MOODY BIBLE INSTITUTE
THE EMPHASIS OF THE INCARNATION IN THE GOSPEL
SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY I
John Walvoord, in his book Jesus Christ our Lord boldly asserts, “The incarnation of the
Lord Jesus Christ is the central fact of Christianity. Upon it the whole superstructure of the
Christian theology depends.”1 Now, a lot goes in with that, but if we think upon the implications
of the denial of either the divinity or humanity or Christ, we’ll quickly see the ramifications it
has on Christology, Soteriology, and the Trinity. While there isn’t much contemporary in
Evangelicalism over the full deity and humanity of Christ, I will attempt to show the utter
importance of this doctrine in theology and preaching; in addition, I will charge Evangelicals
with making the incarnation of Christ a footnote to the Gospel, rather than a central, if not the
central aspect to the Christian religion. I will thoroughly look at the two natures of Christ and
defend a Chaldedonian definition of Christ’s two natures and one personhood. I will then look at
the enormous theological implications of this, as well as the practical ways in which this doctrine
affects the life of a Christian.
Before taking off, we should ask what is incarnation? Incarnation, meaning “to enter into
or become flesh,” is referent to the Christian doctrine that Jesus Christ, the pre-existent Son of
God, became man in time, space, and history. Although the term does not appear anywhere in
Scripture, it is none-the-less a highly Biblical-supported idea.2 Jesus Christ was the Jewish
Messiah and King. He was the long-expected one born of a virgin, from the tribe of Judah and
kingly line of David (Gen. 49:9-10; 2 Sam 7:1-29; Dan 7:13-14; Isa 9:6; 52:13-53:12). When
speaking of Jesus’ incarnation, literally God becoming man, it’s important to note that this means
an eternal God entered into time. Therefore, we can ironically say that Jesus was “weak and
omnipotent, increasing in knowledge and omniscient, finite and infinite.”3 There are various
John Walvoord, Jesus Christ Our Lord, 96.
Frank J. Matera, “Incarnation,” HBD.
John Walvoord, 116.
views on who exactly this man Jesus was, so I’ll first begin with the false views of Christ and his
two natures (deity and humanity).
Typically, there are six different heresies regarding the incarnation, and as Millard
Erickson states, “They either deny the genuineness (Ebionism) or the completeness (Arianism)
of Jesus’ deity, deny the genuineness (Docetism) or the completeness (Apollinarianism) of his
humanity, divide his person (Nestorianism), or confuse his natures (Eutychainism).”4 All of these
natures, which will be discussed more in the orthodox view of the incarnation, fall short to meet
the Biblical standard of texts such as John 1:1-14, Philippians 2:5-11, and Colossians 1:15-23.
There are a few individuals and groups that defend false views of the incarnation whose views
should be described in brief detail.
First, going back to the most well known heretic regarding the incarnation, we’ll look at
Arius of Alexandria. He was a presbyter who believed that Christ was a created being, but not
like all other creation. Essentially, he thought that God the Father was fully and truly divine, but
Christ was only partly divine because he could suffer. His quote, “There was when we was not”
is widely popular because it sums up his doctrine regarding the eternality (which he denied) of
Christ.5 Individuals who deny the pre-existence and full deity of Christ fall under ‘Arianism.’
Docetists deny the other end of the spectrum, claiming that Christ was not fully human.
Many times the Gnostics would claim that Christ only ‘appeared human,’ but he never fully
entered into humanity.6 Again, this fails to meet the standard of the whole counsel of Scripture,
and furthermore this necessarily denies the incarnation and the need for atonement of sin. Merely
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 755.
Michael R. Barnes, Augustine Through the Ages, 61.
John Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 84.
affirming that Christ appeared to be real simply does not do justice to the passage in Philippians
More recently, numerous Liberal theologians have presented Christ in three ways: First,
he’s merely a great teacher, but not to be worshiped or followed. Second, Christ is portrayed as a
man full of goodness who was an honorable man that died for his beliefs. Third, Christ is looked
upon as an example or model for humanity. He was a noble man, one that should be imitated.7
Again, all of these views specifically fall short of the evidence that Christ is both God and man,
in which “the fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). In conclusion, the various heretical
views on the incarnation simply fail to give Christ the glory that is ascribed to him throughout all
of Scripture. We’ll now look at the orthodox view of the incarnation, and why exactly it is so
crucial to Christianity.
Since the death of Christ, much has been written and many views have been proposed
regarding his deity and his humanity. For the first four centuries A.D. this was probably the most
hotly debated issue in Christianity. Indeed, the early church fathers saw this debate on the two
natures of Christ as one of salvation. They rightly understood that only a Savior that is fully God
and fully man could actually redeem humanity and reconcile a fallen world to God.8 Early on in
the second and third centuries, church fathers like Athanasius, Irenaeus, and Tertullian realized
the extreme importance of the affirmation of both the full deity and humanity of Christ, and they
stepped up to the plate to bat:
“Christ Jesus, the Son of God, because of His surpassing love towards His
creation, humbled Himself to be born of the virgin. He Himself united man to God
through Himself.” 9 – Irenaeus
“He who remitted sins was both God and man.”10 – Tertullian
“You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high,
has been manifest in bodily form… He has been manifested in a human body for
this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us
men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker,
for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been
wrought by the Self-same Word who made it in the beginning.”11 – St. Athanasius
We should see clearly from the writings of these prominent church fathers how crucial and
delicate this topic is. In addition, as Athanasius pointed out, this is an issue of salvation, not
merely an open-handed, semi-important doctrinal point.
Without question, the most important defender of the full deity and humanity of Christ in
two natures, yet existing in one person Jesus Christ, is St. Athanasius. Athanasius of Alexandria
played a monumental part in developing an orthodox theology regarding the Trinity and the
incarnation. He is often remembered as one of the key theological defenders of the incarnation,
due to his writings refuting Arius’ notion of Christ’s natures. The big idea for Athanasius in this
regard is this: “[He] is unable to conceive of any permanent salvation for human beings unless
human nature is effectively united with the divine nature, and he can think of no other way to
this union except the incarnation and death of the cross.”12 In much of his writing, he connects
Christ’s obligation to destroy death and corruption with Christ’s putting on of a human body. For
Ante-Nicene Fathers 1.417.
Ante-Nicene Fathers 3.359.
St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 26.
K. Metzler, Dictionary of Early Christian Literature, 54-58.
Athanasius, that’s where the essential element of ‘truly God’ and ‘truly man’ took its deepest
Before speaking of the four ecumenical councils, it is not time to speak of Christ’s deity,
humanity, and the hypostatic union. A look at specific biblical texts as well as theological
statements regarding these topics will help shed light on what exactly the councils were working
First, the deity of Christ is a crucial theological truth to Christianity. Making a bold
claim, John Walvoord states, “Without question, the crucial issue in biblical theology is the deity
of Christ, and disregard or question of this central doctrine of the Bible leads to inevitable chaos
in theology as a whole.”14 Seven passages from Scripture make it explicitly clear that both the
human and divine natures were existent in Christ.15 Specifically dealing with the divinity of
Christ, Colossians 1:15-23 and John 1:1-14, 18 will be particularly helpful.
First, in Colossians 1:15-23, Paul says, “He is the image of the invisible God, the
firstborn of all creation.” Note here, that Paul does not mean that Christ was created, but rather
he is stating that Christ is the recipient of the first fruits. He is speaking in the realm of kingly
inheritance. If he were trying to state that Jesus was created, it would have been rather abrupt for
him to state in verse 16, “For by him all things were created…” Later in the passage, Paul points
out in verse 19 that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” and finishes off that
thought by connecting that statement with reconciliation of all things to himself. In good Baptist
preacher fashion, Daniel Akin asserts that Christ is Lord over His creation, the church, and
St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 40-41.
Walvoord, Jesus Christ our Lord, 109.
Phil 2:6-11; John 1:1-14; Col 1:15-23; Rom 1:2-5; 1 Tim 3:16; Heb 2:14; 1 John 1:1-3.
Christians.16 If we as Christians want to claim Christ as Lord and Savior, we can only do so by
acknowledging that he is fully God. Only then is he able to save us from our sin.
John 1 also provides a mine of theological insight regarding the full deity of Christ. F.F.
Bruce notes that the language of John 1:1 is similar in its beginning to Genesis 1:1. In using the
same language, “In the beginning,” John is actually claiming that Jesus was with the Father at the
time of creation. Furthermore, in verse 3 he makes an assertion that Jesus was actually the agent
in all of that work. As Bruce cleverly states, “A man who lived in the Near East just under two
thousand years ago is credited with creating the world aeons before that.”17 Elsewhere, Bruce
points out that the ‘word of God’ in the O.T. actually points to God being active, most often in
creation, revelation, salvation and deliverance.18 But what are we to make of Jesus being called
“the Word”? We shouldn’t overlook the importance of this language by John, because it actually
denotes a “divine meaning and order, and it is also the light of “all people” (1:4 NRSV)… In v.
14, John articulates one of the most compelling yet disconcerting ideas of all time: ‘Divine
Logos became flesh,’ a person!”19 John is actually claiming that Jesus is not only God, but that
God literally became a man and took on human flesh and came to Earth. Finally in this regard, 2
Cor. 4:4 states that Christ is “the image (or likeness) of God,” and verse 6 goes on, “the light of
the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The language of Christ being the
image of God is full, and I’m not sure any exegesis or explanation of verse 6 would do any good.
In fact, it might downplay the power and depth of Paul’s language in speaking of the
Daniel Akin, Theology for the Church, 502-04.
F.F. Bruce, Jesus: Lord and Savior, 165.
Bruce, The Gospel of John, 29.
Ellen T. Charry, “Incarnation,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible,
uncontainable glory of Jesus Christ. In addition, it seems awkward to me that Paul would
attribute so much ‘glory’ to Christ if he did not see him as God.
While speaking of Christ’s deity, there is an important side-note that is too commonly
overlooked in Christology: that is, the link of Christ and OT ‘Wisdom.’ One of the key links that
Christ has with the Old Testament is the personification of Wisdom. To demonstrate, Proverbs
8:22-31 reveals Wisdom speaking in first-person, claiming to be pre-existent before the world,
fathered by God the Father, and a great instrument in the creation story. Therefore, in John 1:1-2,
the repetition is not for the sake of redundancy.20 Rather, F.F. Bruce, in my opinion, rightly
confirms that John wants to connect Jesus as the personified Wisdom from the Old Testament.
Bruce is not alone in his interpretation of Wisdom. Reaching back to Athanasius, he claimed,
“the Word submitted to appear in a body, in order that He… might centre their sense on Himself,
and convince them through His human acts that He Himself is not man only but also God, the
Word and Wisdom of the true God.”21 Furthermore, Hebrews 1:2-3 notes that the Son of God is
the one “whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is
the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe
by the word of his power.” The notion of Old Testament Wisdom in this passage is undeniable
and very profound when compared to the aforementioned Proverbs 8 passage. To sum up, in
Jesus is the full revelation of the wisdom, goodness, and beauty of God that was shown to
humanity live and in person, without mistake, around 2000 years ago.22
This humanity of Christ was not unlike any other human that lived. His appearance was
normal, no different than any other human likeness. First century Jews saw him, touched him,
Bruce, Jesus: Lord and Savior, 168-69.
St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 44.
Charry, “Incarnation,” Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 324.
hurt him, fed him, washed his feet, etc… He ate, drank, and slept as a typical human being would
do.23 We should be careful not to downplay the importance of this. Many people, like the
Gnostics and Nestorians will say that he only appeared human or that he was not fully human,
but this is not true. Those who deny that Christ was actually a human are equally as destructive
as individuals who deny the deity of Christ. This doctrine is just as important as the deity of
Christ, and one might even assert that in the context of Postmodernity, it might necessitate more
attention. Pointing out hoards of biblical texts from the NT seems a bit unnecessary, because
looking at the life of Christ in the Gospels in reference to his birth, normal childhood growth
(Luke 2:52), his condition of hematohidrosis in the Garden of Gethsemane when he sweat blood
(Luke 22:44), and his death all lead to the conclusion that Jesus was truly a man. Theologically,
we must affirm that Jesus was not some goofy-looking, halo-headed know-it-all religious freak.
He really was fully human in his nature on Earth: he was birthed, grew up like a normal human,
and died. Even though he was faced with obstacles, difficulties, and temptations to sin, Christ
remained sinless because of the unity between his divine and human natures. Having discussed
the divine and human natures of Christ, the tricky part comes when putting these two natures
together in a Biblical doctrine. Here, the ecumenical councils prove themselves extremely
helpful. At Nicea, it was affirmed that Jesus was ‘begotten not made’ and ‘of the same substance
(homoousios) with the Father’. With that, the Chalcedonian definition, put forth at the Council of
Chalcedon (451), will be especially helpful to term this correctly. The Chalcedonian definition of
the hypostatic union claims that Christ was a single individual with two distinct natures. The
words ‘two physes’, ‘one hypostasis’ were accepted by the Roman Catholic and Eastern
Orthodox churches, but the ‘Monophysites’ and ‘Nestorians’ disagreed each on different
Russell F. Aldwinckle, More than Man, 125.
terminologies.24 In the end, the debating ceased with the theologians embracing a divine paradox.
Christ was God in human flesh, and his humanity did not destroy his divinity nor did his divinity
overpower his humanity. His body, mind, and spirit were all consistently fully God and fully
man; “one person, two natures.”25
So what exactly does that look like? Before we get too far, we should remember the
words of Bonhoeffer when he warned that digging too far into the “how” of the incarnation could
result in blasphemy. In dealing with the hypostatic union, 451 years of chaos should prove to us
that this is not an easily defined doctrine. The additional 1500 years since then should also show
us that it is not easy to improve much from Chalcedon. This doctrine, while absolutely crucial to
Christianity and salvation, should not be delved much (if at all) beyond what history has shown
First, we must affirm that Christ is one person with two natures. The two natures are
human and divine. He is both God and man simultaneously. As it was put in the Chalcedonian
creed, “two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”
The natures are not combined, nor is it completely separated; rather, they are united in the one
person, Jesus Christ. To more fully explore this, it should be noted that the incarnation doesn’t
mean so much that Christ lost divinity when becoming man (because that isn’t revealed in
Scripture); rather, Scripture does affirm that he “took on” human flesh. He added human nature
to his divine nature, thereby becoming truly God and truly man. Aside from what kenosis
theology wrongly asserts, Christ lost literally none of His attributes in becoming man. Again, He
is truly God and truly man. He may have chosen to limit his divine power, but in no way did
Christ the Lord lose any of his attributes. Perhaps Philippians 2:5-11, which Gerald Hawthorne
Richard Swinburne, Was Jesus God? 47.
Charry, “Incarnation”, Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, 324.
calls “a Christological gem unparalleled in the New Testament,”26 speaks most clearly of this
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in
the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself
nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found
in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even
death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven
and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to
the glory of God the Father.” – Philippians 2:5-11 (ESV)
By way of observation, we should note that in this passage, as well as the passages mentioned
before, Christ is always mentioned as a singular person. If Christ were two persons, he would
have referred to himself as “we” or “us” or “our.” Christ is always referring to himself in a
singular manner. In addition, it is not as if Christ was not a person before the incarnation. He is
the pre-existent Son of God, who has always existed in the Trinity from eternity as a person.
During the incarnation, he simply took on a human body, but still remained one single person.27
Further, the language “he was in the form of God” denotes his pre-existence and the language of
“being found in human form” clearly and without question claims that Jesus held the form of
God and the form of human in one person. By definition, God cannot change in his nature, so
Christ did not lose his divinity when he came to Earth. He was and is fully God and fully man.
To summarize, Thomas Torrance affirms, “It is to be taken in all its serious intention to mean
that the Son of God has become man without ceasing to be the God He ever was, and that after
the Incarnation He is at work within space and time in a way that He never was before.”28
Gerald Hawthorne, Philippians, 79.
R.L. Reymond, “Incarnation,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 601.
Thomas Torrance, Space, Time and the Incarnation, 53.
Other than a theological treatise, what significance does the incarnation hold? This
doctrine, as the context of all these other passages show29 relates directly to salvation. In fact, I
believe this is the key doctrine relating to the salvation of man, although in modern theology the
cross and resurrection of Christ has primarily taken that place. This issue is definitely more than
a theoretical matter. If there is any confusion or mistreatment of the two natures of Christ, it is “a
The incarnation has always been purposed as a redemptive act of God, therefore we
should note that the very notion of the incarnation denotes humanity that is fallen, depraved, and
helpless. It is almost worthless to hold to a Biblical view of the incarnation and simultaneously
affirm a synergistic view of salvation. It undermines the utter importance and necessity of God
becoming man.31 In addition, a denial of the incarnation completely throws the need for
atonement out the window. Upon looking at the doctrine of atonement, we fully see the
implications of the incarnation.32
In recent days, a true and holistic theology of the Incarnation is lacking. I won’t say that
the cross is over-emphasized, but rather I believe the doctrine of the incarnation as demonstrated
in Scripture has become merely a footnote to the Gospel. There seems to be a notion that God
becoming man was solely for the purpose of bringing the fullness of creation, and possibly for
the redemption of sinners. To say that the incarnation was secondarily for the purpose of the
John, in his gospel, claims he wrote so that humanity might believe in Jesus as the
Christ and have life in his name. Paul speaks in verse 12 of Philippians 2 that we are to work out
our salvation in fear and trembling, and again in Colossians 1 he points out that the fullness of
God dwelling in Him was purposed in the reconciliation of all things to himself.
G.C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, 56.
Chris Green, “Incarnation and Mission,” The Word Became Flesh: Evangelicals and
the Incarnation, 121.
J. Denney, The Death of Christ, 121.
redemption of sinners is absurd and has no Scriptural support.33 The Biblical texts consistently
mention the incarnation in relation to the salvation and redemption of God’s people. (Col. 1:15-
23) Even in passages that talk about God revealing himself in the incarnation, it is nearly always
in the context of reconciling men to Himself. Paul seems to have an agenda, that is, to make clear
that Christ’s pre-eminence, his divine and human nature, and his incarnation all lead up to the
reconciliation of man to God. Only by God becoming man can humanity be saved from sin. And
indeed, during His time on the Earth, Jesus confirmed that he came “to seek and save that which
was lost.” (Luke 19:10) We absolutely must see the incarnation, Christ fully becoming a human
being, as the greatest act of salvation and reconciliation. That is not to downplay the cross,
because the truest meaning of the incarnation is found in the cross, as is the truest meaning of the
cross found in the incarnation. In the overwhelming emphasis of the cross in American
Evangelical theology, the incarnation has become a footnote to the Gospel. In essence, the
Gospel message in many churches has become, “Jesus loves you, He came down to Earth, and
He died for your sins.” Sunday School teachers, pastors, theologians, and the like are happy to
attempt to describe the cross as the forgiveness of sins, but scarcely do we hear a weighty
explanation regarding the implications of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This does little or no
justice to the depth and profoundness of a passage such as John 1:1-14.
In summary, this doctrine is absolutely, without question, essential to Christian’s
theology and life. Augustine summarizes the practicality of the incarnation in a few ways in book
13 od De Trinitate: By seeing God’s great act of humility on human flesh, our pride is
obliterated. If we thought there was reason to boast before the incarnation, that is altogether
J.I. Packer, “Incarnation,” New Bible Dictionary, 502.
destroyed in a perfectly humble act by Christ. Further, by grasping the importance of the
incarnation, we realize our pitiful state before God, and our overwhelming need of His grace.34
Finally, in missiologist David Bosch’s studies he found, “Protestant churches, by and
large, have an under-developed theology of the incarnation.”35 Further, what’s happened because
of this failure to teach the doctrine of the incarnation is this: “The mission of the church is one of
communal, spiritual, and social improvement.”36 Athanasius, like many church fathers, saw this
doctrine as the crux of all theology, and defended it with passion, calling the heresies of Arius
and others “fables in mockery of the Lord,” and “irreligious phrases.”37 While speaking of this
glorious doctrine and our glorious Christ, John Owen summarizes the importance of the
incarnation of Jesus Christ: “[It is] the most noble, useful, beneficial object that we can be
conversant about in our thoughts, or cleave unto in our affections.” Although a profound
mystery, we are called to embrace this beautiful doctrine of redemption and worship God for his
wisdom in the incarnation.38 This will inevitably help us to see that the incarnation is inseparable
from the Gospel, and that we are first and foremost to announce to the world that our glorious
God became a man to reconcile us to Himself.
Brian E. Daley, S.J., Augustine Through the Ages, 446.
David Bosch, Transforming Mission, 512.
Chris Green, “Incarnation and Mission,” The Word Became Flesh: Evangelicals and
the Incarnation, 115.
Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4.161-62.
John Owen, The Person of Christ, 311.
Achtemier, Paul J. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.
Akin, Daniel. A Theology for the Church. B&H Academic, 2007.
Aldwinckle, Russell F. More than Man. Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1976.
Berkouwer, G.C. Studies in Dogmatics: The Person of Christ. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954.
Bosch, David. Transforming Mission. Orbis Books, 1991.
Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.
Bruce, F.F. Lord and Savior. Downers Grove: IVP, 1986.
Denney, James. The Death of Christ. Paternoster, 1997.
Dopp, Siegmar and Wilhelm Geerlings. Dictionary of Early Christian Literature. New York:
Crossroad Publishing Company, 2000.
Elwell, Walter A. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001.
Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998.
Fitzgerald, Allan D. Augustine Through the Ages. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009.
Hawthorne, Gerald. Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004.
Owen, John. The Person of Christ. Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001.
Peterson, David. The Word Became Flesh: Evangelicals and the Incarnation. Paternoster, 2007.
Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, Philip Schaff, et. al. The Ante-Nicene Fathers.
Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994.
St. Athanasius. On the Incarnation. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996.
Stott, John. The Incomparable Christ. Downers Grove: IVP, 2004.
Swinburne, Richard. Was Jesus God? New York: Oxford UP, 2010.
Torrance, Thomas. Space, Time and the Incarnation. New York: T&T Clark International, 2005.
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker
Walvoord, John. Jesus Christ our Lord. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1980.
Wood, D.R.W. and I. Howard Marshall. New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Downers Grove: IVP,