God has always been Christlike, even prior to Creation.
God is Christlike, and in him there is no unchristlikness at all.
— John V. Taylor, The Christlike God.
What Taylor observes about God can be observed in all directions. That is, God did not become Christlike, he has always been Christlike, even prior to the creation of the world. Being Christlike is essential to who he always has been, who he is, and who he always will be. Therefore, we do not look upon the Cross as transparent, seeing through it to a god who is behind it or above it. The Incarnation and the Cross are not a mirage of a shifting god (James 1:17) who acts one way in history, yet for whom the Cross is ultimately not fit to reveal his true character (1 Cor 1:18).
We do not peer around the Cross to find a real god who was prior to it, or distinct from it; instead we look upon the Cross and we find that God has always been Christlike (John 14:7; John 10:30). God will not be known in any other way (John 14:6), as there is no other God to know (John 14:1). As we read the accounts of God prior to the incarnation of Christ, we read them just that way, as relative to the incarnation, calling them prior, thus following the pattern of understanding given to us by Christ in Luke 24:25-27. All of our knowledge of God turns on the Incarnation (2 Cor 4:6). When we read Genesis, we are not reading about a god who was on his way to being Christlike, but we read about the God who has always been infinite in his Christlikeness (John 8:19). The Christlike God of Genesis is the same Christlike God of Revelation (Revelation 21:22). God has always been Christlike (John 10:38), and the Scriptures are the revelation of the God who is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
The Volition of the Christlike God
God has always been Christlike. To that end, I wrote in Part 1, that he thus revealed himself on the basis of his Cross-bearing character. There I asked the question, “Was God constrained, prior to creation, to create the world, send his Son, and reveal himself to humans?” to which I answered yes. And now I would like to expand upon the subject in relationship to the Glory of God in the Cross and then his electing choices (his volition); I would also like to name this whole subject, point you to some other authors who have written on it and then suggest some differences I have.
Like another subject, yet different
For those who want to read more, you will want to locate books and articles related to hypothetical necessity vs. absolute necessity. That’s the name of the larger subject which makes up these two articles — even though I am not exactly staying true to the confines of the subject, and, indeed, I am saying something related, but critically different (those differences will concern me below).
Who has been talking about this subject?
Before I move on to the differences, I wish to make you aware of theologians who have taken up the subject of hypothetical necessity. Aquinas, for example, argued that hypothetically God could have forgiven sinners on the basis of fiat. That is, he saw the cross as necessary, but in some sense hypothetically so, which is not far off from the later philosophy of Leibniz who said, in essence, that God can’t do without his power, but he could hypothetically do without creation (see also Turretin on the divine will, III.14). In contrast to Aquinas, John Murray argued in Redemption Accomplished and Applied, for a kind of absolute necessity of the Cross (or what Anselm called consequent absolute necessity). Like Aquinas, Murray was arguing from the position of redemption. For Murray, redemption by the Cross was an absolute necessity if anyone was to be saved (he disagreed with Aquinas, as do I).
In his book, Murray started with the post-fall world and picked up the subject from the vantage point of the transgression of men as already realized. Starting with the reality of Adam’s rebellion, Murray rightly presses that there is no other way except through the atonement of Christ for the forgiveness of God to be given. Forgiveness of sins is only by the Cross. People could not be forgiven by mere fiat and the Cross is an absolute necessity. I agree with Murray. And where I agree, I want to go deeper. This is where the differences I have been alluding to come in. Murray was talking about the necessity of the Cross given the fact of the fall.
I am exploring the divine necessity of God prior to the fall and prior to creation. God has always been Christlike, and by divine necessity (the Divine Dei, the “divine must”) comes his Christlike self-revelation (which is the Incarnation and the Cross). In this sense, I am talking about a subject different than the one which compares hypothetical necessity to absolute necessity.
In the Incarnation, God was acting out of the necessity of his Christlike character
In Part 1, I tried to make the case that the necessity of the incarnation of Christ came from the character of God and not merely from his free volition. That is, the God-Man is fundamental to who God is in the same way that his knowledge is rooted in who he is and not in his having chosen to be all-knowing.
God’s self-revelation in Jesus is so fundamental to who God is that there is no other way to speak of God (see John 14:6, for which it would be presumptuous to read this verse, and then exempt our speaking as free from any constraints this verse would place upon us). Therefore, the two epochs of the life of the Trinity that we talk about are when he was getting ready to reveal himself as the God-Man, and after he revealed himself as the God-Man. Prior to creation, God had not yet incarnated, and that is how we speak of him when we speak about the epoch before the Advent.
Ultimate and Subordinate Matters
This gets us closer, I think, to the meaning of the Cross and the essential character of God. I will be arguing that God revealing himself in Jesus–where Humanity is the right-fit place for his self-revelation–is ultimate and preeminent, and redemption is subordinate (note well: I did not say unimportant, but subordinate). I would be remiss if I did not direct your attention to John Owens’ book, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, where he uses the word “subordinate” in the same way I do here.
Far more relevant than Owens, however, one sees in 1 John 2:12 that our sins are forgiven us for his name’s sake. Here we discover the principle that the glory of God is ultimate, and the forgiveness of our sins is subordinate (and serves that end). In 1 John 2:12, and in other places, we learn that God was motivated by something higher than even our redemption, even though our redemption flows from the objectives he attained and achieved in Christ. This does not mean that redemption competes with the glory of God, but serves it.
God’s Glory Distinctly Know in His Self-Revelation and in His Redeeming
What God was doing in Humanity (in Jesus) was manifold. Becoming the God-Man was, in itself, a taking back of humanity to himself (so that Jesus is now and forevermore the God-Man). Humanity was united to the Trinity in Christ. One might describe this as a change in the Trinitarian experience.
In and of itself, the incarnation of God in humanity (including the death, burial, resurrection and ascension), corresponds to who God is by nature (by his character). In this way, it is preeminent over the redemption of any particular person, and can be discussed distinctly with respect to the Trinity. Herein, I want to make a distinction between redemption and the revelation of God as the God-Man (again, not for a competition between the two, but as a distinction for the sake of diving deeper into each).
The Trinitarian Experience and God’s Self Revelation
In Jesus, God was establishing the place of rebellion (i.e., humanity) as the place where he would reverse all anti-Christ principles. The exact place of anti-God would be the place he would make his name most famous. The fame of his glory found its pinnacle expression in the place most hostile to it — in human flesh (the flesh of Jesus). Jesus on the Cross was the highest elevation known to God and man, and was the place most hateful of God (we killed him there).
Jesus said in John 12:32, “If I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me,” and so he was lifted up by divine necessity (John 3:14). The climax of God’s self-revelation was on the peak of a mountain of rejection. Where God was most rejected he was most glorified and most revealed. Where he was most hidden to those who cannot see his glory (the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing) he was making his power and glory most known.
Humanity (until Christ) was only and always against God. God’s words seemed to have no ability to accomplish their spoken end in humanity. Adam and Eve stand in contrast to the rest of creation. The sun has been doing its assigned task faithfully from the start, always carrying out the word spoken to it. But when God spoke to humans, the words did not bring about their expected end. Humanity seemed to be the place where God’s words don’t work, with the added irony that humans were made in the image of God.
God’s image-bearing creatures were the place where God was attacked. And the very place where God was most despised, his Christlike character and eternal power would be most revealed. God came and incarnated himself in humanity (in the place of resistance). A reversal took place and, “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Jesus is a man. He did not become an angel, but the Word tabernacled here, a human among humans. Humanity was the right fit place for God to most reveal himself. The place of hatred of God would be the place where God would show that his words really do work.
God’s desire to most reveal his character corresponds to his character, and so Paul spoke this way of him, “Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ” (Acts 17:3; see also Luke 22:22, Acts 2:23, Acts 4:28). I wrote about this “must needs” in Part 1, but now I am pressing the point that the divine necessity is even more compelling than Turretin and Murray suggest.
The only God is the one who makes himself known
God revealed is part of who God is, and his revelation is most acute on the high place where it would seem all hope is lost. In fact, when Christ said, “If I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me,” he spoke of an elevation to which no higher elevation can be found. Jesus was lifted up on the Cross, the high spot of all divine revelation. This pinnacle place of God making himself known is where his image-creatures turned against him. We heaved him to heights so high that none can imagine a place higher: Jesus, on the Cross. Gazing upon the Crucified Creator, we spy the exact way that God loved his enemies. God’s love is like this. Indeed, God is like this. God is the God who drew close to Judas and washed his feet. Independent of Judas or anyone appropriating its benefits, the Cross reveals who God is.
The Glory of God in Election and Redemption
We can speak differently about the application of redemption (by the Spirit through new birth) and the accomplishment of it by Christ on the Cross (hence the title of Murray’s book, Redemption Accomplished and Applied). Our experience of redemption is directly related to the Cross itself. The two are together, yet we can speak of the distinctions between applied and accomplished. Likewise, the revelation of God by the Cross, and the redemption it accomplished can be distinctly discussed. My goal in this article has been to speak about Jesus and the Cross as being a Trinitarian accomplishment and necessity (even before we talk about the redemption accomplished).
The Cross accomplished many things, each with its distinction. I have tried to discuss its revelatory success first (since God himself is ultimate, and not man), distinct from what we must also say about the redemption it accomplished. The Cross is revelatory and redemptive. The revelation is a necessity of his character. In that Cross-bearing revelation, he was atoning for sins and therein was redeeming for himself rebel humans. I want to now turn my attention to this particular redemption, and the salvation of particular rebel humans.
The Cross of Christ is the way that God saves sinners
God took a human into the Trinity in the flesh of Jesus (the one true human) so that humanity is the place of Glory. He then opened up the Trinity to rebel humans. When we speak of God being glorified in humanity, we can speak of both: the flesh of Jesus, and then those other humans who were strangers, but who are made new and brought near (Eph 2:17) to eat his flesh (John 6:53) and so share in his life (2 Peter 1:4).
Not only did God wash the feet of Peter (revealing what kind of God he is), he brought Peter into the Trinitarian life by the Holy Spirit. He washed the feet of Judas, but Judas remains the son of perdition (unconverted, and excluded from the glory of God). Here we see that God’s self revelation is distinct from any fallen human’s participation in the beatific life of God. And here we come closer to the actual subject of Murray’s book. Namely, the distribution of the benefits of the Cross are according to the volition of God.
God’s Election for God’s Glory
So far, I have been talking about the divine necessity of God as rooted in the character of God, and now I want to speak of his volition (his electing choice where he chooses who will come to Christ — John 6:37-39).
It was not necessary to God’s character that he save any particular person (Peter vs. Judas), so that Peter’s appropriation of the benefits of the Cross were not what we would call an absolute necessity. Rather, God elects whom he will save. God’s election is not rooted in anything meritorious in the objects of his mercy, nor anything necessary about them that would draw God.
Election is where the free electing purposes of God are distinct from the divine necessity whereby he was constrained. God did not elect Peter because Peter was necessary to God’s character (so that without Peter God would not be God), but according to his free electing intentions. While God, by his nature cannot lie nor deny himself, he can, by another principle, freely choose whom he will harden and whom he will save (Romans 9:18). Election and the Cross of Christ are distinct, and each can be discussed separately even as they can be brought together to reveal to us the manifold glory of the one true God. The God who elects is the Christlike God.