Who is Jesus?

by R.C. Sproul

“I don’t need to know any theology; all I need to know is Jesus.”

This sentiment is expressed daily by sincere Christians. It is proclaimed with vigor by those desiring a simple faith, a faith uncluttered by the complexities of theologians.

The desire to keep the faith simple is a noble one. When things get too complicated they become fuzzy; devotion often falters, Christianity is never to be restricted to an elite group of scholars who alone can penetrate the mystery of the incarnation. Christianity is for everyone, strong or weak, literate or illiterate. Why complicate matters with theology? Why go beyond the basics when “Christ is the answer” and “Jesus is all I need”?

The goal of theology is not to confuse but to clarify. Doctrine is intended to sharpen our understanding of our faith, not to dull it. The assumption of classical theology is that the more we understand about Jesus the more we will love Him and our zeal to obey Him will naturally increase. Unfortunately, theologians have often disappointed us. We have been victims of the treason of the intellectual. Their words are often shrouded in ambiguity designed to conceal their own unbelief. As T. S. Eliot said, “Good prose cannot be written by people without convictions.”

Some Christians regard all academicians with suspicion, sensing a lack of warmth and religious affection in their writings. They find cold theology, theology empty of doxology, and they smell the stench of death. So they tie themselves to the mast, stopping their ears lest they be beguiled by the siren voices of scholarly skepticism.

It is one thing to put plugs in our ears to avoid the seduction of the cynic, and quite another to cover our ears and eyes altogether while steering our ship blindly through perilous waters. We desperately need a theology of Jesus, now more than ever. We dare not assume that all theology is bad theology. Such an assumption is lethal; it is fatal to all of life. It deprives us of our navigational chart and tosses our ship onto jagged rocks.


There are so many portraits of Jesus in the galleries of this world that it seems hopeless to clarify the confusion they have wrought in people’s minds about who Christ is. So many conflicting images of Him are put forward that some people have despaired of achieving an accurate picture of His true identity.

We need Christ. We need a real Christ. A Christ born of empty speculation or created to squeeze into the philosopher’s pattern simply won’t do. A recycled Christ, a Christ of compromise can redeem no one. A Christ watered down, stripped of power, debased of glory, reduced to a symbol or made impotent by scholarly surgery is not Christ but Antichrist.

The “anti” of Antichrist can refer either to the prefix “against” or the prefix “instead of.” In language there is a difference; in life it is a distinction without a difference because to supplant the real Jesus with a substitute portrait is to work against Christ. To change or distort the real Christ is to oppose Him with a false Christ.

No person in history has provoked as much study, criticism, prejudice, or devotion as Jesus of Nazareth. The titanic influence of this man makes Him a chief target of the arrows of criticism and a prime object of revision according to the interpreter’s prejudice. The historical Jesus has suffered the fate of the waxed-nose figure. His portrait has been altered to suit the fancy of those seeking to line Him up on their side, to make of Him an ally in a host of militant causes, many of which are mutually exclusive. In the theologian’s laboratory Jesus can become a chameleon. His skin changes color to fit the backdrop painted by the theologian. Rigorous academic attempts have been made to get behind the New Testament portrait of Jesus, to discover the “real” historical Jesus. These attempts to penetrate the wall of history, to peek behind the veil of the primitive apostolic witness have taught us much about the prejudice of the scholars but have added little or nothing to our understanding of the real Jesus. What the scholars discovered behind the veil was a mirror of their own prejudice and a Jesus created in their own images. The nineteenth-century liberals found a “liberal” Jesus; the existentialists found an existential hero; and the Marxists discovered a political revolutionary. Idealists found an idealistic Jesus and pragmatists discovered a pragmatic Christ. To search behind or beyond the New Testament is to go on a snipe hunt armed with the flashlight of pride and prejudice.

Or consider the scissors-and-paste Jesus. He is fashioned by those who seek within the Bible a core or kernel of tradition about Christ which is authentic. The unnecessary extras, the implied accretions of myth and legend are excised by the scissors to expose the real Jesus. It seems so scientific, but it is all done with mirrors. The magician’s art leaves us with the portrait of Bultmann or John A. T. Robinson, and again the real Jesus is obscured. By preserving a modicum of New Testament data we think we have avoided subjectivity. But the result is the same—a Jesus shaped and formed by the bias of the scholar wielding the scissors and getting his hands sticky from the paste.

The story is told of the vagrant who knocked at the farmer’s door and politely inquired about employment as a handyman. The farmer cautiously put the man to work on a trial basis to measure his skill. His first task was to split logs for firewood, which the stranger finished in record time. The next task was to plow the fields, which was done in just a few hours. The farmer was pleasantly astonished: it seemed he had stumbled on a modern-day Hercules. The third task was less laborious. Taking the hired man to the barn, the farmer pointed to a large pile of potatoes and instructed him to sort them into two piles: those that were of prime quality were to be put in one receptacle and those of inferior grade in another. The farmer was curious when his miracle-working laborer failed to report in as rapidly as he had with the other tasks. After several hours the farmer went to the barn to investigate. No perceptible change was evident in the pile of potatoes. One receptacle contained three potatoes and the other had only two. “What’s wrong?” demanded the farmer. “Why are you moving so slowly?” A look of defeat was written on the hired man’s face as he threw up his hands and replied, “It’s the decisions in life which are difficult.”

The scissors-and-paste method suffers from the problem of determining in advance what is authentic in the biblical portrait of Jesus and what is myth. What Bultmann discards into the basket of husks, another scholar puts into the basket of kernels. What Bultmann calls prime another discards as inferior.

The problem is simple. It lies not with the “shoddy” reporting of the New Testament authors or the “sloppy” documents of history we call Gospels. It was Emil Brunner, the Swiss theologian, who blew the whistle on nineteenth-century liberalism. Brunner’s verdict was as simple as it was inflammatory. The problem, he said, is unbelief. In this sense it is not an academic problem or unbelief based on insufficient evidence. To withhold belief because the evidence doesn’t support the claims is an honorable and wise response. To believe against poor evidence is credulity, the mark of the fool, and brings no honor to God.

But the evidence is compelling; to withhold belief is to commit an immoral act. Unbelief is judged by Jesus not as an intellectual error but as a hostile act of prejudice against God Himself. It is this sort of unbelief that is destructive to the church and to the people of God.

How could such blatant unbelief not only attack the Christian church but in several cases capture whole seminaries and even entire denominations? Why wouldn’t people who rejected the New Testament portrait of Jesus simply abandon Christianity altogether and leave the church to less educated mortals who need a fanciful Jesus as a religious crutch?

The nineteenth century brought an intellectual and moral crisis to the church. With the rise of liberal theology that flatly rejected the supernatural core of the New Testament, the crisis pressed hard on very practical matters. If the leaders of a church or the faculty of a seminary wake up one morning and discover they no longer believe what the Bible teaches or the church confesses, what are their options?

The most obvious option and the first expected of honorable men is that they would declare their unbelief and politely leave the church. If they control the power structures of the church, however, they have practical questions to consider. By vocation and training their jobs are tied to the church. The church represents a multi-billion-dollar financial investment, an established cultural institution with millions of active constituent members, and a proven effective vehicle for social reform. These factors make other options more attractive than merely declaring unbelief to the world and closing the doors to the churches. The course of least resistance is to redefine Christianity.

To redefine Christianity is no easy task. Christianity has been given definition by two weighty factors: (1) The existence of a body of literature, indeed primary sources about the founder and teacher of the Christian faith, Jesus of Nazareth; (2) The existence of two millennia of church tradition which include points of disagreement about particular issues of debate among denominations, but which reveal remarkable unity of confession about the essentials of Christianity. To redefine Christianity requires one to neutralize the authority of the Bible and relativize the authority of the creeds. The struggle of the church for the past 150 years has been precisely at these two points. It is not by accident that the eye of the tornado of controversy within the seminaries and the church in our day has focused on the issues of Bible and creed. Why? Not simply because of words and paper but because of Christ. One must banish the Christ of the Bible and the Christ of the creeds in order to redefine Christianity.

The church is called “the body of Christ. Some refer to it as “The Continuing Incarnation.” Surely the church exists to embody and carry out the mission of Christ. The church is inconceivable without Christ. But the church is not Christ. It is founded by Christ, formed by Christ, commissioned by Christ and endowed by Christ. It is ruled by Christ, sanctified by Christ, and protected by Christ. But it is not Christ. The church can preach salvation and nurture the saved, but it cannot save. The church can preach about sin, exhorting, rebuking, and admonishing sin. It can proclaim the forgiveness of sin and give theological definition to sin: but the church cannot atone for sin.

It was St. Cyprian who declared, “He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his Mother,...” We need the church as much as a starving baby needs his mother’s milk. We cannot grow or be nourished without the church. Possessing Christ and despising the church is an intolerable contradiction which none can bear. We cannot have Christ without embracing the church. But it is possible to have the church without truly embracing Christ. St. Augustine described the church as a corpus permixtum, a “mixed body” of tares and wheat, of unbelievers and believers existing side by side. Unbelief can gain entrance into the church— but never into Christ.

The Christ we believe, the Christ we trust, must be true if we are to be redeemed. A false Christ or substitute Christ cannot redeem. If it is thought unlikely that the biblical Christ can redeem, it is even less likely that the speculative Christ of human invention can redeem. Apart from the Bible we know nothing of consequence of the real Jesus. Ultimately our faith stands or falls with the biblical Jesus. Lay aside theories of biblical inspiration if you must, doing so at your own peril, but even apart from inspiration the New Testament represents the primary sources—the earliest documents of those who knew Him, the record of those who studied under Him and were eyewitnesses to His ministry. They are the most objective historical sources we have.

Some demur at this point, calling attention to the obvious fact that the New Testament portrait of Jesus comes to us from the pens of biased men with an agenda. The Gospels are not history, they say, but redemptive history with the accent on efforts to persuade men to follow Jesus. Well, certainly the writers had an agenda, but it was not a hidden agenda. St. John says forthrightly: “These [things] are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.”

The fact that the biblical writers were themselves believers and were zealous to persuade others counts for their veracity. Had they been unbelievers while exhorting others to believe, they would have been guilty of duplicity. Of course, men can be mistaken about what they proclaim, but the fact that they believed their own message, even unto death, should enhance rather than weaken their credibility.

Theirs was indeed a record of redemptive history. Redemptive because they were not writing from the standpoint of neutral, disinterested historians. History because they insisted that their testimony was true.

At this point a practical question emerges, heard from the street-wise and the hard-nosed skeptic who seeks to discredit the biblical Christ by exposing the apostolic Christ as a fantasy. If the closest associates of Jesus were biased (in that they were believers), what is the sense of laborious scholarship to discover the “real” Jesus? If all we know about Jesus is learned through the witness of the apostles—if they are the “screen” through which we must gaze to see Him—what’s the point of our efforts?

The answer is that the historical Jesus did not live in a vacuum; He is known at least in part by the way he transformed those around him.

I want to know the Jesus who radicalized St. Matthew, who transformed St. Peter, who turned Saul of Tarsus upside down on the Damascus Road. If these firsthand witnesses can’t get me to the “real” Jesus, who can? If not through friends and loved ones, how can anyone be known?

If the apostles can’t lead me to Jesus, my only options are to scale the fortress of heaven by sheer mystical subjectivism, embracing the oldest of all heresies, Gnosticism, or pitch my tent with the camp of skeptics who dismiss Jesus from the realm of significant truth altogether. Give me the biblical Christ or give me nothing. Do it quickly, please, as the options give me nothing, save the injury of fruitless laborious research.

It was Jesus who said, “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” And, “What can a man give in exchange for his soul?” Jesus put an enormous price tag on the value of the human soul. For that I am grateful. I like to think my soul has worth and I would hate to squander it on an empty Christ, a Christ of subjective speculation. But this is what we are doing when we embrace anything less than a real Christ. We are playing with human souls—the very souls Christ poured out His life to redeem.

There are different methods we could use to arrive at our picture of Jesus. We could examine the classical creeds of the church, gaining valuable insight into the collective wisdom of the ages. We could restrict our study to contemporary theology in an attempt to study Jesus in light of our own culture. Or we could try our luck at our own creativity and produce yet another speculative view.

In this essay I have chosen to look at Jesus as He is presented to us in the New Testament. Even if one rejects the revelatory character of the Bible or its divine inspiration, he must face one unassailable fact: Virtually all we know about Jesus is that which is recorded in the Scriptures. The New Testament writers are the primary sources of our knowledge of Jesus. If these sources are ignored or rejected, we are left with speculation and speculation alone.

We echo the cry of Erasmus, “Ad fontes!” (“To the sources!”), as we focus attention on the New Testament. No matter what advantages we may have from 2,000 years of theological reflection, those years remove us from the virginal response of the contemporaries of Jesus who knew Him, who walked with Him, who observed Him in action, and who interpreted Him from the perspective of the Old Testament Scriptures. The biblical writers themselves are the primary sources and it is their portrait of Jesus that must take priority in any serious study of this person. Outside of the New Testament writers there amounts to no more than three paragraphs of literature written in the first century about the person and work of Jesus.

When we go back to the biblical sources, we recognize that any attempt to understand Jesus must take into account the dangers imposed by our own minds. Though the New Testament is not a product of the twentieth century, those of us who read it today are. Each of us has had some exposure to the idea of Jesus since we were children, if from no other source than from the simple displays that we see in Christmas crèches during the holiday season. Though we may not have an exhaustive knowledge of the biblical Jesus, we are not ignorant of Him either. Every literate American has some information about Jesus and has some opinion about Him. Those opinions may or may not be in harmony with the biblical portrait, yet we bring those assumptions to the text and sometimes create an attitude of prejudice that makes it difficult for us to hear what Jesus’ contemporaries were saying.

We must also be aware that Jesus is no mere figure of historical interest whom we can study dispassionately. We are aware of the claims that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world. We realize that we must make a decision about Him for or against. We are also aware that many believe such a decision determines one’s eternal destiny. We sense that so much is at stake in our understanding of Jesus that we must approach the question not with indifference, but with the understanding of who Jesus is. It is a question of ultimate significance to each one of us. Whether or not Jesus brings to my life an absolute claim is something I cannot intelligently ignore.

The New Testament writers give us an eyewitness account of Jesus of Nazareth. Luke begins his Gospel with the following words:

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed [Luke 1:14, RSV].

Peter adds to this the following statement:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty [2 Peter 1:16, RSV].

The biblical records claim to be firsthand accounts given to us by men who were self-consciously and openly committed to following Jesus. Let us look briefly at the testimony of those who knew Him and loved Him and who gave their lives for Him.


This article is taken from Dr. Sproul’s book, Who is Jesus?, pp. 7-19, available for free on Kindle on Amazon

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