The Incarnate Son, The Divine Person

The season of Lent offers the church an opportunity to reflect on some of the most important issues of our faith. The cross of Christ, although always central to our worship and discipleship, is even more prominent in the minds of believers during Holy Week. Any serious meditation on the cross will be accompanied by a host of Christological questions. This time of year is probably when Christians display their most passionate theological curiosity, as questions like these are often considered:

Why did Jesus ask to be delivered from the horrors of the cross in Gethsemane?
If Jesus did not want to go to the cross, then doesn’t he have a will different than the Father?
Were Jesus and the Father separated at the cross? Was the Father angry at Jesus because he took on sin?
What does it mean for Jesus to become a curse on the cross?
When Jesus died, what happened? Where did he go? And how can God die anyway?

All of those are wonderful questions and worthy of our consideration. Christology may very well be the most important area of study for the church since it involves the person and work of Jesus Christ and his relationship to the Triune God. My intention with this article is to provide one simple word of guidance when considering the work of Christ. This guiding principle is true for every aspect of Christ’s life, including his death and resurrection. Here we go…

Church members will often reason through questions like those listed above by appealing to the fact that Jesus has both a human nature and a divine nature. And indeed, that is an essential truth to remember. The problem is when we assign specific actions of Christ to a particular nature of Christ. You may have heard something like this before: “Jesus’ human nature died on the cross.” That certainly makes sense because we know that God cannot perish. But here is the guiding principle we need to remember…

Natures do not act. Persons act.

To make sense of the Bible’s teaching about Jesus and his relationship with the Father and the Spirit, the church has historically embraced a “Person-Nature” distinction. Christian theology teaches that there are three divine “persons” who share the one, undivided divine nature. Thus, “nature” refers to what a thing is. A human nature, for example, is made up of a body, soul, mind, will, etc. In contrast, a “person” is the subject who acts based on what is true about their nature.

Jesus Christ is a divine person. He, along with the Father and the Spirit, share one divine nature. Thus, the person of the Father acts based on his divine nature. The person of the Spirit acts based on his divine nature. The person of the Son acts based on his divine nature.

At the incarnation, a great mystery occurred in that the divine Son took on a human nature without violating or giving up any aspect of his divine nature. There is no mixture of the natures nor did the two combine to become a tertium quid – a third kind of thing. But here is the key truth to remember – Jesus did not become an additional person. There was a heretical view in the early church known as Nestorianism that affirmed two persons in Christ. One person who operated out of his divine nature, and one person who operated out of his human nature. That was soundly rejected by the church.

Thus, what we have in the incarnate Son is one divine person who subsists in two natures. When Jesus walked on water, he (the one person) walked on water, not his divine nature. When Jesus forgave sins, he (the one person) forgave sins, not his divine nature. When Jesus slept, he (the one person) slept, not his human nature. When Jesus experienced pain, he (the one person) experienced pain, not his human nature. The person Jesus Christ acts based on his nature.

I’ll summarize like this – In the person of Jesus Christ, his two natures are distinct and retain their own unique attributes, yet Jesus is able to act through both natures.

This truth about Jesus is extremely important because it prevents a scenario where Jesus can be divided – part of him does one thing while another part of him does another thing. And once we start opening the door to think of Jesus in terms of parts or division, then we open the door to very problematic views about God.

All of this does not necessarily make any of the above questions any easier to answer. But it does provide some guidance on how not to think about them. May the mystery and beauty and power of the resurrected Jesus be yours!