I love it when Christmas hymns direct my attention to Christ’s atoning work on the cross! Josh Turner’s worshipful rendition of The First Noel does this beautifully.
I’ve decided to post Christmas songs all week to give myself a mini-break. Today’s song may or may not classify as a hymn (I would argue that it does), but it depicts the Incarnation powerfully!
Christmas calls us, first and foremost, to worship Christ. Not surprisingly, our increasingly secular culture, with its growing animosity to the Lord and all He stands for, tries desperately to have a December holiday that marginalizes Christ.
The angels who heralded His birth to the shepherds in Bethlehem knew, however, that the Child born that night deserved universal worship. He came as God Incarnate–the King of kings Who will someday return to reign over His creation.Though His birth was undeniably obscure, all of heaven understood its significance: the Lord of heaven and earth had come to liberate His people from their own sin!
Thus, Biblical Christians persevere through the secular distractions of the season, convinced that presents and family and decorations (while nice) must never eclipse Christ. This season should renew our desire to give Him the praise, honor and adoration that only He deserves, as today’s Christmas hymn reminds us.
The Gospel of John starts boldly! “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” John, the disciple who enjoyed the closest friendship with Jesus, gave us the most direct (and therefore the most startling) statement of Jesus’ deity. Where some consider the Son of God as being lesser than God the Father, John’s Gospel confronts us with God the Son.
This Incarnation, like the Trinity Itself, bypasses human intellect, leaving us uncomfortable with our inability to comprehend the Creator of all things “reducing” Himself to inhabit His virgin mother’s womb. Offended by this apparent assault on our reasoning capabilities (as if we have some sort of right to equality with God), many of us invent false theologies that deny Jesus’ deity…or badly distort it. Ever prideful, we demand a God that yields to our understanding–not one Who confronts us with our cognitive limitations.
Yet, John knew Jesus. He knew Him enough to be convinced that He was the very God of all creation. John had watched Jesus die on the cross, and only days later had eaten a fish breakfast with Him after His resurrection. The resurrection, more than any of the other miracles, verified Jesus’ claim to be God. Intellect must always bow to fact, especially when fact defies intellect.
So we can best respond to the Incarnation, not by analyzing it or by trying to explain it, but by coming to the Lord in worship and adoration. With our intellects, we discern the overwhelming evidence for His resurrection, and from that point we reason that His claim to be God in the flesh is irrefutable. But then, trying to figure out how He could at once be fully God and fully Man must be set aside, letting us kneel at the manger.
Scenes of Bethlehem, the manger, singing angels or “the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay” give us warm feelings, and may even help us remember why we celebrate Christmas. And boy howdy, we certainly need reminding! We get so caught up in all the secular aspects of the holidays that we pretty much forget that we’re commemorating Christ’s birth.
Or if we do actually remember why we celebrate Christmas, we usually romanticize the story. More than that, we separate it from its larger context. We keep our adoration on the innocent Babe, vaguely aware that He is somehow holy. But we get a little bit uncomfortable with acknowledging His deity and understanding that He took our sins upon Himself when He suffered and died on the cross. In short, we prefer the Baby in the manger to the Lord and Savior Who calls us to repent and follow Him.
We ignore the clear Gospel declaration that the angels made when they announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds.
8 In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” ~~Luke 2:8-14 (ESV)
Christ the Savior–not only to oppressed Israel, but also to all people! Therefore, He offered a salvation that encompassed far more than Rome’s occupation of Israel. As Savior to all people (meaning all national groups rather than every individual), Jesus ransoms us from the tyranny of sin.
If salvation has to do with sin, we then face the fact that we are sinners. I agree with my church’s doctrinal statement that identifies all humans as sinners “by nature and by choice.” The angels announced Christ as the Savior Who would go to the cross as our substitute, shedding His blood to appease the righteous wrath of the Father.
The angels also proclaimed Christ as Lord, thereby declaring His deity. The Baby in Bethlehem’s manger created the heavens and the earth. After dying on a Roman cross, He would rise from the dead as proof of His mastery over sin and death. Consequently, He deserves worship for all eternity, and one glorious day He will take His redeemed people to His kingdom.
The Baby of Christmas rules the universe, calling all creatures to bow before Him as He judges the secrets of our hearts.
As I mentioned Monday, I enrolled in a psychology class during my second year at Dominican University. Although I majored in English Literature with an emphasis on writing, the school mandated that all students take a number of classes outside of their field. Psychology had always sounded interesting to me, and in that era (1975) it was a popular discipline. What could I lose?
The professor (who, to our amusement, appeared to be a neurotic little man) concentrated the curriculum on Gestalt Theory and Transactional Analysis. Although I remember little about either theory (after all, it was 40 years ago!), I can’t forget the pressure I felt to gaze inwardly at myself.
As I went through the course, I saw a disparity between what I read in I‘m OK, You’re OK, and what I read in the Bible. I couldn’t put my finger on why I sensed such tension, other than Scripture’s teaching that all of us are born sinners, so I didn’t articulate my concerns well, either in class or in conversations with my professor. Therefore, everyone questioned the validity of my discomfort. At my professor’s urging, I tried to integrate the two, but I knew deep down that I couldn’t really do so without compromising God’s Word.
I tried to cling to Colossians 2:8.
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. (NASB)
But as I continued in the class, I felt my Biblical convictions erode. Furthermore, I felt powerless to combat the erosion.
As you’ll remember, that year also brought me popularity with the other kids on campus. So it really wouldn’t surprise me if some of my growing acquiescence to the psychology course came from a desire to maintain my social position. But in any case, I knew I had a backslidden heart.
Over that summer, I rallied a bit spiritually, and decided not to take any more psychology classes. At that time, I saw little difference between Catholic and Biblical theology, so I enrolled in a class on Thomas Aquinas to fulfill my Religious Studies requirement.
My Religious Studies professor, Father Conrad, saw my Protestant affiliation as an opportunity to demonstrate the fundamental difference between Catholic and Protestant theology to the class, since the majority of them (having been raised Catholic) knew little about Protestant theology. We had read the Question “Whether to believe is meritorious” in Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, and he naturally assumed I would take issue with it.
In part, I wanted to have fun with Father Conrad. He and I had a playful friendship, and I loved throwing him off his game. But Aquinas had appealed to my pride, disarming my intellect with the comforting possibility that maybe I had contributed to my salvation after all. So when Father asked for my response to the Question, I saw a perfect opportunity to both mess with his mind and answer honesty (with my priorities decidedly in that order).
“Well Father,” I began in a tone signaling my intention to draw things out, “when I started reading this question, I was prepared to disagree. But as I followed his line of reason, I realized he might be right.”
Father Conrad’s stunned expression and ensuing loss for words sent the entire class into fits of laughter. After class, several of us assembled, gleefully recounting how stymied he had been and how I’d thrown a monkey wrench into his lesson plan.
As funny as the incident was, however, it led me to believe that doctrine had little importance. I’d often say that salvation came through faith in Jesus, but not through doctrine. Sadly, I held to that philosophy well beyond my graduation in 1977, often attending Mass on Fridays during Senior Year and seeking spiritual counsel from Father Conrad instead of the leaders at Church of the Open Door.
In many respects, Dominican was good for me, and I cherish the memories. Still, I ignored Colossians 2:8, despite my supposed repentance after the psychology class. As I’ll show in future installments of this series, it would be almost four decades before the Lord completely restored me to sound doctrine.
The U in T.U.L.I.P. caused me to disdain Reformed theology for most of my Christian life. I well understood that it stood for Unconditional Election. It meant that I took no part in my salvation–that God chose to save me from the “foundation of the earth” apart from anything I could ever do to please Him.
This approach to understanding salvation attacked my pride (though I never would have admitted it at the time). I knew that Jesus died for my sins, taking the punishment I deserved, and I did understand that good works couldn’t get me to heaven. Yet I believed that I had accepted the Lord as an act of my own free will. As He had offered Himself to me, so I believed that I had chosen to accept His offer.
Many, and perhaps most professing Christians take this type of stance on salvation. Some of them do genuinely trust in the shed blood of Jesus Christ for their salvation, so I believe we must guard against automatically judging them to be false converts. At the same time, we might humbly direct their attention to various Scriptures which teach Unconditional Election.
Romans 9 makes the clearest case for Unconditional Election. Although many other Scriptures support this doctrine, I only have time today to discuss this one passage.
6 But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 7 and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” 8 This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. 9 For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, 11 though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— 12 she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” 13 As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”
14 What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! 15 For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. ~~Romans 9:6-18 (ESV)
In context, this passage is about God’s choosing to show mercy first on Israel, and now on Gentile Christians. I don’t deny this point. But most Bible scholars also argue that the passage teaches election of individual believers. Consider, for example, John Calvin’s commentary on verse 11 alone:
11. For when the children, etc. He now begins to ascend higher, even to show the cause of this difference, which he teaches us is nowhere else to be found except in the election of God. He had indeed before briefly noticed, that there was a difference between the natural children of Abraham, that though all were adopted by circumcision into a participation of the covenant, yet the grace of God was not effectual in them all; and hence that they, who enjoy the favor of God, are the children of the promise. But how it thus happened, he has been either silent or has obscurely hinted. Now indeed he openly ascribes the whole cause to the election of God, and that gratuitous, and in no way depending on men; so that in the salvation of the godly nothing higher (nihil superius) must be sought than the goodness of God, and nothing higher in the perdition of the reprobate than his just severity.
Then the first proposition is, — “As the blessing of the covenant separates the Israelitic nation from all other people, so the election of God makes a distinction between men in that nation, while he predestinates some to salvation, and others to eternal condemnation.” The second proposition is, — “There is no other basis for this election than the goodness of God alone, and also since the fall of Adam, his mercy; which embraces whom he pleases, without any regard whatever to their works.” The third is, — “The Lord in his gratuitous election is free and exempt from the necessity of imparting equally the same grace to all; but, on the contrary, he passes by whom he wills, and whom he wills he chooses.” All these things Paul briefly includes in one sentence: he then goes on to other things.
Moreover, by these words, When the children had not yet been born, nor had done any good or evil, he shows, that God in making a difference could not have had any regard to works, for they were not yet done. Now they who argue on the other side, and say, that this is no reason why the election of God should not make a difference between men according to the merits of works, for God foresees who those are who by future works would be worthy or unworthy of his grace, are not more clear-sighted than Paul, but stumble at a principle in theology, which ought to be well known to all Christians, namely, that God can see nothing in the corrupt nature of man, such as was in Esau and Jacob, to induce him to manifest his favor. When therefore he says, that neither of them had then done any good or evil, what he took as granted must also be added, — that they were both the children of Adam, by nature sinful, and endued with no particle of righteousness.
I do not dwell thus long on explaining these things, because the meaning of the Apostle is obscure; but as the Sophists, being not content with his plain sense, endeavour to evade it by frivolous distinctions, I wished to show, that Paul was by no means ignorant of those things which they allege.
It may further be said, that though that corruption alone, which is diffused through the whole race of man, is sufficient, before it breaks out, as they say, into action, for condemnation, and hence it follows, that Esau was justly rejected, for he was naturally a child of wrath, it was yet necessary, lest any doubt should remain, as though his condition became worse through any vice or fault, that sins no less than virtues should be excluded. It is indeed true, that the proximate cause of reprobation is the curse we all inherit from Adam; yet, that we may learn to acquiesce in the bare and simple good pleasure of God, Paul withdraws us from this view, until he has established this doctrine, — That God has a sufficiently just reason for electing and for reprobating, in his own will. 293
That the purpose of God according to election, etc. He speaks of the gratuitous election of God almost in every instance. If works had any place, he ought to have said, — “That his reward might stand through works;” but he mentions the purpose of God, which is included, so to speak, in his own good pleasure alone. And that no ground of dispute might remain on the subject, he has removed all doubt by adding another clause, according to election, and then a third, not through works, but through him who calls. Let us now then apply our minds more closely to this passage: Since the purpose of God according to election is established in this way, — that before the brothers were born, and had done either good or evil, one was rejected and the other chosen; it hence follows, that when any one ascribes the cause of the difference to their works, he thereby subverts the purpose of God. Now, by adding, not through works, but through him who calls, he means, not on account of works, but of the calling only; for he wishes to exclude works altogether. We have then the whole stability of our election inclosed in the purpose of God alone: here merits avail nothing, as they issue in nothing but death; no worthiness is regarded, for there is none; but the goodness of God reigns alone. False then is the dogma, and contrary to God’s word, — that God elects or rejects, as he foresees each to be worthy or unworthy of his favor. 294
Of course people view election as arbitrary and unfair. God’s Word never explains His criteria for choosing some and not others. We hopefully concede that not one of us deserves anything less than His wrath, and yet it seems to us that there should be some reason that He saves some and condemns others. Our fallen wisdom concludes that, in His foreknowledge, He knows who will accept Him and who will reject Him. We clutch this reasoning tightly in our fists because we demand a way of understanding God’s methods.
We also demand to feel a sense of control. Actually, this demand for control lies at the heart of why we dislike the doctrine of Unconditional Election. We crave a sense of control!
But as we study Scripture, coming to terms both with God’s sovereignty and our Total Depravity, the doctrine of Unconditional Election transforms into a beautiful mystery. Why did He show grace to me? Knowing that I did nothing to achieve His election of me fills me with wonder at His grace. I don’t know why He has shown me such compassion in giving me the faith to believe in Christ, but my inability to comprehend His purposes only causes me to love Him more.