During the Protestant Reformation in Europe of the 16th century, the Dutch Reformed churches in the Netherlands were attended by about 10% of the population. At the turn of the century nearly 50% of the population of the Netherlands began attending Dutch Reformed churches. Although one would think this is a good thing that the Dutch Reformed churches grew so rapidly, “it became easy to confuse being anti-Catholic with being Reformed. Nominal church membership and loose living became fashionably acceptable. Spiritual and ethical sterility grew rampantly, particularly when combined with newfound prosperity.”[i] Thus, while the Dutch Reformers stood squarely on the shoulders of the Reformers who had come a century before them, they sought zealously to apply Reformation doctrine to the lives of their parishioners. Hence, the Second Dutch Reformation was “a movement in the 17th century which was a reaction against dead orthodoxy and [the] secularization of Christianity in the Church of the Reformation and which insisted on the practise of faith” [sic].[ii] In essence, the Dutch Reformers sought to show that right theology that is not lived out, that is not seen as being relative to every day life, is pointless. Right theology should lead to a life of doxology.
This Advent season there is a great deal of talk—and blogging—about the necessity of incarnation of God as it pertains to right theology and the heart of the gospel. To be sure, the incarnation of God is the sine qua non of the gospel. It is the thing without which there is no gospel. The author of Hebrews states that Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (1:3).[iii] Jesus is the exact imprint of God’s nature and upholds the universe by the word of his power. The author of Hebrews is describing Jesus in fully divine terms. He then says of Christ, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (2:17, italics mine). Jesus had to be fully God and fully man in order to be able to atone for the sins of people. Simply put, this is because Jesus “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12, italics mine). Only God is perfectly sinless. Thus, Jesus had to be fully divine in order to enter the presence of God the Father by means of his own blood. Hence, the incarnation is the crux of the gospel.
However, the incarnation of God is not necessary solely because it is foundational to the true gospel. To be sure, understanding and believing the incarnation of God is essential to ensuring one’s own salvation. I say this based on Paul’s argument that “if we [the apostles] or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8, 9). A gospel message which denies the incarnation of God is a false gospel. Nevertheless, the doctrine of the incarnation of God is practically relevant as much as it is theologically necessary. Thus, in the tradition of the Dutch Second Reformation, I would like to propose four reasons why the incarnation of God can and should have relevance in the Christian life.
First, we live in a culture where there is less actual and personal contact every day. With the advent of email and texting and social media, fewer and fewer people actually talk with one another face to face, much less have any meaningful physical contact such as holding hands, embracing in a friendly hug, or even just a warm touch on someone’s shoulder. When I was a high school teacher, I had students tell me they would regularly engage in conversations with their parents via texting while sitting in their bedroom and mom or dad was in some other part of the house. There have been many times when my wife and I have gone to dinner and looked around the restaurant and noticed many people sitting at a table together and yet not interacting with each other. They would all be staring down at their phones texting or emailing or doing something, but what they were not doing was looking at each other and having a personal face to face conversation. We live in a culture where actual personal interaction is in danger of becoming extinct. Yet in the incarnation, God came to us and dwelt among us. God could have dropped the Bible from the sky. He could have written a message for us in the clouds. Yes, Jesus had to live a life of perfect obedience to the law for us in order to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law (Rom 8:3, 4), but it certainly did not have to be for thirty-three years and he could have spent his time on earth on a deserted island. But instead God chose to come to us, to dwell among us, to interact with us, to touch us. God was not content to simply send us information. He wanted humanity to hear the kindness in his voice, to see the love in his eyes, and to feel the warmth of his touch. In the Bible we read the story of a leper who came to Jesus and knelt before him saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed (Matt. 8:2-3). Why did Jesus touch him? He is God. He could have spoken a word and the leper would have been healed. Jesus wanted to minister to the man’s emotional need as well as his physical need—the need for human touch. The need for human interaction.
Secondly, we live in a culture that is fascinated with watching the lives of others through a screen. Be it through television or movies, YouTube or social media, reality shows or political talking heads, we are enthralled with watching how others live, with following people on social media, with living vicariously through the lives of others. Like watching ants in an ant farm, we spend hours watching other people, curious about what they are doing and why they are doing it, curious about where they are taking that tiny piece of food and how they plan to get there, cheering for them as they struggle with a challenge and feeling sad for them when they fail or become frustrated. We are a part of a generation who is content to watch the world through the screen on our laptops, tablets or smartphones. But God was not content to watch our world from afar but entered our world in the incarnation of Christ. God came into our world and lived among us and dwelt with us and experienced first hand what it was like to walk in our shoes, to wrestle with our challenges, and to feel the pain of our suffering. The Bible tells us that in Christ “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). In the incarnation, God entered into our world. He entered into our pain and our suffering, our grief and our sorrow, our challenges and our struggles. He lived in our world, in our shoes. He knows what it’s like to be us.
Thirdly, we are living in one of the most divisive times in our history, a time where the ideas of civil discourse and political compromise are becoming obsolete. We watch the news with shock and dismay as a Democratic Congresswoman tells her followers that “if you see anybody from that [President Trump’s] Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd. And you push back on them. And you tell them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere”[iv] or when we hear the President of the United States praising a Republican Congressman for violently body slamming a reporter saying, “Any guy that can do a body slam — he's my kind of guy.”[v] We live in a time when those who disagree with us are immediately labeled as racists, as neo-Nazi, as nationalists, or as homophobes. Or, they are labeled as Socialists, as Communists, or as anti-American. Gone are the days of talking to one another, now we talk past each other. Gone are the days of seeking to understand the other side, now we seek to silence the other side. Gone are the days of striving for unity, now it’s ‘My way or I will destroy you!’ Yet, in the incarnation God came to our world to die for his enemies, for those who adamantly disagreed with him, for those to hated and despised him. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us…. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:8-10). God stepped down from heaven and became man in order to die for those who hated him.
Fourthly, we live in a time where shaming people on social media has become common cannon fodder—fat-shaming, skinny-shaming, and even mommy-shaming. By “shaming” is meant: “the act or practice of attempting to embarrass a person or group by drawing attention to their perceived offence, especially on social media.”[vi] Recently the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee-Sanders, was publicly fat-shamed by Los Angeles Times political columnist David Horsey for being slightly overweight,[vii] actress Anna Faris was skinny-shamed on Instagram for being too thin,[viii] and Kim Kardashian was mommy-shamed for allowing her two year-old to use a pacifier,[ix] and the list goes on. The motivation behind shaming is essentially looking down at one’s nose at someone else and saying to them, ‘You’re not good enough. You don’t live up to my standards. You’re not as good as I am.’ But if there is anyone who has the right to shame others, it’s God. We clearly have fallen short of his standards. He is perfect. We are not. He is sinless. We are sinful. And yet, God condescended to our level and became one of us. We are incapable of reaching up to God and so God came down to us. The God who spoke the universe into existence by the power of his word, who parted the Red Sea, and thundered from atop of Mt. Sinai, allowed himself to be born in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. Rather than point his finger at us and shame us, he reached down from heaven and loved us.
The incarnation reminds us that if God was willing to love us and do all of this for us, should we not be willing to do the same for others? In the Bible we read this: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn. 4:10-11). If God so loved us in this way and to this extent, then we also should be willing to convey this same type of love toward others. And not just to those who love us and agree with us, but even to those who disagree with us or may even despise and hate us. Rather than Christmas bringing out the worst in us—covetousness, greed, selfishness or pride—the Advent season, reflection on the birth of Christ, the incarnation of God, should bring out the best in us—love, peace, hope, and joy. In the end, the incarnation of God in the birth of Christ is not only theologically necessary, but relevant.
[i] Joel R. Beeke. The Christian’s Reasonable Service. “The Dutch Second Reformation (‘Nadere Reformatie’)” <http://www.abrakel.com/2009/11/dutch-second-reformation-dr-joel-r_06.html> Accessed December 5, 2018.
[iii] Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotes are from the English Standard Version of the Bible. Crossway Books. 2016.
[iv] CNN. “Maxine Waters Encourages Supporters to Harass Trump Administration Officials.” June 25, 2018. <https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/25/politics/maxine-waters-trump-officials/index.html> Accessed December 6, 2018.
[v] CNBC. “Trump Praises Montana Congressman Who Body-Slammed Reporter.” October 19, 2018. <https://www.cnbc.com/2018/10/19/trump-praises-montana-congressman-who-body-slammed-reporter.html> Accessed December 6, 2018.
[vi] Collins Dictionary. “Shaming.” <https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/shaming> Accessed December 6, 2018.
[vii] Foxnews. “White House press secretary Sarah Sanders body-shamed by LA Times columnist.” November 4, 2017. <https://www.foxnews.com/politics/white-house-press-secretary-sarah-sanders-body-shamed-by-la-times-columnist> Accessed December 6, 2018.
[viii] Cosmopolitan. “Anna Faris was so badly body shamed in this picture, she deleted it.” <https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/body/a23579009/anna-faris-body-shamed-deleted-picture/> Accessed December 6, 2018.
[ix] Yahoo. “Kim Kardashian is mom-shamed over the use of pacifiers.” <https://finance.yahoo.com/video/kim-kardashian-mom-shamed-over-171351338.html> Accessed December 6, 2018.