In the recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Luther at 500,” Matthew Barrett, executive editor, interviewed Stephen Wellum on the subject of Christology. Stephen J. Wellum is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. He is the author of two new books, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior and God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ.
Here is the start of the interview:
You have spent much of your life studying the person and work of Christ. There are, of course, many doctrines of the faith you could have devoted yourself to, so what drew you to Christology?
You are exactly right that I have spent the last fifteen years thinking about Christology with the goal of publication, and, I must say, it has been a sheer delight and joy. In God’s providence, my former professor and doctoral advisor, John Feinberg, invited me to write God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ for the “Foundations in Evangelical Theology” series published by Crossway. Until he invited me, I was working more in the area of theology proper, theological hermeneutics, and theological method, but with his invitation, my attention turned to Christology. As I look back on that moment in my life, I am so thankful that John asked me to write for the series, which sent me in another direction in my research, writing, and teaching. And once I got deeper into the research for the book, I knew that this was the topic to study, and that is certainly an understatement.
In my work on Christology, it dawned on me that everything in systematic theology centers on Christ. To do a Christology one has to grasp how the whole Bible is put together since, if we follow Scripture’s own teaching, our Lord is the center of Scripture and God’s entire plan. Before my publication on Christology I first published with Peter Gentry, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, but that book was really the outworking of my study of how the whole Bible is centered in Christ, and how all of the biblical covenants unfold God’s glorious plan of redemption which reaches its fulfillment, terminus, and telos in Christ.
Also, in working on Christology, it has helped me to think more about the doctrine of the Trinity and how the Father, Son, and Spirit have related to each other from eternity (ad intra) and in the economy (ad extra), and then tie the entire discussion to the glorious gospel of God’s sovereign grace.
Studying in the area of Christology has also allowed me to think through methodological and hermeneutical issues on how to draw conclusions from Scripture that are first true to the Bible’s own teaching, and then secondly, to think through what the church has said as we seek to stand on their shoulders and speak the truth today. I cannot thank the Lord enough, and those who made it possible, for allowing me to spend time thinking through, meditating, wrestling with, and growing in my knowledge of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ our Lord. In the end, studying the Jesus of the Bible—his glory, beauty, and majesty—is what draws you to him, which is certainly evidence of God’s work of grace in my life.
Your new book in The 5 Solas Series, Christ Alone: The Uniqueness of Jesus as Savior (Zondervan), just to released. Tell us, what is solus Christus, and why was this particular sola so important to a reformer like Martin Luther?
When one thinks of the differences between the Reformers, like Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church, and relates those differences to Christ, one has to reflect carefully on what Luther and the Reformers were professing with solus Christus. What this sola meant was not so much focused on Christ’s unique and exclusive identity as God the Son incarnate. The Roman church, unlike later heretics such as the Socinians, were fully orthodox in their understanding of Christ’s person or identity. They, along with the Reformers, were pro-Nicene and pro-Chalcedonian in their theology proper and Christology. So, when Luther and the Reformers affirmed solus Christus – “in and through Christ alone”—what were they confessing? It is best to say that they were confessing the sufficiency of Christ’s work, something that was lost, or at least undermined in Roman Catholic theology.
Where Rome compromised Christ’s sufficiency was in a couple of areas. First, in the application of Christ’s work, they affirmed Christ paid for our eternal sins, which was applied to us by the church in our baptism where we are infused with Christ’s righteousness. However, as we live our lives and continue to sin, there is the ongoing application of Christ’s work via the sacramental system (specifically penance and the Mass) as we grow in our justification by growing in righteousness and cooperating with God’s grace. In this way, Christ’s obedient life and death for us, as our new covenant head and mediator, is undermined. Christ is not the sole ground of our justification before God, and thus, we are not justified by faith alone in and through Christ alone (solus Christus). For Luther and the Reformers, the sacraments are important but they do not function as they do in Rome’s theology. For Luther, and the Reformers, it is Christ alone in his life and death on the cross, which fully pays for our sin and it is Christ alone who is the sole ground of our justification. Because of who Jesus is and what he has done as God the Son incarnate, there is nothing more that we can add to his work; it is enough now and forevermore. By raising the empty hands of faith, we are declared just before God because our sins are paid in full and his perfect righteousness is ours in covenant union with him.
Second, for Rome there was an inadequate grasp of Christ’s work and our union with Christ by grace through faith. The Reformers taught a proper understanding of Christ’s obedience for us as our Savior. This is especially important in Calvin who thinks deeply about Christ’s obedience for us as the Last Adam. Due to the incarnation, the divine Son becomes human and is thus able to identify with us and be our Savior. In that identification as our covenant representative and substitute, he redeems us. Christ’s entire life, death, and resurrection as our Mediator is for us. In this way, there is nothing we can add to his work; what he has done as the perfect divine Son is enough to pay for our sin, satisfy God’s own righteous requirements, and defeat our enemies. In faith union with Christ, we are clothed in his righteousness, and his work is imputed to us as thus ours, not in terms of legal fiction but actually ours because of our union with our covenant head. In addition, the work of the Spirit is to unite us to our Mediator and to make us alive in him, so that we really have resurrection life and the full legal standing of Christ.
Rome did not teach all of these crucial points tied to Christ’s glorious work, and as a result, Luther and the Reformers, as they argued from Scripture, cried solus Christus! In fact, given our human sin before the holy, righteous triune God, it is only the triune God who can save us by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Our problem before God is so great, and our sin demands God’s eternal judgment, that it is only God himself in sovereign grace who can save us, and this is precisely what he has done in triune agency—by the initiative of the Father, through the Son, and the application work of the Spirit. …
Read the rest of this interview today at “Luther at 500.”