What would prompt us to refer to a man as God? And even if we acknowledge that Jesus was somehow God, how did he become God? Was he born a man and later “divinized” in some way, perhaps at his baptism? Many have wrestled with these questions throughout church history, but the faithful church has always held as orthodox what the apostles profess in the creed:
“We believe. . . in Jesus Christ, [God's] only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary . . .
This short phrase encapsulates the doctrine we call “the Incarnation.” What the Incarnation means is this: Jesus Christ was both fully God and fully man. He was not God manifesting in the illusion or appearance of a man. And he was not man operating under the title “God” as some vicarious ambassador or adoptee. Jesus was—simultaneously, totally, and actually—God and man. The second person of the Triune Godhead, the eternally begotten Son, inhabited flesh. He was God incarnate.
The Apostles’ Creed doesn’t attempt to explain the logic of this mind-boggling truth, but simply affirms it by reminding us that Jesus had no earthly biological father. The virgin Mary’s pregnancy was accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit. Luke chronicles the promise of Jesus’ birth to Mary this way:
“[T]he angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35)
That Jesus was a historical man is beyond (nearly) all doubt. His existence is attested to by ancient historians both religious and secular. Jesus’ humanity is not typically the objection people have to the claims of Christian theology. It is not his birth to a young woman named Mary that so many reject. No, instead, it is Jesus’ divinity that raises the eyebrows and prompts the challenges. But the Scriptures reference the deity of Christ in numerous places. Philippians 2:6 tells us Jesus had both the form of and equality with God. Colossians 1:15 tells us that Jesus is the image of God. 1 John 1:20 tells us that the Son is “the true God.” In 2 Peter 2:1, the apostle refers to Jesus as “our God and Savior.” Paul in Acts 20:28 says the church was purchased by the blood of God. Jesus himself proclaims “I and the Father are one” in John 10:30, about which, lest we think he may mean simply that he and the Father are in agreement, we should point out even the experts of the law recognized was a claim to deity (John 10:33).
Jesus was born of a virgin, the creed maintains. Many skeptics today will counter that “virgin” in the biblical and historical sense may refer simply to a young girl of marry-able age. This is no doubt true. But this is not the sense with which the biblical authors understood “virgin” to mean. Even if Isaiah could not have foreseen the full import of his own Spirit-breathed prophecy (Isaiah 7:14), Matthew’s Gospel gives us the fullness of meaning: “[Joseph] knew her not until she had given birth to a son.”
The biblical evidence for Jesus’ deity is abundant. That many Jews in the first century began to worship him as God ought to give us even more indication that the evidence of his divinity was felt to be quite strong, even overwhelming. But that has not stopped challenges throughout the centuries. No, in nearly every age, the creedal church has had to respond to various forms of the ancient Arian heresy.
Going back to an Alexandrian priest in the late third, early fourth centuries named Arius, the Incarnation of Jesus Christ has seemed a bridge too far. Arius denied the eternal deity of Jesus. His claim boiled down to the beliefs that Jesus was created by the Father and that the Son was of a similar essence to the Father, but not of the same essence. Arius denied that Jesus was the eternally begotten Son of God and instead that there was a point in heavenly time in which the Son was unbegotten.
The Council of Nicaea was called largely to confront the Arian heresy, with the Alexandrian bishop Athanasius leading the charge. Athanasius provides the earliest, most powerful, and certainly most enduring defenses of the biblical truths of Incarnational theology specifically and of Trinitarian doctrine in general. Grounded in the bold declarations of the epistles of the apostle John, Athanasius in fact categorized the Arian heresy as the work of the antichrist.
We still deal with forms of Arius’ damnable lies today. Nevertheless, orthodox Christianity will always stand on Peter’s hell-conquering confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). We stand on what he said and what he meant. (The title “Son of God” refers to Christ’s nature as God, sharing the same essence with the Father, and does not refer only to his position as son.)
Christians stand on this confession not because it is a sweet sentimentality at holiday time, but because we know that it is integral to Christ’s gospel. To deny that Jesus was either fully God or fully man is to deny the salvation that Jesus the God-Man has purchased. The Incarnation is crucial to the good news of forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. The reality is this: only man should pay the price for the sins of mankind, but only God could pay the price for the sins of mankind. Thus, in Jesus Christ, the “man should” and the “God could” unite in perfect payment and pure pardon.