It may surprise many faithful Christians that the truth of Jesus’ Virgin Birth has been under assault for centuries – from the get-go, in fact. Many of these same people would also be surprised to know that there are now, as there have been for some time, university professors in America who teach New Testament courses, professors who themselves do not believe in the virgin birth. Even a teacher as generally solid as William Barclay, in his Daily Study Bible, devoted an unusual amount of ink to arguing that the Virgin Birth of Jesus was questionable and not that important anyhow. “What?!” we astoundingly ask … and rightly so. Barclay was wrong on both counts. Terribly wrong and most of all, scripturally wrong.
Unfortunately, Barclay was and is hardly alone in his position. By this time in the twenty-first century disbelievers of the virgin birth can be found in every Christian denomination. This is not good. By definition, however, and importantly, if you reject the Incarnation, that is, if you reject the virgin birth, you do not have faith in Jesus, at least faith according to the terms clearly and magnificently delineated in holy scripture. And, further, you may call yourself a Christian but you would be a “Christian-in-name-only” because biblically-speaking we are Christians only if we believe what scripture says, and what scripture clearly says is that Jesus of Nazareth was born of virgin named Mary. That’s how the salvation of the humanity and the whole of creation God created in love was to be worked out in God’s redemptive plan laid down all through scripture. Our Nicene Creed clearly tells us that God in the second person of the Trinity, the Son, had to be born a human being as he was of the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary.
So we ask the questions, “Was this so-called virgin birth nothing more than poetry or a pretty story or a Christian version of what the rabbis called Midrash as some people think?” “Does it matter that Jesus was born of a virgin?” The answer to the first question is, quite simply, “The virgin birth is established fact.” The answer to the second question is that “Yes. It most certainly matters! It makes all the difference in the world. According to scripture if you believe it, you are ‘in faith,’ and, if you don’t believe it, you are not.” It’s really that straightforward. It’s really that simple. And, it’s really that determinative come the time of each person’s judgment. Scripture tells us that also.
Of course, the Virgin Birth isn’t the only basic Christian doctrine that is being questioned. One pastor recently reported on Facebook that a church council member resigned in anger because the pastor shared his conviction that it is essential to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead. It goes without saying that the pastor was, of course, correct in what he said. Just as Jesus was born incarnate of a virgin, Jesus died on the cross. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, Jesus ascended into heaven to the right hand of God. All of these go together. One does not happen without the other. They constitute a connected whole. For the naysayers among you I can only tell you, “That’s what scripture tells us. You can either believe it or not. It’s your call.” And to take this to the next level, believe it and be saved. Disbelieve it and you won’t be. It’s really that simple. Scripture tells us that also.
To be sure, however, certainly many religious practices, customs, and ideas are open for discussion. Our Lutheran forebears identified these things using the Greek word adiaphora. Such adiaphora are not unimportant issues; however, they can be important matters about which Christians disagree because Scripture neither commands nor forbids them. Adiaphora are the things we should be arguing about … if argument is what’s called for. For example, think about musical styles or various liturgical practices or other church business. Things like that. Conversations such as these concern matters that are important … but not essential.
On the other hand some things are just given. Some things are essential to our faith. Some things are settled. In fact, they were settled centuries ago. There really aren’t that many of them, and most of them are quite nicely and fully summarized in the Nicene Creed. In fact, at least for me, if somebody can say the Nicene Creed and truly understand the Creed’s words without crossing their fingers behind their backs, we have a basis for Christian fellowship, even when we disagree over the adiaphora – over other important matters.
But the truthfulness of the Virgin Birth is simply not on the table. That fact was settled many centuries ago at the first Council of Nicea in 325 and then again at the Council of Constantinople in 381. The purpose of the Creeds, in part, was to define those things that were and are nonnegotiable. The Virgin Birth was on that list. If a person chooses not to believe the Virgin Birth, they are free to do so. That’s a part of what free will is about. If a person chooses not to believe in the Creed, they, again, have the perfect right to do so, but scripture tells us that will only lead to their ultimate damnation. Therefore, if a person chooses not to believe in the virgin birth, they have no right then to claim to be a believer in Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus as the Son of God in the full sense of what our Creed tells us.
Our Christian faith once delivered to the saints is not a cafeteria faith from which one can pick and choose what pleases them and what does not. Faith in Jesus does not work that way. It’s either-or. You either believe what the Creed clearly states … Or you don’t. The choice is yours. And for the purposes of this discussion, you either believe in the virgin birth or you don’t. And if you don’t know what you believe about the virgin birth, that’s the same thing as not believing … at least in the biblical understanding of these matters.
If Jesus had been born in the usual way, what then would it mean that He was “the Word made flesh”? How could God be his Father in the way the Church has always proclaimed if Jesus had been born biologically the child of both Mary and Joseph (or even worse, as certain blasphemous legends suggest, of Mary and some other man)? Another side of this issue is seen in the example of some early Christians who argued for what was called “adoptionism,” which taught that Jesus wasn’t born incarnate – both as Messiah and as Son of God, but that Jesus was adopted into that role at his baptism by John. This adoptionism was quickly rejected as heresy because if Jesus were simply adopted, the good news of the Incarnation simply could not stand. In fact, there were many other heresies with which the early church had to deal in working through the fully divine and fully human character of Jesus of Nazareth. The formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity did not come easily but come it eventually did, thereby passing along to all of us this wonderful Christian heritage in which we all share.
The fact of the matter is that it does matter for our salvation that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” It does matter that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” If Jesus was just a good human being, even a perfect human being, He could not have saved us. That was not the way God’s redemptive plan for humanity was to work itself out. In fact, once one grasps the purpose of the Mosaic law, one will understand that it was Jesus who had to be born a human being of a virgin. Once one understands God’s redemptive plan through the lenses of our Old Testament, one will also understand that Jesus would have to die as a human being. Only in his death on the cross do we receive his gift, God’s loving grace – forgiveness of sins, a righteousness which itself comes from Jesus alone, the resurrection of the dead, the renewal of all creation and everlasting life in the full time presence of God for eternity.
But because Jesus was and is God among us, because Jesus was God incarnate, because Jesus lowered himself and took on our humanity into the life of the Holy Trinity, because Jesus was born a human and of a virgin mother, Mary, through the power of the Holy Spirit, because of all these things we have this marvelous promise and hope for this life and the next. God is with us now, albeit invisibly yet in Word and Sacrament; and we will be with God visibly in the consummated kingdom of God.
As such, by God’s grace we live now in the inaugurated kingdom of God doing God’s will, longing for the consummated kingdom of God when Christ will again be with us physically, bodily – both fully divine and fully human, fully glorified just as Christ stands on our altar here at Immanuel, reigning forever in his fully renewed and restored kingdom, his kingdom of which we will be a part – if we but be found in the faith of Jesus. And all of this comes to us through God’s grace in the cross. All of this comes to us through God’s grace in Jesus’ Incarnation, in Jesus’ death on the cross, in Christ’s resurrection and in Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God.
So in this Advent season we once again celebrate Jesus, Son of God and son of Mary, the mother of God. We celebrate Jesus as our Lord and our Savior, the fulfiller of both of the major streams of expectation that we know from our Old Testament – both that of the long-promised Davidic Messiah and that of the coming of God to Zion as the Son of God. The ineffable mystery of the Trinity.
May we all be blessed as we hear the familiar story about Jesus and sing our beloved hymns in this Advent season.
May we remember the best part of the Christmas message, God’s good news about this Jesus of Nazareth, about this baby born incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary who would be God with us – both now in Word and Sacrament and forever into eternity. Amen.