During his long, fruitful ministry, Dr. John Gerstner, mentor to R.C. Sproul, wrote a series of primers on various points of theology which were later printed in Primitive Theology. Over the next couple of weeks we will be sharing his "Primer on the Deity of Christ" as a series of blog posts. Interestingly, the primer is in the form of a dialogue. The dialogue is between ‘‘Inquirer,’’ who is an educated, thoughtful person becoming convinced of the truths of the Christian religion (though not yet converted to them), and “Christian,’’ an experienced evangelical minister. Here is how it goes:
I: Among the many Christian doctrines we have discussed so far, we haven’t yet taken up the doctrine of Christ Himself, have we?
C: No, not directly, although we did ground our doctrine of Holy Scripture on the teaching of Christ.
I: Yes, I recall. That was after we had demonstrated that Christ was a messenger sent from God. And that, in turn, was proved by the miracles He performed.
C: Exactly. From His ‘‘credit as a proposer’’ of doctrine, we noticed that we had to believe every doctrine He taught. Our primary concern there was with His view of Scripture. We agreed that as an authenticated divine messenger, He was to be believed in what He said about the Bible, specifically that Scripture, Old and New Testaments, was inspired of God.
I: Yes. And on that basis, I agreed that the Bible is indeed the Word of God. From that point on, we’ve grounded all the doctrines we’ve discussed on what the Bible says. But we haven’t yet focused on what the Bible teaches about Christ Himself, have we?
C: No, not yet, even though that is the central verity of the Christian religion.
I: What do you mean?
C: Well, it is not only an important doctrine of Christianity. but the most important doctrine. Furthermore, it is indispensable to Christianity.
I: You mean that if a person doesn’t have a sound doctrine about Christ, he is not a Christian at all?
C: Exactly. You see, many who call themselves Christians should not; their very idea of Christ is unsound.
I: But what if they still regard Him as very important and central in their lives?
C: They still would be at odds with the truth. If Jesus is none other than God incarnate, then to think He is merely a man would be a fatal mistake, would it not?
I: A very serious mistake, I grant you. But can you say that they don’t believe in Him or follow Him when they do listen to His teachings and try to do what He teaches?
C: That’s precisely the point. If He teaches that He Himself is God, and they follow Him as merely a man, can they meaningfully be said to follow His teaching?
I: I see your point. And yet, could they not follow some of His teachings, or even all of them, without realizing who He is as their Teacher?
C: That seems reasonable. But let’s take a specific example of His teaching. As you know, He taught the Golden Rule: ‘‘Do unto others as you would that they do to you.”
I: That’s what I have in mind. I know people who follow the Golden Rule and agree with Christ’s teaching about it, and yet they don’t think He is God. As a matter of fact, they would be appalled by the idea that Christ is divine. They regard Him as a very godly person who taught very sound maxims, including the Golden Rule. If these people take the Golden Rule seriously and practice it rather admirably, how can you deny that they follow Christ’s moral instruction, even if they don’t share the church’s theological estimate of Him?
C: I would grant that they could understand the Golden Rule and live according to it at least superficially.
I: The people I’m thinking of, however, are anything but superficial. They’re very serious people, and they do take the rule very seriously. I can’t quite see how, though they don’t believe in the divinity of Christ, they are superficial in their observance of His moral commandment.
C: I understand your perplexity. As far as our discussion has gone, you would seem to be reasonableness itself, and I would seem to be way off reality. But let me make an observation we have not yet considered.
I: Please do.
C: Well, as you probably know, Christ taught also that He is the vine, and His disciples are His branches. Are you acquainted with that teaching found in the fifteenth chapter of John?
I: Yes, vaguely. He did say something about His being the vine in which they are the branches, and they bear fruit through Him. I’m beginning to see what you’re hinting at. But, spell it out, please.
C: Well, as you sense, He teaches there that He is the source of their life and their fruit-bearing, that is, their morality. In another place He says, “Let your light so shine before men that they may behold your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven.’’ Here in John 15 He explains where their good works actually come from, does He not?
I: Yes, I suppose that is the point of the analogy He makes. He, as the vine, is the source of life, which somehow fills His
followers, producing in them a moral life. As I ponder this, I see how profound the idea is. Are you saying that Christ not only teaches a morality but also claims that He Himself fulfills that morality in His followers?
C: Yes, that’s right. I don’t mean to deny that time and again He just issues commandments, as it were. He often sets forth teachings, describes maxims. But occasionally He also talks about the source of power for fulfilling the moral law, as in the vine and branches. In other words, the morality He commands is fulfilled in those who don’t simply hear what He says and obey it, but actually look to Him for the necessary strength to fulfill it.
I: I guess my friends who try to follow Christ’s morality without acknowledging that He is divine overlook this aspect of Christ’s teaching. I can’t help wondering if they’ve ever thought of Jesus’ representing Himself as the source for fulfilling His own commandments. I’m not sure they would follow His teaching on that point. I suspect they would not. These people are real moralists. They try to be humble, but they really are proud of their character. They feel it’s their character, and they don’t need outside help to obey these commandments. If you told them that they could not carry out what Jesus taught without His power, they would not buy that. They would, in fact—well, I don’t know quite what to say here.
C: What you’re thinking, but are hesitant to say, is this, is it not? If they understood Christ to say His moral commandments could not be kept except by His own power, they would simply reject Him. Isn’t that really what this whole thing amounts to?
I: I think you’re right. It’s hard to say, because I doubt they ever think in these categories. But when you put two and two together your answer seems inevitable. They think Christ is admirable as a moral teacher addressing Himself to moral persons such as themselves. They agree with His ideas. They join with Him in following them. But depend upon Him for the power to do good—you’re right, they would not accept that. I have to conclude that they would want nothing more to do with Him. They would reject Him. He would be insulting them.
C: Well, it looks as if we’ve gotten the answer to our question, doesn’t it?
I: It surely does. I’m surprised I didn’t even suspect that a few minutes ago. And yet it’s obvious, now that I think about it. I’m learning about myself, as well as about my friends. Up until this moment, I myself supposed that even though Christ was a messenger sent from God, whose every teaching I must accept, it was I who accepted them, I who would perform them (if I am forgiven for the sins I’ve already made).
C: Don’t be too hard on yourself. Most people think that way at first. It’s only when they realize how deep their depravity is and how little inclined they are to general morality that they begin to look around for help. Once they do realize they are sinners, as your friends apparently do not, then they know that they need forgiveness and power as well.
I: I can see that now.
C: Most people don’t think in terms of the parable of the vine and the branches. If, as sinners, they sense that they cannot become new people unless they have a new principle of life within them, they may not realize at first that it’s nothing less than Jesus Christ Himself dwelling in them and moving them to morality. But they learn quickly enough once He teaches them that.