As Western society drifts further from her Christian moorings, holidays such as Christmas begin to lose their meaning. More people begin to wonder what is the big deal about Christmas.
As an apologist, I have talked with many an unbeliever in Denver and read many a book that illustrate this simple fact. Most likely the church has not been making this message clear. So, in the spirit of dialogue and clarification, I would like to explain the real meaning of Christmas.
The Bad News
The good news of Christmas only makes sense in contrast to the bad news of sin. The bad news is that all mankind is bound in iniquity. As a tiger desires meat, so sinners desire sin.
Now, this desire to transgress the right to accomplish the wrong does not mean that everyone will be an ax murderer. Rather God withholds these impulses in mankind through the external threat of the Law and the internal power of the Spirit. Furthermore, 'sin' as understood in traditional Protestantism is not defined as overt or gross violations of any kind of law but a violation of the Law of God, the Ten Commandments being a summary thereof. Everyone everywhere in whatever they do are to work for the glory of God.
The Law includes not only controlling one's outward actions but the inward thoughts as well. Envy, anger and lust transgress God's requirements. And it is not simply the 'big' sins that count as violations of this Law but even the little white lie is sufficient to condemn. With such a strict code of justice, many wonder if anyone can stand before the bar of God's judgment and be declared innocent. The biblical answer is this:
For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written:
"There is none righteous, no, not one;
There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.
They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one." (Romans 3:9-12)
In God's law-court no one is innocent. All are guilty. Humankind is hopelessly lost.
Conceptually, such truths make sense. Guilty violators of the laws of society are punished. This claim is no different in principle. However, it is certainly hard to comprehend emotionally.
Even so, such a framework of viewing reality is internally coherent and corresponds with the data of history. Men fight, lie and hate each other, even turning altruistic goals into hidden acts of greed. The twentieth-century certainly testifies to the depraved nature of men and women. On the other hand, humans have not completely eradicated themselves and many people sacrifice their time and energy for each other. But they do not love and protect for God's glory. This demonstrates the common benevolence of God, preserving men and women in spite of themselves.
This black and bleak background sheds much light on the proper significance of Christmas.
Many unbelievers do not truly understand the significance of Christmas. In the quest to defend Christianity the basics must first be explained.
The good news about Christmas only makes sense against the background of the bad news of sin. All humans are guilty before the tribune of God's Law. And their consciences know this guilt. And the guilt is not minor. Rather it is of the utmost consequence, like rebels undermining society through wanton acts of terrorism. The sentence is eternal death.
The Good News
The good news is good precisely because undeserved. And it is made all the more wonderful because the very Judge of the universe Himself rescued the undeserved. Christ, the Son of the Judge, came in the flesh to live and die for the very rebels that attempted to undermine His and the Father's authority.
It is the substitutionary life and death that is pivotal to the Good News, the Gospel. And this substitution, Christ in the place of the sinner, begins with the Incarnation. This is the Christian doctrine that Christ, "the Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity...being very and eternal God, did...take upon Him man's nature, without sin, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary."
The book of Matthew chapter 1, verses 21-23 summarizes thus:
"And she [Mary] will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins. So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,' which is translated, 'God with us.' "
For Christ to save His people from their sins, He would have to judicially identify Himself with His people. He would and did come before the Judge as the Advocate prepared to take the punishment due to others. The Incarnation was the first step toward Christ fulfilling the requirements of the Law and dying for the penalty of the Law in the place of those who deserved nothing less than eternal judgment.
Christmas is a reminder to Christians everywhere that God came to save the very same rebels who are guilty before the Law. It is a reminder of the Incarnation; that Christ being eternal God took upon Himself human nature to judicially identify with His people. It is a reminder of the great cosmic mystery that God the Judge upheld His justice by pouring His wrath upon His Son instead of His people.
Dear reader, this is the heart of the Christian message: Christ came to earth as a man, living and dying as a legal substitute for those who turn in grief and hatred from their rebellion and put their trust in Another instead of themselves.