Meditations on the Larger Catechism, pt. 24
February 18, 2013
How Did God Become Man?
“Jesus Christ is the sum and quintessence of the gospel; the wonder of angels; the joy and triumph of saints” (Watson, A Body of Divinity, 161). He is, as we saw in Q&A 36, the mediator of the covenant of grace between God and man. The question for us to meditate upon is how did he become this mediator?
In turning to the Gospel narratives, recognize something startling about what they say concerning Jesus’ birth. Neither Mark nor John chronicles the birth of our Lord. Mark, in fact, jumps right into the action with John the Baptist and Jesus at the Jordan River. John begins his Gospel “in the beginning” and then says “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) before moving into the testimony of John the Baptist to Jesus. Only Matthew and Luke, then, deal with Jesus’ birth, that is, how the Son of God was born in human flesh to be our mediator.
Let me say a word about this since you will no doubt watch some documentary type shows during the Christmas television season. Most often than naught these shows will be littered with critical and radical scholars who doubt that Jesus was even born. They will use the so-called “different” accounts above as evidence of this: “Don’t you see, Mark and John don’t even mention his birth, while Matthew just says it happened, but then in Luke you have an angel announcing the whole thing.” Let me assure you that this is the Word of the Lord and that these accounts are not contradictory but complimentary.
The question we need to meditate upon, therefore, is How Did God Become Man?
According to the Will of God
How did God become man? The first aspect of the answer is that it was according to the will of God. We see this in these words: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God” (Luke 1:26). That little phrase, “sent from God,” certainly reveals to us that everything that is about to be accomplished is the will of God.
What is the will of God? It helps us finite creatures to distinguish between his decretive will and his preceptive will. His decretive will is a way of saying everything he determined in his secret council in eternity while his preceptive will is everything he desires and reveals. With the birth of our Lord we are dealing both with God’s decretive will, which he determined from before the foundation of the world, and his perceptive will that is revealed to us in the pages of the Word.
God’s will, then, is eternal. Just to pause and ponder the fact that before there was time and before there was anything else but God, God thought of us should absolutely humble us, should absolutely fill us with awe, and should absolutely fill us with praise.
And since this will is God’s will, it is immutable, that is, it is unchanging and immovable. The devil certainly wanted to change the course of history, yet God’s will remains the same.
By the Power of the Holy Spirit
How did God become man? The second aspect of the answer is that it was by the power of the Holy Spirit. You see, Gabriel promised some pretty stupendous things in Luke 1:30–33: you will conceive, you will bear a son, he will be great, and he will sit on David’s throne. There was only one slight problem: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34) In fact, Mary was betrothed to Joseph and they had not yet consummated their marriage. You see there were really two problems.
First, how would the Son of God become a man unless he was born of a woman? This is why the Holy Spirit was needed as the agent of conception. We read in Luke 1:35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”
Second, how would the Son of God remain untainted from sin if he were born of a woman? There are only two options. First, we can say that Mary was immaculately conceived herself, and that she was free from original and actual sin. This is the view of Rome. Second, we can let God be God and understand that the Holy Spirit’s ineffable work was precisely to keep Jesus from sin.
What this shows us is how far God would go to secure our redemption. He works through means but he also works above means. He worked through means by sending his Son to be born of a virgin, as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, but the Lord also worked above means in conceiving in Mary in a miraculous way. Behold your God, my friend!
Through the Means of Mary
How did God become man? The third aspect of the answer is that it was through the means of Mary. Let me focus in on the aspect that God worked through the ordinary means of childbirth to bring his eternal Son into the world he originally made.
I want you to notice the language of the Catechism where it says that the Son of God “[took] to himself a true body” (Q&A 37). Why this precise language of “true” body? This guards us against the Docetists of the ancient church and even some Anabaptists during the Reformation, who either said Jesus only appeared to be a human or that his humanity was not like ours, but was “celestial flesh.”
Notice also the precise language in Q&A 37 of “a reasonable soul.” What is that all about? A reasonable or rational soul is a way of saying he was and is truly human not only in body, but in every way we cannot see. This became an issue back in the fifth century with a popular teacher by the name of Apolinarius. He taught that in the Incarnation the Son of God assumed a true human body and what he called a lower soul. This meant he was like all other creatures with a body as well as some immaterial aspect to his being. But instead of what is called a rational or reasonable soul, which is what distinguishes us from animals, Apolinarius said the eternal Word took the place of that higher soul. In the end, this meant that Jesus Christ had less of the humanity that we have.
Notice also that the Catechism says the Son was born “of her substance, and born of her” (Q&A 37), meaning, Mary. The angel said the Son would be conceived “in your womb” and born of her, and Elizabeth praised Mary and “the fruit of your womb.” What this means it that Jesus derived his human nature from his mother, Mary, and therefore is like unto us in every way, yet without sin (Heb. 4:15).
This is our mediator—truly God and truly man. He is our gospel; he is our wonder; he is our joy; he is our triumph.
Rev. Daniel R. Hyde
Pastor, Oceanside United Reformed Church
Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; repr., Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 2000).