JMF: Thanks for joining us on another edition of You’re Included – the unique interview series devoted to practical implications of a Christ-centered Trinitarian theology in today’s complex world. Our guest today is Gerrit Scott Dawson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Dr. Dawson is author of Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation as well as An Introduction to Torrance Theology and Discovering Jesus, Awakening to God.
Gerrit, it’s a pleasure to have you with us today.
GSD: Thanks, Mike, it’s great to be here.
JMF: Let’s begin by talking about Jesus’ incarnation and especially, his incarnation after his death and resurrection – a lot of people think of Jesus as being God in the flesh while he’s here on earth walking and talking and breathing, but once he’s crucified and resurrected and ascended and at the right hand of God, we don’t think of it quite the same way. We think of him, now he is fully God again, but not fully human as well. What’s wrong with that?
GSD: You’re right, Mike. A lot of us have a kind of “drop-in theory” of the incarnation – that the eternal Son of God came down among us and for 33 years he was with us, but it’s kind of like he was slumming, and when he got that done with, he went back up to heaven and unzipped the skin suit and was just God again. It’s hard for us to imagine how this could happen, that Jesus could go up to heaven and still be in our flesh. We almost get a kind “Monty Python” cartoon feeling of Jesus going up on the clouds like a Rembrandt painting, waving his hand and saying, “goodbye” and taking off on a heavenly space ship. We know in our bones that it can’t be that, so we just wonder how could Jesus still be in the flesh and have gone to heaven to the right hand of God. And yet, if we have this drop-in view of the incarnation, we miss out on so much of the good stuff. We miss out on the rest of the story.
JMF: What are the implications of that? If Jesus continues to be God in the flesh for us now, how does that change our life as a Christian?
GSD: It’s really important. The first thing to think about is that it means that Jesus’ history goes on. It’s not just that he died and he rose and that’s it. But by ascending into heaven, he is still continuing to be the God-man. He’s still holding our humanity, next to his God-head, he’s still uniting himself to us. That has huge implications for us.
On one hand, you think about our eternal life. Paul writes in Philippians 3:20 and 21 that he will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body. The Christian hope of resurrection in the body, of eternal life to come, that you still get to be you, and I still get to be me, is all grounded in the fact that Jesus retains his body – resurrected, transformed, glorified – but still, as John Knox said, the self-same body in which he was crucified, dead, buried and risen, is the same body he ascended in. In terms of what happens to us in the future, that’s really important.
Another implication is that it has to do with our salvation. Often we think of our salvation as simply a transaction that occurred on the cross, and that’s true – Christ took our sins upon himself, particularly on the cross when the sin of the world was upon him. But a deeper understanding, a full biblical understanding, is that Jesus himself is our atonement, he is the one who reconciles God and humanity by being, in himself, the one who brings those two together. So our atonement continues because Christ’s incarnation continues.
JMF: We’re having a moment-by-moment, everyday, continuing, intimate relationship with him, and the implications of that for how we live…
GSD: It’s wonderful to think that we have a man in heaven, because Christ has gone up to enter the holy of holies to the Father’s right hand, but he hasn’t gone just as a spirit – he’s gone taking our humanity, like Star Trek used to say, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” – he’s really done it. As the ancient fathers used to say, “Now dust sits on the throne of heaven.” Jesus has gone to the Father’s right hand taking us with him. In his person, we have direct access to the throne of God.
JMF: You mentioned the holy of holies, and you’re referring to ancient Israel and to the Tabernacle at first and then later the Temple, and once a year, the High Priest (only once a year, the High Priest) is able to go in there. In your book, you draw an analogy between that and Christ’s ascending. Can you elaborate on that?
GSD: Sure. The ritual of atonement on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would prepare to bring a sacrifice on behalf of all the people. As you look at the details of that in Exodus and Leviticus, you note that the High Priest would get dressed with a breastplate that has inscribed upon it the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. That, in a sense, meant that he was writing onto his very heart the names of God’s people and he was, in a sense, bearing all of Israel with him as he prepared to go in to the holy of holies.
He would go in on that day, he would first prepare himself by washing, putting on the ritual garments, and then by offering a sacrifice of sin for himself and his family and then finally offering a sacrifice of sin on behalf of the people and he would bring the blood of the goat into the holy of holies, sprinkle it on the mercy seat and thereby make intercession, confessing the people’s sins, acting in their name and on their behalf. When it was done, he would come out and place his hands on the scapegoat – the other goat that carried away the sins of the people, and he would bless them and declared them to be forgiven. In that one day, the High Priest enacted an atonement that God had provided for the people by acting on behalf of the people bringing their sins to God and acting on behalf of God, the Lord Yahweh, bringing his forgiveness to the people.
The parallels with Jesus are almost breathtaking to think about. The idea is that Jesus, in fulfilling the office of our High Priest, got dressed in a garment, and that garment was our flesh. He dressed in our humanity, and just as the High Priest carried the names of the people over his heart, Jesus, in wearing our flesh, wrote the name of all humanity into himself. He bore us in himself. He didn’t have to go into the Temple, but in going to the cross, Jesus became both the priest and the victim. He was the offerer of the sacrifice, but that sacrifice was himself. And so Jesus, in making that perfect atonement, then was able to go into the holy of holies bearing our humanity.
Now, the priest would come out from the holy of holies and bless the people. Jesus has not yet returned from the Father’s immediate presence, he is in heaven and we are waiting for his return. Nevertheless, he’s blessed us because he sent the Holy Spirit of the Father, passed to him the Blessed Spirit, whom he poured out upon us, who unites us to Jesus and causes us then, in him, to have direct access to the throne of God.
JMF: What are the implications of the ascension in terms of Jesus being Lord?
GSD: In his ascension Jesus has triumphed, in his resurrection he broke the power of death. But if it just ended there, Jesus would have had to either die again, like Lazarus did, or he’d still be somewhere in the world that we could go to him and talk to him, but we’ll have to journey to him and he would only be limited in the access that people would have. The ascension is necessary to complete that story: that Jesus rose went up to heaven, and that signals his triumph as Lord and King of all. He is now the one, as Revelation tells us, who holds the keys of death and Hades in his hands, he is the Lord of the kings of earth – as Revelation tells us. He is the ruler of all things. That means that we have a pretty high claim on who Jesus is and an understanding that all knowledge of God now centers in the person of Christ. All truth about who God is, is shown to us in the face of Jesus Christ.
JMF: You mentioned the clothing that he takes as being our humanity, as a high priest going into the holy of holies in the ascension, returning to the right hand of the Father. Are you implying that he’s taking sinful human flesh, that he didn’t take perfect, sinless flesh, but our actual human condition on himself?
GSD: In the incarnation, Jesus was born of Mary, and received in that, since he came from the seed of Adam’s race, the race that had fallen. Within the Virgin’s womb, he was joined with the Holy Spirit to become both God and man. So he took to himself that which we really are, it was a real humanity. He took it in union with the Holy Spirit, so it was a humanity he wore sinlessly. But often, we tend to think of Jesus as a kind of superman – that he wasn’t really touched with mortal frailty like the rest of us are, that he didn’t really know what it’s like to live in this broken world, to live among people who feel like God has forsaken them, to know the difficulty of temptation. But Scripture teaches that Jesus truly was tempted in all points as we are. He really could have gone into sin. He really knew what it was to wrestle against temptation. He knew how it is to be with us in a lost and forsaken humanity which he wore in perfect holiness and sinlessness.
JMF: The fact that he took on a real humanity, our real humanity, how does that speak to an individual who is a sinner, like you and me and like everybody else listening to the program, at our worst moment when we want to go to the throne of grace, but we feel so unworthy that we’d rather just go bury our head in the pillow, how does that speak to us?
GSD: The implications are very strong, for we are the lost and wandering sheep, we’re the prodigal children and feel that we’ve wandered way outside of the Father’s grace and care. But the good news in the incarnation is that our Father loved us so much that he sent his Son all the way into the world, all the way into our humanity where we are, sent to find us in our lost and forsaken condition and to join himself to us in the midst of our brokenness, our lostness and to heal us from within. He didn’t just come to tell us that we ought to be better, he didn’t even come just with news that God sort of likes us, he came to say, “I love you so much, I will become what you are and heal that from the inside out by joining it to myself, by cleansing it, by offering to God the obedience that you owe to him but you can’t give on your own – I will do that from inside your humanity. I will live the relationship of love and fidelity that I have with my Father from all eternity, I’ll do that now from within your midst, and if you are then joined to me partaking of me, you can have that intimacy too.”
So the comfort there is, often people think that Jesus is so far above me, so superhuman that we look for another mediator, we look for another advocate. We might pray to a saint, or ask someone that we know as holy to try to help us. In reality, we have the most wonderful human being of all. A man who was touched with our infirmities, who knows in his own flesh and bone, how it is us who says, “I am taking your cause even now to my Father. I love you so much that I not only became what you are and healed it, but I kept it joined to me into eternity.” I think Barth says that in the ascension, we realize that Jesus’ flesh is a garment which he does not put off. It’s a choice that God made to hold us to himself that he will never let go.
JMF: Don’t a lot of us want to wait until we are behaving better and we feel better about ourselves before we’ll go to the Father, go to prayer… in other words, we put it off until we can just get a little bit more righteous. With the idea that if we are a little more righteous, God is more likely to hear our prayer.
GSD: Sure. Our adversary wants to keep whispering to us that you’re not worthy yet, you’re not ready yet, God doesn’t want you yet. We feel like we have to compose our own righteousness. The news about that is both horrible and terrific. The horrible news is, if I had all eternity in myself to try to get myself together, I couldn’t do it. I cannot, on my own, ever be worthy of God’s love. I can never have a claim on him that says, “Now you must bless me and pay attention to me because I have achieved righteousness.” It’s not just in me. My sinful nature brings me down and will forever.
But the terrific news is that Christ has done what I could not do for myself. He’s lived that life of obedience and communion with the Father and joined to him, in him is the most marvelous acceptance in worthiness. Calvin and the Reformers always tell us, “Don’t look at yourself, look away from yourself and look to Jesus.” My standing with God is never in myself, it’s in Christ. He’s the worthy one, he’s the righteous one. The news is, as we hear the word proclaimed, the Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus so that all that is his becomes ours, and we can rejoice in that. When the accuser comes and says (as our friend Baxter Kruger likes to quote), “You’re not worthy, you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough.” We don’t answer him and say, “Oh yes, I am. Look at this day, and that day.” We answer him by saying, “Look at Jesus, look at my advocate – he is worthy and by the power of his Spirit, I am in him.” That’s a huge comfort to me.
JMF: So in one sense, he is even more ready to hear us and wanting us present when we feel the worst.
GSD: Absolutely. You know the wonderful Christmas hymn “Joy to the World” says he comes to make his blessings known as “far as the curse is found.” Jesus has come to dig underneath the thorn of the curse that came upon us when Adam and Eve were cursed, to dig it out and remake our humanity, and when we are in the far country, we may know that we have one who’s come on the great search and rescue mission for us. He’s come to find his lost sheep, to carry us on his shoulders all the way back up to his Father’s throne.
That’s where the ascension ties this all together. He didn’t just restore us to kind of a neutral place to say, “I took care of your past sins, now you’ve got a clean slate, try to do as well as you can.” He says, “I want to take you beyond this earth all the way into the heavenlies, where you can be seated with me, and all that I have is yours.” The great church fathers have said that, “What we lost in Adam, we’ve gained even more in Christ.” In taking our humanity back to the Father, he’s given us every spiritual blessing.
JMF: We don’t have a lot of confidence in that, especially as a pastor you will know that often what we do is think, “If I could get enough people praying for me, especially righteous people – people I consider to be pretty good standing with God, if I could get enough of them praying for me, then God would finally hear those prayers and move on my behalf and do something to help me in my situation.” We discount the fact that our prayers matter because we know our situation, our sins, and our weaknesses. We figure our prayers don’t matter, so we want to amass prayer, like you mentioned prayers of saints, if we believe that saints pray for us, who are dead or just people we know – our other pastors. We’d like to go to the church and ask, “Could you get the congregation to pray for me?” Or in the case of a denomination, you want the whole denomination praying for you. As many righteous voices as possible. What could you say to someone to help them understand that God wants to hear from them?
GSD: The most important thing to say is, from 1 John, that we have an advocate before the Father, even Jesus Christ the Righteous One. Or go to Hebrews chapter 7, to realize that Jesus ever lives to intercede for us. We have an advocate who is praying for us right now. He’s gone into heaven to prepare a place for us. And part of that preparation is, he’s constantly presenting our case before his Father, saying, “Father, this one is in me and I have cleansed him and I am laboring with you and the Blessed Holy Spirit to conform him more and more to our image. But I present my righteousness on his behalf.”
JMF: So there is no such thing as us praying on our own by ourselves.
GSD: That’s correct. Calvin was very strong on this. If we think we can approach God in our own strength, we are lost. But in Christ, when we come in Christ, we are immediately in the presence of the Father.
JMF: Tom Torrance talks about how our prayers are a participation in the prayers of Christ on our behalf. It’s not us praying that God the Father is going to hear a prayer from us, because we know our prayers are kind of poor prayers most of the time. But we can have confidence that our prayers being taken up by Christ redeemed and healed and presented to the Father as his prayer.
GSD: Absolutely. The Torrances were strong in saying, we want to pray, we try to pray, but we can’t pray and we despair. But when we look away from ourselves to Jesus, we see that he is praying in our name and on our behalf. He’s taking our pitiful prayers, he’s cleansing them and making them as his own, offering them to his Father, and the Father who delights to answer the prayers of the Son, he has been blessing us back through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. So our prayers are getting a whole lot farther than we might ever think if we just came on our own righteousness or worthiness.
JMF: As a pastor, there are things you want your congregation to hear about, know about. If there were one, let say, piece of advice or let’s say, maybe even a wish list that you could give all pastors, that you wish everybody could hear from their pastors from week to week, what would it be?
GSD: The concept of the wonderful exchange that Calvin spoke about is something that always moves me, particularly when I meet my congregation at the communion table. In a sense, speaking in Christ’s name as we offer the bread and the cup which become, through the Holy Spirit, his body and his blood, we’re saying to our people, “Here is the great exchange.”
In some sense, God is the all-time most extravagant and worst trader. Because what he does is he says, “I want to swap you, trade me your sin and will trade you my holiness. Trade me your anxiety, give that to me, and I will give you back my peace. Trade me your doubt and I will give you my faith on your behalf.” We come to that table of grace, and the wonderful exchange occurs whereby Christ asks for what is ours – pitiful, sin-stained, lost, confused, doubting – and he takes it all to himself as precious. He drinks it in that cup of wrath that he drank on our behalf and then slides the cup back to us and we find that it’s filled with the wonderful wine of communion. He gives back to us forgiveness and grace and healing. If our people could understand that when we meet Jesus, he is trading his life for our death, his forgiveness for our sin, I think we’d be transformed.
JMF: Most of the time when people go to church, they’re coming away with the idea that I’m not good enough, I’d better behave better or God is going to reject me.
GSD: Often that would be the sin, in some sense, of the conservative churches – which would be to pile upon us more “shoulds” and “oughts” that only make us cast back upon ourselves, and we can’t bear that up. If we could hear how Christ has taken our burdens from us and taken all of that away from us, and that living in him we may leave the church skipping and dancing and rejoicing – that the word from the Lord is, “I have included you in my grace, I have included you in my fellowship, I want you to rejoice in the eternal life I have for you.” Church might be a very different place.
The other thing that happens is the opposite, and that’s that we come to church hoping to get a little help so we can continue to manage God on our own terms and be comforted in the life we’ve chosen for ourselves. A lot of mainstream America wants to view God as the one who’s supposed to help me live out the life I’ve dreamed for myself.
JMF: Kind of a health-wealth gospel approach?
GSD: In some sense, or just that my high achievement, my constant business, my pressing… is really what counts. And God must be pleased with me if I’m living the good life.
JMF: So you’re looking at a validation of whatever your lifestyle happens to be.
GSD: Exactly. There’s a sense in which coming to hear of the all-embracing grace of Jesus de-validates the list that I’ve stacked up to say, “Look, I’m a good person, I live the good life, I got educated, I travel, my house is looking prettier. You should value me.” And the gospel says, “None of that matters.” Not only does your sin not keep you from God, but your righteousness also doesn’t count before God. It’s all in Christ.
In that sense, the news of the ascended Christ who has this new humanity for us is a challenge to contemporary American life. Because it says, not only are you relieved of the burden if you can’t get there by yourself, but you are commanded to stop trying to get there by yourself. Our idolatry, that I’m the one who achieves, and makes, and creates my life, is torn down by a Lord who says, all of the grace is in me. You’ve got to leave off yourself and find it in Christ.
JMF: Is there also a sense that God is blessing me and must be with me, since things are going well for me. Since I’m making enough money and I’m doing well and I’ve accumulated physical things around me and a certain amount of security and so on, therefore, I must be doing something right. I hear this, if things are going well, you must be doing something right, since God is bringing these blessings to you.
GSD: Sure. It’s a very easy way to think. In my heart of hearts I probably think that, too. If I’m healthy, it’s because God has favored me, and if I have means, it’s because I must be living a pretty good life…
JMF: And the opposite is, if something bad happens, or a loss or a tragedy of some kind, I must have done something wrong, because God has brought this upon me to punish me.
GSD: Exactly. As we’re talking, our nation is in some pretty uncertain economic times, and people are being drawn up short, realizing maybe I’m not favored after all, is God against me, have I somehow sinned? In the Western church, we’ve got this all confused. We don’t expect that suffering is the normal state of life in this world. But the fact is, we are called to join the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings as well as the fellowship of his resurrection.
When we are fulfilling the mission in the ascended Christ held on to our humanity, which means this is the world that he loves and died for, it also means he’s sent the church into this very same world to give our lives the way as he did, to care for his poor, to bring about justice for the oppressed, to share this gospel even when sometimes people are hostile to it. We often think, my job is, I’ve been blessed and I’ve been saved and I know this grace, so I just get my little pile of blessings and withdraw and be comfortable and suffering should never touch me. But the truth is, all of God’s greatest servants suffered not because he was cursing them, but because they joined the fellowship of love’s suffering. Love suffers for the sake of the least and the lost, and we’re called to that.
JMF: We’ve got about ten seconds left, so could I ask you to just give our viewers one thing you’d like them to know about God in that ten seconds.
GSD: The greatest thing to know about God is that he loves you enough to become what you are and to hold that in himself forever. The incarnation goes on and on, which means Christ has a hold of you into eternity.
JMF: Appreciate very much your time and thanks for being with us today.
GSD: It was great talking with you, Mike.
JMF: We’ve been talking with Dr. Gerrit Dawson, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Thanks for being with us, I’m Mike Feazell for You’re Included.