Few people know that Ben Franklin, the consummate writer, inventor and politician, descended from Puritans—his grandfather was a Baptist missionary to the Indians and his father was a dissenter. Franklin himself financially supported a Presbyterian minister and attended a few services. But what ultimately turned him away was his mistaken feeling that Christianity was not useful. He found doctrine to be “uninteresting and unedifying since not a single moral principle was inculcated or enforced.”
Sometimes, even believers view theology the way Franklin did—”it’s fine for the pastors and theology students,” we might be incorrectly reason, “but the rest of us need something practical.” And out of all our core doctrines, the virgin birth may seem like a great illustration. Have ever consciously made a specific decision shaped by this doctrine? Certainly we ought to defend it tenaciously. But why? Do we know what makes the virgin birth so important?
The Big Picture
The answer lies in the biggest picture of all—the storyline of Scripture. Widen your viewfinder until every person is included in the frame—every man, woman and child that has ever lived across human history. A vast crowd, we still share much in common. In spite of our apparent differences, we are all children of one man and one woman. Adam and Eve, the first sinners, were the beginning of a long stream of humanity that has flowed rancid and polluted ever since. Children of Adam, we needed no tutoring in his sinful ways.
But on the very day of Adam’s first sin, God promised a redeemer. Like every other human being, He would be born. From these very fallen creatures, now diseased and dying, would spring up the One who would set them free. Amazingly, the original mission God gave them—be fruitful and multiply—would become the means of their deliverance.
But as generations passed, a problem became obvious. Humanity could only be saved by a Redeemer who became one of us. And yet to be like us is to be diseased and dying. We needed healing from one of our own but we were all too sick ourselves. Every child born was yet one more sinner added to the great epidemic.
Go back in your mind to the universal field of humanity—billions of faces; every one a life, an eternal soul; every one a desperate sinner without hope. And then there’s one person that stands out among them all. He is also human, and yet He’s something more. Everything about Him was different. From childhood, He showed no symptoms of Adam’s disease. In adulthood, He authoritatively condemned sin in others but never hypocritically. In death He remained innocent, and death itself could not hold him. No other human being ever lived like this; no other human ever died like this. From beginning to end, He was clearly different from the rest, because even the conception of Christ sets Him apart from the stream of humanity.
There’s a common view that the virgin birth allowed Jesus to be sinless because the sin nature is transferred by fathers.[i] While my wife is more godly than I and both of my sons clearly inherited their least laudable traits from me, Scripture nowhere indicates that only men are the carriers. On the contrary, any human—male or female—is sinful enough to spread the disease. Jesus was sinless, not because of the mechanics of his conception but by the power of the Spirit and the sinlessness of his pre-existing person.
Rather, the virgin birth points to something much more significant. Where the history of Adam’s line is the story of abject failure, Jesus began a new stream of humanity—humanity as it was always intended to be. Returning again to the prophecy in the garden, his uniqueness was in fact connected to Adam’s line. He is the second Adam; a new start to the human race. As such, it was critical that this new scion be separate from the old. And yet he is born of a woman. He is fully human—as fully human as any person who ever lived.
The virgin birth reminds us of His humanity and His deity. Would we not be tempted to think of Him as merely human if He had been conceived by two parents? At what point would He then have “become God,” rather than from the very beginning as Scripture requires? Rather, is there not a powerful statement about His person—fully God and fully man—even in His being born to a human through the power of the Holy Ghost?
But theological dangers call us back. For Jesus was not half human and half divine, as if begotten of a hybrid pedigree. More subtly, He existed as God eternally before the human nature ever existed and both natures somehow existed in one unified person. The texts that describe the virgin birth give us one clue. When the Holy Ghost overshadowed Mary, what was created in her was the Christ. In some way that also incorporated Mary’s substance, the eternal God took flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Beyond that we simply don’t know. And at the end, the virgin birth brings us back to where we started—highlighting the fundamentally miraculous nature of this person. Even by not answering our curiosity into the theological specifics of Jesus’ person and his beginning, Scripture reminds us that He is utterly unique.
The implications of the virgin birth, then, are even grander than we might have dared to hope. The first man failed. We who are his children—every one of us—share in his condemnation. But with Jesus begins a new humanity. He has taken on humanity, but his is a new humanity. To Adam we owe our birth but also our death; to Christ we owe our new birth and our eternity. Adam’s disobedience marred God’s good world; Jesus obedience will restore it again. Adam’s progeny spread sin, destruction and death on planet earth. But Jesus’ redeemed children now spread the news of salvation, restoration and life around the globe.
This contrast is so fundamental, so absolute, it places new categories on all of mankind. Every person you ever meet falls into one of two groups—they are either in Adam or in Christ (Rom. 5), and our eternal fate follows accordingly. You were born into Adam’s family, but by trusting in Christ, you receive a new identity. We stand redeemed because of our new relationship to God’s Son.
The Theological Significance of the Virgin Birth
Now the significance of the virgin birth becomes clearer. Space permits only three reflections.
- Realize what it cost to save you. “Of course God will forgive me” you sometimes hear. “That’s His job.” But this completely ignores the depth of our plight. Salvation is not merely an easy acquittal; it’s exceedingly complex. This rescue plan was so costly, in fact, that it required a miraculous conception beginning an incomprehensibly unique life. Only the wisdom of God could engineer a plan so intricate; only His love could will it into being; only His power could bring it to pass.
- Marvel at the extraordinary uniqueness of your Savior. Our miraculous salvation is embodied in the person of our Savior. Only He could save you—fully human and fully God, miraculously unique in every way. The virgin birth set Him apart from every other human being, and that was only the beginning.
- Remember who you are. Since every person belongs either to Adam’s progeny or Christ’s, your identity is wrapped up in His. You are forever changed. Live that way.Each time you look into someone’s eyes, they are either Christ’s or they are still dying in the ravages of Adam’s disease. Show love to Adam’s children by sharing the good news; show love to Christ’s children by drawing them to be like Him.
The virgin birth is hardly a scholastic fancy suited only for academics. In this miraculous beginning to the life of your eternal Savior lies the miraculous beginning of your life, your eternity and your salvation.
 Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson, 5-14, 84-85.
[i] Unfortunately, this same concern for Christ’s sinlessness lay behind the Roman Catholic declaration that Mary was sinless as well and miraculously conceived. This would logically imply, I suppose, that if a viable zygote could be genetically engineered from two female gametes, the resulting human would be sinless? Clearly not. Granted, this is purely hypothetical, but with genetic innovation ongoing, it probably won’t stay that way.
This article by Joel Arnold originally appeared in Frontline Magazine, November/December, 2014.