With Christmas only four days away, I fear that many so-called “Calvinists” inadvertently limit the joy, comfort, and grandeur of the celebration by inadvertently limiting the scope of the Incarnation itself. Christmas is not just for the elect. The event to be celebrated brings with it a message of redemption to any and all who will hear and believe. “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). The very nature of the Incarnation itself assures us of the universal right to forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who would hear and believe the Gospel of our Lord’s birth, death, and resurrection. And this should be of great comfort, not only to the believer’s own fearful heart, but to all of God’s image bearing creatures: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).
This message is encapsulated in (probably) the most famous and oft quoted passage, John 3:16: “ For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” In it, we see the motivation for the great Christmas event (God’s love), the event itself (God gave), and the universal nature of the message it proclaims (whoever).
“For God so loved the world…”
Many “Calvinists” have attempted to limit the scope of this love for the world. Calvin himself did not. He writes:
Christ opens up the first cause, and, as it were, the source of our salvation, and he does so, that no doubt may remain; for our minds cannot find calm repose, until we arrive at the unmerited love of God. As the whole matter of our salvation must not be sought any where else than in Christ, so we must see whence Christ came to us, and why he was offered to be our Savior. Both points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish. (Commentary on John 3:16)
So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost. (Commentary on 2 Pet. 3:9)
Of course, Calvin rightly explains that none shall experience this fatherly love save those who enter by the Way and Gate offered, Christ the Lord. (He also makes distinctions between the general and special love of God.) But, along with Calvin, I believe it is of utmost importance that both believers and unbelievers come to understand that it is the unmerited love of God for His created image bearers that is the motivation for His redemptive plan.
The argument of John 3:16 itself depends on this understanding of God’s love. Since the sending of the Son is motivated by love for the world, we can conclude that “whoever” (without qualification) receives the Son can know he has eternal life. The genuine and free offer of the Gospel contained in the “whoever” clause is dependent on the universal scope of the “love” clause. Thomas Boston helpfully connects the love of God and the “whoever” as the basis of the Gospel offer itself. All men are granted a deed to salvation in Christ if they should only receive it:
Where the gospel comes, this grant is published, and the ministerial offer made and there is no exception of any of all mankind in the grant. If there was, no ministerial offer of Christ could be warrantably made to the party excepted, more than to the fallen angels; and without question, the publishing and proclaiming of heaven’s grant unto any, by way of ministerial offer, presupposeth the grant, in the first place, to be made to them: otherwise, it would be of no more value than a crier’s offering of the king’s pardon to one who is not comprehended in it. This [John 3:16] is the good old way of discovering to sinners their warrant to believe in Christ. (Fisher, Edward. The Marrow of Modern Divinity [Kindle Locations 2812-2835])
If God did not in some sense love mankind, thereby allowing universal scope to “whoever,” then we really ought not offer the Gospel to anyone; how could we know it was truly for them? And equally disturbing, none of us who now believe ought to find assurance in this Gospel, knowing our own doubts and perturbations in the experience of faith. If God’s love (in the sense of the passage) is to some only, and therefore His Son is for some only, and the “whoever” is restricted in scope to some only, all should have grounds do doubt their inclusion in the offer. Thank the Lord that this is not so. He sent His Son because He loved, not so that He could begin to love.
“…that He gave His only begotten Son…”
God so loved His image bearing creatures, that He sent a perfect solution. And this is the Christmas story. Integral to the giving is the sending. We read in the very next verse, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (v. 17). And what is this sending but the Incarnation itself—the birth of the Son of God as true man? Augustine explains this well in his On the Trinity (See Bk 2, Ch. 5). He is there grappling with the idea that the Son of God is said to be “sent” to where He already and always was. God fills heaven and earth, so how can He be “sent” anywhere since He is already everywhere, and at all times? He points to Galatians for the answer:
But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born (γενόμενον) of a woman, born (γενόμενον) under the law. (4:4)
This is the way the Son was sent: He was born (γενόμενον) into the world of the Virgin Mary. We see the same in Philippians:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming (γενόμενος) in the likeness of men. (2:5-7)
Christ’s coming was the γενόμενος in the likeness of men.
Therefore, when He came into the world, He said:
“Sacrifice and offering You did not desire,
But a body You have prepared for Me.” (Heb. 10:5)
That God “gave His only begotten Son” begins with the Incarnation of the Son of God as Son of Man. This is Christmas. And who is this Christmas for?
“…that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
We have already seen that the scope of God’s love begins to answer the question above. But just as (or even more) important than that, the nature of the Incarnation itself necessitates the genuineness of the universal offer of salvation. For Christ came as true man, “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3), “made in the likeness of men,” and was “found in appearance as a man” (Phil. 2:5-7). And this was a full sharing in the whole human nature of the whole of fallen mankind, being the means necessary to bring salvation to a wayward people. The author of Hebrews explains this well throughout Chapter 2. For example, we read:
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendant of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Heb. 2:15-17)
The Son of God became true man, in every way the same as those He came to save. And what is of supreme importance to us here: the Son of God was united in Person with true and complete human nature itself, not just united to a group of individual human natures! Christ bore the substance of humanity, not a collection of individual subsistences. He did not bear the nature of Peter, James, and John to the exclusion of Judas and Pontius Pilate. The Creeds and Confessions of the Church have made this clear for many centuries. We read the following in the Formula of Chalcedon (A.D. 451):
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood.
Jesus Christ, according to His Manhood, is “consubstantial” with us; that is, he shares the substance itself of all mankind and not just the substance-plus-accidents of only certain individual sunbsistences (e.g., Peter, James, and John). And He is “perfect” in this manhood; the human nature which he bears is complete, with both human soul and human body, and we can even add from the 3rd Council of Constantinople that also he bears the natural will and operations of our human nature as well:
[B]ut we say that as the same our Lord Jesus Christ has two natures so also he has two natural wills and operations, to wit, the divine and the human: the divine will and operation he has in common with the coessential Father from all eternity: the human, he has received from us, taken with our nature in time. (A.D. 681)
Because this is true, we are fully warranted to conclude that God gave His only begotten Son to all mankind, for Christ the Lord has borne (and continues to bear) the self-same and complete human nature of all mankind. When God sent His Son, He sent Him as the Seed of Eve, the Mother of all the Living. He sent Him through the natural and human womb of the Virgin Mary. He was born and was carried in the arms of His mother, bearing the nature of all infants and children. He “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man,” bearing the nature of all youth (Lk. 2:52). And as He grew into manhood, He “suffered” and was “in all points tempted as are we,” bearing the self-same nature of all tempted and suffering humanity, being touched with their infirmities (Heb. 2:18; 4:15). And last, we see Him “made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9).
As we confess in the Nicene Creed, we believe in Jesus Christ “Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man.”
As we contemplate the meaning of this Advent Season and the coming Christmas day celebration, I pray that we all may be sure of two things:
- The Gospel of the Incarnate God is for you.
- The Gospel of the Incarnate God is for all mankind.
It was God’s own love for His creation that motivated Him to send salvation to fallen and wicked mankind in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. And God sent His Son such that all that was necessary for the salvation of any and every human is found in His Person; for He is perfect and true God, consubstantial with the Father and the Spirit, and is also true, perfect, and complete man, consubstantial with the human race. No human anywhere at any time can say, “He did not come for me,” for He bore their nature as well. As such, we must proclaim to our own tender conscience, as well as to the whole of humanity, the universal offer of the Christmas message.
And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely. (Rev. 22:17)