the shape of leadership

What We Believe About the Incarnation

A series on the AG Statement of Fundamental Truths

Allen Tennison on May 31, 2023

I love mysteries, both literary and theological. A literary mystery is a story in which important details surrounding a crime or other events remain unknown. As the narrative progresses, characters — and readers — work to solve the puzzle.

A theological mystery is a truth or teaching we cannot unravel through reason or experience. Whereas a literary mystery invites us to find a solution through reason, a theological mystery invites us to trust in a divine revelation that goes beyond human understanding. The former is a game, while the latter is a gift.

Theological mysteries remind us the things of God are much greater than we can fully imagine or appreciate.

The doctrine of the Incarnation is that kind of mystery. The greatest human minds could not have predicted the revelation of God in Christ. If human wisdom could have foreseen it, the rulers of the age “would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8).

Because the revelation of God in Christ remains above our full understanding, the Church has worked out a language for discussing it that respects this revelation.

For the Early Church, the doctrine of the Incarnation had everything to do with salvation. Humanity and deity coming together in Jesus made it possible for human beings to enter God’s eternal life.

Church leaders struggled to explain the Incarnation in such a way that the gospel did not become impossible. They rejected teachings that either denied the deity or humanity of Jesus (Docetism and Adoptionism, respectively) or diminished the deity or humanity of Jesus (Arianism and Apollinarianism, respectively).

Leaders also considered heresy any teaching that denied the union of deity and humanity in the one person of Jesus or combined them inappropriately into a single nature (Nestorianism and Monophysitism, respectively).

Naming these as heresies did not solve the mystery of the Incarnation, but it did highlight boundary markers for teaching it. We may not speak of Jesus in a way that diminishes His divine nature, human nature, or unified personhood.

For nearly two millennia, widespread agreement on these boundaries and the central affirmations of the Incarnation helped define Christian orthodoxy.


Jesus and the Fundamental Truths

The Assemblies of God has always affirmed orthodox doctrine regarding the person of Jesus. He is God incarnate. From the beginning, however, Pentecostals have placed greater emphasis on the work of Jesus. Pentecostals initially proclaimed a fivefold gospel of Jesus as Savior, Sanctifier, Baptizer in the Holy Spirit, Divine Healer, and Soon-Coming King. (Many of them soon shortened this to a fourfold gospel, combining sanctification with salvation.)

When Assemblies of God founders used the fourfold gospel to name our four core doctrines (salvation, divine healing, baptism in the Holy Spirit, and the Second Coming), they were affirming a Pentecostal Christology.

Our Statement of Fundamental Truths (SFT) is thoroughly Christological. There are fundamental truths that highlight the deity of Jesus (2–3), truths that come from the fivefold gospel (5; 7–9; 12–14), and truths that speak of Christ (6; 10–11). The remaining truths also require an understanding of Jesus to be fully fleshed out. In other words, the Statement of Fundamental Truths emphasizes Jesus.

Given the importance of Jesus to the Assemblies of God, it might be surprising “The Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ” was not part of the SFT for nearly 50 years. A resolution adopted during the 1959 General Council endorsed the addition of “some truths surely believed among us but which are not recorded in the present Statement of Fundamental Truths.”

“The Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ” was the only entirely new truth included in the revised SFT approved during the 1961 General Council. Four of the points listed under Fundamental Truth No. 3 were identifying marks of theologically conservative U.S. Protestantism: the Virgin Birth, miracles, substitutionary death, and resurrection of Jesus.


The Oneness Challenge

Fundamental Truth No. 2, “The One True God,” already proclaimed the deity of Jesus but did not spell out all the fundamentals found in greater evangelicalism.

The AG statement concerning the Trinity was a response to the Oneness movement, which ascribed more to Jesus than is biblically warranted. Believing Jesus was the revealed name of the Trinity, Oneness Pentecostals taught that Jesus is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

For the Assemblies of God, affirming the deity of Jesus in light of Oneness Pentecostalism also meant affirming the deity of the Father and Spirit as distinct, equal, and in unity with Jesus.

In paragraphs (e) through (j) of Fundamental Truth No. 2, the deity of Jesus is the singular focus. The titles Lord Jesus Christ, Immanuel, Son of God, and Son of Man clarify the uniqueness of the incarnate Son.

Paragraph (h) defends the preexistence of God’s Son, correcting any teaching that denies the eternal nature of the Son or suggests Jesus became the Son through the Incarnation rather than existing as such before the Incarnation. The doctrine of the Incarnation declares God became human, not that a human became God.

The meaning of the exaltation of Christ is the focus of paragraph (i), while paragraph (j) ascribes to Jesus all the honor of God. We do not need Jesus to be the entire Trinity to honor Him as God, nor do we need to reduce the Trinity to Jesus to be monotheistic. Jesus is not the Father or the Holy Spirit, but Jesus is the one true God, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit.


The Liberal Protestant Challenge

When the Assemblies of God affirmed the deity of Jesus again in Fundamental Truth No. 3, the greater challenge came from liberal Protestantism adhering more to culture than Scripture or historic orthodoxy.

“The Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ” lists six points — including four doctrines conservative Protestantism already considered fundamental — that highlight the uniqueness of Jesus as God Incarnate. These include Christ’s virgin birth, sinlessness, miracles, substitutionary death, resurrection, and exaltation.


Biblical Justification

The deity of Jesus is taught in Scripture. The Gospel of John starts by introducing Jesus as the Word, or Logos, who “was God” from the beginning (John 1:1). Toward the end of John, Thomas cried out to the resurrected Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).

Jesus’ declarations of equality with the Father were clear enough in the Gospels that some wanted to kill Him for blasphemy (Matthew 26:65–66; John 10:33).

In Philippians 2:6, the apostle Paul described Jesus as “being in very nature God.” In fact, Philippians 2:5–11 may have been an early Christian hymn, which suggests Christians were already singing about the deity of Jesus before Paul wrote his letters.

All six points in Fundamental Truth No. 3 come from New Testament teaching. Matthew and Luke, the only Gospels to narrate the birth of Jesus, include the Virgin Birth (Matthew 1:18–25; Luke 1:34–35).

Various epistles highlight Jesus’ sinlessness in connection with His atoning death for sin (2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 7:26; 1 John 3:5). Christ’s moral perfection made His sacrifice perfect.

Jesus was known as a miracle worker throughout the Gospels and Acts (Acts 2:22; 10:37–38). The Gospel of John in particular highlights seven miracles as evidence of Jesus’ identity. In John, the resurrection of Lazarus (Chapter 11) became the final straw leading to the plot to kill Jesus.

Knowing He was going to die, Jesus taught His followers to interpret His death as the sacrifice beginning a new covenant with God for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28; Luke 22:20).

Paul and other Bible writers pointed to Jesus’ death as the means for reconciling sinners to God (Romans 4:25; 1 Corinthians 15:3; 2 Corinthians 5:14–21; Hebrews 7:27; 10:12; 1 John 2:2).

From beginning to end, the New Testament proclaims the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (e.g., Matthew 28:5–7; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:5–7; John 20:11–14; Acts 1:3; Romans 1:4; 1 Corinthians 15:17–19; 2 Corinthians 5:15; Galatians 1:1; 1 Peter 1:3; Revelation 1:18).

This resurrection was not like others in Scripture, where people returned to the kind of life they left, with grave clothes still binding them (John 11:44). Jesus’ resurrection brought Him beyond the realm of death and above the limitations of mortal existence (Luke 24:36; John 20:19). Yet His resurrected body was able to interact with our world — cooking and eating, for example (Luke 24:43; John 21:9).

Luke narrated the ascension of Jesus in Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:9, and various epistles refer to the exaltation of Jesus at God’s right hand (Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; 1 Peter 3:22).

Paragraph (i) in Fundamental Truth No. 2 focuses on the exaltation of Jesus, showing that His ministry did not end with the Ascension, for Jesus is still working at the Father’s right hand, sending the Holy Spirit to His people.

Jesus reigns until He has conquered all enemies, at which point He will be subject to God the Father “so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:24–28).


Deity of Jesus

On their own, each of the six points in Fundamental Truth No. 3 may not be sufficient to prove Jesus is God, but together they support His deity.

For example, the Virgin Birth alone does not prove Jesus was divine any more than God’s direct creation of Adam made the first man divine. The Virgin Birth does show God was directly involved in the conception of Jesus and connects well with the preexistence of God the Son.

Similarly, the sinlessness of Jesus fits with the deity of Jesus because sinlessness is an attribute of God.

Jesus’ miracles are treated within the Gospels as signs pointing to His identity. By themselves, though, miracles do not prove that Jesus is anything more than a prophet of God (Matthew 16:14). The miracles must be seen as evidence of Jesus’ deity in light of His own statements concerning His equality with God. These acts attest Jesus came from God (John 9:33) and support His claim of divinity (John 8:58).

Our Statement of Fundamental Truths
is thoroughly Christological.

The atoning death of Jesus is directly connected to His incarnation. Crucifixion is found in multiple cultures, although some have observed that the Romans perfected it. The means of executing Jesus was not unique. What matters is not the Cross itself but the identity of the One who died on it and offered His life to God “through the eternal Spirit” (Hebrews 9:14). On the Cross, God experienced death for the salvation of the world.

Many Jewish people believed God would vindicate those who were killed unjustly by resurrecting them at the end of the age. The resurrection of Jesus vindicated His ministry and message, including His claim to be the Son of God. In light of His statements about His identity, Jesus’ resurrection validates His claims to deity.

We do not usually give the same attention to Jesus’ exaltation as we do His death and resurrection. Yet we should, especially as Pentecostals. It is from the Father’s right hand that Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to the Church.

Peter not only treated tongues as evidence of the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:16–21), but he also connected the baptism in the Spirit with Jesus’ exaltation (verse 33).

It is from the Father’s right hand that Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to the Church. If Christians can receive this gift, Jesus is indeed on the throne!


Humanity of Jesus

Jesus reveals both deity and humanity through the Incarnation. In His conception, ministry, and resurrection, Jesus shows us a human life dependent on the Spirit of God. He is our example for both the present and the future (1 Corinthians 11:1; 1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6).

The miracles of Jesus demonstrate the Spirit’s empowerment of His humanity (Acts 10:38). Jesus attributed His ministry to the Spirit, warning that those who opposed this truth risked blaspheming the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:32).

The New Testament Church performed signs and wonders in the same manner as Jesus, through the same Spirit (Acts 2:22,43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12).

Jesus, who lived sinlessly, provided the example of uncorrupted humanity. Sinlessness is an attribute of God, but that does not mean sinfulness is essential to being human. A corruption of our humanity, sin was not part of our original constitution. Jesus saves us from our sins, not from our humanity.

Because Jesus was tempted in every way we are, He is able to empathize with us in our weakness (Hebrews 4:15). Through obedient submission to the Father, He “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:8–9).

Jesus provided an example of faithfulness even in His death. He did not call down legions of angels in His defense (Matthew 26:53). After all, Jesus is a Savior who is able to bring about justice without breaking bruised reeds (Matthew 12:20).

Hebrews 12:1–3 encourages us to fix our eyes on Jesus amid our own struggles. And 1 Peter 2:21–23 calls us to follow the example of Christ in our suffering. It was God who vindicated Jesus in His resurrection, demonstrating the victory awaiting all who trust in Him.

The resurrection of Jesus must be understood in light of His humanity as well as His deity. Human destiny is revealed in Jesus as the “firstfruits” of those whom God will raise (1 Corinthians 15:20). In Romans 8:11, Paul emphasized the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in believers, so we can look forward to the same resurrection. The resurrection of the body is a promise — and the Holy Spirit is a guarantee of that promise — for all who trust in Jesus.

In His exaltation to the right hand of God, Jesus did not simply return to heaven as God. He takes His place at God’s right hand as a resurrected human being (Acts 2:33) because the Incarnation continues.

Humanity, made in God’s image, was called to reign over creation (Genesis 1:26–29). Jesus rules over creation, subjecting all things to the authority of God (1 Corinthians 15:24–28; Philippians 2:10–11; Hebrews 1:13). If Jesus is on the throne, the destiny of humanity as God’s image is being fulfilled.


Implications for Pastors

The doctrine of the Incarnation is saying more than Jesus is God. It is also declaring that God became human and, in doing so, became the bridge by which humanity might enter fully into the life of God. The Incarnation is the revelation of God, humanity, and salvation.

In His divinity, Jesus reveals a God who is with us and for us (Matthew 1:23; Romans 8:31). In His humanity, Jesus exemplifies a human life in full obedience to, and dependence on, God (Hebrews 12:2). As Savior, Jesus demonstrates God’s love through the giving of himself (1 John 4:10) and provides the blueprint for human destiny. Jesus is what salvation looks like.

Unpacking the doctrine of the Incarnation leads to all of Christian theology. Without this understanding of God in Christ, there is no New Testament culmination to the Old Testament that includes a future for all peoples, no final sacrifice for the sins of the world, no concrete evidence for our hope after death, no coming of the kingdom of God, and no community gathered in Christ.

Without the Incarnation, there is no church to pastor and no message to preach. This doctrine is the foundation of everything we do as ministers of the gospel. Our whole calling is its application.

The apostle Paul invoked the Incarnation as the foundation for the culture of the Church, writing, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God … ” (Philippians 2:5–6).

The mystery of the Incarnation should shape our pastoral ministry, including the following three areas.

1. Leading worship. Worship is an invitation to God. Individually, worship involves not only prayers but everything that belongs to God, including one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength (Luke 10:27). Corporately, worship refers to everything we do when gathered as believers (1 Corinthians 14:26).

As pastors, one of our chief responsibilities is to oversee worship. Whether we can sing or play a musical instrument is beside the point since music is only one part of corporate worship. We lead our communities in worship as we sing together, pray together, listen together, fellowship together, break bread together, and more (Acts 2:42).

Because Jesus is God, He is worthy of worship (Revelation 5:12). The Early Church, recognizing the deity of Jesus, prayed and sang hymns to Him.

Worship in light of the Incarnation is also an invitation to the gospel. When we worship Jesus through songs, prayers, or sermons, we communicate who Jesus is and what Jesus has done on our behalf. Our worship points people to Jesus.

Further, worship in light of the Incarnation is an invitation to discipleship. As we worship Jesus for who He is, we become more like Him because the focus of our worship shapes our development. We eventually reflect what we revere.

We must be sure our corporate worship — including our songs, prayers, and sermons — points to Jesus. Good worship reflects good theology. If it points only to a generic God, our worship will be generic. If we worship God as revealed through the Incarnation, our worship will be Christian.

Our job is to see that our worship remains explicitly Christian by being explicit about Jesus.

2. Teaching discipleship. Through the Incarnation, Jesus humbled himself to the point of death on a cross (Philippians 2:8).

Similarly, Christians are to take up our crosses as we follow Him (Luke 9:23). This means we are willing to endure whatever happens as a consequence of obeying Jesus.

As Peter discovered, knowing who Jesus is must include an understanding of His mission (Matthew 16:16–26). Following the Incarnate Lord sometimes means suffering.

The Church must preach both victory and sacrifice, blessing and obedience. If we gloss over the call for cross-bearing discipleship, we are not passing on the full message of Christ.

Many Christians today live without a sense of sacrifice. They forget Jesus calls them to a cross, not comfort.

Some church leaders are more interested in pursuing political power than following Jesus. A message of cultural domination rather than cruciform discipleship is far from the gospel.

As pastors, we must lead people to “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). That includes helping Christians in the struggle to take up their crosses.

Some churchgoers would rather be right than humble, win arguments than show kindness, be validated than be a witness. It is difficult to lead people who are more concerned with their rights than the needs of others. That makes it all the more important we teach sacrificial living as the way of following Jesus.

The good news is that Jesus died on a cross for our sins and rose from the grave. We are united with Christ in both His death and resurrection (Romans 6:5). Therefore, our lives should reflect both the humility of the Cross and the hope of resurrection. We take up the former and live toward the latter.

3. Modeling dependence on the Holy Spirit. The example of Jesus shows our need for a life empowered by, and submitted to, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was active in Christ’s conception, ministry, and resurrection. We cannot explain the Incarnation without highlighting the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is essential to the gospel story.

Jesus called us to dependence on the Spirit (Matthew 10:20; John 14:26; Acts 1:8). Through the Spirit, we experience new birth (John 3:5); develop Christlike character (Galatians 5:22–23); receive empowerment for ministry (Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 12:7); and anticipate our own resurrection (Romans 8:11).

Pastors have a responsibility to demonstrate dependence on the Holy Spirit. It’s good to take advantage of resources, such as books, seminars, and technology, but nothing can replace the power of the Spirit in our lives and ministries.

The Spirit’s activity should permeate every aspect of our leadership, from our priorities to our practices. Congregants should see the attention we give to praying, discerning God’s will, and stepping out in faith. They should know the foundation of our ministry is not our talent, title, charisma, or education, but the Spirit of God (Zechariah 4:6).

Jesus is the Son and image of God, the glue of creation, head of the Church, and first of the Resurrection because “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” (Colossians 1:15–19). As Christ’s attitude was one of humility and obedience (Philippians 2:5–11), so our attitude as leaders must reflect humility and obedience. We cannot expect congregants to serve one another if we do not reflect the way of Jesus.

We pastor under the authority of Jesus, in submission to the Holy Spirit. In our dependence on the Spirit, we are providing an example to others and following the example of our Incarnate Lord.


This article appears in the Spring 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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