Future of Humans becoming gods vs. Past of God becoming Man

Hard cash of science vs. Historical certainty of Faith

Harari vs Lewis

Perhaps, for more people today who have lost the attraction of faith, the promise of hard cash is much more alluring. But I ask the men and women of faith to go back to the certain past of the God-Man in the Manger, the Teacher of Galilee, the Dying Figure of Calvary, and the Immortal from the Empty Tomb, to steady their faith. Do not be beholden to the promise of man-made immortality, much less, divinity backed by hard cash.

 

The notable historian, Yuval Noah Harari, in his celebrated book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, has proposed the tantalizing prospect of humanity being transformed into deity through science. Even now, there are active scientific efforts to extend longevity, even to the point of immortality. He noted,

In 2012 Kurzweil was appointed a director of engineering at Google, and a year later Google launched a sub-company called Calico whose stated mission is ‘to solve death.’ In 2009 Google appointed another immortality true-believer, Bill Maris, to preside over the Google Ventures investment fund. In a January 2015 interview, Maris said, ‘if you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500, the answer is yes.’ Maris backs up his brave words with a lot of hard cash.[1]

In a later chapter, Harari makes this bold pronouncement:

The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhism and Daoism. Whereas traditionally the great cosmic plan gave meaning to the life of humans, humanism reverses the roles and expects the experiences of humans to give meaning to the cosmos. According to humanism, humans must draw from within their inner experiences not only the meaning of their own lives, but also the meaning of the entire universe. This is the primary commandment humanism has given us: create meaning for a meaningless world.[2]

This is a breath-taking vision of humans becoming gods to determine their own meaning in an existence that they have rendered meaningless with their death of god theology. This is an echo of Friedrich Nietzsche in his prospect of the emerging Superman in his Thus Spoke Zarathustra. His vision of the Superman was also preceded by his pronouncement that god-is-dead.

Against this vision, all prospective and visionary, is a reality of history that millions remember in this season – the becoming-man of the Almighty God. CS Lewis calls this the miracle of all miracles: The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this.[3]

 CS Lewis points out further the grandness of this miracle, and its human inexplicability ultimately:

It is easier to argue, on historical grounds, that the incarnation actually occurred than to show, on philosophical grounds, the probability of its occurrence. This historical difficulty of giving for the life, sayings and influence, of Jesus any explanation that is not harder than the Christian explanation, is very great. The discrepancy between the depth and sanity and (let me add) shrewdness of His moral teaching and the rampant megalomania which must lie behind his theological teaching unless he is indeed God, has never been satisfactorily got over.[4]

Perhaps, for more people today who have lost the attraction of faith, the promise of hard cash is much more alluring. But I ask the men and women of faith to go back to the certain past of the God-Man in the Manger, the Teacher of Galilee, the Dying Figure of Calvary, and the Immortal from the Empty Tomb, to steady their faith. Do not be beholden to the promise of man-made immortality, much less, divinity backed by hard cash.

What Jesus has done in history can reach out to every sinner.  Because out of this gift of God, in the language of John Piper, “grace towards sinners is the freest of all God’s acts.”[5]

Jesus, my God-Man, Lord and Savior, is my Eternal Life.

[1] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Harper): 24

[2] Ibid, p. 223

[3] CS Lewis, Miracles; cited in A Year with CS Lewis: Daily Reading from His Classic Works (HarperOne): 391

[4] Op. cit.

[5] John Piper, Future Grace: The Purifying Power of the Promises of God (Multnomah): 76

 

Joy to the World, Psalm 98, & Isaac Watts

“Joy to the world!: Yes! But also, “He rules the world with truth and grace!”

Joy to the world

If we profess to welcome the birth of Jesus in history, we do well to sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” But then, it will only be true to those who welcome Him with, “Let earth receive her King!” and “He rules the world with truth and grace!”

 

It was uplifting to read the third part of Albert Mohler’s The Briefing for Friday, December 20, 2019. He makes reference to “one of the most familiar of all the Christmas carols that turns out actually, to perhaps the puzzlement of many Christians, not to have been intended as a Christmas carol at all. I’m talking about the song by Isaac Watts that we call ‘Joy To The World.’ Watts led in the development of hymns in the English tradition, drawing many of his hymn texts directly from the Psalms. The song we know as ‘Joy To The World’ is actually based upon the 98th Psalm, which declares creation’s joy when the Lord comes to rule and to judge.” [1]

Oh sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.

The LORD has made known his salvation;

he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations. (Psalm 98:1-2 ESV)

The NIV Faithflife Study Bible explains this Psalm:

In this Psalm of Yahweh’s kingship (or enthronement) the psalmist calls Israel to sing a new and joyful song to Yahweh because he has helped them. He then extends that call to all the people of the earth and eventually the earth itself (vs 4-6). The psalmist concludes by describing how all of creation joyfully anticipates the full establishment of Yahweh’s righteous reign.[2]

The call for a response of a new song extends to all of the nations, because ultimately, what God will do in saving act for His people Israel will also be the saving of the nations of the world.

Isaac Watts would have had enough insight to know that this will not be accomplished in the first coming of Christ as a baby in a manger. When this song first appeared in Watts’ hymnal in 1719, it was originally titled “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom.” Its ultimate fulfilment is in the Second Coming of Christ. It is then that what happened on the Cross as atonement will finally reap its harvest. And the fruits will be drawn from “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10 ESV)

This is a Psalm of Messianic victory. Thus, it is a Psalm of mission to the world and its ultimate discipleship of all nations.

So, is “Joy to the World” a wrong Christmas song to sing? It is a right song of welcome to the Saviour who first came as a baby in a manger. For even in welcome of that event, the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Lk. 2:14 ESV). With the birth of the Messiah, the shalom (peace) of redemption began to make its presence among sinners on earth. But the formal redemption is yet on the cross and its victory achieved in the resurrection. Finally, its harvest is in the second coming of Christ. This is what Psalm 98 ultimately celebrates.

If we profess to welcome the birth of Jesus in history, we do well to sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” But then, it will only be true to those who welcome Him with, “Let earth receive her King!” and “He rules the world with truth and grace!”

That Isaac Watts was more focused on the Cross than on the manger, another of his hymns reveals:

I’m not ashamed to own my Lord,

Or to defend His cause;

Maintain the honour of His Word,

The glory of His cross.

[1] Albert Mohler, The Briefieng; December 20, 2019; https://albertmohler.com/2019/12/20/briefing-12-20-19

[2] NIV Faithlife Study Bible: (Zondervan) 923

Herod the Great and Jesus’ Birth

Jesus’ birth as intersection of the mighty powerful and the humbled Almighty

Herod the Great

The day has come in many places when speaking the Word of God will constitute a hate-crime against the new purveyors of morality. The threat is looming against religious liberty. People are threatened not to speak for Jesus and His claims, or a prosecution of Herodian proportion might just take place.

 

Of all the characters of the birth narrative of Jesus, none is more notorious than King Herod. The Herodian dynasty was begun by Antipater. He was appointed by Julius Caesar as procurator of Judea in 47 BC. His son Herod exceeded him in infamy. As the patriarch of the other Herod’s in the biblical narrative, the first Herod came to be known as Herod the Great. His greatness lies in his great building projects. But the Herods, being Edomites, and loyal to Rome, were never fully accepted by their Jewish subjects.

Herod’s place in the birth narrative of Jesus is to be that King who took the coming of Jesus as a rival kingly claim. That the coming Son of God has a kingly claim is true enough, and is thus announced in the counterpart birth narrative of Luke.

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. (Lk. 1:32-33 NKJ)

Herod’s blunder was to misunderstand this as a challenge to his earthly kingdom and dynasty. He did not pull any restraint to make sure of the extermination of the rival king. It will become an icon of terror in biblical history – the infamous massacre of infants in Bethlehem and neighboring towns. A stark contrast is intended by this narrative that exposes the sinfulness of man and the kingdom mission of Jesus. There certainly was a guiding star that guided the magi to the place of Jesus – but it was no lantern ornamentation. Children had a significant role – but not to receive gifts, but to suffer martyrdom. The advent of Jesus was only a celebration insofar as the sin of the mighty is exposed, and the humbling down of the Son of God is duly acknowledged. The humiliation of the Son of God exposed the sinfulness of the mighty in the world.

 Humiliation in the last sentence is used in its theological sense of the becoming-low of the Son of God from His highest position. He became Man, and in thus becoming man, He shared the nature of man-the-sinner, and be a fit substitute for man’s sinful standing. This without Jesus sharing in human sin at all.

The Sin of the Mighty

Thus, the first Advent of Christ is a story of the heinous sin of the mighty on earth represented by Herod. He could not accept the implication of the coming of Jesus. As the prophecy was read to him, based on Micah 5:2, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; For out of you shall come a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel.” (Matt. 2:6 NKJ), he could only draw one conclusion – that this Jesus is out to seize his rule.

He first chose to deceive by pretending to worship the Child. When an angel exposed this subterfuge to the wise men, Herod shred off all scheme and instigated a cruel massacre.

It is easy to distance oneself from such cruelty of Herod. But the same principle lies in the scheme of professing to worship Jesus, while yet refusing His Lordship in one’s life. Is this not rampant in this season when everything is done on the pretext of the birth of Jesus? Every indulgence; ostentation; lavishness – all to celebrate the One born in a manger, and prosecuted by the powerful!

But Jesus is not interested in the celebration of His birth. His call is for men and women to bow down for the reason He was born – to become King of a kingdom that will never be destroyed. The best way to remember the birth of Jesus is to repent of sin, and to cast oneself under His supreme Lordship. This is conversion by faith and repentance.

The most powerful man in Judea who made himself famous by his built structures is remembered today with disdain. His sin was exposed. And the coming of Jesus today through the preaching of the Word still has the same effect of exposing sin. You have the choice of justifying it in Herod’s way. Or repent of it and be saved.

The Claim of the Almighty

The name of Jesus is still under persecution today. No longer by a procurator in Judea. The persecutor is no longer known as Herod the Great. But they are still among the great of this world. They belong to the powerful – in institutions of authority and wealth; in parties of power; among instigators of the sexual revolution that will impose the LGBTQ as the new normal. The noble tradition of believing in God who has a weight in social directions is in retreat against the onslaught of erotic liberty.

The day has come in many places when speaking the Word of God will constitute a hate-crime against the new purveyors of morality. The threat is looming against religious liberty. People are threatened not to speak for Jesus and His claims, or a prosecution of Herodian proportion might just take place.

But the claim of Jesus from the time of the Annunciation of the angel has not changed. He came to inaugurate a kingdom. That kingdom has been inaugurated when He rose from the dead; He sat on His throne beside the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:36; Heb 8:1). The Herodian dynasty is long gone. Even the Roman Empire. But Jesus is still King and someday, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!” (Rev. 11:15 NKJ).

Do not make this Christmas just a time of celebration – of eating, indulging, decorating, and exchanging gifts; or kris-kringle and Santa Claus.

Jesus came to claim a kingship that is now His. Herod did not succeed denying Him that kingship. Do not fail to bow down to the King of Kings – the Lord Jesus Christ!

Blessed Advent Reflection to all!

Freedom of the Press

Press Freedom quote

It is the press that has the mandate of not only informing the people of events in society, but also to check official announcements and policies.  This it does by having competent people who check the facts and report on views other than that of government.  In the course of doing this, as human beings they make mistakes.  News can be faked by irresponsible journalists.  There are laws that the press may not violate in the name of freedom of expression.  Defamation law covers false statements made in writing that destroy the reputation of the innocent.

 But this is not a reason to muzzle the press.

 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte imposed a ban of coverage on Rappler News, a news social media sharply critical of the President.  More than ten cases were filed against Maria Ressa, Rappler’s chief editor and her staff – cases that many perceive are at the instigation of the president.  The President threatened to suspend the writ of habeas corpus to arrest his media critics.  The ban on Rappler has been in effect for fourteen months when its correspondents filed a petition to the Supreme Court seeking to end the ban.  The petition argues that the coverage ban violates constitutional guarantees of a free press, free speech, equal protection and due process.  This is now a significant press freedom test case.  Should Christians care?

Christians should very much care.  Intimately linked with freedom of the press is freedom of religion.  Because Christians care very much about the latter, they should care as much for freedom of the press.  The battle for freedom of religion was a long and bloody history.  The American Pilgrim Fathers crossed the Atlantic to escape persecution in England.  They founded New England in America.  America became the birthplace of the concept of separation of church and state.  It was the Baptists who had led in the advocacy, and had suffered most in the cause, of freedom of religion.  18th century Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller summarizes the Baptist position thus,

In former times liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment in matters of religion were denied both by ecclesiastics and politicians.  Of late they have been very generally admitted, and much has been said and written in their defense… The right of private judgment in matters of religion appears to be the right which every individual has to think and to avow his thoughts on those subjects, without being liable to any civil inconvenience on that account.[1]

Freedom of religion can only be sustained where there is freedom to express oneself.  This is where freedom of the press matters most.  It is the press that has the mandate of not only informing the people of events in society, but also to check official announcements and policies.  This it does by having competent people who check the facts and report on views other than those of government.  In the course of doing this, as human beings they make mistakes.  News can be faked by irresponsible journalists.  There are laws that the press may not violate in the name of freedom of expression.  Defamation law covers false statements made in writing that destroy the reputation of the innocent.

But this is not a reason to muzzle the press.  There is a 1964 landmark legal case in the US Supreme Court known as New York Times vs. Sullivan.  The New York Times published a report that ultimately was proved false.  L.B. Sullivan, the city official who was the aggrieved party, sued the newspaper and a local jury awarded him a big sum.  It was raised to the Supreme Court which reversed the local court.  It established that even false statements by the press should not be liable to prosecution, if the statement is made in good faith, and not out of malice.  Establishing malice made it almost unprosecutable.  But this right to make a false statement in good faith must be protected if the basic right of public discourse is to have the “breathing space” it needs to survive.[2]

This is similar to freedom of religion in that even those who teach false doctrines should have protected freedom to do so.  Even as Christians detest what is taught, we counter it with the truth of the Scriptures.  But to prosecute religious teachers because their teachings are deemed as damning will only come back later to the teachers of the truth.  False teachers will have their judgment from God.  But let society have freedom for all religious discourses.  That way, truth will have its converts.

I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Tim. 2:1-4)

Using the enormous power of the presidency to harass his critics in the press is demeaning of the President and of his office.  He does not have the principled stance of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, who said: Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.

These are trying times to endure a presidency that has lost decency.

[1] The Works of Andrew Fuller (First published in 1841; Banner of Truth edition, 2007): 829

[2] Michael Trachtman, The Supremes’ Greatest Hits: The 37 Supreme Court Cases That Most Directly Affect Your Life: 162-165

Providence – not Superstition – for 2019

Providence

Trust is believing that ultimately God’s purpose will prevail – even amidst the apparent triumph of evil and when good seems so overwhelmed.  God is working out His purpose.  Even when we are hard of seeing and hearing how it happens, it will have its victory.

 

It is that time of the year – the old one concluding, and a new one beginning – when superstitions and pseudo-sciences are at their peak of influence and following.  Polka dots and round fruits to represent wealth.  Preference for pasta to symbolize long life.  Feng Shui to manipulate good energies.  Zodiac and Chinese calendar-cycle to divine the secret charm of the coming year.  The options are numerous.  Each is an exercise in false hope.

A well-instructed Christian will not give credence to any of these superstitions.  It is not because the Christian’s alternative is fatalism.  A what-will-be-will-be attitude is not Christian at all.  Certainly, it is not according to the Word of God.  A Christian is as much concerned as anyone else for the new year’s prospect.  He has his expectations.  He hopes.  But he holds steadfastly to something more certain than superstitions.  It is called providence of God.

Concept of Providence

It is not a word that is commonly used in the English Bible.  In the KJV, it only occurs once (Acts 24:2), and there it only means the foresight of Felix’s leadership.  The one time it occurs in the NIV is closer to our sense, in Job 10:12, You gave me life and showed me kindness, and in your providence watched over my spirit. But while sparse in occurrence, the idea pervades biblical thought.  In systematic theology, providence is put under the category of the works of God – after His predestination and creation.  Where predestination is the plan of God from eternity past (also called decrees), providence is the execution of the plan in time and history.  In the simple assertion of Reformed theologian Hermann Bavinck, “according to Scripture and the church’s confession, providence is that act of God by which from moment to moment he preserves and governs all things.” [ Hermann Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 2: p. 596 ]

The pervasive “all things” in the coverage of providence is intended to spare nothing from God’s governing control.  All created things are in the two modes of either remaining in the same state, or changing into another state – in philosophical language, being or becoming.  Belief in providence holds that all states of being remain as they are by the preservation and provision of God.  As Nehemiah exalts God: You alone are the LORD; You have made heaven, The heaven of heavens, with all their host, The earth and everything on it, The seas and all that is in them, And You preserve them all (Neh 9:6).  Even the changes, the becoming, are directed by the purpose of God.  In contrast with the pagan deities, the prophet asserts, The LORD of hosts has sworn, saying, “Surely, as I have thought, so it shall come to pass, And as I have purposed, so it shall stand…”  For the LORD of hosts has purposed, And who will annul it? His hand is stretched out, And who will turn it back? (Isa 14:24, 27).

Theologian GC Berkouwer summarizes, “All things, having once proceeded from God’s creative hand, are still utterly dependent upon his omnipresent power… all things are indebted for their existence to the preserving act of God; let God cease to act and the universe will cease to exist.  This concept of sustenance opposes every claimant to absoluteness in this world – gods and idols, and any who would autonomously and sovereignly pretend to a self-sufficient existence.” [ G.C. Berkouwer, The Providence of God: p. 50 ]

The assertion of Scriptures is as emphatic when it pertains to God’s providence in the affairs of mankind – human actions and intentions.  This happens without any infringement of man’s moral accountability and responsibility.  When men do the evil, the culpability is theirs; but even the evil does not happen outside God’s providential purpose.  Sometimes, God restrains the evil (Gen 20:6); and at other times, He lets loose man’s own evil devices, So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices (Psa 81:12).  In this, humans remain ‘free agents’ in their actions.  Their will is not coerced contrary to their nature.  Providence must not be stretched to the denial of human freedom and moral responsibility.  In the language of the Confession, “God hath endued the will of man with that natural liberty and power of acting upon choice, that it is neither forced, nor by any necessity of nature determined to do good or evil.” [ 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith: IX. 1 ].

Use of Providence

How are we to use the concept of God’s providence in facing the prospect of 2019?

It is a corrective to the heavy emphasis on the miraculous and spectacular.  A dominant faction in Christian circles has inculcated the expectation that God’s acts of power are to be seen in the miraculous and supernatural.  Its effect is the impoverishment of faith – reducing it to a magical formula that is more pagan than Christian.  Many are blind to the wonder of providence that is often hidden in ordinary motions – human or natural.  The 19th century English preacher, CH Spurgeon, puts it eloquently:

Everything is in the Divine purpose, and has been ordered by Divine wisdom. All the events of your life – the greater, certainly; and the smaller, with equal certainty.  It is impossible to draw a line in Providence and say this is arranged by Providence and that is not. God’s Providence takes everything in its sweep- all that happens. Divine Providence determines not only the movement of a star, but the blowing of a grain of dust along the public road. God’s Providence knows nothing of things so little as to be beneath its notice, nothing of things so great as to be beyond its control. Nothing is too little or too great for God to rule and overrule. [ Spurgeon’s Sermons “The Hairs of Your Head Numbered” #2005. Mt.10:30 ]

It is an inspiration to the real challenge of faith – to trust in God.  In his book, Trusting God, author Jerry Bridges makes an impressive comparison between obeying God’s commands and trusting God in our circumstances.

Why is it easier to obey God than to trust Him?  Because obeying God makes sense to us… But the circumstances we often find ourselves in defy explanation.  When unexpected situations arise that appear unjust, irrational, or even dreadful, we feel confused and frustrated.  And before long we begin to doubt God’s concern for us and His control of our lives. [ Jerry Bridges, Trusting God: ch 1; from the back cover ]

Trust is believing that ultimately God’s purpose will prevail – even amidst the apparent triumph of evil and when good seems so overwhelmed.  God is working out His purpose.  Even when we are hard of seeing and hearing how it happens, it will have its victory.  As Stanley Grenz confidently assures,

Despite appearances to the contrary, the world historical process is going somewhere.  God is directing human affairs to the final revelation of his sovereignty and reordering of the universe in the new heaven and the new earth.  In his time, God will act decisively.  And even now he invites us to orient our lives around his ongoing program.  By means of allegiance to God revealed in Christ we can exchange the disorder of life for a new order marked by community or fellowship with God, others, and all creation. [ Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God: 123 ]

Believing in God’s providence, we can own the language of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563):

Q28:  What does it profit us to know that God created and by His providence upholds all things?  

A28:  That we may be patient in adversity, thankful in prosperity, and for what is future have good confidence in our faithful God and Father, that no creature shall separate us from His love, since all creatures are so in His hand, that without His will they cannot so much as move.

What a comfort the providence of God truly is!  May it be the foundation of your hope in 2019.  A God-blessed New Year to all!

Born of a Virgin? Why?

Isa 7 14

The wonder is not how finite man is made into a divine; rather, it is the infinitely divine becoming genuinely human – new-born infant!

 

In what could be the earliest confessional statement of the Church outside of the New Testament, the Apostles’ Creed affirms of Jesus in its third line, Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. This is a confession that goes back to the two birth narratives of the Gospels – Matthew 1:18 – 23 and Luke 1:26 – 38. All of orthodox Christendom affirms the virgin conception of Jesus. Why is this significant?

Roman Catholics use this as a basis for the exaltation of Mary in their hierarchy of saints. One must not dismiss this lightly. The recognition of Mary is pronounced in the Lukan narrative. The angel called her, from the well-known KJV translation, blessed among women! (Luke 1:28). Mary herself, conscious of the implication of her favor, said: behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed (1:48).

What must be rejected is the excess to which this Mary-exaltation in the Roman Church was carried. Dogmas developed that gave Mary a position contrary to her original status as a humble maid of Galilee. This includes Pope Pius IX’s declaration of Immaculate Conception as church dogma in 1854. This certainly is against Mary’s confession of God as my Saviour in the Magnificat (Luke 1:47) – owning her need of salvation as herself a sinner. She acknowledges herself as beneficiary of God’s mercy (1:50). One should also deny the tradition of perpetual virginity – to which even some reformers subscribed. It is expressive more of the medieval disdain for sexual union than a serious theological deduction. The time-reference of Matthew should be significant: Joseph took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son (Matthew 1:24, 25). Mary’s role as a dutiful wife would have normalized after the birth of Jesus.

So why was Jesus conceived of a virgin? Jesus’ was not the only miraculous birth. Even Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ birth was preceded by the account of the conception of Elizabeth leading to the birth of John the Baptist. But all other such miraculous births were of married women who could not be pregnant, or of mothers past their pregnancy age. Such was Sarah’s birth of Isaac. The case of Jesus was unique as the only case of conception by one who was a virgin. Was it necessary? For what?

Continuity and Discontinuity

As the Son of God was to become Man, his humanity must be continuous with the humanity that then existed. He cannot be like Adam, created from the dust, without human parentage. The becoming-Man of the Son of God was to be an act of sharing with flesh and blood (Heb 2:14). Thus, the conceiving by Mary gave him his human substance. The begetting was by the Holy Spirit, but all the conceiving was by Mary. Everything in the process of conception followed the natural human development. This is a marvel in itself. God became everything that humanity undergoes from embryonic to fetal development in the womb! He was, in every way of his human nature, born of a woman (Gal 4:4).

Ancient art has attempted a variety of ways to portray Jesus as super-human: the child with a halo on the manger! Even Martin Luther’s carol says, the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes! Why not? The wonder is not how finite man is made into a divine; rather, it is the infinitely divine becoming genuinely human – new-born infant!

While in every way human, this God-made-man is virgin-conceived, and thus, without a human father. As theologian, GC Berkouwer, puts it:

The human procreation of a human life is not the way of incarnation. At the end of such a way we shall not find Jesus Christ. In analogy with what Jesus says concerning Abraham, we might summarize the relationship with: before Joseph was, Christ is. This is no biological explanation nor does it eliminate the fatherhood, but it recognizes the uniqueness of this birth, which may also be described as a coming into the world. [1]

Lutheran theologian, Robert Duncan Culver, adds his own take:

The virgin birth provides a reasonable explanation for how a divine Being who is without beginning might take to himself a human nature without the procreation of a new person. [2]

In being born, Jesus is like any human being. In being born of a virgin, Jesus is not like any human being. He is continuous with humanity, but at the same time, is the Inaugurator of a new humanity.

Humanity without Corruption

The virgin conception of Jesus spares him of that corporate connection with Adam that grounds the imputation of sin. This seems to be the point of contrast in 1 Corinthians 15:47, The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. Both the first Adam and Jesus, as second Adam, are possessor of the divine Image of their respective humanity. In contrast with the first Adam’s humanity as earthly, Jesus’ is heavenly. The latter’s divine image is not just inherited from Adam, but all his own as a man from heaven. While it has nothing explicit to say of the virgin birth, it does corroborate the idea of a different origin of Jesus’ humanity. Says Gordon Fee,

Paul urges that since believers have borne the image of the man of earth, they should also now (because they will) bear the image of the man of heaven. The christological significance of this text is its certain emphasis in context on Christ’s humanity and thus on his being the second Adam, the one who has most truly borne the divine image in his human life. [3]

This significance of the virgin birth is underscored by Reformed theologian, John Murray,

The Son of God was sent in that very nature which in every other instance is sinful. The Son came by a mode that was supernatural, by a mode consonant with his supernatural person, and by a mode that guaranteed his sinlessness. But he came in a way that preserved fully his organic and genetic connection with us men who are all sinful flesh. He was made of the seed of David, of a seed that was sinful, and of a woman who was herself sinful and afflicted with the depravity incident to fallen humanity. He came into the closest relation to sinful humanity that it was possible for him to come without thereby becoming himself sinful. This is the incarnation that actually occurred. [4]

William GT Shedd affirms,

The doctrine of the sinlessness of Christ is, thus, necessarily connected with the doctrine of the miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit. The one stands or falls with the other. [5]

Test of Supernatural Presupposition

If for nothing else, belief in the virgin conception of Jesus tests the supernatural commitment of any theologian. J Gresham Machen spent his life and ministry contending against the Liberals of his day. He saw in the issue of the virgin birth a test case.

It is perfectly clear that the New Testament teaches the virgin birth of Christ; about that there can be no manner of doubt. There is no serious question as to the interpretation of the Bible at this point. Everyone admits the Bible represents Jesus as having been conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary. The only question is whether in making that representation the Bible is true or false. [6]

To return to Culver,

In a practical way, the virgin birth tests whether a theologian or a theology is approaching Christianity with wholly naturalistic assumptions or is open to the supernatural… This does not make the virgin birth central to the structure of Christian doctrine and the plan of salvation, but it is a useful test. [7]

Conclusion

Ultimately, the uniqueness of the birth of Jesus is grounded on the uniqueness of his saving mission. It is not the manger that has become the central symbol of the Christian faith – but the Cross. It is those who see the need of a Saviour from sin who will see the necessity of sinlessness as prerequisite to His saving work. It is those who see their need of salvation from sin who want the One born of a virgin. The Saviour of sinners must Himself be a Man – but not like any man.

Endnotes:

[1] GC Berkouwer, The Work of Christ: 122

[2] Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: 48

[3] Gordon Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study: 119

[4] John Murray, Collected Writings II: 133

[5] William GT Shedd, Dogmatic Theology: 639

[6] Gresham Machen, Virgin Birth: 382

[7]  Culver, 481

 

Social Justice – Common Grace or Saving Grace?

Rom 3 26

This is the good news that is to be proclaimed by the Church, as the agent of the kingdom of Christ.  It is imperative that the Church should not lose sight of this mission as one of saving grace.  It must not be confused with common grace.  The task of proclamation for salvation cannot coalesce with militancy for a just society.  Preaching is not protest.  Justification is not social justice.

 

A heated debate is currently raging among evangelical brethren in America.  The subject is the place of social justice as a theme of gospel proclamation, and as a mandate of church mission.

Concerned evangelical leaders have publicized their position in “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel.”  Its key negation states, “We deny that political or social activism should be viewed as integral components of the gospel or primary to the mission of the church.  Though believers can and should utilize all lawful means that God has providentially established to have some effect on the laws of society, we deny that these activities are either evidence of saving faith or constitute a central part of the church’s mission given to her by Jesus Christ, her head.”[1]

Predictably, those on the opposite side have criticized this position.  One critic says of this statement, “At worst, it represents a toxic agenda to discredit and undermine godly men and women crying out for biblical social justice, national and ecclesiastical repentance, and meaningful reconciliation.”[2]

Each side of the debate has legitimate concerns, seeking fair assessment and response by the other.  Both sides must resist polarizing their position, while demonizing the other.  It is my humble submission that the subject can be addressed by appeal to an old pair of perspectives of grace – as common grace and as saving grace.

 

God’s gracious dealing with mankind can be categorized as common grace or saving grace.

While God’s grace is a clear concept of the Bible, differentiating it as ‘common’ grace and ‘special/saving’ grace is a theological construct.  It is not biblical vocabulary as such.  But the legitimacy of such categorization arises from the need to see God’s favor even on unbelievers who do not have the blessing of salvation.  Thus, such favors are described as common grace, because even if they are not saving, they are still undeserved by sinful man.  Whereas, salvation blessings on believers, and the Church, are called saving grace.

Theology traditionally includes under common grace such blessings as morality, civilization, human vocation, and prosperity.  In his address to the farmers of Lystra, Paul affirms that “(God) did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17).  It is impressive that even amidst their pagan idolatry, Paul is not restrained from recognizing the hand of God in the blessing of their vocation.  Common grace also includes good works of unbelievers.  Cornelius, even as an unbeliever, was commended for his ‘prayers and alms as… memorial to God’ (Acts 10:4), and yet he still needed to know the way of salvation.

The concept of common grace acknowledges that there is blessedness and goodness in the human community that does not constitute their salvation; but they are still God’s favors that remain undeserved by man – and hence, grace.  John Calvin acknowledges that God honors even the morality of unbelievers:

Hence this distinction between honorable and base actions God has not only engraved on the minds of each, but also often confirms in the administration of his providence. For we see how he visits those who cultivate virtue with many temporal blessings. Not that that external image of virtue in the least degree merits his favor, but he is pleased thus to show how much he delights in true righteousness, since he does not leave even the outward semblance of it to go unrewarded. Hence it follows, as we lately observed, that those virtues, or rather images of virtues, of whatever kind, are divine gifts, since there is nothing in any degree praiseworthy which proceeds not from him.[3]

The significance of this distinction can have a telling effect on the way we weigh God’s various dealings with people.  Michael Horton warns against this confusion,

When we confuse these two categories, it is easy to see success in business as a sign of divine favor and floods in a particular region as the sign of divine reprobation… The ungodly mistake God’s common grace for saving grace by presuming that because things are not so bad right now, they are not under God’s displeasure, while believers wonder, ‘Why do the wicked prosper?’ (Psalm 73).  Unless we understand the difference between common grace and saving grace, unbelievers will be led to presumption and believers will be led to doubt.[4]

This is where we need to rightly place social justice and the gospel in the category of grace each belongs.

 

Social Justice is in the realm of Common Grace

The equality of all mankind is a principle based on God’s creation.  All are equal, regardless of ethnicity and social class, because we are all human beings by virtue of God’s creation.  “The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the Maker of them all” (Prov. 22:2).  Upon the equality of all stands the imperative of justice that must treat all equally.  There should be no innate advantage of one race/class over another.  Where racial advantage is obtained, it is unjust because it vitiates the equal creaturehood of every man and woman.

This equality is to characterize society as human society – not Christian society.  Equal treatment is to be extended to all as human beings, not as a believer or unbeliever.  In other words, one does not need to be a gospel believer to receive equal treatment as a human being.  It is his as one created in the image of God – as much as every other man and woman.

It is for this purpose that human government was put in place to have oversight of justice in human society.  “The king establishes the land by justice” (Pro 29:4).  Such a ruler need not be a believer in order to rule with justice.  Nero was the cruel emperor of the Roman Empire when Paul wrote of such rulers, “he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).  Peter makes it imperative for Christians, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Pet. 2:13-14).

It proves a point material to this debate – that social justice can be obtained, not by necessity of the gospel, but the right application of the truth of creation of all mankind.  Even unbelievers can be instrumental to the promotion of justice and the reformation of society so that equality of all is the order that prevails.  It does not take a Christian president to reform society to become more just, and its people socially moral.  The Christian mission does not depend upon human government to pursue its goal.  Social justice is common grace and not of the essence of the gospel.

 

Church Gospel Mission is in the cause of Saving Grace

 Because individual Christians live in the two realms of common grace and saving grace, they have the responsibility of actively supporting causes and policies that promote social justice.  But the kingdom that Christ brought about by His death and resurrection is about saving grace – salvation of sinners by the grace of God through gospel faith.  This is the kingdom in which Jesus began to sit upon His throne from the time of His resurrection (Acts 2:30-33).  This kingly reign is yet of a priestly nature for the purpose of mediation and intercession (Heb 8:1ff).  This is not to be mistaken for any human government which has the mandate of justice in society.

The justice that concerned most the saving work of Christ is the justice of God that demands the vindication of His broken law.  That vindication demands the punishment of sinners.  This creates that great mystery expressed of old, “How can a man be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2).  What the redemptive work of Christ has done is to solve that mystery through His death.  It was a substitutionary death that satisfies the justice of God.  The result is that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who believes in Jesus” (Rom 3:26).

This is the good news that is to be proclaimed by the Church, as the agent of the kingdom of Christ.  It is imperative that the Church should not lose sight of this mission as one of saving grace.  It must not be confused with common grace.  The task of proclamation for salvation cannot coalesce with militancy for a just society.  Preaching is not protest.  Justification is not social justice.

We commend the usefulness of social action; but the Church has weightier matters in its hand.  Kenneth Myers warns,

Although one might respect the intentions of people who promote them, the use of boycotts in the name of Christ is always liable to distract attention from the authoritative proclamation of truth and repudiation of error that is the first duty of the church of Jesus Christ.  It suggests that Christians are to be identified essentially as part of a political movement, rather than as a spiritual body… If public protest gives the impression that Christians are principally concerned about power in the political order, it will become that much more difficult to take thoughts captive to the obedience of Jesus Christ.[5]

The cry for justice by the oppressed is real.  Christians must be decisive voices to arouse the collective conscience of society.  But the Church is to be another voice, or better, Another’s voice – that of Christ through the preaching of the gospel.  Through living the truth of the gospel, the Church is to be a demonstration of that new humanity that learned to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – a precursor of the time when “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore’ (Isa 2:4).  It envisions the kind of earth it will someday become when “the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord” (Rev 11:15).

But while that is not yet, the Church must be on the mission of saving grace.

 

[1] “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel” VIII. The Church; https://statementonsocialjustice.com/

[2] “Why I cannot and will not sign the ‘Social Justice and the Gospel Statement’” RyanBurtonKing.blogspot.com

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion: III. 14. 2

[4] Michael Horton, Where in the World is the Church? (Moody): 189

[5] Kenneth Myers, “Proclamation Instead of Protest” from Michael Horton (ed.), Power Religion: 46f