The Gospel and Being Incarnational
by John Davis
The Gospel and Being Incarnational
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
In this post I want to talk about the value of being Incarnational and how the gospel informs and empowers that value. This text is a call to think incarnationally.
The talk of being incarnational is often in the context of how believer’s in Christ relate to the world outside the church. Among Christians you will find various approaches to how to relate to non-church culture or how they attempt to live their lives in relationship to the world outside the church.
Isolationists avoid the culture. Antagonists fight the culture. Separatists keep pure from a defiled culture. Sycncretists blend the values of the church and the culture. Triumphalists seek to control and conquer the culture. Accomodationists give in to the culture.
At Grace Church of Philly we seek to be Incarnational (to live out the values of the gospel in human skin).The gospel came in human skin, i.e. God in flesh, and the gospel continues to come in human skin, i.e. Christ living in me and through me. In being incarnational we become ‘friends of sinners’ and immersed in the culture. We believe that
if incarnational gospel values are being developed in us, then we have no fear of being completely assimilated into the culture.
… the life of Christ reminds us that incarnation does not lead to us feeling anymore at home in the kingdom of this age, that the more we incarnate into our culture, the more we will find ourselves at odds with the elements of that culture which resist God’s redemptive actions in the world (Michael Horton).
However, our interest is not only Incarnational Ministry or Living in relation to the world outside the church. We are interested primarily in the deeper internal values that drive external activity.
Being incarnational is first about inner transformation before external ministry and living.
Another way to say it is – Incarnation is less about the external context (the where I am) than it is about the internal value (the who I am).
Incarnation that begins with external activity and context rather than inner transformation is in danger of being ingenuous and powerless.
Incarnation is first about who I am becoming than what I am doing.
INCARNATIONAL AS AN INTERNAL VALUE (Keep thinking this one thing)
The call to being incarnational as an internal value is expressed in verse 5:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus….
We are to have hearts and minds that come from reflecting on Christ’s incarnation and death on the cross.
- Being incarnational, we deny ourselves certain rights so that we can identify with others in their suffering (self-denial)
Jesus did not “count” equality with God as something to grasp tightly i.e. he never said, ‘I see the need of the world, but I can’t give up my form of existence. I must hold it tightly.’ Jesus could never cease to be who he was, but he could leave his throne of glory and descend to a manger and a cross. This He did. This we are called to do. We do this without surrendering who we are in Christ and we do this for the good of others. This is what good missionaries do; this is the call of all believers. This is the only way we meet the world in its suffering. This means that we may have to deny ourselves our right to the comfort of the “American Dream” in order to effectively minister in a broken and suffering world.
2 Corinthians 8:9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
Being incarnational is denying my rights and often lowering my status in bringing who I am in Christ into identity with those who suffer because they do not know Jesus.
In being incarnational I do not surrender who I am in Christ, yet there is enough about me that relates to the world I live in.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23
19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
Because he was willing to change his form of existence, he “made himself nothing (emptied himself)”
This action was not a divestment of Who He is as Son of God. He surrendered no attributes of deity, though as theologians say, he surrendered the independent exercise of some relative attributes, i.e. he was always omnipotent (all powerful, yet in his incarnation, he did not exercise his omnipotence but rather did all that he did in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This becoming nothing calls us to at least the following way of thinking:
- Being incarnational, we come with a desire to serve, not to dominate.
The desire to dominate rather than serve is a plague among Christians in churches and in the culture.
“The Word made flesh” – came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.
We Christians are good at words and technology today makes it possible for us to multiply our words. But too often we are only ‘talking heads.’ The world needs the word of God but it needs the word embodied in human flesh. Jesus did not simply say, ‘I love you.’ He said ‘I love you,’ then came from heaven, took on the form of a servant, and gave his life for you.
What are we doing besides talking?
- In being incarnational, we come with humility not superiority (he humbled himself)
Jesus will come in power and glory some day, but he first came in humility. He made himself low. Sometimes our approach to those outside for the gospel comes across as arrogant.
For example, often we approach non-believers as if we are smarter because we grasp the content and implications of the gospel. I confess that I have been there. This arrogance is a vestige of the Enlightenment where reason was exalted and when applied to theology, it often produced people with an arrogance which says to non-believers ” you’re pretty dumb if you don’t get it (the gospel).”
But think about it, why do you believe what you believe. Is there such incontrovertible evidence that is so persuasive that any reasonable person should accept it?
Or is there something so distorted about our ability to know the things of God that it takes a supernatural work of the Spirit to open our eyes and minds.
We come to those who need Jesus with humility because we know that God in His grace and through the work of His Spirit has allowed us to have ears to hear and eyes to see. “I once was blind now I see.”
In his letters (118,22) Saint Augustine wrote: “Grasp the truth of God by using the way he himself provides, since he sees the weakness of our footsteps. That way consists first, of humility, second, of humility, and third, of humility.”
- Being incarnational, we come to identify with others in their weakness and suffering (he came in the likeness of man)
As a man he experienced what we do. He knew the joys and sorrow, the laughter and tears, the pain and the comfort that humans experience. We cannot be incarnational without identifying and experiencing the ‘human condition’ of those who we seek to love in Jesus’ name.
We cannot do this from a distance.
- Being incarnational, we come with a heart of obedience to the mission, regardless of how costly it is. (even the death of the cross)
His identifying with us in our weakness of suffering in order to deliver us necessitated the cross – the only way God’s deepest love could be expressed without sacrificing His holiness and justice.
Incarnational obedience is costly. One of the costs of incarnation is that in touching others you are also touched by others. And, sometimes that touching hurts.
Jesus touched and healed many and embraced children, and felt the embrace of others, as well as the anointing of perfume and the washing of feet, but he also was touched with rejection, pummeling, and thorns, and nails and ultimately he was touched by our sin.
Isaiah 53:5 But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.
Incarnation often involves a costly obedience.
INCARNATIONAL AS A MINISTRY MODEL (Incarnation = in flesh, i.e. eventually internal values are expressed in external ministry and living)
What we mean by “incarnational mission,” then, is a commitment to be with people, to embody the good news we preach, and through the Spirit to mediate the presence of Christ wherever He is needed. As the body of Christ, we are the continuation of His ministry; we are His presence on earth. We are the salt of the earth, the light of the world (http://www.wordmadeflesh.org/the-cry/the-cry-vol-10-no-3/incarnational/).
There is a danger with only an external incarnational focus.
We are not distinctively Christian because we do things that identify with the world in their suffering.
We are distinctively Christian because our understanding and experience of the gospel drives us to identify with people in their suffering.
Eventually being moved by the gospel to think incarnationally has an impact on how we relate to society, to communities, to culture.
When we think about being incarnational, we need to think about how we as Christians relate to each other and culture outside the church.
Since being incarnational is more about internal transformation than activity, it is evident first in the church and that’s point of Philippians 2.
Incarnational living is not a rejection of the church, but a reflection to the world outside the church of those values that characterize the body of Christ.
Since GCP is committed ‘showing God’s grace to a great city” – we seek to express these values in a way explained by Tim Keller.
1. Christians should live long-term in the city. The city is an intense crucible of culture formation. Cultural trends tend to be generated in the city and flow outward into the rest of society. Therefore, people who live in the large urban cultural centers (working in their institutions, taking jobs in the arts, business, academia, the helping professions, and the media) tend to have greater impact on how things are done in a culture. If a far greater percentage of the people living in cities long-term were Christians, Christ’s values would have a greater influence on the culture. In his book Two Cities: Two Loves, he [James Boice] argued that evangelicals should live in cities in at least the same percentage as the general population. If we do not, we should not expect much influence in society.
2. Christians should be a dynamic counter-culture in the city. It will not be enough for Christians to simply live as individuals in the city. They must live as a particular kind of community. The Bible tells us that the history of the world is a ‘tale of two cities.’ The ‘city of man’ is built on the principle of individual self-aggrandizement (Gen 11:1-4- “Let us make a name for ourselves”). What God wants is different. “In the city of our God, his holy mountain is beautiful in elevation–the joy of the whole earth” (Psalm 48:2). In other words, the urban society God wants is based on service rather than selfishness, and on bringing joy to the whole world, not just to the individuals within it. Jesus probably had Psalm 48:2 in mind when he told his disciples that they were ‘a city on a hill’ whose life and action showed God’s glory to the world (Matt 5:14-17). That is us! We
Christians are called to be an alternate city within every earthly city, an alternate human culture
within every human culture, to show how sex, money, and power can be used in non-destructive
ways; to show how classes and races who cannot get along outside of Christ can get along in
him; and to show how it is possible to produce art that brings hope rather than despair or
3. Christians should be a community radically committed to the good of the city as a whole. It is insufficient for Christians to form a culture that only ‘counters’ the values of the city. We must then turn, with all the resources of our faith and life, to sacrificially serve the good of the whole city, and especially the poor. Christians work for the peace, security, justice, and prosperity of their neighbors, loving them in word and deed, whether they believe what we do or not. In Jeremiah 29:7, the Jews were called not just to live in the city but to love it and work for it’s ‘shalom’—its economic, social, and spiritual flourishing. Christians are, indeed, citizens of God’s heavenly city. But the citizens of God’s city are always the best possible citizens of their earthly city. They walk in the steps of the One who laid down his life for his opponents. In the end, Christians will not be attractive within our culture through power plays and coercion, but through sacrificial service to people regardless of their beliefs. We do not live here simply to increase the prosperity of our own tribe and group, but for the good of all the peoples of the city.
4. Christians should be a people who integrate their faith with their work. There is a fourth, crucial component to our plan for relating Christians to culture. As we said above, all work proceeds from beliefs about the ‘big questions’ regarding what life means, what human beings are, and what are the most important things in life. We call the answers to these big questions a ‘worldview.’
This text calls us to have thinking that comes from focusing on the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As we focus on Christ (2 Cor 3:18 –while beholding his glory, we are being transformed into his image), the values of his incarnation (self-denial, serving others, humility, identity, costly obedience) are progressively instilled in us by the Spirit of God.
Even as we seek to have these values instilled in us and these values expressed in real ministry that touches the lives of others, we make no mistake in thinking that our being incarnational is the answer for the world’s ultimate need.
When our incarnation of the gospel purports to exhibit perfection or in itself is seen as the gospel, it masks the gospel of grace (and tells a lie).
Our incarnation of the gospel is always deficient which is why we always point to the one who alone truly embodies the gospel.
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