The belief of Christians that they are more than conquerors in Christ (cf. Rom. 8:31ff.) is precious to them, but it is questionable whether they fully appreciate the extent to which Christ himself was a conqueror or champion (see espec. Lane, index). It is a sad fact that the traditional conception of Jesus is somewhat docetic. The churches and theologians alike frequently fail to realize that while their Saviour was truly the Son of God, he was fully human, genuine flesh and blood (Heb. 2:11,14). (One of the few benefits delivered to us by liberalism was a deeper appreciation of Christ’s humanity.) Tested severely by fleshly temptations, vulnerable to the worldly pressures and passions common to us all and susceptible to the wiles and machinations of the devil, Jesus was like his fellows in all respects except that he did not personally sin (Heb. 2:17; 4:15).
But this was the calling of man from the start (Gen. 1:26,28; 2:17). Since as flesh Jesus stemmed through his mother from the temporal earth, he was inevitably mortal by nature and as such stood in direct contrast to his eternal Father (Rom. 1:23). Nonetheless, though a true son of Adam (Luke 3:38), he was also the Eternal Word or Logos and hence “created”, or rather incarnated (cf. Heb. 10:5-7), in the image of God and promised eternal life if he obeyed the commandments (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Dt. 30:15-20, etc.). Alternatively expressed, while he had by nature the image of God and hence indestructible life (Heb. 7:16), he had to attain to the full likeness of God in mortal flesh. And whereas the first Adam followed by all the rest of his posterity failed to fulfil the law, Jesus as man, the second Adam, having triumphed in the human condition became the Holy and Righteous One (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14; 1 John 2:1). As man he did for man what had proved beyond the capacity of all his fellows (Mt. 5:17; Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:9f., cf. Rom. 3:19f.; Gal. 2:16, etc.). He is thus our one and only Mediator.
It is clear then that Jesus had a truly human course or pilgrimage to complete (cf. Luke 13:32) and work to accomplish (John 6:38; 17:4) before attaining to the perfection of likeness to God (Mt. 3:15; 5:48; 19:21). Like all mankind, as the second Adam he had to begin at the beginning and recapitulate the whole gamut of human life (cf. Isa. 53:2). Like the rest of us he was conceived, underwent gestation in his mother’s womb, was born, became an infant and child. As the latter, like his Jewish ancestors, he spent time in Egypt in the house of bondage (cf. Mt. 2:15). In his adolescence he became a son of the commandment and lived under the law of Moses (cf. Luke 2:41ff.). In his maturity, having satisfied the requirements of his heavenly Father under that law, he was sealed by the Spirit (John 3:34; 4:14) and openly acknowledged as God’s Son (Mt. 3:17). Thus as flesh and reborn, or born from above, by the Spirit he proceeded to fulfil all righteousness (Mt. 3:15). But it was not until, in accordance with his Father’s will, he had laid down his life for his sheep (John 10; Heb. 2:9) that his earthly work was finally finished (John 19:30). And having accomplished the work that his Father gave him to do, he rose from the grave, ascended and was transformed and glorified as man in the heavenly presence of God with the glory that he had enjoyed before the world began (John 17:4f.).
Paul sums all this up from our point of view in a purple passage in his letter to the Galatians. There in chapter 4:4f. he writes: “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (ESV). The point is, as the author of Hebrews explains, that Jesus became one of us in order, first, to pioneer to perfection our earthly pilgrimage (2:9-11), second, to die for us (2:9,14) and, third, to conquer death on our behalf (2:15). In the words of Irenaeus who, incidentally, stressed the notion of recapitulation, he became what we are so that we might become what he is. Just as he was the Son of God and proved himself to be such, we who believe in him become the children of God. By the grace of God, we are fellow heirs with him (Rom. 8:15-17; Tit. 3:7).
Few people have understood the human development of Jesus as well as the father of theology, Irenaeus. B.B.Warfield, the famous Princeton (Reformed) theologian whose life bridged the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, recognized this in his own essay on the subject (pp. 158-166). Claiming that Jesus’ growth to maturity (perfection) was “the only strictly normal development, from birth to manhood, the world has ever seen” he quotes Irenaeus as follows: “He came to save all by means of himself, all, I say, who through him are born again unto God – infants, and children and boys and youths and old men. He therefore passed through every age, being at the same time made to them an example of piety, righteousness and submission; a youth for youths, becoming an example to youths, and thus sanctifying them for the Lord.”
While this passage is open to criticism at certain points, far more serious has been the obscuration of its basic truth by the theology of Augustine (1*). It is on account of the latter that until comparatively recently the biblical doctrine of perfection has fared badly in theology in general. So to that that we now turn.
It is the author of Hebrews in particular who highlights the perfectibility of man first implied in Genesis 1-3. This was obscured, if not totally hidden, by the Augustinian notion of the original perfection of Adam by creation followed (inexplicably) by his fall. (To posit initial perfection is a clear example of putting the cart before the horse! It implies that the baby begins life full-grown, which is a contradiction in terms. It is not surprising that some writers, who pride themselves on their biblical orthodoxy and a literal seven-day creation, tell us that when Adam was created, he looked 20-30 years old!) But the perfectibility of the second Adam is plain for all to see, as has already been indicated above. For even Jesus, the Son of God began his incarnate life, like Adam, without (the) law and knowledge of good and evil (Isa. 7:15f., cf. Dt. 1:39). As he grew in wisdom and understanding (cf. Luke 2:40), he lived out his life like his forebears, after a stint in Egypt, under the law, and without deviating from it to the least degree. When he received the approbation of his Father at his baptism, he was publicly acknowledged as his Son (Mt. 3:17). From then on, he proceeded to fulfil all righteousness, impossible under the law (Heb. 7:18f.), until he laid down his life for his sheep and finished his work on the cross (John 19:30). That he had lived the perfect human life was demonstrated by his victorious resurrection from the dead (for as one who had kept the law he was not personally subject to death) and his subsequent ascension, transformation, glorification and heavenly session at God’s right hand. Well might we say, “Behold the man”, the only man in the whole history of the human race to achieve the perfection God had intended from the start (Mt. 5:48; Heb. 1:3, cf. 2 Cor. 5:5).
The author of Hebrews expresses all this in unmistakable language. First, he says that Jesus was finally crowned with glory and honour (2:9; Rev. 5:12f., cf. 4:11). This, according to the Psalmist (8:5f.), was implicit in Genesis 1. Then in 2:10 our author indicates that in bringing many sons to glory God made Jesus, the founder of their salvation, perfect through suffering. In 3:1 (cf. Phil. 3:14; 1 Thes. 2:12; 1 Pet. 5:10) there is a reference to our heavenly calling which was less explicit, but clearly implied, in Genesis 2:17. Needless to say, it was Jesus as man who consummated that calling and “being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (5:9). Clearly he did not do this merely by keeping the letter of the law under which perfection was impossible (cf. 7:11, 18f.). But under a better covenant (of which Jesus himself became the guarantor, 7:22) the One who had been appointed a Son was made perfect forever (7:28, cf. 12:1-2).
Christ’s ascension, exaltation and heavenly session were of course proof positive that he had fulfilled the role the first Adam (and indeed all his posterity) had been given but had failed through sin to play. In contrast, Jesus as the second Adam overcame the world (John 16:33, cf. Gen. 1:26,28), the flesh (Rom. 8:3, cf. Gen. 2:17; 3:6) and the devil (John 12:31; 14:30, cf. Gen. 3:1-7). And by faith in him we are enabled to do the same (1 John 2:14-17). If we succeed, we also shall be conquerors like him (Rom. 8:31ff.; Rev. 3:21, etc.).
It is against this necessary background, that is, Jesus’ human triumph or victory in the flesh, that he was enabled to finish his work on the cross. Had he not proved himself a lamb without blemish, he would never have been in a position to offer himself, his body and blood, as a perfect sacrifice to his Father on behalf of his fellow man. In the event, however, it was by his crucifixion that Jesus demonstrated supremely his love both for God and his neighbour. Here he was conqueror indeed, as Paul was well aware. He served as our forerunner (Heb. 6:20) and as the one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of God became the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb. 12:2). Not only had Jesus, the man, achieved perfection and won his way to heaven for himself, but he had done it also for his friends who had failed to meet the challenge they all shared with Adam (cf. Heb. 1:3; 2:9f.; Rev. 3:21, etc.). In this way he summed up all mankind in himself (Eph. 1:10). It is thus through him, and him alone, that we who are failures ourselves can conquer and achieve the perfection God requires of all who enter his awesome presence. For as Scripture never forgets, God is a consuming fire (Dt. 4:24; 9:3) with, as Jesus reminds us, the power to cast both body and soul into hell (Luke 12:4f.). Well may we ask with Isaiah, “Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings” (33:14, cf. Heb. 12:29)?
More Than Conquerors
The good news of the gospel then is that Jesus has conquered (Rev. 5:5,12f.), and as conqueror he has abolished death (cf. Rev. 1:18) and brought life and immortality (incorruption) to light (2 Tim. 1:10). As one of us, as our brother in fact (cf. Heb. 2:10-13), he has paved or pioneered the way to heaven so that those who trust in him can conquer too (Rev. 12:11, cf. Gal. 5:24; 6:14). Reconciled to God by his death, they are saved by his life (Rom. 5:10). Through him they can enter the very presence of God (Rom. 5:2; Heb. 2:10; 1 Pet. 3:18) and be forever with him (John 12:26; 14:2f.,19; 17:24; 2 Cor. 4:14; 1 Thes. 4:14-17). Truly may it be said that there is no other way (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 John 4:4; 5:4f.). Before him every knee will eventually bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord (Isa. 45:23; Phil. 2:9-11).
*1 See for example “Irenaeus” by Denis Minns OP, London, 1994. John Hicks’ “Evil and the God of Love”, London, 1966, is by no means irrelevant to the subject.
B.B.Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings 1, ed. J.E.Meeter, Nutley, 1970.