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New Horizons

Christ's Miraculous Birth

Clifford L. Blair

While some doctrines are known almost exclusively by the faithful, others have broken through the confines of the church and taken root in the popular mind. The miraculous birth of Jesus is such a tenet. A 2003 Harris poll found that not only do 79 percent of all Americans believe this doctrine, but so do 27 percent of those who identify themselves as non-Christians. This is a popular doctrine indeed.

What accounts for this? No doubt part of this popularity rests on the annual retelling of Christ's birth in virtually every imaginable format from the simple gospel reading around the family hearth to the extravagant productions of popular culture. (New Line Cinema spent $65 million to make and market The Nativity Story last year.)[1] Apparently believers and unbelievers alike are ever moved in contemplating the singular event of God entering humanity by being born of a woman.

Yet there is more at work here than sentimentality. The doctrine that Christ was conceived in the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit, given independently by Matthew and Luke, has not only been enshrined in holiday dress, but perpetually confessed by the church across the ages. It is prominent in the ancient creeds (e.g., the Apostles', Nicene, and Chalcedon creeds) and the Reformation documents (e.g., the Augsburg Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Westminster standards). It is held by all branches of the church and was termed a "fundamental" doctrine in the early twentieth century. It is routinely listed in the simplest statements of faith (e.g., that of the National Association of Evangelicals).

There is good reason to believe in this doctrine. Before making the case for it, however, let us dismiss some false leads. We do not cling to Christ's miraculous birth because by it he became divine. Christ never became divine—he always was divine: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Nor did his miraculous conception preserve his inward holiness. While David said, "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me" (Ps. 51:5), it does not follow that it was virginal gestation that spared Christ the taint of sin. Virginity is no antidote to corruption. Christ was sinless by his innate purity, not by the power of a virginal womb. The precise mechanics of this are beyond us, however. Warfield, with characteristic discretion, said, "He would be a bold man, indeed, who would affirm that the incarnation of the Holy One in sinful flesh presents no difficulties to his thought."[2]

A Necessary Doctrine

If Christ's miraculous birth was not necessary to constitute his divinity or preserve him from sin, was it necessary at all? Or, more practically, why must we hold to it? For more reasons than one.

The simplest reason is that this is a plain, even emphatic, teaching of the Bible. Matthew and Luke are explicit on this point, and no other biblical writer hints at contradiction. If the plain statements of the Virgin Birth are discounted, then so may those of any other doctrine.

More obliquely, we must hold this doctrine because the opposite is unthinkable. The notion that God became man, that the Word became flesh, is (pardon the pun) inconceivable without an attending physical miracle.[3] Yet, such a position is advocated by some. The modernist Henry Emerson Fosdick said in a 1922 sermon, "Those first disciples adored Jesus—as we do; when they thought about his coming they were sure that he came specially from God—as we are; this adoration and conviction they associated with God's special influence and intention in his birth—as we do; but they phrased it in terms of a biological miracle that our modem minds cannot use."[4] Fosdick would have us hold to Christ as "specially from God," but dispense with any attending miracle as the naive opinion of the first disciples. His implied question was: What do we lose by disposing of this doctrine that offends "our modern minds"? The answer is, quite simply: everything. We lose everything because in this doctrine converge five necessary truths that characterize Christ as our Savior.

1. The Savior must be divine (see Larger Catechism, Q. 38). Any potential redeemer who is not divine is inadequate for the task. A mere man could not sustain God's wrath, break the power of death, or be of sufficient value in himself and his works to satisfy God's justice for his people.

2. The Savior must be human (see Larger Catechism, Q. 39). The Savior must be a man if he is to stand in the place of men. To atone for sinners, he must partake of our nature, yet be sinless. No bull, goat, or even an angel is a fit substitute for men (see Heb. 9:11-15; 2:14-16). The one who will be our intercessor must be subject to our weaknesses, yet not stumble under them (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:14-15).

3. These two natures must be in a single person (see Larger Catechism, Q. 40). The role of the Savior is accomplished by his standing for, and between, God and man (Gal. 3:20; 1 Tim. 2:5; cf. Job 9:33). He embodies the promise of his name: Immanuel, meaning "God with us" (Matt. 1:23).

4. This Savior must be of the people he will save. From the very crime scene of the Fall across the pages of Scripture this has been a feature of the gospel promise. It is the seed of the woman who will bruise the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15); it is in the seed of Abraham in whom all the nations will be blessed (Gen. 22:18; Gal. 3:16); it is on a descendant of David that all the promises will focus (Ps. 89:34-37; Isa. 9:6-7). It is an established point of prophecy that the Savior must arise from the very people whom he will save.

5. The Savior must be free from the universal judgment of sin. The grim reality is that life is lived in the grip of death. Barring Christ's return, all six billion souls who are currently alive will be drawn into the insatiable grave. The materialist will tell you that this is natural, but in this he is mistaken. It is universal, but it is not natural—it is judicial. In Eden, Adam sinned and brought on himself the promised judgment, "You shall surely die" (Gen. 2:17). As Adam stood as the head of a covenant people—all humanity in a covenant of works—the judgment he received was received for all his descendants born, as our standards say, by "ordinary generation." Not merely (if we may say it so mildly) did he pass on to us a corrupted nature from which flow our own sins; he also passed on his guilt and liability. As we are united to him, we are born under his judgment: "Through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men" (Rom. 5:18).

This universal judgment on humanity and the fact that the Savior must arise from mankind raises an apparently insurmountable problem: how can a savior arising from Adam's race be free from Adam's judgment—the very thing from which he comes to redeem them? The question is a variation on our Lord's question: "If David then calls Him 'Lord,' how is He his son?" (Matt. 22:45).

The solution is found in the Virgin Birth. In this event, all demands are satisfied. Christ, who is divine, takes to himself human nature in a single person. He becomes the descendant who fulfills all the prophecies, yet by his divine paternity he remains free of Adam's guilt. As Herman Bavinck says, "The exclusion of the man from his conception at the same time had the effect that Christ, as one not included in the covenant of works, remained exempt from original sin and could therefore also be preserved in terms of his human nature, both before and after his birth, from all pollution of sin. As subject, as 'I,' he did not descend from Adam but was the Son of the Father, chosen from eternity to be the head of a new covenant."[5]

Our Savior came into the world to swallow up death. He did not come as another doomed heir of Adam, but as the last Adam to make all things new (1 Cor. 15:45; Rev. 21:5). Paul paints the contrast in Romans 5:17: "If by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ."

This is our Savior and his glorious work, for which he is uniquely constituted and qualified. The apostle wrote that in the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, in order that he might redeem us (Gal. 4:4-5). This is not sentimentality. This is not tradition. This is our very life: "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:22). We must cling fast to him and every truth that makes him what he is.

Endnotes

[1] Los Angeles Times, November 25, 2006.

[2] Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, "The Supernatural Birth of Jesus," in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, vol. 3, p. 455.

[3] James Orr, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 197-201.

[4] Henry Emerson Fosdick, "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" in A Chorus of Witnesses, ed. by Thomas G. Long and Cornelius Plantinga, p. 248 (emphasis added).

[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, p. 294.

The author is pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, N.C. He quotes the NASB. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2007.

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