Before we get out of the pages of the New Testament, we meet those who deny that the Son of God came in the flesh. That is, in first-century churches, the churches of the Apostles, false teachers had a presence. And one of the most common false teachings they spread was their denial that the Son of God had taken on human form. But why this issue? What was so offensive about Christ’s becoming man?
Part of the answer concerns first-century culture, where Plato ruled the world of ideas. One of his ideas concerned matter. To put it simply, matter was bad, according to Plato. It was simply out of the realm of possibility that something good—God—would become bad—flesh. So, these false teachers proposed that Christ only “appeared” to be human.
What we find in the New Testament directly refutes this idea. We see that Jesus grew tired, got hungry, and thirsted. He had spatial limitations. He agonized, even suffered. He exhibited human emotions, intellect, and volition. He died. Christ was—and is—truly human. Why is this important?
The Ligonier Statement on Christology declares:
He became truly man . . .
. . . and lived among us
Also, in article 7 of the Articles of Affirmation and Denial, we say:
We affirm that as truly man, Christ possesses all the natural limitations and common infirmities of human nature and that He is like us in all respects except for sin.
The phrase “common infirmities” is borrowed from the Westminster Confession of Faith. It is a beautiful phrase, although it addresses harsh realities. We can see examples of Christ's empathizing with our common infirmities throughout the Gospels. Have you ever been betrayed by a close friend or confidant? Christ was. Have you ever experienced the loss of a close friend? Christ did. Have you ever experienced intense, excruciating pain? Christ did. Have you ever been slandered, mocked, and rejected? Christ was.
Perhaps no single episode better illustrates Christ’s experiencing common—or not-so-common—infirmities than the agonizing night spent in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36–46). When we confess the words “He became truly human,” we are acknowledging that Christ truly was—and remains—a true human being. That is comforting.
Of course, we need to distinguish between Christ’s state of humiliation and His current state of exaltation. Christ became the God-man at the incarnation. Theologians refer to His life on earth, from the incarnation on through His death and burial, as the “state of humiliation“ (Phil. 2:5–8). During that time, He was the God-man. Theologians then call the time from Christ’s resurrection, including His ascension, current heavenly session, and future return, His “state of exaltation” (Phil. 2:9–11). In this time, He remains the God-man. As He is seated upon His throne at the Father’s right hand, He is truly man and truly God. When we speak of Christ enduring common infirmities we must recognize the distinction between His state of humiliation and His state of exaltation—but in both He is the God-man and in both He possesses a truly human nature. He was not aloof when He lived among us, and He is not aloof now. This has significant application for us and for how we view our Advocate and Intercessor.
The intention of drawing this distinction between the state of humiliation and the state of exaltation was to clarify criticism we received regarding the present tense “possesses” in article 7 of the affirmations and denials. Based on feedback we received of this initial blogpost, there is a need for even greater and more explicit clarity regarding the “common infirmities” and the states of Christ. Christ possessed “common infirmities” in the state of humiliation, but these infirmities were overcome and conquered in Christ's exaltation. The original intent of using the present tense in article 7 was to point out that Christ remains truly God and truly man. When the eternal Son of God became man at the incarnation, He assumed a human nature into union with Himself so that the divine and human natures were then and forever joined in the one person of Jesus Christ.
We are grateful to those who offered this critique so that we can have greater clarity in these matters. Our intention was for the statement to be a catalyst for healthy and robust Christological discussion. We are grateful that is happening.
Moving from the articles of affirmation and denial to the statement itself, in the third paragraph or stanza of the statement, we rehearse the historical facts of Christ’s incarnation. Here the statement closely follows the ancient creeds. The Apostles' Creed declares that Christ “was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” But we added this phrase:
He was born of the Virgin Mary,
and lived among us.
The phrase “and lived among us” should be followed immediately by a selah, that mysterious musical notation that occurs in the Psalms. The word selah tells us to pause, to stop, and to consider. So, we should stop and consider what it means that Christ, who is truly human, lived among us. The author of Hebrews did just that. See Hebrews 2:14–18 and 4:14–16. Read those passages and consider.
What we find when we ponder these verses and this doctrine of the true humanity of Christ is that Christianity far outshines all other religions, philosophies, and worldviews. Plato is intriguing. His dialogues are provocative. An entire philosophy, however, built on the notions that matter is bad and that the material world exists only to be escaped does not help one live. It does not help anyone find meaning in work or in raising children. It does not help us live our lives well in this world when we consider Plato’s ultimate answer.
Investigate Islam and you will find a capricious being, an arbitrary and mercurial deity. According to Islam, Jesus will tell you about this deity, but the Jesus of Islam is not a sympathetic High Priest who intercedes for you.
Make no mistake about it: when we confess the line “truly God, He became truly man,” we are saying that Jesus, because He is the God-man, is our only hope. When we confess that He “lived among us,” we are confessing that He is our only hope and comfort in this life and in the life to come.
What is a source of comfort and joy to some is to others a rather scary topic, one to be avoided at all costs. The fact that the Son, who is truly God, became truly man is downright terrifying to some. C.S. Lewis explains this terror best in his book Miracles:
Men are reluctant to pass over from the notion of an abstract and negative deity to the living God. I do not wonder. . . . The Pantheist’s God does nothing, demands nothing. He is there if you wish for him, like a book on a shelf. . . . An “impersonal God”—well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth, and goodness inside our heads—better still. . . . But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter.
God is not only the One who is pulling at the other end of the cord; He is more. The second stanza of the statement affirms the Trinity: the coequal members of the Godhead are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. All three persons of the Godhead are one in substance or essence. That means that Christ is truly God. We also know that the triune God does not hold matter in contempt. When God created man, He formed Adam “from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). That is a frighteningly close God.
And in the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, born of the Virgin Mary. That babe lying in a manger was—and is—truly God and truly man, two natures in one person. That is frighteningly close.
“Truly God, He became truly man.” These are but short and rather straightforward words. They are also awe-full words. Sober words. Comforting words. Selah.
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This article is part of The Ligonier Statement on Christology collection.