The doctrine of the Incarnation

This is the first in a series of articles on the Incarnation.

Lorenzo Snow, fifth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, once claimed the Spirit of God fell upon him and revealed a principle that has become an apt summary of Mormonism: “As man now is, God once was; As God now is, man may be.”

In other words, the God of this world once was a mere human who attained deity, showing us the path to our own godhood. This principle of “eternal progression” is a stunningly unbiblical doctrine that sets Mormonism outside the boundaries of historic Christianity.

At the same time, it raises questions – not only about God, but about the Son of God: Who is Jesus? Where did He come from? And why and how did He become human?

The doctrine of the Incarnation – God becoming a human in Jesus of Nazareth – is central to Christianity. Get it wrong and many other non-negotiable doctrines of the Christian faith quickly veer into counterfeit territory.

As we explore the Incarnation from a biblical perspective, it may help to compare Snow’s “revelation” with the following orthodox statement from Christian author C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity: “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.”

The Incarnation defined

The term “Incarnation” is of Latin origin and literally means “enfleshment” or “embodiment.” A Greek equivalent is found in Scripture: en sarki [sarx].For example, John 1:14 reads: “And the Word became flesh (sarx egeneto).”

Simply put, the Incarnation means the eternal Son of God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As such, Jesus Christ is one person in two natures: divine and human.

The importance of this truth should not be overlooked. If Jesus is not divine, He cannot be the Christ; if He is not human, He cannot be our Savior.

In God Among Sages, Kenneth Samples writes, “This truth sets Christianity apart from all other religions of the world (including the monotheistic faiths of Judaism and Islam), for it is unique to Christianity to discover a God who takes the initiative to become flesh in order to redeem sinful human beings.”

As Christianity spread in the early decades of the church, it encountered competing views of God in paganism. And it wrestled with false teachings that assaulted the church from within. So, it became necessary to articulate a clear view of God as triune, and of Jesus as the God-Man – views consistent with the teaching of the apostles and the writings of the New Testament.

One of the most important statements on the Incarnation is the Creed of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). All Christendom – Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant – affirms the Chalcedonian formula that Jesus Christ is both God and man.

The creed says, in part: “We all with one voice confess our Lord Jesus Christ to be one and the same Son, perfect in divinity and humanity, truly God and truly human, consisting of a rational soul and a body, being of one substance with the Father in relation to his divinity, and being of one substance with us in relation to his humanity, and is like us in all things apart from sin.”

The God-Man

This means Jesus is not a god who only appeared to be human, as the Docetists taught; a mere man born of Mary and Joseph, as the Ebionites claimed; or the first and greatest creation of God, as the Arians believed (and Jehovah’s Witnesses proclaim today).

Rather, Jesus is the God-Man, one person with two distinct but undivided natures, divine and human. As Wayne Grudem summarizes in Systematic Theology, “Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man in one person, and will be so forever.”

The doctrine of the Incarnation flows naturally from a biblical understanding of the Trinity. Historic Christianity affirms belief in one infinitely perfect, eternal, and personal God, the transcendent Creator and sovereign Sustainer of the universe. This one God is triune, existing eternally and simultaneously as three distinct but not separate persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In this light, Jesus clearly may be seen as the eternal Son of God who, in the Incarnation, set aside His privileged position at the Father’s right hand (but not His deity) in order to become a sinless human who rescued us from sin by becoming sin for us on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21).

As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “[Jesus] had to be like his brothers and sisters in every way, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in matters pertaining to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people.”

Next: Jesus as the God-Man