Mark and Avoid: Sandlin Says Jesus Isn’t God

presbyteriansThe absolute worst place to discuss anything is the comments section on a website. Best construction: threads get too long to read (thus making it difficult to enter the discussion). Worst construction (although still true): comments sections have become the example par excellence of concupiscence, man’s inborn, churning propensity and desire for evil. When religion is involved, the wickedness of man goes into hyper drive, as internet atheists try to vanquish their Christian opponents. Typically, I like to read what liberal (not used as a political term here) theologians have to say about orthodox, historic, and confessional Christianity to help me better understand their arugments. Instead of wading into the mire of comments sections, however, I’m beginning a series of articles responding to liberal theologians’ critiques of orthodox, historic, and confessional Christianity.

First up is this post by Mark Sandlin. Sandlin’s article is actually the first in a short series of articles wherein Sandlin takes issue with several key points of historic Christian doctrine. These are not lengthy treatments, but Sandlin’s main purpose is trying to widen the tent of Biblical orthodoxy to include a greater variety of beliefs. He says, “Most institutionalized Churches define who is and who isn’t a Christian far too narrowly. There is an increasingly long list of tenets to which a person must dogmatically adhere in order to be in the club.” And, “I’m not trying to say I am right and others are wrong. I am saying Christianity should big enough for a variety of thought. I am saying God can handle our questions.”

In the article, “Jesus Is Not My God,” Rev. Mark Sandlin of the PCUSA, argues that Jesus is not God. You should read the article before going on (it’s not very long, I promise), but here are a few of the points he makes that I want to address here:

  • Jesus taught about and worshipped God as “Father,” so as to teach us about the “nurturing nature” of God.
  • Jesus did not worship Himself, so He didn’t consider Himself to be God.
  • Jesus never called Himself God (at least in Matthew, Mark, or Luke—other than by inference)
  • St. John has Jesus claiming to be God, but John should be disregarded, because it’s a later writing and because modern scholars say so.
  • Jesus not being God is a good thing, because it enables Him to better demonstrate how to be the person God wants you to be.

 

First, Sandlin makes a great deal out of this idea that Jesus calls God “Father” to teach us about the character of God. I agree with Him on this point. However, His interpretation of a “nurturing” Father falls a little short of what it means to have God as Father. For Sandlin, it’s about being connected and made in the image of God, best exemplified in our loving one another.

For St. Paul, the idea of God as Father goes something like this: “But when the fulness of time had come, 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.  And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!  Father!’  So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God (Galatians 4:4-7).’  God does intend to be a nurturing Father that is best exemplified by redeeming us from sin, death, and the devil by the shedding of Christ’s blood for us at Calvary. This same Father promises to hear our prayers (Ps. 50:15) and give us every good thing (Luke 11:13).

 

Second, Sandlin makes the claim that Jesus never worshipped Himself. Now, this is a complicated point, I’ll admit, but Jesus never worships the Holy Spirit, either. In reality, however, Jesus’ worship in synagogues and temple are directed to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This means that His worship includes all three persons of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (we’ll see in a different article, however, that Sandlin doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity, either). What is more, Jesus accepts the worship of some people in the Gospels (cf. Matt. 14:33, 28:9, and 17, Luke 24:52). This should be contrasted with times that worship is not accepted by those who are decidedly not God (Acts 10:25-26 and Revelation 22:8-9).

 

Sandlin’s third point, that Jesus never referred to Himself as God—at least in Matthew, Mark and Luke—is a common one made by theological liberals. There are two main deficiencies in this argument. First, Jesus does explicitly refer to Himself as God in Matthew 11:27 (the so-called Johannine Thunderbolt). Here, Jesus says, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Using Scripture to interpret Scripture, we see quite clearly from John 5:18 that to call God “Father” is to make oneself equal to God. In fact, this is what John shows as the event that sets in motion the plot to kill Jesus.

 

The other problem with this argument is that John’s Gospel is somehow not really authoritative. Since the days of higher criticism, so-called scholars have torn apart the Biblical canon, pitting one author of Scripture against another. We typically see Paul pitted against Jesus, for instance, in an effort to soften Christianity’s stance on issues like women’s ordination and homosexuality. Here, we see Sandlin using this same method in making an effort to undermine the divinity of Jesus to make his point. What is fascinating is that the early Church seemed to have no problem accepting St. John’s Gospel as canon (Martin Chemnitz makes a great case for this in The Examination of the Council of Trent: Part I—see pp. 91ff). Additionally, the modern scholar, Richard Baukham—a veritable theological powerhouse—affirms the same (see his book The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple).

 

The fourth point is connected with what I’ve just said. Sandlin, along with his “most modern scholars” would like to disregard St. John’s Gospel as a late addition. However, Sandlin has nearly two thousand years of history stacked against him and documentation of the Gospel of John in the writings of the early Church (not to mention the Epistles which predate the synoptics). Sandlin uses the apparent disparity between the synoptic Gospels and John on Jesus’ divinity to try to solidify his point that Jesus wasn’t God. On this issue, Martin Chemnitz, using Eusebius as a source, details that certain men attempted to stir up controversy in the Church after most of the Apostles had died by questioning the deity of Christ. It was in this context that John wrote the Gospel that bears his name.

 

The final point I’ve outlined seems to be what Sandlin is really trying to impress upon his readers—that Jesus not being God is actually a good thing, because it enables Him to better address how human beings, as God’s children, are supposed to be. Orthodox Christians shouldn’t be completely allergic to Christ as an example. However, this is quite clearly not Jesus’ main intent for assuming our human flesh. Jesus tells us explicitly in Matthew 20:28 that He came for the express purpose of saving sinners, giving His life as a ransom. Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 1 that Jesus came to save sinners. We see this language woven throughout the narrative of Scripture.

 

I realize Sandlin does not deny the atonement in his article, but neither does he affirm it. This is the real problem with seeing Jesus primarily as example. Jesus as an example doesn’t save anybody. According to Jesus Himself, we need a righteousness greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees; we are to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matt. 5). Jesus can demonstrate this to us, but we cannot hope to follow. With Jesus simply as an example, we are left dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2).

 

However, this actually isn’t Sandlin’s most damaging point. It is, however, connected. If Jesus isn’t God, then we are in real trouble. If Jesus is simply a man, He is also under the curse of sin and unable to redeem anybody. Let’s assume, though, that human-only Jesus is able to escape original sin and still live perfectly according to the Law. If He’s only a man, His death still won’t atone for your sins. Psalm 49 says, “No man can ransom another or give to God the price of his life.” The only blood that can atone for your sins, let alone the sins of the whole world, is Divine blood. Psalm 49 continues, saying, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me (v. 15).” St. Peter writes, “you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Peter 1:18-19).” If Jesus isn’t God, if we have hope in Him in this life only, we are most of all to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15).

 

I understand Sandlin’s desire to include more people in the Christian faith. God doesn’t desire the death of a sinner, and neither should we. But changing what the Christian faith is isn’t the way to do that.

About Pastor Jordan McKinley

Rev. Jordan McKinley is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Vallonia, IN. He’s a 2012 graduate of Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, IN, and a 2006 graduate of Ball State University in Muncie, IN. He served his vicarage at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Pagosa Springs, CO, and served from June 2012 to August 2015 at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Bennett, IA, and St. Paul Lutheran Church in Stanwood, IA. He is the husband of one wife, Andrea, and the father of three (Naomi, Collin, and Theodore). Though he has a deep and abiding love of all things Star Trek, he will not likely be writing any theological treatises in Klingon.

Comments

Mark and Avoid: Sandlin Says Jesus Isn’t God — 19 Comments

  1. Could he simply be playing “devil’s advocate?” I don’t know who he is or where he’s coming from, so I want to ask the question.

  2. It is remarkable to me, the desire that wishes to draw more people into a church that is no longer the Church. This bewildering psychosis seems to feed any number of heretical movements. I wonder if it is driven by a defective but compelling desire for community, disordered in sinful rejection of God’s perfect community?

  3. @Brad #3
    Ultimately, I think it’s a fundamental rejection of what the Church really is–Christians gathered around God’s Word rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly given. In turn, that’s based on a bad understanding of who Jesus is (Matthew 16 applies here, I think).

  4. This dude Sandin is simply repeating the heresy of Arianism (Jesus is “divine” but not coequal with God the Father) with a double helping of Pelgianism (Works Righteousness; salvation is from ourselves not from God through Christ).

    Cultural elites and worldly intellectuals always loved Arianism (this was the choosen heresy of the Ancient Roman elites). The old Adam always loves to trust in self and not Christ so Peligianism is universally appealing to rebellious sinners.

    As it is written in the Scriptures: There is nothing new under the sun!

    This is certainly true about heresy and false teaching.

  5. We must learn to ignore the Sandlin’s of the world, because their ultimate goal is to make the Bible less credible and more like a contemporary philosophy of life.

  6. @John J Flanagan #5
    In the end, we should avoid them, yes. But we need to learn to mark false theology first. That’s really the point of what I’ve written. It helps us articulate why a certain position is wrong and why it’s detrimental to the faith once delivered to the saints.

  7. Brad :
    It is remarkable to me, the desire that wishes to draw more people into a church that is no longer the Church. This bewildering psychosis seems to feed any number of heretical movements. I wonder if it is driven by a defective but compelling desire for community, disordered in sinful rejection of God’s perfect community?

    I don’t see that. Sandlin types are actually drawing believers away from belief. And even more evil, they are teaching lies to the children of believers and leading children away from saving faith. Sandlin works within the church to destroy what faith remains there. He is exactly the kind of man who is very dangerous to the young or naive; a really bad actor.

  8. @Mrs. Hume #8
    This is an excellent reminder of why marking and avoiding false teachers is incredibly important. It isn’t that we are trying to be mean for meanness’s sake. False teachers are wolves in sheep’s clothing, seeking to rip and tear at the flock. We should also pray that the Holy Spirit, working through His appointed means, would convert the false teachers to a right confession.

  9. I’m curious how you can describe Sandlin as having “desire to include more people in the Christian faith” when he himself stands outside that faith and desires others to stand alongside him. Even if one were to take his denial of Christ as a plea for inclusion rather than as a proposition (which is not at all what “best construction” means,) saying that the core beliefs of the Christian faith are irrelevant to it puts one outside of that faith just as surely as straightforwardly denying them.

    Orthodox Christians are way too wishy-washy about acknowledging theological liberalism as a heresy that amputates individuals and denominations from the Body.

  10. @Matt Cochran #13
    Orthodox Christians are way too wishy-washy about acknowledging theological liberalism as a heresy that amputates individuals and denominations from the Body.

    That’s the best one liner I’ve read all day! (add congregations)

  11. @Matt Cochran #13
    Dr. Cochran, thanks for your comment. I also read your post on Sandlin’s series, which is spot on. Please don’t misinterpret my closing comments in my article (and if I was unclear, I repent!): Sandlin is a heretical teacher. He has cut himself off from Christ. However, in the interest of putting the best construction on everything, I do understand the desire to want to widen the tent of orthodox Christianity, only insofar as I really don’t want anybody to have to suffer the torment of hell. That was created for Satan and his angels, not for man (see the Gospel for Trinity 26). However, we are given bounds to guard us from error, and I’m thankful for that, too, lest my flesh cause me to disregard the Word of Christ.

  12. Thank you for the clarification, Rev. McKinley. I didn’t doubt for a moment that you recognized Sandlin as heretical, and there is absolutely a need to try and understand the other side’s perspective when addressing them. The two perspectives just seemed to unnecessarily blend at the very end.

    Also, I’m afraid it’s just “Mr.”, but thanks; that made my day.

  13. I stumbled upon an article written by Sandlin today entitled, “God did not kill Jesus on the Cross for our sins.” What is it that Presbyterians believe? He should write his own book and set aside the scripture since his teaching contradicts both the old and new testament. He was wounded for our transgressions…surely the Lord hath laid the iniquity of us all upon him; and, Behold the Lamb of God who takes away at the sin of the world. There are so many more scriptures that speak to this….the blood of Jesus, our High Priest. I do wonder about the Presbyterians.

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