Christian KettlerChristian Kettler is professor of religion at Friends University in Kansas. He received his PhD in 1986 from Fuller Theological Seminary, working with the late Dr. Ray Anderson.

People like to talk about the potential of salvation, but the Bible refers to the actuality of salvation.

Edited transcript

JMF: In your book, The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation, what is the connection between the reality of salvation and the vicarious humanity of Christ?

CK: It’s part of a personal odyssey, I guess, in the sense that I always try to think in terms of “where is the reality of Christ in the world today?” Our world does not seem to be very Christ-like; it’s filled with so much innocent suffering, needless war, strife. So how can Christians meaningfully talk about salvation?

The more I thought about it, and truthfully, looking at it biblically, it seems to me that obviously it’s in Christ. There is no salvation apart from Christ. He’s not just the means of salvation – he’s the substance of salvation. Looking to him is where salvation is, not looking at the church necessarily, not looking at political or religious forces in the world, but looking at him.

JMF: When you say he is the substance of salvation, he is the salvation itself.

CK: Exactly.

JMF: How does that play out?

CK: This is where the vicarious humanity of Christ becomes important, in that his response to the Father is the saving and atoning reality of salvation. Around us is so much chaos (and so much that is less than salvation) that we only find a source of salvation when we look at him, and particularly in his humanity, in which he provides the perfect and obedient response to the Father that we have been unable to present – not just in paying the penalty for our sins, although he does that, but in the entirety of his life and the entirety of his faith and obedience to the Father. That is done for us, on our behalf, and it takes our place, because we’re not able to be that obedient. We’re not able to be that faithful. In him, we see the reality of salvation. Not in our own religiosity, our own spirituality, our own spiritual formation. Not in the world’s religions, certainly not in political forces, but simply in him.

JMF: Most Christians think that salvation has to do with measuring up to a certain level of morality or righteousness or holiness. It’s a goal to achieve by measuring up to a certain level of obedience. But you’re saying that’s not what it is at all.

CK: That ends up bypassing Jesus Christ. Often we say yes, we confess Jesus is Lord, he’s God, and he is! But we forget that he is truly human, and in his humanity he was perfectly faithful and obedient to the Father. In that movement of faithfulness, that was an atoning movement for us in our place. He lives the life, in other words, that we have been unable to live.

So salvation shouldn’t be seen as just a goal for me to be religious and good. Quite the contrary. It’s a goal that Jesus Christ has already done for us, that he invites us to enter in by his grace through the power of the Spirit and to participate in his faith and obedience. That’s where the reality of salvation is. Not in me and my religiosity and my spirituality. That’s where we often go astray.

JMF: In the New Testament and with Paul, you find the term “in Christ,” being “in Christ,” dozens of times. What is he driving at?

CK: For Paul, what other theologians have called “union with Christ” was at the center of his theology. Some people suggest it’s not justification by faith that is the center of Paul’s theology, but union with Christ.

James Stewart was a Scottish scholar of a previous generation who wrote a wonderful book about Paul simply entitled A Man in Christ. A man in Christ. That means it’s a location. It’s a place. Paul saw himself not in Rome, not in Jerusalem, not in the needless suffering and in the sin and evil of the Roman Empire, but located in Christ. So then he could go out into that Empire and bear witness to Christ. Through that reality, salvation came to people in the midst of a world that often appears to be so lost.

JMF: When we say Christ became human for us, we don’t mean he just did something that then we take to ourselves if we choose to…

CK: Right…

JMF: What he did transformed us. The passage in John, “If I am lifted up, I will draw all men to myself.” That’s reality.

CK: Right. There’s a union with Christ that has already happened. That is part of the gift of grace. That’s what grace is about. Grace isn’t just an infusion of some spiritual power. It’s the reality of the person of Jesus Christ himself taking our place – taking our place in all our attempts to be good, religious, and moral people. We can’t be religious enough, we can’t be moral enough, and we do not have the answers. It’s only abiding in Christ, and that’s why Christ talks about “abide in me,” “remain in me.” That’s all part of being “located in Christ” motif all throughout the New Testament.

JMF: So union with Christ is a reality. Like you say in the title of the book, The Vicarious Humanity of Christ and the Reality of Salvation, we’re not talking about what we often get (at least I did) growing up at church. You get a sense of, “You need to get in step with Christ so you can be on the road to salvation.” You’re talking about a union with Christ that Paul and John are writing about that is already true.

CK: Already true. Already a reality.

JMF: We’re participating with what is, not trying to bring about something.

CK: Yeah. We think in terms of potential, not actuality. The gospel is about actuality, not just about a potential, a possibility. But we always think in terms of possibility and potential, and the potential to be a good Christian, a potential for salvation. But the actuality is already there in Christ. We need to respond to the reality, through the actuality, and not try to bring it in ourselves.

JMF: Isn’t that why the gospel is good news, as opposed to hopeful, possibly, if-you-do-well-enough news?

CK: Right. That just becomes a curse on people. It’s a burden that’s unbearable.

JMF: You’re director of the Master of Arts in Christian Ministry program at Friends University in Wichita. What are some of the newer challenges your students are facing in their work in Christian ministry?

CK: There are many challenges in a postmodern context, in which much change is taking place in the church and in the world. In terms of spiritual formation, for example, the church is awakened to the need to be intentional about the Christian life without being legalistic. Our students want to become those who can equip others in spiritual formation.

One of the most popular tracks in our program is the track in spiritual formation, in which we have courses in spiritual direction and biblical and historical and theological foundations of spirituality, the relationship of spirituality in ministry, and to be able to equip people for that in the everyday work-a-day world and not just equip them to become monks, as was the case for centuries. (If you’re really going to be a spiritual person in those days, you become a monk or a nun or something like that.) Today’s movement in spiritual formation realizes that that’s the privilege of all Christians.

But it’s a new kind of language, and it’s easy to go into a new kind of legalism. The old legalism was “don’t smoke or chew or go with girls who do” or go to movies or something like that. The new legalism could become “make sure you do all the spiritual disciplines, prayer, Bible-reading, fasting.” But the best teachers of spiritual disciplines are those who say they are not to be a burden of legalism but an opportunity to increase your experience of this union with Christ, to develop this love relationship with God. As Ray Anderson says, spiritual disciplines shouldn’t be seen as just body-building, but as preparing for ministry and for Christian life. It’s not to be seen as an end in itself, as often has been the case. But that’s a challenge.

There are challenges along the lines of just being a Christian in the world and equipping people to do that. In our program we’re fortunate to have a format that has a great number of lay-people in it. We meet one night a week, and it’s a two-year program. They take one course at a time, so they can integrate the theology and biblical studies, and whatever else they’re learning in the classroom, with what they’re doing in the world, in their job, in their family, and in the church throughout the rest of the week. There’s a great hunger for that, but not many good models out there in how to do that.

Often, traditional seminary and theological education is just to train someone to be a pastor, and that’s it. That has changed. In our multi-tasking culture, we realize the terror and the burden of being a multi-tasking pastor, a pastor who’s expected to have all the gifts of the body of Christ. Fortunately, the church has awakened to the importance of different spiritual gifts and seen increasing that should be true for leadership. There will be some who have gifts for counseling, but maybe not gifts for preaching.

There needs to be a new model of staff of ministry. In a way, our little program has responded to that in providing different tracks – spiritual formation, biblical studies, family ministry, contemporary worship in the arts – that meet particular gifts, realizing that no Christian leader is able to have all the gifts that we used to expect a typical pastor to have. Hopefully that will free pastors to use the gifts that God has given them and not try to be the entire body of Christ themselves.

JMF: Just as an aside, Friends University is not a Friends denominational university.

CK: Right. It’s not controlled by the Quakers. It was started by the Friends in 1890, but it hasn’t been officially Quaker since the ’30s. It’s an interdenominational Christian university. I’m Presbyterian; we have Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, you name it, it’s on our faculty and certainly among our students, who represent every denomination, race, gender, clergy, lay. We have quite a diversity within a common Christian commitment.

JMF: Getting back to what you were saying before, about one of the courses and living out your Christianity in everyday life, let’s talk about that. You work in an office, you go to your office every day. What are some of the ways that you live out your Christianity in the office?

CK: It’s got to begin with my colleagues and my students. For all of us, we can talk about how much we should love the world, but it’s first of all that “love your neighbor” means literally “your neighbor,” the person you’re in proximity with. Karl Barth has a wonderful section in his Church Dogmatics on neighbors near and far in his ethics. He takes very seriously that love needs proximity. He uses those words: “love needs proximity.”

Therefore, my first responsibility is to that faculty colleague, that maybe we don’t get along on every issue. Maybe we’re violently opposed to each other on some big faculty issue which is not big to anyone except us. He’s the person I’m called to love. Or that student – the student who seems to be cantankerous over every great idea I have and who is difficult to relate to.

We transfer this to all of us, whether it be in the workplace or the family, the importance of love needing proximity. The church needs to see ourselves increasingly to equip people for that. There’s no use in making broad generalizations about the world and social concern and evangelism if we can’t equip people to love those we’re near to. Then we can begin to take this one step beyond. That is a practical Christianity that we need to cultivate and develop. It’s what we see in the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus.

JMF: St. Francis said, “Always preach the gospel. If necessary, use words.” A lot of times, Christians make themselves odious on the job or on the softball team or whatever by constantly wanting to evangelize everybody without living out…. Don’t we sometimes have a line we draw? Up here is spiritual life, and down here is day-to-day mundane life. We think if we’re going to be Christian anywhere, we have to do “spiritual” things like ask people if they love Jesus and bring out a pamphlet or tract or something and try to go over it with them during the lunch hour, forgetting that Christ is all of life. Everything. Loving a person isn’t confronting them over things they’re not prepared for, but loving them like friends love friends, and being a regular human being like Christ was everywhere he went.

CK: That was the first moment of the Incarnation, of solidarity with sinners and publicans – Jesus sitting at table with sinners and publicans. It’s that first moment of presence rather than simply bowling them over with words. The words came later, but the first movement of the gospel is solidarity. The second movement is being conformed to the image of his Son. That is what I call the double movement of the Incarnation, of a “God to human beings” movement, and “from human beings to God.”

It’s very theological and it’s very much the Incarnation, but it’s related to the presence of Christians in the world, who first have that movement of solidarity, friendship, relationship, and to be able to earn the right to speak the word, or else the words become just chattering. They become what Thomas Torrance calls the devastating effect of dualistic thinking in our society: of separating the words, the actual speech, from the Word, Jesus Christ. We think when we just have the language going on, it’s okay. No. Christ may not be with that language unless we bring them together at the right time, led by the Spirit.

JMF: Being always contains the gospel, whereas words don’t always, even though they may mouth the right tone.

CK: Exactly. They could just be chattering speech rather than the reflection of God’s presence. That’s always the temptation of religion, and unfortunately Christianity can get into that as well, and be dehumanizing. It’s the opposite of the Incarnation, which is the ultimate humanizing action, in which God takes upon himself our humanity, humanizing us. But often we treat people in a dehumanizing religious way, and we forget that Jesus came, and his greatest critics were the religious people of his time.

Religion has insidious temptation for Christians that we have to constantly check ourselves against, because the world will give us that religious niche. The religious people will be over here in the corner, and we can do our own little thing and have our own little barriers and contexts in which we can accept people. But it’s when we say that the Word became flesh, that embraces culture, that does not simply destroy culture, that can be threatening to the world, but they’re also threatened by genuine love, presence and acceptance. That’s when the gospel becomes the most revolutionary to people. All of us who experience Christ have experienced something like that It’s sad that often the church presents another face.

JMF: The gospel is bound up in friendship, isn’t it? When you see a true friendship, there is Christ at work, even though the words may not be used. After all, there is no good thing that doesn’t come from God. People can respond to you as a Christian once you’re already their friend. A lot of Christians are afraid to make friends. They’ll be friends with people at church, but they’re afraid to have real friendships for the sake of the friendship.

CK: That’s the dualism between the religious and the secular world, which is tragic, in that the Incarnation says something very different. Jesus sat at table with sinners and publicans. He risks that he would not be considered to be the perfect religious person. He took the risk of love. Christians need to take that risk in associating with people, making friends, as you say, in the world, not being afraid to do that. Part of being a Christian is to take those risks.

We can do so as Jesus did because he constantly was in dependence on the Father. If we’re not in dependence on the Father, we can become changed by the world. We shouldn’t make any bones about it: the world will change us if we allow it. But in dependence on the Father, Jesus was able to sit at table with sinners and publicans. That’s when the gospel became life-changing, because there was an integration: a word and presence in the very person of Jesus. The church, later on, was the most successful when it bore witness to that reality and didn’t live that dualistic existence that religion so often tempts people to get into.

JMF: It seems like that dualistic approach can turn people into a project. You say, “My neighbor or this fellow at work…I want to present the gospel to him, therefore I’ll (in essence) pretend to be his friend… Of course I’ll try to be friends with him, but I’m not doing it because he’s worth befriending or because I want to make a friend of him, it’s because I want to do my gospel sales job at the end.”

CK: That’s tragic. It’s phony, and people catch that. That’s what’s ironic about it. Most people say, “It’s obvious you’re not interested in me. I’m just a potential convert for you. I’m a non-Christian.” What terrible language! We need to stop talking about non-Christians. No. These are men and women, boys and girls who are made in the image of God, who are loved already by Jesus Christ.

JMF: And if everybody is being drawn to Christ because, as he said, “If I’m lifted up, I will draw all men to myself,” we’re all on that journey. Some have come to the place on the journey where they have come to know Christ in a personal way, but everybody else is also on the journey, whether they’ve come to that point or not.

CK: One of my best friends is a Jewish agnostic poet of some renown. That relationship has been an interesting gift from God, as it’s reminded me of our shared humanity in Jesus Christ, even though he is not aware of it yet. That’s the only difference. Through that friendship, that’s the best witness I can give to him. Do we have disagreements about major issues of values? You better believe it. Is it difficult at times for me? Yes. But the Lord constantly reminds me, “This is the kind of genuine evangelism that’s based on accepting people for who they are, seeking to be their friend, and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.” We forget about the place of the Holy Spirit in evangelism. Jesus said very plainly that “the Spirit will testify of me.” The Spirit works with our hearts.

Evangelism isn’t our project. Friendship is important. Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” The Quakers have it right there. We need to take that seriously. Friendship is not just among the religious people or the church or the congregation or denomination, but among the entirety of humanity. The Word became flesh to all human beings – all men and women, boys and girls.

JMF: Friendships, all relationships, are not static. They are up and down and messy. All we have to do is look at Jacob, and his walk with God was very messy, sometimes close, sometimes selfish, sometimes greedy. God is always faithful on his side, we’re not always faithful on our side, and yet he keeps us as his friends anyway. Abraham’s father of the faithful, and yet some major examples of lack of faith in Scripture are attributed to Abraham. David. You name it. All the walks are messy. A little honesty shows us that our own walk with God is a messy one.

CK: That is a powerful witness in itself, if I’m honest about who I am and I’m not trying to cover up my failures and weaknesses and trying to be too much of a goody-goody Christian (that just communicates phoniness). When I communicate my own weakness, my own doubts (as I talk about in the book), that makes the gospel more real to people who haven’t accepted Christ yet.

That’s what theology needs to do in addressing things like doubt, despair, loneliness, anxiety, those universal human issues of existential crisis, and realize the gospel, the Word becoming flesh, goes deeply into those issues whether you’re a Christian or not a Christian. It speaks deeply at the problems that all of us share.

JMF: Issues of real life as opposed to some plastic, fake, pretend idealism that we like to put forward while we’re at church.

CK: Yeah. The religious issue of when the tribulation will take place is obviously silly compared to questions of despair and anxiety and loneliness. Just think of a world that is so lonely and that we don’t see the implications of the gospel for that loneliness, and we’re talking about when the millennium might come. That’s just silly, but it’s been a fault of the church and the theologians. The theologians need to address the existential issues.

But the church also needs to think about these existential issues theologically, according to the gospel, and not just according to pop psychology. That’s what I’m trying to do in these books I’m working on, The God Who Believes, and the next one, The God Who Rejoices, on joy and despair, on how can we have joy in the midst of despair. What is joy? How does the gospel speak to despair in life? That’s where the gospel makes a difference.

JMF: That’s the whole point of Trinitarian theology – a theology that focuses on who God is in a relationship of love. God is love, Father, Son, and Spirit loving one another…bringing humanity and Christ into that love relationship. That is where real life is touched, as opposed to just some kind of list of religious things to do or not do, or things to believe and not believe. It’s real living in Christ, as Paul said.

CK: Yeah. The Trinity is, as one book puts it, is concerned of “persons in communion.” It’s a book by Alan Torrance. Persons in Communion – that’s a beautiful title. That’s what the Trinity is about. God is in relationship himself, and therefore he’s concerned about those relational issues in our lives, in our families - with spouses, with sons and daughters, in society, issues between races, issues of reconciliation.

The gospel is relational, but it’s not a pop psychology just to feel nice and warm and fuzzy about each other, but really gain the bedrock of who we are. The gospel addresses this at the deepest level and the widest expanse of our humanity.

The next book I’ll be working on is The God Who Answers, on the implications of the vicarious humanity of Christ for creation and our understanding of humanity. Who do we understand human beings to be? Do we understand them according to our self-understanding? That’s pretty limited. Or, does Jesus Christ in his humanity tell us something about what it means to be human – especially at those issues of great concern and existential crisis like doubt and despair and loneliness?

JMF: Life seems to be made of small spaces in between doubt and despair and loneliness.

CK: Exactly. We often avoid them. They’re too difficult to deal with. That’s often another problem that theology has, that even in the church, people assume these are issues that are too difficult to deal with. Nobody has the answers, so I’m just not going to think about them. It could be God, it could be who Jesus Christ is, it could be my own loneliness, my own despair, my own anxiety, my own dealing with my death. So I’m just not going to think about that. We simply turn on the TV or the video game or the cell phone. You name it. We have technological gadgets to keep our minds off our own dilemma and also off God.

This is what Kierkegaard called unconscious despair. There’s one despair being depressed about losing your job, for example, and that definitely is an occasion despair, but there’s another kind of despair, which is not knowing you’re in despair. Kierkegaard, a great Danish theologian, calls this “unconscious despair.” This is the most dangerous despair, Kierkegaard says, because it doesn’t recognize the despair we have that is lying within, that we try to mask over with activities to stay busy.

Some of the worst culprits are people in the church keeping busy with church activities, committees, projects, you name it, so we don’t have to look at ourselves and also not to look at God. That’s what Kierkegaard calls unconscious despair, and I think he’s very perceptive there. We need to see that the gospel addresses us at our deepest and widest point. This is where Christ taking upon the entirety of our humanity, including our fears and our anxieties and our loneliness and despair, becomes so important.

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Last modified: Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 2:49 PM