A few days ago I came across a quote from Billy Graham I wanted to comment on:
The very purpose of Christ’s coming into the world was that He might offer up His life as a sacrifice for the sins of men. He came to die. This is the heart of Christmas.
With all due respect to the great evangelist, this is not very good theology. There is so much more to the incarnation of our Lord and his saving work than just his death, important as it is. This is a major problem in Western (i.e., Latin, both Roman catholic and protestant) theology and its interpretation of the cross: it simply does not know what to do with Christ’s life and ministry and thus assigns it little significance–Jesus could have just come to earth on Thursday night at Gethsemane and been done with it. Another quote, from Adolf von Harnack of all people, gets straight to the heart of the problem of this theological tradition:
[It] holds it as superfluous to accentuate any one personal feature in the picture of Christ; the sinless man with the infinitely valuable life is enough. The death of Christ is entirely severed from His life-work on earth, and isolated. This God-man need not have preached, and founded a kingdom, and gathered disciples; he only required to die.
My doctoral thesis, available from the link in the header above, primarily concerns addressing this deficiency in Western theology. I encourage you (of course!) to go through it if you are interested further. Here I’ll just mention a few points about why Christmas is as important as Good Friday:
First, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, which is what Christmas is really all about, is God’s resounding “Yes!” to humanity. God loves us and accepts us enough to become one of us in order rescues us from our fallen and pitiable state.
The incarnation is, in the words of the Athanasian creed, the “taking of humanity into God.” In Christ, God has taken on human nature by lifting it up and uniting it with himself. Theologians don’t like to say things like this, but it is not wrong to say that at Christmas God changed: he now is, and will be throughout eternity, both God and man in Jesus Christ. (That says a lot about he feels about humanity.)
This union, moreover, is with humanity as a whole. There is one human nature shared by all human beings, and this is what Christ took on himself. Thus, humanity is also changed by the incarnation, which is the beginning point of our salvation for all who receive him (John 1.12). (Significantly, this is why, besides its flat contradiction by scriptures such as John 3.16 and 1 John 2.2, the Calvinistic doctrine of limited atonement cannot possibly be correct. Jesus was united with all human beings, not just the elect, and he did not become disunited with them on the cross.)
All of Christ’s life was a saving work. From his birth onwards, he began the recapitulation, or summing up, of humanity as the second Adam (Rom. 5.12-21). Where Adam had sinned, Christ obeyed, and each step of the way along his life he worked towards the restoration and healing of Adam’s line.
Finally, the incarnation ensures the efficacy of Christ’s saving work on the cross and in the resurrection. Again, it is by our union with him that he could bear our sins away into death and that his rising from the dead communicates eternal life to us.
Much more could be said about this subject—a whole book, in fact. I’ll close with Rom. 5.10:
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.
Christmas is important too!