8. The Present Work of Christ on Earth
Article contributed by www.walvoord.com
In the theological discussion of the work of Christ the tendeney has been to emphasize His present work in heaven rather than His present work on earth. This is a natural outgrowth of the fact that the work of God on earth is largely through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Some have gone so far as to identify the present work of Christ on earth with that of the Spirit; as if they were one and the same. There is, however, a valid area which may be described as Christ’s present work on earth which is in contrast to His heavenly work stemming from His position at the right hand of the Father. The present earthly work of Christ originates from His presence in the church on earth and involves three aspects: (1) the presence of Christ in the church; (2) the work of Christ in the church; (3) the relation of the present work of Christ to the present work of the Holy Spirit.
The Presence of Christ in the Church
Four major problems are related to the concept of the presence of Christ in the church: (1) the relation of the presence of Christ to the doctrine of omnipresence; (2) the relation of the presence of Christ to the presence of the Holy Spirit; (3) the relation of the presence of Christ to the elements of the Lord’s Supper; (4) the relation of the presence of Christ to His indwelling the church.
The presence of Christ in relation to His omnipresence. In orthodox theology, the doctrine of omnipresence is considered a fundamental relative attribute of deity which belongs equally to each person of the Trinity. In the sense of being omnipresent, it is evident that Christ must be present in the earth even though He is at the same time present in heaven. The question is pertinent, however, as to whether Christ is present in any sense in the earth which is beyond the concept of omnipresence.
In the case of the Second Person of the Trinity, there is the complication arising from His possessing a human body. Most Reformed theologians hold that the body of Christ is in heaven at the right hand of the Father. In contrast to this view, the Lutheran position considers the human body of Christ as omnipresent as they extend the divine attribute of omnipresence to the human nature. To explain a body as onmipresent, however, ends in a concept of a body which has lost all of its distinguishing qualities, and it becomes the same as a spirit. For this reason, it is preferable to regard the qualities of the human nature of Christ as finite. The body, soul, and spirit have locality, but do not have the infinite qualities that belong to the divine nature.
According to this view, Christ, as far as His human nature is concerned, is in heaven. It is only in His divine nature that He is present in the entire world. Even though the human body has been glorified and has become spiritual in its nature, it cannot assume the attribute of omnipresence without losing its essential human quality. This concept is supported in the Scripture by the doctrine of ascension in which Christ bodily ascended into heaven, and in the teaching of the second coming of Christ in which Christ is revealed to return bodily to the earth. The Scripture seems to take for granted that during the present age Christ is bodily absent from the earth, even though He is spiritually present everywhere in His divine nature. The fact that His human nature is limited, however, and does not have the attributes of omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience which belong only to God, does not prohibit the concept that Christ is present in the earth and active as this relates to a fundamental attribute of deity. The doctrine of omnipresence, therefore, while it is not identical to the idea of Christ’s presence in the earth, makes any other position quite untenable.
The presence of Christ in contrast with the presence of the Spirit. The concept of the presence of Christ in the earth has undoubtedly suffered from confusion with the doctrine of the presence of Holy Spirit which in turn has been caused by a faulty understanding of the relationship of the persons of the Trinity. While orthodox theology has fully recognized the doctrine of the Trinity including the concept of one God existing in three persons, the exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity has not always been clear as to how the activity of one member of the Trinity relates to the activity of another. The proper point of view is that while the three persons of the Trinity are one God they are nevertheless three persons, and it is not proper or Scriptural to confuse their persons or their activity even though often they are interrelated.
The danger involved in confusing the persons of the Trinity is illustrated in the erroneous view that the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost fulfilled the promises that Christ would come again. This view, of course, is unmindful of the fact that all the Scriptures of the New Testament were written after Pentecost and consider the coming of Christ as yet future even though Pentecost had already taken place. In spite of the untenable character of this point of view, Hugh Thompson Kerr expresses this view in the following statement: “The Holy Spirit is the living Christ. Pentecost is the fulfillment of the promise that He would come again.”1 Confusion of the persons of the Trinity in this manner is never justified and reveals a faulty understanding of what constitutes the distinction of the persons of the Trinity.
The confusion of the Person of Christ with that of the Holy Spirit is a very common one, however. Milligan writes: “The Spirit bestowed by our Lord in His glorified condition is not really the Spirit but the Spirit in which He Himself is filled; or, in other words, His own spirit.”2 Such a view of the Holy Spirit of course tends toward a Unitarian point of view which in essence denies that there are distinct persons in the Trinity. The proper view is that the three persons are identified in essence in that they are one God, but in their persons they are triune. Frederic Platt also confuses this concept when he writes: “As Christ being God is identical with God, so the Holy Spirit being God is identical with God…. The indwelling Spirit therefore, is the indwelling of God-in-Christ.”3 Such confusion of the persons of the Trinity is not justified by the Scriptural revelation and is a variation from what is normally considered orthodox.
The problem is not one of easy solution, however, as it may be conceded that in some Scriptures it is not always clear which Person of the Trinity is in view. The term Spirit of Christ grammatically permits the thought of Spirit of Christ in the sense of being the Spirit of the Second Person (genitive), or in the sense of being the Spirit from Christ (ablative) i.e., the Third Person. The form is the same in either case (Cristou). The occasions where this expression is found in Scripture (Rom 8:2-3; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 4:6; Phil 1:19; 1 Pet 1:11) must be interpreted by their context, but in every case it is either one or the other, that is, either Christ or the Holy Spirit, not both or a combination of both. W. H. Griffith Thomas states the proper point of view in these words: “It is essential to preserve with care both sides of this truth. Christ and the Spirit are different yet the same, the same yet different. Perhaps the best expression we can give is that while their Personalities are never identical, their presence also is.”4 The presence of Christ must therefore be distinguished from the presence of the Holy Spirit and likewise their respective indwellings of the believer. In a similar way, the indwelling of the Father must not be made identical with the indwelling of Christ or of the Holy Spirit (John 14:23; Eph 4:6; 2 John 9). The fact is that all three persons of the Trinity indwell the believer, and, as W. H. Griffith Thomas states, if one is present the other is also present although their persons can be distinguished and in some cases their ministries. It may be concluded that Christ is present in the world, not because the Holy Spirit is present in the world, but because both are present.
The presence of Christ in relation to the Lord’s Supper. The doctrine of the presence of Christ in the earth in the present age is related somewhat to the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. The Roman Catholic Church, holding to the doctrine of transubstantiation which involves the identity of the elements of the Lord’s Supper with the body of Christ, obviously teaches that Christ is present in the earth bodily and specifically in the elements of the Lord’s Supper. The Lutheran church has held a similar doctrine which has been called consubstantiation for want of a better title, which has viewed the body of Christ as present in the elements, but without change in their substance. This has been in keeping with their doctrine of the omnipresence of the body of Christ. The Zwinglian view of the Lord’s Supper holds that Christ is not bodily present in the elements and in fact is absent, being in heaven bodily. For this reason the elements represent His presence though not constituting His presence in the earthly scene. The Zwinglian view does not deny the spiritual presence of Christ in the earth, but denies that His presence is identified in any special sense with the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Calvin seems to have held a position somewhat between the Zwinglian and the Lutheran views in that he believed that the elements held the spiritual presence of Christ, but not the bodily presence of Christ.
All views of the Lord’s Supper, however, take for granted that Christ is in the world in some sense. They differ in defining the precise sense in which Christ is related to the Lord’s Supper. Both the Zwinglian and the Calvinistic points of view seem to be in harmony with the complete revelation of the presence of Christ as afforded in the New Testament.
The presence of Christ in relation to His indwelling of the church. The doctrine that Christ is present in the world in keeping with His omnipresence is not quite the same concept, however, as the thought of Christ indwelling the church. The Scriptures seem to teach that Christ’s presence in the church is presence in a special sense, and for this reason it is designated indwelling as in contrast to the more general idea of His omnipresence. Indwelling by its nature involves a special association, union, and activity. Christ is present in heaven in that He is seated at the right hand of the Father on His throne. The presence of Christ in the earth is in a special sense in the church which He indwells. Christ indwells the individual believer in the same way that the Holy Spirit indwells him. There is a corresponding activity relating to this indwelling in that Christ is active in the earth in virtue of His presence spiritually in the body of believers in much the same sense that He is active in heaven because of His presence bodily at the right hand of the Father. While the evidence of the New Testament points to the conclusion that most of the divine ministries of God are given to the believer through the indwelling Holy Spirit, nevertheless, there is frequent mention of the fact that Christ Himself is present in the believer.
The doctrine of the indwelling presence of Christ is easily established as a doctrine of the Scripture, as there are many Scriptural references (Matt 28:20; John 14:18, 20, 23; 15:4-5 ; 17:23, 26 ; Gal 2:20; Col 1:26-27; 1 John 3:24). The key passage is Colossians 1:26-27 where the indwelling of Christ is declared to be a mystery (cp. Rom 16:25-26), that is, a New Testament truth not revealed in the Old Testament. The idea of Christ indwelling the saints is not found in the Old Testament. The teaching of these passages is sufficiently plain to demonstrate beyond doubt that Christ does indeed indwell His church corporately as well as the individuals who are members of the church. The very fact of Christ’s presence is the believer’s assurance that he belongs to Him and is the object of divine love and ministry.
The Work of Christ in the Church
The indwelling presence of Christ is reflected in three aspects of His present work in the earth. Lewis Sperry Chafer has summarized these as follows: “It may be concluded, therefore, that the phrase I in you is to be received as referring to the whole divine Person—Father, Son, and Spirit. The result of this indwelling of Christ is three-fold: (1) A new divine life, (2) A new enabling power and (3) A new ‘hope of glory.’“5 As each of these aspects of the present work of Christ on earth is extensive, they carry with them a number of further ministries which are related to them.
The indwelling Christ our imparted divine life. Every believer in Christ is born again at the moment of saving faith by the act of regeneration which is properly the work of the Holy Spirit. That eternal life which is imparted, however, is inseparably related to Christ Himself, for Christ is introduced as “the life” (John 1:4). This is in fulfillment of the purpose of the incarnation that believers in Him might have life (John 10:10). In a similar way, Christ said to Martha, “I am the resurrection, and the life” (John 11:25). In the upper room Christ also said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). According to 1 John 5:12, “He that hath the Son hath the life; he that hath not the Son of God hath not the life.” In Colossians 3:4 Christ is referred to as “our life.” In all of these passages it is evident that, while a believer receives eternal life by the immediate agency of the Holy Spirit, the life which is imparted is the eternal life which is in Christ.
A parallel can be found in the conception of Christ in connection with His incarnation.. It is clear from the Scripture that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit, yet the life which is imparted was that of the Second Person of the Trinity existing from eternity past, and the First Person is spoken of as His Father. In a similar way the believer who is born again is born by the immediate agency of the Holy Spirit. The eternal life which is imparted seems to be related to the Second Person of the Trinity, and yet the First Person of the Trinity is truly His Father.
A number of the figures which reveal the ministry of Christ in relationship to the church, such as the vine and the branches, the head and the body, and the Last Adam and the new creation, involve a similar concept of a common life shared by Christ and those who are in Him. In the other figures, however, the believer has life because of being in Christ, while in the present truth of the indwelling presence of Christ, the believer is said to have life because Christ is in him. These two truths are companions in every way as Christ Himself has indicated in the expression in John 14:20, “Ye in me, and I in you.” It is nevertheless true that the presence of Christ and the life which He imparts are not identical. While without Christ we could not have life and the work of regeneration is accomplished by the Holy Spirit, with Christ we have life (1 John 5:12), but this life is an imparted life which is our own possession in addition to the fact that Christ is present in us.
The indwelling Christ, our strength. In one of the great texts of Scripture in Philippians 4:13, the indwelling Christ is declared to be the fountain of our strength, “I can do all things in him that strengtheneth me.” The expression “in Christ” is a translation of en with the locative, but could also be translated through Christ or in virtue of His presence. Some manuscripts omit the word Christ entirely, but the reference is obviously to Christ. Christ is revealed as the source of strength to the believer and the One through whom Paul declares he can “do all things.” The omnipotence of Christ, which is the source of strength to the believer, is related both to the believer’s position in Christ and the position of Christ in the believer. It is because of this fact that Christ commanded His followers to go into all the world saying, “And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt 28:20). Earlier in the passage He reminded them, “All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and in earth” (Matt 28:18). The indwelling presence of Christ as well as the believer being in Christ is therefore a constant source of strength and makes possible the impossible task of living to the glory of God in a sinful world.
In Revelation 3:20 an added thought is given relative to the presence of Christ, namely, that with Christ in the heart there is a constant spiritual banquet, hence Christ declares: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” The invitation, of course, is to partake experientially of that which is a fact theologically and to have a rich and wonderful fellowship with the indwelling Christ. In such a spiritual feast, Christ and the believer partake of the same spiritual food and thereby Christians are “strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might” (Eph 6:10).
The indwelling Christ, the ground for hope. According to Colossians 1:27, the indwelling Christ is also the believer’s hope, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The presence of Christ in the believer’s body is evidence of God’s ultimate purpose to transform that body and make it suitable for His presence in glory. For deliverance from this present limitation all creation groans and especially the believer who is awaiting “the redemption of our body.” (cp. Rom 8:20-23). The same hope is expressed in 1 John 3:2 where believers are assured, “Beloved, now are we the children of God, and it is not yet manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is.” The believer is promised therefore that he will be like Christ when Christ comes for him. Until that day, according to Ephesians 4:30, the Holy Spirit is the One who seals us unto “the day of redemption,” that is, the redemption of our body. Just as the Holy Spirit is the seal of our redemption, so Christ is the ground for our hope of glory.
The importance of the indwelling presence of Christ has been generally overlooked in theology, but it should be reinstated as a vital Christian truth. It is the proper ground for a victorious Christian experience and is the proper link between the historic Christ of the past and the Christ who is seated on the throne of God in the present and the future. A Christian should enter by faith into the full reality of the fact that Christ is within him and is present to provide not only eternal life, but also strength and the hope of glory. His presence is without complication an added factor of God’s present ministry to the saints in addition to all that the Holy Spirit supplies.
The Relation of the Present Work of Christ
to the Present Work of the Holy Spirit
It is inevitable that the present work of Christ and the present work of the Spirit should be interrelated, and it is not necessary completely to separate one from the other. In most important undertakings of God, all three Persons of the Trinity are involved in some way and, while distinctions may be observed, nevertheless the Father, the Son, and the Spirit combine in their efforts to attain their sovereign will. There are, however, some distinctions which need to be made between the present work of Christ and the present work of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit sent by Christ to His church. The entire present work of the Holy Spirit should be seen in the light of the fact that He was sent to the earth by Christ Himself to minister on Christ’s behalf to those who put their trust in Him (Luke 24:49; John 14:16-17, 26; 15:26 ; 16:7-15 ; Acts 1:8; 2:38 ). The fact that the Holy Spirit is sent by Christ should make it self-evident that Christ did not “send” Himself. The coming of the Holy Spirit with His intended ministry is obviously something in addition to the presence and minstry of Christ Himself. It does, however, give a special character to the work of the Holy Spirit and makes clear that the Holy Spirit is in the world to fulfill the will of Christ in the present age in a similar way to the fulfillment of the will of the Father by Christ when He was on earth. The work of the Holy Spirit is in this sense the work of Christ just as Christ also did the Father’s work when He was on earth.
The work of the Holy Spirit as the agent of Christ. The Holy Spirit was sent by Christ in fulfillment of His promise that He would send the Spirit to minister to His disciples. For this reason all the work of the Spirit could be properly included in the present work of Christ, but it seems preferable in order to keep their ministries in their proper place to observe the distinction of persons of the Trinity which is involved and which is reflected in their ministries. Christ accomplishes certain ministries on His own behalf and others are accomplished for Him through the Holy Spirit.
The work of the Holy Spirit interrelated to the work of Christ. As has been previously indicated, though the work of the Holy Spirit and the work of Christ are not one and the same, nevertheless, they are interrelated and combined to form a full-orbed ministry to the believer in Christ. The presence of Christ in the Christian has the character of co-operation and supervision of the work of the Holy Spirit. The three ministries previously discussed relating to the indwelling Christ are similar to corresponding works of the Holy Spirit. There is an evident relation between the regeneration of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of Christ as our life. As previously noted, the relationship of the Trinity to the birth of Christ is similar to the relationship of the Trinity to the new birth of the believer. Both the Holy Spirit and Christ are sources of strength to the child of God in this age. The strengthening work of the Spirit, for instance, is mentioned especially in Romans 15:13, “Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, in the power of the Holy Spirit.” There is similarity in expression concerning the work of the Spirit empowering the believer in Romans 15:13 and the work of Christ in Philippians 4:13.
In a similar way also the Holy Spirit and Christ are sources of hope for the believer. Christ is our “hope of glory” (Col 1:27), while the Spirit causes us to “abound in hope” (Rom 15:13) and is our hope of ultimate redemption of the body (Eph 4:30). The works of Christ and the Spirit are similar, but not identical. We enjoy the double satisfaction of having hope based on the ministry of both Christ and the Holy Spirit.
The present work of Christ accordingly involves a great undertaking in the earthly sphere. In many respects, it is the extension of that which He undertook when on earth Himself. Though it may be granted that the principal activity of God in the present age is through the Third Person, the Holy Spirit, nevertheless the believer may look to Christ Himself as well as God the Father for fellowship, strength, and comfort and may anticipate the consummation when the glory of Christ will be manifest in the whole world and the believer in Christ will be glorified with Him.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 Hugh Thompson Kerr, After He Had Risen, p. 93. cp, review by R. T. Chafer, Bibliotheca Sacra, October 1934, 488.
2 Milligan, The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord, 179.
3 Frederic Platt, Immanence and Christian Thought, 452.
4 W. H. Griffith Thomas, The Holy Spirit of God, 144.
5 L. S. Chafer, Grace, p. 336.