“I believe that Jesus is a good teacher, but not God.” Perhaps, as you’ve shared the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ with others, you have heard this oft-rendered response. Generally, it comes from someone who has heard of Jesus, knows the gist of a few Bible verses, or has otherwise imbibed a cultural Christianity through growing up in places like Appalachia, the South, and parts of the Midwest. It’s not an unexpected response from unbelievers who are seeking to be nice (and make their way out of the uncomfortable conversation).
Where this utterance is not expected, however, is issuing from the lips of those who claim to be “evangelical Christians.” And yet, according to Ligonier’s biennial “The State of Theology” poll for 2020, when presented with the statement “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God”, 30% of those “evangelicals” polled agreed, and another 4% weren’t sure.
Let this sink in for a moment. An “evangelical” is defined in this poll as one who strongly agreed with the following statements: “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe”; “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior”; “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin”; “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.” Roughly a third of “evangelicals” are either unsure of or opposed to a central tenet of the Christian faith – if not the central tenet of the Christian faith – i.e., that Jesus Christ is God the Word incarnate.
My purpose here is not to define or defend the term “evangelical”; others have done so at much greater length than I would ever desire to do. But, if we accept the definition as proffered by the poll, one thing we can say about 1/3 of evangelicals is that they are terribly inconsistent in what they claim to believe.
- If one strongly holds the Bible (the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament) to be “the highest authority for what I believe”, the idea that Jesus is not God is ludicrous. This was the clear teaching of the Apostles. For example, John states in the prologue to his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1). A few verses later, we’re told that this Word Who is God, “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14). He was “full of truth”, the basis of being a good teacher, precisely because He was God incarnate. Likewise, Jesus Himself teaches that He is God. Numerous examples could be given here, but I will limit myself to one. During an exchange with the Jews in John 8, Jesus ends the discussion with the words, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58). In the next verse, we see the outcome of this statement – the Jews with whom He had been arguing pick up stones to stone Jesus, to put Him to death for what He just said. Why? Because He had not said, “Before Abraham was, I was“, but “I am“. In claiming for Himself the title “I AM”, He was equating Himself with the God Who had revealed Himself to Moses in Exodus 3:14 as “I AM WHO I AM,” the covenant name of God. Both of these examples come from the Gospel of John – the Gospel most people who have done any sustained reading in the Scriptures have read; this Gospel itself could be seen as one long argument for the divinity of Christ (John 20:30-31; see also 5:18). I haven’t ventured out to, say, Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 1:1-3, etc. If “the Bible is the highest authority for what I believe”, then even a cursory reading of the New Testament would necessitate belief in the divinity of Christ.
- If Jesus is not God, why would it be “very important for me to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus as their Savior”? If He is only just a good teacher, then what makes Him and His message any different than the other good teachers who have lived in the past or are living today? I personally enjoy reading the writings of the Stoics, particularly Seneca and Epictetus. If Jesus is just a good teacher, then He’s no different than these great thinkers; actually, He would be worse, because, unlike them, He lived under the delusion that He was the Son of God. Thus, what is to keep me from converting to Stoicism? Personal preference? Also, if Jesus is not God, if He is just a good teacher, why should I expend myself in the evangelizing of those of other faiths? One would assume that these “evangelicals” would answer “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.” And this brings me to my third point…
- If Jesus is not God then He is not our Savior. Indeed, His incarnate divinity alone makes Him a suitable Savior. In other words, if Jesus is not God incarnate then the statement “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin” is nonsense. To put it simply, if Jesus were only a human being like anyone else the sacrifice would have been unacceptable in both a qualitative and, for lack of a better term, a quantitative manner. a) If Jesus were only a man like you or me, then He would have been born with a sin nature, made not after the image of God, but after the image of our father, fallen Adam (Genesis 5:3, contrasted with Gen. 1:26-27). Thus, He would have been in need of salvation just as all the sinful children of Adam are in need of salvation. Qualitatively, then, He would not have been the perfect, unblemished sacrifice (1 Peter 1:19), and His sacrifice would not have been accepted by God (e.g., Exodus 12:5; see also the sacrificial laws of Leviticus which point to Christ’s sacrifice as shadows point to substance). Rather, we see that through the particular circumstances of His birth (the Word taking on flesh in the womb of the Virgin), Christ is born without original sin, and the Son Who is the eternal essential image of God the Father becomes in our flesh the perfect representative imago Dei. b) If Jesus were only a man like you or me, then He would not have been able to die for the sins of all the elect. The reason for this is linked to what we have said in section a. If Christ were only a man, He would be, like all natural descendants of Adam, represented by the first Adam. As it is, Christ the God-Man, is the second Adam, the One representing all those in Him, united to Him by the Holy Spirit through faith. Paul writes, “The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Corinthians 15:47-49).
In these explanations, I have barely scratched the surface of the biblical and historical arguments presented for the reality and necessity of the divinity of Christ. As Ligonier’s poll arguably shows, American Evangelicalism has the theological depth of a puddle; the main reason being that they do not actually know the Scriptures they claim to be authoritative, but a correlative reason being that they have not sufficiently sunk their roots in historic Christian orthodoxy. They’re unaware of the two millennia of the catholic* (i.e., universal church, not Roman Catholic) biblical arguments for the divinity of Christ. They are unlikely to crack a book such as On the Incarnation by Athanasius, or Cur Deus Homo? (Why the God-Man?) by Anselm, or The Person of Christ by John Owen; the reason generally proffered being that these books are not practical. They don’t think these books are practical because they don’t think the doctrine of the divinity of Christ is practical. Thus, the value of theology (like the value of most other things), in their view, should be determined by utility – how can this help me “live my best life now”? Of course, I would argue that the divinity of Christ is an incredibly practical doctrine – if Jesus isn’t God, you’re still in your sins and your faith is worthless – but I would also argue that “practicality”, or “utility”, is an ill-defined and poor filter for choosing what is important and what is not.
Matthew records that when Jesus and the disciples sat at table on the night He was betrayed, our Lord said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples became very sorrowful “and began to say to him one after another, ‘Is it I, Lord?'” That is, all of the disciples except one addressed Jesus as Lord – a divine title. That one who did not, the one who would betray Him, asked, “Is it I, Rabbi?” (Matthew 26:20-25). Note the difference. To Judas, Jesus was not Messiah, Jesus was not Savior, Jesus was not Lord – He was “Rabbi”, a good Jewish teacher among good Jewish teachers. American Evangelicalism is plagued by Judases at the table.
Perhaps you read that last sentence and thought it too strong. After all, Judas betrayed Jesus after spending three years traveling with and being taught by Him. I admit that there are certainly some who are ignorant of Christ’s divinity through a lack of solidly biblical, doctrinal teaching; there are many pastors who will give account at the last Day for the fact that they lazily and foolishly sought only to teach their people through loosely biblical, socially acceptable fluff pieces they mistakenly term “sermons.” But, many have spent years in the church, hearing the Word of God preached and taught by faithful ministers, and, though they call themselves “evangelicals”, they still reject the central doctrines of our faith as mere tradition or archaic irrelevancies, and in so doing, they reject the Christ Who Is in favor of the Christ they’ve created in their own minds! Is this not a betrayal of the One they call Savior? a spiritual adultery against the One they call Husband of the Church? Indeed, these are still in the flesh, and know nothing of the Spirit of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:3). And thus, when we hear that 34% of those who claim to be “evangelicals” don’t believe that Christ is divine, let us be assured, that 34% are without Christ, and are no more Christian than any other unbeliever.