Charles Wesley’s well-known Christmas carol (actually altered a bit by George Whitefield), starts off this way:
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,
“Glory to the newborn King:
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Last night, I was reading in Michael Bird’s very fine work, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, when I came across this highly insightful and well-articulated passage (p. 548):
At the end of the day, despite the qualifications we must make about the extent of salvation on the human condition, the biblical authors are primarily concerned with the relationship of people toward God. Sin may have horrible horizontal consequences (Rom 1:24-31), but it is fundamentally symptomatic of a vertical rejection of God (Rom 1:18-23).
No doubt sin makes humanity less humane, it promotes injustice of the highest order, and it preys on the most vulnerable. Yet we must remember that God is the primary party offended by our sin. All sin represents a defiance of his sovereignty, a deliberate contamination of his holiness, a perversion of his gift, a contempt for his goodness, and an insurrection against his justice. Thus God has a contention to prosecute against humanity, and it is that prosecution that is removed in the gospel. Before there can be a restoration of creation, there must be a reconciliation of creature to Creator.
Almost immediately after reading this passage in Bird’s volume, that line from Charles Wesley’s Christmas carol came to mind: “God and sinners reconciled!”
And then I began to think of how the message of Christmas has become so awfully distorted. Christ came to spread some good cheer among humankind. He came for the purpose of making everyone’s Christmas a bit brighter. He came to do some very nice things for some very nice people. He came to add a spiritual dimension to our Christmas celebrations. He came to put his imprimatur on what we already do to celebrate Christmas, so we can feel good about what we already do to celebrate Christmas. He came to make us feel better about ourselves.
And we sing Christmas carols. We sing Wesley’s “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” And we come to that line, “God and sinners reconciled,” and it doesn’t even faze us. After all, we don’t actually need reconciliation. “Me and God, we get along just fine.” It doesn’t even register that the reason for Christmas was not that God might take our already pretty good lives and add a bit of religion to them, the way a cook adds a dash of salt or a bit of spice to an already pretty good dish to give it just a bit more flavor. And even when we talk about putting “Christ back into Christmas,” we are thinking of a Christmas that is already pretty good, and making it just a bit better.
But that is not what Christmas is about. Rather:
Christ came to a rebellious people, to rescue them from their rebellious ways.
He came to a people who weren’t any smarter than the dumb animals in our live nativity scenes (Isa 1:2), in order to make them wise.
He came to an unclean and unholy people, to purify them and make them holy.
He came to an idolatrous people, to get them to smash and throw away their idols.
He came to a people who were his enemies, so that he might make them his friends.
He came to a people who had rejected him, so that he might open their minds and hearts to submit to him and worship him, gladly and freely.
He came to a sinful people, so that he might die for them, and pronounce them forgiven.
He came to a people who were dead in their trespasses and sins, so that he might resurrect them, and they would live again.
He came to an already convicted and condemned people, so that he might not only grant them a stay of execution, but indeed, a full pardon.
In short, he did not come to do something nice for very some very nice people. He came to do something radical for some very bad people. He came so that we who were estranged from God, might be reconciled to God. “God and sinners reconciled!” That is the reason for Christ coming. That is the reason for the incarnation. That is the reason for Christmas.
For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Rom 5:10-11)