The word incarnation does not occur in the Bible. It is derived from the Latin in and caro (flesh), meaning clothed in flesh, the act of assuming flesh. Its only use in theology is in reference to that gracious, voluntary act of the Son of God in which He assumed a human body. In Christian doctrine the Incarnation, briefly stated, is that the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, became a man. It is one of the greatest events to occur in the history of the universe. It is without parallel.
The Apostle Paul wrote, ”And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh . . . “(I Timothy 3:16). Confessedly, by common consent the Incarnation of Jesus Christ is outside the range of human natural comprehension and apprehension. It can be made known only by Divine revelation in the Holy Scriptures, and to those only who are illumined by the Holy Spirit. It is a truth of the greatest magnitude that God in the Person of His Son should identify Himself completely with the human race. And yet He did, for reasons He set forth clearly in His Word.
Before we examine those reasons, it would be well at the outset to distinguish between the Incarnation and the Virgin Birth of our Lord, two truths sometimes confused by students of Scripture. The Incarnation of the Son of God is the fact of God becoming Man; the Virgin Birth is the method by which God the Son became Man.
These two truths, while distinct and different, are closely related to each other and stand in support of each other. If Jesus Christ was not virgin born, then He was not God in the flesh and was therefore only a man possessing the same sinful nature that every fallen child of Adam possesses. The fact of the Incarnation lies in the ever-existing One putting aside His eternal glory to become a man. The method of the Incarnation is the manner by which He chose to come, namely, the miraculous conception in the womb of a virgin.
A noteworthy passage pertinent to the Divine purpose in the Incarnation is recorded in the Gospel according to John– ”And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld His glory. the glory as of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth’‘ (John 1 :14).
Cerinthus, a representative of the system which arose in the early church under the name of Docetism, claimed that our Lord had only an apparent human body. But the statement, ”the Word became flesh,”indicates that He had a real body.
John 1:14 cannot be fully appreciated apart from verse one: ”In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh.”He who was one with the Father from all eternity became Man, taking upon Him a human body. He ”was with God” (vs. 1); He ”became flesh“ (vs. 14). He “was with God”’ (vs. 1); He ”dwelt among us” (vs. 14). From the infinite position of eternal Godhood to the finite limitations of manhood! Unthinkable but true!
Paul gives another significant passage on the Incarnation in his Galatian Epistle: ”But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Galatians 4:4, 5). In these verses Paul establishes the fact of the Incarnation– “God sent forth His Son, made of a woman.”
God sending His Son presupposes that God had a Son. Christ was the Son in His eternal relationship with the Father, not because He was born of Mary. Since a son shares the nature of his father, so our Lord shares the Godhead coequally with His Father. Yes, “God sent forth His Son,” from His throne on high, from His position of heavenly glory. God did not send one forth who, in His birth, became His Son, but He sent One who, through all eternity, was His Son. Centuries before Christ was born, the Prophet Isaiah wrote of Him, ”For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given . . . ”(Isaiah 9:6). The Son was given in eternity past before we knew Him. His human birth was merely the method of coming to us.
Again, Paul records the following noteworthy statement in the Epistle to the Philippians: ”Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”(Philippians 2:5-11).
Before His Incarnation Jesus Christ was ‘‘in the form of God” (vs. 6). From the beginning He had the nature of God, He existed (or subsisted) as God, and that essential Deity which He once was could never cease to be. If He seems Divine, it is only because He is Divine. He is God.
He ”thought it not robbery to be equal with God” (vs. 6). The eternal Son did not consider it a thing to be seized unlawfully to be equal with the Father. Equality with God was not something He retained by force or by farce. He possessed it in eternity past and no power could take it from Him. But in the Incarnation He laid aside, not His possession of Deity, but His position in and expression of the heavenly glory.
One of the purposes of the Philippian epistle was to check the rising tide of dissension and strife growing out of Christians thinking more highly of themselves than they ought to think. Being a general letter, it exposes no false doctrines but does enunciate our Lord Jesus Christ as the believer’s pattern in humiliation, self-denial, and loving service for others. This is evident in the seven downward steps of the Saviour’s renunciation of Himself.
(1) ”He made Himself of no reputation.” God emptied Himself! He did not lose His Deity when He became Man, for God is immutable and therefore cannot cease to be God. He always was God the Son; He continued to be God the Son in His earthly sojourn as Man; He is God the Son in heaven today as He will remain throughout eternity. He is ”Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever”(Hebrews 13:8).
(2) ”He took upon Him the form of a servant.” His was a voluntary act of amazing grace, the almighty Sovereign stooping to become earth’s lowly Servant. Instead of expressing Himself as one deserving to be served, He revealed Himself as one desiring to serve others. He did not boast His eternal glory and right to be ministered to, but instead evinced His humility and desire to minister. ”The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
(3) “He was made in the likeness of men.” This phrase expresses the full reality of His humanity. He participated in the same flesh and blood as man (Hebrews 2:14). Although He entered into a new state of being, His becoming Man did not exclude His possession of Deity, for He was and is today a Person who is both God and Man, Divine and human, perfect in His Deity and perfect in His humanity.
(4) ”And being found in fashion as a man.”When He came into the world, Christ associated with His contemporaries and did not hold Himself aloof. Thus He manifested to all that He was a real Man. One obvious distinction marked our Lord’s humanity; His perfection and sinlessness. As a Man He was made under the law, yet He never violated the law. As a Man He was tempted in all three points in which we are tempted (I John 2:16), yet His temptation was apart from any thought, word, or act of sin.
(5) “He humbled Himself.” The world has never witnessed a more genuine act of self-humbling. So completely did our Lord humble Himself that He surrendered His will to the will of His Father in heaven. His desire was to do the will of the Father, therefore He could testify, “I do always those things that please Him” (John 8:29). It was humiliation for the eternal Son of God to become flesh in a stable, and then to dwell in a humble home in subjection to a human parent. God was ”sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin” (Romans 8:30). Only eternity will reveal the depth of meaning for Him and for us found in those words, “He humbled Himself.”
(6) “He became obedient unto death.” Remarkable indeed! Here the God-man dies. Did He die as God, or did He die as Man? He died as the God-Man. The first Adam’s obedience would have been unto life, but because he disobeyed unto death, the last Adam must now obey unto death in order that He might deliver the first Adam’s posterity ”out of death into life” (John 5:24R.V.). ”For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). To subject Himself to the cruel death of a criminal on the cross was a necessary part of God’s plan of salvation for men, and to such a death our Lord voluntarily submitted. Implicit obedience!
(7) ” . . . even the death of the cross.” Our Lord died as no other person died or ever will die. Other men had died on crosses, but this Man, the eternal Son of God, voluntarily and willingly died the kind of death meted out to criminals, even the death upon a cross. His own countrymen considered crucifixion the worst kind of disgrace. In their law it was written, “For he that is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23; cf. Galatians 3:13). Not only did our Lord die, but He died bearing the burden of the worst of criminals and the guiltiest of sinners. Down He came from heaven’s glory to earth’s sin and shame through His Incarnation.
The purposes underlying this phenomenal occurrence can be summed up in seven points.
(1) HE CAME TO REVEAL GOD TO MAN
The Incarnation of the Son of God unites earth to heaven. God’s greatest revelation of Himself to man is in Jesus Christ. Revelation is the disclosure of truth previously unknown. Before the coming of the Son of God to earth many varied forms of revelation existed. Belief in the existence of God is innate. Since man is a rational, moral being, his very nature provides him with intuitive knowledge. As the mind of a child begins to unfold, it instinctively and intuitively recognizes a Being above and beyond the world that he experiences.
Man is so constituted that he recognizes the fact and the power of God by the things that are made. Many of the ancient philosophers marveled at the starry heavens above them and the moral law about them. We live in a world of order and harmony conducive to our happiness and well being, and we, too, recognize a revelation of God in nature.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19, 20). Men may hinder or suppress the truth by their unrighteous living, but there is that which may be known of God which ”is manifest in them.” The existence and power of God are discernible to us all by the things we observe in the external world. Those only who have abnormal, distorted, or biased minds can possibly deny God’s existence.
Job realized that the nature of God in its different characteristics and qualities was not all revealed to man, yet he knew, as all men know, that the omnipotence and unchangeableness of God are exhibited in creation (Job 6:10; 23:12). The savage and the scientist can know two things about God; He is a Being and He is supreme. These are the two things God has been pleased to reveal about Himself.
Do not plead innocence for the man who does not possess a copy of God’s Word. All men have a Bible bound with the covers of the day and the night whose print is the stars and the planets. What is knowable about God has been displayed openly, and any man who suppresses the truth does it “without excuse.”Nature reveals the supernatural, and creation reveals the Creator. Read Psalm 19:1-6 and you will see that the heavens are personified to proclaim the glory of their Creator. Day and night pass on their testimonies giving clear evidence of the existence of the One who made them.
There are other evidences of primeval revelations of God to man, such as to Adam (Genesis 3:8) and to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 26:3-5). The writer to the Hebrews quotes the Son speaking to the Father, in which reference is made to an early primitive and temporary revelation through a book which God allowed to pass out of existence (Hebrews 10:5-7). Doubtless there were other books which likewise have passed out of existence, as the Book of Enoch of which Jude made mention (Jude 14).
We know, further, that God often revealed Himself in dreams as when He spoke to Jacob (Genesis 28), to the patriarch Joseph (Genesis 37), to Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2-4), to Joseph (Matthew 1:20), and to others. Through Moses and the prophets God revealed Himself (Exodus 3:4 and chapter 20). Over thirty-five authors, writing over a period of fifteen hundred years, wrote consistently and coherently, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, of one historically accurate plan of salvation. The Bible in its entirety is a progressive revelation of God.
But of all the amazing revelations of almighty God, none was set forth more clearly and fully than God’s final revelation of Himself in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Since God is an infinite Being, no man could understand Him fully save the Son who is One in equality with the Father. Jesus said, ”. . . neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal Him” (Matthew 11:27). Here, then, is one reason for the Incarnation—to reveal God to man. The fact of God’s existence may be seen through test tubes and laboratory experiments, detected through microscope and telescope, and stated in the discussions of the seminar. But the glorious attributes of a loving God manifested in behalf of sinners can be found in no place or person apart from Jesus Christ.
Philip said to the Lord Jesus, ‘‘Lord, shew us the Father . . . ” and our Lord answered, ”. . . He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father . . . “ (John 14:8, 9). When the Word became flesh He brought to man an adequate revelation of God. Whatever the ancient seers and saints knew about God before Jesus came, we have a more adequate revelation. Since God remains an abstraction until we see Him in terms of personality, so the Son became Incarnate that we might see and know God. ‘‘No man hath seen God at anytime; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him’‘ (John 1:1,8,9).
The dictionary definition of the word ”light” means nothing to a blind man, but one glimpse of a glowworm would be worth more for the understanding of light than all the definitions in the world. One glimpse of Jesus Christ will bring God closer to the human mind and heart than all the theological definitions of Him. No man could perceive the grace of God until the almighty Sovereign of the universe stooped to the level of His own creatures, suffering cruel treatment and dying the death of shame for them. No man understood fully the patience and longsuffering of the Father until Jesus Christ who, when He was reviled, reviled not again, and when He suffered, threatened not (I Peter 2:23). No man can comprehend just how perfect and holy God is until He comes face to face with the sinless Son of God. God has revealed Himself anew to the intelligence of man through the Incarnation.
(2) HE CAME TO REVEAL MAN TO HIMSELF
Through His Incarnation Jesus Christ reveals man to himself. He shows us what we are and what we may become. As we study the purposes of God in Christ, the fact impresses us that man is grossly ignorant of his real self, and that the mission of the Son’s coming included a plan that would enable man to see and know himself as God sees and knows him. We are not the least bit impressed with man’s vain philosophical views of himself, but rather with the accurate historical account of man as it is recorded in the Bible.
The primary fact that man needs to know about himself is his origin. Men are divided in their theories concerning this. We are not strangers to the evolutionary idea which attempts to explain man’s place in the earth. In 1871 Darwin published his book, The Descent of Man, but he said very little that had not been said before. The idea of evolution might be here to stay, but not because Darwin said so. Evolution was taught by Roman and Greek philosophers and even by ancient Egyptians. But the evolutionary idea that man must swallow his pride and be content with the fact that he has oozed from the slime along with the snails is contrary to the revelation in Scripture.
The Bible teaches clearly that the human race had its origin by the immediate creation of God (Genesis 1:26, 27) and that man is the grand consummation of all creation. We are forced to accept this view as against the theory of evolution because of the immeasurable gulf which separates man, even in his barest savage condition, from the nearest order of creation below him. Moreover, history corroborates Scripture in that man was destined to rule over all other animal life. God took special care in the creation of man, for “God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them”(Genesis 1:27). Actually it was not the body of man that was created, for the body was merely ”formed” of those elements necessary for man’s body and which were created long before man (Genesis 1:1). What was new in man’s creation was a form of life which only God and man possess (Genesis 2:7). Created in the image and likeness of God, man differs from every other form of animal. Man, in his lowest estate, seeks an object of worship and has been known to bow before gods that he cannot see, but animals never!
However, man did not retain God’s image and likeness. When God placed our first parents in Eden He set before them one simple restriction, namely, not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for, said God, “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Genesis 3 is a record of the fall of man. He disobeyed God and immediately the life-cord was severed. Adam died both physically and spiritually. Physical death began to do its work, and the grave for Adam was but a matter of time. Then, too, his spirit was separated from God, so that he was dead spiritually while alive physically.
Now all men, from Adam down, are born into this world spiritually dead in sin, possessing a sin-nature capable of every trespass against God (Ephesians 2:1). The sin-nature of Adam and the guilt of his sin were imputed to the whole human race, so that Adam’s corrupted nature is of necessity a part of all his posterity. The highest self in man is altogether unprofitable to God. All men are not equally corrupt in word and deed, but all are equally dead, and unless the function of death is brought to a halt, it will destroy not only the body but also the soul in hell. Because of the solidarity of the human race, sin and death have passed upon all men (Romans 5:12). When Adam defaced the Divine image and lost the Divine likeness, he begat sons ”in his own likeness, after his image” (Genesis 5:3). Yes, “by man came death” and ”in Adam all die” (I Corinthians 15:21, 22).
While all of this is clearly stated in the Bible, man still thinks of himself more highly than he ought to think. There were many who had no Scriptures at all in Christ’s day, and they needed this revelation. In order that man should see himself, not in the light of his own goodness, but beside the perfect standard of God’s holy Son, the Son of God became Incarnate. Our Lord said, ”If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin: but now they have no cloke for their sin” (John 15:22).
Responsibility increases with knowledge, and so Christ’s coming showed man how far short he came of God’s standard of a righteous man. The Lord Jesus said, “If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin . . . “ (John 15:24). Our Lord did not mean by this statement that man would have been without sin if He had not come. There had been sin all along, as God’s dealings with the human race through its four thousand years of earlier history prove. But the coming of Christ to the earth revealed the heart of man in cruel hatred for Divine holiness. The Son of God Incarnate was sinless in every respect, yet man, Jew and Gentile alike, crucified Him. Alongside Christ’s perfect life and works, man can see the sin and guilt of his own heart.
When man sinned against the Son of God, he sinned against the clearest possible light, “the Light of the world”(John 8:12). He came unto His own and His own received Him not (John 1:11), and then Gentiles joined hands with ”His own” to put Him to death. How sinful is the heart of man? Look at that spectacle on Calvary’s hill and you will see human hearts and hands at their worst.
Time has not improved human nature. Today men still trample under food the precious blood of Christ, and if our blessed Lord were to appear in person today as He did nineteen centuries ago, the world would crucify him again. The world, having seen the light, has turned from the light, for “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Romans 1:18 to 3:20 enunciates the most searching and conclusive arraignment of the human race found anywhere, and the birth and death of Jesus Christ attest to the truth of this awful indictment.
(3) He Came to Redeem Man
The Apostle Paul states clearly the purpose of the Incarnation in the following words– ”But when the fulness of the was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law” (Galatians 4:4, 5). The Old Testament contains the accurate record of some four thousand years of sin, human failure, and consequent Divine judgment. The one bright hope was the coming of the promised Seed, the Redeemer (Genesis 3:15). With each succeeding revelation from God, the promise grew clearer and the hope brighter. The prophets spoke of the Messiah who would come to deliver the people from their sins. Perhaps the classic prophecy is Isaiah 53. Since the people needed a deliverer from the guilt and penalty of sin, the intent of the Incarnation was to provide that Deliverer. Moreover, all of history and prophecy moved toward that goal even as all subsequent movements have proceeded from it.
Jesus Christ is man’s Redeemer, his Saviour. This truth is implied in His name. Said the angel, “Thou shalt call his name JESUS (meaning Saviour), for He shall save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). At His birth the angel testified again, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Even the Lord Jesus Himself voiced emphatically the purpose of His Incarnation when He said, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).
The awful state of the world of mankind necessitated the coming of the Redeemer since there could be no hope of deliverance apart from Him. The character of God, which is righteousness, absolute and uncompromising, demands that every sin be dealt with. While God is merciful, gracious, and slow to anger, forgiving iniquities and transgressions, ”that will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 34:7)., While God is love, God is also holy and righteous, so holy that He is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and [canst] not look on iniquity” (Habakkuk 1:13). His righteousness demands that every sin must be dealt with impartially. In order to be true to Himself, God had to deal with the problem of sin. In order to deal justly and, at the same time, mercifully, someone had to suffer the death penalty for the sin of the world.
In the Person of Jesus Christ God solved the problem of the eternal well-being of the sinner. He sent His Son to die as the sinner’s perfect Substitute, and thereby redeemed the sinner. Man was lost to God and heaven, and God’s purpose in redemption could be realized only through the Incarnate Son of God, for the Son of God Incarnate is the connecting link bringing together God and sinful man. The sinner’s relation to Jesus Christ is vital. Christ became a man “that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man”(Hebrews 2:9). The Word, who is the eternal Son of God, became flesh and was obliged to be made in the likeness of man in order to redeem him.
Christ defined the purpose of His Incarnation and earthly ministry when He said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Mark 2:17). There is no implication in these words that there is a sinful class of men who need repentance and another righteous class who do not. Nor is there a suggestion that there are “righteous ones,” for in Romans 3:10 it is said, “There is none righteous, no, not one.”
Consider the conditions under which Christ stated this purpose. Scribes and Pharisees were upbraiding Him because He had gone into the house of Levi to eat with publicans and sinners (Mark 2:14-16). His critics exalted themselves above sinners, priding themselves in an unpossessed righteousness which thereby excluded them from any realization or acknowledgement of their own sin.
In Levi’s house, however, there were those who recognized their sinful state. It was for this reason that the Lord Jesus went to that group, namely, to bring salvation to them. Physicians go into sick rooms, not because of the pleasantness of disease and suffering, but because of a desire to relieve and cure the sick. So sinners are the special objects of the Saviour’s love and power. He came into the world to save sinners.
Although all men are unrighteous, those scribes and Pharisees called themselves ”righteous,” for they were possessed of self-righteousness that is as “filthy rags” in God’s sight (Isaiah 64:6). Therefore, as they went about seeking to establish their own righteousness, they failed to see the purpose of His coming. Hence they never heeded the Saviour’s call to salvation. Their kind seldom do!
Had there been righteousness in the human heart, there would have been no need for the Incarnation of the Son of God. And only in the self-righteous heart of the religious, moral man, satisfied with himself, do we find the careless indifference to the Gospel of redemption. When a man assumes a righteousness all his own, he is outside the reach of the Great Physician. The man who excludes his own need of Christ misses the purpose of the Saviour’s coming and will not be saved. Each of us must say with the Apostle Paul, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief”(I Timothy 1:15).
(4) HE CAME TO RESTRAIN SATAN
The purpose of the Incarnation is further revealed in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Three verses, linked together, assert that the coming of Jesus Christ was to destroy the devil. “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man . . . Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, He also Himself likewise took part of the same [flesh and blood]; that through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:9, 14,15).
In these three verses in Hebrews, we are reminded that the subject of death is dealt with in each of them, and the fact of the Incarnation is substantiated in the clause, “who was made a little lower than the angels.”Furthermore, the purpose of the Incarnation appears in the words, “that He by the grace of God should taste death for every man.” From this verse, as well as verse 14, it is evident that the eternal Son became flesh in order to die.
Christ’s crucifixion by wicked hands was “by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God”(Acts 2:23). Our Lord Jesus Christ testified, “The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). Jesus Christ willed to die, not a sudden and unexpected death but a lingering, anticipated death that He would taste every day of His earthly sojourn. He became man to suffer death.
But why should it be so? We considered the purpose of the Incarnation relative to the sin question. Referring to the matter of death, the Word affirms that the Son of God became incarnate that “through death He might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil.” Of all the works of Satan, among the worst is that of destroying life. Our Lord testified, “He was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Satan is the spoiler of humanity, his malignant purpose being to bring both physical and spiritual death to mankind.
God placed our first parents in the Garden of Eden and surrounded them with every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. Two of these trees are mentioned; ”the tree of life . . . and the tree of knowledge of good and evil”( Genesis 2:9). Eating the fruit of the latter tree would bring sin and death, for, said God, “In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). Satan knew this, therefore we are not surprised when we read that it was of the fruit of this very tree of death that he enticed Eve to eat. He chose the tree of death because he is a murderer. He knew that the death sentence was already pronounced upon all who would eat of it. He delighted in the fall of Adam and Eve, for he knew that physical and spiritual death had struck.
But thanks be to God for the Incarnation of His Son. By the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, through His death and resurrection, He wrested from Satan the power of death. Death no more holds its lethal grip upon the believer. Although death has held sinners in bondage ever since the severing of the life-cord between God and man, the appearing of the Lord Jesus has broken its grip. “According to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began . . . the appearing of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel” (II Timothy 1:9-10).
Before sin was indulged in and death struck, the inclusive salvation plan provided death’s abolition. Since the death and resurrection of our Lord dealt comprehensively with sin, it of necessity affected death. The coming of the Saviour rendered death harmless, and the “sting” of it is gone (I Corinthians 15:55). Oh, the blessedness of an accomplished redemption! How wonderful to know Him who said, “I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death” (Revelation 1:18). Death once held man in the vise of hopeless doom, but now Satan is defeated.
The shadow of the cross hung over the manger in Bethlehem, assuring the world that the Seed of the woman would bruise the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). As Adam yielded himself to Satan, Satan held him in death; but by His dying, Christ entered into our death and wrested from Satan that power which he held over us. At Calvary Satan was brought to naught, and now “death is swallowed up in victory. . . Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Corinthians 15:54, 57). “The prince of this world is judged” (John 16:1 1). The Seed of the woman traversed the realms of death but was not captured by the enemy. Instead, He conquered the enemy. Thank God the Saviour came.
(5) HE CAME TO RESCUE THE WHOLE CREATION
The Incarnation of the eternal Son is part of the divine plan. That plan comprehends a goal, and God assures the accomplishment of it. Though the salvation of man was God’s chief concern, His plan was never limited to the world of mankind. It is written of the eternal Son, who was with God and who is God, that “all things were made by Him” (John 1:3). Paul writes, ”For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth” (Colossians 1:28). Man was higher than all other created beings in the earth, and other creatures were subject to him. However, after the fall this condition changed. Now if man is to have dominion over the beasts, he must first capture them at the risk of his own life, and then imprison them until they are tamed. All of this resulted from the fall.
But the question is, Will God restore again to man the dominion which he lost through the fall? The prophet said, ”The wolf also shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the suckling child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cocatrice’s den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea”(Isaiah 11:6-9). Indeed, it appears that the prophet here is looking beyond to a time of rescue and restoration of the earth and all of its creatures.
The cruelty of beasts was not the order before sin entered. Such discord among God’s creatures has sprung from the sinfulness of man and is a necessary part of the curse. To remove this curse and rescue God’s creation is one of the purposes of the Incarnation. When Christ comes back to reign and “the government shall be upon His shoulder”(Isaiah 9:6), then the sons of God will be manifested and will share with Him in a restored creation. If it were not so, then all of animated nature would remain spoiled by Satan. But God has said, “In that day will I make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground” (Hosea 2:18). Yes, God will “gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth, even in Him” (Ephesians 1:10). At that day our blessed Lord will “reconcile all things unto Himself’ (Colossians 1:20).
Many Christians fail to see that this redemptive work, wrought through the Incarnation of the Son of God, is wider than the salvation of human beings and that it affects the whole creation. The Apostle Paul writes, “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope. Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.”(Romans 8:19-23). Here we are told that the deliverance of the whole creation will be revealed at the manifestation of the sons of God.
All creation lies in hope (expectancy) of a rescue from present corruption and of deliverance to that place God gave it in the beginning. Nature is now under the curse of sin, groaning and travailing in pain. It is not what it was at first. Nor is it now what it will be when the incarnate Son returns to “put all things in subjection under His feet” (see Hebrews 2:5-9). Before Adam sinned, no savage beasts, no desert wastes, no thorns and thistles existed; but when he fell, all creation fell with him. Now that the Son of God has come and purchased redemption by His death at Calvary, the whole creation must be rescued from the curse, and restored to its original state.
(6) HE CAME TO RESTORE ISRAEL
Any reader of the Old Testament cannot escape the clear teaching that the Messiah was promised to Israel. Of this the prophets spoke and wrote. The Jew had great advantages. “Unto them were committed the oracles of God”(Romans 3:2). Theirs was “the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises” (Romans 9:4). None can deny that from the call of Abraham (Genesis 12:1) to the Babylonian captivity under Nebuchadnezzar (606 B.C.), authority in the earth and divine representation was vested in the Jew. It is common information that since the overthrow of Jerusalem and the transfer of dominion in the earth to the Gentiles, Israel, as a nation, has not held authority in the earth.
When Jesus Christ, the Word, “was made flesh,”“He came unto His own, and His own received Him not”(John 1:11, 14). ”His citizens hated Him, and sent a message after Him, saying, We will not have this man to reign over us”(Luke 19:14). In blind unbelief the children of Abraham, refusing to recognize or receive Him, drove Him from their midst and crucified Him. After His resurrection and ascension He revealed to the apostles this mystery. No longer did Israel have priority on the truth, but the message was to be spread abroad to every creature and, during the present dispensation of grace, God would visit the Gentiles to take out of them a people for His name (Acts 15:14).
When Christ came the first time He traversed Palestine proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”(Matthew 4:17). He opened the door into the kingdom, but only the regenerated could enter. Were the people ready to receive the kingdom, the King would establish it. However, the offer of the kingdom met with an ever-increasing opposition, and our Lord withdrew the offer for that time. He said to the Jews, ”Therefore say I unto you, The Kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof”(Matthew 21:43). There was no mistaking what the Lord Jesus meant, for the chief priests and Pharisees “perceived that He spake of them” (vs. 45).
Israel is still set aside, but only temporarily. The Apostle Paul writes, ”I say then, Hath God cast away His people? God forbid . . . God hath not cast away His people which He foreknew . . . For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in”(Romans 11:1,2,25).
Anti-Semitism, raging throughout the world today, might lead one to question the future restoration of the Jew. Yet we know that both national restoration and national regeneration for the Jew are a definite part of the plan of God. Israel is not beyond recovery; she is not irretrievably lost. By her fall the whole world was blessed with the message of salvation. A national tragedy resulted in an international triumph. ”And so all Israel shall be saved” (Romans 10:26). The Jew lives in a dark present with a bright future before him. When our Lord said in Matthew 21:43, that “the kingdom shall be given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof,”He was not referring to any Gentile nation but to regenerated Israel.
God gave Palestine to the Jews unconditionally as a possession and a dwelling place (Genesis 12: 1-3). He wants them there. That the Jews would be scattered is plainly taught in the Word of God, but coupled with such teaching are the assertions that they will also be regathered. Study Hosea 3:4,5 and see plainly the scattering and the gathering with the period between. (See also Ezekiel 36: 19,24). The Word became flesh and tabernacled among them once (John 1:14). That same holy One, the incarnate Christ, will come again to tabernacle with Israel. Study, for example, such passages as Isaiah 12:1-6; Joel 2:26, 27; Zephaniah 3:14-17; Zechariah 8:3-8. Already modern inventions have revolutionized Palestine and its surrounding territory. This fact, coupled with the thought of the vast area granted by God to Abraham (Genesis 15: 18), will assure any interested person that there is ample room in the Holy Land to hold all Jews.
While the Jews continue to return to the Land, all signs point to the return of the incarnate Son, the One who is both human and Divine, and the One in whom God’s purposes for Israel are to be fulfilled. According to prophecy, the incarnate One, Immanuel, the virgin’s Son, is to occupy David’s throne. ”For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace. Of the increase of government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this”(Isaiah 9:6, 7). Let us rejoice to see that day approaching.
(7) HE CAME TO REIGN
When the Incarnation had been announced, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the east, and are come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:1,2). They were wise men indeed, for they were followers of the truth of God. When the Old Testament prophets wrote of Messiah’s offices, they included that of King. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy king cometh unto thee: He is just, and having salvation: lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Zechariah 9:9). David wrote of Christ and His kingdom when he recorded the words of God, “Yet have I set My king upon My holy hill of Zion” (Psalm 2:6). Our Lord is not only Prophet, and Priest, but also Potentate.
In studying the purposes of the Incarnation we are forced to the scriptural observation that the eternal Son became Man in order that He might be King of the earth. Paul wrote that “God hath highly exalted Him” (Philippians 2:9). We dare not limit the exaltation of Christ as some try to do. We acquiesce with those who teach that the steps in Christ’s exaltation were His resurrection, ascension, and His sitting at the right hand of God. But such teaching does not go far enough. Study carefully Philippians 2:5-11, and you will see that the steps in our Lord’s humiliation were temporary steps leading to a permanent exaltation, culminating with the bowing of every knee and the confessing of every tongue in heaven and in earth, that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The incarnate Son is to appear in His resurrection body and is to sit on the throne of His glory. Jesus Himself spoke of the day “when the Son of man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him; then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory” (Matthew 25:31). John writes, ”Every eye shall see Him”(Revelation 1:7). The prophetic utterance spoken by God to David in 2 Samuel 7:12-16 concerning David’s seed having an everlasting throne and kingdom, has a double fulfillment. Primarily it referred to Solomon’s temple. Ultimately and finally it speaks of Christ’s earthly reign as Zechariah 6:12 shows. The day must come when all things will be subjected unto Him (I Corinthians 15:28).
The Psalmist spoke of His throne as an enduring throne (Psalm 89:4, 29, 36). God promises that this earthly throne and kingdom are to continue forever, and that the One to occupy it shall be David’s seed, his rightful Son (I Chronicles 17:11). The genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 will support the relationship of Jesus Christ to David. During our Lord’s earthly ministry, those who sought His help called Him “the son of David” (see Matthew 9:27; Mark 10:47; Luke 18:38).
Christ’s kingdom is literal, therefore it cannot be realized apart from the Incarnation. Such a kingdom men have been trying to establish for centuries, but nations are farther from realizing it today than ever before. A perfect kingdom demands a perfect King. At the end of the conflict of the ages, Jesus Christ, the God-Man will return to earth to establish His righteous kingdom which will never be destroyed. His kingdom of glory, and His throne in the midst, was God’s first promise through the mouth of the angel Gabriel to Mary, and it links together the Incarnation and reign of the Son of God, ”And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:31-33).
When the King comes, then will His perfect will be done in earth as it is in heaven. This is a blessed truth not without history or hope. The day will surely come when all men will see the revelation of the glory of holiness and joy in the earth. But His reign awaits His return to carry away His Bride, the Church. Everything has been deferred until He gathers her unto Himself. It may be at any moment that the last soul will be added to the Church, and then He will come.
This meditation in no wise exhausts the divine purposes of the Incarnation. Others have written at greater length and, doubtless, we could do likewise. But one thing more must be said. The supreme purpose in the eternal Son’s coming into the world was to glorify the Father. In His great intercessory prayer, Jesus said, “I have glorified Thee on the earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do” (John 17:4). God had been glorified in creation, in the remarkable deliverances of His people, and in the exercise of His power over His enemies, but at no time had He been glorified like this. God could never have been glorified if the Son would have failed in His earthly mission in the smallest degree. But the Lord Jesus could say, “I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do.” Nothing was left undone, and in everything He did, the Son had the Father’s glory in view. He glorified the Father; His earthly mission was complete.
And now to all of us who have been redeemed by His precious blood, the Apostle Paul writes: “For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (I Corinthians 6:20).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Lehman Strauss taught Old Testament history for eight years at Philadelphia Bible Institute, and served as pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church, Bristol, Pennsylvania, from 1939 to 1957. He was pastor of Highland Park Baptist Church (Highland Park, Michigan) until the end of 1963 when he resigned to devote full time to an itinerant Bible conference and evangelistic ministry both in the States and abroad. Dr. Strauss was residing in Florida and writing his 19th book at age 86 when the Lord called him home in June 1997. His written materials are used by permission…article originally appeared @ https://bible.org/article/why-god-became-man
Dr. D.A. Carson: The Love of God and the Intent of Christ’s Death on the Cross
Here I wish to see if the approaches we have been following with respect to the love of God may shed some light on another area connected with the sovereignty of God – the purpose of the Atonement.
The label “limited atonement” is singularly unfortunate for two reasons. First, it is a defensive, restrictive expression: here is atonement, and then someone wants to limit it. The notion of limiting something as glorious as the Atonement is intrinsically offensive. Second, even when inspected more coolly, “limited atonement” is objectively misleading. Every view of the Atonement “limits” it in some way, save for the view of the unqualified universalist. For example, the Arminian limits the Atonement by regarding it as merely potential for everyone; the Calvinist regards the Atonement as definite and effective (i.e., those for whom Christ died will certainly be saved), but limits this effectiveness to the elect; the Amyraldian limits the Atonement in much the same way as they Arminian, even though the undergirding structures are different.
It may be less prejudicial, therefore, to distinguish general atonement and definite atonement, rather than unlimited atonement and limited atonement. The Arminian (and the Amyraldian, whom I shall lump together for the sake of this discussion) holds that the Atonement is general, i.e., sufficient for all, available to all, on condition of faith; the Calvinist holds that the Atonement is definite, i.e., intended by God to be effective for the elect.
At least part of the argument in favor of definite atonement runs as follows. Let us grant, for the sake of argument, the truth of election. [Footnote 1: If someone denies unconditional election, as an informed Arminian (but not an Amyraldian) would, most Calvinists would want to start further back.] That is one point where this discussion intersects with what was said in the third chapter about God’s sovereignty and his electing love. In that case the question may be framed in this way: When God sent his Son to the cross, did he think of the effect of the cross with respect to his elect differently from the way he thought of the effect of the cross with respect to all others? If one answers negatively, it is very difficult to see that one is really holding to a doctrine of election at all; if one answers positively, then one has veered toward some notion of definite atonement. The definiteness of the Atonement turns rather more on God’s intent in Christ’s cross work than in the mere extent of its significance.
But the issue is not merely one of logic dependent on election. Those who defend definite atonement cite texts. Jesus will save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21) – not everyone. Christ gave himself “for us,” i.e., for us the people of the new covenant (Tit. 2:14), “to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” Moreover, in his death Christ did not merely make adequate provision for the elect, but he actually achieved the desired result (Rom. 5:6-10; Eph. 2:15-16). The Son of Man came to give his life a ransom “for many” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45; cf. Isa. 53:10-12). Christ “loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25).
The Arminian, however, responds that there are simply too many texts on the other side of the issue. God so loved the world that he gave his Son (John 3:16). Clever exegetical devices that make “the world” a label for referring to the elect are not very convincing. Christ Jesus is the propitiation “for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). And much more of the same.
So how shall we forge ahead? The arguments marshaled on both sides are of course more numerous and more sophisticated than I have indicated in this thumbnail sketch. But recall for a moment the outline I provided in the first chapter on the various ways the Bible speaks about the love of God: (1) God’s intra-Trinitarian love, (2) God’s love displayed in his providential care, (3) God’s yearning warning and invitation to all human beings as he invites and commands them to repent and believe, (4) God’s special love towards the elect, and (5) God’s conditional love toward his covenant people as he speaks in the language of discipline. I indicated that if you absolutize any one of these ways in which the Bible speaks of the love of God, you will generate a false system that squeezes out other important things the Bible says, thus finally distorting your vision of God.
In this case, if we adopt the fourth of these ways of talking about God’s love (viz. God’s particular and effective love toward the elect), and insist that this is the only way the Bible speaks of the love of God, then definite atonement is exonerated, but at the cost of other texts that do not easily fit into this mold and at the expense of being unable to say that there is any sense in which God displays a loving, yearning, salvific stance toward the whole world. Further, there could then be no sense in which the Atonement is sufficient for all without exception. Alternatively, if you put all your theological eggs into the third basket and think of God’s love exclusively in terms of open invitation to all human beings, one has excluded not only definite atonement as a theological construct, but also a string of passages that, read most naturally, mean that Jesus Christ did die in some special way for his own people and that God with perfect knowledge of the elect saw Christ’s death with respect to the elect in a different way then he saw Christ’s death with respect to everyone else.
Surely it is best not to introduce disjunctions where God himself has not introduced them. Of one holds that the Atonement is sufficient for all and effective for the elect, then both sets of texts and concerns are accommodated. As far as I can see, a text such as 1 John 2:2 states something about the potential breadth of the Atonement. As I understand the historical context, the proto-gnostic opponents John was facing though of themselves as an ontological elite who enjoyed the inside track with God because of the special insight they had received. [Footnote 2: I have defended this as the background, at some length, in my forthcoming commentary on the Johannine Epistles in the New International Greek Testament Commentary (NIGTC).] But when Jesus Christ died, John rejoins, it was not for the sake of, say, the Jews only or, now, of some group, gnostic or otherwise, that sets itself up as intrinsically superior. Far from it. It was not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world. The context, then, understands this to mean something like “potentially for all without distinction” rather than “effectively for all without exception” – for in the latter case all without exception must surely be saved, and John does not suppose that will take place. This is in line, then, with passages that speak of God’s love in the third sense listed above. But it is difficult to see why that should rule out the fourth sense in the other passages.
In recent years I have tried to read both primary and secondary sources on the doctrine of the Atonement from Calvin on. [Footnote 3: One of the latest treatments is G. Michael Thomas, The extent of the Atonement: A Dilemma for Reformed Theology from Calvin to the Consensus (1536-1675), Paternoster Biblical and Theological Monographs (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997).] One of my most forceful impressions is that the categories of the debate gradually shift with time so as to force disjunction where a slightly different bit of question-framing would allow synthesis. Correcting this, I suggest, is one of the useful things we may accomplish from an adequate study of the love of God in holy Scripture. For God is a person. Surely it is unsurprising if the love that characterizes him as a person is manifest in a variety of ways toward other persons. But it is always love, for all that.
I argue, then, that both Arminians and Calvinists should rightly affirm that Christ died for all, in the sense that Christ’s death was sufficient for all and that Scripture portrays God as inviting, commanding, and desiring the salvation of all, out of love (in the third sense developed in the first chapter). Further, all Christians ought also to confess that, in a slightly different sense, Christ Jesus, in the intent of God, died effectively for the elect alone, in line with the way the Bible speaks of God’s special selecting love for the elect (in the fourth sense developed in the first chapter).
Pastorally, there are many important implications. I mention only two.
(1) This approach, I content, must surely come as a relief to young preachers in the Reformed tradition who hunger to preach the Gospel effectively but who do not know how far they can go in saying things such as “God loves you” to unbelievers. When I have preached or lectured in Reformed circles, I have often been asked the question, “Do you feel free to tell unbelievers that God loves them?” No doubt the question is put to me because I still do a fair bit of evangelism, and people want models. Historically, Reformed theology at its best has never been slow in evangelism. Ask George Whitefield, for instance, or virtually all the main lights in the Southern Baptist Convention until the end of the last century. From what I have already said, it is obvious that I have no hesitation in answering this question from young Reformed preachers affirmatively: Of course I tell the unconverted that God loves them.
Not for a moment am I suggesting that when one preaches evangelistically, one ought to retreat to passages of the third type (above), holding back on the fourth type until after a person is converted. There is something sleazy about that sort of approach. Certainly it is possible to preach evangelistically when dealing with a passage that explicitly teaches election. Spurgeon did this sort of thing regularly. But I am saying that, provided there is an honest commitment to preaching the whole counsel of God, preachers in the Reformed tradition should not hesitate for an instant to declare the love of God for a lost world, for lost individuals. The Bible’s ways of speaking about the love of God are comprehensive enough not only to permit this but to mandate it. [Footnote 4: Cf. somewhat similar reflections by Hywel R. Jones, “Is God Love?” in Banner of Truth Magazine 412 (January 1998), 10-16.]
(2) At the same time, to preserve the notion of particular redemption proves pastorally important for many reasons. If Christ died for all people with exactly the same intent, as measured on any axis, then it is surely impossible to avoid the conclusion that the ultimate distinguishing mark between those who are saved and those who are not is their own will. That is surely ground for boasting. This argument does not charge the Arminian with no understanding of grace. After all, the Arminian believes that the cross is the ground of the Christian’s acceptance before God; the choice to believe is not in any sense the ground. Still, this view of grace surely requires the conclusion that the ultimate distinction between the believer and the unbeliever lies, finally, in the human beings themselves. That entails an understanding of grace quite different, and in my view far more limited, than the view that traces the ultimate distinction back to the purposes of God, including his purposes in the cross. The pastoral implications are many and obvious.
Carson’s areas of expertise include biblical theology, the historical Jesus, postmodernism, pluralism, Greek grammar, Johannine theology, Pauline theology, and questions of suffering and evil. He has written books on free will and predestination from a generally compatibilist and Calvinist perspective. He is a member of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Evangelical Theological Society, the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, and the Institute for Biblical Research.
Dr. Carson and his wife, Joy, reside in Libertyville, Illinois. They have two children. In his spare time, Dr. Carson enjoys reading, hiking, and woodworking.