Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
One of my commitments is to read and study the biblical and theological truths associated with the celebrations of the Christian year. Having just celebrated and worshiped as we focused on the arrival of Jesus Christ, the birth of the God-man, the incarnation, I read a few excellent books about this wonderful truth. One of them, as I noted, was Tim Keller’s, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ.
I share a couple of pertinent and challenging quotes.
In an interview about this book, Keller was asked the following question: “Neither the god of moralism nor the god of relativism would have bothered with Christmas, you observe. Why not?” He replied,
Moralism is essentially the idea that you can save yourself through your good works. And this makes Christmas unnecessary. Why would God need to become human in order to live and die in our place if we can fulfill the requirements of righteousness ourselves? Relativism is essentially the idea that no one is really “lost,” that everyone should live by their own lights and determine right and wrong for themselves. The “all-accepting god of love” many modern people believe in would never have bothered with the incarnation. Such a god would have found it completely unnecessary.
Neither moralism nor relativism are the answer, and both leave us completely helpless and hopeless.
Keller addresses this further in the book. If “God who was only holy,” he would not have done anything for us and expected us to do it ourselves. We would have died in our sins, and justly so. If he was a “deity that was an “all-accepting God of love,” he would not have had to do anything either, since he would have simply overlooked sin. God, the God of the Scriptures, the one and only true God, is both “infinitely holy” and “infinitely loving,” so he did for us what we could not do, sending his Son to address our sin and to secure our salvation. Keller writes (46-47),
The claim that Jesus is God also gives us the greatest possible hope. This means that our world is not all there is, that there is life and love after death, and that evil and suffering will one day end. And it means not just hope for the world, despite all its unending problems, but hope for you and me, despite all our ending failings. A God who was only holy would not have come down to us in Jesus Christ. He would have simply demanded that we pull ourselves together, that we be moral and holy enough to merit a relationship with him. A deity that was an ‘all‐accepting God of love’ would not have needed to come to Earth either. This God of the modern imagination would have just overlooked sin and evil and embraced us. Neither the God of moralism nor the God of relativism would have bothered with Christmas. The biblical God, however, is infinitely holy, so our sin could not be shrugged off. It had to be dealt with. He is also infinitely loving. He knows we could never climb up to him, so he has come down to us. God had to come himself and do what we couldn’t do. He doesn’t send someone; he doesn’t send a committee report or a preacher to tell you how to save yourself. He comes to fetch us. Christmas means, then, that for you and me there is all the hope in the world.
Often we get caught up in the sentimentalism of Christmas. We like the feelings, emotions and memories it elicits and creates. We do not want to be weighed down with the doctrine or dogma of Christmas. For those who conclude feelings are more important than beliefs, experience trumps truth, Jesus unites and doctrine divides, that doctrine just does not matter, they often do not realize all of those statements reveal a great deal about a person’s beliefs, their doctrine. For most of them, it is doctrine without substance. More specifically, it is a doctrine of salvation by works. In contrast, Christmas is about the doctrine of salvation by grace. According to Keller (131),
When you say, ‘Doctrine doesn’t matter; what matters is that you live a good life,’ that is a doctrine. It is called the doctrine of salvation by your works rather than by grace. It assumes that you are not so bad that you need a Savior, that you are not so weak that you can’t pull yourself together and live as you should. You are actually espousing a whole set of doctrines about the nature of God, humanity, and sin. And the message of Christmas is that they are all wrong.
We give thanks to the God of Christmas for the God-man sent at Christmas! We are also thankful that the doctrine of salvation by grace, the message of Christmas, has been experienced, which is reflected in worship and a life lived joyfully hoping and trusting in God.