A few weeks back I published an article on Christ’s saving work, looking at the various elements in the broader narrative arc that surround his atoning death. I’ve been continuing to reflect on how to seek out a healthy balance here, and especially as it relates to the incarnation. Is the incarnation itself saving? Is the very act by which God the Son assumed a human nature a redeeming act—or does it merely prepare for the redemptive work in his death and resurrection?
I want to be careful here. On the one hand, the notion that the incarnation itself transformed human nature could be taken in the direction of Eastern Orthodox view of deification, and/or could seem to logically imply universalism. I would want to steer away from both of these dangers. On the other hand, John Stott’s view that the incarnation was there simply to prepare for the possibility of his death (Cross of Christ, 233) seems too narrow to me. For starters, the incarnation is organically related to the resurrection, which is clearly a saving event (the proleptic arrival of heaven). And the resurrection is not an arbitrary event; it is the outgrowth of the incarnation, it is the only possible thing that could happen to a dead God-man. The One who is life itself cannot stay dead, and the glory Christ inherited at his resurrection was not just generic glory, but specifically a divine glory (“declared to be the Son of God in power … by his resurrection from the dead” [Romans 1:3]). Therefore, we must see the incarnation in the context of the entire incarnate and glorified life of the Son of God. What happened on Easter was ultimately of one piece with what happened at Bethlehem. (As I’ve said before, I think the transfiguration supports this close relationship between incarnation and resurrection: it serves as something like a connecting tissue between the two).
To keep exploring on this question, and refining my thinking about it, I’ve been looking over at my brother Eric’s suggestion Robert Letham’s Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology. It has a chapter devoted to the incarnation, and the book as a whole demonstrates how the importance of union with Christ in New Testament theology coheres with this broader understanding of Christ’s saving work. Letham writes:
“The basis of our union with Christ is Christ’s union with us in the incarnation. We can become one with him because he first became one with us. By taking human nature into personal union, the Son of God has joined himself to humanity. He now has a human body and soul, which he will never jettison” (21).
On the question of whether the incarnation event is itself saving, Letham seems a bit pulled in different directions. On the one hand, he insists, “in itself, the incarnation of the Son of God does not unite us to him, for by itself it does not accomplish salvation. Christ united himself to a human nature, not the nature of the elect…. There is no incarnation without atonement” (40). But then he continues:
“On the other hand, there is no atonement without incarnation…. It was in our nature that he offered himself to the Father on the cross, and in our nature that he ascended far above all things created, and in our nature that he lives and reigns forever—in indissoluble personal union. Therefore, the incarnation is more than the basis for this union, as though the union were something else, separable and inherently disconnected. The complete identification of the eternal Son with our flesh and blood is part of our union with him….
So the incarnation should not be seen as merely a means to salvation. Rather, salvation finds its ultimate fulfillment in the union of humanity with God seen in the incarnate Christ. If, from one angle, the incarnation was the means of atonement and all that followed it, from another (more lasting) perspective, the atonement was the means to the elevation and fruition of humanity in the renewed cosmos over which Christ rules, and we in him” (41, italics his).
I think this broader understanding of the narrative arc of Christ’s saving work is better able to account for the broader narrative sweep of the entire Bible. In other words, if you cut off Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22, its easier to make the incarnation purely an instrument for bringing about atonement, its easier to subsume Bethlehem under Good Friday. But if the ultimate goal of redemption includes the reality that “the dwelling place of God is with man” (Revelations 21:3), the fact that God assumed a human, creaturely nature (and will never shed it) becomes a highly relevant factor for the nature of salvation and for the very structure of reality itself. Letham even connects the doctrine of the union with Christ to the very nature of God Himself:
“The Christian faith can be summed up as, inter alia, a series of unions. There is the union of the three persons in the Trinity, the union of the Son of God with our human nature, the union of Christ with his church, the union established by the Holy Spirit with us as he indwells us” (37).
So to sum up: the incarnation is soteriologically important in at least three ways: it transforms human nature in its anticipation of Christ’s resurrection, it establishes the basis for our union with Christ (and our ultimate glorification with him), and it cements the union of God and his people. And I am sure there is much more to explore here as well.