A Scandal at the Core of the Christmas Story?

Posted by R. Fowler White

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. These things we write, so that our joy may be made complete. (1 John 1.1-4, NASB)

Some might say that there is a scandal at the core of “the Christmas story”–otherwise known as the account of the nativity of Jesus. It is the scandal that explains why non-Christians celebrate Christmas as they do. While they party with a fictional Santa, they scoff at the truth of Jesus, particularly the scandalous truth of His Incarnation. The fact of the Incarnation scandalizes the unbelieving world.

According to the Bible, Jesus of Bethlehem is the Eternal Son, the Christ, who is now and always will be fully God and fully man. He has not always been man; He has always been God. He is God with God, God the Word, God the Son, who has permanently taken to Himself human nature. Jesus Christ was not first a man upon whom divinity descended for a time. No, He was first God who then became the God-man, and that forevermore thereafter. That is, after the Incarnation, He is now and will forever be one person with two natures, divine and human.

Apart from the Incarnation, Jesus’ life is outstanding and His death obscene. Because of the Incarnation, however, His life and death are unique: in fact, they are both part of His unique saving work for sinners. The apostles of Christ made that clear in the good news that they heralded. In His life, Jesus the God-man was entirely faithful to His God and Father where sinners are entirely unfaithful; in His death, He bore the penalty sinners justly deserve for their unfaithfulness. Just so, in Jesus the God-man alone, through faith alone, sinners find the joy of life with God.

To deny that Jesus of Bethlehem is God-who-became-man is to disbelieve the authentic Christian gospel; it is to believe a lie. So we’ll be careful not to settle for anything less than God the Son Incarnate, Jesus of Bethlehem. For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess Jesus Christ coming in the flesh. This person is the deceiver and the antichrist! (2 John 7, NASB)

1 John 2:19, Again

Here is the first post on this passage. There are several good arguments there for the understanding of the passage as supporting the traditional visible/invisible church distinction. I wish to add some more, extremely weighty arguments. I owe these arguments to discussions with Wes White.

First of all, if John is saying that these folk who went out “from us” are false teachers commissioned by the apostles, then his rejoinder makes no sense. Why would “they would have remained with us” be an acceptable rebuttal for why they are false teachers commissioned to be sent out? This makes no sense at all. Commissioned folk, according to this intepretation, are by definition sent out. Clearly here, the “not of us” is being here contrasted with “remain with us.” Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that the “remaining” would mean some sort of thing as “remaining in spirit or doctrine,” which would have to be the case, if Wilkins’s view was correct.

Secondly, the purpose clause (ἵνα plus subjunctive) also makes no sense. Why would the apostles send out false teachers in order for them to be exposed? If I were an apostle, and I knew that so-and-so was a false teacher, the last thing I would do is to let him out among the sheep! This would be for a shepherd to let in a wolf in sheep’s clothing in among the sheep! Unthinkable! No, the burden of the passage is that God allowed them to go forth out from the congregation in order that their true origin would be exposed. It is not a commissioning, but a self-induced excommunication that is here related. The going forth was voluntary (the voice of ἐξῆλθαν is active, after all; there were plenty of ways that John could have said “We sent them,” if he had wanted to do so. Plus, the normal word for sending out is apostello).

Thirdly, the definition of “antichrist” in the context is someone who denies the Father and the Son. Their activity is not firstly that of teaching, but that of confessing (vs. 23). They are confessing a denial of the Son, which entails a denial of the Father also. Now, I do not deny that they are trying to teach false doctrine, since that is plainly indicated in verses 26-27. All wolves want to make their own job of eating the sheep easier by trying to convince the sheep that either 1. The wolves are really sheep, or 2. The sheep are really wolves. But this is a far cry from saying that, because these false teachers were commissioned by the apostles, that therefore it cannot be referring to the visible/invisible church distinction. Even if we granted the point about being commissioned by the apostles, that would still not negate the truth of the assertion that they were part of the visible church, but were shown not to be part of he invisible church.

I John 2:19

Here is the text:

“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

Now, this text has been used on both sides of the FV debate. Critics use this as a proof-text for the standard understanding of the visible/invisible church distinction. Wilkins has a rather extensive exposition of this passage on page 17 of his exam. He will be my dialog (sparring?) partner.

The first question that must be asked is this: who is the “us” in the verse? Two options have presented themselves. The first is that John and his readers make up the “us.” The second option is that the “us” is the apostles. Obviously, if the second option is correct, then the verse cannot be used as a proof-text for the visible/invisible church distinction, since the ones who left are not then described as being in the church; they would only be described as being sent by the apostles.

However, the “apostles” understanding of the “us” is not tenable for contextual reasons. The “us” must be referring to the same group as the “we” in the last part of the previous verse. That verse goes like this: “Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour.” Surely, the “we” in the last sentence cannot be limited to the apostles, since, by telling his readers that it is the last hour, everyone knows, not just the apostles! It is a literary “we,” identifying the writer with the readers. This understanding of the “we” is by no means shaken by the fact that “you” refers to the readers in the first part of the verse. Obviously, the “you” refers to the readers. But it refers to the readers minus the writer. It would be unnatural in the extreme, therefore, for John to posit a contrast between the readers and the apostles in that verse. Such a contrast would make no sense. Therefore, the “we” in verse 18 is referring to readers plus John. In short, it is the church. That makes a sudden departure from this usage to that of “apostles” impossible in verse 19. The “us” of verse 19 is the same as the “we” of verse 18.

The next question that must be examined is the timing of the false teachers. Did they cease to be part of us, or were they never part of us? Wilkins says that the former is an exegetical and grammatical option. However, he does not argue his case. He merely asserts it. I, on the other hand, will argue my position, which is that the false teachers were never part of the church.

First of all, we must note the tense of the verb “to be.” It is imperfect. Imperfect does not have the sense of completion, but of incompletion. In other words, there is not a change of status in the present. The imperfect conveys rather a continuous action in the past. They were continually not of us.

Furthermore, the sentence starting in the second part of the verse expresses a contrary-to-fact condition (BDF 360). It is contrary to fact that they were of us. Therefore, the logical corollary is that they never were of us. Wilkins’s case has not only not been made, but now has been shown to be impossible. The verse describes the traditional view that these false teachers came out from the church (“us”), but were never part of the church (“not of us”).

Of course, Wilkins is correct in saying “there is no compelling reason to say that John is claiming these eventual apostates never experienced ANY (emphasis his) blessing whatsoever while they remained in the covenant community.” I think any critic of Wilkins could agree with this. But, what are the nature of those blessings? Saving? No. None of them.