Friday, November 21, 2008

“Born of a Woman—Atonement and the Incarnation”

Gnosticism is founded on the Greek principle of a dualistic existence that separates matter from spirit, the first being inherently evil, and the latter being divine. It assumes that all material things came into being through a fallen semi-god (demiurge), who ruled the imperfect world, that by its very existence, is antagonistic to the divine spirit. However, according to this belief there occasionally enters into the constitution of some men a divine spark that can be developed through gnosis and practice of special rites. Through gnosis, this special individual could escape the material world and become entirely “spiritual.”

Such a concept was being circulated among the early congregations in Asia, challenging the truth on the nature which Christ assumed in His incarnation. For the Gnostic Christian, the function of Christ was not to come as Savior to make an atonement for fallen humanity, and redeem from sin, but He was to enter this evil world and bring gnosis to mankind. By learning this mystical “knowledge” and following His example, a “oneness” with God could be obtained. The whole idea dwelt on “relationship” rather than the problem of sin and its repugnance to a holy God.

In his first letter, John told the congregations, “ye have heard that antichrist shall come” and this “hearing” came through Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians (2:1-12), which was widely circulated among the early congregations. After John’s release from Patmos, he traveled among the churches of Asia, no doubt witnessing for himself the infusion of Gnostic philosophies into the truths being preached by the apostles. One of the truths which was being challenged through Gnostic teaching was the nature which Christ assumed in His incarnation. Denying the reality of the incarnation spawned a libertinism among the early believers that disputed the truth of overcoming sin in this life, which resulted in widespread loss of piety. Thus the truth of sanctification and victory over sin was falling into disfavor. Through such teaching, Christ’s atonement was being made of none effect.

John explicitly addressed this problem in his letters when he stated that the deceivers circulating among the churches denied that Jesus came in “the flesh” (Greek, sarx [1]). John wrote: “Beloved, believe not every spirit [i.e. person, or “living soul”], but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh [sarx] is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh [sarx] is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come [through Paul’s teaching]; and even now already is it in the world” (1 John 4:1-3). Anyone who taught that Jesus did not assume the real fallen nature of His ancestor Adam was “antichrist,” plain and simple.

Prior to the preaching of Christ and His righteousness in a fuller measure, as A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner presented it at the 1888 general conference session in Minneapolis, the nature which Christ assumed was only a theological sideline. However, since the whole point of the Gospel is to bring to humanity the truth of God’s power over Satan and sin, the nature which Christ assumed took on a new and important dimension in the preaching of the Gospel. In the 1888 edition of The Bible Readings for the Home Circle, there was no mention of the nature of Christ, but by the 1914 edition E. J. Waggoner had made a significant contribution to the discussion under the new chapter “A Sinless Life”:

“The idea that Christ was born of an immaculate or sinless mother, inherited no tendencies to sin, and for this reason did not sin, removes Him from the realm of a fallen world, and from the very place where help is needed. On His human side, Christ inherited just what every child of Adam inherits,—a sinful nature. On the divine side, from His very conception He was begotten and born of the Spirit. And all this was done to place mankind on vantage-ground, and to demonstrate that in the same way, every one who is ‘born of the Spirit’ may gain like victories over sin in his own flesh. ... God, in Christ, condemned sin, not pronouncing against it merely as a judge sitting on the judgment-seat, but by coming and living in the flesh, in sinful flesh, and yet without sinning. In Christ, He demonstrated that it is possible, by His grace and power, to resist temptation, overcome sin, and live a sinless life in sinful flesh” (page 174; emphases in original).

A. T. Jones concurred in his Consecrated Way to Christian Perfection: “Only by His subjecting Himself to the law of heredity could He reach sin in full and true measure as sin truly is. ... Thus He met sin in the flesh which He took, and triumphed over it, as it is written: ‘God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh’.” Addressing the whole point of the atonement, Jones states: “If He were not of the same flesh as are those whom He came to redeem, then there is no sort of use of His being made flesh at all” (pp. 48, 41, and see also p. 42; emphases in original).

The Teacher’s Quarterly asks a most pertinent question: “What are the implications of Christ’s being the second Adam?” This question brings home the truth of the nature which Christ assumed for sinners bogged down in the mire of sin and rebellion. Because Christ took upon Him the fallen nature of Adam and was “tempted in all points like as we are, yet without sin,” we have the assurance of overcoming “even as He also overcame.” This is the crux of the Gospel’s good news! We don’t have a “savior” who dwells in some high and lofty place, afar off from the problem of sin, but rather we have an high priest who has been “touched with the feeling of our infirmities,” who knows how to “succor them that are tempted.” Thus when tempted, no matter by what, we can “come boldly to the throne of grace” and “in time of need” we can find grace, mercy, and power over sin (Heb. 4:15-16; Rev. 3:21; Heb. 2:18).

Because Jesus took upon Himself Adam’s nature after the fall, and in that nature “condemned sin in the flesh” (Rom. 8:3), He proved that Satan’s claims against the law of God are false. Then, in compliance with the covenant He had made with His Father before the world began (Rev. 13:8), Christ, as corporate mankind, took that fallen nature to the cross and paid the ultimate price for redemption from sin, crucifying the “old man” of sin, and setting humanity free from condemnation (Rom. 8:1-4; 6:5-17; Gal. 2:20). Can the “good news” get any better than this?

Ann Walper


[1] Sarx is defined as “the concrete form of human nature marked by Adam’s fall.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 1, p. 151.