that is overly contemporary, we lose sight of all the prophecy that surrounded the incarnation. The timing of the story matters. The people and their way of life mattered. The company they kept mattered. Their religious observances mattered.
This is why it’s good to always be in a state of evaluation in the life the church. We may have inherited ideas or practices that are contrary to Scripture. If we are not always in a mindset of reformation, seeking firm adherence to the pattern of life laid out for us in Scripture, we run the risk of overcontextualizing and minimizing, or worse, losing, the gospel in our culture.
Every so often, I'm having a conversation with someone, usually about things quite innocuous—family, work, and sundry other pleasantries—and of course, people want to talk to a pastor about the church. They will ask how things are going, and of course these days, how we’re dealing with the virus. In my mind, I think to myself, “A virus, you say? I shall keep my eyes peeled.”
There are no shortages of churches these days, although many are sitting empty or far from half-full. But even if particular churches in certain places have their struggles, the church universal will not be defeated. If a local church implodes upon itself because of faithlessness, then so be it. Businesses close when they don’t make their owners any money, and churches close when they cease to honor the Lord. Is this not what Christ warns against in the early chapters of Revelation?
Churches may close for a variety of other reasons, but the most common, and the most to be feared, is an unwillingness to consider what they should be doing instead of what they are doing. If a faithless church closes, a faithful church will now have more land to plow, and people will actually become Christians with another feckless group gone that looks busy but is otherwise fruitless.
But this begs the question: what makes a church a church? Is it size? Is it the songs they sing? Is it what they preach? Is it denominational affiliation? Is it their stance on certain prohibitions? Let’s look at a technical term that has been used regularly in the last several hundred years of church history.
Marks of the church. Noun. The visible components that are necessary for a body of gathered people rightly to be called a Christian church.
So what are these visible marks? Historically, Protestants have understood at least two: the right preaching of the Word (gospel preaching), and the right administration of the ordinances (gospel signs). Martin Luther is known to have formed and insisted on these two. John Calvin agreed with only these two marks. Down the line, though, it was other Calvinists that added church discipline (gospel formation) as a third necessary mark of a true church when they wrote the Belgic Confession in 1561.
Preaching is the proclamation, through every passage of Scripture, that Jesus is Lord. If a sermon ends without preaching that, then what you have is a book report. Good advice is not good news.
The ordinances are baptism and communion. Baptism is the sign of regeneration and new life in Christ. You are lowered into the water to symbolize death, and you are raised out of the water to symbolize your resurrection, a promised future event. Communion is how the church remembers the new covenant after they have been baptized. We receive the bread and wine as a memorial meal as the disciples did in the upper room.
Discipline is both formative and corrective. Formative discipline is being confronted with the word of God, whether it be in preaching, group Bible study, private disciplined reading, or basic Christian conversation with a fellow believer. Corrective discipline is being confronted about sin in one’s life through fellow believers. The church must strive to be courageous and consistent in dealing with unrepentant sin in the congregation.
These things only happen faithfully in a gathered setting. There are instances when a person might need to hear a sermon or participate in communion or discipline in some way through other means (such as virtual), but the exception proves the rule. There is no such thing as digital baptism. Virtual communion might be necessary during lockdown orders, but once those are lifted, so is the need for virtual communion.
Some people separate themselves from their church for so long that their consciences are seared from any guilt or shame over not being willing to participate in the life of the church and should repent.
The key word in this definition of the marks of the church is “visible.” The church on your couch is not visible.
It’s important to note that while these three things are necessary, they are not all that a church is. Prayer is not always visible. Personal confession of sin is not always visible. Reconciliation between two offended parties is not always visible. And yet, Scripture commands all three for the church.
So how do you judge a church?
Is all you need good preaching? No, because in the same way that a man screaming Bible passages on the street corner is not a church, neither is a podcast or live-streaming.
Is all you need baptism and communion? No, because no one baptizes themselves or serves themselves communion.
Is all you need formative and corrective discipline? No, because a Christian school does this yet is not rightly called a church.
Some things the church does are more important than others. Even mission work only exists because God desires worshipers in places where there are none.
Every decision we make as a church should be guided by faithfulness to what makes a church a church.
One of the more mind-boggling doctrines of the church is that Christ has two natures. The doctrine is central to orthodoxy, but it is no less easy to understand because of it. How can the Son of God be both divine and human without any changes being made to his divinity or humanity? How was it that the natures did not combine into a special, third nature? We have already made an attempt at defining this doctrine earlier by looking at the hypostatic union.
Last week we defined “propitiation” and looked at how the two natures of Christ had an impact on how we understand the atonement. God does not suffer or change, so it was the human nature that suffered and died on the cross.
Today, I want to define another $1 word and do my best to understand how two natures in Christ also resulted in two wills in Christ.
Dyothelitism. noun. As Christ had two natures, and that did not change the other or combine into a third semi-human, semi-divine nature, Christ also had two wills, each acting according to its respective nature.
You can see how this doctrine is closely related to both the hypostatic union and propitiation. The hypostatic union says that Christ had two natures, and propitiation helps clarify which nature was doing what and when.
What dyothelitism does is show that separating a person’s nature and a person’s will is impossible and really, nonsensical. There can’t be two natures in Christ and only one will. That would be like saying that there are two people in a marriage but only one chair.
If John 1:1, which says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” is true, then Jesus definitely had a divine will. If he had one will, then the apostle John goes to great pains to establish at the outset that it was divine and not human.
But it does raise the question, how could Jesus Christ be both divinely omniscient and know what people were thinking, yet humanly ignorant about the timing of his own return and not know who touched him? How could Jesus Christ be both divinely eternal and exist forever, yet humanly physical and die? Don’t those contradictions undermine the claim of Dyothelitism?
John 6:38 says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
In Luke 22:42, Jesus says, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
Taken together, there is clearly a will within the person of Christ that is distinct from the Father’s, although we don’t get a clear sense from these passages of just how many “wills” there are in Christ.
But the Trinity shares a single will. The Godhead does not have three distinct wills as if they simply came together to share the load of work in creation and salvation. This can be true because of the Trinity consisting of three persons yet a single essence.
This is why the 2 married people/1 chair metaphor doesn’t fall apart, because in a marriage, you still have two separate people with two separate natures or essence, even though they’re both human. In the Trinity, there may be three persons, but they share a single essence.
If anything, these passages identify the human will of Christ, which needed to be conformed to the divine will. Hebrews 5:8-9 tells us, “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”
Paul tells us in Philippians 2:7 that Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
Jesus was eternally divine, as John 1:1 tells us, but at a point in time he emptied himself, technically meaning that he became a servant, by taking on the human nature and a human will.
What these passages do teach us is that Jesus is the perfect representative of the human race before a perfect God. As a man, he learned obedience without being disobedient and was then able to save all those the Father sent to him.
Christ having both two natures and two wills according to each nature was so important to the early Christians that monothelitism, or the idea that Christ had two natures yet one will, was condemned as a heresy in the third Council of Constantinople in 681. Decreeing a doctrine as heretical really did not happen that often in the early church. But when it did, the effects of that doctrine were understood to be a rejection of the biblical witness. To argue for one will in Christ requires a black marker over too much of the Bible's pages.
Christ had two natures in one person, each nature retaining the attributes of its respective will. Christ had come to do the divine will, which he shares with the Father and the Spirit, while learning to conform his human will to the divine will through suffering.