In November 1785, Scottish poet Robert Burns was ploughing his field when he accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest, which it needed to survive the winter. Burns’s brother claims that the poet was still holding onto the plough when he composed one of his most beloved poems: “To a Mouse.” Perhaps the most famed sentiment in the poem comes from the penultimate stanza:
But mouse, you are not alone,
in proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
go often askew,
and leave us nothing but grief and pain,
for promised joy!
Burns’s message is clear: Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. We can sometimes be as careful as humanly possible and still see our best plans fall to the ground. Thankfully, God’s plans never fall through. Confession 4.4 talks about how God brought his plan of salvation to fruition.
In order to give effect to God’s eternal purpose, the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, took on human flesh: He was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, and in this way two whole, perfect, distinct natures—divine and human—were inseparably joined together in one person, the Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 1:35; John 1:1, 14; Romans 1:3–4; Philippians 2:6–11; Colossians 2:9). Being thus true God and true man, unchangeably sinless (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 2:22), the Lord Jesus Christ was appointed mediator between God and man, prophet, priest and king (Luke 1:32; John 1:45 [quoting Deuteronomy 18:18]; Hebrews 7:21; 1 Timothy 2:5). (Sola 5 Confession 4.4)
The Confession states in some detail what God did in order to ensure that his plans did not fail: “In order to give effect to God’s eternal purpose, the eternal Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, took on human flesh: He was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, and in this way two whole, perfect, distinct natures—divine and human—were inseparably joined together in one person, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
- I. Packer calls the incarnation “the real difficulty” and “the supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us.” It is in the events of “the first Christmas,” he says, “that the profoundest and most unfathomable depths of Christian revelation lie.” In the incarnation, “God became man, the divine Son became a Jew; the Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child.”
Packer’s astonishment at the incarnation is well-founded, but it is a cardinal truth of the Christian gospel that God became man. This is a crucial truth to affirm, because God demanded a perfect, spotless sacrifice for sin, and only God himself fit the bill. At the same time, because it was a sacrifice for human sin, the substitute needed to be human. Since no mere human could fulfil the standard of utter, sinless perfection, it was necessary for God himself to become a man. Without the God-Man, there can be no sufficient sacrifice for the sins of men.
The doctrine of the virgin conception and birth has always come under attack from critics of Christianity. It may surprise you to know that many professing Christians have also doubted the historicity of these events. But this truth is important to affirm.
Some have suggested that if Christ was not conceived and born of a virgin, he would have inherited a sin nature, for the sin nature is passed from father to son. There may be hints of that theology in the New Testament, but it is difficult to prove it clearly. The most basic reason to affirm the virginity of Mary is because the Bible claims it. Whatever the truth about the transmission of the sin nature from father to son, the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus’ conception and birth were virginal, and we must therefore affirm it.
In his book A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary Was a Virgin and Why It Matters, Kyle Roberts suggests that we ought not to make too big a deal out of claims to Mary’s virginity. He argues that there are only two references to Mary’s virginity in the New Testament, and that the epistles focus far more attention on the historicity of the resurrection than the historicity of the virgin birth. The resurrection should therefore be our focus, not the virgin birth. It may be true that the writers of the epistles nowhere reference the virgin birth, but we must be careful of pitting one biblical author against another. Just because Paul does not explicitly mention the virgin birth does not mean that he denied it. If Matthew and Luke record the virgin birth as a historical reality, we must affirm their writings as inspired and authoritative.
When we affirm the virgin birth, we are affirming at least three truths about the incarnation.
First, the virgin birth highlights the supernatural nature of the gospel. The virgin birth shows that humanity is utterly incapable of saving itself, and God must do something supernatural in order to bring about human salvation.
Second, the virgin birth highlights God’s initiative in the gospel. The virgin birth shows that God must act in order to bring about human salvation. Mary did not ask to be God’s vessel, and the angel did not ask about her willingness, but simply announced that it was something God had done. Salvation comes through God’s initiative, not humanity’s.
Third, the virgin birth highlights the dual natures of Christ. In his divine wisdom, God orchestrated a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ. His full humanity is evident from the fact of his ordinary birth from a human mother. His full deity is evident from the historic reality of the virgin conception.
The Confession continues: “Being thus true God and true man, unchangeably sinless, the Lord Jesus Christ was appointed mediator between God and man, prophet, priest and king.”
The truth that Jesus is “unchangeably sinless,” on the one hand, highlights the truth that he alone could offer an acceptable sacrifice for sin, for an acceptable sacrifice must be sinless. On the other hand, as Hebrews 4:15 shows us, it means that it is impossible for Jesus to not sympathise with our temptations and struggles, for he experienced temptation to a far greater degree than we ever will, yet he never sinned.
The Confession affirms the threefold office of Christ: “prophet,” “priest,” and “king.”
Prophets spoke to God’s people on behalf of God. They represented God’s authority to his people. As the ultimate prophet, Jesus is God’s final word—his final authority—to humanity. Jesus must be believed, for he was sent with full divine authority.
Priests interceded between God and men and brought sacrifices for sin to God on behalf of the people. As Hebrews makes clear, human priests needed to do this over and over, because their ministry was merely a shadow of a greater priest to come. As the ultimate priest, Christ’s sacrifice was presented once-for-all, and anyone who receives the benefits of his sacrifice is eternal secure. Nevertheless, Jesus still stands as a priest to intercede for his people to God.
The Old Testament (see Psalm 2 and 110) prophesied that God’s messiah would come as his final king, to whom all other kinds pointed. Jesus today is seated on his throne, ruling and reigning over everything. This gives us assurance that, no matter what happens to us, it is all within Christ’s divine control and all under his ultimate sovereignty.
It should give great comfort that Christ himself, and not another whom he appointed, is our mediator. Because he did the work that was necessary to save us, we take comfort that his mediatorial role will always be successful. Unlike human mediators, who need to point to some good or innocence in their client, Jesus can point to his own perfection and claim his finished work on our behalf. His mediatorship gives us full confidence as we stand before God.