In trying to find words to express their faith in Jesus, the New Testament writers gave him various names. Jesus was Master, Rabbi, Teacher. He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He was the Doorway to the sheepfold, the Light of the world, the Prince of Peace, and more. In the church’s long tradition, scores of other names or titles have been given. Let’s look at five of the most central biblical names for Jesus:
Son of God
We believe in Jesus as God’s special child. We call this the Incarnation, meaning that God was in the world in the actual person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel writers explain this in different ways. In Mark, Jesus seems to be adopted as God’s Son at his baptism. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit. In John, Jesus is God’s pre-existing Word who “became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). However this mystery occurred, we affirm that God is wholly present in Jesus Christ.
Son of man
Paradoxically, we also believe that Jesus was fully human. One of the church’s first heresies claimed that Jesus only seemed to be human, that he was really a divine figure in disguise. But the early church rejected this. It affirmed that Jesus was a person in every sense that we are. He was tempted. He grew weary. He wept. He expressed his anger. In fact, Jesus is God’s picture of what it means to be a mature human being.
We say “Jesus Christ” easily, almost as if “Christ” were Jesus’ surname. Yet this name is another way of expressing who we believe Jesus to be. Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means God’s Anointed One. For years before Jesus’ time the Jews had been expecting a new king, a descendant of the revered King David, who would restore the nation of Israel to glory. Like kings of old, this one would be anointed on the head with oil, signifying God’s election; hence, the Chosen One = the Anointed One = the Messiah = the Christ. The early Jewish Christians proclaimed that Jesus was, indeed, this Chosen One. Thus, in calling him our Christ today, we affirm that he was and is the fulfillment of the ancient hope and God’s Chosen One to bring salvation to all peoples, for all time.
We also proclaim Jesus as our Lord, the one to whom we give our devoted allegiance. The word Lord had a more powerful meaning for people of medieval times, because they actually lived under the authority of lords and monarchs. Today some of us may find it difficult to acknowledge Jesus as Lord of our lives. We’re used to being independent and self-sufficient. We have not bowed down to authority. To claim Jesus as Lord is to freely submit our will to his, to humbly profess that it is he who is in charge of this world.
Perhaps best of all, we believe in Jesus as Savior, as the one through whom God has freed us of our sin and has given us the gift of whole life, eternal life, and salvation. We speak of this gift as the atonement, our “at-oneness” or reconciliation with God. We believe that in ways we cannot fully explain, God has done this through the mystery of Jesus’ self-giving sacrifice on the cross and his victory over sin and death in the Resurrection.
From United Methodist Member’s Handbook, Revised by George Koehler (Discipleship Resources, 2006), pp. 76-77. Used by permission.
Our Beliefs About Salvation
By grace through faith
Salvation cannot be earned. There’s no behavior, no matter how holy or righteous, by which we can achieve salvation. Rather, it’s the gift of a gracious God.
By grace we mean God’s extraordinary love for us. In most of life we’re accustomed to earning approval from others. This is true at school, at work, in society, even at home—to a degree. We may feel that we have to act “just so” to be liked or loved. But God’s love, or grace, is given without any regard for our goodness. It’s unmerited, unconditional, and unending love.
As we come to accept this love, to entrust ourselves to it, and to ground our lives in it, we discover the wholeness that God has promised. This trust, as we’ve seen, is called faith. God takes the initiative in grace; but only as we respond through faith is the change wrought in us.
This is the great theme of the Protestant Reformers, as well as John Wesley and the Methodists who followed: We’re saved by grace alone through faith alone. We’re made whole and reconciled by the love of God as we receive it and trust in it.
This process of salvation involves a change in us that we call conversion. Conversion is a turning around, leaving one orientation for another. It may be sudden and dramatic, or gradual and cumulative. But in any case it’s a new beginning. Following Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “You must be born anew” (John 3:7 RSV), we speak of this conversion as rebirth, new life in Christ, or regeneration.
Following Paul and Luther, John Wesley called this process justification. Justification is what happens when Christians abandon all those vain attempts to justify themselves before God, to be seen as “just” in God’s eyes through religious and moral practices. It’s a time when God’s “justifying grace” is experienced and accepted, a time of pardon and forgiveness, of new peace and joy and love. Indeed, we’re justified by God’s grace through faith.
Justification is also a time of repentance — turning away from behaviors rooted in sin and toward actions that express God’s love. In this conversion we can expect to receive assurance of our present salvation through the Holy Spirit “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16).
Growing in grace
Conversion is but the beginning of the new life of wholeness. Through what Wesley called God’s “sanctifying grace,” we can continue to grow. In fact, Wesley affirmed, we’re to press on, with God’s help, in the path of sanctification, the gift of Christian perfection. The goal of the sanctified life is to be perfected in love, to experience the pure love of God and others, a holiness of heart and life, a total death to sin. We’re not there yet; but by God’s grace, as we United Methodists say, “we’re going on to perfection!”
From United Methodist Member’s Handbook, Revised by George Koehler (Discipleship Resources, 2006), pp. 78-79. Used by permission.