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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
 
Title:The Son of God took on true human nature
Text:BC 18 (View)
Occasion:Christmas Day
Topic:The Incarnation
 
Preached:2011
Added:2012-01-06
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Hymn 10
Hymn 24
Hymn 23
Hymn 1
Psalm 117

Reading:  Galatians 3:26-4:7
Text:  Article 18 of the Belgic Confession
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

Earlier we commemorated our Lord’s birth by hearing a sermon on _______.  This afternoon I want to go in a more doctrinal direction and look at what we confess about the incarnation of Christ in article 18 of the Belgic Confession.  Each year and a half or so we cycle through the 52 Lord’s Days of the Catechism and so we regularly touch on what we confess about Christ’s conception and birth there.  But we also have the Belgic Confession as one of our doctrinal standards and so it’s good that we give that some attention as well.  So this afternoon, we’ll consider what we confess about the Son of God taking on true human nature.  We’ll also give some careful attention to a heresy mentioned by the Confession in connection with this doctrine. 

Article 18 of the Confession doesn’t stand all on its own.  It builds directly on article 17.  You can sense that right away when you see the word “therefore” at the beginning of article 18.  What is article 17 about?  It’s about the rescue of fallen man.  It’s about God going after Adam in the Garden of Eden.  God sought out the rebellious sinner and then gave him what we call the mother promise.  That’s found in Genesis 3:15.  It’s a crucial passage.  In Genesis 3:15 God was speaking to the serpent in the hearing of Adam and Eve.  He promised that the head of the serpent would be crushed by the seed of the woman.  The Belgic Confession says that this was a comforting promise – it gave assurance that though there was darkness now, later there would be light.  A redeemer would come and he would make man blessed.  Now we call that promise in Genesis 3:15 the mother promise.  Why?  Because it is the promise from which all other promises in the Bible are birthed.  Every promise in the Bible is related to this one foundational promise.  This is the mother of them all. 

What happens after Genesis 3:15?  Of course, there’s a lot of history that follows.  Some of it is rather dark and distressing.  There were some bright moments – think of the glory days of Solomon’s reign, for instance.  But someone once described all that as being like a film festival in a prison – “brief diversions from the grim reality of barbed wire, impenetrable walls, and gun-toting officers.”  For the most part, in the Old Testament we hear cry after cry calling out for the seed of the woman to come and bring deliverance.

But we also hear the voice of the prophets.  The Belgic Confession explicitly refers to these at the beginning of article 18.  God spoke the promise to his people in the Old Testament through the holy prophets.  He reaffirmed the mother promise and even expanded on it.  Gradually more detail emerged about what the Messiah would look like, where he would come from, and what he would do. 

Then finally “the appointed time” arrived.  Galatians 4:4 says that it happened “when the time had fully come.”  What was so special about this particular moment was that it had been specially prepared by God.  All sorts of events had been ordered by God’s providence.  For example, the Greeks had been a world power some years before.  They left behind a language that was widely understood.  After Christ completed his redemptive work on earth, Greek would be God’s instrument to rapidly spread the good news.  As another example, the Romans were now in power throughout the Mediterranean region.  There was the Pax Romana – the Roman peace.  There was relative stability throughout the region.  Of course, there was also the Roman infrastructure, an excellent network of roads throughout the Empire.  These too would be an instrument in God’s hands to spread the good news of Christ quickly and efficiently.  This was the appointed time, the time in which everything came together for our salvation. 

At this exact time, we confess that God sent his own Son into the world.  He was and is the eternal Son of God.  He didn’t become the Son of God at a particular moment – he had always been God’s Son and would always be.  He is the second person of the Holy Trinity.  He was sent into the world and humbly took on the form of a servant.  He came as one of us. 

Our Confession asserts that “he truly assumed a human nature with all its infirmities...”  There are two things to note here.  First of all, the Son of God was an active participant in the incarnation.  Yes, he was sent by the Father.  Yes, he was conceived by the power of the Spirit.  Yet he assumed a human nature.  He did it.  In other words, his was not a passive role.  It’s not as if he was sent against his will.  And here’s a key difference from you and me.  When we were conceived, we had no say in the matter.  We were completely passive.  One moment we didn’t exist and the next moment we did.  We were created by God’s will and through the means ordained by him, normal human reproduction.  Not so with our Saviour.  He was an active participant in his conception and the incarnation.  And his action is directly connected with his love.  We believe that when Jesus died on the cross he did not die for sinners in general.  Jesus did not die merely to make salvation possible for an anonymous mass of humanity.  When Jesus died on the cross, he died to pay for the sins of particular, individual people that he knew by name.  We can say something similar about the incarnation.  When he assumed our human nature, he did this with the intent to save particular, individual people that he knew by name.  He did this to save you.

The second thing we can note here is that he took on a human nature “with all its infirmities.”   Infirmity means “weakness.”  Our Lord Jesus did not merely appear to be a human being.  He was and is a human being in every respect.  While he lived on this earth, he did all the things that normal human beings do on this earth, except sin.  Christ got tired.  When he worked as a carpenter, he was sore after a hard day’s work.  He had calluses on his hands.  He became hungry.  You can be sure that he became sick.  All this is important because it reminds us that with Jesus we have a sympathetic High Priest  We have someone who has called his disciples his friends and he understands.  He gets you.  The Word of God promises this and it confirms it with the doctrine of Christ’s true humanity.

We confess that “he was conceived in the womb of the virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit and not by the act of a man.”  I would like to explain to you the exact mechanics of how this happened.  Unfortunately, I can’t.  No one can.  When we speak about the incarnation and the virgin birth, we’re into an area of impenetrable mystery.  In the natural world, there are creatures that do not require a separate male and female to reproduce.   I once saw a New Mexico Whiptail lizard and it doesn’t need to mate to reproduce.  The whole species is made up of females who can reproduce on their own.  This is called parthenogenesis.  Scientists understand the biological mechanics of how this works in some lizards and other creatures.  But humans do not and cannot naturally reproduce in this way.  So how did the conception of Jesus take place in the womb of the virgin Mary?  All we can say is what Scripture tells us.  Scripture says that no human father was involved.  The Bible says in Luke 1:35 that it happened by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Somehow the Spirit worked so that Jesus became a true man without sin.  Somehow Jesus received Mary’s DNA and from that alone became a sinless human being.  Still today the incarnate God carries Mary’s genes.  He is her true flesh and blood.

And all that is not restricted to his body.  Human beings are made up of two main components.  We have a physical, material component with our bodies.  But then we also have a spiritual, immaterial component with our souls.  These two parts together are what make us human beings.  With our Saviour, it’s not that he had a human body, but a divine spirit or soul – that he was one part human and the other non-human.  He was a complete human being with a fully human body and a fully human soul.  He was, as the Belgic Confession puts it, a real man.  Jesus was not an apparent man, or God coming into the world wearing the mask of a man.  Besides sin, in every respect he was and is fully human.

We confess that this was completely necessary.  The entire human being was plunged into the curse.  The misery, death, and destruction that came upon us with the fall was something that affected both body and soul, the material and the immaterial.  If Jesus is going to save and deliver the entire human being, then it follows that he had to become an entire human being.  The same human nature which has sinned has to pay for sin and that true human nature involves a body and a soul.

You may remember that the Belgic Confession was originally written as a witness to the Roman Catholic government of the Low Countries in the sixteenth century.  Guido de Bres and the Reformed Churches wanted to explain that they were not heretics or radicals, but were just believing what the Bible teaches and what the true Catholic church had always taught.  And in article 18, we don’t find anything that a Roman Catholic would disagree with.  What we find here has been the undisputed teaching of Christians for centuries. 

In passing, I might also note the way de Bres speaks about Mary in this article.  He calls her “the blessed virgin Mary.”  Our edition still speaks that way.  We believe that the virgin Mary was a blessed woman because she was chosen to conceive and bear the Son of God.  But unlike us, Guido de Bres believed that Mary remained a virgin after she gave birth to Jesus.  She never gave birth to any more children after him, never even had sexual relations with Joseph or anyone else.  She remained a virgin her whole life long.  De Bres was not the only Reformer who believed this – so did Martin Luther and John Calvin and many others.  Of course, you’re thinking, well, doesn’t the Bible speak about Jesus’ brothers and sisters?  De Bres and the other Reformers followed the old Catholic interpretation that these were actually Jesus’ cousins.  That’s an interesting side point, but we’re not bound to it in any way.  De Bres had the freedom to believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary and someone could have the same freedom today if they wanted to.  Nothing hangs on that point in terms of significance for Christian doctrine.         

There were many who were rethinking the place and role of Mary in theology in the time of the Belgic Confession.  One of the key issues was how could Jesus be sinless?  The Roman Catholic Church resorted to the doctrine of the immaculate conception.  That doctrine teaches that not only was Jesus free from original sin, the sin transmitted down the human line from Adam, but also his mother, the blessed virgin Mary.  The conception of Mary in her mother was immaculate, untainted by sin.  Mary came into this world without original sin and she remained without sin.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in article 493, “By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.”  Now we have to be clear here.  As Bible-believing Christians, we do not believe in the immaculate conception.  We believe in the virgin birth of Jesus, but we do not believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary.  There is no biblical support for that doctrine whatsoever.

Around the time of the Reformation many reacted against the doctrine of the immaculate conception.  Among those was Melchior Hoffmann, an early Anabaptist.  Hoffmann believed that Jesus was born sinless, but he could not agree that this was because Mary was sinless.  Instead, he argued that while Jesus was born from Mary, she did not contribute anything to his being or substance.  She was simply the “container” in which the heavenly Jesus came to earth in the form of a man.  Others have described this view in terms of a funnel.  Mary was the funnel for the heavenly flesh of Jesus to come to earth. 

Menno Simons was another Anabaptist.  The Mennonites are named after Menno Simons.  Simons shared Hoffmann’s concern to find an explanation for Jesus’ sinlessness.  He wanted an explanation that would not fall back on the doctrine of immaculate conception.  Simons argued that Christ’s person, both divine and human, had been implanted in the virgin Mary.  According to Menno Simons, Mary made no biological contribution to his being.  She was simply the field in which the seed was sown.  To support his position, Simons did try to appeal to the Bible.  But he was using the Latin Vulgate and he didn’t know Greek and so he misinterpreted some key passages.  However, even contemporary Anabaptist scholars recognize that Simons’ view on this was also influenced by the Greek philosopher Aristotle.  Aristotle had taught that the woman is entirely passive in the normal reproductive process.  The father has the seed of life and he implants that seed in the woman.  She only nourishes that seed until the time of birth.  Simons reasoned that if the Bible taught the same thing, then Mary could not have contributed anything to the person of Jesus.  Then Jesus did not assume human flesh from his mother, but from heaven.  Theologians call this the heavenly flesh Christology of the Anabaptists. 

Our Belgic Confession calls it a heresy.  First, what does it mean that this teaching is a heresy?  It means that it is a doctrine which, if held consistently and unrepentantly, puts your salvation in jeopardy.  Second, why is it so significant?  Our Confession maintains that Simons, Hoffmann, and other Anabaptists who held this view had compromised the true human nature of Christ.  They had violated the clear teaching of Scripture – our Confession lays out all the relevant passages.  If Christ had a heavenly human flesh, then it was not a truly human flesh.  He was no longer the seed of the woman promised in Genesis 3:15.  He was disqualified from being the Mediator and consequently, salvation was at stake.  The Roman Catholic Church had departed from God’s truth with its formulation of the doctrine of the immaculate conception.  But de Bres could also look back and see an unbroken line of teaching asserting that Jesus Christ was truly human and truly divine.  Those who departed from this line were always regarded as heretics whose very salvation was in danger. 

But what about today?  What do the Mennonites believe today about the incarnation?  Most Mennonites have rejected Menno Simons’ teaching of a heavenly flesh Christology.  However, there are at least some small Mennonite sects which continue to hold this position even into the present day.  Perhaps one day you’ll encounter a Mennonite who believes this.  It’s possible.  With our Belgic Confession and its faithful summary of biblical teaching, we should recognize this false teaching for the heresy that it is.  Where we can we should also engage our Mennonite friends on it and explain its dangerous consequences. 

Today there many other errors floating about with regard to the incarnation and virgin birth.  One of them is found with a popular author named Rob Bell.  In his book Velvet Elvis, Bell says that the virgin birth isn’t really all that important and if DNA testing were somehow to prove that Jesus had a real earthly father named Larry, we wouldn’t lose any significant part of our faith.  He says our faith is more about the way we live than what we believe.  Rob Bell doesn’t deny the incarnation and virgin birth of Christ, but he does deny that it has any real importance. 

So, what about it?  Does what we confess in article 18 really make all that much of a difference for the Christian faith?  In Isaiah 7:14, the Bible prophesied that the Messiah would be born of a virgin.  The Bible tells us plainly that Mary did not have sexual relations with Joseph until after Jesus was born.  So, yes, the virgin birth does matter, because what’s at stake first of all is the truthfulness and integrity of Scripture.  Rob Bell makes the assumption that DNA testing is somehow more trustworthy than the reliability of Scripture.  That draws into question whether or not Scripture can be trusted.  Of course, as God’s children we can trust the Word of our Father.  He loves us and will never lie to us. 

Saying that the virgin birth is unimportant is like saying that the cross is unimportant or that the resurrection is unimportant – lose any of those things and you lose the whole of our salvation.  It’s a package deal where either you accept the whole thing or you don’t accept any of it.

From the Scriptures we confess that our Lord Jesus was truly man and truly God.  There is a lot at stake with that confession.  Our Lord Jesus was born in and lived in poverty.  During his three years of ministry, his family thought he was deranged.  He experienced loneliness, deep sorrow, exhaustion, and grief at the loss of a loved one.  He was attacked both verbally and physically.  He was mocked and spat on.  His friends turned their backs on him at his lowest point.  When he was on the cross, he bled and died.  For all believers who suffer today, we can be encouraged by the true humanity of our Saviour.  We can celebrate his incarnation today and always.  When times are tough, we can go to him for grace.  We know that he knows – he is an understanding and sympathetic friend.  Praise God that he took on our human flesh, qualifying him not only to be our friend, but also our great Redeemer!  AMEN. 

Prayer:

Father,

We again thank you for the incarnation of Jesus your Son.  Thank you for sending him into the world to be one of us.  We praise you for a Saviour who is true man in every way.  We are glad that we have a  Redeemer who took the form of a servant and who was born in the likeness of men.  Father, we thank you that we have a complete Saviour, one who promises to deliver us body and soul.  Please lead us with your Spirit to always be thankful for these great gospel truths.  Help us to love you more because of them and to show our love to you with lives that conform to your Word.   

 




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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