. . . From Their Sins
Born thy people to deliver / Born a child and yet a King.
—Charles Wesley (1744)
Let earth receive her King . . .
—Isaac Watts (1719)
Who Is Jesus?
A popular but suspect theologian stands before the new pope.
Pope Kiril: So . . . now we come to the classic question. What think you . . . of Christ?
Father Telemond: Excuse me, Eminence, could you ask the question again?
The film is The Shoes of the Fisherman (MGM, 1968). Anthony Quinn plays a simple Russian priest, who is suddenly exalted from confinement in a Soviet Gulag to the office of Roman cardinal, and then—to his great surprise… that of pope. Pope Kiril, he calls himself. The central plot concerns this new pope’s role in adverting nuclear war. A significant subplot involves his relationship as pontiff with an old friend, a theologian whose ideas are decidedly heterodox. The new pope wants to believe the best; he wants to be liberal and gracious in his judgments. And yet he is the pope. So he confronts his wayward friend. He repeats his question.
Pope Kiril: What think you of Christ, Father? Who is he?
Father Telemond: He is the point to which all of evolution is tending. He is the point at which the whole universe must arrive . . . as the spokes of a wheel arrive at the center. He is the universe, summed up. He is the Cosmic Christ.
Pope Kiril isn’t satisfied. Neither should we be.
Like Father Telemond, many men and women have invented their own Christ, their own Jesus. Their Jesus is a great moralist, a political revolutionary, a religious superstar, a spiritual adept, an ascended master, an incarnate angel, or the son of a polygamous god. He is everything they want him to be, but nothing that could ever infringe on their lifestyle or mess with their conscience. And none of “these false Christs” is the Christ of Scripture… none of them is the Jesus of Christmas.
Thou Shalt Call His Name Jesus
The angel told Joseph, “Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The name Jesus means, “Yahweh is salvation.” Yahweh reveals Himself in Christ as the only Savior, the effective Savior, the divine Savior who unfailingly “saves His people from their sins.”
First, Jesus saves His people from the penalty of sin. The proper penalty for sin is death, which means physical death now and eternal death in hell after the Last Judgment. God is holy and just. His justice demands that those who rebel against Him receive the punishment their rebellion deserves. But God is also gracious. In Jesus Christ, God gave Himself as a penal substitute for sinners. Jesus died to restore men to fellowship with God.
We believe that God, who is perfectly merciful and just, sent his Son to assume that nature, in which the disobedience was committed, to make satisfaction in the same, and to bear the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death. God therefore manifested his justice against his Son, when he laid our iniquities upon him; and poured forth his mercy and goodness on us, who were guilty and worthy of damnation, out of mere and perfect love, giving his Son unto death for us, and raising him for our justification, that through him we might obtain immortality and life eternal (Belgic Confession, Article 20).
Second, Jesus saves His people from the power of sin. Jesus didn’t die and rise again so that His people could continue in their sins. Jesus died to give His people new hearts and new lives, to make them new creatures and citizens of His kingdom. As the Christmas hymns tell us, He came to rule in our hearts, and the Gospel calls us to receive Him on those terms. Consider these words written by Charles Wesley.
Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,
Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee.
Born Thy people to deliver,
Born a child and yet a King,
Born to reign in us forever,
Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.
By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all sufficient merit,
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
Isaac Watts expressed a similar theology in his adaptation of Psalm 98.
Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing.
Christmas versus Gnosticism
It is easy to push the Christmas story off into Bible lands in Bible times, to treat it as a sweet and decidedly otherworldly fairy tale. There are a few Christmas songs that come close to doing exactly that. But this is not at all how the Gospels portray the birth of Jesus.
Jesus was born to a real Jewish girl in blood and pain and poverty. A feeding trough was his first crib. There were no haloes. The Baby wasn’t incandescent. He cried like babies cry. Later on, the king’s soldiers tried to kill Him. It’s all real. Jesus—Yahweh—came into our world, into our history, to redeem it and reclaim it. He came to claim His kingdom. That kingdom, that reign, begins in the hearts of men.
And it’s here we must distinguish Christianity from its Gnostic and Romanticized counterfeits. For Scripture, the heart isn’t a center of irrational sentiment and emotion, of fairy tale faith and otherworldly realities. The heart is the focus and center of the human personality. It is the religious center of man’s being. It’s the root of man’s choices. Out of the heart are the issues of life (Prov. 4:23). As a man thinks in his heart, so is he (Prov. 23:7).
When Christ reigns in a man’s heart, He rules the man’s life: his finances, politics, sexuality, family life, friendships, and entertainment. Jesus progressively extends His rule to every nook and cranny of the man’s life precisely because He is enthroned in the man’s heart. Jesus saves His people from their sins.
Jesus is not a great Teacher, a profound moralist, an ascended Master, or an almost god. He is not the self-conscious universe. He is Yahweh incarnate. He is the Son of the living God. He is the Creator. He is the Savior of the World. We may enter His kingdom by faith and receive all the benefits of His reign, or we may rebel against Him and play fast and loose with His truth and His law. The issue here is not about our feelings. Many people are sentimental about Christmas. Many say they love Jesus. But always remember… Jesus said, “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
The Gospel calls us to receive Jesus as our Savior. That means, as the One who really saves us from our sins. That also means we must embrace His salvation and His kingdom. We must acknowledge Him as King and expect Him to rearrange and reorient our priorities and values so that they conform to His truth and His word. We must expect Him to rule in our hearts and write His laws there. When we receive Him with this sort of faith, our world will change. When enough people receive Him with this sort of faith, the whole world will change.