John Owen on Christ’s Great Condescension: Divine Glory Veiled in Flesh

While Peter de Rosa’s verses on the humanity of Christ may be heart-felt and evocative, John Owen’s reflection on Christ assuming humanity is suffused with contemplation and prayer. For Owen theology ends with doxology. Given below is a much abbreviated and stylistically modernized version of Owen’s reflection of the Incarnation as Christ’s act of self-humiliation – Christ veiled his divine glory in the flesh.*

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The Glory of Christ’s Humbling Himself
Christ, being in the form if God, says Paul, willingly took himself the form if a servant. He willingly humbled himself. He willingly made himself of no reputation and was obedient even to the death of the cross (Phil. 2:5-8). It is this willingness to humble himself to take our nature into union with himself which is glorious in the eyes of believers.

Such is the transcendent glory of the divine nature, that it is said of God that he ‘dwells on high’, yet ‘humbles himself to behold the things that are in the heavens and in the earth’ (Psa. 113: 4-6). God is willing to take notice of the most glorious things in heaven and the lowliest things in the earth. This shows his infinite humility…

Being in the form of God, he took the form of a servant, and was found in fashion as a man (Phil. 2:7). This is his infinite humility. Paul does not say that he stopped being God, but though continuing to be God, he took ‘the form of a servant’. That is, he took our nature upon him. He became what he was not, but he did not cease to be what he always was (see John 3:13). Although he was then on earth as Son of man, yet, he was still God, for in his divine nature he was still also in heaven.

He who is God, can never not be God, just as he who is not God can never be God. The difference between us and the Socinians is this, that we believe that Christ, being God, was made man for our sakes, whereas they teach that Christ, being only a man, was made a god for his own sake.

This, then, is the glory of Christ’s willingness to humble himself. This is the life and soul of all heavenly truth and all heavenly mysteries, namely, that the Son of God, becoming in time what he was not, that is, Son man, did not cease thereby to be what he was, even the eternal Son of God…

What did the Lord Christ do with his divine nature when he willingly humbled himself to become man? Paul tells us that he ‘humbled himself, and made himself of no reputation’ (Phil. 2:7-8). He veiled the glory of his divine nature in ours, so that there was no outward appearance or revelation of it. The world could not see that he was the true God, so it believed he was not a good man in claiming to be God. So when Christ said, ‘Before Abraham was, I am’, which asserted his pre-existence from eternity in another nature than what they could see, they were filled with rage, and ‘took up stones to cast at him’ (John 8:58-59). They gave as the reason for their madness that ‘he, being a man, should make himself to be God’ (John 10:33). They could not understand that one and the same person could be both God and man. It was beyond their fleshly reason. Nothing in creation had two natures.

But this difficulty is solved by the glory of Christ in his humiliation, for although in himself, in his own divine person, he was ‘over all, the eternally blessed God’ (Rom. 9:5), yet he humbled himself for the salvation of the church. To the eternal glory of God, he took our nature and was made man. Those who cannot see a divine glory in his doing this neither know him, nor love him, nor believe in him, nor in any way belong to him…

Christ’s humbling of himself to be our mediator was not by means of some ethereal substance forming a phantasm or an appearance only. One of the first heresies that assailed the church was the Docetic heresy. The Docetics taught that all that was done or suffered by Christ as a man was done or suffered by one who only appeared to be a man. His appearance as a man was like the appearance of angels in the shape of men, eating and drinking under the Old Testament. So there was only an appearance of Christ in the man Jesus at Jerusalem, in whom he suffered no more than in other believers. But this heresy was dealt with by the early church telling these heretics that an imaginary Christ gives an imaginary salvation.

We must, then, consider the true nature of this glorious divine humiliation that Christ willingly undertook in order to be our mediator. The essence of the biblical teaching is as follows: The eternal person of the Son of God, or the divine nature in the person of the Son, did, by a wonderful act of his divine power and love, take our nature into union with himself, that is, to be his own even as the divine nature is his own…

We must also take note, that in taking human nature into union with his divine nature, Christ did not change it into a divine, spiritual nature, but preserved it in its entirety with all its essential human properties and abilities. So Christ really lived and suffered, was really tried, tempted and forsaken in his true human nature, just as any other man might have so lived and suffered. He was exposed to all earthly evils just as every other man is.

The glory of Christ’s humiliation was the result of the divine wisdom of the Father as well as of the love of the Son. It was the highest evidence of God’s loving care towards his sinful human creatures. What can be compared to it? It is the glory of Christianity and the life-giving power of all evangelical truth…

We may well ask, What will Christ not do for us? He who emptied and humbled himself, who came down from the infinite height of his glory to take our finite nature into union with his infinite nature, will he not meet all our needs and answer according to his infinite wisdom all our prayers for help? Will he not do all that is necessary for us to be eternally saved? Will he not be a sanctuary for us? We have no reason to fear his ability and power, for in becoming man he lost nothing of his power as the Almighty God, nor of his infinite wisdom and glorious grace. He could still do all that he could do as God from eternity. So Christ is indeed most willing and able to help us. And if we do not see his glory in this, it is because we have no faith in us…

So I exhort you to spend much time meditating on the glory of Christ in his humiliation. Unless we are diligent in this, it is impossible to keep our faith steadily fixed on Christ or be ready for self-denial and taking up our cross, for the humbling of Christ is the chief motive for this duty (Phil. 2:5-8). And no man denies himself rightly, who does not consider the self-denial of the Son of God. For what are the things of which we are to deny ourselves? It is not our goods, our rights and freedoms, our relations and our lives? They are perishing things from which, whether we like it or not, death will separate us. But the glory of Christ is for ever. Believers will never be separated from it. So if you find yourself at any time unwilling to part with this world, then lift up your eyes and by faith behold the glory of Christ who ‘made himself of no reputation’…

* This reading is abstracted from the abbreviated edition of John Owen The Glory of Christ (Banner of Truth, 1994), pp. 38-49. For the complete edition (stylistically slightly modernized), see John Owen, The Glory of Christ: His Office and Grace (Christian Focus Pub. 2015), pp. 91-105.

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