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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

One Incarnation Under God

December 18, 2014 •
“Hark! the herald angels sing, ‘Glory to the newborn King;
peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!’
Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies;
With th’ angelic host proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!"1
With Christmas season upon us again, familiar angelic songs about the birth of Jesus fill homes, churches, and in some regions, still even the malls. The Son of God was born in Bethlehem. God took on human flesh and became one with us by becoming one of us. An incomprehensible yet glorious fact, the enfleshment of the Son of God baffles brains, stirs hearts, and secures the redemption of sinners!
As mediators of the great announcement, the angelic messengers of God joined ranks and filled the skies with a swelling chorus. “Good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10) gave reason for such a song. God become flesh and dwelled among men, for the saving of sinners in whose flesh the Savior has now come!
Having anticipated the Messiah’s arrival for centuries, the people of God joined the angelic hosts in newfound praise. Simeon’s sanctified song lyricizes the redemptive Abundance wrapped up in swaddling cloths:
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, 
according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation 
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 
a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”  
(Luke 2:29-32)
These words of worship unveil the new age of prophetic and apostolic testimony. The remainder of the New Testament celebrates the historical fact and the eternal meaning of Christ’s incarnation. The Messiah was now here in the flesh!
Paul captures the splendid news with gripping pithiness: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). Incarnation, redemption and adoption. The short statement runs long—eternally and lovingly long—in meaning. The staggering implications extend in inverse proportionality to the verbal brevity.
God determined to redeem sinners. He determined to adopt a family for himself. He determined to carry out this saving plan at the perfect time by his own perfect orchestration of history. Planned by him and carried out by him, redemption was a Personal commitment and a Personal investment with a Personal and gracious purpose.
As the sent and enfleshed Son of God elucidates, redemption is not the work of man but of God. Redemption requires divine intention and intervention. Redemption attains by God’s purpose, his timing, and only in his own Beloved Son.
Nothing random and nothing wasted. Nothing detached and nothing philosophical. Nothing less than insuperable kindness from the heart and by the hand of the Almighty. 
And nothing repeated or repeatable. One God. One Son. One incarnation. 
Yet despite its singularity, the once-for-all, non-repeatable character of the incarnation has in recent years suffered challenges—for reasons that might initially appear innocuous. 
The Itch to “Incarnate”
In 1995, Paul Hiebert and Eloise Heibert Meneses wrote a book entitled Incarnational Ministry. In short, these authors argue, “The incarnational approach to ministry means that we must meet people where they are, not where we are.” 2 Such language sounds convincing, even biblical. After all, what could be more compelling than being like Jesus to others? Doesn’t Scripture call us to emulate Jesus, to “incarnate”?
Impassioned incarnational ministry advocates warn the disciples of Christ about their evangelistic responsibilities: “You may be the only Jesus they ever see. Jesus incarnated. So should you.” Without meeting people where they are, proponents contend, missions becomes a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal in the ears of the unbeliever. Incarnational ministry provides the key to relevance.
Evangelicals, especially those involved in youth ministry stateside and those engaged in world missions, found in the incarnation a powerful paradigm for relational and cultural connection. Study people and culture—know them, become as much as is possible like them.3 To reach them, we must become like them.  Resistance to the gospel may stem more from our cultural cluelessness than from spiritual rebellion.
With self-advancing creativity and cultural sensitivity as the new norms, no wonder the incarnational ministry paradigm caught the evangelical world by storm. This fury has, in many circles, hardly waned. Converging features in the evangelical and missiological worlds fuel a relentless pursuit of relevance, engagement, incarnation. With eyes upon meeting diversity and cultural disparities in each ministry context, success possesses a recalibrated (and always recalibrating) measuring stick. 
With this new incarnational motif, sociology now found ostensible biblical justification and the key to ministry success found a new home: how well can I understand, relate to, and become like the people/culture where I serve. Ministry occurs when I incarnate. Missional relevance depends upon my fruitful impersonating of the incarnation.
Go Ye Therefore and . . . Incarnate
Lost on many is that by turning the incarnation into a model of ministry, we forfeit the real import of the incarnation itself.4  The emulation interpretation or application of the incarnation robs it of its integrity. Turning the incarnation into our task rather than a redemptively critical, divinely accomplished act effectively disembodies the incarnation!
Let me explain further.
Paul’s words in Galatians 4 properly focus upon a single incarnation event. According to Scripture—from Simeon to Paul, the incarnation is an act carried out by the God of heaven, once for all. It is non-repeatable for theological and historical reasons. God never directs his people to recapitulate the incarnation! 
After all, how could that which is flesh become more flesh? The incarnation involves God becoming man. The move is from heaven to earth, from divine to human, from heavenly glory to earthly humiliation. It is no mere horizontal acclimatization, as if the Son of God moved from Toronto to Texas or Tupolo to Tanzania. Incarnate translation is not merely cross-cultural. Almighty God in heaven personally intrudes into time and space.
Incarnation, in fact, occasions a move of colossal, trans-spherical proportions: the appropriation of human flesh by the Eternal Son of God! As the work of God, it cannot be repeated by man. As the redemptive work of God, it need not be repeated at all. Ever!
Therefore, the incarnation was an historical event, which offers no pattern, no metaphor, and no mere motivational plea. Christ’s condescension in his incarnation accomplished a once-for-all divine act on the stage of history.
1. The Single Incarnation was Divine. God sent his Son. 
Despite their familiarity, these words get brushed by to our own hurt. The enfleshment of the Son of God is no apparition, no philosophical abstraction or empty conception. God actually sent his Son as a man. Jesus did not merely appear to have flesh, but he became flesh and thereby lived among us (John 1:14). 
The theology of the incarnation then involves pre-existence—that is, before Jesus was born, he was eternally the Son of God. Enfleshment did not inaugurate his existence, but it changed his existence forever. He remains blessedly forever the God-Man.
2. The Single Incarnation was Planned. 
This historical event stems from a pre-temporal commitment (see Ephesians 1:3–14). The Triune God, according to his infinite, all wise counsel, purposed the Son’s enfleshment. According to the gracious intention of God from before the foundation of the world, the redemption-securing enfleshment of the Son of God found its origins in the master-purpose of God for making those not his people, his people. 
Sinners were to become saints, aliens were to become citizens of God’s kingdom, orphans were to become God’s children, and slaves were to become sons of God. How? By God becoming flesh.
3. The Single Incarnation was Timed. 
Neither random in purpose or schedule, God’s work in redemption occurred “when the fullness of time had come.” Not only did God send his Son, he also did so at the right time. Before Day-Timer and Google Calendar, the Inventor of time and Orchestrator of history operated by his own sovereign event planner. 
Composing the events of history according to his perfect plan, God sent his Son at precisely the right moment. While not explicit concerning all the rationale, Scripture makes abundantly clear that God’s work in history—however random it may appear to the human eye—involves his infinite wisdom and intentionality. Human perceptions of randomness stem from a limited, finite scope of reference; convictions of randomness stem from unbelief.
4. The Single Incarnation Secured Redemption. 
The Son’s enfleshment was redemptive in purpose and value. As Anselm famously put it, though man ought to make the needed satisfaction as the debtor, only God could make the needed satisfaction; accordingly, it was necessary “for a God-Man to make it.”5
The point here is not that by mere solidarity with man that Jesus became the qualified redeemer. He had to grow and mature; he had to learn obedience. He had to die and rise again, as the Son of God in power according the Spirit of holiness (Rom 1:3–4). But without the incarnation of the Son of God, there is no redemption. Jesus’ incarnation is the sine qua non of redemptive efficacy. 
5. The Single Incarnation Shapes Ministry. 
Lest it be misunderstood, let me affirm the ministerial and evangelistic value of the incarnation. Surely Christ’s work as God in flesh provides the only grounds for any valid ministry. But the value of Christ’s incarnation lies not in any exemplary notion. Its value lies in the solidarity that he established with us once for all for the purpose of securing our redemption (Hebrews 2:10–18). Without Christ’s incarnation, we remain in our sin. Those who fail to turn in faith and repentance to this incarnate Christ remain in their sin. 
To return to the theme of missions for a moment, God’s incarnation does not furnish a model for us to emulate. Rather, the incarnation of Jesus Christ delivers the message to proclaim. We bear witness to Christ’s incarnate work; we are never called to draw attention to ourselves or to “incarnate,” by relying in some way upon our abilities. As the angels and apostles proclaimed his arrival, so should we.
Thus, Christ’s incarnation marks the condescending act of God whereby he took on the frailties of human flesh, conquered sin and death, redeemed the lost, and created a new people according to the power of the resurrected Son of God. Incarnation serves redemptive purposes, not replicative ones.
To insist upon “incarnational” ministry, in fact, dilutes the essence of the incarnation itself. We were not God before we were human! And, we never become God! What defines the incarnation is that God became one of us, not that we become little gods or junior Christs! To employ incarnational language for our own ministry is to turn others’ eyes away from Christ and on to us—precisely opposite of what the witnesses to Christ must do! 
Conclusion: One Incarnation Under God
To bring this discussion to a close, let us never forget the mystery and the grace wrapped up in God becoming flesh. There are not many incarnations. There is one, once for all, for the saving of sinners.
This critical point is worth restating. The Son’s incarnation is not for duplication, illustration, or unwitting denigration. Instead, his incarnation secures saving identity with those made in the likeness of Adam, so that by his life, death, and resurrection, his people might be redeemed.
Gospel ministry then bears witness to the incarnation of God in Christ. It does not turn peoples’ eyes toward us and our abilities to relate to them, but toward Christ who has taken on “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3), who has suffered and died for sinners.
The incarnation compels our praise, not our foolish and self-serving notions of its replication. There is one incarnation under God. God’s Son, Jesus Christ, is the only incarnate One. He submitted to the Father and took on human flesh. 
To honor God in worship and in mission is to celebrate and proclaim this Beloved, incarnate Son. I close with one verse of a less familiar, but glorious line of a hymn. This song is sung as a prayer, directly to the God who sent his Son:
“Love caused your incarnation, love brought you down to me;
your thirst for my salvation procured my liberty.
O love beyond all telling, that led you to embrace,
in love all love excelling, our lost and fallen race!”6
In that magnificent and gracious love of the One true God lies the meaning of the incarnation. That “love beyond all telling” is the love that we must joyfully tell and re-tell.
Charles Wesley, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” public domain.
Paul G. Hiebert and Eloise Hiebert Meneses, Incarnational Ministry: Planting Churches in Band, Tribal, Peasant, and Urban Societies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 76.
Paul’s commitment to become all things to all people (1 Corinthians 9:19–23) differs categorically from the incarnational model. Paul’s adaptations never hijacked the once-for-all character of God’s redemptive work in the incarnate Christ Jesus; instead, he sought ways to proclaim the gospel’s (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1–3) cross-cultural, transcendent value. “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:23).
For further critique on the “incarnational” ministry model, see J. Todd Billings, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011) and Idem.,
Anselm, Cur Deus Homo, in A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (The Library of Christian Classics 10; ed. and trans. Eugene R. Fairweather; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1956), 151.
Paul Gerhardt, “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?”, public domain. 

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