I have been reflecting on the word ‘Incarnation’ in recent posts. The Incarnation describes what happened when the eternal Son of God took on human flesh. It has become common in church circles to speak of the ‘incarnational’ nature of Christian ministry – that Christ is displayed to a watching world in the individual and corporate ministry of believers.
What is most disconcerting to me about this trendy language of ‘incarnational’ Christians and churches is that it competes with the true theological significance of the one Incarnation. It is because of a fact of history – in time and space – that we have peace with God, have passed from death to life, and are adopted into God’s family by grace through faith. That fact is the Incarnation. We must proclaim from the rooftops that being a Christian is more about what Christ did through the Incarnation 2000 years ago rather than what Christ means to me today or what we do for God today.
Another thing that bothers me is that this new language strikes me as presumptuous. Yes, Jesus intends that we reflect Him in the way we love and serve one another and reach out to our unbelieving neighbor, but can’t we just do this without saying that we are “incarnating Jesus to them?” Is this the language of Scripture? Would the greatest servants of Christ throughout history have used this language? Are we better than them? Are we the first to discover what the Bible says about demonstrating Christ’s love to people by what we do?
Methinks the closer a person is to Christ, the less likely he or she will be to use grandiose words to describe their service. Should we not rather serve Christ in humility and fear and then call ourselves ‘unprofitable servants’ who have only done our duty (Luke 17:7-10)?
Furthermore, this Christian ‘newspeak’ comes at a time when the church has largely capitulated to the ‘spirit of the age’ in so many ways – not least in individualized, subjective religion (of course, much of Christendom has always been in this compromised position, but we need to be particularly aware of current threats).
What the church needs is a recovery of objective, ‘outside of us’ theology regarding justification and sanctification – fruit of our Lord’s Incarnation. Yes, sanctification too – it is not something that we do, but rather something that is done to us (objective) by the power of God. ‘Incarnation speak’ can put the discipleship emphasis on the subjective – that is, what we do rather than what we receive from God.
As I said earlier, the problem with these trendy words is subtle. In many cases, there is nothing radical or aberrant going on. However, we ought to be concerned at the diminishing of the Gospel in evangelical practice, generally speaking. Not that the gospel is denied, but it is assumed and pushed to the fringes.
What does this look like? Have you heard, “Get people in the door by our demonstration of love in practical ways (by ‘being incarnational’ and ‘missional’) – we’ll teach them later.” That’s what I mean by assuming the gospel. When we reach out in Jesus’ name, in the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we must be committed to ‘begin as we intend to go on’ in our disciple-making. That means keeping the cross – offensive as it is to modern sensibilities – front and center in what we do.
I am afraid that the movement that puts forward words like ‘missional’ and ‘incarnational’ is not driven by Gospel-rooted theology, but by a desire to be relevant, practical and relational. Leap-frogging over the gospel to get to pragmatic ‘ministry’ is always a dangerous temptation for the church. We dare not assume the gospel and move on to more ‘practical matters.’