The doctrine of the Incarnation is important to Christianity. It reminds us that Jesus is both God and man. And this is important because it’s impossible to talk meaningfully about who Jesus is without talking about who He was and what He did. Around the turn of the century, James Denney, a professor at the United Free Church College in Glasgow, Scotland, discussed this matter:
Christ is the only person who can do this work for us. This is the deepest and most decisive thing we can know about him, and in answering the questions which it prompts we are starting from a basis in experience. There is a sense in which Christ confronts us as the reconciler. He is doing the will of God on our behalf, and we can only look on. We see him in judgment and the mercy of God in relation to our sins. His presence and work on earth are a divine gift, a divine visitation. He is the gift of God to men, not the offering of men to God, and God gives himself to us in and with him. We owe to him all that we call divine life. On the other hand, this divine visitation si made, and this divine life is imparted, through a life and work which are truly human. The presence and work of Jesus in the world, even the work of bearing sin, does not prompt us to define human and divine by contrast with each other: there is no suggestion of incongruity between them. Nevertheless, they are both there, ad the fact that they are both there justifies us in raising the question as to Jesus’ relation to god on the one hand, and to men on the other. 1
The Reason for the Incarnation
What is the function of the Incarnation in Christianity? A classic statement on why Jesus became man and its answer is found in Anslem of Canterbury (died 1109). Anslem’s theological masterpiece, Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Man?”) deals with the question of the Incarnation. Anslem answered this question that God became man in Christ because only one who was both God and man could achieve our salvation. The Incarnation—coming in the midst of a history of human sin—indicates that God has not abandoned us but rather loves and values us even in our fallen state.
Why Did God Put on Flesh?
The atonement is the reason God came as man. Consider these verses:
“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of me in the scroll of the book..”
“And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Jesus spoke of his coming suffering.
“And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.
“for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”
He linked the success of his mission to the crucifixion:
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
Also, at several places in John’s Gospel the crucifixion is spoken of as that vital “hour” for which Christ came (John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1).
The death of Jesus is also a major theme throughout the Old Testament: first, in regard to the meaning of the sacrifices (the meaning at the heart of the law); then in regard to the prophecies, which focused increasingly on the promise of a Coming Redeemer.
Isaiah 53 and other Old Testament texts speak of the suffering of the deliverer to come. Isaiah 53 and other Old Testament passages speak of the suffering of the deliver to come. In Galatians the apostle Paul teaches that even Abraham, who lived before both the law and prophets was saved by faith in Jesus (Gal. 3:8, 16). Furthermore, Jesus told the downcast disciples on the Emmaus Road that the Old Testament foretold His death and resurrection. Luke 24:25-27, “And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” In light of these texts and many others we can say that the atonement of Christ is a primary reason for the Incarnation. It is the explanation of the twofold nature and the focal point of the world and biblical history.
(In the next post, we will look further into the Incarnation-Atonement connection. Stay tuned!)
1 Denney, James, The Death of Christ, ed. R.V.G. Tasker (Chicago: Intervarsity Press, 1964).