“…Who for us men, and for our salvation…was incarnate…and was made man.”
Jesus Christ is very God come in the flesh. That is the confession of the church of God, and has been since Peter’s bold reply to the Lord’s question, “But whom say ye that I am?” Peter’s answer, revealed to him from the “Father which is in heaven,” was, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:15-17). The inspired apostle Paul would later write concerning Jesus: “made of the seed of David according to the flesh; and declared to be the Son of God with power…by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:3-4). Thomas recognized that at Jesus’ appearance, and humbly confessed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).
The most profound revelation of who Jesus is flows from the inspired pen of John, in deceptively simple language. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14a).
Very God, eternally God, is this Jesus, in no wise less than the Father. (I and my Father are one, John 10:30.) Yet very man, with a real and complete human nature. One of the most frequently used names Jesus applied to Himself was “the son of man,” and so much is He like us that Jesus calls us His brethren (Heb. 2:11).
Accordingly, the early church obeyed Christ’s command to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). Clearly, the church maintained that Jesus is very God.
But how is that to be explained? Jehovah is not three, but one God. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deut. 6:4). And if Jesus is very God, how can He be also very man?
We stand before the wonder of the incarnation!
For some in the early church, the solution was to ascribe to Jesus a human nature that was not real, but one that had only the appearance of a physical human nature (the error called Docetism). John may have that error in mind when he emphasized the real, physical human nature that Jesus had (John 1:14; I John 1:1, 4:2, 3). The church dismissed that notion but offered no clear description of the relation of the Son to the Father, or how the Son could be both very God and very man.
And thus it would have remained, had God not determined to clarify and develop the doctrine of the Son, the Mediator. To that end, God raised up a man who taught certain deadly errors concerning the Son. Those errors forced the ancient church to face important questions about the Son and His place in the Godhead.
The man that God raised up for this purpose was Arius, an elder in the church in Alexandria. What was it that Arius taught?
To begin with, Arius taught that the Father existed first, as the only Unbegotten One. Although the Father begat the Son in eternity, yet one can say, insisted Arius, that there was a “time” in eternity when the Son was not. The Father always was, and “then” He begat the Son. The Father begat the Son so that the Son might create the universe, for the Bible teaches that all things were made by the Son (John 1; Col. 1).
What exactly is the Son then, according to Arius? The Son is a creature whom the Father formed (begat) in eternity as an act of His will. The Son is the greatest of all creatures, but a creature for all that.
In response to these teachings of Arius, Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, called a provincial synod early in 325. The synod condemned the teachings of Arius. When Arius refused to recant, he was deposed.
Thus the matter would have remained—an elder in a local congregation was deposed for teaching error. But in the providence of God, it was not so to remain. For Arius had friends in high places in other regions of the church. He appealed to these friends, gave them some of his teachings, and convinced some churchmen that he had been unjustly condemned. When certain of these men took up his cause, the local controversy became international. It threatened to tear the church apart. For some sixty years, the church struggled to resolve the differences. No easy task, for they were dealing with the wonder of the incarnation.
This long and bitter controversy was part of God’s perfect plan. He determined that the truth of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the wonder, be set forth as clearly as possible in an adopted confession.
God’s sovereign plan included the emperor Constantine. Constantine had granted the church relief from persecution in 313 and granted Christianity favored status. Politically, this was a shrewd move, because Christianity was spreading all through his empire. If the empire had one religion, it would be stronger and more unified.
However, the Arian conflict threatened to divide the church, and thus the empire. Constantine was furious! He wrote an angry letter to Alexander and Arius ordering them to stop debating these matters, which were, he said, of no point or profit. Resolve your differences, he commanded.
But it was too late, even if Arius and Alexander would have been reconciled. The controversy was not a small matter, and it could not be contained. Thus Constantine, whose heart, as with all kings, was in the hand of the Lord, who turns it whithersoever He wills, summoned the bishops to Nicea in 325 for the first ecumenical council to settle the raging conflict. There the church condemned Arius and his teaching, and adopted the Nicene Creed.
The controversy would continue for another sixty years. Athanasius would stand up as the uncompromising defender of the orthodox faith for about fifty years. The Council of Constantinople (381) would affirm and clarify Nicea’s statement. This became the official, accepted creed of the church, even until today.
But the focus of this editorial is not on such details. Our interest is in the wonder of the incarnation that the creed of Nicea/Constantinople strove to set forth. Recall the thrilling language of faith that describes the Son.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God; Light of Light, true God of true God; begotten, not made, being of one essence with the Father; by whom all things were made….
The one phrase that expresses the ancient church’s interest and intent (as well as it did that of Athanasius) follows: “who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man….”
That shows the seriousness of the matter. Contrary to Constantine, this is a matter of the greatest significance—the issue of who and what the Savior is. It was not wrangling over some abstract doctrine. It was not power or personal justification that Alexander, and later Athanasius, pursued. It was rather the truth about salvation. The Christ of Arius cannot save. The Savior must be very God, truly one with the Father, eternally God, the same essence.
Only as very God could the Son give an accurate knowledge of the Father. A mere creature could never comprehend God, and thus could never give an accurate, saving knowledge of God.
In addition, only as very God could Christ save us—the redemption, the salvation from death, imparting eternal life, sanctification—none of that could be accomplished by a mere creature.
At the same time, the ancient church, led by Athanasius, understood that Christ was, had to be, also man—body, soul, mind, and will. For only what was assumed by Christ could be redeemed by Him, and saved.
God gave Athanasius to the churches at that crucial time. I see in Athanasius a stalwart lover of God, who courageously stood for the truth, no matter the personal cost. He was willing to suffer being put out of office five times.
But I also see in Athanasius a pastor who loved his sheep. And he understood that the gospel was at stake. His congregation, and the church universal, needed a Savior, and that could only be one who was very God and very man.
The church of the fourth century agreed with Athanasius. And the church of the twenty-first century still gratefully maintains the creed, confessing her faith in the Savior who is very God, of the same essence as the Father, and “who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” That is, confesses the wonder of Bethlehem.