Here are my notes for the sermon I preached yesterday morning at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church. (Full disclosure: preached this originally around Christmas 1999; can’t remember if I’ve re-used it before now.)
When the audio is made available on the web I will link it.
WHY FAITH? THE GIFT OF THE NEW CREATION: Luke 1.26-38; Romans 4.16-25
What is the meaning of the virgin birth?
Perhaps the most popular answer to that question is that it is necessary to believe in the virgin birth in order to defend and affirm the deity of Christ. Jesus is both God and man. If Jesus had a human father, then that would mean that he was only human.
But the fact is that Jesus could have united himself to a human nature formed in the normal way just as easily as a human nature formed from only his mother. The full humanity and deity of Jesus did not require that he not have a human father.
(Now, there is a rather obtuse but important theological point which is easier to defend because of the virgin birth. It is easier to defend orthodoxy against Nestorianism. Nestorius claimed that in the savior there were two distinct persons who worked together, the human person Christ and the divine person God. So it is alright to call Mary the Christotokos, but not the Theotokos. We can call her the bearer of Christ, but not the bearer of God. There were two separate persons involved and Mary was the mother to only one of them, the human one. Now, if Jesus was produced by both a man and a woman, this heresy would have been much harder to refute, since one could argue that a human person is the inevitable result of human procreation. But because of the virgin birth, we have additional reason to assert that there was one and only one person involved in Jesus, the person of the eternal Son of God united to a human nature so that the one eternal person was both human and divine. However, as I said, this is a rather obtuse point.)
Another explanation assigned to the virgin birth is the sinlessness of Christ. Christ didn’t have a human father because a human father would have contaminated him with original sin. The problem with this idea is that women are sinful too. The virgin birth has nothing to do with Christ’s sinlessness. In any case, as soon as we invent human cloning and find that the offspring of women are just as sinful as those conceived in the normal way, we will have empirical counter-evidence for this possibility.
One last explanation that I will mention is that the sinlessness of Christ requires a virgin birth because sexual activity involves lust, in therefore inherently sinful, and thus contaminates the offspring with original sin. There are several problems with this. First of all, sex between a husband and wife does not involve lust. Lust is an unlawful desire and there is nothing unlawful about desiring one’s spouse. Second of all, the Bible nowhere teaches that there is some sin in the sex act which makes the offspring sinful. Rather, the Bible teaches that we are sinners because we come from sinful people. Finally, there are people who have been conceived through in vitro fertilization and they are just as sinful as the rest of us.
So neither Christ’s deity, nor his sinlessness, require a virgin birth. Why, then, was Jesus born to a virgin?
It was a sign miracle. A sign of what? We’re given a clue in Luke 1.35:
The angel answered and said to her: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.
Now, this may sound like the virgin birth is tied to Christ’s deity, but I think there is something else in view of that phrase in Luke’s Gospel. If we flip over a couple of chapters to chapter 3, verse 22, we read that when Jesus was baptized,
a voice came out of heaven: You are my beloved Son, in you I am well-pleased.
And immediately then, in verses 23 through 36, Luke launches into a genealogy of Jesus, which ends with Adam and calls Adam “the son of God.” Being the son of God means being a new Adam, a second creation.
JUST TO MAKE SURE you all know that my theology is orthodox, let me show you how Luke reveals the deity of Christ in what he tells us about his birth. We see it in the song of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. In Luke 1.76, we read from his prophetic song to God regarding the infant John, where he says.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
“For you will go on before the LORD to prepare his ways.”
Zacharias is quoting from Malachi 3.1, which speaks of an angel going before the Lord God. So according to Zacharias, John is going to prepare the way for God himself to visit Israel. Yet it is patently obvious that John is intended to prepare the way for Jesus. Elizabeth, remember, calls Mary “the mother of my Lord.” Everyone involved knows that John was born to be the forerunner of Jesus. Yet somehow he is, at the same time, the forerunner of God.
Preparing the way for Jesus means preparing the way for God. In Luke, as we have seen in First Corinthians, we find the most distinctive Christian messages precisely at the places were it is most obviously Jewish. The deity of Christ is affirmed through the use of Old Testament prophecy.
BUT, IF SON OF God is a term in Luke used not to designate the deity of Jesus but his status as a second Adam, then the virgin birth makes perfect sense. As in the case of Adam, God formed Jesus in a unique and different way—by a direct act, if you will. Jesus is shown, in the virgin birth, to be something new. He is not simply the product of the past, but is a genuine second creation, a new beginning.
In such a case, then, we’re in a position to think about the meaning of the virgin birth. The meaning of Christmas as a whole would indeed include reflection on the incarnation–on God with us in the person of Jesus, even the infant Jesus. But by singling out the virgin birth I think we have a rather precise target to aim for. Listen again to what the angel says in Luke 1:
The angel answered and said to her: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.
God has the power. He can do the impossible. He can make all things new. He can save us.
For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written: A father of many nations have I made you.) In the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist.
God has the power. He can do the impossible. He can make all things new. He can save us. For this reason it is by faith.
FOR THIS REASON IT is by faith. Deliverance from death and damnation is given to those who believe. Why? Because that is the only appropriate marker for those who are saved utterly and entirely by God’s gracious gift. Ultimately, God does not save those marked out by good works, or by circumcision, or by baptism, or by regular church attendance, or by monogamy, or by any other way of life. If those things have any part to play whatever, it is only because they demonstrate or reinforce faith. And, of course, it should go without saying that anyone who thinks anything they do can actually earn or merit from God their deliverance from sin and death is suffering a demonic delusion.
You see, just like Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias could do nothing to produce a child, so none of us could do nothing to save ourselves. Just as Mary could not produce a son as a virgin, neither can we escape the curse unless God sovereignly delivers us from it by a mighty act of his power. Like a barren women weeping for the son that she will never have, we are in a hopeless position unless God works on our behalf—unless he chooses to save us.
Jesus taught, as recorded in John 3.6:
That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
Mary’s flesh was as good as dead. Of herself, her womb could produce no life. Life had to come from God—from God’s Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life. Mary is unique, but yet a unique member of a set. She is the climax of a long list of women who found themselves barren. Elizabeth is just one example. Before her, Hannah was barren. But she cried out to God and God heard her cry and gave her new life. She gave birth to Samuel, a judge and deliverer of his people. Before Hannah there was the mother of Samson, who was also barren for some time until the Angel of the Lord appeared to her and promised her a son. Before her was Rebekah and then Sarah the wife of Abraham. All these women and others were barren by nature but given children by the powerful intervention of God.
These children were not a triumph on the part of these women. They were not the result of painstaking toil and effort. No, they were completely and totally gracious gifts with which they had nothing to do. The same is true for Mary. All she could do is receive the news of God’s gift with gladness and trust him to fulfill his promise. Just like Abraham:
In hope against hope he believed; so that he might become a father of many nations according to that which had been spoken—So shall your descendants be. Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; yet with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully assured that what God had promised He was able also to perform.
So Abraham contemplated death all around him, yet he believed God and gave him glory in the confidence that God was both willing and able to bring life from death. Contrast Paul’s description of Abraham with Paul’s description of unbelief in Romans 1.20ff:
Since the creation of the world God’s invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
So mankind as a whole looks at nature, at themselves and at the other animals, and at the things around them, and they conclude that they or the animals or inanimate things, must be God. Abraham saw only death around him and gave glory to God. Humanity normally sees the divine all around them and gives glory to these dead things. Of itself, nothing in creation can give life. It si all entirely dependent on God. But man mainly imagines these mere created things to be worthy of divine worship. Abraham contemplated himself as dead but believed in God. People contemplate themselves as alive and believe only in themselves.
LET ME REMIND YOU that this analysis of belief and unbelief goes all the way back to the first sin. In the third chapter of Genesis, we read that the Snake tempted Adam and Eve by claiming that they would not die when they ate from the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. Rather, the fruit would automatically, against God’s wishes or plan, make them wise. God had lied to them about death resulting from eating the tree. The tree would impart life and make them like God—make them divine.
There you have it. The first sin is unbelief. God’s promises cannot be trusted. Things work of themselves and give us divine life without God’s help. Those were Satan’s lies. Eve did not contemplate the fruit as dead and yet believe God’s promise and give glory to God. Rather she exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of a piece of fruit. Original sin is unbelief. The act of official disobedience which followed was simply a consequence of a lack of faith.
SO THE OPPOSITE OF original sin is faith. And it is the key to salvation as well. Why? The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 4.16:
in order that it may be in accordance with grace
It is all a gift. It has nothing to do with what we can do. That is what Paul says when he invokes the example of Abraham trusting God to give him a child by Sarah. Sarah’s womb was dead but Abraham trusted God to do what he promised—trusted God to give life to the dead and call into being that which did not exist. Mary does exactly the same thing—trust God to give life to her dead womb and call into being that which did not exist.
So the message of the virgin birth is the message of the Gospel. God can do anything. He can even save sinners. And the only appropriate response to the virgin birth is the same as the only appropriate response to the Gospel: belief; faith; trust. God has promised to provide a complete deliverance for us from all our sins and all the effects of the curse. Indeed, that deliverance has already begun. The conception of Jesus by the power of the Spirit and his subsequent birth was a milestone in that deliverance. The rebirth of Jesus by the power of the Spirit in his resurrection from the dead was the beginning of that deliverance. But both demand a response: believe the good news of God’s deliverance.
If Jesus can give life to an infertile womb, he can give new life to anyone whom he chooses. And whom has he chosen? Whom has he promised to justify?
Those who are good enough? Those who read the Bible to their children five days out of seven? Those who drive within the speed limit? Those who vote for conservative politicians? Those who not only observe the Sabbath but make sure everyone knows they observe the Sabbath?
No. He will vindicate those who believe his promise to save the ungodly. Abraham worshiped other gods. He had no claim on the true God except his need for mercy. But when God promised him new life, he believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness. And when Mary heard the word of the angel promising her life in her womb and a deliverer from her sins, she followed in Abraham’s footsteps. She believed.
Behold the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.
As Elizabeth said to her a little later, in Luke 1.45:
Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.
In the Gospel God has spoken a promise of mercy and new life to us. Let’s learn from the virgin birth. Let’s believe that God will fulfill his promise.