This article first appeared in the December 15, 1997 of the Standard Bearer (vol.74, #6) and was an editorial written by Prof. David J. Engelsma.
The Birth of Jesus: Particular Grace
We celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ as the gracious act and gift of God. God acted in the birth of Jesus. The Holy Ghost worked conception in the womb of the virgin. The Word became flesh. The Father sent His Son into the world. In the birth of Jesus, the triune God performed the wonderful work of the incarnation of God the Son. This was the central act of God in history.
God gave in the birth of Jesus. He gave liberally. He gave His all, holding nothing back. He gave His only begotten Son. In Him, therefore, God gave Himself. In the birth of Jesus, God gave the unspeakable gift.
The act and gift were gracious. The purpose was the redemption of guilty, depraved people from sin, death, and everlasting hell unto righteousness and eternal life. The motivation was the favor of God toward these wretched sinners. He loved them and desired to bless them. The objects were—and are—undeserving of the act and gift.
How undeserving we are for whom God acted and to whom He gave in the birth of Jesus is shown by the act and gift. Nothing would do for our deliverance save the incarnation of God. How damnworthy, how vile, how otherwise hopelessly lost must we be whose rescue requires that God Himself empty and impoverish Himself by becoming a man.
All talk of men's worth and works, all preaching of merits and conditions, and all boasting of fallen man's goodness apart from Jesus Christ by "common grace" are exposed by the birth of Jesus as idle, empty, profane, and blasphemous chatter.
It is also the grace of the birth of Jesus that God acted and gave, although no one wanted the act and gift. Christ came unto His own, and His own received Him not. There was no room for Him in the inn. The hostility toward God's wonderful act and unspeakable gift on the part of the nations was evident in Herod's attempt on Jesus' life before the baby was two years old.
Jesus Christ was not born because man desired Him. Still less is the explanation of His birth man's effort to produce Him, perhaps in cooperation with God. Man was excluded in the conception and birth of Jesus. That baby had no human father. The Power of the Highest alone worked conception in Mary, and He did so only because God had graciously willed it and graciously promised it.
That there were some, in fact, who did desire the birth of Jesus—a Zacharias and Elisabeth, a Mary, a Simeon, an Anna, the wise men—was the effect, not the cause, of the birth of Jesus. The grace of God that acted and gave in Jesus' birth acted and gave in such a marvelous way that it created men and women who desired and received the act and gift. The act and gift caused their own reception. So also they do still today in all those who embrace Jesus Christ with believing hearts.
The Word of God in the birth of Jesus Christ is: "Grace!" "Grace alone!" "Grace to the exclusion of all human worth, works, and will!" "Grace that so humbles fallen human nature as to leave it nothing but exposure to the wrath of God and slavery to sin!"
As the Word of grace, the birth of Jesus glorifies God. "Glory to God in the highest" is the celebration of Jesus' birth by the true church and by the believer, as it was the celebration by the angels.
Because it is the Word of grace, the birth of Jesus is gospel. It is good news to everyone who knows himself a guilty, shameful sinner before the face of the righteous God and who turns to Jesus Christ for salvation.
What a gospel! He who is rich with the riches of the Godhead became poor with the poverty of death, the grave, and hell for our sakes, that we through His poverty might be rich with the riches of the life and glory of God in the risen Jesus Christ.
What a gospel! The Son of God became poor in the birth of Jesus, not because we desired or deserved it but because He Himself was gracious.
What a gospel! Now and to endless ages, our enjoyment of the riches given by His poverty is not conditioned by our worthiness or will, but is dependent solely on His grace.
The birth of Jesus was grace, but it was not grace for all humans in general. The birth of the Son of God was particular grace. The act and gift of God in the birth of the Savior were for some, definite members of the human race, and for them alone. The birth of Jesus was particular grace in the result: only some benefit from it. The birth of Jesus was particular grace in the purpose of the triune God: God willed, wished, and desired that the birth benefit only some, not all.
This is how God Himself described His act and gift in the birth of His Son. Filled with the Holy Ghost, Zacharias proclaimed Jesus' birth as God's visiting and redeeming His people (Luke 1:68). In explanation of the baby's name, Jesus, the angel declared, "for He shall save His people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21). Reflecting on the incarnation, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews taught that the Son of God "took part" of flesh and blood for the children whom God gave Him (Heb. 2:14).
Who they are for whom Jesus Christ was born is determined by the God who acted and gave in that birth. He determined them by the eternal, gracious decree of election. Jesus Himself said that He came down from heaven to save "all which He (the Father) hath given me" (John 6:39). If men and women themselves distinguish themselves from others as those for whom Jesus was born, the grace of the birth of Jesus is denied.
Exactly this is the offense of the birth of Jesus Christ to many. Many stumble at this, that the birth of Jesus was particular grace.
This is at the bottom of theological liberalism's rejection of the incarnation and virgin birth. If it is indeed true, as the Bible teaches, that in the birth of Jesus God was manifest in the flesh through a virgin conception and birth, there is salvation only in this Jesus. Such a Jesus is the one and only Savior from sin and death. Only those who know and trust in Him by faith are, and can be, saved. All who live and die apart from Him are lost and damned. This is intolerable to the universalistic, natural mind of man. The issue is particular grace.
Resentment of particular grace explains why evangelical and Reformed theologians are now proposing that pagans can be saved in their heathen religions, if not by their heathen religions. These theologians are offended at the truth that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father. Particular grace is the stone of stumbling and rock of offense.
No different, essentially, is the universalism of much of "evangelical Christianity" today. In Christ, God is gracious to all men without exception. Christ was born for all; Christ died for all; the risen Christ now offers Himself to all. The reason is that God loves and has chosen all. "Evangelical Christianity" hates particular grace as much as do Rome and the liberals.
The very same opposition to particular grace appears in supposedly conservative Calvinistic churches in the teaching and practice of the "well-meant offer of the gospel." God is gracious in the preaching of the gospel of Christ to all who hear without exception. He loves all, sincerely desires the salvation of all, and offers Christ to all with the wish that all will accept Him. The grace of God in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus is for all without exception. The ministers and churches who teach and practice this stumble over the doctrine of particular grace. They stumble over the particular Jesus, just as do the liberals and the open "free willists."
How many Reformed preachers, this season, will boldly proclaim the grace of God in the birth of Jesus as grace intended for and made available to all without exception?
How many Reformed preachers, after having paid lip service (and very quickly) to election, will go on, in the application, to offer the child of Bethlehem as a Savior who graciously desires to save all in the audience, if not in the world, if only people will accept Him?How many Reformed preachers will teach the act and gift of God in the birth of Jesus without saying one word about that act and gift as particular grace?
For to deny the birth of Jesus as particular grace is to deny the grace of it. If the birth of Christ is grace for all without exception, the reason why some are benefited by that birth, whereas others are not, is something in them themselves: works! will! worth! Or, we are to suppose that all without exception will eventually benefit from the birth of Jesus, even though many never believe, never love God, never walk in God's holy ways. In either case, grace is no more (biblical) grace.
And if the birth of Jesus is not grace, it is not the wonderful act and unspeakable gift of God in the incarnation of the eternal Son on behalf of needy, miserable sinners. In this case, I have no further interest in the birth of Jesus.
The only reason for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ.
The only confession that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ.
Prof.David J. Engelsma (Wife: Ruth)
Ordained: September 1963
Pastorates: Loveland, CO - 1963; South Holland, IL - 1974; Professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1988; Emeritus - 2008Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof_D._Engelsma
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