Every Christian believes that when the eternal Son of God, “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity,” came into the flesh, became “true man, born of the Virgin Mary,” He entered into human flesh not without, divested of, His divine attributes, but with all His divine attributes intact; for it is written: “In Him dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). The fullness of the Godhead does not exclude but includes omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, etc. Therefore it will not enter the believing mind to suppose that Christ in His state of humiliation should have lost possession of anything pertaining to His Godhead, to His divine nature, much less that He should have laid aside that Godhead as such. If, as some false teachers have ventured to assert, Christ laid aside His divine nature when He humbled Himself and reassumed it when He entered His state of exaltation, then He is not and never was the God-man, and the personal union, so clearly taught in Scripture, as we saw in the preceding article, would never have taken place. The Christian position over against such an error is clearly defined in 1 John 4:2, 3: “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world.”
Whoever believes “that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” will therefore not be tempted to suppose that He abdicated His throne on high when He came on earth to die or that the Infant born in Bethlehem is other than the Godhead veiled in flesh. This “veiling,” then, cannot consist in the loss of anything that is essentially His from eternity, but only in the temporary and voluntary refraining from the full use through His human nature of those divine attributes which were communicated to His human nature when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
In full accordance with this Scriptural teaching on the Person and States of Christ, we read in two of the most precisely worded answers in the Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism commonly used among us the following definitions: “Christ’s State of Humiliation consisted in this, that according to His human nature, Christ did not always and not fully use the divine attributes communicated to His human nature. Christ’s State of Exaltation consists in this, that according to His human nature, Christ always and fully uses the divine attributes communicated to His human nature.” (Answers to Questions 134 and 148). Thus it is entirely clear that the difference in the States of Christ does not in any way affect His possession of divine attributes but only His use of them, and that even in this respect the difference is not one of use and non-use but of full use and partial use according to the human nature. No change whatever is brought about in the divine nature either by the humiliation or by the exaltation (“I am the Lord, I change not,” Mal. 3:6).
While all this, however, may be, and indeed must be, entirely clear to the Christian on the basis of Holy Writ, there is still a possibility that one may unwittingly confuse Christ’s humbling Himself with the incarnation itself, since the two coincide in time. But this confusion would logically lead to a consequence which no believing Christian would be willing to draw, namely: If Christ’s humbling Himself consisted in His becoming man, then His exaltation would consist in His ceasing to be man. This inference would contradict everything that Scripture says concerning Christ’s coming into the flesh, which produced an eternal union between the Second Person of the Holy Trinity and our human nature. It is Jesus, who “was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin,” who now intercedes for us at the throne of the Majesty on high (Heb. 4:15). “There is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). And when He comes again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead those who brought about His death “shall look on Him whom they pierced” (Zech. 12:10; John 19:37; Rev. 1:7). Yes indeed, the incarnation, which took place at a definite time in the days of Herod the Great, at the time of the census ordered by Emperor Augustus, lasts unto all eternity. Now it is quite conceivable that God’s Son might (if He had so chosen, and if that had accorded with His plan for bringing about our redemption) have become man without any humiliation whatsoever, as He shall come again at the last day “in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him” (Matt. 25:31). Our Lord’s humiliation did not consist in His becoming man but in the manner in which He became man and in the sort of life He led and the kind of death He died as a man upon the earth. The state of humiliation, beginning, as it does, at the very same moment at which the incarnation took place, does, nevertheless, logically follow after the incarnation and is consequent upon it.
The logical sequence of incarnation and humiliation is taught most clearly in that great passage, which more than any other in Scripture teaches us all we need to know of the States of Christ, Phil. 2:5–11; for there, as in the definitions quoted from our Catechism, we are told that both humiliation and exaltation took place in and according to the human nature of Christ, which prior to the incarnation did not exist. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men; and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
“Being in the form of God” does not refer to the Son’s eternal divine existence before the incarnation, but it means that when the Son of God was made man, divine attributes, majesty, and glory were given to the human nature. This “form of God,” then, He actually possessed throughout His state of humiliation. Occasionally, as in His miracles, He gave men a glimpse of this form of God, but as a general rule men who came into casual contact with Him in His earthly life did not perceive this in Him but regarded Him as an ordinary man like other men, or at best as a great prophet like one of the prophets of old or a teacher come from God (Matt. 16:13, 14; John 3:2). The glory which His disciples saw in Him (John 1:14) was seen with the eyes of faith. And this hiding of His glory was His own voluntary and purposeful act, for a full manifestation of His divine glory during His earthly ministry would have impeded the great work He had come to do in suffering and dying as our Substitute. Christ’s conduct in refraining from the full use of His divine attributes through His human nature in His state of humiliation is described in Phil. 2:6 by the peculiar phrase: “thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” This expression refers to a common practice of those days. When a victorious general returned in triumph from foreign wars with abundance of booty and captives, he would parade through the streets of Rome with his army, displaying the spoils of battle, and thus make a public show of the trophies and slaves which had been taken from the enemy. “To consider as a robbery,” then, is simply, in the speech of our day: “to make a show of,” “to show off.” Christ was really throughout His state of humiliation “in the form of God,” and hence “equal with God.” But He did not make a show of this equality with God. Although He was “in the form of God” He appeared to men in “the form of a servant;” although He was “equal with God” He was “found in fashion as a man.” Thus the humiliation of Christ took place in His human nature (which alone could be either humiliated or exalted, the divine nature being unchangeable), and it consisted in this, that in His human nature He did not always make full use of the divine attributes that had been imparted to this nature (as nothing could be imparted to the divine nature, which from eternity possesses all things). This being clearly understood from Phil. 2:5–8 with regard to the state of humiliation, it is very easy to see from Phil. 2:9–11 that the state of exaltation, which also has reference to the human nature only, is simply the reverse of what has just been described. The divine majesty, which His human nature possessed from the very moment of its conception in the womb, was and is fully manifested through this nature in His state of exaltation (beginning with the descent into hell), in which He, also in His human nature, makes unrestrained use of the divine attributes given to His human nature from the beginning of its existence. “As the humiliation was the non-use of divine majesty, the exaltation is the full use thereof.”
To speak in detail of the several acts of Christ’s humiliation: “Conceived by the Holy Ghost; born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead, and buried;” and of His exaltation: “He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead” — this would indeed be a delightful task, but it would lead far beyond the limits to which this brief summary of Christian doctrine has confined itself. We shall therefore proceed, God willing, to consider in the next chapter of this book the Office and Work of Christ, especially His Priestly Office, specifically the Vicarious Atonement, as wrought by His active and passive obedience.