The doctrine of the Incarnation is very important to Christianity. It reminds us that Jesus is both God and man, which makes it possible to speak meaningfully about who Jesus is and what He did. In the 19th century, James Denney, a professor at the United Free Church College in Glasgow, Scotland, wrote the following on this matter:
Christ is the only person who can do this work [salvation] 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 is 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, add 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’s theological masterpiece, Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Man?). This book deals with the question of the Incarnation. Anslem stated that God became man in Christ because only one who was both God and man could achieve our salvation. The Incarnation—Jesus taking on a fully human state—shows us 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:
- Hebrews 10:4-7: “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.”
- Hebrews 10:10: “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
- Matthew 1:21: “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, thus demonstrating his foreknowledge of the events.
- Mark 8:31: “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.”
- Mark 9:31: “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:
- John 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”
Also, in 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.
In Galatians, the Apostle Paul teaches that even Abraham, who lived before both the law and prophets, was saved by faith in the Lord [Jesus] (Galatians 3:8, 16). Furthermore, Jesus told the downcast disciples on the Emmaus Road that the Old Testament foretold His death and resurrection:
“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.” (Luke 24:25-27)
In light of these texts and many others we can acknowledge that the atonement of Christ is the primary reason for the Incarnation. It is the explanation of the twofold nature of Jesus and the focal point of the world and biblical history.
Is the doctrine of the atonement central to the Scriptures? Why must Jesus, the God-Man, be the one to provide salvation? In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin argues that this is how God has chosen to do it and, therefore, it is impertinent of us to ask if there could not be some other way. Salvation had to be achieved by God, for no one else could achieve it. Certainly men and women could not achieve it without Him, for we are the ones who have gotten ourselves into trouble in the first place! We have done so by our rebellion against God’s righteous law and just decrees. We have suffered the effects of sin to such a degree that our will is bound, and therefore we cannot even choose to please God, let alone actually please Him. If we are to be saved, only God has power to save, and must save us.
Remember These Gospel Truths
First, it is God who initiates salvation for man. If this is forgotten, it is easy to think of God as somehow remote from the atonement and therefore merely requiring it as some abstract price paid to satisfy His justice. In that view God appears disinterested, legalistic, and cruel. In actuality, God’s nature is characterized by love, and it is out of love that He planned and carried out the atonement. Through Jesus Christ, God Himself was satisfying His own justice. It’s easy to see why the Incarnation and the atonement must be considered together if each part is not to be distorted.
Secondly, there is no suggestion that human beings somehow placate the wrath of an angry God. Propitiation does refer to the placating of wrath, but it is not man who placates God. Rather it is God placating His own wrath so that His love might go out to embrace and fully save the repentant sinner. A proper recognition of the connection between the Incarnation and the atonement makes the Incarnation understandable. At the same time it eliminates the most common misunderstandings of (and objections to) Christ’s sacrifice of Himself as the means of salvation.
The divine Son, one of the three persons within the Trinity of the One God, is He through whom—from the beginning of the creation—the Father has revealed Himself to man (John 1:18). He took man’s nature upon Himself, and so became our representative. He offered Himself as a sacrifice in our stead, bearing our sin in His own body on the tree. He suffered, not only awful physical anguish, but also the unthinkable spiritual horror of becoming identified with the sin to which He was infinitely opposed. He thereby came under the curse of sin, so that for a time even His perfect fellowship with His Father was broken.
Thus God proclaimed His infinite abhorrence of sin by being willing Himself to suffer the cross in place of the guilty, in order that He might justly forgive us all. Thus the love of God found its perfect fulfillment because He did not hold back from even that utmost sacrifice, in order that we might be saved from eternal death, through what He endured. Finally it was possible for Him to be just and to justify the believer, because—as Lawgiver and as Substitute for the rebel race of man—He Himself had suffered the penalty of the broken law.
The Centrality of the Cross
There are several explanations that follow from the foundation we have built on the doctrine of the Incarnation. First, according to the Scriptures, Calvary is the center of Christianity. Many consider the Incarnation to be the most important thing. In other words, they consider God identifying Himself with man the most important, and consider the atonement as something like an afterthought. According to the Bible, the reason for the God-Man is that it required just such a person to die for our salvation. J.I. Packer said, “The crucial significance of the cradle at Bethlehem lies in its place in the sequence of steps down that led the Son of God to the cross of Calvary…and we do not understand it till we see it in this context.” To focus on the Incarnation apart from the cross leads to false sentimentality, and neglect of the horror and magnitude of human sin.
Second, if the death of Christ on the cross is the true meaning of the Incarnation, then there is no gospel without the cross. Christmas (or the birth of Jesus) by itself is no gospel. The life of Christ alone is also no gospel. Even the resurrection, important as it is in the total scheme of things, is no gospel by itself. The good news is not just that God became a man, nor that God has spoken to reveal a proper way of life to us; the good news is not even our great triumph over that great enemy we call death. Rather, the good news is that sin has been dealt with (the resurrection is proof of this); that Jesus has suffered its penalty for us as our representative, so that we might never have to suffer it, and therefore all who believe in Him can look forward to Heaven. The other biblical themes must be seen in this context, as we have already seen of the Incarnation. Emulation of Christ’s life and teaching is only possible to those who enter into a new relationship with God through faith in Jesus as their substitute. The resurrection is not merely a victory over death, but a proof that the atonement was a satisfactory atonement in the sight of the Father (Romans 4:25); and that death, the result of sin, is abolished on that basis.
Any gospel that talks merely of the Christ-event, meaning the Incarnation without the atonement, is a false gospel. Any gospel that speaks about the love of God without pointing out that His love led Him to pay the ultimate price for sin on the cross is a false gospel. The only true gospel is of the “One Mediator” (1st Timothy 2:5-6), who gave Himself for us.
Finally, just as there can be no gospel without the atonement as the reason for the Incarnation, so also there can be no Christian life without it. Without the atonement, the Incarnation becomes a kind of deification of the human and leads to arrogance and self-advancement. With the atonement, the true message of the life of Christ, and therefore of the life of the Christian man or woman, is humility and self-sacrifice for the obvious needs of others. The Christian life is not indifference to those who are hungry, sick, or suffering from some other lack. It is not contentment with our own abundance, neither the abundance of middle-class living with homes, cars, clothes, and vacations. Nor is it satisfaction with the abundance of education, or even the abundance of good churches, Bibles, biblical teaching, or Christian friends/acquaintances. Rather, it is the awareness that others lack these things and that we must therefore sacrifice many of our own interests in order to identify with them, and thus bring them increasingly into the abundance we enjoy.
Paul writing on the Incarnation in 2nd Corinthians 8:9 said, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Also in Philippians 2:5-11, he states, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” This is a strong reminder that we must emulate Christ in every way.
What Does the Bible Teach About the Incarnation?
Philippians 2:5-11 describes the ultimate example of humble service—Jesus left His throne and became like us in order to serve us. This passage is often referred to as the “hymn of Christ”. In these verses, Christ’s example of service is depicted through a stirring poem that traces His pre-existence, incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension to the right hand of God. Paul wrote this magnificent theology to encourage the Philippians to consider other people’s interests first (v.4). Jesus is the paradigm of genuine spiritual progress; not a self-aggrandizing struggle for supremacy, but a deep love for God and neighbor shown in deeds of service. Verses 6-11 have some clear indications of poetic structure, leading some to believe that this is a pre-Pauline hymn adapted by Paul. It is just as likely, however, that Paul composed the hymn for this setting. In view of the myriad theological questions that arise in these verses, it is critical to keep two things in mind: 1) these verses were written not to spur Christians to theological debate, but to encourage greater humility and love; and 2) the summary of Christ’s life and ministry found here is not unique to the book of Philippians. The same themes are evident throughout the entire New Testament.
Prior to the Incarnation, Christ was in the form of God (Greek: morphe theou). Despite the assertions of some scholars to the contrary, this most naturally refers to the “pre-existence” of Christ—He, the eternal Son, was there with the Father (John 1:1; 17:5, 24) before He was born in Bethlehem. “Form” here means the true and exact nature of something, or possessing the characteristics and qualities of something. Therefore having the “form of God” is roughly equivalent to having equality with God (isa theo), and it is directly in contrast with having the “form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7).
The Son of God is and Always Has Been God
Form could also be a reference to Christ being the ultimate image of God, “the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). It might also refer to the fact that He is the visible expression of God’s invisible glory (Colossians 1:15). Remarkably, Christ did not imagine that having “equality with God” (which He already possessed) should lead Him to hold onto His privileges. It was not something to be grasped, to be kept and exploited for His own benefit or advantage. Instead, He had a mind-set of service. “Christ did not please himself” (Romans 15:3). In humility, He counted the interests of others as more significant than His own (Philippians 2:3-4).
“Made Himself Nothing”
“Made himself nothing” has occasioned much controversy. The Greek word keno can mean “empty”, “pour out”, or also (metaphorically) “give up status and privilege”. Does this mean that Christ temporarily relinquished His divine attributes during His earthly ministry? No. The theory of Christ’s kenosis or “self-emptying” is not in accord with the context of Philippians or with early Christian theology. Paul is not saying that Christ became less than God or “gave up” some divine attributes; he is not even commenting directly on the question of whether Jesus was fully omnipotent or omniscient during His time on earth. Nor is he saying that Christ ever gave up on being “in the form of God”. Rather, Paul is stressing that Christ, who had all the privileges that were rightly His as King of the universe, gave them up to become an ordinary Jewish baby, bound for the cross. Christ “made himself nothing” by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. While He had every right to stay comfortably where He was (in a position of supreme power and authority) His love drove Him to a chosen position of weakness for the sake of sinful man (2nd Corinthians 8:9: “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich”). In other words, the “emptying” consisted of His becoming human, not of His giving up any part of His true deity.
It is remarkable enough that God the Son would take on human form (Greek: schema, “outward appearance, form shape”, a different term from morphe, used in vv.6-7 for “form of God” and “form of a servant”), and thus enter into all the mess of a fallen world. But Jesus went much farther than just condescension, He also became obedient even to the point of death, even death on a cross (Romans 5:19). Crucifixion was not simply a convenient way of executing prisoners, it was the ultimate indignity, a public statement by Rome which said that the crucified one was beyond contempt. The excruciating physical pain was magnified by the degradation and humiliation. No other form of death, no matter how prolonged or physically agonizing, could match crucifixion as an absolute destruction of the person (Matthew 27:35). The cross was the ultimate counterpoint to the divine majesty of the pre-existent Christ, and thus was the ultimate expression of Christ’s obedience to the Father.
Jesus’ humiliation and humble service became the foundation for His exaltation. By humbling Himself on the cross out of love, He demonstrates that He truly shared the divine nature of God, who is love (1st John 4:8). For this reason God raised Him to life and highly exalted Him, entrusting Him with the rule of the cosmos and giving Him the name that is above every name. In the Septuagint, God’s personal name is translated as “Kyrios”, which means “Lord”, which is the name specified in Philippians 2:11. Paul indicates that the eternal Son of God received a status and authority (Matthew 28:18; Acts 2:33) that had not been His before He became incarnate as both God and man. The fact that Jesus received this name is a sign that He exercises His messianic authority in the name of Yahweh.
While Christ now bears the divine name Yahweh (Hebrew for “Lord”), He is still worshiped with His human name: Jesus. The astounding union of Jesus’ divine and human natures is reinforced by the allusion to Isaiah 45:23 in the words, “every knee should bow and every tongue confess”, which refers exclusively to Yahweh (Isaiah 45:24). The fact that these words can now be applied to God’s messianic agent—Jesus Christ the Lord—shows that Jesus is fully divine. But the worship of Jesus as Lord is not the final word of the hymn. Jesus’ exaltation also results in the glory of God the Father. This identical pattern is found in 1st Corinthians 15:23-28, when God gives Jesus messianic dominion over all creation and declares that everyone will one day rightly give praise to Him as their Lord. In this passage, we learn that when Jesus’ Kingdom reaches its fullness, He does not keep the glory for Himself. Instead it says, “The Son himself will also be subjected to him who puts all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all…” (1st Corinthians 15:28). Even in His exaltation, Jesus remains the model of loving service to God.
One Last Glance
Throughout this article, we have examined what the Bible says about the Incarnation and what influential theologians have said about it. The Incarnation is vital to a robust understanding of the gospel as we have seen. In the Incarnation, God became a man and was born from a virgin in Bethlehem. Above, all the Incarnation proves to man that God is not disinterested in the affairs of sinners, but rather He came to deal with the problem of man’s sin. The doctrine of the Incarnation demonstrates that God doesn’t simply “talk a big game”, but actually offers a solution to man’s problem of sin. God, in His love, sent Jesus into the world. Jesus lived a sinless life as a man, all the while experiencing all the temptations that mankind faces. And yet, He lived a sinless life in the midst of people who constantly criticized Him, while begging Him for miracles. The people during Christ’s ministry spit in His face and ridiculed Him, but all the while Jesus demonstrated that He cared for people by teaching, healing, setting the captives free, raising the dead, and so much more. All of this disproves the modern notion that God is not interested in man. By becoming a man, God demonstrated that He was interested in mankind through His own willingness to step into our time and space and die for our sins. So when we consider the doctrine of Incarnation, let us worship the God of the Bible—the Creator of all and the Redeemer of sinners who alone is worthy of all praise, honor, and glory.
1 Denney, James, The Death of Christ, ed. R.V.G. Tasker (Chicago: Intervarsity Press, 1964).