Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
" TO PAY FOR OUR SINS JESUS HAD TO BE TRUE MAN WHILE HE REMAINED TRUE GOD."
35. Q. What do you confess when you say: He was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary?
A. The eternal Son of God, who is and remains true and eternal God, took upon Himself true human nature from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary, through the working of the Holy Spirit. Thus He is also the true seed of David, and like His brothers in every respect, yet without sin.
 John 1:1; 10:30-36; Rom. 1:3; 9:5; Col. 1:15-17; I John 5:20.  Matt. 1:18-23; John 1:14; Gal. 4:4; Heb. 2:14.  Luke 1:35.  II Sam. 7:12-16; Ps. 132:11; Matt. 1:1; Luke 1:32; Rom. 1:3.  Phil. 2:7; Heb. 2:17.  Heb. 4:15; 7:26, 27.
36. Q. What benefit do you receive from the holy conception and birth of
A. He is our Mediator, and with His innocence and perfect holiness covers, in the sight of God, my sin, in which I was conceived and born.
 I Tim. 2:5, 6; Heb. 9:13-15.  Rom. 8:3, 4; II Cor. 5:21; Gal. 4:4, 5; I Pet. 1:18, 19.
2 John 7-11
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
This past week Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ could be viewed in the cinemas of Australia. You’ll be familiar: Gibson’s film portrays in most graphic detail the last 12 hours of Jesus’ earthly life. From the kit the Australian Bible Society sent me, plus my reading of the newspaper, I learn that the film covers Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, His arrest and trial before Pilate and Herod, the scourging by the Roman soldiers, His crucifixion and death.
Reviews are mixed. All agree that Gibson has stayed close to the Biblical text. Some tell us it’s a masterpiece of Christian cinema, tell us that the movie confronts the viewer with how much Jesus had to suffer on account of our sins. Others are condemning; they consider the blood and pain and gore to be so very overdone.
Let us leave the sufferings of Jesus as portrayed in this film to one side for today. The Lord willing, we can look at that in more detail when we get to Lord’s Day 15 next week and so must deal directly with Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion.
Today, as we deal with Lord’s Day 14 and the birth of our Lord, we need to consider another aspect of this film. A certain Jim Caviezel plays our Lord Jesus Christ in this film. There’s the question: is Jim Caviezel able to portray Jesus accurately? To put the question differently: would the resurrected and ascended Christ be pleased with what a viewer would learn about Him through Jim Caviezel’s work as actor?
The answer, congregation, must be negative. Jim Caviezel is not able to play the role of Jesus properly. No one is able, for people are but people, sinful. Jesus, though, was more than true man; He was also righteous, without sin. More, even in His suffering He remained true God. It’s what the church confesses in Lord’s Day 14.
I summarize the sermon using this theme:
TO PAY FOR OUR SINS JESUS HAD TO BE TRUE MAN WHILE HE REMAINED TRUE GOD.
1. Where Jesus came from.
The gospel of Lord’s Day 14 can be caught in one word: incarnation. Like so many other words found in the confessions of the church (words like justification, sanctification, imputation, propitiation), the single word ‘incarnation’ catches a wealth of gospel material. The word itself comes from a Latin word that means ‘flesh’; think of the English word ‘carnal’, fleshly. The term ‘incarnation’, then, captures the notion that the Son of God has come in the flesh, the Son of God has become flesh.
I need to draw out the marvels of this event. I read in John 1 that "the Word was with God", yes, and "the Word was God." So much was the Word God that "all things were made through Him." That is: Genesis 1 describes the work of the Word! God He is, fully God, Creator. Yet of this Word John writes: "And the Word became flesh."
Flesh. The passage doesn’t say that the Word, God, became man – though that’s true. The Holy Spirit uses here the term ‘flesh’, and that’s deliberate for the term ‘flesh’ describes man-after-the-fall-into-sin. I think of Is 40, where ‘flesh’ is described as grass that withers. Flesh is mortal, flesh is weak, flesh is fallen. That’s the incarnation: God has become fallen man!
The thought is mind-boggling. God has been from eternity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the beginning He created the heavens and the earth, and that’s to say that He formed the heavens as a dwelling place for Himself – complete with angels who praise and extol holy God –Father, Son and Holy Spirit- day by day. Such is God’s holiness and majesty that these angels cover their faces and their feet as the unceasingly sing their Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty (cf Is 6). In this glory the Son of God was completely at home (John 17:5).
But: there came the moment when God the Father instructed His only Son to leave the glory and pleasures of heaven, to leave the realm of angel worship and adoration. Paul tells the Galatians that "God sent forth His Son…" (4:4). And where was the Son to go? What was the Son to do, to become? Says Paul: "God sent forth His Son" to be "born of a woman…." The Son of God, brothers and sisters, was to leave the glory and splendor of heaven in exchange for the poverty of a crib, more, for the brokenness of fallen earth! The Son of God would leave the pleasures of His Father’s company to become flesh, man.
It’s something, congregation, we do not sufficiently pause to think about. But try, brothers and sisters, to form a sense of the contrast between the glory of heaven and the trials of this broken life. The Son of God left the realm where angels served Him and sang His praise, in order to enter a world of sweat and tears where the Son of God –the eternal Word!- would eat His bread in the sweat of His face! This is the point of Paul’s words in Philippians 2. Christ was "in the form of God," says Paul, and that’s to say that Jesus was with God, equal in glory with God, indistinguishable from God – true God. But, Paul continues, Jesus "did not consider it robbery to be equal with God." Or, as we’d better translate: did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, something to be held onto. Instead, He "made Himself of no reputation," He emptied Himself, was content to become a man. Here’s the radical contrast between the position of the Son of God before Christmas and His position after Christmas.
Then it’s true: while the Son of God was on earth He did not openly display His Godhead. But that takes nothing away from the fact that He was and remained true God, every moment of His sojourn on earth. Anyone who saw in Jesus of Nazareth just a human being like there are twelve in a dozen missed the point of His identity – and therefore of His work and purpose. To see in Him only a man like anybody else (be it a good man) is to misunderstand Jesus. He is from heaven. Because He is from heaven was He able to show us who the Father really was. Because He is from heaven was He able to do His mighty works of healing and even forgive people’s sins. Because He is from heaven was He able to reconcile sinners to God. Forget the fact of His incarnation, forget that He was with the Father in heaven from all eternity and then came to earth to be one of us, and you miss the whole point of His existence, miss the heart of the gospel! He walked on this earth for 33 years, and always remained true God. Were it not so, we’d have no salvation!
We move on to our second point:
2. What Jesus became.
True God Jesus was from all eternity. When the time had fully come (as Paul writes it to the Galatians), He left the glory of heaven to become a man. How that happened? Matthew gives us particular details. "The birth of Jesus Christ," he writes, "was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit" (1:18). Notice those last few words. Mary was pregnant before she had come together with any man. The point is that no man begot Jesus. Instead, His conception was the work of the Holy Spirit. That point is important because that work of the Holy Spirit forms the link between Jesus’ existence in heaven and His existence on earth. The One who grew in Mary’s womb is the very same Son of God who was with the Father in heaven from all eternity. That is the reason why Matthew could say later in this passage that "all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us’" (vss 22f). "God with us": that is Jesus – God living in our midst, God in the flesh.
At the same time Jesus was born to Mary, a true, real person like any of us. From His mother the Son of God incarnate received His true human nature; He was as human as the rest of us. He had a mind to think as we have, and so had to learn to read and to write and to do ’rithmetic like we do. He had to eat His bread in the sweat of His face, and so went to bed tired each night as we do. He had to cope with pain and tears like anybody else; He too could develop bruises on His shins when He fell, could get slivers in His fingers when He carried timber for His father the carpenter, could be hurt by the biting remarks people can make about others. In no way was He different from any of us; He suffered the consequences of the fall into sin just as we do. True God He was and remained, and at the same time He became true man – just like we. That’s the consequence of His birth to a real person, Mary.
Yet there’s this difference with us: though true man, He was without sin. True: I can’t imagine how He could grow up with sinful parents, sinful brothers and sisters, sinful playmates on the street, and never sin. But the Word of God is empathic on the point: He never sinned, no matter how great the temptation (cf Heb 4:15). God in heaven, His Father from eternity, looked upon His Son-become-man, and saw never a transgression, saw only righteousness, perfect righteousness. For, though the true Son of the sinful Mary, He was also the true Son of holy God – and therefore perfect.
That, congregation, is the confession of the church in Lord’s Day 14. Sunday by Sunday we confess with the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus "was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary." What we really say with that confession? This: "the eternal Son of God, who is and remains true and eternal God, took upon Himself true human nature from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary, through the working of the Holy Spirit. Thus He is also the true seed of David, and like His brothers in every respect, yet without sin." True God became true man – yet remained true God. True God became true man – though knew no sin. That is the incarnation, that’s the gospel caught in that single term incarnation.
So we come to our third point:
3. Why Jesus became this.
Question & Answer 36 puts the question like this: "What benefit do you receive from the holy conception and birth of Christ?" What’s the benefit of the incarnation? The answer is this: "He is our Mediator, and with His innocence and perfect holiness covers, in the sight of God, my sin, in which I was conceived and born." Says the catechism: Jesus identity as true man, righteous man and true God is essential for salvation; take away any of those three and you have undermined, yes, lost your salvation!
Why can the Catechism make this connection between the holy conception and birth of Christ on the one hand and our salvation on the other? Here I draw your attention to Lord’s Day 6. "Why," asks Q 16, "why must He be a true … man?" The answer is this: "He must be a true man because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned should pay for sin." We can understand that: an animal cannot pay for man’s transgression and neither can an angel; God is too righteous for that.
"Why," Q 16 asks further, "why must He be a … righteous man?" "He must be a righteous man because one who himself is a sinner cannot pay for others." We can understand that too: when you’re impossibly in debt yourself, how in the world can you pay off somebody else’s debts! To be a Mediator before God on our behalf, Jesus of necessity had to be innocent of sin and perfectly holy – unlike any of us.
Q 17 wants to know why the Savior also had to be true God – at the same time as He had to be a true and righteous man. Says the Lord’s Day: "He must be true God so that by the power of His divine nature He might bear in His human nature the burden of God’s wrath, and might obtain for us and restore to us righteous and life." Such is the infinite weight of the wrath of holy God against our sins that any creature would perish under that burden. Only one who was also true God could carry that weight! And this, says the Catechism, is the gospel of Christmas: that baby born in Bethlehem –true man of His mother Mary- was also true God! That combination –true man and at the same time true God- makes Him able to be our Savior! Take away His divinity, and you have no Savior; there’s nothing in Bethlehem for us to be excited about. Take away His humanity, and you have no Savior either; there’s nothing in Bethlehem for us to be excited about. He who was born of the virgin Mary, and walked this earth for 33 years, was man and God, God and man – incarnation. And that’s our salvation!!
Satan understands the link between Jesus’ identity and His work. That is why the devil sought to destroy the Son of God on earth before He could pay for sin. Think of the massacre of the children of Bethlehem under Herod (Mt 2:16ff). Think of Satan’s temptations of Jesus in the wilderness (Mt 4). Think too of the effort of the people of Nazareth to push Jesus off the cliff (Luke 4:29), kill Him. Think of the determination of the Jews to stone Jesus (John 10:31). Satan knew: that Jesus was true man and true God made Jesus dangerous to Satan; His identity made Him able to pay for sin! But Satan was not able to succeed in his efforts to destroy Jesus – precisely because Jesus was also true God. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died – triumphed over sin and Satan and so reconciled sinners to God (2 Cor 5:21).
But Satan does not leave it at that, beloved! No longer can He try to prevent Jesus –true God and true man- from satisfying the justice of God on our behalf. But He can continue to prevent people from believing in the Savior. That started very early in church history. John had to address people who believed that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, true God, but not true man. John is emphatic: "every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist…" (1 John 4:2f). Antichrist: he denies the truth of Lord’s Day 14, denies that Jesus is both true God and true man. John warns his readers against such people, for they deceive (2 John 7), and such a deceiver may receive no welcome in Christian homes (vs 10).
Despite John’s warning the church continued to struggle with deception on the point of Jesus’ identity. To protect the truth the church formulated the Athanasian Creed (Book of Praise, pg 439). I refer specifically to that section beginning with Sentence 29: "Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that [one] also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the son of God, is God and man. God of the substance of His Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of the substance of His mother, born in the world. Perfect God and perfect man…." And, this Confession continues, this is the One "who suffered for our salvation" (Sentence 38). "This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully, he cannot be saved." This, we appreciate, is categorical language. To deny either Jesus’ manhood (as in the days of John) or to deny His Godhead (as in the days behind the Athanasian Creed), is to loose one’s salvation!
Over the centuries the church has had to continue to insist that Jesus was both true man and true God. At the time of the Great Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Anabaptists denied that Jesus was true man. Hence the Belgic Confession makes a point of repeating after God what the believer finds in Scripture (Articles 18f): God "sent His one and only eternal Son into the world…. He truly assumed a real human nature with all its infirmities, without sin…." All the while He lived on earth Jesus remained true God also. Though "each nature retained its own distinct properties…, these two natures are so closely united in one person that they were not even separated by His death." That is to say: always, all the time He was on earth, Jesus was true man and true God. Never was He only divine, never was He only human.
But what do we see in Mel Gibson’s film? Jim Caviezel, a true man like any of us, sinful, plays the Lord Jesus Christ. Can this actor, be he so accomplished, ever portray Jesus as righteous, without sin? Can this actor ever portray Jesus as true God? The answer is evident: of course he can’t. And that is to say that he presents Jesus falsely! The best he can do is present a caricature of Jesus, as if He were only human. Such a portrayal can never proclaim the gospel simply because no man can pay for sin. If Jesus were man alone –and that’s the best Caviezel can portray Him- then all His suffering and agony are futile, and we are still in our sins.
There, brothers and sisters, you also have the reason why so many modern church leaders who’ve seen The Passion encourage their congregations to go and see this film. It portrays Jesus as they preach Him: a true man, a good man, a man who laid down His life for others, a good example to follow, but certainly not true God facing the holy wrath of God. That Jesus can be portrayed as true man alone, and society accept this presentation, speaks volumes about what today’s Christian world actually believes. The depth of Lord’s Day 14 is not understood. The language of the Athanasian Creed is too sharp, too condemning. Those two –Gibson’s film and the Athanasian Creed- are mutually exclusive.
"I believe … in Jesus Christ …, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary." What a gospel: the eternal Son of God left the glory of heaven to share our world. True God He was and remained, and true man He became – that He might cover my sin in the sight of God. How glorious the redemption God has prepared!! Amen.