Unpacking the Incarnation with J. I. Packer


Matt Boga:

One of my personal traditions over the past few Advents has been to read J. I. Packer’s chapter on the incarnation in Knowing God. This is far and away my favorite chapter in my favorite extrabiblical book, and it’s my joy to revisit it often.

Packer’s classic book is known for the simplicity and clarity with which he communicates profound and complex truths, and his exploration of the incarnation in chapter five (“God Incarnate”) is no exception.

Making Sense of Faith

Packer begins by stating the obvious: many thoughtful people find the gospel challenging to believe, but many also “make faith harder than it need be, by finding difficulties in the wrong places” (52). The atonement, the resurrection, the virgin birth, and miracles are all challenging to believe on face value, but they all pale in comparison to the Christian claim of the incarnation. “Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the incarnation,” Packer declares (53).

In grasping this stranger-than-fiction reality, other faith difficulties find their resolution.

If Jesus was no more than a remarkable man, then all the other hard-to-believe aspects of Christian faith remain hard—if not impossible—to believe. But if Jesus was the eternal Word, then “it is no wonder if fresh acts of creative power marked his coming into this world, and his life in it, and his exit from it. It is not strange that he, the Author of life, should rise from the dead” (54).

Miracles, the virgin birth, and the resurrection all flow from the belief that the baby in the manger was the God-man. If Jesus really was God in the flesh, Packer points out, then the crucifixion is the only seeming non-sequitur of the incarnation. How can God put away the sins of the world through the death of one man on a “Roman gibbet”? Yet if Jesus was God in the flesh, he was able to remove the sins of the world by dying a sinner’s death though he, himself, was sinless. “The incarnation itself is an unfathomable mystery, but it makes sense of everything else in the New Testament” (54).

Packer’s simple and clear reasoning prompts me to stop and say with the psalmist: “Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God?” (Ps. 77:13)

God Made Man

“The Christmas message rests,” Packer contends, “on the staggering fact that the child in the manger was—God” (57). And not just God, but God made man, born to die. “The crucial significance of the cradle at Bethlehem,” he writes, “lies in its place in the sequence of steps down that led the Son of God to the cross of Calvary, and we do not understand it till we see it in this context” (58).

When God became man, he was not God minus some attributes. Instead, when the apostle Paul speaks of God the Son emptying himself and becoming poor, “what he has in mind . . . is not the laying aside of divine powers and attributes, but of divine glory and dignity” (60). What we see in the pages of the Gospels is not Jesus lacking divine power and knowledge, but God the Son restraining his divine capacities (62). In the exercise of his mediatorial office, Jesus was utterly purposeful to carry out the will of the Father—nothing more and nothing less.

Jesus acted much like a bodybuilder holding his baby girl. He has all of the power to lift enormous boulders and bend steel, yet his power is constrained and harnessed for the purpose at hand: caring for his delicate daughter.

Riches for Rags

Bound up in the Christmas message of the incarnation is the Easter message of the atonement. For if Jesus was not God made man, then we remain in our sins. But the reality of the first Advent is that God, in all of his riches, became poor so that we might become rich in Christ (2 Cor. 8:9). For Jesus, the nativity was a riches-to-rags story, but for us it marks the opening scene of history’s greatest rags-to-riches story—the dawning of light and hope of life for those dead in sin (Eph. 2:1).

Packer concludes the chapter by applying the implications of Advent:

The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob. For the Christmas spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor—spending and being spent—to enrich their fellow humans, giving time, trouble, care and concern, to do good to others—and not just their own friends—in whatever way there seems need.

This Advent season, may we reflect on the miracle of God’s humility in becoming a man, and a man of sorrows at that—a man on a cross. But may our reflection also give way to action—modeling in our own lives that “Christmas spirit” Packer describes: the spirit of opting for an unseen manger rather than a red-carpet spotlight; the spirit of serving rather than being served (Mark 10:45); the spirit of Christ, “the Almighty [who] 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” (53).

O come let us adore him.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.

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