The Christmas God is the Real God
There is no God standing behind or above Jesus Christ. To try to get behind the Bible to the “real” God is a form of idolatry, framing God in man’s image.
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”
Dear friends and supporters:
We can learn a great deal about God from Advent and Christmas. In fact, without the season we’re now celebrating, there are aspects of God’s character we’d likely never know.
The central truth of this season is the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Modernity privileges excarnation, that is, the Gnostic thesis of escaping the creative, material order, and, therefore, Christmas and Advent (see “Christmas versus Excarnation”). The goal of their “higher life” is the disembodied, contra-creational existence, and to Gnostics we know a being best when that being is pure spirit, unencumbered by matter and a body.
The contrasting biblical idea, that the incarnation reveals God’s character in ways that can’t otherwise be known, might flummox many Christians, for whom the incarnation is a concession to a substandard, inferior existence, a necessary evil for a fallen world. It would’ve been much preferred (they seem to think) had God kept himself sanitarily sequestered from the material world, viewing his creation safely at a distance, much as the imperious lord of the manor plants himself at his great house and dispatches servants to do his bidding but never finds his way out among his subjects.
The problem is that this is not the God of the Bible, and in the incarnation we know this God in ways we cannot fully know him apart from it.
What, then, can we learn about God from this Advent and Christmas season? (Because of the complicated nature of some of this article, I’ve included a few footnotes to suggest further reading.)
God Knows What It’s Like to Be Human
First, we can learn that the experience of the human condition is not foreign to God. That word experience might sound jarring with reference to God, but there’s just no way of getting around it. God has experiences as only God can, and not as man does, to be sure, but to say that God cannot experience is to speak of some other being than the God of the Bible. We might want to use another word than experience relating to God, but that word would have to mean much the same thing.
Proof? Well, there was (for instance) a time when there was no creation, and yet God existed, so when he created, that was a new experience for him;God was not an eternal Creator — unless, of course, we believe that matter is eternal and that God was always creating, an unthinkable theological monstrosity. So God experiences, and since God was at one time not incarnate as man, that was a new experience, even for God. So as not to compromise God’s sovereignty, John M. Frame has made the noteworthy suggestion that since God is both omnipotent and omniscient, he has predetermined his own experiences. Nothing takes God by surprise, and nothing and nobody can act on him that he hasn’t already determined. But they can act on him, and he does experience.
The Chalcedonian formula (A. D. 451) fleshes out [!] incarnation’s mysterious unity. Jesus Christ is one person in two natures (this is a chief instance of the Creator-creature distinction). These two natures are never commingled, but they’re always conjoined. In Jesus Christ, deity is never humanized and humanity is never deified, but since Bethlehem they perpetually exist in cooperation and coordination.
Since Jesus Christ was one person, and not two persons (as the ancient Nestorian heresy suggested), he had a single range of experiences, as both God and man. He did not experience weariness and sickness and fatigue as a human only. To assume that he did is really to say that the person of Jesus Christ is not truly God. Theologically this sharing of the human and divine in Jesus’ experiences is called the communicatio idiomatum. His deity is never his humanity and his humanity never his deity, but since they’re united in one person, they share a unified life, and therefore its experiences.
But we must take this a step further. Because the Father, Son, and Spirit share a single nature, what one experiences, all in some mysterious way experience. What Jesus of Nazareth experienced, the Father and Spirit experienced.
This does not mean each doesn’t have a particular role. The Father and the Spirit weren’t (and could never have been) incarnate and didn’t die on the cross, for example. But all of them share in this experience, and in all of Christ’s experiences (they all “know how it feels to….”). The Father and Spirit cannot die, but they know how it feels to die — because the One in whose nature they all commune has died.
To deny this is to deny that God has a single nature and to drift perilously close to tritheism, or three gods. Jesus Christ is touched with the feelings of our infirmities (Hebrews 4:15). This means that when we suffer fatigue, or ridicule, or illness, or abandonment — or death — Jesus Christ knows precisely what we’re experiencing. But because Jesus Christ knows, and because he shares a nature with the Father and the Spirit, they also know in some way.
Therefore, God knows what it is to be human, and since he didn’t experience what it was like to be human until the Bethlehem manger, we can know more about God since his incarnation than God’s people could before. God hasn’t changed (and cannot change [Malachi 3:6]), but he can (and did) add a mode of existence, with its unique experiences. (See this enlightening essay.)
Not the Process God, but the Covenant God
Christians aware of certain theological developments over the last 125 years might shy away from these conclusions. They’re aware of the distorted, wrecked views of God known as process theology and philosophy, and free will and open theism.These are all positions that, in one way or another, make God’s existence dependent on creation or man. The technical name for this is “panentheism.” In the end they all deny God’s transcendence and sovereignty. God becomes needy and dependent on man. The Bible, however, teaches that he emphatically is transcendent and sovereign. God is not dependent on man, and God is not evolving into some higher kind of being (Acts 17:25).
The Sovereign God
But precisely because God is sovereign, he can, and does, manifest his love in creation and covenant. He can draw his creation and, in particular, humanity, and specifically redeemed humanity, into a loving reciprocity with him. When man sins, God as Christ can choose to die for the sins of the world to meet his own terms of justice. He can choose to become man without sacrificing his deity one whit, and he can choose to experience what man experiences, only as God can, without becoming less sovereign and transcendent.
As you might imagine, this truth of Advent and Christmas has dramatic implications for the kind of God we love and serve.
A God who cannot choose to create, cannot choose to enter covenant with his creatures, cannot choose to interact with that creation such that he can experience as that creation might experience — that God, in fact, is not the sovereign God of the Bible but a pygmy deity.
Person(s) Named God
Second, God is a person. More accurately, God is “three persons, blessed trinity.” Theologians argue over what it means for God to be three persons. What is a person? Is a person more than a “center of consciousness”? Does the Father, Son, and Spirit each see himself as in some sense different from the other two? How do we understand that there are three persons without there being three Gods? The orthodox (and biblical) solution is to say that God is one nature in three persons, in some ways the opposite situation of Jesus Christ, who is two natures in one person.
A lot of the argument over personhood is hot air. To be a person is to be aware of one’s own existence (not counting unconsciousness, though God is never unconscious). He can contemplate his own existence. He has reason. He can communicate with others of his kind. Properly interpreted, he has autonomy, not the radical autonomy of the modern world, of course, but he exists as an individual aware of what this separate (though never separated) existence implies.
God is not three persons in precisely the same way that humans are persons, but since man was created to image God, man is certainly like God in some ways. All of this is true without any specific reference to the incarnation.
Our Emotional God
But the incarnation brings to light other aspects of personhood. Persons have feelings and emotions, and since God’s a person, he does too.
Under the influence of ancient Greek philosophy, many church fathers seemed to ignore this obviously biblical fact. They spoke of the impassibility of God. Impassibility means not experiencing emotions, particularly pleasure or pain, not being passive or acted on. It means unable to be influenced by factors external to oneself, in God’s case, by his creation.
Many of the ancients believed that their pagan gods were vindictive, angry, and sometimes even venal. They surrendered to emotions just like humans did, but were simply higher forms of beings. In fact, we might say that the ancient gods were actually superhumans.
So when the ancients came to contemplate the highest, perfect being, they were confident he must be one without emotion. He’s not influenced by anything outside himself. Unfortunately, a number of church fathers bought into this line, not wanting to besmirch the sovereign God by identifying him with the pagan, superhuman deities.
But this isn’t the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible was heartsick that he had created man (Genesis 6:6). He is compassionate on his people (Exodus 3:7; Deuteronomy 4:31; James 5:11). He is grieved (Ephesians 4:30) and angry when they abandon him (Isaiah 5:25). He is delighted when they love and obey him (Zephaniah 3:17).
These texts are so numerous and obvious that they cannot simply be dismissed, so what the philosophical theists (theologians who surrender too much to worldly philosophy) do is to suggest these texts are anthropomorphisms: that is, ways of speaking so that man can understand, imputing to God human traits he actually doesn’t have.
There are certainly anthropomorphisms in the Bible. For example, God is spirit, yet we read of the right hand of the Lord (Psalm 118:15–16). The Bible does employ figures of speech to refer to God.
But if you assume that God’s delight or anger are anthropomorphic, you land in a quandary. Are God’s love and justice also anthropomorphic? Would we want to say that God actually does not love, is actually is not just, but these are simply ways of speaking about God that man can understand?
This notion would really mean that we cannot know God as he is, and that the Bible hides the real God. In fact, this is precisely the charge leveled by the late J. I. Packer, whom no one would accuse of denying God’s sovereignty:
By “mystification” I mean the idea [often held in traditional views of God] that some biblical statements about God mislead as they stand, and ought to be explained away….
[S]ometimes [in the Bible] God is said to change his mind and to make new decisions as he reacts to human beings. Orthodox theists have insisted that God does not really change his mind since God is impassible and never a “victim” of his creation. As writes Louis Berkhof, representative of this view, “the change is not in God, but in man and man’s relations to God.”
But to say that is to say that some things that Scripture affirms about God do not mean what they seem to mean, and do mean what they do not seem to mean. This provokes the question: How can these statements be part of the revelation of God when they actually misrepresent and so conceal God? In other words, how may we explain these statements about God’s grief and repentance without seeming to explain them away?
[A]t every point in his self-disclosure God reveals what he essentially is, with no gestures that mystify. And surely we must reject as intolerable any suggestion that God in reality is different at any point from what Scripture makes him appear to be. Scripture was not written to mystify and therefore we need to ask how we can dispel the contrary impression that the time-honored, orthodox line of explanation leaves.
The Bible does not mystify God. It tells us precisely what God is like. To try to get behind the Bible to the real God is a form of idolatry, framing God in man’s image.
It should bear mentioning that the doctrine of impassibility filled the theological arsenal of the Arians, who posited the Son as a created being and denied his equal deity with the Father. When they read in the Bible of Jesus’ emotions, this was proof he couldn’t be equal with God, because God could not be emotional. But God is in fact emotional, since he is a person, and persons are emotional beings.
Even before the incarnation, we could have know this about God (the ancient Jews did), but we know it in a concentrated sense when we see Jesus Christ as he is troubled by the death of his friend Lazarus, weeps over the apostasy of Jerusalem, and agonizes on the cross.
In the incarnation we can perceive in an intense way that God is a person(and persons) and that the Father, Son, and Spirit can relate intimately to us because we are persons, although God is always a divine person, and we are always created persons.
Our Thisworldly God
Third, and finally, God is intensely thisworldly. We could have known this without the incarnation, of course. The ancient Jews knew it. We learn it right from the creation account. We read in the very first verse of the Bible that God created not only the earth, but also the heavens. The heavens are the current dwelling place of God. They were created so that he could relate to the earth.It’s important to recognize that the heavens are a created reality because otherwise, we might think they are eternal, and that God needed “someplace to live.“
But God is a spirit. He doesn’t need to dwell anywhere (1 Kings 8:27). After creation he has chosen to dwell in the heavens in order to relate to the earth (1 Kings 8:43). At times he has localized his presence, for example, in the most holy place of the ancient tabernacle and temple, and among the visible, gathered people of God in the new covenant era (2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephsians 2:21). The psalmist goes so far as to say that God is present everywhere (Psalm 139:7–12). This in fact is what is known as an attribute of God: omnipresence.
Our Anti-Gnostic God
Because God is intensely interested in his creation, this is the antithesis to the ancient Gnostic heresy, in which the highest deity conceived was abstract and impersonal, not really a person at all, in fact. It was an ignorant and inferior god, the demiurge, that foolishly created matter and the world. The true God is too high and remote for interest in creation, much less a desire to dwell there.
In their own way, some Christians tiptoe in that heretical direction. They recognize the biblical truth of predestination and election — and make no mistake, these are biblical truths — but they fail to understand that God doesn’t only decree his will eternally; he accomplishes it historically. God doesn’t kick back and “watch the show” after having written the script from beginning to end. He himself eagerly descends into history to accomplish his will within the script.
God is active in the world at all times: altering climate and weather, punishing the wicked, rescuing the righteous, pulling down proud politicians, exalting the poor and lowly, frustrating criminals, protecting pregnant mothers, empowering men and women of God, and much, much more. God is an intensely active God, active not only in that he is ruling from heaven, but he is ruling from within the earth.
It is not only that God is high and holy and lifted up. He is also the lord of the cosmic manor constantly mingling with his subjects to aid and oversee them and accomplish his benevolent will in their lives.
The Thisworldly Jesus
But this thisworldliness is particularly evident in the incarnate Son, who went everywhere doing good, preaching the kingdom gospel, healing the sick, exorcising demons, encouraging disciples, castigating moralists, and instantiating God and his kingdom.
He promised to send his Spirit so that his post-apostolic church could accomplish even greater works than he did (John 14:12–18). This is the chief present role of the Spirit: the Spirit is God’s presence in the world.He is present in believers, whose very bodies he fills. In short, we incarnate God by his Spirit that fills us, just as God incarnated the man Jesus.
Of course, we are sinners, and there is no precise duplication of Christ’s in our own incarnation of the Spirit, but we are sons of God, and we are today as Christ was when he was in the world (1 John 4:17).
For this reason, we must be thisworldly people, not constantly longing for escape. Like Paul, we long for the replacement of our perishing physical body with an imperishable heavenly body of the resurrection (2 Corinthians 5:1–8), but everywhere in all things, we press for the victory of the King, in this world.
The Christmas God, like the Easter God, is the true God. There is no God standing behind or above Jesus Christ different from the God we see in and as him.
Charles Wesley wrote lyrics from the famous Christmas hymn, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” but these lines can be misleading. It is true that it’s difficult for us to understand how God could be incarnate, since he is a spirit, and in that sense his deity is veiled to our finite minds; but the fact is, God is incarnate in (and as) Christ, and the Bible does not tell us that God was veiled in the flesh, but rather that he was manifest in the flesh (1 Timothy 3:16). God came to earth so that people could hear and talk to and see and touch him (John 1:–14; 1 John 1:1)
If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus Christ:
Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you have not known Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father (John 14:9)
He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. (Colossians 1:15)
For in Him [Jesus] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Colossians 2:9)
[Jesus] being the brightness of His [God’s] glory and the express image of His person … .(Hebrews 1:3) (emphases supplied)
The Best News In the World
Years ago a young woman reared in an ostensibly Christian home but who had been abused by men all her life (starting with her hypocritical father), abandoned all hope in God. Contemplating suicide, she stumbled into a Bible-believing church as a last resort. She heard the beautiful, simple gospel message and was deeply moved. Afterward the pastor confronted her and she poured out her life’s story.
He told her that God loved her and in his Son suffered great agony on the cross and, therefore God knew her suffering firsthand (not from a distance), and wished more than anything to rescue her from her sins and from her tragic plight.
She thought for a moment and responded slowly: “I imagine if I could believe that God is like Jesus, I could believe in God.”
The pastor rejoined: “Well, I have the best news in the world for you. God is exactly like Jesus. Everything you need to know about God you can know from knowing Jesus.”
She was gloriously converted that very day.
The Christmas God is the real God, and there simply is no other.
This will be the final full e-newsletter of 2021. I am grateful to each of you who reads and promotes it. Thank you helping keep CCL forging ahead to victory.
Sharon and I pray that this will be your most joy-drenched and Christ-honoring Christmas ever.
In Jesus Christ, the incarnate King,
Founder & President, Center for Cultural Leadership
Isaak August Dorner, Divine Immutability: A Critical Reconsideration (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 141–142.
Thomas F. Torrance, “The Atonement, the Singularity of Christ and the Finality of the Cross: The Atonement and the Moral Order,” in Universalism and the Doctrine of Hell, Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 232, 233.
Start with Process Theology: A Reader, Ewert H. Cousins, ed. (New York: Newman Press, 1971). For a critical analysis, see Process Theology, Ronald H. Nash, ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987). For a treatment of Open Theism that criticizes aspects of philosophical theism, see John M. Frame, No Other God: A Response to Open Theism (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R, 2001).
Karl Rahner argues persuasively that we know God as he actually is only in the economy of salvation. I believe this view skirts creation as well as God’s transcendence, but he is correct that to know God as fully as humans can, we must know him in the incarnation. See his classic The Trinity (New York: Crossroad, 1967).
For a cautious refinement of philosophical theism moving slightly back toward the biblical view of God, see Rob Lister, God Is Impassible and Impassioned (Wheaton, Illinois: Crosssway, 2013).
J. I. Packer, “What Do You Mean When You Say God?” Christianity Today, September 19, 1986, 30, emphases in original.
I hold the view of Cornelius Van Til, that there is no impersonality in the Godhead, no deity that is not person: “God is not an essence that has personality. He is absolute personality.” See his In Defense of the Faith, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1974), 229–230.