On the nature of Christ

J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry.

Why don't the editors of MINISTRY have more to say on the current discussion regarding the nature of Christ and righteousness by faith? Where do you stand on these issues?

Let us first assure our readers that we are not Docetists, teaching that Christ only seemed to be human, nor Arians, who believe that He was not truly divine. Neither are we Nestorians, who separate the dual nature of Christ to the point of a double personality—a mere God-bearing man—nor do we hold with Apollinarianism, which sacrifices the integrity of the human nature (depriving it of its will) to the unity of the person of Christ. Nor do we agree with Eutychianism, which achieves a personal unity in the nature of Christ by having the divine absorb the human.

The Christian church has struggled through the centuries trying to understand the Incarnation, and we certainly will not exhaust the topic with our brief treatment here. In fact, it would require every page of many MINISTRY issues even to approach a complete answer, because the more this glorious subject is studied, the greater are the insights that appear. For this reason we will deal only with the Incarnation in this issue, leaving righteousness by faith for later discussion.

Looking back over my thirty-six years of preaching ministry, I recognize a progression of changing thoughts, especially on these two subjects. Even now, I hesitate answering such questions for fear of leaving wrong impressions about the nature of our Lord. When considering these themes, feelings of inadequacy should overwhelm all of us. The following thoughts result from earnest study and prayer that the Lord will help me to dip my pen in the rich ink of love and truth.

Let me emphasize at the outset that only those statements made by an action of a General Conference session constitute the official position of the church. Articles appearing in any denominational journal cannot be considered the final word. Our Church Manual, which under goes periodic revision, states our official position in matters of doctrine and organization.

Prior to publication of Questions on Doctrine and certain articles appearing in MINISTRY, I hadn't given much thought to the precise nature of Christ. I simply believed He was the God-man and presented Him as such in evangelistic campaigns. During the early years of my ministry, I leaned heavily toward the view that Christ had tendencies and propensities toward evil just as I did. I believed Christ possessed a nature exactly like mine, except that He alone never yielded to temptation.

However, in the fifties, as the church focused on Christ's nature, my position changed. I now favored the idea that Christ was genuinely man, subject to temptation and failure, but with a sinless human nature totally free from any tendencies or predisposition toward evil. A bar rage of brochures, articles, and letters, plus seemingly endless discussions followed the publication of Questions on Doctrine. I wonder if the church would not be much farther advanced spiritually today had we spent as much time then seeking to be like Christ as we did arguing about His nature. During this period, conflicting views of His nature were presented with such apparently irrefutable logic that my mind, like a tennis ball, bounced first in one court and then the other, depending on which racquet hit me last! Eventually, I landed more and more in the sinless nature "court."

At a time when the deity of Christ is under severe attack from both Catholic and Protestant theologians it would seem that our energies could be better spent in establishing more fully His deity rather than debating the nature of His humanity. As these religious thinkers set the theological pace, we can be almost certain that we, as soul winners, will face the problem now and in the future of establishing faith in a Christ who is fully God.

As an evangelist, I am convinced that the average man in the street or pew would be hopelessly lost if his salvation depended upon an incisive, scholarly understanding of Christ's nature. Technical discussions of Christ's nature cause not only con fusion but discouragement to many. The question is, Does Christ expect a person to understand precisely every nuance of His nature to be saved? Yet I find those of both viewpoints who unequivocally state that the future of the church will be determined by the position it takes on the nature of Christ and the doctrine of righteousness by faith.

To a degree, I agree. It does make a difference what the church believes and teaches. But do not some subjects contain inscrutable elements that can never be fully under stood or explained on this earth? Are there not some things about the nature of Christ that none of us under stand and perhaps never will? Would it be sufficient for a person to take the position that Christ was fully God and fully man; that He never committed a wrong act in thought, word, or action, and that as a human being He is acquainted with our nature? Actually, I believe Christ, the Creator, was well acquainted with our nature before the Incarnation. It seems strange indeed that our Lord would create a being partially or wholly a mystery to Him. Isn't love the major reason for the Incarnation?

Another concern is the barren lack of tenderness and love in some discussions both of the nature of Christ and of righteousness by faith. Argumentative lines of reasoning, subtle accusations, innuendoes used to defeat those who disagree with a jot or tittle of the writer's belief, reflect the attitude and language of lawyers, rather than humble followers of Jesus, honestly seeking truth. It is disheartening to see battle lines drawn over the glorious truths of salvation. Could it be that legalism involves much more than trying to work one's self into, the kingdom?

Recently, in one of our colleges I met with a group of consecrated, concerned students to find out some of their spiritual needs before speaking to them. After a few suggestions one student said, "Please don't bring up righteousness by faith—we've heard enough of that." Nods of agreement and several soft Amens told me something tragic. Righteousness by faith should be the most attractive subject a preacher could present. But Satan has delighted in making this topic (along with the nature of Christ) a football to be kicked back and forth, for he knows that if we drag these truths into the coliseum of debate, our relationship with Christ takes a back seat while offensive and defensive linemen face off. In fact, the truth sometimes becomes less important than identifying the "team" to which a person belongs!

Nothing is gained, however, by ignoring these important truths, nor do I want to do so. Trying to avoid the dangers outlined above, I will discuss this subject as I see it.

The nature of Christ must include a study of the nature of man. The Scriptures clearly teach that man is born with a fallen, sinful nature. David exclaimed, "I was shapen in iniquity" and "the wicked are estranged from the womb" who "go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies" (Ps. 51:5; 58:3). Job, referring to man born of woman, asks, "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? not one" (Job 14:4). Jesus describes in vivid detail just what is inside the mind of man (see Matt. 15:19, 20). In His inter view with Nicodemus, Jesus said, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh" (John 3:6). Placing this statement with the Saviour's words, "If ye then, being evil" (Matt. 7:11), we find man being born with a corrupt nature. Paul agrees that we are "by nature the children of wrath" (Eph. 2:3). Thus man is corrupted both by nature and afterwards by practice. Whether or not we call this depraved condition at birth original sin, the point is that from birth, a baby possesses a disposition and bent toward evil. Obviously, a poor environment provides a better culture for the bacteria of sin to grow, but sin will grow even in the most ideal environment. A newborn baby in the sin-free environment of heaven, under the charge of an unfallen angel, would eventually corrupt the place. We all arrive in life with inherited sinful tendencies that make it impossible for us not to sin. This is not to say we inherit guilt, but evil tendencies and inclinations. Even if we faced no temptations, we would create them and yield to them in time. The question Jesus asked, "How can ye, being evil, speak good things?" (Matt. 12:34), indicates that our sinful natures are the culprits behind the scene.

Turning to the Spirit of Prophecy, we find: "We must remember that our hearts are naturally depraved, and we are unable of ourselves to pursue a right course." —Counsels to Parents and Teachers, p. 544.

"By inheritance and example the sons become partakers of the father's sin. Wrong tendencies, perverted appetites, and debased morals, as well as physical disease and degeneracy, are transmitted as a legacy from father to son, to the third and fourth-generation." —Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 306. Note the dual source of evil in every per son's life—heredity and environment.

We read of "wrong traits of character received by birth" (Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 419) and of drunkards who must "battle against strong hereditary tendencies to evil" whose "unnatural cravings, sensual impulses, were their inheritance from birth" (The Ministry of Healing, p. 173).

Time's cover story for August 1, 1977, dealt with what is considered a new theory of behavior sociobiology, the idea that human and animal behavior has a biological basis. I smiled as I read, knowing that this theory is not new, but as old as sin. The first paragraph states, "The concepts are startling—and disturbing. Conflict between parents and children is biologically inevitable. Children are born deceitful." The magazine calls sociobiology "one of the most inflammatory doctrines to emerge from the campuses in decades."

My study of the nature of man has greatly influenced my concept of the nature of Christ. I ask myself the question, Was Jesus born with a corrupt nature like mine? Was He "estranged from the womb"? Was He by nature a child of wrath? Did He receive "wrong traits of character by birth"? Did our Lord battle against strong hereditary tendencies to evil with which He was born? If so, which hereditary evil tendencies and perversions did He have, or did His nature possess every variety, although He never yielded?

In studying Ellen White's writings on the nature of Christ I have found that her statements can be classified under the following three headings: 1. sinless nature; 2. sinful nature; 3. general statements (which can be and are used by proponents of both sides). How can we resolve the problem? After studying the statements in group two, which indicate that Christ in some way assumed sinful nature, I find myself faced with this very clear, forthright warning: "Be careful, exceedingly careful as to how you dwell upon the human nature of Christ. Do not set Him before the people as a man with the propensities of sin. He is the second Adam. The first Adam was created a pure, sinless being, with out a taint of sin upon him; he was in the image of God. He could fall, and he did fall through transgressing. Because of sin his posterity was born with inherent propensities of disobedience. But Jesus Christ was the only begotten Son of God. He took upon Himself human nature, and was tempted in all points as human nature is tempted. He could have sinned; He could have fallen, but not for one moment was there in Him an evil propensity. He was assailed with temptations in the wilderness, as Adam was assailed with temptations in Eden." —The SDA Bible Commentary, Ellen G. White Comments, on John 1:1-3, 14, p. 1128.

In the light of this statement I personally have had to admit that whatever type of sinful nature Christ had (if He had such), it had no propensity, no natural inclination, tend ency, or bent toward evil. Whatever Ellen White's statements regarding the "sinful" nature of Christ mean, they must be interpreted in harmony with the strong qualifying statement quoted above. I cannot understand how a sinful nature could have no evil propensities, unless the sinful nature resulted from the effects of sin in other areas than propensities to evil. For example, perhaps Christ came as a human with a diminished (but not defective) mental, physical, and moral capacity compared to that of Adam prior to his fall. Yet this diminished capacity contained no inclination toward evil.

Or could it be that Christ took our nature by imputation only? Is this what Ellen White meant when she wrote, "He took upon His sinless nature our sinful nature, that He might know how to succor those that are tempted" (Medical Ministry, p. 181)? In other words, any sinfulness He took was not His but ours!

In the final analysis unanswerable questions remain regardless of the position taken on Christ's nature. Our degenerate senses cannot possibly understand the secrets and wonders of the Incarnation. I stand before Christ realizing so little of His unfathomable love! With blunted perceptions I only faintly grasp His unparalleled condescension. My soul's dim sight can barely discern the enormity of His extraordinary humility. With dull comprehension my heart can only cry out "Master, Your divine-human nature is impenetrable. I can barely touch Your incarnation with the fingertips of my mind, knowing an infinity of knowledge lies beyond a thousand lifetimes of study. But I can, by faith, believe You came as One who was fully God and fully man; One who could successfully challenge Satan to find in You the slightest fault; One who identified Himself with me as a human being; One who ran the risk of failure in order to guarantee my eternal life; One who made the ultimate sacrifice as a ransom for my soul; and One who still stands at the door of my heart daily knocking and seeking entrance, not to condone my sins, but to help me overcome them. Forgive me, O Saviour, for my feeble response to Your love. Forgive my arrogance in thinking that I know all about Your nature. Fill me with Your magnificent love so that I may never in the perversity of my mind harshly judge my brother who may not see every point in doctrine as I see it. My only plea is that You will enable me to lift You, and You only, high before the world, not with words alone, but with a life surrendered and obedient to Your will."


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J.R. Spangler is editor of Ministry.

April 1978

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