Podcast: Debunking Myths about Jesus (Stephen Wellum)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
Understanding the Identity of Christ
In this episode, Stephen Wellum discusses myths and misconceptions about Jesus that obscure his true significance—for history and for our own lives—digging into some of those myths and exploring why Jesus is far better and far more glorious than we could ever imagine.
The Person of Christ
Stephen J. Wellum
In this addition to the Short Studies in Systematic Theology, Stephen J. Wellum examines the divinity and humanity of Christ, focusing on who Jesus is from Scripture and historical theology, showing readers why Jesus is unique and how they should think about the incarnation.
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Topics Addressed in This Interview:
- Rampant Confusion about Who Jesus Is
- Myth #1: Greek Thought Has Been Imposed on Christian Theology
- Myth #2: Jesus Is the First and Greatest Created Being
- Myth #3: Jesus’s Designation as the Son of God Is a Mere Title
- What Is Eternal Generation?
- Myth #4: Jesus Only Appeared in Human Form
- Myth #5: Jesus’s Sinless Life Is of Secondary Importance to His Death on the Cross
- Was It Possible for Jesus to Sin?
01:47 - Rampant Confusion about Who Jesus Is
Stephen, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.
It’s a delight to be with you, Matt.
In our conversation today, we’re going to talk a lot about some common myths and misconceptions about Jesus held by both believers and unbelievers alike. On that first category of believers, you recently wrote an article for Crossway where you noted that even within the evangelical church there is “rampant confusion regarding the person and work of Christ.” That’s maybe a little bit surprising to hear for the average Christian, so could you unpack that a little bit? Why do you say that there is rampant confusion?
That’s a great question, and especially, of course, when it’s within the church. That’s our concern, isn’t it? No one wants to say that there is rampant confusion until you see some evidence for it, and we see that just by the polls that are taken. The State of Theology poll that Ligonier and LifeWay have put out every other year since 2014—when you look at those who identify as evangelicals and you ask them specific theological questions, we know that there’s rampant confusion. For instance, in the latest 2020 poll the question was asked, “Do you believe that Jesus was God or just a human?” Thirty percent of evangelicals are identifying him as not God. But we know it’s confused because in another question they are asked about the Trinity: “Do you believe in the Trinity in terms of one God, three persons?” And then the question mentions God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and you have 96% say yes, but then 30% say no in terms of the deity of Christ. So I take this to be confusion. If we were to put the most positive spin on it, there’s just not the proper biblical and theological teaching that needs to be taking place in our churches, and so people are picking up truths and they’re believing many things, but they’re not clear. When asked specific questions, they’re not answering them correctly. That’s just one example, I think, of the kind of confusion that’s out there. As we press in on the work of Christ, I think people aren’t understanding what Jesus has done—the nature of his life, death, and resurrection. There’s just a lot of disagreements and confusion and I think it’s being tied to the larger culture that we can easily be conformed to the world and not be transformed by the renewing of our minds. So that’s some of the things that I’m seeing, just simply by the polls and what we’re reading as people within churches are being asked questions. Again, when we speak of evangelicals, it’s so broad, obviously, so there’s always exceptions. Individual churches can be solid and be well-taught, but just broadly speaking, within North America and the Western world, generally speaking, the church is lacking in these very foundational truths.
05:15 - Myth #1: Greek Thought Has Been Imposed on Christian Theology
Let’s jump into one of the first myths that you might often hear, maybe less among Christians and more among non-Christians. I think sometimes concerns about this do creep into the church, and it relates to some of those early Christian councils and creeds and the language that arose out of them—like the Nicene Creed or the Chalcedonian Definition. The myth would be that these were essentially Hellenistic, or Greek, distortions of Old Testament monotheism that crept in. There were people trying to merge together Israel’s Old Testament theology with some of these new foreign, philosophical ideas from Greek theology and philosophy. How would you respond to that first myth?
That’s a large myth that’s been with us. Older, liberal theology would have spoken about the acute Hellenization of Christian theology and the imposition of Greek thought on the Bible. Of course, that’s a serious, serious charge because eventually, if that charge would stick, then our confessional standards would not be biblical. They would be one step removed from what Scripture is teaching. I think as you look at this—and many have done this and I try to, in a brief form, deal with these kinds of issues—I think the truth of the matter is that the opposite is the case. We do have to admit that when we do theology—and this is just part of the theological task—we work from Scripture to then try to understand how all the parts fit together. Inevitably, as we do that, we introduce what I like to say is extra, outside of, biblical language; but that’s not unbiblical language. It’s outside of Scripture—the words Trinity, person, nature—all of those kind of terms are not technically found in chapter and verse. Sometimes you can find them, but they’re not always used the way they are in the confessions, yet they are necessary to make sense of the biblical material. I think what you’re seeing with Nicaea and Chalcedon is they’re using theological terms to not only teach the church within how to put the pieces together but they’re also responding to the charges from without who deny the biblical teaching. As they do so, they’re very careful in getting Scripture right. It’s a different vocabulary, but it is true to the Scripture. You think of the one God who is presented from Genesis to Revelation. The Trinity is one true and living God, yet the Father is God, the Son is God, the Spirit is God. That is then unpacked for us in terms of three persons in one nature. One of the great examples I like to go to to show how the church was anti-Greek, in the sense it went against its culture in theology, is that as the church has to distinguish the three persons from the one nature. There’s three, yet there’s also one. In Christology there’s the one person who subsists in two natures. They had to come up with vocabulary for person and nature, yet in the Greek language, those terms that were used for person and for nature were actually synonyms. Of course, you would never be able to distinguish them if they were synonyms because it would mean the same thing. The church came along, on the basis of Scripture, and distinguished what a person was from what the nature was, filled it with biblical content, and then gave the confessional standards to make sense of the biblical material. So in that sense, they were very anti-Greek. Also, the Christian worldview, in terms of even the reality of an incarnation—the Creator-creature distinction, the Son of God taking on humanity—that’s not Greek thought at all. I think as you look at the actual history, what you see is that the church is working from Scripture, faithful to the theology of the Bible, and is really anti-Greek at that point. Even though there are Greek or Latin terms that are being used, the content of those terms is different.
How would you respond to someone listening right now who says, That’s all well and good, but why do we even need to use these extra-biblical terms? Why can’t we just stick to the language of the Bible?
The church wrestled with that over and over again, and the reason simply is that we have to then accurately describe who Jesus is because when someone comes along and says, for instance—and this showed up in the early church—you read Colossians 1:15–16: “[The Son] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” As you would have with Jehovah’s Witnesses today or the Arians in the early church, they take the language of “firstborn” and they say, Well, that means first created being. Yet, in context, that’s not what it means. In order to distinguish the Bible’s view and a proper theological view, you have to introduce language to say this is not what we mean and this is how this word will be understood in terms of a larger theology. It’s really for preserving the truth of Scripture, accurately communicating it, avoiding the errors of those who are reading the Scripture in an improper way; and it’s for discipleship, it’s for defense of the faith, and it’s for a proper presentation of who the Jesus of the Bible is.
11:16 - Myth #2: Jesus Is the First and Greatest Created Being
Let’s jump into the next myth that you’ve kind of already referenced. Probably one of the foundational ones that the early church was combating was the idea that as the Son of God, Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God. You referenced this Ligonier survey that indicated maybe a lot of evangelical Christians would say that that’s true. How would you respond to that?
I think it was about 60% of those who identify with evangelicals and affirm that Jesus was the first and greatest created being, which is clearly what we would say is an Arian view, or today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses would affirm that. Our response to that is first we would have to clarify that with many evangelicals what they’re probably thinking of is Christ’s humanity at that point. Even though they should know that that language is tied to heretical positions, they don’t. But what they’re probably referring to is humanity, and what we have to then say is that as we look at Scripture, the Jesus of the Bible is the One who is the eternal Son of God. John uses the language of the Word of God in John 1:1 who has always, always existed with the Father and the Spirit. At a point of time he takes on—this is Philippians 2—he who is in the very form or nature of God. He does not consider that to be clung onto. The phrases there are picking up that he adds to himself the very nature of a human so that he becomes human—the Word became flesh—yet he is the eternal Son who shares the divine nature with the Father and the Spirit who now adds a second nature. Of course, this is why the church was so very strong on the two natures of Christ, so that he is the eternal Son who has always shared the divine nature, who now adds to himself a human nature. It’s a different nature. It’s a distinct nature. It’s the creature nature and is not tied to the Creator. So he’s not the first and greatest created being. He is the eternal Son of God. In the beginning was the Word who is with God; but in time, he adds to himself a second nature. In that area of the incarnation, he is becoming human, but he’s always been the eternal Son for eternity.
Would it be right to speak of his human nature as created?
Absolutely. Matthew 1 and Luke 1—those two Gospels—get the closest to describing how it is that he added this human nature to himself and that created human nature came to be joined to the person of the Son. And that’s, of course, at the virgin conception. That human nature did not exist prior to that conception. There were some in the Reformation era that spoke of Christ, the Son of God, having celestial flesh—almost like a human nature created in heaven and Mary is acting like a surrogate. But no, that’s not the case. At the moment of conception by what is taken from Mary by the agency of the Spirit, that human nature is created and the Son of God takes that to himself. That’s very, very important because that’s how he becomes one with us in order to redeem us and to represent us.
14:57 - Myth #3: Jesus’s Designation as the Son of God Is a Mere Title
If that myth misunderstands that title of Son of God in one way that we just discussed, another misunderstanding could be that Jesus’s designation as the Son of God is a mere title that says nothing about the nature of his relationship with God the Father. Unpack that for us. What should we understand by the biblical language that the Son is the Son of God?
That is a very, very important language, and, of course, as we continue to—in this country, but around the world—especially deal with other religious groups. So, not only within the church do we have to be clear about this, but you think of within Islam there’s a huge misunderstanding of what Christians mean by the Son of God, because they take that purely in a biological sense. But in Scripture—and this is why it’s so crucial to see who Jesus is within the whole storyline of the Bible, the whole framework of Scripture. As we work from Genesis to the New Testament, it’s no doubt the case that the Son of God language is first applied in the human sense so that the first time we see that Son of God language applied is to the nation of Israel as a corporate people in Exodus 4—the firstborn son. Or the Davidic King is the son to Yahweh, the Father. The Davidic covenant is that God is the Father to the King—a father, son relationship. Yet, as you work through the Old Testament—and this is what Jesus himself picks up in the Gospels—the Old Testament itself is saying yes, there is coming a King, a Son, one who will represent the Lord; yet he also now takes on the very names and titles of God. Isaiah 9:6: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”—that gets applied to the Son, the King! Then you say, How does that work? Psalm 110: “The Lord says to my Lord”—Jesus picks this up. As you work from the Old Testament to New, yes, the Son of God is a human son; but the Son of God, we now know, is the eternal Son. Of course, that’s what takes full light in the New Testament. We have to say Son of God language functions at two levels. First and foremost it functions eternally. He is the eternal Son of God in relation to the Father and the Spirit. John 1 picks that up with the Word language. And then he adds to himself a human nature and becomes a human son. But there it’s now at the human level. Son of God now speaks both of his deity, his eternal Sonship, as well as his humanity. A lot of the titles in the New Testament work that way as well. Son of Man works that way. You think of it just simply as his humanity, but even in the Old Testament, Son of Man is identified with God in Daniel 7, and it takes on divine overtones as well. Son of God language is both deity and humanity. You first have to get eternal Son right, and then he becomes a human son for us.
Beyond merely referring to Jesus’s deity, that Son of God title, does that reveal anything about the nature of his relationship with God the Father, who is also God?
The Son of God language is used. Obviously, it’s biblical language, it’s revealed language—we work from what God has disclosed and revealed to us. But it uniquely picks up the Father-Son relationship of God the Father and God the Son. The Son of God is the Son to the Father. The Father can’t be thought of as Father without the Son. This is why our confessional standards of the early church spoke about the begottenness, or the eternal generation, of the Son. This was over and against the Arians who thought of the Son as the first created thing, or becoming a son simply in a creation sense. No, no, no, no. He’s the Son eternally in relation to the Father. The Father cannot be thought of without the Son. And now you have the Trinitarian relations. The Father through the Son, the Son from the Father, and then by the Spirit. So, you move from Trinity to Christology. Sonship speaks of his unique relationship to the Father, as well as the Spirit, but particularly the Father. You see that worked out particularly in John’s Gospel. In John 5 Jesus speaks about how he’s the Son who can do nothing on his own, but does all that the Father does—which speaks of full, equal deity; yet it speaks of a relation that he has to the Father from eternity. So there is Trinity, to then Christology, that gives us the deity of Christ.
20:08 - What Is Eternal Generation?
You mentioned the language of only begotten, and you even used the phrase eternal generation. Just speaking personally, that’s a phrase that I had not heard until college. When I first heard that phrase it struck me as very, very foreign and very odd language to be using to talk about the Son’s relation to the Father. Have you encountered that in your own teaching and writing work, that many Christians are unfamiliar with that terminology and maybe even feel a little bit suspicious of it?
Absolutely. I think that the reason for this is going back to what we started with is that we don’t have, in our present day church—this doesn’t mean that it’s every church or it’s always been this way—but there’s really not the solid theological understanding tied to historical confessions. Eternal generation, if you go back into our confessions and into the history of the church—even one hundred years ago you read the older theologies and it’s all there—but it has started to fall away in the contemporary era. I think the reason for that is that we haven’t gone back to history. We haven’t gone back to our confessional basis. Again, it depends upon whether one’s coming out of more of a high church, more of a Reformed ending of things where there’s much more confessional emphasis. A lot of our evangelical churches that came out of the Bible movement, which are very good and rich in terms of evangelism and Billy Graham crusades and so on, they also got nervous about the confessional standards and historical theology. It’s sort of “me and the Bible—that’s all I need.” Wasn’t it D. L. Moody who was asked, What’s your theology? He answered, I never knew I had a theology. All of those are good motives, but it can lead us astray. The language of eternal generation is, I think, foreign to many people. Begottenness language sounds like the old English language and it’s been dropped. Even with some of our translations there’s been a whole debate about how to translate Greek words, and some begottenness has dropped out in terms of unique vs. begotten. So in the history of the church, these terms, even though they seem strange, are simply reflecting on the biblical material. There is the Father to the Son; there’s the Son of the Father; there’s the Father who sends the Son; the Son who obeys all that the Father commands, particularly in terms of the incarnation and his work. And then you have to think of that relation between Father, Son, and Spirit, but Father and Son eternally. When you think of Son, you think of one who comes from. That’s the idea of generation. Yet, it’s not like human generation; it didn’t happen in time. It’s not creaturely. This is eternal generation. It’s speaking of the relations of the persons and really wrestling with a passage like John 17:5 where Jesus will say, “The glory I had with you Father before the world existed.” It’s unpacking that glory, it’s unpacking that relation, it’s unpacking the dynamism within the persons who share the one divine nature unlike anything creaturely. The doctrine of the Trinity is so, so important. It’s not just a strange mathematical problem. It’s actually central to the whole presentation of who God is. We have no answers theologically, even as an entire worldview without the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of God. This older language is so crucial for the church to understand. If the church did understand this, they wouldn’t be answering questions such as, Is Jesus the first and greatest created being? They would know right away no, no, no, no. He is the eternal Son of God, and he’s not a created being.
24:23 - Myth #4: Jesus Only Appeared in Human Form
Here’s another misconception, or myth, that I think can actually be more common among Christians than we might realize. We might not use these words to describe it, but it maybe infects how we think in subtle ways—namely, that Jesus was fully God, but merely appeared in a human form in some way while he was on the earth.
That was one of, in some sense, the first great denials of the biblical teaching in the early church. The Bible counters that. We see in John 1:14—”the Word became flesh”—is strongly emphasizing he took on our humanity. It doesn’t just mean skin and bones in terms of flesh, but our full humanity. In 1 John, John will say, “We saw him, we touched him.” First John 4 says that anyone that denies that Jesus has come in the flesh is anti-Christ. You do have some who say he just sort of appeared to be human, but no. The Bible is very clear right from conception all the way through Luke 2:52: He grew in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and man. He is fully human. It’s absolutely essential that he’s fully human. Otherwise, you have no savior. He must come and obey for us and live our life and die our death and pay for our sin. No phantom human could do that. You think of the teaching of a lot of things in Scripture, but particularly the great high priest who comes from the people, who represents the people, who offers substitution for the people—that’s what Jesus must do. If he is not fully human, you have no redeemer. He cannot be phantom. He has to take on our humanity, and in that humanity he must redeem us.
I think one of the trickiest areas to unpack in light of that is when our understanding of human nature and of divine nature clash—they seem like they’re irreconcilable. For example, you mentioned that passage in Acts where it speaks of Jesus growing in his wisdom and knowledge. As a human we can understand what that is like. We experience that kind of growth. But when we think of Jesus’s divine nature, it’s hard to understand how he could grow in any meaningful sense, because he is fully God. What do you do when there’s categories of attributes that are like that—they feel like they are mutually exclusive, yet we’re saying that they’re coming together in a single person?
That’s at the heart of making sense of “the Word became flesh” and understanding who Christ is. We have to first say that as we think of this as humans, there’s nothing in us as humans that is comparable. We can’t just refer to some analogy because we, unlike the incarnate Son of God, we are only—to use the language of Chalcedon—one person and one nature. He is one person in two natures, and it’s the two natures that are very, very important. But also, the person-nature distinction—and this is where the church has carefully, carefully thought through this, and this is unique to Christian theology, as we said when we responded to the charge that we’ve just imposed Greek thought on the Bible. No, the church actually did something which is totally anti-Greek—it distinguished person and nature. Not in the sense that they can be separated from one another, but a person is the subject of a nature. They’re inseparable, but they’re two different concepts. When it comes to the person of Christ, you have to remember that when we talk about the person of Christ, we’re speaking about the divine Son. The second person who has always acted through—persons act through natures—the person who acts with the Father and the Spirit through the same divine nature, yet in adding a human nature to himself, he’s now able to act in that nature, which is not blended or mixed with a divine nature. So as the Son acts through the human nature, he’s fully human. He doesn’t make the human nature something it’s not, yet he is not limited to that human nature because he always has had a divine nature. That’s where it really gets tricky for us, but it’s the one subject—person, the divine Son—who acts through both natures simultaneously. We have nothing like this, yet he is able to do that. You think of the importance of this in, for example, Colossians 1:17. Even as the incarnate One, he is the Son who sustains the universe! He doesn’t do that in human power or human knowledge; he does that as the divine Son through a divine nature. In adding a human nature, he is still able to do what he’s always done. That doesn’t change. He acts as a divine Son with the Father and the Spirit, yet now he is able to act outside of that divine nature in a human nature, but it’s the person that is acting through both natures. It’s not as if the human nature is doing something that is divine and the divine nature is doing something that is human. It’s the person through both natures. That’s really, we would say, the mystery of the incarnation; the heart of the incarnation. But the Scripture will teach all of that and, indeed, go further and say unless you have a divine human savior, there is no salvation for you. This is not just some abstract notion. You need someone who is both fully God and fully human, just like this. You don’t have a Creator-creature blend in Christ. This isn’t like Eastern religions where you move towards a pantheism where God and the world are blended. No, no, no. They are distinct, yet in the Son the natures are united in the person.
30:40 - Myth #5: Jesus’s Sinless Life Is of Secondary Importance to His Death on the Cross
Another myth that I think sometimes Christians can wrestle with is that Jesus’s death on the cross is what secured our salvation, but that his life on earth before that is only of secondary importance. It’s there just to get him to the cross, but it doesn’t actually play a big role in our salvation. How would you respond to that?
The only way that I can respond to that is you’ve got to understand the whole work of Christ. Not only the incarnation, but his life, death, resurrection in light of the whole Old Testament story line—the covenantal structures of the Bible. This is where the life of Christ is very, very important, especially if we understand he’s coming as the last Adam. He’s coming as the second man. The first man is Adam. The two most important men of the Bible are Adam and Christ. There’s a lot of important people in the Bible, but those are the two most significant ones. Adam’s disobedience brings sin and death, and he is called to be an obedient covenant keeper. The covenantal structures that Reformed theology has talked about—a covenant of works, a covenant of creation—it’s amounting pretty much to the same thing that Adam was to be fully devoted to God. He was to give perfect love and devotion and obedience. That life needed to be lived, and he didn’t live it. The Son of God now lives his life for us so that all the way through his obedience—his obedience is supremely seen in the cross. Philippians 2: “Even death on a cross.” But the obedience is through his entire life. Reformed tradition has picked this up. In the act of obedience of Christ, he obeys for us as our covenant head. He dies for us as our substitute. Representation and substitution go hand in hand in the covenants. As our covenant head, he is doing both for us. We need a righteous standing—an obedient standing—before God, and the full forgiveness of our sins and the payment of our sins. That’s what justification is. His life and death and resurrection are central and crucial to our justification.
33:03 - Was It Possible for Jesus to Sin?
These truths that can be so precise with the language, but I think you’ve really shown that they do get to the heart of the gospel. They get to the heart of our hope as Christians—what it is that we are hanging our very lives on. Maybe as a last question, this is less of a myth and more of a question that I think maybe almost every Christian at some point has wrestled with related to Jesus. It’s thinking through how he could be truly God and man, namely, could Jesus have sinned?
That’s a question that everyone who takes the Bible seriously will say Jesus never sinned. The Bible is very clear he was sinless, he did not sin. So the question that’s asked is really a kind of hypothetical. Could he have sinned? We know he didn’t sin, but could he have? It’s important to say that. Even when we have disagreements among Christians, and many have taken different sides on this, they’re not denying or saying that Jesus is a sinner—that would be a whole different problem. But I do think the minority position in the church has been that he could have sinned. It’s grown in importance today. That’s called the peccability position—that he could have sinned, even though he didn’t. A lot of it is tied to the fact that he went through temptations as we do and if could not have sinned, then salvation wouldn’t be real for us and that he was faced with every temptation and he had to obey for us. Of course, there’s a lot of important truths that it’s picking up on, but the dominant position—and the position I would argue—would be that he could not have sinned. That doesn’t minimize the reality of his temptations. It doesn’t minimize his cries at Gethsemane and the cross. It’s real. Just because one cannot sin doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have to go through his life, death, and bearing our sin. But the main reason that he could not is tied to the nature of the incarnation. It’s not a human nature, or a human alone. No. From the moment of conception, the divine Son has added to himself a body and a soul—a human nature. Because the person of Christ is the divine Son, who is in inseparable relation with the Father and the Spirit, it’s quite unthinkable to think that he could have sinned. He is the divine Son. In that humanity he doesn’t turn on his deity. He’s dependent upon the Spirit, he lives out that obedience in that humanity. It’s a real obedience. But it is the divine Son who is the person of the human nature. Given the eternal plan of God, I would take a strong view of divine sovereignty. God cannot fail. God’s plan would not fail. He could not have, hypothetically, failed and not brought about our salvation. Yet, his experience of temptation, living in this fallen world and experiencing all that we experience—not in terms of sin—but he lived in a fallen world and experienced this world and the hatred of this world and the sin of this world and the bacterias of this world—that was real, even though he could not fail. He is the Lord. Salvation is in the Lord, and from beginning to end he could not fail.
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