I’ve been writing an article this spring and summer in which I question John Stott’s emphasis on the cross over the resurrection on pp. 232-234 of The Cross of Christ (IVP, 2006). While reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word I was reminded of how similar questions arise with the incarnation: how does it fit in with Jesus’s saving activity, particularly his saving activity on the cross? Stott says that “the resurrection was essential to confirm the efficacy of his death as his incarnation had been to prepare for its possibility” (233, italics mine). I appreciate Stott’s emphasis on the cross as the height and zenith of Jesus’ saving work for us. Even in evangelical circles today terms like sin, atonement, justification, propitiation, expiation, etc. are often downplayed and/or misunderstood. We need to be constantly called back to the cross, for only at the cross is atonement for sin; only in light of the cross can we be reconciled to God; only because of the cross do we have hope to stand before a Holy God on judgment day.
Nevertheless, in emphasizing Jesus’ crucifixion I think we evangelicals have at times neglected other aspects of Jesus’ saving work, both those pertaining to his risen and exalted life after the cross, and those pertaining to his incarnate and earthly life before the cross. From reading Stott and some other evangelicals (though earlier Protestants like Calvin avoided this), you sometimes get the impression that the exclusive purpose of the incarnation was atonement. While I think atonement is the main thing (Mark 10:45, John 12:27, I Corinthians 15:3ff.), I believe there are other saving purposes to the incarnation, and as I’ve been reading Athanasius I’ve been listing them as he provoked various thoughts. So far I’ve got 5 (I’m sure there are more):
1) God the Son became a man so that He would personally experience the weakness and temptation common to humanity, in order to represent, intercede for, and help believers in their weakness and temptation as their High Priest (Hebrews 2:17-18, 5:1-10). Incarnation –> Intercession.
2) God the Son became a man in order to teach about God and reveal God’s will and ways more fully and more adequately. He was the greatest Prophet the world has ever known (Deuteronomy 18:14-22, Acts 3:22-23). If the incarnation was exclusively for atonement, one might expect Him to go straight to the cross. Instead Jesus spends several years in public ministry, teaching the crowds, disputing the Pharisees, proclaiming the kingdom. John 18:37: “I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Incarnation –> Revelation.
3) God the Son became a man in order to live a sinless life which is imputed to believers through the doctrine of justification. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that God justifies by believers “by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of of Christ unto them” (IX.1, italics mine). (I know that not everyone believes in imputation, but Stott does!) Without an incarnation, there would be no sinless life to be imputed. Incarnation –> Justification.
4) God the Son became a man in order to inaugurate God’s kingdom and undermine Satan’s dominion of the world. His miracles, healings, and exorcisms are signs of the beginning of the great reversal, the reclaiming of God’s creation. Hence Jesus proclaims at the beginning of his ministry, “the kingdom of God is at hand.” Incarnation –> Redemption.
5) God the Son became a man in order to raise up disciples and found the church. Think of the vast amounts of time spent instructing his disciples (e.g., John 13-17). And it is his resurrection and exaltation which enable the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost (John 16:7, Acts 2:33) which launches the church movement. Incarnation –> Church.
My concluding thought: the whole saving work of Jesus is one big package and we cannot pick it apart without falling into error.