J. Michael Feazell: What is a Christian missing out on if they don’t have an incarnational understanding of the gospel?
Robert Walker: The first thing they’re missing out on is that they do not know that God has come all the way to us where we are, because incarnation says that God has become man. In other words, he’s no longer distant. He’s come in person, into space and time, to do our salvation, to meet us face to face in Jesus. If we don’t have a proper understanding of the incarnation, that God became man, then we don’t know that God is really with us. But also, we don’t know that he’s become man to save us. The fact that he’s become man means that he has come all the way to what we are and achieved our salvation for us as man. So on two counts, we’re not aware of how much God has united himself to us.
JMF: A lot of Christians think of Jesus as a role model — he came to show the way. We have popular songs, “He Came to Earth to Show the Way,” for example. What’s wrong with just seeing him as a role model?
RW: If we think he’s come to show us the way, that implies that “the way” is different from what he is. In that view, he would say, “that’s the way, walk in it,” and he shows us. But he’s much more than that — he IS the way. In John’s Gospel he says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” What he’s done is the way. He is the way and so there’s much more than just showing us the way. He has done everything for us, and we come to the Father through him. So he is the way who has done it for us.
JMF: That would still fit with the role model, if we think of it in terms of following him — if he’s the way, then do we follow him and just try to do what he did?
RW: In a way. But it’s more than that, because he has done it for us. We can’t comprehend it in the sense of trying to do what he did, because of our sin. The Christian life is living in unity with him, and so, living out of what he has done for us. Rather than trying to copy what he has done so that it’s our doing it, he’s become man to do it for us, so we make what he’s done ours, and we live out of it. We do the same thing but not in our strength trying to do it all over again. Through union with him, because of the Spirit living in us, we find ourselves beginning to live the way he lived.
JMF: We talk of the Spirit and doing it in the Spirit, but we can’t see the Spirit. So how do we know that the Spirit is at work in us?
RW: We’re familiar with light. When you go into a room and it’s dark, and you flip a switch and the light comes on. We actually can’t see light, but we can see what light lights up. And it’s the Spirit that gives us the eyes to see Christ and makes Christ real for us, so that if we know Christ, then we know it’s through the Spirit. The Spirit is the One who opens us up to live out of Christ.
JMF: You say that he’s already done it for us. If that’s so, then what are we trying to do? If he’s already done everything necessary for our salvation, what is left for us to do for ourselves?
RW: In one sense, nothing, but in another sense, everything. It’s to joyfully live out the life that he has re-made for us. If we think of it in the sense that he has come and taken our fallen, dying humanity that wastes away and gets older and dies and then disintegrates in the grave…he’s taken our life, he’s remade it in his own life. That’s what the resurrection is about — that’s the remaking of our life. He gives us our new humanity. We’re living out our new humanity that he gives us. We’re not trying to copy him. We couldn’t — we couldn’t rise from the dead.
JMF: That’s the trouble, isn’t it? We try to do what Jesus says, but we fall short, and we may be successful to some degree, but we fall short and then we feel guilty, anxious and fearful about how can we be part of the kingdom of God? How can we be saved, because we fall short and because we’re not following Christ as we should? We’re fearful. But incarnational theology, seeing the gospel in the way you’re describing, doesn’t push us back on how well we perform, it sounds like you’re saying.
RW: It points us to Christ, and so that we see his humanity, the life that he lived as our life. We don’t see that he’s done something and we have to copy it — we see what he’s done; that is our life. He was born for us, his birth at Bethlehem is our new birth. When he died, that was our death. When he rose, that was our resurrection. When he ascended into heaven, he took us with him.
This is what Paul says — and that’s the meaning of faith — that we understand that he so came into our place to live for us, that everything that he did is ours. We live out of that. That takes away all the strain and burden and gives a new dimension to Christian living. We live in his strength, not in ours. We are released to live to the full, and yet we’re not living in our strength, we’re living in Christ’s strength. That liberates us to live fully.
JMF: Then the gospel is not about calling people to good behavior — it’s about letting people know and calling them to a new identity — who they are in Christ — to a relationship with God in Christ, and it’s a whole different point of the gospel, isn’t it? (Don’t we usually think of the gospel as being a call to straighten out your life?) In other words, you’re a sinner, and did you know it? Now that you know you’re a sinner, you need to be forgiven of those sins, and so we’re forgiven, we’re told to behave better, and the Holy Spirit will help you and Jesus shows the way — and the whole goal is a better me through good behavior.
JMF: But the gospel is not about that.
RW: No, it’s much more than that. It’s not just that God has come to show us what we ought to do — he’s come to do himself for us what we ought to do. He’s taken our human life and he’s remade it. What he gives us in Christ (this comes over especially at the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist), is our new humanity. Our task is to live out our new humanity. We don’t start by trying to remake ourselves. We have been remade in Christ. We live out the new identity, as you put it, in union with Christ through the Spirit.
JMF: So the gospel’s declaration is that you’ve been made new, therefore live like it. Not “live good, so that God will give you the kingdom.” That’s the opposite of what we typically hear. It’s putting the cart before the horse instead of the other way.
RW: That’s right. The word gospel means “good news.” It’s not the good news that we have to make ourselves better. The good news is that we have been made better, already been renewed.
JMF: It’s almost like…the gospel is good news if you can achieve it. But sorry, you never will. You can try very hard, though, and that will make you happier. That’s not good news.
RW: Usually it won’t make us happier, because we know we can’t do it.
JMF: It couldn’t be more frustrating… we give up or whatever we do.
RW: Yeah. The exciting thing about the incarnation is that God himself came to do it. He did it as man, and that immediately takes us into the doctrine of the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Spirit. That opens up a richer dimension to Christian thought and living.
JMF: How does it do that?
RW: For one thing, this is what God is — the real God is Father, Son, and Spirit. We’re used to thinking of God as a single being out there far off. But when we know God in Jesus Christ, we discover that God is Father, Son, and Spirit, and we come to know the real God for the first time. Calvin says if we don’t conceive God as Father, Son, and Spirit, then we don’t really know God. It’s partly coming to know the real God.
The real God is a communion of love. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father — they live in the communion of love with the Spirit. That is the nature of God — the three persons of God. That doesn’t mean there are three Gods. There’s one God, and yet he is Father, Son, and Spirit, and they exist in relation.
When we begin to think in that way, then we begin to think of ourselves not just as individuals — an individual here and a separate individual there. We begin to think of ourselves in the human race as interconnected persons in relation. So it has an implication for a much richer and deeper sense of community. A lot of people are a bit scared of the doctrine of the Trinity, but I don’t think they need to be.
JMF: It’s into that, that Christ brings us — if we’re one with him, if he comes and takes humanity, us, into himself, and he’s in that eternal communion of love, then we’re in that eternal communion of love with him. That’s the way things are. It’s been done, he already did it.
RW: That’s the miracle of the Ascension. When Jesus ascended still wearing our humanity, he took our humanity into the heart of God. So there’s now a man in the heart of God. He’s still human. That’s our destiny — to live in fellowship with God.
When we think of people, we automatically think of people as complete individuals, and you are a different individual from what I am. If somebody knows you, they don’t have a clue what I’m like. But with the Trinity, it’s different, because the persons are so interrelated. They’re different and they remain different. They’re each totally God — the Father is completely God, the Son is completely God, the Spirit’s completely God — and yet they live in such a close relation that when we look at the Son and see his face, then we know what the Father is like. The Son is the image of the Father.
You are different — if someone looks at you, they don’t know what I’m like. But it’s the opposite when we look at Christ. He’s the image of the Father. He is the Son of the Father. To know the Son is to know the Father, and Jesus says that. Phillip says, “Show us the Father, and we’ll be satisfied.” Jesus says, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” Especially through John’s Gospel, when we listen to words of Jesus and we’re drawn into his relationship with the Father and we begin to cotton on somehow, slowly, through the Spirit we begin to think in this deeper interpersonal way. We begin to understand something as a relation to the Father, and that’s the heart of the gospel — the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit that he has come to share with us.
JMF: When we talk about Trinitarian theology, are we talking about something complicated, or something simple?
RW: It’s both at once. The simplest things are often the profoundest things…or put it the other way, the profoundest things are often the simplest things. There’s a profound simplicity here. The person with the simplest faith can understand the Son, and the Son being the image of the Father and the Spirit. But this is something that stretches our mind. That doesn’t mean that we have to be intellectual or brilliant academically, because it’s not that kind of understanding. It’s more a different way of thinking. There’s a deep simplicity, and yet at the same time, it’s profound.
“Complicated” is the wrong word. People often worry that theology is not for them, or the Trinity is not for them, because they haven’t got the mind to understand it. But the thing with God is that God makes himself known to us. It’s back to the thing about faith. We shouldn’t think of our faith — have we got enough faith? We shouldn’t think of enough reason — have we got enough reason, enough intelligence, to understand? It’s more of who the God is we’re trying to understand. If we focus on him, he gives us understanding — he makes himself known.
Often, when we learn something new, if it’s really new, we don’t know it. How do we learn something we don’t know? It might seem impossible. But we all do. We all make breakthroughs. Slowly, gradually, the pieces fall into place. If we have confidence in what we’re trying to understand and in the person who is making himself known, we hang in there and listen and wait, and God gives us understanding. We’re led deeper into this way of thinking – especially, I think, through reading John’s Gospel.
JMF: With some of the most simple things, such as if you go outside in the evening and look at the sunset and the stars, you can appreciate the profound beauty, and you’re drawn into that. You have that sense of inspiration and beauty whether or not you ever study sunsets and stars and how they work (and many people do study them — everything from sensory appreciation, how we process things we see, to how stars are made). There are many things you could learn more about from a sunset and a starry evening, but you don’t have to, to stand there and appreciate it and be taken up by it. It’s the same whether you know more about it or not. It’s still itself. I wonder if the gospel is somewhat like that. There’s a simplicity in Christ in simply trusting Christ to be our all in all, and if so, he is everything he is for us and with us, in us, whether we study more about it or not. It’s something we can explore forever, joyfully, and never come to the end of.
RW: That’s right. The more we know Christ, the more we are drawn into understanding his riches. Paul says that we should be mature in our thinking and have a reason for the hope that’s in us. The lecture to the Hebrews says similar things. It’s part of our calling, too, in knowing Christ, and being drawn into this profound adoration and love and worship, to do that with the whole of ourselves, and that includes our minds, so that we come to understand deeper.
It’s not academic; it’s a different way of understanding that we all have because we’re all made to know and we’re all made in the image of God — to know and understand and think more deeply than we think we’re able to — that’s given to us. My grandmother was Tom Torrance’s mother. She was an evangelical with a profound simple faith. But for Tom, she was the theologian in the family, simply because of her spiritual influence — not through any academic thing learned.
JMF: If we want to understand the gospel in a truly gospel way, for what it is and for what the truth of the gospel is, or even if we want to help somebody else understand it, what is the bottom line? What is the simple thing we need to and can know, whether we ever pick up a theology book?
RW: That God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself and that through what he’s done as God and man for us, our lives have been renewed in him, and he gives us a new humanity.
JMF: So our faith, the thing that we’re asked to believe, is something that is true for us whether we believe it or not, even before we believe it.
RW: That’s profoundly true. Paul said, “While we were enemies, we were reconciled.” Even while we hated God, before we heard the gospel, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son. The gospel is the message of what has happened for us in Jesus. When we hear it, it’s good news. It’s like the story of the Japanese soldier, in I think it was the Second World War, who was marooned on an island. No one knew he was there. He didn’t know the war had ended. He was discovered 20 years later or something. They told him, “The war’s ended.” The good news. The gospel is hearing the good news that God has done it.
JMF: Some people don’t want to commit themselves to the gospel because of the way it’s presented. They’re given something that really isn’t the gospel. They’re given this idea that you’re going to enter into something where you will need to achieve salvation by doing certain things. You’ve got to repent of your sins, and then you can’t be sure if you’ve repented of all of them exactly. There are so many barriers, it seems, that keep you from being able to experience joy or rest. What we often hear is not a gospel of rest — it’s a gospel of anxiety — you’re in big trouble and you better do something to get out of that trouble, or God is going to send you to hell. We’re looking for a way to avoid hell, but we have to do something that we’re not even sure we can do, in order to avoid hell. It’s confused… We’re saying this good news — God loves you, so receive him, but he’s going to send you to hell if you don’t, because that’s how he really feels about you.
RW: To put it that way is not the gospel. But what you said is what many people believe. The gospel is that God has come to make himself known…by making himself known, that inevitably exposes us for what we are. There is a judgment on us, that we are not what we ought to be. But God has taken his own judgment on himself, and has undone our sin and put it all in the past, and risen into a new life in the resurrection. That is ours now through the gospel. We are called to live out the new life that Jesus achieved, that he lived out in his life and achieved in a permanent sense in the resurrection.
JMF: That’s good news. It doesn’t require fear — we can rest.
RW: Yes, that’s right.
JMF: I want to ask one last thing in the minute or two we have remaining. If there’s one thing that you would want people to know about God, what would that be?
RW: That he loves us and that he is love in himself — that’s his very nature. He loves us so much that he has even entered into our hell for us on the cross. He’s taken our godforsakenness and undone it, and cleared away all the barriers between us and him, and united us to himself. He has taken our flesh, our dust, and made it his. He is now a man in Christ. He’s done all that for us. He’s now with us, one with us.
JMF: That’s a good reason to receive the gospel.