Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 14 - Conceived By the Holy Spirit, Born Of the Virgin Mary
Question 35: What do you confess when you say:
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the virgin Mary?
Answer 35: The eternal God,
who is and remains true and eternal God,
took upon himself true human nature
from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary,
through the working of the Holy Spirit.
Thus he is also the true seed of David,
and like his brothers in every respect,
yet without sin.
When the Son of God was born in Bethlehem, God came closer to us than ever before — in the form of a baby! A toddler after that. A teenager. And finally best known as the man in his early thirties.
Why did God come so close to us?
Was it necessary to be able to deal with us personally? But even in paradise, Adam and Eve dealt with him in a very intimate way.1 At the time, no Lord Jesus was needed for that. God’s exaltation did not inhibit or interfere with their dealings with him.
That was before the Fall, but even after this he was still close to his people. Enoch “walked with God” and so did Noah.2 And see how personally the LORD dealt with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Later during the desert journey he lived among them in a tent of his own. He spoke to Moses as one speaks to one’s friend.3 Later he lived for centuries in his own house in Jerusalem. But also far beyond that city he was there with every lonely pedestrian over the steepest mountain paths and to the most distant shores.4 He was on the mountains and in the valleys. Everywhere. Could he actually come any closer? But why then was it so necessary for the Son to become human? Because otherwise he could not take our guilt upon himself. That is why Christ put on our suit, our flesh and blood. That is why he stepped into our sandals and shoes. That is why God sought this most surprising proximity.
Satan’s Attempts to Prevent the Coming of Christ
Christ’s work of salvation did not start in the stable of Bethlehem but already in paradise. Immediately after their Fall, Adam and Eve were saved. By Christ. By who else? But it happened by virtue of what he had still needed to do! This is what God’s work of salvation depended on and waited for throughout the long period of the OT.
No wonder Satan tried everything to prevent his coming. He planned lethal attacks against Jesus’ ancestry, both on the people of Israel as a whole and particularly on the house of David.5 When that failed, he tried to kill Jesus before he had completed his work: soon after his birth, but also afterwards.6 Had he been successful, God’s work of salvation would have failed across the board. Those attempts, thankfully, were all futile. Christ did in fact complete his task on earth.
Satan’s New Tactics to Achieve his Original Goal
We might now take it easy and expect that this tense battle is behind us. The stories about Pharaoh of Egypt and Haman the Jew-hater are past history. This is true. Jesus’ coming to earth can never be undone. Even the horrific murder of millions of Jews during World War II was no longer aimed at killing the coming Messiah. It was not a direct attack against him. The devil has to resign himself to the fact that Jesus did complete his work on earth. Yet he never knows when to quit. He could not stop Jesus. Therefore he tries to make us give in. Because it makes no difference whether he could have prevented Jesus from coming to us or whether he is still blocking our access to him. It would come down to the same thing. That is why Satan in his great fury will continue to do what it takes to keep us away from Christ. Keep a close eye on his schemes! He puts stumbling blocks on the road to Jesus up to the present time. He does this, among other things, by making people believe that the birth of Jesus from a virgin is unacceptable.
Especially in Germany, since the nineteenth century, a storm of criticism arose against this article of the Creed.7 This storm arose within the church. Theologians were in charge. They wanted to keep modern man in the church. But many people were annoyed with the confession that Jesus was born of a virgin. That was a stumbling block for them. Therefore, this barrier needed to be removed. According to many theologians, there was nothing against this because no essential aspect of faith is lost when we stop getting distressed about this article. It is quite possible to believe in Jesus without also believing that he was born of a virgin. This point would also not carry much weight according to the Bible.
Is this true? How did they get to this point?
Is This Article of Faith Less Important, According to the Bible?
Jesus was true man — a real human being. That is what the NT says over and over again.
However, that is not where the difficulty lies, according to modern man. But was he born “without the act of a man?”8 The NT does not state this repeatedly, but only twice: in Matthew 1:18 and in Luke 1:35. People find that suspicious. Yet God says it so crystal clear in these places that those two instances are more than enough. That Jesus was born of a virgin is therefore undeniable.
That is true, yet one could still be asking: how important does the NT consider this fact? Can someone who has difficulty with it still deny it if needed? Mark and John are silent about it in their gospels about Jesus on earth. And Paul does repeatedly raise the significance of Christ’s resurrection, yet he never mentions his virgin birth. Does this point perhaps not belong to the a-b-c of the Christian faith? Some years ago we could already read in a simple but warmly stated gospel leaflet that to become a Christian you do not have to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin. It is allowed but not compulsory. This was also how people reasoned in 19th century Germany. The influential German professor Adolf von Harnack wrote a pamphlet in 1892 that saw 26 printings in just a few months. His position was: it is one of the cornerstones of our faith that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. But whether he was born from a virgin…that is an open question.9
In the Netherlands the Leiden professor F.W.A. Korff characterized the significance of the virgin birth as “a secondary matter”. He did not consider it important enough to include it in the Twelve Articles, in which there should be room only for the essentials.10 The NT mentions the virgin birth only twice. But what does that imply? The Bible is not a systematic manual where attention is balanced across all topics. In that case one might ask whether perhaps the NT did not consider the virgin birth to be so important. However, the gospel is a message and takes into account the concrete situations of its time. It speaks in a dated manner. As a matter of course, one subject receives more attention than another. That is why the meaning of an article of faith can never be measured by the number of times it is written about in the NT.
This is why we have no problem with Paul. We admit it: he never mentions in as many words the virgin birth of Jesus. He does mention his resurrection time and again. But that does not mean that he had no thought for Jesus’ birth. Someone can praise a house and its solid construction without mentioning the foundation in so many words. But it would be foolish to infer that he considered that foundation to be unimportant. Because when he speaks of the solid walls, of course he also means that they are strong also on account of the solid foundation. Something similar is also evident with Paul. The birth of Jesus was a great moment for him: a turning point; the fullness of time. Then “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law”.11 Paul says here in two ways how Jesus came to earth: He was sent by God, and born of [a] woman. He mentions God and a woman. There is apparently no room for the man. Therefore it is obvious to see in this a veiled indication of the virgin birth.
The same can be said about John. He too evidently did not find it necessary to write outright that Jesus was born of a virgin. Matthew and Luke had already done so. John wrote after them. It was the time when many claimed that Jesus had a pretend-body and was not really human. Therefore, he especially emphasized that Jesus was not only truly God but also truly human. The Word (Christ) was with God from eternity and was God, and that Word became flesh.12 He became a man of flesh and blood. Only those who confess this are from God.13 That point had his full attention. John may not literally say that Jesus was born of a virgin but he does say that he — though truly human — came from God.14 This already rules out the notion that Jesus came to earth through the act of a man. And that, in terms of content, is perfectly in line with his birth from a virgin. The two texts on this subject from Matthew and Luke should certainly not be regarded as two lonely needles in a haystack.
From the earliest times the church considered this article of faith to be indispensable. It was defended by men like Justin (born ±100 AD) and Ignatius (died ±115 AD) against Jews and pagans alike.15 In the last part of the second century Rome had a confession in which it was confessed of Jesus that he was born of the Holy Spirit from the virgin Mary.16 It also appears in the earliest editions of our Apostolicum. So we can rest assured that this article of faith was not advanced in later times but that it was an essential part of the church’s deposit of faith from the beginning. The Twelve Articles are not a loose collection of truths where, if it suits, you can take one of them with a grain of salt.
Born of a Virgin and Yet Truly Human?
Biologically speaking, Jesus had only a mother.
He did not have a direct bloodline to a father. But did he then become like us in everything? It belongs to the essence of a human being to have a father. Would Jesus not be missing this essential aspect? This is how the well-known theologian Emil Brunner reasoned. That is why he did not want to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin. According to him, Jesus could only truly become man if in fact he was born of a woman and a man, just like everyone else. Jesus became like us also in the way he was conceived in his mother’s womb. Only in this way would the church radically and consistently uphold its confession that Jesus is truly man. The enticing thing about Brunner’s reasoning was that he did not want to affect the miracle of Jesus’ birth. On the contrary, according to him the miracle was not to be found in his virgin birth but, conversely, in the fact that he came into the world in such a completely human manner!17
But against him we adhere to the obvious truths of Matthew and Luke.18 Thus all his objections have already been dealt with. In addition, we note that his view that a human being without a biological father cannot be a true human being takes away from the omnipotence of God. Proof? John the Baptist said that God was able even to raise children of Abraham from stones.19 In the end, God himself decides how he makes people. Adam and Eve were not even born. And Eve in turn was made in a totally different way than Adam. Neither of them had a father or mother, and yet they were real people. But then surely this also applies to Jesus who did receive a mother.
But then, because of his special birth, was Jesus still connected to us with every fibre of his being? He had to be. In order to be able to save us, he had to partake of the flesh and blood of God’s children and descend from the Jews and be the Son of David.20 In regard to that point, the Bible completely reassures us. Jesus had an earthly mother and he was truly her Son.21 And as the Son of Mary, he was also fully the Son of Abraham and the Son of Adam. But along which lineage was Jesus the Son of David? There is some difference of opinion about that. Was he so only through Joseph, or also and independently of him through Mary? In any case, it is through Joseph. It is not without reason that the angel addresses him as the Son of David.22 Furthermore, Matthew 1:1-17 shows the pedigree of Jesus to David through Joseph, who is called the husband of Mary.23
But whether Luke 3:23-31 reflect the genealogy through Mary or through Joseph remains a question that we will not address here. For according to the Catechism, the main issue is this: in order to be the true seed of David, Jesus took on true human nature from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary. Decisive for his descent from David is, and therefore remains, the fact that he is the corporeal Son of Mary. He takes on her flesh and blood. Only in this way could he — either through her and outside of Joseph, or only through Joseph — be the Son of David.
Mary’s Motherhood Does Not Mean a Devaluation of Marriage
Those who reject the virgin birth of Jesus have yet another arrow in their quiver. They point out how the Bible praises marriage. So in order for Jesus to become human, would it suddenly not be good enough? Too much of a human institution? In that case it would in fact contradict all the praise that Scripture has when it speaks of marriage.
They too cannot deny that in a few instances the NT says outright that the mother of Jesus was the virgin Mary. But then they explain it this way: very early on, people did not think it was honourable for the heavenly Son of God to be born of a marriage. That was much too ordinary; much too earthly. That explains why Jesus was not allowed to have an earthly father. And thus this idea was also smuggled into the NT. But it does not belong there.
We reject this argumentation out of hand. It is based on fantasy and it represents out-and-out Scripture criticism. That marriage is indirectly pushed aside by the birth of Jesus from a virgin is pure nonsense. Joseph had to take Mary to himself and Jesus was also submissive to him being his earthly father.24
There is nothing to show that marriage would be too minimalistic here. Meanwhile, the question does arise as to what the Bible informs us about the meaning of the virgin birth.
Why Did Jesus Have to Be Born Of a Virgin?
Why did Jesus not have a flesh-and-blood father? Augustine (b. 354) had a strong opinion about it. Every human being comes into the world as a sinner because of the sin-filled procreative act of his father. That explains why Christ came to earth without sin — only because he had no earthly father! For he was conceived and begotten “without any lust of fleshly desire and therefore (!) without original sin”.25 That was Augustine’s view. We cannot find this in Scripture, nor can we infer this from it. Let us beware of overly rational explanations of the birth from a virgin. Paul speaks of a great mystery.26 That is why Calvin’s sober words explain this in a much better way: we do not free Christ from all blemish because he was born of a mother without the intervention of a man, but because he was sanctified by the Spirit.27Jesus was not without sin because he was born of a virgin. After all, Mary was a sinner herself. And it remains God’s mystery how, from a sinful woman — even though she was a virgin — he allowed a sinless human being to be born. Let us be content that the Holy Spirit caused Mary to have a holy Child.28 But why could Joseph not be the father of Jesus? That will be related to the fact that it was Jesus’ will to be born. We were not asked if we wanted to be born. We had nothing to say about it. But with Jesus things are different. His birth was a deliberate act. Therefore, completely apart from Joseph, and completely voluntarily, he assumed true human nature from the flesh and blood of the virgin Mary.
At the end of this discussion, it seems that we have not made much headway. We have discussed and defended the mystery of Jesus’ incarnation. As a result the mystery has not been diminished but rather it has become more profound. But because of this, our marvelling at God’s miraculous act of coming near to us can be all the greater. Meanwhile, this article of faith is of the greatest value for our salvation. This will be the subject of a separate question.
Question 36: What benefit do you receive
from the holy conception and birth of Christ?
Answer 36: He is our Mediator,
and with his innocence and perfect holiness
covers, in the sight of God,
my sin, in which I was conceived and born.
What joy! Here we are specifically asked about the value of this article for us. We have been dealing with some difficult issues, but in the end everything focuses on the question of what practical meaning it has for us. How does it affect us that Jesus was received and born in this way? Why is this so valuable for us?
Why Are We So Pleased With This Article of Faith
We do not become sinners in the course of our lives. We are not messed up in our youth. Matters did not take a wrong turn shortly before we were born. It could not have been prevented one way or another. Not even by perfect genetic engineering. We were conceived and born in sin: carrying a hereditary burden from the first moment of our existence. Burdened with a frightening guilt and with a latent hatred toward God and his law.
How shocked David was when he realized this after his murder of Uriah. He had committed a serious crime: premeditated murder. He was not so young then. How had he gotten to this point? Had he always been like this? He followed his life’s trail back, wanting to find out the beginning of his thoughts of murder. Finally, he ended up with his cradle: “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”29
We are no better than David.
We too need to go back to before the time of our birth. That is where the source is. What we have done wrong today came like “water welling up from this woeful source”.30 That spring continues to flow throughout our lives.
We inherited a debt we would never be able to remove, plus a corrupted nature. No one can go back to Start and make a new beginning. Then we would have to be born again, and then also without sin. Completely impossible! We have to do it all over again, and this is plainly impossible. We cannot! But he did it for us! He gave us a new beginning — right from very start.
The Catechism suddenly becomes very personal in the middle of a sentence: He is our Mediator who covers my sin before God.
He was conceived and born. He began where I began. And where I derailed immediately.
He restored my life. From the absolute starting point: with his spotless beginning, he covers my ruined life. I made a false start and can never undo it. But everyone who believes in him, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, becomes a Christmas Child, as it were. For Christ came to stand beside us by charging our sin-tainted conception and birth to his account while crediting his holy conception and birth to ours. The result is that God treats us as if I were conceived and born without sin. Those who believe in the Christmas Child may trade their places with the Child born on Christmas.