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