A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com
Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 12/13/1998
The virginal conception of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ--popularly known as the "virgin birth"--has been a cherished doctrine of the Church since the beginning, and was elevated to the status of a shibboleth during the "fundamentalist" controversies of the early Twentieth Century in America. When men claiming still to be teachers of the Church first began casting doubt on the historicity of the miracle stories in the New Testament, the virgin birth of Christ became something of a test case for orthodoxy among conservatives. If someone were inclined to the view that the supernatural elements in the Gospel story were mere mythological elements added by superstitious early believers, the virginal conception of Jesus would be one of the first places that view would show itself. And so, in the Twenties, this doctrine necessarily became a subject more of apologetics than of theology. Having been impressed by the rich theological insight of early fundamentalist stalwart J. Gresham Machen's classic book Christianity and Liberalism, I remember how much I looked forward to reading his book on The Virgin Birth of Christ, and how disappointed I was when I did. It was a useful book, certainly, a detailed refutation of every liberal interpretation of Jesus' conception, and of every half-baked historical argument against the reliability of Luke's account of it then abroad. But it had precious little to say about the meaning of the virgin birth for understanding Christ or the Christian faith. We have continued to inherit from that period an emphasis on the fact of the virgin birth to the relative neglect of its meaning. The first emphasis was necessary, is still needed, and is not wrong. But this ought we to have done without neglecting the other, as Jesus himself might say. I would like to try to redress that imbalance just a wee bit this morning.THESIS
Gabriel's presentation to Mary of our Lord's virginal conception enhances our understanding of both Christ's nature and his mission, of what he was and of why he came.I. HIS DEITY
It is obvious that the story of Jesus' virginal conception is related to claims about his deity. Though Mary was his mother, his father was, by implication, not Joseph but God himself. But if we look at this claim too quickly, without considering the real import of Gabriel's language, we might easily come away with a very inadequate notion of Jesus relationship to the Divine--i.e., that he was some sort of divine-human hybrid, half God, half human. But the Church has always maintained that he was much more than that, and something much harder to imagine: One Person with two complete Natures, united but neither mixed nor confused: fully God and fully Man.
There are many reasons for this difficult doctrine, too many for us to discuss today. But one of them is certainly a careful understanding of Gabriel's language in this passage. An accurate understanding of that language has to be rooted in salvation history. What would a devout Jewish girl of the last years of the first century BC, illiterate, but with a mind thoroughly nourished on the Old Testament story and even its very language by a rich oral culture--what would she have made of those words? That is the question we must ask. What would Mary have thought when she asked how she could possibly have a son without having "known" a man, and she heard, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age, and she who was called barren is now in the sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God."
Two things about this statement would have resonated powerfully in her mind. One is that she was being connected with a familiar Old-Testament pattern of miraculous conceptions and births as a way of marking out key moments in the history of redemption, key points in God's progressive revelation of himself to his people. A whole series of very important people were born to mothers who should not have been able to have them: Isaac, Joseph, Samson, Samuel. ( If we think of his preservation rather than his conception itself as making his coming into the world miraculous, we could add Moses to the list.) In most of these cases a barren woman miraculously conceives a son who will play a key role in the development or deliverance of Israel. In one case the husband was also sterile, but in each case a husband was involved. And now Mary's cousin Elizabeth has been added to the list. The Forerunner will be the next to the last member of this series. And that leads us to Mary. Her son would be the climax of the series, the exclamation point to the sentence the others constitute. And therefore in her the miracle is taken to a new level; it goes one step further. Jesus will be part of this series, its climax, but as the climax also different from all his predecessors. In his case there will be no human father involved at all. It is not just that barrenness or sterility is being healed, but that the whole normal and natural process of conception is being bypassed or transcended. "And for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God." God, not Joseph, will be his father. What exactly does this mean?
The second Old-Testament motif that would have rung like a bell in Mary's mind carries the answer to that question. For Gabriel uses a very curious word when he says that "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High shall overshadow you." The word "overshadow" takes us back to the dedication of the Tabernacle in Exodus 40:34. "Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle." The cloud is the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night that was the visible sign of God's presence with Israel in the wilderness. And if that is not clear enough, the Hebrew parallelism links its covering of the tabernacle with the tent being filled by the shekinah, the glory of God. The Septuagint translation of the Hebrew uses the same Greek word for the word translated "cover" in the NASB that Luke ascribes to Gabriel in Luke 1:35 and is translated "overshadow." The connection cannot be anything but deliberate.
In other words, the cloud is the sign of God's presence. When it overshadows the tabernacle at its dedication and fills it with the Glory, it means that God has accepted the tent as the place where he will meet his people and be worshiped by them, as the place where he will "dwell" in their midst. Do you see what it meant when Gabriel applied the same sacred language to Mary? Mary did. It means that God is about to visit his people in a very personal way. It means that for the next nine months, Mary's womb is going to be the Holy of Holies. God himself will be there. And when you put all this together, it means that the boy's other name was entirely appropriate, and literally so: Immanuel, "God with us." This child, born with a completely human nature derived from his mother, would also be, personally, God himself. Fully God and fully Man: the fully orthodox language is already here in embryonic form as it were. "And for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God."II. HIS SINLESSNESS
A second truth about Christ that is implied here is his sinlessness (or holiness, to use the word that actually appears in the text). It is clear that our Lord's virginal conception is related to his sinlessness. But again, the precise nature of that relationship is often misunderstood. I have run into people who seem to think that for Christ to be sinless he had to be conceived without sex--for anything that can feel that good must be inherently sinful, even between two faithful married people! Others' thinking seems to suppose that sin is somehow transmitted genetically, and breaking that transmission by leaving Joseph out of the process was supposed to help. Both views profoundly miss the point, being ignorant of biblical teaching on how sin is transmitted from one generation to another. Sin is not inherited genetically from Adam; it is imputed to us by virtue of his headship over the human race.
Romans 5:19 tells us that sin came to the human race from one man, Adam, the same way righteousness does through one man, Christ. "For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be make righteous." And Romans 4:3-5 has already explained how Christ's righteousness comes to us. "'Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.' . . . To the one who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness." The key words are "counted" and "reckoned." They are the basis of what is called the Doctrine of Imputation. God does not force us to become righteous first and only then accept us as his children. If he did so, it would create a catch-22 that would prevent us from ever being saved. He counts us as righteous on the basis of Christ's perfect obedience and sacrifice on our behalf, and therefore reckons us as such and accepts us as such, with the result that we are able to start becoming actually righteous with His help. The theological way of saying this is that Christ's righteousness is imputed to our account. Actual (or a better word would be "experiential," for imputed righteousness is actual) righteousness flows from imputed righteousness, not the other way around. It is backwards from the way human beings normally think, for we assume that we must somehow make ourselves righteous (even if it be with God's help) before we can be counted as righteous. It si backwards from the way human beings normall think, but it is clearly the way God thinks--and the way he works.
What allows Christ's righteousness to count for us is our relationship to him: he is our Lord, our head, our representative--which is what Paul means in Romans 5 when he calls him the second Adam. For Adam was all those things to the human race. He was our head; he was not just the first man, he was Representative Man. As head of the race, he had the authority to make decisions, not just for himself, but for the race. And so when he chose sin, he was choosing it for all of us. And his choice counted. Just as God imputes Christ's righteousness to all believers, leading to actual deeds of righteousness, so God imputed Adam's sin to all of his descendants, leading to actual acts of sin on their part.
Sin then is not transmitted biologically at all. If it were, Jesus could have caught it from Mary just as well as from Joseph. Instead, Adam's sin was not imputed to Jesus because Jesus was not "in Adam." He was the new Adam, a new head, a fresh start for the human race. And that is why Joseph was excluded from the process that led to the creation of Jesus' human body and human nature: not because Jesus could not have been sinless if he had a biological father, but as a sign that the link with Adam had been broken. Jesus was not born of a virgin so he could be sinless; he was born of a virgin to show he was sinless. The issue was not so much biological as dynastic, in other words. Jesus was not descended from Adam through the male line because a change of dynasty was taking place. Jesus was the seed of the woman, but he was not the seed of Adam. He was the new Adam, a fresh start, an alternative head for humanity. Adam's guilt was not imputed to Christ because Adam was not Christ's head. And Jesus' virginal conception is therefore a sign miracle, a sign that a fresh start was being made. It was to emphasize Jesus' relationship with Adam and with us as being different from that of any other child who was ever born.
Now, this might sound like some pretty abstruse theology, but it has profound practical implications. It means that we can have complete confidence in Jesus as the one Mediator between God and Man. He is the new Adam. He is our King. He is fitted by his nature and his relationship to us as shown in the form of his birth to fill this role. It means we can have complete confidence in faith alone as the means by which we receive God's salvation. Salvation in its very conception, even down to the conception, nature, and birth of our Savior and Mediator, is such that it cannot be performance-based. The only cure for imputed guilt is imputed righteousness. Righteousness in action flows from righteousness imputed, just as sin in action flowed from Adam's guilt imputed. It cannot be the other way around.
And, finally, Jesus' virginal conception understood thus gives us the ultimate motivation to live in such a way as to please our King. It is ironic: the less performance-based our concept of salvation is, the more we are freed to perform in the service of our Lord. If we understand this, it means that we serve out of gratitude, not out of guilt. Then our service becomes a benefit, not a burden. It is adoration, not obligation, a delight, not a duty, a desire, not a debt. It is a privilege that carries no pressure because we do it as sons, not slaves, as children, not churls. Good works become a blessing, not a bondage, once we fully grasp that our performance not only has nothing to do with our acceptance by God but theoretically cannot be its basis. And this is the key to a victorious Christian life that knows fully the joy of salvation.CONCLUSION
When we think of our Lord, the Lord of Glory, lying in that feeding trough, and remember that his mother had not know a man, let us be reminded of his wonderful nature and glorious mission--Immanuel, God with us, and also fully Man, the second Adam, fit to be our Representative and Head. He came to give us the opportunity to transfer our allegiance from Adam so that we could be represented before God not by Adam's disobedience but by Christ's obedience. And that is a fresh start indeed, which justifies the words of the carol: "Joy to the World." Amen.
Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams