When did God save the world? In answer, one might make a valid argument for the Cross or the Resurrection. But what about the Incarnation? More than any other event, it is the Incarnation that puts the person of Christ front and center, because its emphasis is not on what Christ did but on who he is.
If the Incarnation has been overlooked, perhaps it is because of the temptation to assess the events of Jesus' humanity—his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension—only as building on one another in some unlocking, chronological way. This is natural to do because of the temporal, historical nature of Jesus' earthly life. Unfortunately, the result of such an approach is that it can relegate God's mind-blowing assumption of our humanity to something like a means to an end—the end being the crescendo of Easter.
But because of the always-divine nature of the eternal Son, these gospel events also carry a trans-temporal element that gives each its own salvific potency—each event is contained in the other, because all are lifted off the earthly timeline and gathered up in him. To say it another way, whereas in chronological time the events of salvation historyrely on each other, in the eternal economy the events reveal with each other the reality that is Christ.
The event of the birth of Christ, then, contains all the others. Bundled in the manger is the salvation of the world. The Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension are all present implicitly in the baby Jesus, only to be unpacked over the next thirty-plus years. Far from being secondary, the Incarnation is in a very real sense our saving moment! At Christmas we can thank the Lord with Simeon: "For my eyes have seen your salvation" (Luke 2:30).We say this not only because we are looking backward through the Cross to the crib but also because, from the very beginning, even before Adam fell, God was looking "forward" through the crib to the Cross!
It is in the Pastoral Epistles—1 and 2 Timothy and Titus—that we find most profoundly this idea that salvation comes in the person of Jesus Christ, and for this reason I call these pastoral letters the Christmas Epistles. The author of the Pastorals (for our purposes, Paul) is keen to keep the person and work of Christ together so as to equip his hearers to thrive in a similar economy of being and acting. For Paul in these letters, the conspicuous term "godliness" (used only four other times in the New Testament) is undoubtedly meant to signify believers' participation in the humanity of God, the ongoing vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Hark the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King."
With the arrival of the Savior, the world is never the same. Something absolutely cataclysmic has occurred in his coming. In a resounding echo of the angels' chorus, Paul chimes in, twice asserting that he has been "appointed a herald" of the Good News (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). Paul is sure that the day of God's kingdom has dawned with the birth of the King. While he certainly doesn't ignore the death and resurrection of Christ, his emphasis in the Pastorals is consistently on the arrival of "God our Savior"; the focus is the arrival or appearance of Christ, not his works:
The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. (Titus 2:11 NRSV)
When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us. (Titus 3:45a)
Simply put, with the arrival of the Savior, the world is saved. Incarnation means Atonement!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!
"God our Savior" is an Old Testament description that in the New Testament appears only once outside the Pastorals, and we find it here five times. In congruity with the rest of the New Testament, one may anticipate the word "Savior" in the Pastorals to be a designation for Jesus, and it is: "Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior" (Titus 1:4; cf. 3:6). However, it is notable that the phrase "God our Savior" is used not to describe Jesus but to refer to the Godhead in general or, specifically, to the Father himself. To find the beginning of this scarlet thread in the Pastorals we need look no further than the first sentence of 1 Timothy: "Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope."
The fact that both Jesus and God are described as "Savior" is important for at least two reasons. First, only once in the Pastorals is Jesus directly exalted as God (Titus 2:13); Paul prefers to use the word "Savior" interchangeably to signify the oneness of being between God the Father and God the Son, without collapsing the two into one another. Second, if it seems that Paul is much more intent to describe the Father as Savior than he is to exalt the Son as God, perhaps it is to emphasize that the Father is every bit as passionate as the Son when it comes to seeking and saving the lost. It is clear that the two are of one heart in the matter of redeeming the world:
[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Tim. 1:910)
The phrase "revealed through the appearing" is a significant marker for us, because it insists that "Savior" is who God is "before the beginning of time," before Eve and Adam's biting of the forbidden fruit. Jesus Christ did not suddenly become Savior when he died for our sins; he was born, lived, died, and rose again for us because he is Savior! Far from doing these things in order for God to love us, the good news of Christmas is that Jesus came to rescue us because God has always loved us! "When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us … ."
The Incarnation reveals who God is and who he has been all along. Paul does not want us to fall prey to the idea that Jesus is saving us from the wrath of a God who is fundamentally against us, or that his death is meant to assuage God's displeasure with us. This could only signal a disastrous schism in God's character, negating the oneness of being and purpose in God the Father and God the Son and their mission to destroy sin, death, and the devil.
Instead, Paul asks us to view all of God's works in the context of his person. Because God is Savior, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15). All of God's works are consistent with, and in the context of, his being—his character as a kind and loving God.
Late in time, behold him come, offspring of the virgin's womb,
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity.
Before Christ, as Paul acknowledges, humanity has no view directly into God's nature, and we are left to be awed by his transcendence:
Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Tim. 1:17)
God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen. (1 Tim. 6:1516)
As beautiful as these doxologies are, it is important to note that they are not expressly Christian in and of themselves. Other religions could and do say the same kinds of things about their gods. The Pastorals remind us that it is the Incarnation that makes the Christian claim unique. In Christ the invisible becomes visible, and he who cannot be seen has appeared; the unapproachable has drawn near!
The King and Lord has mightily manifested his intolerance of sin, yet not in the way we would have predicted. The honored and glorious one has assumed our dishonor and vainglory in himself in order to destroy its spurious claim on humankind. The Holy One has embraced us at our worst. The immortal has become mortal in order to give us his immortality. Jesus has taken our sinful life to its ignoble end and given us a new beginning—eternal life with the Father. We are raised with Christ healed and whole, and God is sharing his glorious life with us!
Earlier we cited 2 Timothy 1:10, which declares that Jesus Christ "has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." This phrase "brought . . . to light" reminds us that against all usurpations of the enemy, life has been revealed and reasserted in its prior and proper place. In Christ, the Ruler demonstrates to the world that light has been the rule and darkness the exception all along.
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.
As alluded to earlier, the Pastorals are less concerned with the deity of Christ than with the humanity of God. To put it another way, Jesus is just as fully man as he is fully God, and it's the man side of things that Paul does not want us to miss.
To appreciate the Christmas gift we have been given in Jesus Christ we must give full place to his mediatorship. Jesus is Mediator, not as a third party, but in unity with both parties simultaneously. In this position, Jesus mediates a double movement of grace, a God-humanward movement and a human-Godward movement. In the person of the Mediator, Jesus Christ is the revelation of God to humanity and the response of humanity to God.
What good would it do if God had handed us a gift and left it up to us to respond? Sinful man is impossibly helpless to reciprocate, and that's why for Paul there is no such thing as grace without a human-Godward provision, without Jesus' being not only the word of God to humanity but also the responsive word of humanity to God. For our sakes, it is important that the Pastorals describe the Mediator as "the man Christ Jesus":
For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. (1 Tim. 2:56a)
It's important that Jesus was a man, fully a human being, so that he could fully understand and share our predicament. But we must also think of his humanity without emptying the content of his deity. It's his deity that links all of us into his humanity. If this were not the case, his mediatorship would be compromised; Jesus would "touch" only a few of us, externally, as one person in a crowd of people.
But Jesus' relationship to us is not only external and historical; it is ontological and eternal. His humanity affects all of us. We are all implicated in God the Son's humanity because all human being exists in the being of God. Jesus Christ is the one person in whom all persons are included. He is every person's substitute and representative to God. The God-man, in representing God to humanity and humanity to God, brings the two together. This is our salvation.
But this salvation is not a static or deterministic force meant to depersonalize humanity. That's why Paul is so keen to articulate both the objective and the subjective aspects of salvation in the Pastorals. Yes, "the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people" (Titus 2:11), but the gospel must be believed for its benefits to be enjoyed! So Paul declares: "[Christ] is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe" (1 Tim. 4:10).
Belief is critical, but even belief does not occur in a vacuum; it happens only within the truth of Christ's ongoing human-Godward movement as our Mediator. This in no way prevents one's belief from being a free, subjective act. On the contrary, the truth sets us free; we are never more free than when we are participating in the true humanity of our incarnate brother, our Mediator, Jesus Christ.
Pleased as man with us to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
God with Us Still: The Spirit of Grace and Godliness
Thankfully, Emmanuel wasn't only a thirty-three-year reality! Christ's "with-ness," his incarnational union with us, is indispensable if we want to do anything in his name. Paul ends many of his letters, including the Pastorals, with phrases like "Grace be with you" (1 Tim. 6:21; 2 Tim. 4:22; Titus 3:15) and "The Lord be with your spirit." This is shorthand for "May you know and experience solidarity with Jesus Christ—grace—and the transformative human-Godward wind of the Spirit blowing in your sails!"
To live truly in grace is to share the dynamic Trinitarian life—to live in Christ, by the Spirit, unto the Father. Armed with the knowledge of our union with Christ and his ongoing vicarious humanity on our behalf, and filled with the Holy Spirit moving in and through us, we find ourselves compelled by love, motivated to action, and bolstered for endurance. The Pastorals are not lacking for vigorous words to describe our participation in Christ. Paul charges Timothy to "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 2:1). He encourages him to fight, labor, strive, persevere, be diligent, flee, pursue, take hold of, endure, rebuke, guard.
The word "godliness" is a biblical term rarely used outside the Pastorals. I believe that "godliness" and "ungodliness" are Paul's special way of describing our movement with or against the human-Godward movement of Christ. For Paul, godliness is not a lofty notion but a surprisingly earthy one; it is rooted in the real humanity of Jesus Christ and in his filial obedience to the Father, spurred by the Father's love.
Astoundingly, Jesus has shared in our flesh and enabled us to share joyfully in his filial obedience. Godliness, then, is not an attempt at imitating or reflecting the glory of a God "out there," external to us, but rather a living-out of our grounding in the humanity of God; it is a participation in the ongoing vicarious humanity of our Lord. One could say it is to live from God, not just to God. We may live a "godly life in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 3:12), literally!
"The mystery from which true godliness springs is great" (1 Tim. 3:16), Paul says:
He appeared in the flesh,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.
We cannot measure the fathomless love that motivated God to come to us. We can only know that Jesus has met us at our lowest point in order to bring us against all odds into God's own life. Our godliness originates in the incarnate Son of God and his faithfulness to the Father, even through death to resurrection and ascension. Of course, the Holy Spirit plays an integral role in this drama, for it is through the Spirit that Christ is vindicated. Just as Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the God-humanward movement of grace, Jesus establishes the human-Godward trajectory for humanity by the Holy Spirit.
In the same way, the Holy Spirit desires to awaken us and to align us to the reality of what Christ has accomplished for us. He opens us up, personalizing and particularizing the truth to us. Yet God, in all his might, refuses to be a puppeteer; he allows those he has redeemed to resist the Spirit, even though to do so is to go against the way things are. Going against the human-Godward "grain" of reality established and reestablished in humanity's creation and redemption can only bring destructive splinters (as in rubbing a piece of freshly hewn wood in the wrong direction).
This ungodliness is warned against in the Pastorals. Paul doesn't hesitate to call out those who have gone the wrong way, against the reality of Christ; they have "suffered shipwreck" (1 Tim. 1:19) or "wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1 Tim. 6:10). In the end, they are "self-condemned" (Titus 3:11).
The mystery of ungodliness, then, appears to be almost as great! Why would anyone who has been raised with Christ prefer to languish in the tomb of denial? Why would anyone want to deny the truth of Christ, and therefore the truth of his or her own being, all the way to hell? God has saved us, and our Savior "wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:4, italics mine). The truth is not relative, and those who try to create their own version need to know that they can only destroy themselves in the process. With sincere compassion we may therefore herald the Good News and hope the best for all, "that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 2:25)—a "knowledge of the truth," Paul says, "that leads to godliness" (Titus 1:1).
The Pastorals use the word "grace" twelve times and the word "truth" thirteen times in their thirteen chapters. The prominence of these words at Christmastime is only fitting, as we celebrate our Savior who came to us "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). It is a poignant feature of the Pastorals that grace and truth are woven so inextricably together to exalt the person of Jesus Christ, he who as our Savior, King, and Mediator "saved us and called us to a holy life" (2 Tim. 1:9).
[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior. (Titus 3:56)
In the person of Christ, in his birth no less than in his life, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecostal blessing, humanity has been washed clean, re-created, born again. And because weare, we in the church should train one another to be:
For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Tim. 4:8)
Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die
Born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.
God with us means us with God. Merry Christmas!
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Christianity Today articles about the Incarnation include:
Why We Need Jesus | Reason and morality cannot show us a good and gracious God. For that, we need the Incarnation. (Global Gospel Project, December 2, 2011)
Holy Incarnation! | It may be impossible not to "demean God" since he mixed it up with sinners. (September 30, 2010)
Ongoing Incarnation | Would Christmas have come even if we had not sinned? (January 10, 2008)
What Is This Word? | The incomprehensible, intimate Christmas story. (December 21, 2006)
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