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Son of God, Son of Mary

Peter J. Wallace

Children, who is the Redeemer of God's elect? Jesus. If you know that much, you're on the right track! Our Shorter Catechism gives a little more detail:

Q. 21. Who is the Redeemer of God's elect?
A. The only Redeemer of God's elect is the Lord Jesus Christ, who, being the eternal Son of God, became man, and so was, and continueth to be, God and man in two distinct natures, and one person, forever.

Now, why must the Redeemer be both God and man? The Heidelberg Catechism answers this question nicely:

Q. 16. Why must he be a true and righteous man?
A. He must be a true man because the justice of God requires that the same human nature which has sinned should pay for sin; he must be a righteous man because one who is himself a sinner cannot pay for others.

Adam had sinned. Israel had sinned. David had sinned. As we hear from Isaiah, "The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man [to bring about justice], and wondered that there was no one to intercede" (Isa. 59:15-16a). God saw that there was no man who could be a mediator of his covenant blessings. Everyone had sinned. Everyone had fallen short of the glory of God. "Then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him" (vs. 16b).

God determined to save, but only man can pay for man's sins. The redeemer had to be a true and righteous man. He had to be one of us. This is the point of Hebrews 2. "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery." The redeemer had to be a man. 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" (Heb. 2:14-15, 17).

But the problem is that we are sinners. How can a sinful race produce a true and righteous man? Do you want to know why God took so long from the Fall to the redemption? At least in part, it was to show that humanity could never produce a redeemer. A true and righteous man could not be born according to the flesh. And this is why the redeemer must also be true God. As the Heidelberg Catechism says:

Q. 17. Why must he also be true God?
A. He must be true God so that by the power of his Godhead he might bear in his manhood the burden of God's wrath, and so obtain for us and restore to us righteousness and life.

God had to become man before man could receive the inheritance of righteousness and life. This is why John says in his gospel, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." And yet, he goes on to say, "the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:1, 14).

But how can this happen? How can God become man? Our Shorter Catechism asks:

Q. 22. How did Christ, being the Son of God, become man?
A. Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.

We hear of this in Matthew 1:18-25. Matthew remembers the prophecy of Isaiah. Isaiah spoke the word of the Lord to Ahaz, when Ahaz had refused to ask God for a sign: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted" (Isa. 7:14-16).

Now, this prophecy was spoken by Isaiah to Ahaz, and plainly refers to a child who would be born within the next year or so. Isaiah is probably pointing to the young woman who will bear the child (the child is probably Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, one of the great reforming kings who prefigures the Messiah). God is promising to Ahaz that he will not forsake the house of David, but will set his faithful son upon his throne.

Matthew remembers that promise, and realizes that it has a much deeper significance than Ahaz realized. If Hezekiah was born as a sign of the destruction of Judah's enemies, how much more is the birth of Jesus a fulfillment of that prophecy? If Hezekiah would lead the people of God in righteousness for a generation, how much more would Jesus lead the people of God forever, because "he will save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21-23)? Matthew often does this. He takes Old Testament events and prophecies, and points to how they reveal the significance of Jesus. This works because Jesus is the true Israel. He is the true son of David. He is the last Adam who will take upon himself the curse of the first Adam, obtaining for us, and restoring to us, righteousness and life.

He will do this because he is in fact a true and righteous man. But he is also true God. He is descended from Adam through Mary, but he has no human father. The Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, and the child she carried was truly the Son of God. The Virgin Birth is one of the great mysteries of the faith. We don't know the details of how it happened, but we know that a virgin conceived and gave birth.

In our day, we don't understand the Incarnation very well. Gregory of Nazianzus tells us that in the fourth century every corner butcher was debating the Incarnation with his customers. In the year 451, the Council of Chalcedon finally said it this way:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

That takes some unpacking. Perhaps the best way to do it is to ask some questions. What do you think of these statements?

  • Mary gave birth to God.
  • God shed his blood for us on the cross.
  • A man sits at the right hand of the Father.

Now, how about these statements?

  • It was Jesus' human nature that wept.
  • When Jesus said, "Not my will, but thine, be done," it was his human nature that was speaking.
  • The divine nature in Jesus supported his human nature in bearing our sins.
  • It was Jesus' human nature that died on the cross, while his divine nature remained in perfect harmony with the Father.

These last statements are all wrong. Very wrong. They are actually heretical. The reason is that although they use the term "nature," these statements actually turn Jesus into two persons.

There is a very simple distinction between "nature" and "person": natures exist and persons act. To put the two together: persons act according to their nature(s). Jesus is one person. Therefore, there is one center of activity in Jesus. But Jesus has two natures: divine and human. Therefore, there are two sets of properties (his divinity and his humanity) that his actions draw upon.

Think of it this way. When was the last time that your nature did anything? Would you say, "Yesterday, my nature took a walk"? No! Your person took a walk, according to your nature, which permits such activity. Likewise, Jesus wept. It was his person that wept, according to the properties of his human nature. Jesus died. It was his person that died, according to the properties of his human nature. Natures don't do anything. Natures just exist. Persons act-according to their nature(s).

Therefore, that first set of statements-that God was born of Mary, that God shed his blood for us on the cross, and that a man sits at the right hand of God-are all true. These refer to the person of Jesus Christ, a person who is both truly God and truly man.

As our Confession puts it,

Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature doing that which is proper to itself; yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature. (Confession of Faith, 8.7)

Quite frankly, the Confession here could be worded more helpfully. It starts off great: "Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures." That is exactly right. But then it says "by each nature doing that which is proper to itself," which might be prone to misunderstanding. If you take the first part seriously, then you must understand "doing" to mean "being the source of." That is, "Christ, in the work of mediation, acts according to both natures, by each nature being the source of that which is proper to itself."

But the key point in this section is what we call the doctrine of predication: "Yet, by reason of the unity of the person, that which is proper to one nature is sometimes in Scripture attributed to the person denominated by the other nature." There are several examples of this. The most famous one is in Acts 20:28, where Paul exhorts the Ephesian elders to "care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood." Here Paul speaks of God shedding his blood for us. The full way of saying this would be, "God shed his blood for us in Jesus Christ, acting according to the properties of his human nature." But Paul says simply that God obtained the church with his own blood.

Likewise, in Luke 1:43, Mary is called "the mother of my Lord." Lord is one of the words for God (as Mary says three verses later, "My soul magnifies the Lord"). The early church properly declared that Mary should be called the "God-bearer," because she truly gave birth to God (in Jesus Christ). Romans 9:5 similarly speaks of how "Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever," came from Israel according to the flesh.

So what does all this mean? It means that Jesus did not have a split personality. He did not have two centers of activity that were trying to do two different things. His two natures operated in perfect harmony, because he was one person. When Jesus said, "Not my will, but thine be done," it was not as though his humanity was operating while his divinity was out to lunch. It was the whole Christ who spoke, in the anguish and suffering that was possible for him because of the properties of his human nature.

When he said, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46), it was the whole Christ who spoke. We must be careful here, because we are speaking of things we cannot understand very well, but Scripture requires us to say that the eternal bond of love and harmony between the Father and the Son was not functioning at that moment. According to the properties of his divine nature, Jesus was still upholding the universe as the eternal Word of God, but according to the properties of his human nature, he, as a whole person, was alienated from the Father. Perhaps that is why the "sun's light failed" (Luke 23:45) and "the earth shook, and the rocks were split" (Matt. 27:51). The integrity of heaven and earth was shaken as the eternal Son of God endured the wrath of his Father.

The author is an OP minister serving as stated supply for Michiana Covenant Church (PCA) in South Bend, Ind. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 2003.

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