Imitating the Incarnation?

Reformed Christians are rightly suspicious of any “exemplarist” view of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate the great event of the incarnation, we want all of the focus to be upon the “God of our salvation,” who, for us and for our salvation, became flesh and dwelt among us. We want to be reminded that the name of the child who was miraculously conceived by a working of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary was “Jesus.” The Son of God assumed our flesh in order to save us from our sins. The gospel means “good news,” the announcement of what God did to accomplish our redemption. It is not “pious advice” that encourages us to live in a way that will merit God’s favor.

Though we need to guard ourselves against a moralistic reduction of the gospel message, it is striking that the apostle Paul does urge believers to imitate the incarnation in Philippians 2:5-11. In this passage, one of the most remarkable descriptions of the incarnation in all of Scripture, Paul does not hesitate to exhort his readers to “have this mind in you that was also in Christ Jesus” (verse 5). Within the context of an extended exhortation to the Philippian believers humbly to “count others more significant than yourselves” (verse 3), the apostle clearly appeals to the example of Christ’s humiliation. While some modern interpreters object to this understanding of the passage, it seems fairly clear that Paul adduces Christ’s willingness to humble himself as an encouragement to us that we should be willing to humble ourselves in order to look out for the interests of others.

Accordingly, the venerable Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield was on solid ground when he observed that “next to our longing to be in Christ is our corresponding longing to be like Christ; … only second in our hearts to His great act of obedience unto death by which He became our Saviour, stands His holy life in our world of sin, by which He becomes our example” (Imitating the Incarnation).

Though a great deal of ink has been spilled over the interpretation of this passage, several themes are undeniably clear. First, the passage begins with a robust affirmation of the pre existence and deity of the Person of Jesus Christ. Before the incarnation, He existed “in the form of God” (verse 6). He existed in the undiminished “glory” that was His as the only begotten Son of the Father (cf. John 17:5). He enjoyed the status of One who was in all respects “equal with God,” identical in being, power, and glory with the Father and the Holy Spirit. None other than God Himself comes to us in the incarnation.

Second, though He existed beforehand in the form of God, we are told something altogether astonishing: He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing [lit. “emptied Himself”], taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (verses 6-8). The idiom used in this passage (“did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped”) is variously translated and is the subject of considerable debate. In my estimation, it refers to the attitude or mind of our Lord Jesus Christ, who chose not to regard His divine glory and being equal with God as something to be grasped for His own advantage. Rather than taking hold of what was His in order to serve His own interest, He chose to “empty Himself” or “make Himself nothing” so as to serve the interests of those for whom He came.

And third, the most disputed feature of this passage focuses upon the meaning of the verb “emptied.” In the history of modern theology, a number of interpreters of this passage have proposed that this language, “emptied Himself,” means literally that Jesus Christ ceased to be fully God in order to become fully man. According to this understanding, the eternal Son of God ceased to be who He was in order to become truly one with us in the incarnation. But if that were true, there would be no incarnation, no “Immanuel,” God with us! The proper interpretation is that the Son of God, without ceasing to be who He was, became (by addition, not subtraction) what we are. By taking the form of a servant and becoming truly human, He emptied Himself. By becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross, He humbled Himself.

Truly, this is a mystery beyond our comprehension. This is a love that surpasses knowledge. God Himself, in the Person of the incarnate Son, willingly “poured out His soul even unto death” (cf. Isa. 53:12) for us and for our salvation. How, then, could we, who are His children by grace, not be willing to place the interests of others before our own?


Dr. Cornelis Venema serves as the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary and  Professor of Doctrinal Studies. 

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