When considering the meaning of anything having to do with what we believe, it’s always a good idea to start with the Nicene Creed, which specifically addresses the subject of Christmas: For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: By the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, And was made man.
That’s what the coming of Christ really means, apart from the Christmas holiday and all of its stress and commercialization. Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation of Christ. But before we discuss the incarnation, or Christmas if you prefer, we need to understand the first line of this section of the Creed, which says “for us and for our salvation.” I like to think of this phrase as the “why” clause of the Creed.
If you look at the Creed paragraph by paragraph, you find that the first paragraph defines “what” God the Father is; the next paragraph, with the exception of this little clause, defines “what” God the Son is and “what” God the Son did; and the final paragraph discusses “what” the Holy Spirit is and “what” our response to God is supposed to look like.
But this little phrase buried in the second paragraph, “for us and for our salvation,” is the only part of the Creed that explains why God the Son did what he did. That first phrase “for us,” two little words, is infinitely important, and I can show you why if we think together for a moment about what makes for a good sermon.
If the purpose of a sermon is to expound the gospel, then the preacher is not there to exhort us to live better lives, or to give us ideas for how to live together in better unity, or any of the other stuff that is preached from so many pulpits today. The preacher is there to preach salvation for sinners through Christ. After all, gospel means “good news,” not “good advice,” and the preacher’s job is to proclaim or announce this good news.
And you can test whether or not a preacher is faithfully carrying out his or her duty to proclaim the gospel simply by looking for this: the sermon should be about what Jesus has done, not about us doing something for Jesus or for one another. In a good sermon, a true gospel message, it can be said that Jesus is the subject of the sentence, and we are the object of that sentence. Luther called this the pro me, “for me,” or pro te, “for you” of the Gospel. For you, and for your salvation, he came down from heaven. For you. It’s not about what we can do for him, it’s about what he has already done for you.
This is a familiar concept to Episcopalians when using the Rite 1 liturgy, because when the bread is placed in our hands, the priest says that this is the body of our lord Jesus Christ which is broken for you, pro te, and likewise with the cup being the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which is shed for you. In the Gospel message, we are the objects, what happens is done for us, and it is the work of Jesus Christ as the subject, not us. For you he came. For you he died. For you he rose. For you. Not you for Christ, but Christ for you.
After all, if we could rise up and be the subject of the gospel, thereby being the ones doing that which would save us, then Christ would not have had to come die in our place.
This is why the Creed says he came “For our Salvation.” And this is where it becomes difficult for us, because in order for us to accept that Jesus had to come to earth to save us, we have to acknowledge that there is something inherently wrong with us, and that it’s something we can’t fix ourselves. And that something is a thing called “sin.”
You and I, and everyone who is descended from Adam is born in slavery to sin, as a result of Adam’s original sin. Paul is very clear on this subject, in Romans 5, saying, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.
The best quote I have ever encountered regarding this subject outside of Romans 5 is from a secular source. The Minnesota Crime Commission published this in their 1926 report:
Every baby starts life as a little savage. He is completely selfish and self-centered. He wants what he wants when he wants it: his bottle, his mother’s attention, his playmate’s toys, his uncle’s watch, or whatever. Deny him these and he seethes with rage and aggressiveness which would be murderous were he not so helpless. He’s dirty, he has no morals, no knowledge, no developed skills. This means that all children, not just certain children but all children, are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in their self-centered world of infancy, given free reign to their impulsive actions to satisfy each want, every child would grow up a criminal, a thief, a killer, a rapist. (H/T The Rev. Rico Tice, All Souls Langham Place)
It is that ingrained in us from birth. The universality of sin is the only Christian doctrine that can be empirically proven. All we have to do is open our eyes and look at our human behavior. John said in 1John that, if we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
And this applies equally to all of us. We can’t save ourselves because we can’t fix our sin, and therefore we must look to another, Christ, and him alone for our salvation. Paul tells us in Romans 3, there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
And Paul points out in Romans 5 how that redemption was secured: You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Christ came “for US and for OUR salvation”: Christ as subject, us as objects, being acted for and acted upon.
That’s why Christ came into the world.
In my next post, we’ll begin exploring how Christ came into the world, the incarnation, through the eyes of our four Gospel writers. Each gives us a different view point, and each is necessary to complete the picture. More on that later. For now, though, here is a video that drives home the point of why he came: