Gerrit Scott Dawson, The Eternal Incarnation
Gerrit Scott Dawson is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He received his D.Min. degree in 2002 from Reformed Theological Seminary.
JMF: In your book, Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation, what is Christ’s continuing Incarnation, and what was the need for such a book?
GSD: More than a decade ago, I had become fascinated with the person of Jesus Christ, partly through being reintroduced to the theology of Thomas and James Torrance, and I found myself yearning more and more to explore the bigness and the wonder of the Savior that we have. I was drawn then to try to find out which angle would be best for exploring Christ, and I realized that the ascension of Jesus provides a fresh look at the very ancient story.
The ascension of Christ is a kind of hinge on which the entire story of the mediator turns. For instance, we think of Jesus as being our Prophet, our Priest, and our King. When he was among us and in his days in Nazareth and Jerusalem, he was a prophet speaking God’s word to us. It was after his ascension though, when he withdrew from us, that he became a prophet in a different way. Now by the sending of his Holy Spirit, who caused the apostles to write down the words of the New Testament, and through living in our hearts, Jesus continues to speak, but not just out of his location in Jerusalem, but from heaven to us.
In his role as a priest, Jesus fulfilled that in his death on the cross, dying to take away the sins of the world, but after his ascension, he became a priest in a new way. He appears before the throne of the Father to intercede for us and to offer his life on our behalf and to continue to prepare a place for us.
Third, as the King, when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, he had conquered death, but it was with his ascension that he was truly honored as the Lord of all. So all the work of Jesus hinged on the ascension.
JMF: As individuals 2000 years later, we relate to the ascended Jesus. How is that connected with his time on earth in terms of how it affects us today?
GSD: That’s where the fact of the continuing Incarnation is so important. As we’ve mentioned, people think that God only became a human for a little while he was with us those 33 years that Jesus was here. But in fact, Scripture and traditions of all believers have taught for centuries that Jesus remained incarnate. He did not kind of unzip his humanity and take it off, he remained wedded to our humanity.
That’s wonderful news for us because it means that the same Jesus who gathered the little children in his arms and touched them and blessed them, the same Jesus who accepted the tears of the sinful woman and pronounced forgiveness to her, the same Jesus who was willing to touch someone with a terrible disease and to heal them, that’s the same Jesus that we relate to now. He still has the memory of walking among us on this earth. He still has our flesh. He’s still the Jesus that we meet in the Gospels.
JMF: How does that impact us when we’re in the depths of our own humanity and we’re feeling like we’re not connected with God, where do we find the wherewithal to go ahead and take the step of returning to God, like the prodigal son, as opposed to the fear that most of us feel when we feel disconnected because of sin?
GSD: To know his true humanity, that he is both fully God but fully human in the way that we are human, that when the Son of God came to us, as the Torrances love to say, he penetrated into our lost and forsaken condition, or as Douglas Sparrow says, he pursued us all the way to the place of our fallenness. Not just abstractly in some philosophical sense – he did it by becoming what we are, taking up real humanity, he truly embraced us.
Because he keeps that humanity, he remains the one who knows what it’s like to be tempted. He knows what it’s like to have suffered. He knows what it’s like to have struggled in our humanity. So we can trust him that he’s no stranger to what we’re feeling. But also because that redemption was real, because he truly became what we are to renew us and to save us in our real humanity (not some abstract kind of superman humanity), then we don’t have to be afraid that he’s so disappointed in our sin or so surprised by it that he’s ready to cut us off. He knows how it is with us. What he has redeemed is what we really are.
JMF: There’s a memory passage a lot of people have in Isaiah that “your sins have separated you from me.” How do you relate “your sins have separated you from me” with what you’re just describing in terms of our relationship with Christ through the ascension?
GSD: A helpful distinction here is between union and communion. A great theologian from the 17th century, John Owen, talked about this. Our union with Christ was established first in Christ’s union with us. As we’ve said, he took up our humanity and joined himself to it. Our union with Christ also includes the way in which the Holy Spirit joins us to Christ so that we are united inseparably with him.
JMF: That includes every human being.
GSD: It does, and it doesn’t, in the sense that Christ’s union with our humanity causes him to extend to all human beings his great welcome and redemption of love. The union that we have with Christ through the Holy Spirit comes as the blessed Spirit awakens us to life, creates faith in us, and joins us to Jesus. That happens at different stages along people’s lives. When you’ve been united to Christ in the Holy Spirit, that union is forever. We are included in all that he has done for us. Our sins are removed, we can’t surprise God by our sin, we can’t mar his redemption, we can’t change it.
But experientially speaking, we can affect our communion with him. Our union is untouchable. Christ has established that, in his union with us, in the great work of his redemption. It’s all done. But my communion with him, it’s affected if I wander into the far country knowingly and willingly, then I close off my relationship with the Father and I get miserable. When I fail to pray to him or fail to read the Scriptures or partake of the sacraments or join in the fellowship of the believers, I get lonely and miserable. It’s not because my union has been affected, but my sense of communion.
The way back from the far country isn’t to think, I’ve got to get saved all over again. I’m already saved in Christ. I simply need to remember that my Father is waiting there, watching down the foreign road with arms open wide for me to return to the awareness of what he’s already given me in Jesus Christ.
JMF: So the continuing Incarnation has many implications for us as individual believers.
GSD: Sure. One of the most important ones is to realize that God is not done with us yet or with this world. The fact that he still holds our flesh in eternal union with himself indicates that this is not a throw-away world. This is the world that he loves. We are the people that he died to redeem. This is the field where he is working.
Thinking of field, there’s a wonderful passage in Jeremiah where on the eve of the destruction of Jerusalem, when the Babylonians are coming to conquer the people, the Lord tells Jeremiah to purchase a field. Now talk about a bad real-estate investment, right before your country is about to be overrun, you go and buy land that’s about to become worthless. But it was a sign that the Lord was still in invested in Jerusalem, still invested in his people. Jeremiah bought that field against the day or in hope for the day when the people would return.
There’s a sense in which Jesus bought the “field” of our flesh. He holds it now in heaven for the day when he will return and this world’s redemption will be fully worked out, and the world will be made new and set right. Tertullian talked about the double pledge that the ascension gives us, and most of us who have studied the New Testament know about Ephesians 1, where the Spirit in our hearts is the guarantee or the down payment for our hope that we have of being united to Christ in heaven. Tertullian adds that the body of Jesus in heaven is the partner pledge – that because he’s holding our flesh in heaven, it’s the down payment that we will not live some airy spiritual existence only, but we will be embodied in a full glorified resurrection body. Jesus is the pledge of that.
JMF: We go to church and hear things like this preached, and it sounds exciting and wonderful, and yet deep inside we’re feeling, yeah, but I’m pitiful and I’m still a sinner, and where does that leave me? We want to throw our hands up and say, if God’s so great and all this is still wonderful, why do I feel so rotten?
GSD: Exactly. For us as preachers and theologians, the bigger a picture we paint of Jesus, then the more accountable our people hold us to say, why isn’t this working in my life? Why isn’t this transforming me? We have to ask, what is blocking my experience of this reality that Christ has already established? What keeps me from it, besides that fact that we’re tired most of the time and we’re mortal and we have all kinds of mood swings, and that’s just normal.
We can think about it along two lines, succinctly, ignorance and obstinance. One: I don’t experience enough of God because I don’t know enough of who he is, I have a distorted view. The other is: in spite of the fact that I’ve been redeemed and included in Christ, I still have my old will. I still have the part of me that wants to run away and try to be God myself or run away and do what I want to do like a petulant child. So between these two, of not really expanding my mind enough to see who Christ is, and then of still clinging to self-will, I tend to fall into missing the treasure that I have.
So what can be done about that? It’s wonderful that the Lord did not call us in abstraction or as isolated individuals. We are called the body of Christ for a reason, and we are joined to his body and we are connected to one another and we need each other. I have a guy that comes to a Bible study on Tuesday mornings. He goes to several studies, and he says, “I know that if I don’t get with other Christians, I won’t pray and I won’t read my Bible. I’m not here because I’m so holy, I go to all these Bible studies because I’m not holy and I need the encouragement.”
The Lord left us the sacraments, particularly regular Communion, and the Lord’s Supper is a means of grace, churches classically called it, a means whereby he particularly helps us experience what he’s done for us. It says the bread is broken and the cup is passed that I tend to get a fuller sense of the wonder of my forgiveness.
One other piece to this concerns the way in which we express the love of Christ in the world. I don’t experience so much of God inside me if I’m not moving out to share his love with others through works of love and through sharing the gospel. It’s like a river that gets dammed up, and if that water has no place to go, it gets stagnant. So too, Christians weren’t meant to receive all these blessings just for ourselves to stop, we’re meant to go on. So, often I experience spiritual growth by doing service for others.
JMF: You mentioned a distorted view of God that we can have as individuals. In your book Jesus Ascended, on page 91, you mention the doctrine of the ascension keeps us from collapsing our understanding of the person of Christ into any of the Christological distortions of the present age. What are some of those Christological distortions of the present age?
GSD: The current Christological distortions are just the ancient distortions returned. From the beginning, people have wondered, who is this Jesus who was among us who did things that no one has ever done, who taught like no one had ever taught, who even rose from the dead? As we have struggled to say how he is both God and man, we’ve tended sometimes to get a little out of focus.
One of those heresies was called Docetism, and that’s the idea that Jesus wasn’t really a man, he was just appearing to be a man; he was like a ghost, almost like a holographic projection of God. The church continually had to say, no, this really was a man come among us. Docetism tends to be the Christological distortion that occurs often among more conservative believers today. We have such a high view of Jesus that we almost forget that he was really a man. We think of him as a superman, as Jesus who didn’t really touch our lives, and we tend to see him as disconnected from who we are. We’re always combating that in the church to remind people that no, this is a God who is fully human who really knows who and how we are.
Another Christological distortion from the ancient days that has recurred is called Adoptionism. That’s the idea that Jesus was a great guy, God the Father looked down and said, “You’re so good, I think I’ll adopt you as my special son,” so that Jesus was just a man who kind of got promoted. He wasn’t really God come among us, the real God in our midst, he was just a guy who happened to access the God within him more than usual. That’s a distortion we see today a lot more among liberal Christians. It’s the idea that Christ is more of a principle or a spiritual idea and Jesus just got it better than most, and if we try to get it like he did, we can become spiritual.
JMF: The idea there, as far as it affects us, is how do we achieve the same thing Christ did by following his example, and we turn the gospel into that.
GSD: Exactly. That puts the full burden and weight on me again. Instead of having a Jesus who is God among us, who can lend me his aid and work to transform me, I’ve got to try to be like Jesus, which is impossible even in the best of circumstances.
JMF: Backing up to the ghostly Jesus that conservatives tend to see, doesn’t it result in the same thing? Kind of an…I need to emulate Jesus, I need to measure up to what he did, and that becomes how we relate to God, instead of in terms of the real ascension that you were talking about?
GSD: Yes. We get disconnected from Jesus. If he just appeared to be a human, then he never really became what I am. He never really redeemed what is my humanity. He’s so much God, so high above me, that I can never attain to it. I can try, but I’m reaching up for him, I’m grasping for him, but it’s an impossibly high standard, because he never really was human in this heresy, he just appeared to be. That happens when we think of Jesus as so superhuman that we no longer realize how closely we can relate to him.
The doctrine of the continuous union with our humanity that the ascension gives us reminds us that not only did he become fully human, but he remains fully human, as well as fully God, still able to connect to us.
JMF: In Jesus Ascended, you use the example of Les Misérables of Jean Valjean and Marius as an illustration of the ascension.
GSD: That was in the section on Jesus as our High Priest and thinking through how in his ascension, Jesus is taking our humanity up to the Father, and how he’s continuing to intercede for us. If you saw the stage adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel or maybe you had to read it in high school when you were younger, you remember that it’s a story about Jean Valjean, who was a kind of every-man character who, though he had been wrongly accused of stealing in his youth, is set free and rises to become the mayor of a town and actually adopts a young girl named Cosette because her mother has died of an illness.
He’s this wonderful father figure concerned to care for her, but because of his shadowy past he doesn’t want anyone to know about her, and he keeps her cloistered away till he realizes one day that Cosette has fallen in love with a man she met out in town named Marius. Jean Valjean realizes that his daughter’s happiness lies in communion with this man that she has met. Well, as things happen, the ill-fated French Revolution occurs and Marius has gone to fight and in the process of that fight, he is severely wounded.
Jean Valjean is there at the barricades, and in a very poignant scene you see him pick up the wounded Marius, put him on his back, and then open up a grate and descend into the city’s sewers. There, he escapes from the soldiers who are coming after them and he strides through the filth and the wreckage that is floating in the sewers of Paris in order to rise up in another place and bring Marius to a physician who can heal him and ultimately restore him to Cosette, his love.
It struck me what a wonderful example that is, and in some sense an allegory of Christ’s priesthood for realizing that we are mortally wounded as humans by our sin and our estrangement from the Father. Jesus, in a sense, came down to where we are and picked up our humanity as he took it as his own and he made his way against the filth and the sewage of this world, striding against the sin and the violence and the anger and the distortions, he carried our ruined humanity all the way up to the healing place, into the heavenlies, where now he is preparing a place for us where we can be in communion with him.
JMF: Having a sense of the ascension and where Christ is now at the right hand of the Father, ascended, taking our humanity as it really is with him, having healed it and redeemed it can’t help but bring a great hope to us as sinners if we are able to face it and recognize ourselves as sinners.
GSD: It’s a wonderful hope, because our life is in heaven with Christ and God. Now obviously, you and I are not yet in heaven, as nice as this place is, we haven’t quite arrived. Yet spiritually, the Scripture says we’re located in heaven with Christ. So we’re living now our days among earth as citizens of heaven. There’s a sense in which we take great comfort from the fact that our heavenly hope is secure and we’re making our way through this world as his agents, as those who are bringing the news of another life and another country to a very weary and broken world.
JMF: Most of the time, many of us feel like Marius on Jean Valjean’s back. We don’t feel like Jean Valjean, we feel wounded and near death, spiritually speaking, and helpless.
GSD: Sure. That’s where it’s so important that as we hear the wonderful story of the gospel and all its grandeur all the way through from his birth to his ministry to his death, resurrection, and ascension, we find ourselves located in the life of Christ. The Holy Spirit’s job is to come and fill us to give us the life of Christ in our presence and experience, so that we live now with the life of heaven to come flowing through us in the present moment. That’s a weird kind of time-warp thing to say, but the goal that we’re on our way to, actually becomes present in our experience through the work of the Holy Spirit.
How does that happen? How do we experience that? That’s where our participation and our faith makes a big difference. We can’t simply sit here like rocks and say, “Okay God, now give me the joy of heaven.” But as we worship, as we pray, as we faithfully study, as we fellowship, as we serve, and as we ask for the Holy Spirit to keep doing his work of, “Bring the heavenly life of Jesus into my present experience, Lord continue to transform me,” he promises that he will do that. He will pour out his Spirit upon us.
JMF: So our life in Christ is not something that we’re always going to feel some kind of glorious heaven-opened-light-shining-down wonderful moment. It’s actually lived out in the midst of the struggles of day-to-day life and the messiness of real relationships and the ups and downs.
GSD: Absolutely. The fact that we have this joy, Jesus said in John 16, “In a little while you will see me again and my joy will be with you and no one can take that joy from you,” the joy of the fact that he overcame death. It didn’t mean the disciples weren’t going to suffer. As much as we know from history, they all died pretty miserable deaths and lived under a great deal of persecution.
But our joy is not dependent on circumstances. It’s not even dependent on our moods and feelings. There’s a sense of joy that I have in the knowledge of all that Christ has done on my behalf, that is a constant peace that underlies circumstances of life even if I have to go through physical suffering, even if I have to go through broken relationships, even if some tragic accidents happen to those whom I love. Even in the midst of wars and tumults, the difference for the Christian is this deep, deep peace and recognition of what Christ has accomplished. Even when I’m not feeling it, not feeling happy and lighthearted, that’s where faith believes and it clings to the fact that this is reality. The world’s reality, its brokenness, is not the truest thing. At the deepest levels, all is well.
JMF: That makes such a huge difference for believers who are serious about their Christian lives, because we don’t experience great highs all the time, and we can go around trying to pretend that we do, to appear righteous and close to God, thinking that that’s what should be happening, so we can put on a façade as though everything is wonderful and everything is great, when everything isn’t and there are tragedies and sorrows and pains. But this deeper level you’re talking about is something that we’re able to see more clearly when we better understand Christ as a real human who has taken a real life up in his ascension to the Father.
GSD: When Paul commands the Philippians in chapter 4 to rejoice, it’s not about a feeling, it’s about an activity. Rejoicing in that sense means saying to myself or saying to others even in the teeth of suffering and even in walking through the valley of the shadow of death saying, “Nevertheless, Jesus reigns.” “Nevertheless, Christ is Lord, nevertheless, he has gone up into heaven and is there in my name and on my behalf. My sins are forgiven and I cannot be taken away from him, so I rejoice and praise you even in the midst of my tears.”
The phrase that you often hear young people saying today, “whatever,” is their way of detaching from something that they don’t like that happens to them. They say, “It doesn’t matter. Whatever.” John Calvin had a wonderful sermon where his refrain wasn’t “whatever,” but “what of it,” and the fact that while we care about what’s going on in life, there’s something so much truer that we can face circumstances and say, “What of it?”
In this sermon I’m thinking of, which happened to be an ascension sermon, Calvin was saying, “This world is filled with troubles and the devils assault us at every moment, but what of it? Christ Jesus reigns in heaven and sends me his power now. This world is full of temptations and often I am weak, but what of it? Christ is in heaven and he is strong and he is strong on my behalf.” I think when we realize that we can replace the “whatever” or even the crushingness of life with the, “What of it? No matter what is thrown my way, Christ reigns and he holds me, then I know at the deepest levels all is well and all will be well.”
JMF: In the couple of minutes we have left, let’s talk about how that affects mission. Our sense of being able to have joy in the face of whatever we are facing, how does that affect our responsibility in terms of Christian mission?
GSD: In the same way that the ascension gives us the joy when things are going wrong to know that Christ is reigning, the fact that in his ascension Jesus holds onto his humanity indicates his great concern for this world and for his little ones. It’s the ascended Jesus that gives the church her mission. He’s the one who sends us into the world and says, “What you do to the least of these, you have done to me.”
Augustine has a wonderful quote where he says, “Christ is in heaven glorious as God, but here he is needy and is poor. So worship him as God in heaven, but love him by loving his poor.” Isn’t that wonderful? There’s the church’s whole mission. Worship above to Christ who is God, serve Christ in his poor, Christ who is man here below.