The church’s Christology (its doctrine of Jesus Christ) was solidified through centuries of discussion, dominating the attention of the Christian church for at least the first eight hundred years of new covenant history. This is understandable, because the nature of Christ is one of the deep mysteries of the Christian faith. As Sam Waldron observes, “A Christian may not give a simple answer to the question, ‘Who is Jesus Christ?’ He must say that he is God; he must not only say that. He must also say that he is man. But he must not only say that Christ is God and man. He must say that he is God and man in two distinct natures and yet only one person. That is the mystery.”
We have already considered something of the mystery of the incarnation, and the Confession next moves on to the work that Jesus Christ did during his life on earth. The elements involved here are his sinless life, his substitutionary death, his victorious resurrection, his vindicating ascension, and the fulfilment of his promise to send the Comforter.
Jesus Christ lived on this earth as a man under God’s law, which he perfectly fulfilled (Galatians 4:4–5; Hebrews 5:8–9). On the cross, he acted as substitute for his elect, bearing their sins and suffering God’s wrath in their place (Isaiah 53:4–6; Matthew 20:28; 2 Corinthians 5:21). He died and rose bodily on the third day; forty days after that he ascended to the right hand of the Father, from where he poured out his Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 1:3; 2:33; 1 Corinthians 15:3–6); at God’s appointed time, he will return personally to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him (1 Thessalonians 4:16; Hebrews 9:28). Jesus Christ is thus the last Adam, through whose sinless life and atoning death believers are reconciled to God (Romans 3:22–25; 5:18–19). Through him, also, God is reconciling all things to himself (Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:20). (Sola 5 Confession 4.5)
The Confession begins by drawing attention to Christ’s perfect obedience in his life: “Jesus Christ lived on this earth as a man under God’s law, which he perfectly fulfilled.”
Pause for a moment to consider the significance of the fact that “Jesus Christ lived on earth as a man.” We know that he was sinless, and yet he was nevertheless “a man.” His sinlessness did not necessarily free him from the infirmities that human sinfulness invites (e.g. sickness). We affirm the full humanity of Jesus Christ. The 1689 Baptist Confession includes “all the infirmities thereof.” That Jesus could be tortured and killed shows that he was subject to the same infirmities as sinful human beings, even though he himself never sinned. He grew weary and hungry just as ordinary human beings do, and it is therefore perfectly consistent to imagine that he was subject to all human “infirmities,” yet without sin.
Jesus lived on earth “under God’s law, which he perfectly fulfilled.” Theologians distinguish between his “active” and “passive” obedience. His “active” obedience describes his life of perfection, while his “passive” obedience describes his death on the cross. The terminology is important to understand, because it does not suggest that he was not actively involved in the decision to move toward the cross. “Active” obedience implies that he actively obeyed in everything that he did and said while he ministered on earth. “Passive” obedience suggests that he submitted, in obedience to God, to those who were doing something to him (i.e. crucifying him).
There are some who object that we should not insist that we are saved by Jesus’ perfect life, because that is just another form of works salvation. In this understanding, to say that Christ’s perfect righteousness in his life is credited to us is to say that we are saved by his works, and if salvation is by works—even if they are his works—then it is no longer of grace. We can appreciate the desire to guard against anything that might rightly be described as “works salvation” (see Ephesians 2:8–9), but we must allow the Scripture to speak. Galatians 4:4–5 shows clearly that Jesus was born “under the law” and therefore under obligation to obey it. (He was, after all, born under the old covenant.) Hebrews 5:8–9 further tells us that it was because he was “made perfect” that “he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Clearly, his “perfect” life is necessary for our “eternal salvation.”
The Confession goes on to affirm one of the most debated doctrines in contemporary Christianity: penal substitutionary atonement: “On the cross, he acted as substitute for his elect, bearing their sins and suffering God’s wrath in their place.” It is disappointing that this doctrine is debated, for it is clearly biblical (see Isaiah 53:4–6; Matthew 20:28; 2 Corinthians 5:21). Penal substitutionary atonement is the biblical teaching that Jesus took the penalty (penal) of our sins upon himself (substitution) in order to turn away God’s wrath so that we might receive his favour instead (atonement). The objection that many have to this is that it appears to them barbaric that God would expect Jesus to take upon himself the penalty for our sin. This seems to be the precise teaching of the Bible, however, when it uses language like “he was pierced for our transgressions” and “he was crushed for our iniquities.”
In the next clause, the Confession encapsulates the Easter story in a single, short sentence: “He died and rose bodily on the third day; forty days after that he ascended to the right hand of the Father, from where he poured out his Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.” It is helpful to consider the significance of each of these elements.
“He died” because death is the penalty that we deserve for sin (Romans 5:12; 6:23; etc.). As our substitute, it was necessary for Jesus to suffer what we otherwise would have suffered.
He “rose bodily” as opposed to some form of spiritual resurrection. As Jesus physically died, so it was necessary for him to physically rise for our justification. Without a physical resurrection, we are still in sin and without hope for our own eternity (1 Corinthians 15).
He “ascended” to heaven, where he took his eternal throne. His ascension was, in many ways, his vindication. Because he ascended, we know that he rules today, and will do so until he has conquered every enemy (Psalm 110).
He then “poured out his Holy Spirit” at Pentecost, which was the realisation of his promise that he would always be with his in the form of the Holy Spirit (John 14; 16; etc.). Pentecost is a reminder of the unity and the power that we have as the church to fulfil the Great Commission.
The Confession continues by affirming belief in a future, bodily return of Jesus: “At God’s appointed time, he will return personally to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” There are some today who deny that the Bible teaches a physical return of Jesus. But the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus will return again bodily to earth. Perhaps most emphatically, the angels at the ascension promised that he would return in the same way that he ascended (Acts 1:9–11)—bodily and visibly. Texts like 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 also connect his return with future resurrection, and since our future resurrection is a bodily resurrection, we must affirm that his return will likewise be a bodily return. It is important to affirm this because Jesus claimed as much himself, and his followers taught the same. We must be careful to never reject what the Bible clearly affirms.
“Jesus Christ is thus the last Adam, through whose sinless life and atoning death believers are reconciled to God.” The parallel between Adam and Jesus is of a federal nature (Romans 5:18–19): As Adam stood as the federal head for all who sinned in him, so Jesus stood as the federal head for all who believe in him. That is, Adam’s sin (and the consequences of that sin) was imputed to all his offspring, while Christ’s righteousness (and the blessings of that righteousness) was imputed to all his offspring—that is, to all who, in repentance and faith, believe in him.
The Confession concludes that “through him, also, God is reconciling all things to himself.” In the eternal state, all things will be subject to him. For all things to be reconciled does not mean that some things cannot be destroyed. In other words, this truth does not affirm a form of universalism. But all things that remain in the eternal state will be in joyful submission to him. At the second coming, and following final judgement, there will no longer be anything in all creation that is alienated from God and subject to his hostility, but all things will be reconciled to and in harmony with him.