The following text is a transcription of the chapter, “The Incarnation of Christ,” from The Rock of Our Salvation: A Treatise Respecting the Natures, Person, Offices, Work, Sufferings, and Glory of Jesus Christ, written by William Swan Plumer and published by the American Tract Society in 1867. Dr. Plumer was a profuse writer and many of his works have gone unused, which is particularly a shame because his writing tends to clarity and simplicity due to his keen pastoral sense honed in congregations in Richmond, Baltimore, and other locations. The incarnation is both a wondrous and exasperating subject because of amazement that God became man but also frustration because the hypostatic union and its complexities cannot be fully comprehended. In the transcription, Presbyterians of the Past has inserted some information in brackets [ ] including thoughts on clarification, one paragraph in particular needed some enumeration of points, and to note published sources and Bible references used by Plumer.
The last paragraph of Plumer’s chapter comments regarding the practice of remembering Jesus’ birth annually; the post for December 18, 2017, “Incarnation, Archibald Alexander,” presented Dr. Alexander’s sermon, circa 1850 or before, which concludes with thoughts on the same subject. You may want to read on this site the brief biographical post about William S. Plumer. Plumer quotes Jonathan Edwards, John Dick, Basil the Great, William Nevins, and Robert Hall. The chapter ends with Plumer saying, “It is, however, a significant fact, that God has concealed from us any positive knowledge of the day, the month, and even the year of our Savior’s birth.” The review by B. B. Warfield of a book about the history of Christmas posted last week also discusses the unknown date of Christ’s birth.
The header is from, The New Testament of our Lord Iesus Christ : translated out of Greeke by Theod. Beza ; with brief summaries and expositions upon the hard places by the said authour, Ioac. Camer., and P. Lofeler Villerius ; Englished by L. Tomson ; with annotations of Fr. Iunius upon Revelation, 1599, as on Internet Archive. I do not think I have ever seen “translated by” rendered as “Englished.” The portrait of Plumer is a copy kindly given to me several years ago by Dr. C. N. Willborn, pastor of Covenant PCA in Oakridge and professor in Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, South Carolina.
THE INCARNATION OF CHRIST
by William S. Plumer
When we say, the Son of God became incarnate, we mean to say that he became the Son of man, taking to himself human nature entire. In the Apostles’ Creed this doctrine is thus expressed: “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary.” The Athanasian Creed says: “He is not only perfect God, but perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.” The Westminster Assembly teaches:
The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fulness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man. [Westminster Confession, 8:2]
Respecting Christ’s human nature, many wild and dangerous opinions have been held; but these need not now be formally refuted. The proof of the true doctrine will be sufficient.
The union of Christ’s natures was formed, not by his humanity seeking to be affianced to divinity. This would have been presumptuous aspiring. But his Godhead sought union with manhood. This was infinite love and condescension. Christ’s human nature never existed separately, or otherwise than in union with his divinity. From his conception this union was complete. The pre-existent divine nature took to itself human nature. Christ’s human nature never had a personal subsistence by itself. So that Christ did not assume a human person, but human nature, “His person is not a compound person; the personality belongs to his Godhead, and the human nature subsists in it by a peculiar dispensation. The assumption of our nature made no change in his person; it added nothing to it; and the only difference is, that the same person who was possessed of divinity has now taken humanity” [John Dick, Lectures, v. 2, p. 20]. So that things done or suffered in either nature is ascribed to the one person, Christ Jesus. The properties of each nature are, and will ever continue to be, entire and distinct. Divinity cannot be subject to any change. Humanity cannot cease to be humanity, it cannot become divinity. The Creator cannot cease to be Creator. The creature cannot cease to be a creature.
This union of the two natures in Christ is not without some similitude in ourselves. In his constitution man has two substances, one a soul, the other a body; one spiritual and immortal, the other material and perishable. By their union, one of these substances is not changed into the other. They remain distinct even when united. Yet a man is one person, and not two persons. When we say, someone is sad, all know we refer to his soul. When we say, someone is muscular, all know we speak of his body. Yet in both cases we speak of the same person. So, Christ’s person is one, and not two. When he spake of himself he said, I, mine, me. When his apostles spake of him, they said, he, his, him. When we address him, we say, thou, thine, thee, Acts 1:24. The Scriptures also use singular nouns respecting him, and call him a Prophet, a Priest, a King, a Shepherd, a Redeemer. The union of his natures could not be more perfect. It is personal, perpetual, indissoluble.
The Scriptures say, Christ was made of a woman. Human beings have come into the world in four ways.  The first man, the very fountain of human nature, had neither father nor mother. Neither man nor woman was the instrument of his existence.  The first woman had neither father nor mother, yet she derived her nature from Adam, but in no sense from a woman.  Since the first pair, every mere man has had both father and mother. Yet none have denied that all these had human nature entire.  Jesus Christ had a mother, but no father according to the flesh, even as in his divine nature he had a Father only. He was made of a woman.
To be our Savior, it behooved Christ to have a human nature. His incarnation was fitting and necessary.
It was meet that the nature which had brought our ruin should bring our deliverance.
It was fit that the nature which had sinned should make reparation for our wrongs, and so should die.
This earth, which is the abode of men, not of God nor of angels, was the proper theater for the display of the grace, and mercy, and justice, and power, manifested in the life and death of Jesus Christ. He that was rich thus became poor that we, through his poverty, might be rich, 2 Cor. 8:9. In some respects, this was the most amazing step in our Lord’s humiliation. It is more surprising that a prince should marry a shepherdess than that, having made her queen, he should nobly protect and richly endow her, or even die in her defense.
Christ was made under the law. As to his divine nature, he could in no sense be under the law. He was the Lawgiver. He was God; God cannot live and act under rules fit for the government of creatures. If the Savior was to live under the law as a rule of life, and set us an example in all things, he must do it in a finite nature, and as his mission was to us, most fitly in our nature.
Besides, Divinity cannot suffer, cannot die. But by his incarnation, Jesus was made “lower than the angels, for the suffering of death,” [Heb. 2:9].
Thus, he was made under the law in the two senses of being voluntarily subject to its precept, being thus bound to fulfil all righteousness; and being voluntarily made under the penalty of the law, that he might taste of death for every man. He even obeyed the law of religious rites under which he lived. In his infancy he was circumcised. In his manhood he was baptized. He perfectly, personally, perpetually kept the whole moral law. He never sinned once, even by omission. And he freely placed himself, and lived and died, under the curse of the very law which he perfectly obeyed during his whole life. Edwards says: “The meritoriousness of Christ’s obedience depends on the perfection of it. If it had failed in any instance, it could not have been meritorious; for imperfect obedience is not accepted as any obedience at all in the sight of the law of works, to which Christ was subject. That is not accepted as obedience to a law that does not fully answer it.” [Works of President Edwards, v. 1, reprint of Worcester ed., 1844, 406]. The efficacy of Christ’s death depended on his dying in the room and stead of sinners, who were under the curse of the law. If he did not bear the curse for us, we shall surely be obliged to bear it ourselves.
Let us consider a few distinct propositions.
I. Prophecy required that Christ should assume human nature. It said he should be of “the seed of Abraham” and of “the seed of David,” Gen. 12:3,7; 17:7,8; Gal. 3:16; 2 Sam. 7:12; John 7:42; Acts 13:23; Rom. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:8. Other predictions required that he should “at the latter day stand upon the earth,” Job 19:25; that he should have a body, Psa. 40:6 and Heb. 10:5; that he should hang upon his mother’s breasts, Psa. 22:9; and that his body should be dead, Isa. 26:19.
Yet still more clearly, the very first gospel ever preached, even in Eden, foretold that he should have a human nature, and that derived from his mother: “The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head,” Gen. 3 :15; and later: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” Isa. 7:14. So that the Scriptures would not have been fulfilled, if Christ had not had a human nature—a human nature derived from his mother alone. In prophetic vision, Daniel called him the Son of man, Dan. 7:13.
II. These predictions have been fulfilled. The whole history of our Lord upon earth proves it. God has “sent forth his Son, made of a woman,” [Gal. 4:4]. In the New Testament he is often called a man. In the gospels alone he is more than seventy times called the Son of man. More than sixty times he gives this appellation to himself. The year of his ascension, Stephen saw him glorified and called him the Son of man. Sixty years later John did the same. The gospel of Matthew is styled “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” John says: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” John 1:14. Paul says: “He took upon him the seed of Abraham,” Heb. 2:16. In his first epistle, 1:1-3, John expressly says that by three senses, hearing, sight, and touch, he and the other apostles had satisfied themselves of his incarnation.
Jesus Christ had all that is necessary to constitute human nature entire. He himself said, “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones as ye see me have,” Luke 24: 39. Christ had a soul. He said, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death,” Mark 14:34. He had a spirit: “In that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit,” Luke 10:21. “When he had cried with a loud voice, he yielded up the ghost,” Mat. 27:50. Jesus Christ had a will: “Father, not as I will, but as thou wilt,” Mat. 26:39, see also Mat. 27:34, John 7:1. Jesus Christ had the affections of a man. He rejoiced, Luke 10:21. He wept, John 11:35. He was grieved, Mark 3:5. He had hopes, even in his early infancy, Psa. 22:9. He had natural affection for kindred spirits. We are told that he loved Mary, Martha, Lazarus, John, and the rich young ruler. In some places his soul and body are mentioned together: “The child Jesus grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom,” Luke 2:40. He performed bodily acts. He walked, he rode, he ate, he drank, he sailed, he slept, he rested. He was not indeed subject to mortal diseases, Psa. 91:5-8. But he had the general infirmities of our nature. He hungered, Mat. 4:2. He thirsted, John 19:28. He was wearied, John 4:6. He was greatly pained, Luke 12:50. He was tempted, Heb. 2:18. He endured unparalleled agony, Luke 22:44. He died, as all admit. He had no moral infirmity. He was without sin, Heb. 4:15.
III. The incarnation of Christ is something entirely beyond human comprehension. It is an ineffable mystery. The Scriptures say, “Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh,” 1 Tim. 3:16. How could it be otherwise? The Father of eternity became an infant of days. “Though all things were created by him, he was placed on a level with his own creatures,” [Col. 1:16]. He, whom the heaven of heavens could not contain, was laid in a manger. The eternal Word and the child Jesus were one person. Possessed of infinite blessedness, the Son of God is united with the man of sorrows. Himself in both natures spotlessly holy, he consents to be treated, tormented, punished, as a sinner. He made all things, yet was made flesh. He governed all things, yet was subject to his parents. He opened his hand and satisfied the desire of every living thing, yet fasted forty days himself. All the infinite perfections of God and all the innocent infirmities of man meet in the God-man, Christ Jesus. There is no greater gulf than that which separates created and uncreated. Yet the Son of God passes it all and takes our nature into indissoluble union with divinity. This union could not be more intimate. Soul and body may be separated for a season. When Christ himself died, his soul went to Paradise, while his body lay in the sepulcher of Joseph. But the union of his human and divine natures was not dissolved by death. Paul calls the blood shed by him the blood of God, Acts 20:28. So close was this union that we fitly speak of our Lord as a divine sufferer. When he was on earth, he spoke of himself as “the Son of man which is in heaven,” John 3:13. We ascribe to the person of our Savior whatever belonged to either of his natures, or was done in either of them. His incarnation is a mystery in itself. Basil says, “He was conceived not of the substance, but by the power of the Holy Ghost; not by his generation, but by his appointment and benediction.” His incarnation is a mystery of love. It expresses infinite benevolence. It is also “the wisdom of God in a mystery”—a mystery of power, of truth, and of grace. It is the mystery of mysteries, because it is “the mystery of God.” We are not required to divest it of inscrutableness, but we are required to embrace it, and rejoice in it. It is a fundamental doctrine, the belief of which is essential to salvation: “Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is of God: and every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is not of God,” 1 John 4:2f.
IV. The Son of God did not become man at the giving of the first gospel promise, but more than four thousand years after it. He took our nature “when the fulness of time was come,” [Gal. 4:4]. This phrase designates—
1. The time set in the counsels of God. Jesus Christ was born no sooner and no later than the purpose of God had determined, Acts 4:28.
2. The time fixed in prophecy, which is but the revealed purpose of God. The seventy weeks of Daniel had expired. The second temple was soon to fall.
3. The state of the Jewish nation was such as to render Christ’s appearance at that time very seasonable. The tabernacle of David had fallen very low, was cleft with breaches, and was lying in ruins, for Herod the Great, now king over Judea, was not a descendant of the royal Psalmist, but was an Idumean. Now was the fit time to build up the throne of David, Amos 9:11, Acts 15:16.
4. Many things in the general state of the world rendered this a fit time for Christ’s coming.
It had been fully demonstrated by the experience of many powerful and civilized nations, that the world by wisdom could never come to know God. Letters, arts, science, civilization, philosophy, commerce, and experience had shown that they were all powerless to save men from polytheism, or to teach them the true nature of God.
Consequently, human misery was unabated. Men multiplied their sorrows by hastening after another God than Jehovah. The world had long been oppressed with its woes. The cry of its wailings was very loud.
At Christ’s birth the earth was populous—much more so than it had commonly been at any previous period. So that his coming was likely to be known to many and to produce an impression on vast multitudes.
When Christ came Greek was the polite language of the world, and Latin was the popular language of multitudes in many lands, so that both what was spoken and what was written was likely to be widely and rapidly diffused.
At the birth of Christ, the Roman empire, the greatest and most terrible monarchy the world ever saw, was in its strength. It was the iron dynasty of all ages. It was peculiarly fitting that in the height of its dominion the stone cut out of the mountain without hands should break in pieces this immense and cruel power, and the God of heaven set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, Dan. 2:42-45. By words of peace and grace, by deeds of love and mercy, by meekness and holiness, by patience and martyrdom, this gigantic tyranny was wholly changed in less than three centuries after our Lord’s crucifixion.
Christ was the Prince of peace, and it was seemly that he should come when war was not raging. When he was born, the temple of Janus was shut—a thing that had not occurred for centuries till about that time. This was a sign that peace everywhere prevailed. [The following excerpt is from, “No War Nor Battle Sound,” John Milton (1608-1674) and it was included in the hymnbook/psalter by Isaac Watts.]
Nor war nor battle-sound
Was heard the world around;
No hostile chiefs to furious combat ran;
But peaceful was the night,
In which the Prince of Light
His reign of grace upon the earth began.
The Jews were at this time very widely dispersed over the world. Though they often visited the holy city, yet they went everywhere. So that any change effected in Judea was likely soon to be known in all the chief cities of the world. On the day of Pentecost there were Jews, devout men of every nation under heaven at Jerusalem, and on their conversion and dispersion they went everywhere preaching the word of the gospel, Acts 2:5-11, 8:4.
Christ was born when the spirit of persecution was not raging violently in the world generally, so that his doctrine was less likely to be fiercely assailed for a season than if it had been propagated a century or two earlier or later.
No period could be conceived so little adapted to the exhibition of a false, and so well calculated to put to the test the merits of a true religion.
Thus, did Christ become incarnate “in the fulness of time,” i.e. at the right time, at the fittest time possible.
V. The incarnation of Christ was the greatest event that ever happened. The birth of a prince often sends a thrill of joy through an empire, yet he may prove a shame and a curse to the nation and the world; but the birth of Christ brought inestimable blessings to Jews and Gentiles and shall do so for ever. No ancient monarchy lives, even in history, to bless mankind; but the birth and kingdom of Christ are, and ever shall be, gladsome truths. The hopes of virtuous millions hang upon them. The joys of saints and angels are kindled by them. “The creation of the world was a very great thing, but not so great as the incarnation of Christ. It was a great thing for God to make the creature, but not so great as for the Creator to become a creature,” [Jonathan Edwards, History of Redemption, Period 2, I:III]. Christ’s incarnation was the confirmation of all that had been said and done in preceding ages to encourage the hopes of penitent men. It fulfilled the glorious pledges of redemption. It opened boundless and amazing prospects of enlargement and glory to God’s people and to their Redeemer. Some of its effects were immediate and some remote. Some related to angels and some to men; some to Jews and some to Gentiles. The wise men who came from the east to worship Christ were Gentiles and were representative men. Christ’s personal ministry was a blessing to several Gentiles, and the only men converted in sight of his cross were pretty certainly Gentiles. These things were assurances of the fulfilment of all God had promised respecting heathen nations. These conversions were first-fruits of the great harvest to be gathered in all lands. The immediate effect of Christ’s birth on the pious Jews was most happy. To Simeon and Anna, and such lovely specimens of genuine godliness, the event gave joy unspeakable. Those who hated God and all his messengers, of course, wondered and perished. The effect on angels was amazing. They felt new joys in heaven. One of their number announced the event to the shepherds, “suddenly there was with him a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will to men,” [Luke 2]. Previous to the birth of Christ for about four hundred and twenty years, God’s Spirit, as a Spirit of inspiration, had been quite withheld from men. But about the time of his appearance, there are recorded no less than eleven instances in which men and women received the Holy Ghost as a spirit of prophecy.
The effect of Christ’s incarnation on fallen angels was great. Their power began at once to dwindle. They cried out, “Why hast thou come to torment us before the time?” [Mat. 8:29]. The Lord himself said: “I saw Satan’s kingdom fall like lightning from heaven,” [Luke 10:18]. It is credibly stated that the Delphic oracle ceased to give its usual responses, and when asked the reason, replied, “There is a Hebrew boy who is king of the gods, who has commanded me to leave this house, and begone to hell, and therefore you are to expect no more answers.” And Porphyry says: “Since Jesus began to be worshipped, no man has received any public help or benefit of the gods,” [both quoted together in Edwards, History of Redemption].
From the day that Christ was born to this hour, all the desirable changes which have taken place in the world, either in persons or communities, have been in consequence of his incarnation and of his glorious progress in setting up his kingdom. So, shall it ever be. His kingdom is constantly enlarging. His diadem is more and more glorious. Every soul saved is a new jewel in his crown.
Of Christ’s incarnation Robert Hall says: “The epoch will arrive when this world will be thought of as nothing but as it has furnished a stage for ‘the manifestation of the Son of God’; when his birth, his death, his resurrection from the dead, his ascension to glory, and his second appearance, events inseparably connected, will concentrate within themselves all the interest of history; when war and peace, and pestilence and famine, and plenty and want, and life and death, will have spent their force, and leave nothing but the result of Christ’s manifestation upon earth.” [Christ’s Mission for the Adoption of Sons in the Fullness of Time, works 3, 1860, p. 507].
VI. The person of Christ as now constituted remains perpetual. The bond of union between his divine and human natures is indissoluble. As he was from his conception, so he continues to be, “God and man, in two distinct natures and one person, forever,” [WShC, Q21]. The same Lamb that was slain is now in the midst of the throne, Rev. 5:6. The same Jesus that ascended from Olivet shall come again. The progress of duration shall neither change his natures nor his person, his character nor his readiness to save. He is able; he is willing.
1. Let none be offended at the mystery of the incarnation. If we cannot comprehend, let us adore. No fact is more plainly asserted or more amply proved. Let us receive and rest upon it. He who has no heart to praise the incarnate mystery, has none of the spirit of heaven. What a shame it is that the sons of angels announcing Christ’s birth “has never been answered by a general shout of gratitude from earth. Only a few faint voices from the low places of earth have responded to the loud concert of angels,” [Select Remains William Nevins, 1846, p. 153]. Oh that must be a bad heart which loves not the Savior. Many hear of his love with hearts colder than marble. Such hearts cannot be right in the sight of God. No heart is good that loves not goodness incarnate. If Christ’s incarnation has its mysteriousness, it yet is the only doctrine that enables us to unlock every text of Scripture relating to his person. It admits that as God, he made the worlds; as a child, he grew in stature; as a man, he was sorrowful; as Mediator and in a low condition, he said, “The Father is greater than I” [John 14:28]; and as God-man, he stands between Jehovah and us. Let us humbly and piously receive this doctrine; for as the Athanasian Creed says, “It is necessary to everlasting salvation, that we believe rightly the incarnation of Jesus Christ.”
2. Salvation is clearly and wholly of the Lord. The devising of the scheme is as clearly divine as the execution and application. Human wit, wisdom, strength, and merit are nothing in such a work. “Boasting is excluded by the law of faith,” [Rom. 3:27]. We are nothing; we can do nothing; we deserve nothing. Our Lord has won the crown, and he shall wear it. It is his of right; it shall be his in fact.
3. Let us give God his own time. He knows what is best. He took four thousand years to prepare the way for the coming of the Redeemer. With the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day. We are no judges of what is best or wisest. There is as much wisdom in saying, “When thou wilt,” as in saying, “What thou wilt,” or “How thou wilt.”
4. If any ask whether we are bound to celebrate the birth of Christ on any given day of the year, the answer is, God has given no such command, and he is sole Lawgiver in his church. There is no proof that for centuries the primitive church had any such observance. When such a day was at length observed, many churches fixed it on the sixth day of January. Many learned men contend that Christ was born in October. Some think he was born in May. It seems certain that the Roman emperor would not require women as well as men to take long journeys in the depths of winter, and that shepherds would not then be watching their flocks in the open air. Compare Mat. 24:20 and Mark 13:18. But if any man observes a day in honor of our Lord’s nativity, let him keep it unto the Lord. “One man esteemeth one day above another; another esteemeth every day alike; let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind,” Rom. 14:5. It is, however, a significant fact, that God has concealed from us any positive knowledge of the day, the month, and even the year of our Savior’s birth.