The Doctrine of the Incarnation by Martyn Lloyd Jones
All the passages below are taken from Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ book “God the Father, God the Son.” The series of sermons were preached at Westminister Chapel, London, from 1952 to 1955 and was first published in 1996.
We have now begun to consider together the biblical doctrine of the person of Christ. That, as you notice, I put under the general heading of the doctrine of redemption, and I think one must do so. We have looked. at the person of our Lord, in dealing with the doctrine of the Trinity, but specifically, when considering the doctrine of redemption, we must, of course, concentrate upon the person and the work of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
And we have seen that when we do come to consider Him, we are at once confronted by the first particular doctrine with respect to Him, and that is the doctrine of the incarnation. We have made the general statement that the eternal Son of God, the second Person in the blessed Holy Trinity, took unto Himself human nature. We said that this did not mean that a new personality came into being, but that God the eternal Son became incarnate. We saw, too, that it was necessary to take that statement, that general statement, and to break it up, because it is something that has been so frequently misunderstood; and as our salvation and our eternal destiny depend upon our relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ, what can be more important than that we should be clear and certain in our ideas and in our thoughts concerning Him.
Furthermore, of course, Church history shows very clearly—indeed, before you come to Church history, the New Testament itself shows us—that the devil is concerned about nothing more than to lead people astray with regard to the person and the work of our blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. That is why we can take no risks, and we cannot content ourselves with a mere general statement of the doctrine of the incarnation. We must break it up and analyse it; we must show what it does and what it does not say, lest any of us should inadvertently fall into error.
I propose, therefore, to make the following series of statements. The first is this: the doctrine of the person of our Lord, and the doctrine of the incarnation in particular, show us again the all-importance of the doctrine of the Trinity. Now we considered that doctrine earlier and as we come to consider it now, we shall see why it was so important for us to have considered it then. The whole Christian position, in a sense, depends upon the doctrine of the blessed Holy Trinity. If we do not believe in that we cannot be Christian; it is impossible. Someone who does not believe in the Trinity cannot be a Christian because he cannot believe in the doctrine of redemption. Therefore as we talk about the person of the Son we see how important it is always to realise that God exists in three Persons—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The second statement is that the doctrine of the incarnation asserts not that the eternal triune God became flesh, but that the second Person in the triune God became flesh. The Scripture puts it like this: `The Word was made flesh’ (John 1:14). Now this is surely something which we must emphasise. We often speak rather loosely, I am afraid, in talking about the incarnation, and many of our hymns tend to do the same thing. But to me it seems always to be wise not to say that God became man. That is a loose statement which we had better not use. We often do say that, but believing as we do in the Persons of the Trinity, what we should say is that the second Person in the Trinity was made flesh and appeared as man. If we merely say, `God became man’, then we may be saying something that is quite wrong, and if people believe something wrong as the result of our statement, we cannot really blame them. We must be particular and we must be specific and we should always be careful what we say.
The third statement is that the doctrine of the incarnation does not say that it was merely an appearance or a form that was taken on by the second Person in the Trinity, but that it was indeed a true incarnation; He did come in the flesh. I emphasise that because in the very early years of the Christian Church there were people who went into errors and into heresy about this. The so-called Gnostics said that our Lord had the mere appearance of flesh; He had a phantom body, an appearance of a body. But the doctrine of the incarnation does not say that. It says it was not an appearance, it was real; it was a true incarnation; the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Point number four is again a negative one. The doctrine of the incarnation does not say that it was merely the divine nature that somehow became united with human nature and so formed a person. It is not that; it was the second Person Himself, the Person, who became flesh. Now there were many in the early ages of the Church, and they have persisted throughout the centuries, who have not understood that. Their view of Jesus Christ is of divine nature and human nature forming a new person. That is not the truth. It was the second, eternal Person in the Trinity who took human nature. You see the significance of that? We have already seen, you remember, that the doctrine of the incarnation does not teach the creation of a new person. It teaches that He took on to Himself flesh and appeared in this world in the likeness of man—not a new person, but this eternal Person.
So the next point, then, is that the doctrine of the incarnation does not teach, neither does it involve the idea, that a change took place in the personality of the Son of God. There was a change in the form in which He appeared, there was a change in the state in which He manifested Himself, but there was no change in His personality, He is the same Person always. In the womb of the virgin Mary, and lying as a helpless babe in the manger, He is still the second Person in the Holy Trinity.
The next definition I put like this: we must never so state the doctrine of the incarnation as to give the impression, therefore, that we say that the Son of God was changed into a man. That is why that phrase about God becoming man is misleading. We have seen that John 1:14 says, `The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,’ and that very phrase `was made’ has often caused people to think that the Son of God was changed into a man. This is partly due to the fact that it is not really the best translation. Instead of saying, `The Word was made flesh,’ what we really mean is that He became flesh, or that He took on flesh. The idea of `making’ gives the impression of being `changed into’, but that is wrong.
In other words, the way in which the Scripture generally puts it is this: in Romans 8:3 we are told that He came `in the likeness of sinful flesh’. That is better. Or take it as it is put in 1 John 4:2: `Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God.’ Jesus Christ has not been changed into a man; it is this eternal Person who has come in the flesh. That is the right way to put it.
The next principle is that our Lord did not merely take the appearance of human nature; it was true human nature. Let me explain. We have accounts in the Old Testament of angels appearing to various people and we are told that they appeared in human form. Now when we say that the angels appeared in that way, we are not talking about an incarnation, but an appearance. The angels did not change their nature, they did not add to it in any way, they just took on that form. Indeed, we saw earlier, you remember, that our Lord Himself appeared in that way; we spoke about the Angel of the Covenant. The Angel of the Covenant in the Old Testament is undoubtedly the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and He appeared more than once to various people in the form of a man. That is what we call a theophany. Now theophany is entirely different from incarnation. Theophany means that an angelic or a divine person appears in this form for the time being, but the doctrine of the incarnation asserts that the Lord Jesus Christ has taken on human nature itself—not its appearance but real human nature.
There are many statements which say that; let me give you two. Hebrews 2:14: ‘Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same.’ He really did take unto Himself human nature. `For verily he took not on him the nature of angels,’ says verse 16 of that same chapter, but He `took on him the seed of Abraham.’ That is what He has taken on. Take also 2 John 7 where we read that `Many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh.’ There is no doubt at all but that John wrote his three epistles in order to counter the dangerous heresy which had arisen, and which denied that He really had come in the flesh; asserting that it was a mere appearance. Some said that the Messiah entered into this man Jesus at His baptism and left Him on the cross, while others said that the whole thing was a phantom. Now the New Testament—John especially in his epistles—not only denies that, but denounces it as being the most dangerous error, the very lie of the antichrist, and therefore we must be certain that we are clear about these things.
That brings me to the next statement. The doctrine of the incarnation asserts that our Lord took unto Himself a full human nature. It was not merely partial, it was complete. He did not merely take a body to Himself. There have been people throughout the centuries who have taught that; they say that the Son of God only took on a human body. That is wrong. There are others who say that He took on a body and a kind of animal soul, but that the spiritual part of the soul was provided by the eternal Person. That is wrong also. The doctrine of the incarnation teaches that He took on Him complete human nature, body and soul, including spirit, that He was truly man. I shall have to emphasise this again, but it has to be stressed at this point.
And my last point under this general heading is that He took on this complete human nature from the Virgin Mary. That means that we must not say that a new human nature was created for Him. Some people have taught that God created a new human nature for His Son, and that this human nature merely passed, as it were, through Mary. That is wrong. The doctrine states that He derived His human nature from His mother, the Virgin Mary. It was not a new creation. He did not bring His human nature with Him. He received it from her. And therefore, as the Scripture often emphasises, He is truly of the seed of Abraham and of the seed of David. Here it is in Matthew 1:1: `The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ Now if a special human nature had been created for Him, He would not have been the son of David nor the son of Abraham. But He was both, because His human nature came from His mother, the Virgin Mary. Again, let me emphasise that what He had was not a human nature that was merely like ours but not really a part of ours, not organically related to us. He actually did receive our nature. Go back again to those verses in Hebrews 2:14-18. He really does belong, therefore, to the human race, He is one with us.
Now I must not stop with this, tempted as I am to do so. I am concerned about it because the doctrine of our redemption ultimately depends upon it. If He had not taken our human nature, He could not have saved us. As Hebrews 2 argues so clearly, because we are partakers of this flesh and blood, he had to partake of the same. It was the only way in which He could save us. So we cannot afford to take any risks about this doctrine. We cannot afford to say, `It does not matter what your precise statement is.’ That is to be utterly unscriptural. We must be precise and clear and certain and definite in all our statements, otherwise, without knowing it, we may make the doctrine of our own redemption quite impossible.
So, having established that, we now return to the mystery of the incarnation, and at once the question arises: How did all this come to pass? How did this extraordinary thing become actual? And that, of course, leads us immediately to the doctrine of the virgin birth. I do trust that we are all observing the order in which we are taking these truths. I conceive it to be my main function in these addresses to show you that order as it is worked out in the Scriptures; the details, the facts, you can derive from the Scriptures themselves.
And so by logical inevitability we arrive at the doctrine of the virgin birth. What is this? Well, the Apostles’ Creed, the first creed of all, the first great confession, puts it like this: `He was conceived of the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary.’ Now here is, again, one of those great subjects which is full of mystery; it is a doctrine that has been much debated and argued about and misunderstood and frequently denied; and people seem to find great difficulty with it.
Therefore, as we approach it, there is nothing, it seems to me, more important than that we should bear in mind everything we have considered in all our previous lectures. If you have agreed with me in what I have been saying in them, you should have no difficulty about the doctrine of the virgin birth. If you really have agreed about the doctrine of God and the doctrine of the Trinity; if you really have believed what I have said about the doctrine of the Scriptures as being the infallible Word of God inbreathed by the Holy Spirit and not merely human ideas; if you have agreed with all I have said about miracles and the supernatural, and how all this is inevitable when God acts and deals with this world, then, I repeat, there really should be no difficulty about the doctrine of the virgin birth.
And it is, of course, a fact that the people who have difficulty with this doctrine are the very people who have difficulty with the doctrine of Scripture and with the doctrine of miracles. They are in trouble about the doctrine of the incarnation because they set up their puny minds as the ultimate test of all truth, and because when they cannot understand a thing they will not believe it.
But surely we must be in agreement that in all these matters we are outside the realm of natural human reason and understanding. We started at the very beginning with the whole concept and category of revelation. We know nothing apart from that. I do not put forward theories and philosophies; I start on this premise—that what I am announcing is what God has done, what God has revealed. I know nothing apart from what I find in the Bible. I am entirely shut up to it; I am utterly dependent upon it. And therefore it is my business to come to it as a little child. `The world by wisdom knew not God’ (1 Corinthians 1:21); so, if that was true and is still true, then I must depend upon this book, I must accept its authority, I must receive its statements, even though my little mind cannot always understand them. That is the frame of mind and the appropriate attitude to adopt as we come to consider this extraordinary and amazing and yet glorious doctrine of the virgin birth.
What, then, do the Scriptures teach? What are we told? There are two portions of Scripture which are the basis of the doctrine of the virgin birth. I always feel one should start with the statement in Luke 1:26-38, because it gives us the announcement to Mary of the great thing itself. Notice the details in connection with that announcement; notice the facts, and how the angel came. You see, if you have not agreed with my account of the doctrine of angels, you are already in trouble; but if you accept that, then there is no difficulty about this at all, it is what we would expect.
Notice, too, what we are told about Mary’s surprise, which of course was quite natural. It is obvious, is it not, from her very surprise, that she understood the significance of what the angel said to her. Here was an unmarried woman, a virgin, to whom this announcement was made, and at once she saw the difficulty, and did not hesitate to express it. How could she be the mother of a child when she had never known a man? And the angel gave her the explanation. He announced to her that this was something that was going to be done by the Holy Spirit Himself. He told her that she would be `overshadowed’ by the Almighty: `The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God’ (v. 35). `Conceived of the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary’, says the Apostles’ Creed.
But then the account in the first chapter of Matthew, from verses 18-25, is equally important, and, surely, equally interesting, because there we are told what happened to Joseph. Joseph discovered that this virgin to whom he was betrothed was with child. He was confused and unhappy. He was a good man, a righteous and a loving man. He decided he would not make a public example of Mary, but he must of necessity put her away or he would not be keeping the law, so he was pondering about all this and about how he could do it, when the angel appeared to him in a dream. And what the angel did, of course, was explain to Joseph what was happening: `Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost’ (v. 20). He was given exactly the same explanation; and as we read the story I am afraid we often forget to observe the extraordinary faith of Joseph. He believed the angel’s message; he accepted it without any demur, without any hesitation, and he proceeded to act upon it.
That is what we are told in the record, and it teaches us that the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ as a man is entirely the work of God. The doctrine of the virgin birth must always be considered first and foremost in a negative way, and what it says negatively is that He had no earthly father. He was not born of the will of man, nor of the will or the energy of the flesh. Let me put it still more strongly. The male human being did not enter into the question of His conception.
Now that is a very remarkable thing because, as we have seen already in working with the great doctrines at the beginning of the book of Genesis, the glory of God, as it were, is in the man, and the woman is under the man. You remember how we worked that out. But here the man is put on one side; he has nothing to do with it. You notice that the very word, the promise that was given by God to the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden was this: `And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head’ (Genesis 3:15). And so it proved. The man had nothing to do with it—the very one whom God had appointed lord of creation, and to whom he gave power over the woman, and to whom the woman is subject by God’s own desire and ordination, as the result of creation and especially as the result of the fall. In spite of all that, when it came to the question of the incarnation, the male was put on one side and God used the woman only.
Surely, then, the significance and importance of that must be obvious to all—it is to emphasise again the total inability of man. Man, in the person of Joseph, is seen in his utter failure and incapacity. God took hold of human nature at its weakest, as it were, in order to produce out of it this human nature for His own Son. I have come across a very beautiful phrase which I think will help you to remember this: `As the Lord’s divine nature had no mother, so His human nature had no father.’ I think that puts it very well. It was entirely the work of God. He took on Him human nature from Mary, but it was done through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit.
`What happened?’ asks someone. I cannot answer; no one can answer. That is the great mystery. But what we know is that the power of the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, and out of Mary, out of a cell in her body, the human nature of our Lord was made. We cannot go further. It is a great mystery. But we have to go as far as that. It was the operation of the Holy Spirit, and it was obviously done in such a way that this human nature that the Son took unto Himself was sinless—you notice that the angel spoke to Mary of `that holy thing [that sinless, pure thing] which shall be born of thee . . .’ (Luke 1:35). This does not mean that Mary herself was made sinless and holy. It does not even of necessity imply that any part of Mary was. All we know is that something was taken, was cleansed and rendered free from all pollution so that His human nature was sinless and entirely free from all the effects and results of the fall. Such was the effect of the operation of the Holy Spirit upon her.
What, then, of this doctrine? What have we to say about it in general, especially having in mind those who find it difficult? I would suggest once more that it is a doctrine which is quite inevitable if you really do believe the doctrine of the incarnation. If you really do believe that the babe in the manger in Bethlehem is the second Person in the Trinity—and that is the truth—then I cannot see that there is any difficulty about this doctrine of the virgin birth. Indeed, I would find myself in much greater difficulty if I did not have the doctrine of the virgin birth to believe. You see, the fact of the incarnation is so unusual, so exceptional, so miraculous and mysterious, that I would expect everything about Him to be the same; and so it proved to be. To put it another way: the virgin birth was the sign of the mystery of the incarnation. It was a kind of symbol of that mystery; there it was in a tangible form—this virgin birth.
Everything about our Lord is mysterious. His coming into the world was mysterious. His going out of it was mysterious. He did not enter into life like anybody else; He did not go out of it like anybody else. The resurrection was as unique as the virgin birth. It had never happened to anybody before. He is the `first begotten of the dead’ (Revelation 1:5); `the firstborn among many brethren’ (Romans 8:29). The resurrection was equally startling. So I would say to anybody who stumbles at the virgin birth: Do you stumble in the same way at the resurrection? You see, if we start with the doctrine of the incarnation and realise what we are saying, if we realise that we are really speaking about the second Person in the Trinity, then surely you would expect His birth to be entirely unusual and exceptional? And so it was. He was exceptional from beginning to end.
But let me try to help you by putting it like this: If you do not believe in the doctrine of the virgin birth, how do you account for his sinlessness? Are we not entitled to put it like this: If He had been born in the ordinary way, of a father and a mother, then surely He would have been like every other person, He would have been in direct sequence, in the direct line, from Adam, and therefore it would be true to say of Him also `as in Adam all die’ (1 Corinthians 15:22). He would have died in Adam, and He would have been guilty of original sin and of original guilt.
But the doctrine of the incarnation at once tells us that that is not what happened. A person, I repeat, did not come into being there. This person was the eternal Person, the second Person in the Trinity. When a husband and a wife come together and a child is born a new person, a new personality, comes into being. That did not happen in the incarnation. But given a father and a mother, you would have a person in the direct line from Adam and therefore sinful and fallen. The only way to have prevented that would be to say that some similar kind of operation to that performed by the Holy Spirit on Mary, should also have had to be performed on Joseph.
But surely that does not help us. If you are already in difficulties about this miraculous operation on Mary, then you are doubting it and it is still more impossible. No, if we really took a firm hold of the doctrine of the incarnation itself, that this blessed Person took unto Himself human nature that had to be sinless because He could not unite with anything that was sinful, then there was only one way for it, and that is that He had to be born not in the ordinary way of generation, but in this special way.
You will notice that the whole doctrine is surrounded by pitfalls and difficulties because when I put it like that, I am sure that many will think, ‘Ah, I see! God created a special human nature for Him, did He?’ No, He did not! I have already denounced that as heresy. He got His human nature from Mary, but it was acted upon by the Holy Spirit in such a way that it was rendered wholly free from sin and from all pollution.
And so we stand before Him. We stand before this mystery of godliness, God in the flesh! The strangest, the most amazing thing that has ever happened—indeed, I do not hesitate to say, the supreme act of God. It is so supreme that I expect it to be unusual in every respect, and I find the Scriptures tell me that it was. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit, He was born of a virgin named Mary. Man was entirely excluded; the male did not come in. Joseph is there ever to remind us of that. It was entirely the work of God. And let us realise and remember that it all happened so that we might be saved, that our sins might be forgiven. The Son of God became man that the children of men might become children of God.(255-265)