Jesus: The Babe as Savior
Listen to the exhortation here.
OT text: Genesis 2:5-9; 15-17
NT text: Philippians 3:2-11
Sermon text: Romans 5:12-21
We just celebrated the incomparable miracle of the incarnation of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. God the Son, second person of the Holy Trinity, who became man, setting aside the glory that is uniquely His from before eternity, coming as one of us and living as one us on the earth that He created. He experienced good food, the love of His parents and siblings, hunger, thirst, joy, friendship, fatigue, betrayal, and ultimately the shame of death on a cross. But do we think of all this, put it into overall perspective, as we contemplate the babe in a manger?
I like to ask my Sunday school classes a simple question: Why was this necessary? Why couldn’t Jesus have come down from heaven on Thursday night, had dinner with his chosen disciples, been crucified on Friday, rise on Sunday in triumph over sin and the grave, then return to heaven after the Eagles game?
Let’s start by looking at our text for today, Romans 5:12-21:
 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.  Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.  And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.  For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.  For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.  Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,  so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (ESV)
I will make three points today as required by my Air Force training. First, that we are saved by works. Second and hopefully before you burn me at the stake, I’ll clarify that answer. Lastly, we’ll explore how we should live in light of these facts.
So, what is God telling us through Paul here in Romans 5? Paul here describes in very basic terms the relationship and continuity between the two overarching covenants that God has made with man – the Covenant of Works or Life and the Covenant of Grace. Adam, who incidentally to whom Scripture always refers as a historic individual, served as our representative or federal head in the garden. That’s clear from verse 12 where it says that all sinned through Adam. Some might object, in retrospect I might add, to the idea that their status was tied up with Adam. But those same folks rarely object to being a beneficiary of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The Holy Spirit reminds us here that these are two sides of the same coin. Verse 14 makes this even clearer by pointing out that Adam was a type of Christ.
Looking at our Old Testament text from Genesis 2, God created Adam and then condescended to make a covenant with him as our Confession says. By condescended, we mean that there’s an infinite distance between the Creator and the created. God wasn’t obligated to bless or make a covenant with Adam, but chose to do so. God offered life in fellowship with Himself to Adam on one sole condition – that Adam obey God perfectly, which we’ll unpack more in a few minutes. Although God created Adam capable of perfect obedience, in the words of the knight guarding the grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “He chose pooorly.” Verses 14 and the beginning of verse 15 recount the consequences – that sin and death entered the world due to Adam’s transgression. Bad news, but not the end of the story.
The last part of verse 15 delivers the joyous news that a second Adam, Jesus Christ came with a free gift. That gift came by the free grace of God and it abounded for many. But what was that gift? Verse 16 elaborates that, in contrast to Adam’s fall in sin, the free gift brought justification. There’s hope for us yet!
Verse 17 cuts to the core of the basis of our salvation, the great hope that rested on that babe in the manger, and provides the heart of this passage. So, let’s unpack a key term in verse 17.
The underlying Greek for the word “righteousness” in verses 17 and 18 basically means “conformity to the claims of higher authority and stands in opposition to lawlessness.” (CWSB NT Dictionary, AMG, 1993) It goes on to say that righteousness is “conformity to all that God commands or appoints.” It is the opposite of sin as we see it defined in WSC Q/A #14 as the “want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God.” That definition of righteousness in the original Greek carries over to the concept of the righteousness of Christ that we saw in Philippians 3. As we heard there, Paul elaborates on how Christ’s righteousness credited to us forms the basis of our salvation.
So we see that righteousness stands as essentially equivalent to perfect obedience. Contrast the concept of righteousness with that of innocence. Righteousness requires positive action – perfect obedience. When the Bible says that Christ is righteous in relation to His incarnation, it implicitly requires that Jesus actively obeyed God’s commands during His life here. As the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus never sinned. On the other hand, innocence is merely a passive state of being free from guilt. It doesn’t imply that an actor did anything, only that they didn’t do something. God never settles for innocence, but always demands righteousness.
Remember that Phil 3:8-10 says,
“ Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ  and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,” (ESV)
The 1599 Geneva Bible comment on Phil 3:9 observes “That is, to be in Christ, to be found not in a man’s own righteousness, but clothed with the righteousness of Christ imputed to him.” The ESV Study Bible note on Phil 3:9 states clearly that, “God “imputes” Christ’s lifelong record of perfect obedience to the person who trusts in him for salvation; that is, he thinks of Christ’s obedience as belonging to that person, and therefore that person stands before God not as “guilty” but as “righteous.” This is the basis on which justification by faith alone is considered “fair” in God’s sight.”
These verses in Philippians provide additional context to the passage in Romans 5. Verse 17 again says that Adam’s failure to render the perfect obedience required by God in the garden resulted in death reigning from that day on through our resultant sinful natures. Without divine intervention, we don’t even have Adam’s ability to obey. But that’s exactly what God provided by His infinite grace and mercy for those who believe. Paul tells us in Romans 5 that Jesus Christ, God incarnate, came to live the life of perfect obedience that Adam did not, by which consequence neither can we. But by God’s matchless grace, He credits Jesus righteousness, the merit of his perfect obedience, as a free gift to those who trust in Christ alone for their salvation.
Verse 18 reinforces the blanket statement in 17 – Jesus as our substitute corrects Adam’s failure as our substitute. Jesus righteousness credited to us provides the basis for our justification and eternal life. Don’t be concerned by the expression “for all men”. The context for this statement in all of Romans to that point, including verse 17 where the gift is limited to “those who receive”, provides the boundary for the phrase. There’s no universalism taught here or anywhere else in Scripture.
Verse 19 also reiterates that God counts believers as righteous based on Christ’s perfect obedience, not anything that we are or that we do.
So, let’s step back for a few minutes and see where this passage leads us. One thing that this passage, or any other in Scripture, doesn’t say is that the Covenant of Works has ever been withdrawn. The Covenant of Works remains in effect. That goes directly to the question I asked earlier. The law comes with this promise in Luke 10:28 under that covenant: “Do this and live.” Jesus makes it clear there in Luke and elsewhere that we are still saved by works. That’s our first point today, and it helps put Romans 5:20 into context. We must do all the law perfectly for our entire lives. But we can’t, so in our fallen natures the law simply increases our sin. Calvin called this the first use of the law – a mirror to show us our desperate need for a Savior to obey in our place. In and of ourselves, we cannot obey perfectly. I can’t. You can’t. We’re hopeless sinners deserving God’s unmitigated wrath for cosmic treason. Woe are us.
Ah, but someone did obey perfectly and possesses righteousness. We hear in Hebrews 4:15 that someone lived life as we do yet without sin. Matthew 5:17 says that He didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He fulfilled the Covenant of Works perfectly and stands righteous in His own works before our Father in heaven. Good for Him, but what about us?
God by grace alone provided the way through a second covenant, the Covenant of Grace. As our passage today teaches, along with Phil 3, 1 Cor 1:30, 2 Cor 5:21, and let’s not forget Gen 3:15 and 15:6, by grace alone the Father credits or imputes Jesus’ righteousness to those who believe – His elect before the foundation of the world. We stand righteous before the Father, saved from His just wrath, covered by the alien righteousness of Christ. So, we are saved by works, but not our feeble, sin-tainted works as described in Isaiah 64:6, but rather by Christ’s perfect obedience in the Covenant of Works imputed to us through the Covenant of Grace.
Now we see the answer to the question of “why” that I asked at the beginning. Jesus couldn’t have come down for dinner on Thursday evening because He had to fulfill the Covenant of Works for us. He had to live that life of perfect, active obedience to the Father that would be credited to all who believe. Without His righteousness, we have no hope. Remember the difference between righteousness and innocence? The Covenant of Grace requires that someone possess the righteousness necessary by fulfilling the Covenant of Works, that it might be imputed to the elect by grace alone through faith alone.
So that’s point two – Jesus saves us by His works of obedience.
Finally, how then should we live?
What we have here constitutes the very heart of the gospel. We sinners are controlled by our sinful natures that descend from Adam’s failure to obey the Covenant of Works, which God graciously condescended to make with him. Yet, we can have Christ’s perfect obedience in that same covenant credited to our accounts in the Covenant of Grace through believing and trusting in Jesus’ righteousness alone – apprehended by faith alone for our eternal life with Him.
I don’t know about you, but if any of this depended on me, I’d utterly despair of every attaining anything but the strict justice of God’s eternal wrath. But it doesn’t depend on me. Or you. Not on who I am or anything that I’ve done. Being the best pilot you’ve ever seen nets me nothing with God.
What great news! God chose us before the foundation of the world, before our birth and before we did anything, just a Paul describes in Romans 9. If I did nothing to earn my salvation, then I can do nothing to lose it either. We know from Numbers 23:19 and James 1:17 that God doesn’t change His mind. Once He chose us, that was it. As Romans 8:29-30 tells us, those whom God chose, called, and justified He also glorified. It’s a done deal.
So, can we now live by the following wisdom:
Here I sit, Oh blessed condition,
I can sin all I want and still have remission!
Absolutely not! That’s the antinomian’s unofficial creed. As Paul asks in Romans 6:1, should sin abound that grace abound much more? By no means! How can we, for whom Christ laid aside His glory to humble Himself, to be born a man and be placed in a manger because there was no room in the inn, and then died for our sins on a cross, continue to sin? May it not be so!
Calvin said that the third use of the law lay in its guide to the believer as to what pleases our Father in heaven, that we may do it. We obey first because God commands it, and also out of gratitude for what He has done for us. He replaced our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, that we could do that which honors, glorifies, and pleases Him. Remember the first question of both the shorter and larger catechisms? What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The moral law tells us how to do that.
We must live lives of confidence, confident that God loved us and chose us before the foundation of the world. He loved us so much that He sent His only Son to live and die for us in our place, that whoever believes in Him would have eternal life. We can and will sin, but as John tells us in the second chapter of his first letter, we have an advocate before the Father – even Christ. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit living in us to help and strengthening us for the cooperative task of obedience. That’s called sanctification.
What truth could provide us greater joy? Everything that is the Son of God’s is ours. Meditate on that for a while. We are coheirs with Christ! Christians of all people should live lives characterised by an internal and even external joy. Others should see a difference not just in our conduct, but in our demeanor. I’m not talking about vacuous smiles but a deep, abiding, contagious joy. [R.C. Sproul’s story about Africa, animism, and Christians in photo]
Yet, too often we join the rest of humanity in lamenting what we don’t have, rather than concentrating on the riches and blessings that we do have in Christ. I’m as guilt as anyone, but brothers and sisters, it should not be so. Particularly in this Christmas season when so much of society sets their happiness in whatever gifts under the tree make up their perfect Christmas – perhaps an Official Red Ryder Carbine Lever-Action 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle (and I wouldn’t shoot my eye out) – Christians should center on the gift of eternal life provided through that babe in the manger.
And how could we keep such a gift a secret. We can’t wait to share details of the bounty under the tree with friends, families, and blog, Facebook, and/or Twitter our readers. How much more so should we want to share the incomparable riches of the gospel? We’re never on our own to do so, because the Holy Spirit lives in us to remind us of the words to say.
But what if you haven’t come to trust in Christ alone for your salvation? Then you are under the Covenant of Works without a substitute. You owe the Creator perfect obedience. But you’ve already failed that criteria, so the condemnation of the first Adam still rests upon you. At the Day of Judgment, rather than receiving acknowledgement and acquittal at the throne because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to you, the strict justice of God’s holy wrath will fall upon you forever for your sin. As Hebrews 10:31 says, it’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Meditate carefully upon that, and then repent of your sins, despair of your empty works, and trust solely in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. If anyone would like to discuss this further, please seek out one of the elders.
For believers, Christmas is a time when we should rejoice, and thank God the Father that He sent His only begotten Son to become a man, to live out a life of perfect obedience that we could never live. We should be grateful that Jesus died on the cross, a perfect sacrifice to pay a debt that He did not owe, but that we could never pay ourselves. Then on the third day, the Father raised the Son from the dead, vindicating Jesus’ righteousness.
So, when we think of the babe in the manger, we should remember the infinite glory that babe set aside, as well as the mostly ordinary life that babe would live in our place, yet without sin. Celebrate that we are saved by that babe’s perfect obedience in the Covenant of Works credited to us through the Covenant of Grace through faith alone, that is itself a gift of God. Christmas is about a moment in a stable, but also about eternity everywhere. And all to and for God’s glory alone!