During this season of Advent we celebrate/anticipate the Incarnation, the singular event by which a loving God sent to us his Son, who, for us and our salvation, assumed our humanity and dwelt among us. The same Son of God who created Adam did not abandon his loving purpose for his creation when Adam fell from grace. Instead, he stepped into creation in order to redeem a relationship that had been despised.
The Incarnation led to the cross. The cross made possible our regeneration, which calls us to faith, which leads to our justification, which leads to our sanctification, which leads to resurrection, glorification and eternal life. We are summoned by God to respond to Christ’s work of Incarnation, Humiliation, and Resurrection by responding to the gospel call by faith, which leads to repentance and obedience. These God-initiated and human-response events lead to a restored relationship with God the Father (biblical “reconciliation”), and to communion with him and with one another through his free and unmerited act of grace (1 John 1:3).
So God sent Jesus on this mission to die? Yes, he did. And Jesus responded in obedience and willingly exchanged the glory of heaven and his appointed place at the right hand of the Father to take on flesh and proceed to the cross. This is the glory of the Incarnation, and Jesus is the rightful object of our worship and praise — we who have received this free gift of reconciliation by grace through faith.
However, there are few distinctions in Christian theology that are more important than the distinction between what the Reformers in the 16thcentury called “legal repentance” and “evangelical repentance.” Legal repentance tells us “repent, and if you repent God will declare you free from sin.” Although this sounds correct and even has some biblical reference (e.g. Acts 2:38; 3:19), if taken out of context it teaches that God has to be conditioned into being merciful to us. It says we must first obey by being repentant before the grace of God is extended to us. Evangelical repentance, on the other hand, says “Christ has borne your sin on the cross, repent therefore, and receive his free gift of grace.” In the New Testament, regeneration comes before repentance, not after. Even in Peter’s sermons in Acts 2 and 3, the context prior to his call for repentance is the gospel message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Jesus died for those first believers; God’s call to them was to accept that forgiveness through repentance and obedience to the faith.
Why all the fuss? Because we must constantly be reminded that the Incarnation was a rescue mission, not a friendly visit. Christ came to sacrifice himself as an offering of atonement to God, so that grace and forgiveness could be offered to human beings who could not earn it by themselves. Our repentance is a response to this act of grace, not a condition to receive that grace. The gospel of the Incarnation is that God has spoken to us his word of forgiveness in his Son, Jesus. It is a word of love which, for those who reject it, is also a word of judgment and condemnation. It is the word of the cross.
Everything we do in terms of our salvation is a response to the work of God in the Incarnation. When we receive that truth by grace through faith, we humbly submit to God’s verdict of “guilty.” And when that happens, new horizons are opened up to us, and the free gift of justification (declared guiltless before God) leads to communion with God and with each other. This is the glory of the Incarnation. It’s the glory of Christmas! “All this was from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them…”
My prayer is that you will rejoice in this great act of love this Advent season!
Grace and peace,