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Lordship of Christ

(That’s a Harder Question Than You Think!)

(Biblically speaking) There is only one Creator God, and only one Lord: Son of God, Lord Jesus Christ. These are points of truth, affirmed consistently by Scripture, and affirmed over against rival truth claims. Whatever claims would cast doubt, deny, or otherwise impinge on these truth claims are regarded not as potential providers of nuance of these truth claims, but as false. Period. Full stop.

From here, it would seem almost natural to simply drive the point home to the bedrock of “absolute truth” and be done with it. “God is Creator; Jesus is Lord. Anyone who denies these truths is accursed; anyone who affirms these truths is Holy-Spirit-prompted. These truths are absolute. Affirmation of them brings life; denial brings damnation.”

However, closer investigation in fact gives some pause to making such a move.

Here are the two passages once again that affirm profession of the Lordship of Christ as forthright diagnostic tests, useful for discerning whether one is a false prophet or one is prompted instead by the Holy Spirit of God:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.

— 1 John 4:1-3

Therefore I make known to you, that no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus is accursed’; and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.

— 1 Corinthians 12:3

These two passages, especially taken together, seem prima facie to be straightforward, foolproof, “absolute” truth statements that could and should be safely extracted from their original literary corpus and applied in absolute fashion to virtually any context. You are talking with a Hindu? What is his view of the Lordship of Christ? Here’s an atheist; she’s definitely not Spirit-prompted in her religious ruminations at all. There’s a Buddhist; yes, yes, self-denial, slaying of passions and all that. . . . But what do you do with Jesus? In, out. Sheep, goats. Good fish, bad fish. Black, white. Clear. Clean-cut. Straightforward. Simple. . . Right?

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that the Bible’s own narrative does not unequivocally endorse or prove failsafe such an approach. Consider, for example, the testimony of even the gospel narratives.

True, by Matthew 16, one outspoken disciple at least is able (by supernatural enablement, Jesus notes) to confess that Jesus is the Christ, Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16-17). This fits well with 1 John 4 and 1 Corinthians 12. But notice: even here, the disciples themselves disclose that coming to conclusion on exactly who Jesus is represents an assessment process that is not easy or straightforward; and notice, the choices being considered are those wrestled with among followers of Jesus (not those doubting His claims, or suspecting Him of demonism) — all the choices listed in Matthew 16 are “good and worthy alternatives”: is He a prophet, Elijah redivivus, some other kind of holy agent sent from God? Yes, one of the twelve, by Matthew 16 is able to pass the 1 John 4/ 1 Corinthians 12 “diagnostic test.” But, eight chapters earlier, in Matthew 8, not a single one of them simply “takes in stride” the fact that Jesus is able to calm the winds and waves at a single word — would even one of them at that point have “passed” the “Lordship-of-Christ” affirmation test? And note: we are observing how poorly the specifically-chosen-by-Jesus disciples who left everything to follow Him would have fared!

Lordship of Christ

Meanwhile, who would have done really, really well on the “Lordship-profession” test of 1 John and 1 Corinthians 12? When Jesus walked the earth, the ones — the ONLY ones! — who consistently testified (“accurately”!) to the Lordship of Christ were . . . the demon-possessed! Once again, in Matthew 8, the irony is striking (intended by Matthew, maybe?) — Jesus’ own disciples are smitten with terror at the manifestation of Jesus’ “Lordship” . . . just like the demons who greeted them upon landing on shore on the other side. One of these highly-demonized men (so Luke tells us — Luke 8:27) accosts Jesus butt-naked. Out of his mind, violent, and deranged — but what is his confession? (Recorded by all three synoptic gospels:)“We know who You are, Jesus! You are the Son of the Most High, God!” (Matthew 8:29; Mark 5:7; Luke 8:28).

This is a striking incident, but it is not unique. Consistently in the gospels, followers and disciples of Jesus are slow to grasp that Jesus is not only a mighty, prophetic teacher, He is Lord (Son of God, God Incarnate). The demons and the demon-possessed, though, are the ones, and the only ones, to get the “Lordship” question right. Let us state this plainly: the only ones who would have passed the “Lordship tests” of 1 John 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 in the gospel narratives, when Jesus walked the earth, would have been the demon-possessed. (E.g., see Mark 1:24; Mark 5:7; and Luke 4:34, in addition to the incident with the Gadarene demoniac[s]).

Lordship of Christ

But not only that, there are even more questions raised when we look at the bigger picture of history —even beyond the unique period when Jesus was in His incarnate, sui generis pre-Resurrection state. In our day, for instance, pretty much every single charlatan prosperity-gospel-teaching televangelist knows at least enough of the New Testament to get the “Jesus is Lord” point right. What exactly does this say?

I hope we recognize that part of what this says is that deeper levels of engagement with epistemological issues — assessing what is the nature of truth and how truth statements, or language in general “works” — is not just an intellectual curiosity for navel-gazing Oxford and Harvard scholars. The implications have real, practical, ground-level implications. In this case, a reductionist (homiletical) reading of 1 John 4 or 1 Corinthians 12 sets people up for being duped by religious frauds — rather than securing the reliable diagnostic protection these passages were originally intended to provide.

That in mind, let us assess at a deeper level what is going on with these diagnostic test passages. Bluntly put: why is it that they seem not to “work” as absolutely as they at first seem to suggest?

Let us not miss this: if we treat the diagnostic tests of 1 John 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 as “absolute truth” statements, then we cause problems for their “truthfulness,” rather than shoring up defense of their truthfulness. Why? Because there are contexts in which the “tests” do not work! Meaning, ipso facto, if they are intended to be “absolute truth” statements then they are false! It simply is NOT true that one cannot ontologically conjure the ability to identify Jesus as Lord except by the Spirit of God: we know this, because un-Spirit-prompted DEMONS are on record in Scripture as doing this very thing! Regarding biblical truth statements as “absolute truth,” then, results in causing biblical passages to contradict one another.

And it is also the case that we can find instances in our own day in which religious frauds pass these particular tests, meaning: if we make these truth statements matters of “absolute truth,” then we make their claims unreliable rather than reliable. Let us not miss that.

The Next Step:

Now, let us take the next step: if these statements are not intended (by God, and likely not by the biblical writer either) to be understood as “absolute truth” statements, what IS the nature of their “truthfulness”? May I suggest: they are contextually true (which note: is still true, but different from absolutely true — as in, technically speaking, “true regardless of context”).

So, what specifically is going on in 1 John 4 or 1 Corinthians 12? Let us consider the context. Jesus is no longer walking the earth, nor is He walking on water, feeding 5,000 people, calming the wind and the waves with a word, healing lepers with a touch, causing the blind from birth to see. He is now departed, leaving only the memory and post facto accounting of how and why He has departed to be reckoned with. In the context of 1 John and 1 Corinthians 12, Christianity — that is, the accounting that would regard the reason for Jesus’ departure to be resurrection and ascension to reigning Lordship — was deemed subversive, illegal, and punishable by torture and death.

In that context — a context in which there is no vested interest at all discernible in affirming the Resurrection, the Lordship of Jesus, or any profit in claiming “He is gone, but yet He is still alive, and He lives on as Lord”; where there is no “profit motive” for affirming “the truth” about Jesus’ Lordship — the tests of 1 John 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 work quite well. In such a context, it is well and truly observed that the ONLY reason one would come to such a conclusion, much less articulate it aloud (where doing so literally puts one’s life in danger) is by divine, supernatural, Spirit prompting.

Change the context

Change the context, though, and the tests may not work as well. For example, in a context in which Christianity is not only legal, but in which affirmation of the Lordship of Christ may actually secure financial benefits or political prestige or communal popularity, there may very well be variables other than Holy Spirit enablement that could account for a given individual’s profession of affirmation of the Lordship of Christ. This is not because 1 John 4 or 1 Corinthians 12 are “not true”; it is because what 1 John 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 intend to address is not in view in such a context, and so do not apply (or, at least, do not apply so straightforwardly as in the context originally in view).

The distinctions being observed here may seem subtle or exceptional. In truth, however, they are profound (even if subtle) and normative (rather than exceptional). Language is not an “absolutist” sort of enterprise; the way language works is inherently contextual — meaning that “truth” (at least such as is grasped or articulated by human beings) is best conceived of and analyzed as “truth statements,” lest the actual truthfulness of Scripture be put in jeopardy, or its acceptance by seekers and skeptics be put in jeopardy, by those well-meaningly (but alas incompetently) seeking to defend it.

About the Author

Todd Mangum

Dr. R. Todd Mangum

Todd Mangum is the Academic Dean and Professor of Theology at Biblical. He is ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention. Todd is the author of The Dispensational-Covenantal Rift, and co-author (with Dr. Paul Pettit of the Howard Hendricks Leadership Center in Dallas, TX) of the just-released book, Blessed are the Balanced: Following Jesus into the Academy (Kregel), and of several articles seeking to bridge divides among Bible-believing Christians. He is married to Linda and they have three sons.

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