An Open Letter to the Evangelical Church on Christology
Written by Stephen J. Wellum, PhD
Scripture speaks to us on many issues, but none so important, glorious, and central than our Lord Jesus Christ—and that is an understatement! Given who Jesus is and what he has done, he is the very heart and substance of the gospel, indeed all of Scripture, and thus the most important person in all of human history. Just think about three examples that demonstrate this point.
First, it’s almost a truism to say that our triune God is central to everything as the glorious all-sufficient One who alone is Creator and Lord (Rom. 11:33–36). Yet, how we come to know God as triune is largely due to the incarnation of the divine Son and his work. As John reminds us, Jesus is “the Word made flesh” (John 1:14), yet from eternity he was the divine Son who was “with God” and “was God,” thus revealing the triune relation of persons within God (John 1:1). Apart from Christ’s incarnation, we would not know fully how he, as the divine Son, eternally shared the one undivided divine nature with the Father and Holy Spirit in perfect love and communion. And significantly for us, we would not have a Redeemer to save us from our sins (Matt. 1:21).
Second, to understand Scripture aright, we must also see that it’s our Lord Jesus Christ who is central to it. Despite numerous authors and books, Scripture has one main message: what our triune God has planned in eternity and accomplished in time to bring all of his purposes and plans to fulfillment in Christ Jesus. Scripture repeatedly reminds us of this truth. In Christ alone, God’s plan finds its fulfillment (Heb. 1:1–4). In Christ, God has planned to bring “all things in heaven and on earth” under his headship (Eph. 1:9–10), since it’s not only through the Son that the Father has created (with the Spirit), but the very purpose of creation is “for him” (Col. 1:16). No wonder our Lord taught us to read all of Scripture in terms of himself (Luke 24:26–27; John 5:39–40) since he is the main character in the story and the central figure of all of human history (Matt. 5:17–20; 11:11–13).
Third, we cannot understand the gospel apart from Christ (1 Cor. 15:1–3). Central to the gospel is what our triune God has done to redeem his people and to establish a new creation. This is why “eternal life” is found only in Christ (John 17:3). By assuming a human nature, the divine Son became the first man of the new creation, perfectly qualified to be our new covenant head. In his work, Jesus reversed the work of Adam (Rom. 5:12–21; Heb. 2:5–18) and secured our eternal salvation (Heb. 5:8-10) by his life, death, and resurrection. In fact, it’s only because Christ is truly God and truly human that he was able to redeem us. As the divine Son, he alone is able to satisfy God’s own judgment against our sin, and as the incarnate Son, he alone is able to identify with us as our representative and substitute (Heb. 5:1). For this reason, Christ is central to the gospel, and apart from him there is no salvation (John 14:6; Acts 4:11).
Why is this important to state? Because it not only reminds us that Jesus is in a category all by himself, but also that knowing Christ is no minor issue. In life we can be confused about many issues and not know many things, but to be confused about who Jesus is and what he has done and to not know him as Lord and Savior is a life and death issue.
For this reason, it’s alarming to discover that within the evangelical church there is rampant confusion regarding the person and work of Christ. If our world is confused, we are not surprised. But when confusion about Christ is within the church, this is a serious matter!
Since 2014, “The State of Theology Poll”1 has been conducted, which has revealed beliefs of self-identified “evangelicals.” In 2020, the latest version of the poll was released and the results were disturbing. We discovered that of 573 self-identified “evangelicals,” 96% believed in the Trinity, but 65% agreed that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God” (a heretical view held by the Arians and Jehovah’s Witnesses). We also discovered that 30% believed that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God,” and 42% that “God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.”
When one thinks through these “evangelical” responses, it sadly reveals that what is most central to the Christian faith is either denied, misunderstood, or that the current state of evangelicalism is one of huge biblical and theological illiteracy. But as noted above, this kind of confusion is not minor as with so many other areas in life. Instead, this confusion has eternal life and death consequences, given who Jesus is.
This should be a wake-up call for the evangelical church. But instead of bemoaning the situation, it should move us to action by calling us back again to the faithful exposition of God’s Word, the teaching of sound doctrine, and renewing our commitment to proclaim Christ. For too long the evangelical church has gone soft on sound exposition of Scripture and the faithful teaching of systematic theology and replaced it with the felt needs of people and joining various social causes. But given the life and death importance of who Christ is, and given where the evangelical church is, our greatest need is to think rightly about Christ—biblically and theologically. The life and health of the church depends on a correct preaching and teaching of Christ—a teaching that leads us, by God’s grace, to faith and confidence in our Lord Jesus, and an entire life lived in adoration, praise, and obedience to him.
But a question needs to be asked: Why, generally speaking, have so many evangelicals drifted from the “first things” of the gospel centered in Christ? Probably many answers could be given to this question, but years ago Francis Schaeffer offered a potential answer.
In thinking about generations of Christians and churches, Schaeffer contrasted the difference between a living orthodoxy, a dead orthodoxy, and liberalism. He suggested that a “living orthodoxy” was reflected by people who were born of the Spirit, who gladly embraced the doctrinal truths of the gospel, and who found their central identity in Christ and his people. From this center in Christ, a lifestyle resulted that aimed to please God and to impact the culture for Christ. A “dead orthodoxy,” on the other hand, was characterized by people who affirmed the truths of the gospel, but their central identity was in the moral/social entailments of the gospel.
Their first concern was not the glory of Christ but more about transforming the culture for Christ. What the apostle John criticized the Ephesian church for was true of them: they were sound in doctrine, but they had lost their first love (Rev. 2:1–7). And then from a dead orthodoxy, “liberalism” soon followed. Liberalism denied the truths of Christian theology, and all that remained of historic Christianity were its moral/social entailments—a “social gospel”—that attempted to transform society by political revolution but not by the truth of the gospel.
What must captivate evangelicals again is the objective truth of the gospel—indeed Christ himself!
If we apply Schaeffer’s analysis to our current state of evangelicalism, I’m concerned that “dead orthodoxy” describes many parts of it. Most evangelicals “affirm” historic Christianity, but as the polls reveal, this “affirmation” is quite confused. What too many evangelical churches are consumed with is not the “first things” of the gospel centered in Christ, but more the cultural implications of the gospel. Sadly, if social media is any indicator, we are more passionate about debates over social justice than discussions over Christology, penal substitution, and the implications of Christ’s exclusive and all-sufficient work for missions, etc. No doubt, these “social” debates are important, but they must never replace our “first love.”
Indeed, what must captivate evangelicals again is the objective truth of the gospel—indeed Christ himself! The only remedy to our current situation is to pray that our triune God will revive his church by the powerful proclamation of Christ (Col. 1:28). The only remedy to our lethargy, confusion, and drift is to return to Scripture and to teach God’s people to know and glory in Christ. For it’s only when we do so, by God’s grace, that we will be revived and strengthened by the Spirit to rightly confess, proclaim, and glory in Christ Jesus our Lord.
After all, given who Jesus is and what he has done for us as our exclusive and all-sufficient Redeemer, our only reasonable response to him is correct doctrinal belief, complete trust, and total devotion. But if this is going to happen, the Spirit will again have to convict us of our sin and remind us that apart from Christ we stand guilty and condemned. Christianity is rightly called a “sinner’s religion,” which means that it’s not until, by God’s grace, we first know something of our own sin and guilt before God that we glory in the unspeakable gift of our Lord Jesus Christ. For such a people who know of their deep need of a Savior, Jesus is more than a doctrine to state; he is the only Lord to be embraced, loved, adored, and obeyed.
Stephen J. Wellum (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Stephen and his wife, Karen, have five adult children.