I have always thought the idea of Jesus being some kind of savior made sense. The world has known many saviors of sorts, and regardless of one’s theology, Jesus would certainly be counted among them. However, the idea that Jesus was God has always seemed a bit odd. Since the Father is also God, and He is in Heaven and Jesus was on Earth, then they cannot be exactly the same.
As a Christian, though, I have never thought this odd thing to be a real difficulty—at least not scripturally, which is where issues like this must ultimately be settled by believers—because the notion that Jesus is a true man who is different from the Father, yet also fully God just like the Father, makes the most sense of all the biblical data.
Now I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let us first go back to the basics for a moment—at least, the basics as the first Christians understood them.
Early followers of Christ used a simple symbol to summarize their core theology—two curved lines forming the shape of a fish, with Greek letters for the word “fish,” or ichthus (ΙΧΘΥΣ), nestled inside. The letters were an acronym summarizing the convictions ancient believers shared regarding the One they followed as Lord. The letters stood for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”
In the last issue of Solid Ground [i]—as part of STR’s 25th anniversary’s emphasis on essentials—I focused on the initial part of that foundation, “Jesus Christ.” I explained, first, that Jesus was a true man—He was one of us, like us in every way that mattered to being a human in a fallen world; second, that He was a true man of history—not a myth or a make-me-up recycled pagan redeemer; and third, He was the true Christ, the long-awaited Messiah—the blessing promised to Abraham that was ultimately meant for all men, both Jew and Gentile.
In this issue, I focus on the second part of that early foundation, “God’s Son, Savior”—the belief that Jesus, though a true human, was no mere mortal. Rather, He was and is God’s Son, the world’s unique, one-and-only Savior. Further, the two are inseparably woven together. Specifically, if Jesus were not God’s son—God the Son, that is—He could not be the Savior, either. The second is unavoidably dependent on the first.
The claim is not without its problems, though.
The Problem of “God’s Son”
I have suggested that Jesus and the Father are both God, but they are not both each other, strictly speaking.[ii] I have also suggested that, though odd, Jesus being God is not a scriptural problem, but rather a solution to a problem. More on that in a moment. There is another concern I must clear up first.
You may be thinking I have misspoken, that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God only and not very God Himself, and that would be understandable since “Son of God” is the usual language the Scripture employs. However, you also may have assumed something else based on that language that is not quite right.
Nowadays we all fancy ourselves sons and daughters of God in some way, and, after a fashion, that is correct. In our minds, being a son of (or a child of) God simply means “created by God.” He made everyone, so we are all sons and daughters of God in a manner of speaking. And on that point, we are right. We are all made by God, to be sure, and we are like Him in an important way since we bear His image.
Early Christians, however, did not mean what we mean today when we use the “Son of God” phrase 20 centuries later. We misunderstand their meaning because we are trying to translate a first-century Jewish expression by importing modern ideas into ancient vocabulary. It’s a common mistake.
Words do not get their meanings from a dictionary. That approach has the tail wagging the dog. Instead, they get their meanings from the way they are used by people in ordinary conversation, and then those meanings find their way into a dictionary. The regular use of a word (or a phrase) in daily parlance determines its meaning for those people. Keep calling a cat a gato (as they do in Mexico), and most people will know what you’re referring to.
The first Christians meant something particular and precise with the phrase, “God’s Son,” and they did not mean a generic child of God in the brotherhood of man. In their minds, when a father produces a true son, he bears a child who is of the same nature as himself. So, just as a human begets a human being, a god begets a divine being. Any “son of God,” then, would be a god Himself, and in a strictly monotheistic society, not a god, but the God.
This point was not lost on the Jews. John records, “For this reason therefore the Jews were seeking all the more to kill Him, because He…was calling God His own Father, making Himself equal with God” (Jn. 5:18). Later, when Jesus said, “I and the Father are one,” the Jews picked up stones to stone Him for blasphemy “because You, being a man, make Yourself out to be God” (Jn. 10:30, 33).
In this sense, then, Christ is a unique man among humans, sharing the same divine nature as the One who begot Him. Note Gabriel’s words in his annunciation to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (Lk. 1:35).
Thus, the virgin birth was a singular event with a singular consequence. Through the miracle of Jesus’ conception, Christ bears the exact same nature as His heavenly Father, a point the Story makes clear:
And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. (Heb. 1:3)
He is the image of the invisible God.... For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form. (Col. 1:15, 2:9)
Jesus is the Son of God in a way no other “child of God” can be—the Son of God is God, the Son. This, of course, raises another difficulty.
The Problem of Monotheism
First-century Jews were fiercely monotheistic, their theology characterized by two features, “that the one God is sole Creator of all things and that the one God is sole Ruler of all things.”[iii] God was the Lord and the Lord was God. This calculus was fundamental.
The first Christians were all Jews like that—faithful Jews, monotheistic Jews—yet they faced a circumstance they couldn’t entirely explain (at least initially), but neither could they easily dismiss. As C.S. Lewis put it:
People already knew about God in a vague way. Then came a man who claimed to be God, and yet He was not the sort of man you could dismiss as a lunatic. He made them believe Him. They met Him again after they had seen Him killed.[iv]
Because they believed this Jewish Rabbi rose from the dead, these Christians’ earliest testimony of Him was that Jesus was indeed Lord. Not a noble person of distinction. Not a mere governor, nor military liege, nor earthly monarch ruling a portion of creation. Rather, the Lord who made creation. The Lord who held creation together. Thus, the Lord of all creation. The Lord. The New Testament record unmistakably testifies that early Christians believed Jesus was both Creator of all things and, therefore, Ruler of everything—the Lord God, in short.
These early Christians were not trying to be theologically clever. Rather, their confession was the inevitable result of an encounter with the God who “showed up.” It’s what they concluded when they, as Jews, met their Messiah face to face. Clearly, Jesus was included in the unique divine identity from the earliest days of the church, yet this created a conundrum.
Here is the problem they faced. One, there is only one God (Is. 43:10, 45:5). Two, Jesus is a distinct person from the Father. We know this because Jesus interacts with the Father in personally distinct ways—He prays to the Father (Jn. 17); He submits to the Father (Matt. 26:39); the Father speaks when Jesus is present listening (Lk. 3:21–22), etc. Finally, Jesus is fully God. We know this because Jesus is called God (Jn. 1:1, Rom. 9:5), He possesses divine attributes (e.g., creator, Jn. 1:3), and He exercises divine privileges (e.g., received worship, Matt. 2:2, 11; 28:9).
These awkward facts are what led the early church to conclude, eventually, that although God is one in essence (strict monotheism), He is more than one in person.
It was the only way to resolve what at first seemed to be an irrepressible contradiction.[v] Thus, the deity of Christ turns out to be a solution to a problem, and not really a problem itself, the only understanding of the revelation that harmonizes all the parts.
The Problem of “Savior”
The deity of Christ meant everything to those first Christians for a number of reasons, including the centrality of Christ to the entire redemptive enterprise. It was the key issue of Jesus’ life and the sine qua non—the absolutely indispensable, essential core—of Christianity.
The disciples had “insisted it is necessary to belong to Christ in order to have eternal life, and…that it is necessary to know and believe the right things about Him in order to belong to Him.” [vi] God, Jesus demanded, must be worshipped “in Spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24).
In the face of conflicting public reports, Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s the most important question anyone can answer, and clearly only one answer will do—Peter’s: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15–16). This is the truth Jesus staked His own life on, since He was executed not for anything He did, but for Who He said He was (Matt. 26:63–66).
Indeed, the entire Gospel of John had the singular purpose of answering that question decisively, and John tied his answer directly to salvation: “These have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (Jn. 20:31).
Jesus’ divine nature and His ability to save sinners were inseparable concepts. Clearly, Jesus came to save. The angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “[Mary] will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Yet, only God could save: “I, even I, am the Lord; and there is no savior besides Me” (Is. 43:11). According to Peter, the two join together in Christ: “...by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:1).
Paul put it plainly: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Jesus told the Pharisees, “Unless you believe that I am, you will die in your sins” (literal translation of Jn. 8:24), and, “Before Abraham was, I Am” (Jn. 8:58). Here, in both cases, Jesus used the Greek ego eimi to identify Himself with the ancient name of God given to Moses, “I Am Who I Am” (Ex. 3:14).[vii] The Jews, understanding the point clearly, sought to stone Him (Jn. 8:59). Yet this strange metaphysical union of man and God solved a pressing problem.
I will introduce it with a question: What is the most famous verse in all the Bible? Easy. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). This wonderful passage, though, raises a concern.
So, God takes a man who was not guilty and treats Him as if He were guilty, having Him suffer an unspeakably brutal death, as an expression of God’s love in pardoning those who actually are the guilty ones? Really? I can see how the cross would be evidence for Jesus’ love in that scenario, but how is it evidence of God’s love? How is savaging someone innocent on behalf of the guilty a loving thing to do? How does God escape the charge of “cosmic child abuse”?
Here’s how. Humans were guilty, so a human must pay. Yet, what kind of human could make a boundless payment adequate to cover endless punishment due for the sins of the entire world? How does a mere man, Jesus, in the short span of three hours on a cross, pay for an eternity of even one person’s sin, much less the sins of anyone and everyone who believes? How is that mathematically possible?
Who could fulfill such a task? Only One: the God-man.
Only Jesus as God can turn His sacrifice on a cross into a testament of God’s love for the world, since it was God’s blood, shed by Christ, that purchased Christ’s church: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock…to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). When did God bleed? When He was crucified on a Roman cross.
Only in Jesus the Son of God could a man suffer a finite amount of time yet cover an eternal debt for a countless multitude, since the man was Himself the God of infinite grace.
Mercifully, God has provided an answer to all concerns, including one final problem.
The Problem of Debt
The famous preacher Harry Ironside used to tell a story about a young Russian soldier who, because his father was a friend of Czar Nicholas I, had been made paymaster in one of the barracks. [viii]
The young man meant well, but his character was not up to his responsibility. He took to gambling and eventually gambled away a great deal of the government’s money, as well as all of his own. In due course, the young man received notice that a representative of the czar was coming to check accounts, and he knew he was in trouble.
That evening, he got out the books and totaled up the funds he owed. Then he went to the safe and got out his own pitifully small amount of money. As he sat and looked at the two, he was overwhelmed at the astronomical debt versus his meager funds. He was ruined.
The young soldier determined to take his life. He pulled out his revolver, placed it on the table before him, and wrote a summation of his misdeeds. At the bottom of the ledger where he had totaled up his obligation, he wrote: “A great debt! Who can pay?” He decided that at the stroke of midnight he would die.
As the evening wore on, the soldier grew drowsy and eventually fell asleep. That night, Czar Nicholas, as was sometimes his custom, made the rounds of the barracks. Seeing a light, he stopped, looked in, and saw the young man asleep. He recognized him immediately and, looking over his shoulder, saw the ledger and realized all that had taken place.
He was about to awaken him and put him under arrest when his eye fastened on the young man’s message: “A great debt! Who can pay?” Suddenly, with a surge of magnanimity, he reached over, wrote one word at the bottom of the ledger, and slipped out.
When the young man awoke, he glanced at the clock and saw that it was long after midnight. He reached for his revolver to end his life. But his eye fell upon the ledger, and he saw something he had not seen before. There, beneath his writing, “A great debt! Who can pay?” was written a single word: “Nicholas.”
He was dumbfounded. It was the Czar’s signature. He said to himself, “The czar must have come by when I was asleep. He has seen the book. He knows all. Still he is willing to forgive.”
The young soldier then trusted the word of the czar. The next morning a messenger came from the palace with exactly the amount needed to meet the deficit. Only the czar could pay, and the czar did pay.
We compare God’s righteousness to our own tawdry performance, and we ask: “A great debt to God! Who can pay?” But then a man of infinite resources steps forward and signs His name to our ledger—“Jesus of Nazareth.”
Only Jesus can pay, and pay He does. He hears our cry. He comes to our rescue. He cancels our debt. It is finished.
Therefore, because of God’s Son, the Savior, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). There is no one who is able snatch us out of the Father’s hand (Jn. 10:28–29). There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:38–39). There is no fear remaining for those the Father has given to Jesus since He loses none but raises them up on the last day (Jn. 6:39).
If you are looking for a psychological lift for the moment, a temporary bromide to relieve the distress of life—Marx’s “opiate of the people”—then you are welcome to any religious fantasy you fancy. Be advised, though, it might soothe for the moment, but it will never heal since it cannot cure.
If, however, you want genuine healing instead of emotional distraction, then you need a genuine Healer, a Rescuer. Only One can provide that: Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.
[i] “Why Jesus? – Part 1,” Solid Ground, May 2018, available online at str.org.
[ii] I realize this is not a theologically precise way of putting it, but I think it shall do for the moment.
[iii] Richard Bauckham, God Crucified (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 25.
[iv] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1943), 143.
[v] This, of course, is the doctrine of the Trinity, a topic I explore more thoroughly in earlier issues of Solid Ground, a two-part treatment of the issue titled “The Trinity: A Solution, Not a Problem,” available online at str.org.
[vi] Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1984), xxiii.
[vii] For a detailed treatment of this point, see James White, The Forgotten Trinity (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1998), chap. 6.
[viii] Adapted from James Montgomery Boice in The Christmas Story according to Jesus Christ (P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, NJ, 2009), 21–23. Find the original account in H. A. Ironside, Illustrations of Bible Truth (Chicago: Moody, 1945), 67–69. [Kindle 64–66].