June 06, 2024

Co-Essential with the Father

Sinclair Ferguson
Co-Essential with the Father

It isn’t theoretical musing that drives us to understand the two natures of Christ in His incarnation. Today, Sinclair Ferguson explains that only Jesus can qualify to be our Savior since He is both God and Man.


Welcome again to Things Unseen. This week on our podcast, we’ve been trying to reflect on things that help us to think in a deeper and more prolonged way about the Lord Jesus. Yesterday we began to reflect on this: that Jesus is one person, the Son of God, and after the incarnation and wonderfully still, now, He has two natures—divine and human.

And I was hinting that it took serious Christians about four centuries to work out how we can express this in a way that would help us think rightly about Christ on the one hand, and at the same time, protect us against muddle-headedness, or error, or even heresy. And the result of these years of hard thinking was a creedal statement produced in 451 AD at the Council of Chalcedon, often called the Chalcedonian Definition. And I quoted it at length yesterday. I hope you weren’t doing anything complicated when you were listening, like driving your car, because it was more, I suspect, than any of us could take in—very theologically, Christologically dense. But what I wanted to impress on us by reading it was that it’s very carefully worded and it’s also very carefully thought through in order to help us think clearly and deeply about Christ.

Christians can be a bit impatient with that kind of detailed thinking, can’t we? But if we were musicians, we’d not be impatient with those funny squiggles that Beethoven made on pieces of paper. We wouldn’t say, “Oh, it’s all just far too complex and dense,” if for example, we were listening to the “Moonlight Sonata” or maybe his Sixth Symphony. Now should we think about these dense words of these great theological statements as too complicated? What they are doing is giving us a beautiful, detailed description of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And if we are impatient, the fault is probably with ourselves.

But I want to focus on just one or two details. You see, these theologians weren’t just being theoretical, they were concerned about our muddle-headedness, about ways of thinking about Jesus that keep on recurring but are not really faithful to Scripture. And that’s why the Definition of Chalcedon is still helpful to us: it can save us from false ways of thinking about Jesus. I want to mention four of them—two today, the other two tomorrow. As it happens, they’re all associated with particular historical individuals, although the views they express were, and still are, by no means limited to these individuals.

Chalcedon says that Christ is “perfect in Godhead . . . co-essential with the Father.” It’s thinking here about Arianism, a view associated with the fourth-century cleric called Arius, and resisted by the great Athanasius, who was, as you probably know, frequently exiled because of his faithfulness to Scripture and Christ. Arius and those he influenced held that the Son was the greatest of all God’s creation, but not Himself God. Actually, Arius is alive and well in, for example, Jehovah’s Witnesses and in many unitarians.

Now, why is this so important? Well, the greatest thinkers in the Christian church have always had a question at the back of their minds when they’ve thought about our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s this: “Could this Christ I am describing actually be qualified to be my Savior? If not, then I must be describing Him wrongly.”

So, what’s the problem with Arianism? Well, it’s simple really. If He isn’t truly and fully God, He can’t really reconcile us to God. Only God can reconcile us to God. If you’re alienated from someone else, I can perhaps facilitate a reconciliation, but only that other person can effect the reconciliation. And this is the wonderful truth of the gospel that Paul expresses in 2 Corinthians 5, isn’t it? In Christ, God Himself was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our trespasses against us.

But then Chalcedon went on to say that the Son is also “co-essential with us according to the manhood.” And here they were thinking about what’s called Apollinarianism. Apollinaris lived at the end of the fourth century and was, in fact, a strong opponent of Arianism. But he emphasized the full deity of the Lord by saying that the divine Logos took the place of the nous, or the rational soul, in the incarnation of the Lord. And I think you can see the problem. If Jesus saw His nous, His mind, as not human but instead replaced by something divine, then the Lord Jesus isn’t really coessential with us; He’s not actually truly human. And of course, if He’s not truly human, He’s not really one of us. In fact, He’s a kind of superhuman, a superman. And if that’s the case, He can’t really represent us. He can’t be obedient in our place. The fact that He’s not truly human actually disqualifies Him from being the substitute for our sins, for our salvation.

So what Chalcedon is really saying to us is this: We have a great Savior who was truly one of us, truly like us—sin apart—and that’s what qualifies Him to be our Savior. And He’s God, and that’s what qualifies Him to reconcile us to God. That’s the message of Chalcedon. And I know it may seem hard to think about it, but the more you think about it, the more it’ll help you to think clearly about the Lord Jesus. And the more you think clearly about the Lord Jesus, the more you’ll love Him. And we’ll talk more about this tomorrow.