“He Is Our Flesh”: John Calvin on the Saving Significance of the Incarnation

Sometimes when we think about Jesus Christ and his saving work, we can tend to lay so much emphasis on his death for our sins and resurrection for our justification (as Paul puts it in the last verse of Romans 4) that we neglect the redemptive significance of his incarnation, of his becoming flesh to dwell among us, of his being born of a woman to redeem us from the curse of the law. Thus, I think that it is opportune, if not necessary, that this Christmas season we ponder the astonishing truth that, as the Nicene Creed eloquently states, the Son of God “for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and became incarnate by the H0ly Spirit and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man”. It is no accident that the Creed, the cornerstone of orthodox Christian belief, attaches saving significance not only to Christ’s death and resurrection but also to his incarnation and birth.

To help us understand a bit better what this means, I offer to you one of my favorite sections from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in which he movingly describes the reason for which God became man in Christ:

Now it was of the greatest importance for us that he who was to be our Mediator be both true God and true man…Since our iniquities, like a cloud cast between us and him, had completely estranged us from the Kingdom of Heaven, no man, unless he belonged to God, could serve as the intermediary to restore peace. But who might reach to him? Any one of Adam’s children? No, like their father, all of them were terrified at the sight of God. One of the angels? They also had need of a head, through whose bond they might cleave firmly and undividedly to their God. What then? The situation would surely have been hopeless had the very majesty of God not descended to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to him. Hence, it was necessary for the Son of God to become for us “Immanuel, that is, God with us” [Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:23], 130816-004-e1c66273and in such a way that his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection grow together. Otherwise the nearness would not have been near enough, nor the affinity sufficiently firm, for us to hope that God might dwell with us. So great was the disagreement between our uncleanness and God’s perfect purity! Even if man had remained free from all stain, his condition would have been too lowly for him to reach God without a Mediator.

What, then, of man: plunged by his mortal ruin into death and hell, defiled with so many spots, befouled with his own corruption, and overwhelmed with every curse? In undertaking to describe the Mediator, Paul then, with good reason, distinctly reminds us that He is man: “One mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ” [1 Tim. 2:5]. He could have said “God”; or he could at least have omitted the word “man” just as he did the word “God.” But because the Spirit speaking through his mouth knew our weakness, at the right moment he used a most appropriate remedy to meet it: he set the Son of God familiarly among us as one of ourselves. Therefore, lest anyone be troubled about where to seek the Mediator, or by what path we must come to him, the Spirit calls him “man,” thus teaching us that he is near us, indeed touches us, since he is our flesh. Here he surely means the same thing that is explained elsewhere at greater length: “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” [Heb. 4:15].

This will become even clearer if we call to mind that what the Mediator was to accomplish was no common thing. His task was so to restore us to God’s grace as to make of the children of men, children of God; of the heirs of Gehenna, heirs of the Heavenly Kingdom. Who could have done this had not the self-same Son of God become the Son of man, and had not so taken what was ours as to impart what was his to us, and to make what was his by nature ours by grace? Therefore, relying on this pledge, we trust that we are sons of God, for God’s natural Son fashioned for himself a body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bones from our bones, that he might be one with us. Ungrudgingly he took our nature upon himself to impart to us what was his, and to become both Son of God and Son of man in common with us…

For the same reason it was also imperative that he who was to become our Redeemer be true God and true man. It was his task to swallow up death. Who but the Life could do this? It was his task to conquer sin. Who but very Righteousness could do this? It was his task to rout the powers of world and air. Who but a power higher than world and air could do this? Now where does life or righteousness, or lordship and authority of heaven lie but with God alone? Therefore our most merciful God, when he willed that we be redeemed, made himself our Redeemer in the person of his only-begotten Son.[1]

What richness and beauty there is in Calvin’s exposition of Christ’s incarnation! This is not to exalt Calvin, but rather to exalt the one whom Calvin enables us to see with clearer vision. How marvelous is it to contemplate the condescension of God himself, in the person of the Son, to live “among us as one of ourselves”, to become “body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bones from our bones”! Could anything be more amazing than this?

Calvin’s takes us deeper into this profound mystery when he takes notice of Paul’s emphasis on the fact that Christ as Mediator is “man”. This assures us that we have no need to seek the Mediator, for he has sought us and found us, yet not by coming to us from without but from within our very flesh! Because of the incarnation, Christ “is near us, indeed touches us, since he is our flesh”. As made visible in his power to healing the sick and the dying through his touch, Christ’s incarnation means that he “touches” our depraved nature with the “contagious holiness” (thanks Craig Blomberg!) of his own. Indeed, Christ could not be nearer to us now that “he is our flesh”. Echoing many patristic writers, Calvin declares that in so doing, Christ imparts to us by grace that which is his by nature.The Son of God became like us so that we could become sons of God. Though the incarnation, Life eternal has swallowed our death and Righteousness divine has removed our sin.

Here we see how deeply intertwined Calvin understood Christ’s person and work, the incarnation and the atonement, to be. As he writes elsewhere in the Institutes, Christ reconciled us to God “by the whole course of his obedience”, and that “from the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us”.[2] By subjecting himself to the frailties and temptations of our sin-scarred condition and yet remaining without sin, he condemned sin in the flesh and bent our rebellious will back to God, undoing the consequences of Adam’s “My will be done” with his own obedient “Your will be done”. Could there be anything more wonderful? Could there be a love that is greater? Could there be a salvation more certain and complete?

As we celebrate this Christmas, may our song of praise indeed be “Hallelujah, what a Savior!”

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[1] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. II.xii.1-2.

[2] Ibid., II.xvi.5.

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4 thoughts on ““He Is Our Flesh”: John Calvin on the Saving Significance of the Incarnation

  1. Richard Jamison 23 December 2016 / 00:01

    Jonathan, what is the difference between the saving significance of the incarnation on the one hand and the two natures of Christ as described by Anselm in Cur Deus Homo?

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    • Jonathan Kleis 23 December 2016 / 10:33

      Richard, if I understand your question correctly, I would say that it depends on what you mean by “difference”. If difference as in “conflicting”, then I would say none. If difference as in “complementary”, then I would say that it’s a difference of static vs. dynamic conceptions of the person vis-à-vis the work of Christ. That is, Anselm’s very Chalcedonian view of the hypostatic union is, like Chalcedon, somewhat static in its statement of the relation of Christ’s two natures within his one person, in the sense that it does not bear directly on Christ’s work. That is not to say that Chalcedon or Anselm were wrong, far from it! The doctrine of the hypostatic union is vitally important. What the “saving significance of the incarnation” does is to introduce a dynamic element into the doctrine. We could say that it is “the hypostatic union in action”. It looks at the Chalcedonian understanding from the point of view of its relation to the whole course of Christ’s life, from conception to birth to ministry to death to resurrection to ascension. It is to fill out the Chalcedonian categories with the dramatic content of the life of Christ and to discern the ways in which, as Calvin said, Christ began to the pay the price of our redemption from the moment that he took on the form of a servant.

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  2. Rick 23 December 2016 / 16:33

    Jonathan, Thank you. That is helpful to me, so much so, in fact, that it leads me to my next question. Is the saving significance of the incarnation saying anything other than the hypostatic union plus the active obedience of Christ plus the passive obedience of Christ?

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    • Jonathan Kleis 23 December 2016 / 20:14

      It’s very similar, yes, if you want to adopt the language later developed in Reformed theology. I wouldn’t say that the saving significance of the incarnation (which I don’t want to use as though it were a technical expression) is anything other than the essential content of the active/passive obedience of Christ, however I wouldn’t want to say that it is the hypostatic union plus those doctrines. Rather, I would want to say that it is the doctrine of the hypostatic union thought out soteriologically and not simply analytically, so to speak. In other words, I don’t want to limit the hypostatic union to a mere description of the constitution of the incarnate Christ, but, as I see Calvin doing (and he is very patristic in doing so) work out the implications of what the hypostatic union means in terms of Christ’s work. A simple way of saying it is that the saving significance of the incarnation is simply the result of refusing to separate Christ’s work from his person, but seeking to understand them both in relation to each other: his person as it relates to his work, and his work as it relates to his person.

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