Michael Horton has been one of the most consistently helpful spiritual guides in my life. (And interestingly, was one of the few people that, when I expressed my appreciation to him, didn’t make me feel like a drooling fanboy. Thanks, Michael, for understanding how it works.)
So you should read this excerpt: On the Absence of Christ. (Actually on the Ascension, but you’ll get it.)
Michael is writing here in something for 9 Marks Ministries and he mentions a much needed word that is similar to a lot of the material in his best book, In the Face of God (out of print but available used- get it). It’s part of Michael’s ability to get the best of Lutheran and Reformation theology out there in just exactly the right way. While I differ with Michael at some expected Baptist-Lutheran points, that seldom gets in the way of benefiting from the kind of Biblical/theological correction he offers here.
In short, Horton is warning us about the current use of the word “incarnational,” and its tendency to replace the unique ministry of Jesus with the continuing ministry of the church. I don’t even want to know how many times I’ve inadvertently stumbled into this one, but it’s been too often. I’ll take that swat and another, sir. Thank you.
Jesus never said anything about the church as a continuing incarnation. Paul speaks about the Body of Christ as a metaphor. But the church doesn’t replace Jesus does in a saving, revealing way. It may imitate Christ, it may continue his mission, it may bear witness to him, it may obey him and so on. But saying the church is another incarnation ought to be a caution. “Be my witnesses….teach whatever I command.” A clear mission, but not a continuing incarnation.
I can still say that each of us incarnates the Gospel as human beings in whom the Spirit dwells, but there are important differences that should be emphasized. We can be incarnational, but make sure the meaning and limitations are clear.
In these days of the evangelical circus, pastors and churches are constantly claiming things about themselves that are crossing the line. Churches don’t connect us to God by joining them. Jesus is the one mediator and no church owns him. Churches aren’t where we exclusively meet Jesus. We meet Jesus through the Gospel in the power of the Spirit as God chooses. Churches aren’t identical with “Jesus in the world.” Some of the gifts, power and presence of Christ in his people are manifested in the church, but Jesus is outside of the church as well. The church doesn’t dispense Christ like a product. Christ meets us in some of the “elements” that the church possesses, but he can and does meet us wherever he chooses.
A very good word from Michael Horton, reminding us that being Jesus-shaped is a balance of the presence and absence of Jesus.