Message 12, The Word Made Flesh: The Ligonier Statement on Christology:
Ligonier Ministries unveils a statement on the person and work of Christ explaining why this is the most pressing issue that the church faces today and in the next generation.
STEVEN NICHOLS: We are very excited to be unveiling The Word Made Flesh: The Ligonier Statement on Christology. This was a project that was started in the fall of 2013 and a few weeks ago we started saying around Ligonier, “We’re not sure there was ever so much work put into so few words.” We ended up with a statement that is in the book you should’ve all received, and there are ushers making sure that you all have them if you do not have one in your hands. But there is a statement there on page three that is a statement on the Person and work of Christ.
R.C. SPROUL: Excuse me, Steve.
STEVEN NICHOLS: Yes, sir. Dr. Sproul.
R.C. SRROUL: You remember when Winston Churchill wrote one of his friends a letter — it was 22 pages long — and he said, “I’m sorry that this letter was so long, but I didn’t have the time to write a short one.” That’s what you’re talking about, right?
STEVEN NICHOLS: That’s exactly what we’re talking about. As concise as we can make it. Before we talk about this statement, I’d like to set it into a context for you. Last night, we celebrated Dr. Sproul’s 100th book. This is his very first book.
This book is entitled The Symbol, and it is on the Apostle’s Creed. Don’t know if you’ll be able to zoom in there on that, but there is a 1973 Dr. Sproul. And this was his first book, on the Apostle’s Creed. Very shortly after this book, also wrote The Ligonier Statement on Inerrancy. That statement was then very influential in the formation on the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. And out of that group of dedicated men — scholars, pastors, and churchmen — came The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, a very influential document in the 20th century that, in many ways, served to steel a generation in what was then literally a battle for the Bible and denominations across America.
45 years later, from the founding of Ligonier and there, at its very roots, interested in communicating to the church and teaching the church of its confessional past, its creedal past, and also recognizing that there are new challenges in our own day that need to be responded to — 45 years after founding Ligonier, we’ve set about to do this. Why did we do this, Dr. Sproul?
R.C. SPROUL: I forget. Wait till I see about Chris Larson. Maybe he can tell us. Oh, it really evolved out of all of those concerns and I kept hearing the same question again, and again. People would ask me in, given the antiquity of my age, they would say, “What are you most concerned about for the next generation, for the 21st century, in the life of the church.”
And I never hesitated to answer that question by saying, “My greatest concern right now for the church is our understanding of the Person and work of Christ.” So I thought, looking forward, that the greatest issues facing the church in our day is the issue of our understanding of who Jesus is.
STEVEN NICHOLS: This is the gospel.
R.C. SPROUL: Yes.
STEVEN NICHOLS: This is what it — the center of the church’s life.
R.C. SPROUL: Exactly.
STEVEN NICHOLS: So, we set about to do this statement. As you have the booklet in front of you, we have an opening letter from Dr. Sproul, who gives some context to this and speaks of the urgency of this statement in our day, and then we turn immediately to the statement itself. We tried as hard as we could to make this statement recitable. We thought, if this was going to serve the church, it needed to be something that could be even said in a church, or at least have a rhythm to it and be very understandable and clear.
One of the hallmarks, of course, of your ministry and of Ligonier is not only the content of Ligonier and even the conviction with which that content is taught, but clarity has been a hallmark of Ligonier Ministries. It’s been a hallmark of your writing and of your teaching, and so we wanted to bring that same level of conviction and also clarity to this statement.
We start off by saying, “We confess the mystery and wonder of God made flesh, and rejoice in our great salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And those two verbs, “confess,” and “rejoice,” are very purposeful. But there’s a final verb at the end of this, and it is “we praise His holy name forever.” One of the things you like to say is, “Theology leads to doxology.” What does that mean?
R.C. SPROUL: You know, I first heard that from my mentor in the Netherlands, Berkouwer, G.C. Berkouwer, who made the comment one day in class that “all sound theology begins and ends in doxology.” If it doesn’t, if our theology doesn’t drive us to our knees in praise, and adoration, and thanksgiving, it’s not sound.
STEVEN NICHOLS: This is a call to worship.
R.C. SPROUL: Yes.
STEVEN NICHOLS: And this is, in fact, what we’ll be doing for all eternity.
R.C. SPROUL: Exactly.
STEVEN NICHOLS: We will praise His holy name forever.
R.C. SPROUL: Yeah.
STEVEN NICHOLS: So, let’s get started now.
R.C. SPROUL: Yeah, let’s start now.
STEVEN NICHOLS: The statement ends with this, what is really the singular — talk about concise, this is a very concise statement of who Christ is: “Jesus Christ is Lord. That “someday, every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess, the whole earth will resound with this theological confession that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Well, let’s just walk through this very quickly. We have, after our opening sentences, we have the statement of the Trinity, and the Son, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, creating all things, sustaining all things, and making all things new. And then we have this statement: “Truly God, He became truly man. Two natures in one Person.”
Now, we all know where that comes from. But a little history of that phrase, of course, comes to us from the Nicene Council and from the Chalcedonian Council. And out of the Chalcedonian, or the definition of the Chalcedonian Council comes this notion of a two-nature Christology — that Jesus Christ is two natures in one Person. Truly human. Truly God.
R.C. SPROUL: Without mixture, confusion, separation, or division, semi-colon “each nature retaining its own attributes,” right?
STEVEN NICHOLS: Now, this is a little quirk of one of our speakers — Dr. Ian Hamilton knows the Greek words from Chalcedon, and he knows the Latin words — but, by his own admission, sometimes he stumbles over the four English words and forgets them. But it’s okay if he knows the Greek and the Latin.
R.C. SPROUL: Now that’s the important thing!
STEVEN NICHOLS: That’s my problem. I’m always thinking in Greek and Latin. I can’t remember the English.
R.C. SPROUL: I understand that. And English has always been a barrier between the two countries anyway.
STEVEN NICHOLS: The third paragraph of our statement gives us the historical facts. And up until this point of the statement, we are treading old paths. We are not pioneering anything new here. We are simply reaffirming the Apostle’s Creed, and the early councils, and the creeds coming from those early councils. But we end this not with how the Apostle’s Creed ends this paragraph; we borrowed a line from the Nicene Creed, and so we say, “and will come again in glory and judgment.” It’s a sobering thought — that Christ will come again in judgment. And it sets the stage.
One of the interesting things about the early creeds and the early — and the Apostle’s Creed through the Chalcedonian definition — is that they’re recited by evangelicals, and Reformed, and by mainline Protestants — and stop along the Reformation and pick up some of the Reformers’ emphases to talk about the work of Christ. And so, after our paragraph of historical facts, we have a stanza of theological facts, if you will. And we start off with, “For us He kept the Law.” Why is it important to start with “He kept the Law”?
R.C. SPROUL: Well, when the New Testament gives to us its portrait of Jesus, one of the most central motifs is the relationship between Adam and the New Adam, or the Second Adam. And where we see the contrast the apostle sets forth: “By one man sin entered into the world and death” and so on, “and by another man’s obedience life has come to us.”
And so the contrast is between disobedience and obedience. And one of the reasons why we’ve focused on this issue is because, at this very minute, as I’m sitting here speaking, this is a critical issue not only in — within the broad church — but among those professing to be evangelicals who have been vociferous in their denial of the perfect act of obedience of Christ, which I happen to believe is essential and central to the gospel itself.
One of the speakers has already pointed out that not only did Jesus die for us, but He lived for us. It’s a double imputation. My sin is transferred to Him; His righteousness is transferred to us. And so absolutely essential to our salvation is this truth: that for our sakes, the incarnate Lord has submitted Himself — as He said and had to explain at His own baptism to John the Baptist when John was saying, “Hey, wait a minute. I can’t be baptizing you. You should be baptizing me!”
For the sake of being expedient, He said to John, “Look, I don’t have time to give you Theology 101. Just suffer it now. Let it — let it alone. But it’s necessary to fulfill all righteousness” — and so our Lord, in every respect, submitted himself perfectly to the Law of the Father. And, in doing that, He did it not just for His own benefit, to qualify as the Lamb without blemish, but He did it for us. That’s why He is our righteousness.
STEVEN NICHOLS: I think even unintentionally, many folks, in the presentation of the gospel simply start with the gospel that He died for our sins.
R.C. SPROUL: Right.
STEVEN NICHOLS: And we’re missing that He lived for us, by keeping the Law.
R.C. SPROUL: If all He did was to die for our sins, which would’ve been a wonderful thing, that would’ve simply restored us to the situation Adam was in before the fall. It would’ve provided innocence but no righteousness. And we would still be looking from a distance at the tree of life. But because He was perfect in His active obedience, He didn’t just restore us to innocence, but rather fulfilled the probation that Adam failed in which we then are participating in eternal life with Him.
STEVEN NICHOLS: You know, you mentioned how this is under challenge today. In fact, there are a number of places in this paragraph — And make no mistake about it, we wanted to draw a line in the sand with this statement. We feel so strongly that this paragraph gets to the gospel, and without the elements of this paragraph or stanza it is simply not the gospel.
In addition to active obedience, the other piece, of course, is the atonement. And we live in an odd moment where we have self-professing evangelicals denying the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
R.C. SPROUL: Yes.
STEVEN NICHOLS: We have, at the end of this, a statement. We don’t use the word “imputation,” but instead we paint a picture of imputation, and this is a very signature line — it’s in your hymn “Clothed in Righteousness” — “He took our filthy rags and gave us His righteous robe.”
The doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the doctrine of imputation — you’ve been dealing with this back since the days of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, you’ve seen this in evangelicalism. How important are these doctrines to getting the gospel right?
R.C. SPROUL: Well, when we went through that horrendous dispute about our communion with Rome, where professing evangelicals declared that they had a unity of the gospel with those who received and adopted the canons and decrees of the Council of Trent, in which the doctrine of justification by faith alone was anathematized, and we would say, “Well, wait a minute. If you have a unity of faith and a gospel with these people who deny justification by faith alone, you know, we have a serious problem here.”
And I asked the question then, and we reaffirm it now, “How important is solo fide — justification by faith alone — to the gospel?” I asked one of the signatories of that the question, “Do you believe that this is, that solo fide — justification by faith alone — is essential to the gospel?” And he said, “Well, I would say it was central to the gospel.” I said, “That’s not what I asked you.” I said, “Is it essential, so that without it you don’t have the gospel?” And he would say, “Well, I would say it’s central.” Right? It was like pulling teeth.
I could not get the man to say that it was essential. And that’s where we are now. People will say, “I believe this” and “I believe that, but this isn’t of the essence of the gospel, so that without it you don’t have it.”
Now, you take it to the next step. Then the question was the relationship of imputation to solo fide, to the gospel. And as you know, as a church historian, when all kinds of serious attempts were made to heal the breach of the 16th century Reformation, at Regensburg and at other conferences, where the attempts to reconcile the problems over the Reformation, they all collapsed over one word — “imputation.”
And so what I believe that is, you take away imputation, you take away solo fide. You take away solo fide, you take away the gospel. So I believe that imputation is essential to the gospel. Without it we have no gospel.
STEVEN NICHOLS: You know. Please. This is not only something that’s a polemic, not only something that we need to proclaim against challenges. This is also something that is just wonderfully pastoral.
R.C. SPROUL: Oh.
STEVEN NICHOLS: If we just pause and think that He took our sin — represented in our filthy rags — He took that upon Him and, in turn, gave us what we absolutely never in any way, shape, or form, would deserve: His righteousness.
R.C. SPROUL: Yeah.
STEVEN NICHOLS: How lovely is that!
R.C. SPROUL: You know, a couple of things I want to say in respect to that, from a theological perspective and then from a personal one. I listened to Al Mohler’s message yesterday where he rehearsed for us the history of the contributing characteristics and issues, epistemologically, that gave us the Enlightenment, and the whole problem with the Quest for the Historical Jesus, with Lessing’s Ditch, with Kant’s division between the noumenal world and the phenomenal world, and all of that.
It was — He brought that together so concisely, and talked about the reaction to Schleiermacher in the 19th century liberalism, and all of that, and that was given initially by Althaus, and Barth, and Brunner. And in Brunner’s book Der Mittler, “The Mediator,” his comment on 19th century liberalism was this: that what 19th century liberalism is, at the bottom, is unbelief. And when you want to make peace, as an evangelical, with a religious, historical school, you’ve got to join them in unbelief. And that’s a very significant thing.
And then, if we are believers in Jesus Christ, this is not simply a theological affirmation; it’s intensely personal. You know, just a couple of weeks ago, somebody was asking me about some of the health issues I had to deal with this past year, and I found myself, Steve, in my prayers, ending my prayers reciting and praying the 23rd Psalm. I mean how basic is that? Huh? It’s elementary. “The Lord is my Shepherd.”
STEVEN NICHOLS: Yeah, my Shepherd.
R.C. SPROUL: “I shall not want.” And you go from there about the green pastures and the still waters and being led by the, in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake. And you go through that glorious psalm and what it means, existentially and personally, for every Christian to have a Savior who has purchased for us everlasting life — it just doesn’t get any better than that, does it?
STEVEN NICHOLS: No, it doesn’t. You know, in keeping with this theme of worship, we move on to also add something that was a big emphasis within Calvin and the Reformers, and you don’t find it in the early creeds — the munus triplex — the three-fold…
R.C. SPROUL: Yeah! Everybody knows the munus triplex! How many of you know the munus triplex? What’s wrong with you people!?
STEVEN NICHOLS: Is the munus triplex something an ear, nose, and throat doctor tells you that you have?
R.C. SPROUL: Yeah, that’s what it is! You know, I had a problem with my munuxes and I went to the…
STEVEN NICHOLS: So, the threefold office is that Christ is a Prophet, He’s a Priest, and He’s King. These were the mediatorial offices. There were priests, there were prophets, there were kings. He’s all three in one. And He is the perfect Prophet, perfect Priest, perfect King.
R.C. SPROUL: Yes.
STEVEN NICHOLS: It’s a delightful way to summarize Christ’s work; when He appears in the Gospels, in the historical Christ in the Incarnation and also in His current session, interceding for us.
R.C. SPROUL: I think that’s one of the most brilliant contributions from the magisterial Reformers, particularly Calvin — to spell out what that threefold office means to us and for our salvation.
STEVEN NICHOLS: Yeah. So, He is building His church, interceding for us, and reigning over all things. It’s very — temptation is there to let the appearances on the horizon govern our sense of what reality is and go by what we see. And the reality is Jesus Christ is King.
R.C. SPROUL: Exactly.
STEVEN NICHOLS: And is reigning above all things.
R.C. SPROUL: Right. Exactly. Reigning right now.
STEVEN NICHOLS: And above all —
R.C. SPROUL: He’s not just a king. He’s not just the King. He’s the King of the kings. And the Lord of the lords. That’s the superlative description that the New Testament gives of His glorious reign.
STEVEN NICHOLS: And so, again, we say Jesus Christ is Lord. We praise His holy name forever.
R.C. SPROUL: Yes.
STEVEN NICHOLS: You know, in addition to this statement, we added 25 articles of affirmation and denial.
R.C. SPROUL: Yes.
STEVEN NICHOLS: These affirmations and denial walk through the statement. The first article — and you have them there on the following pages, and you also notice that there are Scripture proofs. And what we did was we printed out the first Scripture text you would go to. Sometimes the theologians will speak of the locus classicus or the text location where this doctrine is primarily taught or seen rather clearly.
R.C. SPROUL: If you don’t have the locus classicus, you don’t have anything, do you?
STEVEN NICHOLS: What’s wrong with these people? I need to growl more when I say that.
R.C. SPROUL: You do! You want to practice?
STEVEN NICHOLS: Just not right now. So after the writing out of the text, we list a number of other Scripture references. We really do want this to be a teaching tool. We want the statement to lead you to the articles. And then those articles lead you to these texts. And these texts just continue to open horizons as you study what is the most important topic: the Person and work of Christ. So engage these texts. Wrestle with these texts.
So we have the texts, we have the articles. We start off with a statement of the Incarnation. Again, this is the Word made flesh. Then we turn to His deity. Then we turn to affirming the ancient creeds and the two natures. Then we turn to His humanity. I just want to point out one of the articles under the humanity of Christ. This is Article 7: “We affirm that, as truly man, Christ possesses all the natural limitations” — and then we plagiarized an expression from the Westminster Standards — “and common infirmities of human nature, and that He is like us in all respects except for sin.”
This is the author of Hebrews telling us that we have a sympathetic High Priest. There are places here that you almost sort of just want to pull in Selah from the Psalms and just say, “Pause.” How comforting and how worshipful that is that we have a Savior who has our natural limitations and our common infirmities.
R.C. SPROUL: When we see the battle lines today, and when we talk about the impact of 19th and 20th century liberal and neo-liberal theology on our Christology, and go back to Chalcedon, 451, you see that the tendency, repeatedly, is to people to try — the liberal side — to try to allow the humanity of Jesus to swallow up His deity. So you have a reduction of the Person to one pole, namely to the pole of humanity and the denial of deity.
Conversely, in the battle against liberalism, historic evangelicalisms tend to fall off the other side of the horse and allow the humanity to be swallowed up by the deity, ending in the same heresies of the 5th century of monophysitism and everything, where the true limits of Jesus’ humanity are ignored and people begin to say that, that the divine nature communicates not just information, but attributes to the human nature so that the human nature of Jesus is omniscient, omnipotent, ubiquitous, and so on.
We see those heresies every single day in the life of the church, where the real humanity, with all of its limitations, is extinguished or swallowed up by the deity. And that’s what we’re trying to correct both of those.
STEVEN NICHOLS: We are. And to, also, again, see the pastoral, the full pastoral implication of an orthodox Christology. I’ll draw to your attention Article 14. It’s a strong statement on justification by faith. It is one that represents, again, the thrust and heartbeat of Ligonier Ministries.
But I just want to draw to your final attention Article 25. It says, “We affirm that, when Jesus has conquered all His enemies, He will hand over His kingdom to the Father; that, in the new heavens and the new earth, God will be all in all, and that believers will see Christ face to face, be made like Him, and enjoy Him forever.” And I feel like we should have a little button that plays the “Highland Hymn” every time we read that. And speaking of hymns, our friend — your partner in musical crime, Jeff Lippencott — has indeed put this to music. You’ll have to wait for the unveiling of the hymn, but there will be a hymn.
One of the things you don’t know, Dr. Sproul, is that, in a couple of weeks, in the city of Hamburg, there’s going to be a conference. And we have a website with this statement, and that website has this statement in 15 languages — the affirmations and denials — including Arabic, and also German.
R.C. SPROUL: Oh, you mean the Hamburg statement!
STEVEN NICHOLS: Hamburg? Well, this is Hamburg, Germany, for — I walked right into that!
R.C. SPROUL: You did! Go.
STEVEN NICHOLS: This is a conference of young church planters, and Germany has drifted far away from its roots of our friend Martin Luther. These are young church planters. And 500 years ago, light broke into the darkness in Germany. And there’s a lot of energy and zeal in those young ministers. And we’re going to put this statement…
R.C. SPROUL: Give or take one or two years. I thought it was more like 499 years, but you’re the historian.
STEVEN NICHOLS: I was never good with math! We don’t teach math at Reformation Bible College!
R.C. SPROUL: That’s right!
STEVEN NICHOLS: Because you designed the curriculum so…
R.C. SPROUL: I wanted to be sensitive to our faculty’s limitations.
STEVEN NICHOLS: And infirmities.
R.C. SPROUL: Yes.
STEVEN NICHOLS: And we’re going to give them this statement. Our hope is that this statement — we humbly offer this statement as a gift to the church, to the global church. We want to share this statement with as many people as possible.
ChristologyStatement.com will have all that you need to help you share this. We also have produced a video. We will be putting this on our website next week, and we want you to see this video right now.
VIDEO: We confess the mystery and wonder of God made flesh and rejoice in our great salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. With the Father and the Holy Spirit, the Son created all things, sustains all things, and makes all things new. Truly God, He became truly man, two natures in one person. He was born of the Virgin Mary and lived among us. Crucified, dead, and buried, He rose on the third day, ascended to heaven, and will come again in glory and judgment.
For us, He kept the Law, atoned for sin, and satisfied God’s wrath. He took our filthy rags and gave us His righteous robe. He is our Prophet, Priest, and King, building His church, interceding for us, and reigning over all things. Jesus Christ is Lord We praise His holy name forever. Amen. Amen. Amen.