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“Thou Art the Christ”: Reflections on the Name of the Lord

Bryan D. Holstrom

Not long ago I received a flyer from a bookseller that specializes in distributing titles from Reformed publishers. As I flipped through its pages I couldn’t help but be struck by an interesting dichotomy in the arrangement of the works offered for sale. In the first few pages I ran across books with titles or subtitles that included the following: Singing the Songs of Jesus; The Reality of Encountering Jesus; Jesus Rose from the Dead; The House that Jesus Built; and 40 Days with Jesus. But when I got towards the back of the flyer these titles appeared: The Priesthood of Christ; The Glory of Christ; The Intercession of Christ; and Christ Crucified.

Of course, the seller hadn’t purposely arranged the books in any kind of order based upon the characteristics of the titles. Rather, if you haven’t already figured out what the distinction is between these two groups of books, the former is made up of more recent releases while the latter titles are found in the section containing “classic” works from earlier centuries.

While I’ve no doubt that each of the books in the recent release category is a valuable resource for Christian readers, the flyer did highlight a disturbing trend that has been making its way through the church for some time now. Increasingly, it seems as if Christians are hesitant to refer to their Lord and Savior by anything other than his given birth name of Jesus. This trend is particularly evident in churches that cater to young evangelicals, but, as the above example demonstrates, even the authors and publishers of Reformed books appear to be succumbing to the fashion of the day.

Actually, the seeds of this development date back at least to the fundamentalist-modernist debates of the early twentieth century. The mainline churches had already been greatly influenced by the so-called “Quest for the Historical Jesus” and were rapidly moving to strip him of his divine and messianic titles. As early as 1926, Geerhardus Vos observed that Jesus’s messianic identity had replaced the cross as the great rock of offense to the modern Christian mind.[1] Simply stated, the liberal tendency to refer to the Savior solely by his given birth name is motivated by a desire to replace the divine Christ of Scripture with a purely human substitute, albeit one who was a great moral and ethical teacher.

But while this trend may be nothing new within the confines of the broader visible church, what is of more recent development is the depth to which it seems to have taken hold in those churches of a more evangelical persuasion. I refer here not merely to the titling of books, but to the more fundamental way in which our whole manner of discourse has been influenced by it. More and more Christians who supposedly don’t share the theological presuppositions of which Vos wrote have nevertheless adopted the practice of speaking of Jesus, and of praying in his name, without appending the reference to his official title.

Is this controversy (if I may even be allowed to call it such) merely a tempest in a teapot? I don’t think so. It may not yet rank high on the alarm scale for many of us, but I’m convinced that the significance of this trend far outweighs our awareness of it, for it tends to compromise our gospel message in the most subtle of ways—by obscuring the identity of the one whom we are called to proclaim. I also believe that those of us in Reformed circles have been more influenced by this trend than we probably realize.

In the remainder of this essay we’ll seek to answer two questions: 1) How does the modern practice compare to the pattern of Scripture? and 2) What, if anything, can we do to reverse the trend?

The Biblical Pattern

Peter’s declaration that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16) represents a turning point in the Gospel narratives. Even if subsequent events would call into question the depth of Peter’s reliance upon the truth he had just expressed, it nevertheless demonstrates that he had moved beyond the more limited conception of Jesus’s identity that was held by the general populace. Most importantly, it was a truth to which Peter could attain only through the working of the Holy Spirit, and one for which he would eventually give his life. Only a few short weeks after his stumble at Jesus’s trial he would stare down a hostile crowd in Jerusalem and proclaim that same Jesus as the one whom God had made “both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

The rest of the New Testament demonstrates the importance that Peter and the apostolic band thereafter attached to identifying Jesus with his divine and messianic titles. Aside from a few examples in the speeches found in Acts where the Savior’s given name is used primarily for the purpose of historical identification or to emphasize the nature of his humiliation, the name “Jesus” is almost never uttered without the titles of “Lord” or “Christ” being appended, either before (as “Lord Jesus” and “Christ Jesus”) or after (as “Jesus Christ”).

Paul’s practice is particularly instructive. In his thirteen epistles he uses the name “Jesus” a total of 216 times (not counting his reference to the Jesus also known as Justus in Colossians 4:11).[2] The messianic title is appended to all but thirty-one of those references, eighteen of which are rendered as “Lord Jesus.” That leaves only thirteen references without either title directly attached to the Savior’s given name. But in every one of those thirteen references the name is contained within a sentence or thought unit that otherwise also identifies him as Christ or Lord.[3] A good example is 1 Corinthians 12:3, which contains two of those thirteen references, the second of which directly states that “Jesus is Lord.”

Without a doubt, however, Paul’s preferred designation for the Savior is “Christ.” He uses it some 402 times, either appended to “Jesus” or as a stand-alone reference. Indeed, it is surprising how many of the most commonly memorized Scripture passages contain the latter type of reference (see, e.g., Rom. 1:16, 5:8, 8:34; 1 Cor. 1:23–24, 10:4, 15:3; 2 Cor. 5:17, 12:9; Gal. 1:6, 2:20, 3:16; Eph. 4:32, 5:25; Phil. 1:21, 4:13; Col. 3:3–4, 11, 16; 1 Thess. 4:16).

A vivid example of Paul’s commitment to proclaiming Jesus as Christ and Lord may be seen in the opening words of his first epistle to the Corinthians. In the span of only ten short verses, he refers to the Savior once as “Christ,” once as “Jesus Christ,” twice as “Christ Jesus,” once as “the Lord Jesus Christ,” twice as “Jesus Christ our Lord,” and three times as “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Nor is the picture any different when we examine the non-Pauline epistles. In the letters of James, Peter, and Jude there is only a single exception to the rule of appending “Christ” to the name “Jesus,” and that is Peter’s reference to “Jesus our Lord” in 2 Peter 1:2. John’s first epistle contains three references to Jesus that do not have “Christ” appended, but each involves one of his diagnostic statements identifying Jesus as “the Christ” (2:22) and “the Son of God” (4:15, 5:5). Thus, those references serve the purpose of historical identification. The Son of God is none other than the man Jesus whom John and the other apostles had “seen and heard” (1:3) with their own eyes and ears.

Interestingly, the only real exceptions to the rule are found in the books of Hebrews and Revelation. But even in those works the number of such references is dwarfed by the combined number of references to “Jesus Christ,” or to “Christ” as a stand-alone designation.

Stemming the Tide

Is there anything that we can (and should) be doing to encourage those under our care to speak of the Lord in a manner that is more in keeping with the biblical pattern? I believe there are at least two things that we can and should do.

First, we can make sure that the doctrine of Christ’s deity is getting adequate attention in our preaching and teaching ministries. To be sure, this isn’t an area in which Reformed churches have tended to be deficient. We have neither retreated from the truth of this doctrine nor been timid in our proclamation of it. But in an age when this truth is under constant attack from the unbelieving world, and more of those coming into the church lack the prior catechetical instruction that characterized earlier eras, it’s quite possible that we’re in need of stepping up our efforts in this area.

Unfortunately, we can no longer assume that those in our care have a proper appreciation for the dual nature of Christ’s person or for the doctrinal significance which flows from that reality. In light of this, we probably need to be more diligent to expound upon the great truths attending his divine identity, rather than taking it on faith that our members are already well versed in such matters. We would benefit from evaluating our preaching and teaching ministries in the light of the following questions: Are we doing enough to demonstrate the intimate connection between Christ’s divine identity and the nature of his redemptive work? Are we giving sufficient attention to the manner in which his exercise of the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king confirms that identity? Are we making use of the great creedal statements of the past respecting his person, wherein he is spoken of as “true God from true God” (Nicene Creed) or “very and eternal God” (WCF 8:2)? Moreover, are we following the example of our own confessional standards, which speak of the mediator almost exclusively as “Christ” with barely a mention of his given birth name?[4]

In commenting upon the increasingly common use of “Jesus” as the Savior’s exclusive designation, Vos wrote that the trend was “a symptom of the generally shifting attitude in the religious appraisal of our Lord from the official to the merely human.” He then noted that, in contrast to this attitude, “Paul and the whole early Church, in making and favoring the combination ‘Jesus Christ,’ expressed a strong feeling of appreciation for the legitimate standing of Jesus in his office of the Christ.”[5]

Vos’s comment highlights the second thing that we can be doing to stem this tide. Following the lead of Paul and the other biblical writers, we can be more intentional to speak of our Lord in both prayer and general discourse with the exalted terms that they use, and eschew the more casual form so commonly employed today. If Vos is correct in his diagnosis, then it seems incontrovertible that we should refer to our Lord simply as “Jesus” only sparingly, if at all.

Another theologian from the same time period, A. W. Pink, speaks even more forthrightly on the matter. After examining the way in which the biblical writers speak of Christ, and noting in particular the example of Paul, Pink concludes, “To address the Lord of glory in prayer simply as ‘Jesus,’ or to speak of Him to others thus, breathes an unholy familiarity, a vulgar cheapness, an irreverence which is highly reprehensible.”[6]

Now if Pink meant to say that every use of the name “Jesus” without an accompanying title is per se sinful, then we would surely part company with him. But I don’t believe that’s what he meant to affirm. Rather, it is the trajectory and general thrust of his comments here which are helpful and on point. We may not say that it is outright sin to speak of the Savior in such terms, but we may say that it doesn’t represent the best that we have to offer. To paraphrase Paul’s distinction between what is legal and what is profitable, we may say that whatsoever is permissible in this area is not necessarily advisable.

Such an affirmation in no way obscures the fact that the name “Jesus” itself has profound theological significance (Matt. 1:21). But the same divine/human person who was given that name at birth came into the world already possessing the title of “Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10). Nor do we foolishly assert that appending one of those divine titles to the human name works as a magic incantation, turning an otherwise fruitless prayer into an effectual one. Nothing will substitute for a right heart in prayer, or worship, or any other endeavor. But the Christian who desires to conform his or her practice to the biblical pattern will be hard pressed to maintain that the casual form of addressing the Savior is to be preferred over the more exalted forms used by the writers of Scripture.

The truth that Peter confessed in Matthew 16, and which he afterwards proclaimed to the crowd in Jerusalem, was Spirit-wrought, life-changing truth. It is the same truth that we proclaim to a dying world; a world that will gladly make room for a human Jesus but not a divine Christ. Like Peter, we have only so many opportunities in a week to proclaim this Jesus as Lord and Christ. We do well not to waste them.


[1] Geerhardus Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus: The Modern Debate about the Messianic Consciousness, ed. Johannes G. Vos, 2nd edition (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1953), preface.

[2] The word counts given here are from the text of the New King James Version.

[3] Those references are Rom. 3:26, 4:24, 8:11; 1 Cor. 12:3 (twice); 2 Cor. 4:11, 4:14, 11:4; Eph. 4:21; Phil. 2:10; 1 Thess. 1:10, 4:14 (twice).

[4] See especially WLC questions 36–60.

[5] Vos, 109.

[6] Arthur W. Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 103.

Bryan D. Holstrom is a ruling elder at Covenant of Grace OPC in Batavia, Illinois. Ordained Servant Online, December, 2012.

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