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01 May 2008

The Basics: Incarnation of God's eternal Son

The Basics: Incarnation of God's eternal Son

In our 11-part series looking at how the Alliance's Basis of Faith is Good News for our neighbours, Don Horrocks discusses...

5. The incarnation of God's eternal Son, the Lord Jesus Christ - born of the virgin Mary; truly divine and truly human, yet without sin.

John supplies the basis for our understanding of theincarnation right at the dramatic start of his Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us" (1.1,14). Later, John confirms that God actually "took on flesh" in the person of His Son, and that Jesus was sent not only to reveal God's love for humanity, but to save the world (3.16-17).

The transformational, missional nature of Christ's life was enthusiastically preached by the apostle Paul, whose proclamation of the Gospel involved following in Christ's footsteps in such a way that he could claim, "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2.19-20).

It is crucial for our salvation that Jesus was born fully human to deal with humanity's big problem: sin. Paul stressed that God made Jesus "who had no sin to be sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5.21).

Consequently, the doctrine of the virgin birth became increasingly important in the early Church. Initially used by Ignatius to refute docetic heresy, Augustine emphasised its implications for original sin, which he believed to be communicated through the male line.

New Ideas

The 19th century saw attempts to recover a specifically incarnational theology. After the Reformation, the impact of the Enlightenment and the mood of social optimism, generated by Darwinian evolutionary theory, lent itself to the reworking of classic doctrines like the incarnation. Contemporary ideas about the kingdom of God involved a new and sophisticated understanding of God and His world.

Charles Gore, the Anglican bishop, saw incarnation as an affirmation of the essential goodness of humanity and human progress. God became man to demonstrate humanity's striving towards its intended evolutionary goal of becoming like God. The focus became man's self-actualisation.

Key Victorians like FD Maurice consequently emphasised the social nature of the Gospel, and evangelicals tended to be viewed as lacking a developed theology of the incarnation because of their emphasis on evangelism, original sin, objective truth and prepositional doctrine.

The cross and resurrection were the means by which Jesus accomplished His mission

Although accused of being blind to social needs, anti-scientific and resistant to progress, evangelicals actually remained committed to political and social engagement throughout the Victorian era. But the new incarnational theology lent itself to a liberal form of Christianity that emphasised human endeavour and capability, and the Church's mission became more closely identified with one of communal, spiritual and social improvement.

The Mission

Evangelicals have therefore found it important to respond to questions relating to the mission of the incarnate Christ. It was Luke who outlined Jesus' public mission, based on Isaiah 61.1-2: "He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed" (4.18).

Jesus came, as Paul emphasises in Philippians 2.6-8, to be a servant. Release of prisoners and freedom for the oppressed has traditionally been understood to refer to Jesus liberating those who are bound by sin through His key message of repentance, forgiveness and salvation.

By the end of Luke's Gospel, confirmed in the early chapters of Acts, it is apparent that Jesus came primarily to deal with the reality of the power of sin that separates God and humankind, and that the cross and resurrection were the means by which He accomplished His mission. The writer of Hebrews says it this way: "Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is the devil - and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.... For this reason He had to be made like His brothers in every way in order that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service of God and that He might make atonement for the sins of the people" (2.14-18).

The incarnation continues to be a crucial element of Jesus' person as He represents believers to the Father. Similarly, Christ's disciples represent Him to the world. Their incarnational mission is "to go and make disciples of all nations" as they "put on Christ" and "know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings" (Philippians 3.8-11).

People today may use the expression "incarnational mission" to mean everything from human self-actualisation to evangelism. What is apparent from the Bible, however, is that the focus primarily has to do with God's redemptive act in sending His Son to produce transformed lives that display the fruit of the Spirit.

It was at the Lausanne International Congress on World Evangelisation in 1974 that clear links between incarnation and mission were made explicit by affirming that, because of God's love for the world and because we are made in the image of God, "evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbour and our obedience to Jesus Christ".

So the mission of Christians is, above all, one of witness to the lordship of Christ, calling the world to repentance and faith in His redemptive work, and of service in a world where transformed lives and concern for the poor demonstrate the reality of His indwelling salvation.

  • Don Horrocks is the Alliance's Head of Public Affairs

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