The term “incarnation” is taken from the Latin carne and means “flesh.” John begins his gospel by telling us the remarkable: God has revealed Himself, not as a burning bush or a thundering storm, but as a human, as Jesus. (See John 1:14.) This “in-fleshed” revelation is different from all others, so much so that Jesus tells His disciples, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9 NIV; cf. John 12:45). The incarnation revealed God and the mystery of the Trinity to us, and any consideration of what it means must begin here.
One of the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith is that Christ was one person with two natures, that He was fully God and fully man. Since the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451), the church has affirmed that Scripture teaches Jesus Christ bears all the attributes of God and all the attributes of humanity. It was Jesus who could forgive sins and calm the storms, and it was Jesus who hungered and suffered.
That which only God could do, Jesus did. That which humans uniquely experience and know, so did Jesus.
One of the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith is that Christ was one person with two natures, that He was fully God and fully man.
Unlike the Savior, we are born belonging to the line of Adam, inheriting his fallen, disobedient nature. Scripture is clear that Christ was fully human but was (and is) without sin. How is this possible? First, we must note that sin is not an essential element of being human. God didn’t create a sinful humanity. It became so because of Adam’s disobedience. Moreover, because we are born sinners by nature, we also choose to commit sins. In other words, the great problem for us is not that we are human, but that we are fallen humans and thus choose to sin as well. But in Christ, we become new creations and are given new hearts. We are no longer enemies of God. And when Christ returns in His glory, those who call Jesus Lord and Savior will be transformed into a full, and wholly sinless, glorified state.
Second, God the Son is fully God. He existed eternally before Adam was created and is therefore without original sin, but this is not to say that He is somehow “superhuman.” Rather, it highlights the horrible effect of Adam’s sin on all his offspring. And so, we must not dismiss the sinless life that Christ led and treat it as a fait accompli. Scripture is clear that Christ, as one who is fully human, faced the choice to sin or not to sin. But unlike every other human, Jesus chose to submit to God the Father (Heb. 4:15). To dismiss this as a given is to disregard Jesus’ sorrow, His earnest pleas, and His magnificent obedience at Gethsemane.
We err when we limit our discussion of the incarnation only to passages that mention the birth of Christ. In that moment, God the Son underwent an incomprehensible change, one that continues now and throughout eternity. He condescended to become human and be fully God and fully man. In other words, every time the New Testament speaks of Jesus, it proclaims the incarnation. Jesus came to accomplish the great work of God in salvation—to be the perfect sacrifice, to bring reconciliation, and to rescue His people from this present evil age.
“Incarnation” refers to God the Son becoming present in the flesh, but does this mean that in some sense the incarnation continues in the church, in the lives of believers? The church is, after all, called the “body” of Christ. Scripture is clear that Christ’s spirit dwells inside His followers. Further, by His grace, God continues to transform us, making us more like Him. We become, as C.S. Lewis describes, “little Christs,” for it is He who lives in us. (See Gal. 2:20.) Is this not a kind of incarnational presence in the world?
Every time the New Testament speaks of Jesus, it proclaims the incarnation.
But we must be careful here. The incarnation refers to Jesus as one person with two natures (divine and human). We must not think of the incarnation as Christ simply dwelling in a human body. Flesh was not simply something He wore. In other words, “God incarnate” is not another way of saying “God resided in a human body.” To equate Christ’s presence in our lives with the incarnation misses this important distinction. What’s more, when we confess Christ as Lord and Savior and repent of our sins, the Holy Spirit resides in us and begins the work of transforming us into His likeness. But we do not become Christ, nor do we become two natures in the sense that Christ is.
Make no mistake, when we confess Christ as our Lord and Savior, something amazing occurs. We do not simply act differently. We are different. We are new creations belonging to a new humanity, of the line of Christ and not of Adam. (See 2 Corinthians 5:17.) We love God the Father as Christ does. We love others as Christ does. The Holy Spirit tabernacles in us, and we become more like the Second Adam and less like the first. It means we long for the day when Christ returns. And, until then, we proclaim Christ to the world because we know who He is— the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us.
Illustrations by Drew Melton and Patrick White