Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield.

The gospel of the incarnation. Two sermons preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary, October 9, 1892, and January 8, 1893 online

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Online LibraryBenjamin Breckinridge WarfieldThe gospel of the incarnation. Two sermons preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary, October 9, 1892, and January 8, 1893 → online text (page 1 of 4)
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October 9, 1892, and January 8, 1S93,














®l)csc Sermons







John vii. 38-39 : For I am come down from heaven, not to do mine own
will, but the will of Him that sent vie ; and this is the will of Him that
sent me, that of all that He hath given me, I should lose nothing, but
should raise it up at the last day.

In the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand our
Lord presented Himself symbolically to man as the food
of the soul. For, as Augustine reminds us, though the
miracles wrought by our Lord are divine works, in-
tended primarily to raise the mind from visible things
to their invisible author, yet their message is not ex-
hausted by this. They are to be interrogated also as to
what they tell us about Christ, and they will be found to
have a tongue of their own if we have skill to understand
it. " For," he adds, " since Christ is Himself the Word
of God, even a deed of the Word is a word to us." One
of His miracles is accordingly not to be treated as a mere
picture, which we may be satisfied to look upon and
praise ; but rather as a writing, which we are not con-
tent to praise though we delight in its beauty, but find
no satisfaction until wc have read and understood it.
We may possibly consider somewhat fanciful Augus-
tine's detailed decipherment of the signs in which this
miracle is written. He discovers in it a complete para-
ble of the salvation of man and of men. But wc can
scarcely refuse, as we read it in the pregnant record of

8 The End of the Incarnation.

John, to say in Pauline phrase, "these things contain
an allegory."

As such, indeed, John presents it. This is the mean-
ing of his care to tell us, as he introduces his recital, that
"the passover was at hand": not a mere chronological
note, we may be sure ; nor yet merely an explanation of
the presence of the multitude, gathered for the pilgrim-
age to Jerusalem ; but a premonition of what is to come,
— John's account of the occasion and meaning of the
miracle, which itself was the occasion of the great dis-
course on the bread of life. Christ, the true passover,
chose the passover time, when men's minds were upon
the type, to present the anti-type to them in symbol and
open speech. It was therefore also that He tested His
disciples with searching questions, designed to bring
them to the discovery of whether they yet knew Him ;
and that He taxed the people that " signs " were wasted
upon them (verse 26), and that while they were demand-
ing a sign that they might see and believe (verse 30),
the sign had been given them, and though they had seen,
they did not believe (verse 36). It was therefore
above all, that Christ followed up the miracle with the
wonderful discourse in which He explains the sign, and
declares Himself openly to be "the bread of God that
cometh down from heaven and giveth life to the world."
This is the tremendous truth which miracle and dis-
course united to proclaim to the multitudes gathered on
the shores of Gcnnesaret at that passover season ; but
which, despite type and sign and teaching — each a mani-
fest word from God, — they could neither receive nor
understand. And this is the blessed truth which our
text, — taken from the center of the discourse and con-
stituting, indeed, its kernel, — presents to our apprehen-

TJie End of the Incarnation. 9

sion and belief anew to-day. May the Spirit of truth,
who searches all thini^s, even the deep things of God,
illuminate our minds and prepare our hearts, that we
may understand and believe.

I. Let us begin by observing the testimony borne by
our Lord and Master here to His heavenly original and
descent: "I am come down from heaven," He says.
And the truth here declared is the foundation of the
entire discourse : the whole gist of which is to represent
Jesus as the " bread out of heaven," " the true bread out
of heaven," "the bread of God that cometh down out of
heaven," which the Father hath given for the life of the
world. I need not remind you how this representation
pervades John's Gospel, — from the testimony of the
Baptist (iii. 31), that He who was to supplant him
"cometh from above," and is therefore "above all," to
Jesus' own triumphant declaration at the close of His
life, that, His work being finished, He is ready to return
to the Father who sent Him, and to the glory that He
had with Him before the world was (xvii. 5, 11). Our
present asseveration is but a single instance of the con-
stant self-testimony of the Son of Man to His heavenly
original and descent.

The older Unitarianism was prodigal of miracle. It
was not the supernatural, but the mysteries of the Holy
Trinity and the God-man that were its scandal. When
brought face to face with such passages as these, it was
wont, therefore, to explain that Jesus, born miraculously
of His virgin mother, but a mere man, was taken up to
heaven by the divine power to learn the things of God ;
whence He again descended to bring divine teaching to
men. To the newer Unitarianism, on the other hand,
it is precisely the supernatural which is the ofTcnce. Its

lO The End of the Incaj'uation.

philosophical forms might hospitably receive such mys-
teries as the Trinity and the God-man, if only they may
be permitted to run freely into their moulds. But divine
interventions of any kind, and most of all the descent
of a personal God from heaven to earth, to be incased
in flesh and to herd for a season among men, it cannot
allow. It, therefore, attacks our passages with a theory
of ideal, not real, preexistence, and teaches that Jesus
means only that, in the thought and intention of God,
His advent into the world had long been provided for,
and that, in that sense, He was with God and came
forth from God.

How weak, how inconceivable, all such expedients
are before the majesty of Christ's self-witness : " I am
come down from heaven." And when we turn over
the pages of this Gospel, — the leading idea of which it
has been said, inadequately indeed, but so far truly, is
the Divine glory of Christ in the incarnation, — and
observe our Lord's constant witness in the discourses
recorded in it, not merely to His descent from the
Father, but to His essential equality and oneness with
God, to His eternal preexistence with Him, and to His
prospective return to His primal glory with the Father,
after His task on earth is accomplished, — how our spirits
bow in worship before that God only-begotten who is in
the bosom of the Father, who became flesh and taber-
nacled among us for a season full of grace and truth, and
" declared " to us by His very existence among us that
God, not only whom He came forth from, but whom
He is.

H. We should not fail to observe, however, that the
incarnation is not spoken of in our text, as an end in
itself, but rather as a means to an end. The object of

The End of the lucaniation. 1 1

our Lord here is not to present the bare fact of His
having come down from heaven to the wonder of men,
but to expound the purpose of His coming down from
heaven. " I am come down from heaven," He declares,
" in order that I may do the will of Him that sent me."
You will scarcely need to be reminded that this, too, is
the representation, not of our text only, but of the
whole body of relevant deliverances recorded by John
from the mouth of the Master, and indeed of the entire
Gospel itself. Everywhere and always, it is not the
coming down from heaven itself, but the purpose of
the coming, that receives the emphasis. And this is
why it is inadequate to say that the leading idea of
John's Gospel is the glory of Christ in the incarnation.
Its leading idea is, rather, the sufficient end of the
incarnation, or, in other words, its leading purpose is to
present what we may call a satisfactory philosophy of
the incarnation.

And this is the precise amount of truth that lies
behind the assertion so freely made by those who are
stumbled by the heights of John's theology, that his
Gospel is not a simple narrative of fact, but an ideolog-
ical treatise,— which, in their view, is equivalent to saying
that it does not give us fact but fancy, and is to be
looked upon not as a sober history but as a metaphys-
ical essay. But does history cease to be history when
it passes beyond the mere tabulation of events, and
essays to marshal them according to their relations
and under the categories of cause and effect ?— when it
ceases to be a mere chronicle, in a word, and becomes
what we have learned to call philosophical history?
And is it to be made a reproach to a writer of history
that he has sought not merely to collect, but also to

1 2 The End of the Incarnation.

understand his facts ; and to record them in such a way
as to bring out their internal nature as well as their
external form?

Bishop Alexander, in his delightful little book on
The Leading Ideas of the Gospels, places the matter
relatively to John's Gospel in a very clear light. "A
great life," he reminds us, " cannot be rendered by a
simple agglomeration of facts." "A great life, — a life
whose words and works influence mankind profoundly, —
is not sufficiently told by merely relating its facts and
dates. What an enigma, for instance, is the life of
Napoleon ! How many of his biographies are mere
masks, concealing those bronze features ! We cannot
understand any great and complicated life, good or evil,
by merely recording the isolated events along which it
moved. It is an organic whole, and must be recon-
structed as such This, then, is the great Leading

Idea of St. John's Gospel. Give7i the facts of Christ's
life, how shall we bind them into unity, and read
them as a whole.? What theory of His Person and
Nature will give us a logical and consistent view ? . . . .
What Christ did and said becomes explicable only by

knowing what Christ is Some who have not

lost all reverence for Christianity speak as if St. John's
prologue added a difficulty for faith ; as if St. Matthew
or St. Luke on the incarnation were comparatively easy
to receive. Is it so for those who think } Place side
by side these statements. On the one side — 'when as
Llis Mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they
came together she was found with child of the Holy
Ghost' On the other side, the four oracular proposi-
tions — ' in the beginning was the Word, and the Word
was with God, and the Word was God. And the

The End of the Incarnatioii. 13

Word was made flesh.' Whieh is easier to receive ?
.... In St. John the fact of the Incarnation is lifted
up and flooded with the light of a divine idea. If in
the Unity of the Divine existence there be a Trinity
of Persons ; if the Second Person of that Trinity is to
assume the reality of flesh, and the likeness of sinful
flesh, we can in some measure see why He needed the
tabernacle of a body, framed and moulded by the
Eternal Spirit, to be His fitting habitation. The mys-
tery of a Virgin Mother is the correlative of the mystery
of the Word made flesh."*

Surely this is most admirably said. To be made
quite perfect, it needs only the removal of the emphasis
from the nature of Christ to the work of Christ. "If
the Second Person of that Trinity is to assume the
reality of flesh, and the likeness of sinful flesh." ....
Aye, if. ... . Dr. Alexander leaves this " ?_/"" hano -
ing in the air. But not so John. To give an adequate
account of it is just the object and chief end of his
Gospel. We need to amend the postulation of the
problem, therefore, so far as not only to insert, but to
emphasize this element, " Give7i the facts of Christ's
life, how shall we bind them together into unity, and
read them as a whole? What theory of His Person
and Nature, and Purpose and Work, will give us a loi^-
ical and consistent view.?" This is the problem that
John's Gospel answers. And in answering it, it gives
us a philosophy of the incarnation, and thus renders
not only the incarnation itself, but all that Incarnated
Life, not only credible but natural, and not only nat-
ural, may we not even say ? but almost inevitable —

* pp. 182-186.

14 The End of the Incarnation.

impossible to be otherwise. And thus John fulfils the
end of his writing : "These are written, that ye may
believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and
that believing ye may have life in His name."

III. What, then, is the account of the incarnation
which this Gospel thus commends to us as its phi-
losophy ? We note at once that in our text our Lord
states it, in the first instance, relatively not to man, but
to God. The reason of the incarnation, rendering it
credible, natural, inevitable, is traced back into the
councils of the Godhead. " I am come down from
heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him
that sent me."

The purpose of the incarnation is therefore primarily
to please God the Father, and to perform His will.
We cannot avoid the implication that the incarnated
one comes, therefore, in a suboi-dinate capacity. He
came down from heaven not to do His own will, but the
will of Him that sent Him. He was sent. He was
given a commission, a work, to do. How this concep-
tion is repeated over and over again in the discourses
recorded by John ! Even to John the Baptist He is
the " sent of God " (John iii. 34). When Nicodemus
approached Him as a teacher come from God, He ex-
plained that He was not come primarily as a teacher,
but as one sent by God (iii. 1 7) to do a work. And
this is the burden of the great discourses at the pool
of Bethesda (v. 23, 36), at the feast of Tabernacles (vii.
16, 18, 28, 29), on the Light of the World (viii. 16, 18,
29, 43), and as well of the closing discourses at the last
passover (xvi. 5, xvii. 16, xviii. t^Z)- ^^^ "^^ alike Jesus
is the sent of God, come not of Himself (vii. 28, xviii.
43) to seek His own will, but to do the will of Him

The End of the Licaynation. 15

that sent Him (v. 30) ; and only when He had "accom-
plished the work given Him to do" (xvii. 4) to return
to the Father who sent Him (xvii. 16).

Now this subordinate relation in which Jesus thus
pervasively represents Himself to have stood to the
Father, so as to have been sent by Him, must be a mat-
ter either of nature or of arrangement. It must be
either essential or economic. It must find its account
and origin either in the necessity of nature or else in the
provisions of a plan. But side by side with this per-
fectly pervasive proclamation of His subordination to the
Father, in the whole matter of the incarnation itself, and
the purpose or "will" that lies behind that incarnation
and gives it its justification and its philosophical account,
there runs an equally pervasive assertion by Jesus Him-
self and by His historian as well, of His essential equality
and oneness with God. He was not only in the begin-
ning with God : He was God. He is the only-begotten
God, who is in the bosom of the Father. To have seen
Him is to have seen the Father also. He draws and re-
ceives from Thomas, the worshipping cry, "My Lord
and my God." He declares to the Jews, " I and the
Father are One." It seems to be clear, therefore, that
the subordination in which the Father is recognized
as greater than He, prescribing a " will " for Him to come
into the world to perform, is economic, not essential ; a
matter of arrangement, not of necessity of nature.

By such a representation we are, of course, carried at
once back into the darkness, or, what is equally blind-
ing, into the blaze of mystery. It may he thought that
it is enough to be asked to believe in the mysteries of
the God-man and of the Trinity, — that within the unity
of the Godhead there exists such a distinction of per-

1 6 The End of the Incarnation.

sons that of each we may assert in turn that from the
beginning he has been with God, and has been God.
Are we to add this additional mystery of fancying the
persons of the Godhead, though numerically one in
essence and sharers in all the divine attributes, " acting,"
as Dr. Martineau puts it, " each on the other as outside
beings and conducting a divine drama among them-
selves," — imposing tasks on one another, requiring con-
ditions of one another, and earning favors from one
another ? No doubt it is past our comprehension. But
do we gain or lose by denying its possibility, its reality ?
What does the Trinity mean, if it does not mean such a
distinction of persons that each may say relatively to
the other, " I," and " Thou," and " He " ? What can the
incarnation of the Second Person mean, if the persons
may not stand over against one another in a measure
far transcending our power to comprehend ? And let
us remember that John presents this conception to us,
not as an added difhculty to faith, but as the philosophy,
the explanation of the incarnation. It may well happen
here, too, that two mysteries support and render credi-
ble each the other, — as two beams of wood, neither of
which could easily stand alone, when bowed together
not only support each other but provide a firm founda-
tion upon which you may safely pile the weight of a
slated roof. To adopt Bishop Alexander's mode of state-
ment, — " If in the Unity of the Divine Existence there
be a Trinity of Persons, and if the Second Person of that
Trinity is to assume the reality of flesh and the like-
ness of sinful flesh," — is it an additional difficulty or an
aid to faith in this supernal mystery to be further told
that this colossal humiliation of the Son of God was
not an objectless display of arbitrary power, nor yet a

The End of the Incarnation. 1 7

tentative and unconsidered effort of divine compassion
to do somewhat, as yet undetermined in kind or amount,
for sinful mankind, but the execution in time of an
eternal plan,— a plan born of, and redolent in its every
part with the infinite compassion of God, shaped in all its
details from all eternity by brooding love, and now^ re-
maining only to be executed by each person involved
taking and completing his appointed part in its tre-
mendous work ? The mystery of the covenant is the
correlative of the mystery of the incarnation. Without
its postulation the incarnation would present increased
difficulties of belief. Without the added words, "In
order to do the will of Him that sent me," the declara-
tion, " I am come down from heaven," would remain a
simple marvel and prove a strain on faith.

And now let us not fail to observe that it results from
what we have said, that John's Gospel is the Gospel of
the Covenant. If its leading idea is not merely the
glory of the incarnation, but the philosophy of the in-
carnation ; and if that philosophy runs back into an
economic arrangement or plan between the Persons of
the Trinity, by which the Second Person comes to per-
form a work committed to Him by the Father, not to
do His own will, but the will of Him that sent Him :
this is but another way of saying that the leading idea
of John's Gospel is the idea of the Covenant. And
is it not so? Search and look, and you will find not
only that this covenant idea recurs again and again
throughout the Gospel, with a frequency and an em-
phasis which throw it well into the foreground, but that
the book, as a whole, is moulded in its form and con-
tents upon it. The burden of its first chapters is Christ's
testimony that He has come because sent by the Father ;

1 8 The End of the hicarnation.

the burden of the last chapters is His approaching re-
turn to the Father who sent Him ; the accomplished
work lies between. And therefore it is that when Nico-
demus came to Him at the opening of His ministry
and asked for teaching, Jesus pointed him rather to His
work, and declared the doctrine of regeneration itself
"an earthly thing" compared with the heavenly myste-
ries He had to tell, — those mysteries of His descent from
heaven (iii. 13), sent by the Father (iii. 17) to save the
world (iii. 16). And therefore it is that in the midst of
His ministry He opens this great discourse from which
our text is taken, by declaring that the Son of Man has
been "sealed," appointed and set apart, by the Father
for the work of giving eternal life to men ; and when
His disciples stumbled at the height of the great truth
involved, — that He had come down from heaven to give
His flesh as the food of the soul, — He sorrowfully added,
" What, then, if you should see the Son of Man ascend-
ing where He was before } " And therefore it is that at
the end of His life He compares His finished work with
the joy a woman has after travail, when at length the
child is born (xvi. 21) ; and declares that, having accom-
plished the work which the Father gave Him to do
(xvii. 21), the covenant condition is fulfilled, and the
covenanted reward is at hand, and He is about to return
to His primal glory. John's Gospel, — we ought not to
miss it, — is the Gospel of the Covenant.

IV. How our hearts should burn within us as we
approach the last and most central question of all, and
ask what is our Lord's account of the nature and terms
of this mysterious but most blessed covenant, to fulfil
the conditions of which He came down from heaven.
We observe at once, — and with what emotions of glad-

The End of the Incarnation. 19

ness we ought to observe it, — that it concerns the salva-
tion of men. And equally at once we observe, with still
swelling emotion, that it is complete and perfect in its
provisions, — that it provides for an entire and finished,
for a sure and unfailing salvation. And we observe that
this involves — as of course it must involve — the conse-
quence that it is definite and precise in its terms, — that
it contemplates a definite and particularly designated
body of men. " And this is the will of Ilim that sent
me, that of all that He hath given me, I should lose
nothing, but should raise it up at the last day." The
will of the Father which Christ came down from heaven
to do, concerned, then, not all men, but some men :
"All that He hath given me." And His will with
reference to these, which He sent the Son to perform,
was not the making of some indefinite provision looking
toward their rescue from sin and shame, but the definite,
actual, complete, and final saving of them : that " I
should lose nothing of it, but should raise it up at the
last day."

Let our hearts stand still while we read these creat
provisions. It is the testimony of the covenanted Son
Himself, as to the terms of the covenant which He came
to fulfil, that it had a definite and well-defined subjecl, —
a restricted subject if you will, a " limited " subject, —
not all mankind, but a given body of men, — a given
body of men who, in the text, are brought into explicit
contrast with those who, though they saw, yet believed
not, because they could not come to Him except the
Father drew them, and He draweth none but those
whom He hath given the Son and for the saving of
whom the Son came down from heaven : a precisely
determined body, therefore, " particularly and unchange-

20 The End of the I)icar7iaHon.

ably designed, and their number so definite that it can-
not be either increased or diminished.'' But it is as
well — and it could not be so at all, unless it were " as
well" — the testimony of the covenanted Son Himself
to the terms of the covenant which He came to fulfil,
that it had a definite and fullv-determined end, — not
merely the rendering the salvation of men possible ; nor
merely the removing of the legal obstacles in the way
of the salvation of men ; nor merely the breaking down
of whatever difficulties may stand in the path of the free
outflow of God's love to men ; much less merely the
introduction into the world of a better example of life
than had hitherto been before men, or of a new divine
force making for righteousness; or the impressing of
men with a deeper sense of the love of God for them, or

1 3 4

Online LibraryBenjamin Breckinridge WarfieldThe gospel of the incarnation. Two sermons preached in the Chapel of Princeton Theological Seminary, October 9, 1892, and January 8, 1893 → online text (page 1 of 4)