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The cross is the focal point of the gospel. Paul says as much when he tells the church in Corinth that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). But just because the cross is the focus of the saving work of Christ, that doesn’t mean that the other parts of Christ’s life—his birth, life, resurrection, ascension—aren’t without saving significance.

This Christmas, as we stop to reflect on our Savior’s birth, we should remember that without the incarnation the cross would have never happened. However, we should also remember that the incarnation is more than just a necessary step towards the cross! According to a number of important theologians across the history of the church, the incarnation has other pastoral and salvific implications. This season let’s slow down from the hustle and bustle of Christmas preparations to reflect on what the saints who have come before us have said about what the miracle of incarnation means for our salvation.

Athanasius (296–373)

Although being himself powerful and creator of the universe, he [i.e. Christ] prepared for himself in the virgin the body as a temple, and made it his own, as an instrument, making himself known and dwelling in it. And thus, taking from ours that which is like, since all were liable to the corruption of death, delivering it over to death on behalf of all, he offered it to the Father, doing this in his love for human beings…. [so] that as human beings had turned towards corruption he might turn them again to incorruptibility and give them life from death.

Cyril of Alexandria (c. 375–444)

As I have said, the Son came, or rather was made man, in order to reconstitute our condition within himself: first of all in his own holy, wonderful, and truly amazing birth and life. This was why he himself became the first one to be born of the Holy Spirit (I mean of course after the flesh) so that he could trace a path for grace to come to us. He wanted us to have this intellectual regeneration and spiritual assimilation to himself, who is the true and natural Son, so that we too might be able to call God our Father, and so remain free of corruption as no longer owning to our first father, that is Adam, in whom we were corrupted.

John Calvin (1509–1564)

[Christ’s] task was 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?… 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.

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)

Christ took the nature of a creature, not only because the creature’s great love to him desired familiar communion with him, more familiar than his infinite distance would allow, but also because his great love to us caused him to desire familiar communion with us. So he came down to us, and united himself to our nature.

The infinite love which there is from everlasting between the Father and the Son is the highest excellency and peculiar glory of the Deity. God saw it therefore meet that there should be some bright and glorious manifestation made of [it] to the creatures, which is done in the incarnation and death of the Son of God. Hereby was most clearly manifested to men and angels the distinction of the persons of the Trinity. The infinite love of the Father to the Son is thereby manifested, in that for his sake he would forgive an infinite debt, would be reconciled with and receive into his favor and to his enjoyment those that had rebelled against him and injured his infinite majesty, and in exalting of him to that high mediatorial glory; and Christ showed his infinite love to the Father in his infinitely abasing himself for the vindicating of his authority and the honor of his majesty. When God had a mind to save men, Christ infinitely laid out himself that the honor of God’s majesty might be safe and that God’s glory might be advanced.

Charles Hodge (1797–1878)

The Scriptures teach that the Logos is everlasting life, having life in Himself, and the source of life, physical, intellectual, and spiritual. They further teach that his incarnation was the necessary condition of the communication of spiritual life to the children of men. He, therefore, is the only Savior, and the only source of life to us. We become partakers of this life by union with Him.

Concluding Thoughts

Athanasius, Cyril, Calvin, Edwards, and Hodge would have all recognized that the incarnation was a necessary prelude to Christ’s work on the cross, after all, if Christ wasn’t fully God and fully man then Christ couldn’t pay for our debt of sin. Yet for these five men the incarnation meant so much more! The incarnation was the moment when the Son entered into our lowly estate, uniting the divine nature to our human nature, so that we could become children of God and have the gift of life. It is ultimately by our union with Christ that we are “lifted up to participate in the very light, life, and love of the Holy Trinity.” So while it is right to remind ourselves that the true meaning of Christmas is that Christ was born as a human so that one day he could die in our place on the cross, we must not forget the “other” meaning of Christmas, namely that the Son of God became man so that we might have life as the sons and daughters of God.