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  • Writer's picturePresbyterian Reformed Church

Larger Catechism, Question #47 – Dr. William Young

The following sermon was preached by Dr. William Young at East Greenwich, RI on October 20, 1991.

Q. 47. How did Christ humble himself in his conception and birth?

A. Christ humbled himself in his conception and birth, in that, being from all eternity the Son of God, in the bosom of the Father, he was pleased in the fulness of time to become the son of a man, made of a woman of low estate, and to be born of her; with diverse circumstances of more than ordinary abasement.

Last sabbath we began the consideration of our Savior’s humiliation, with the text from Philippians, the second chapter, and verses 5, 6, and 7: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men…” We may on this occasion continue the consideration of this subject, bearing in mind what we have read in verse 7 and also the opening words of verse 8, “and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself.” What amazing condescension that the eternal Son of God should be made in the likeness of men! That the infinite One should take to himself a finite nature! That the Word should become flesh!

Now the incarnation took place at the conception of our Lord Jesus Christ and it was made manifest in his birth. Question 47 of our Larger Catechism asks, “How did Christ humble himself in his conception and birth?” And it gives the answer: “Christ humbled himself in his conception and birth, in that, being from all eternity the Son of God, in the bosom of the Father, he was pleased in the fulness of time to become the son of a man, made of a woman of low estate, and to be born of her; with diverse circumstances of more than ordinary abasement.” The text that we have announced is Philippians chapter 2 at verse 7 and at the beginning of verse 8: “And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself,” this text sets forth the humiliation of Christ, and in particular in connection with his entrance into this world. Now we may observe first of all, that Christ’s conception and birth do belong to his humiliation; and secondly, how he humbled himself in his conception and in his birth; and thirdly, the unusual circumstances of his humiliation in these matters.

Now we observed last sabbath that the word translated in verse 7, “…and made himself of no reputation” in the original may be literally rendered as “emptied” and it should be taken as having basically the same meaning as the word “humbled” in verse 8. While the words: “he made himself of no reputation” or “emptied himself” and “humbled himself” may be considered as synonymous expressions, it is perhaps well to remember that synonyms do not always have precisely the same connotation. But while the same object may be in view, there may be different aspects or different emphasis that is given. It is fair to say, the word “emptied” or “made himself of no reputation” in verse 7 is a stronger word than the word translated as “humbled” in verse 8. It is also undoubtedly true that Christ emptying himself and making himself of no reputation is definitely connected with the taking on him the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of man, and being found in fashion as a man. The incarnation of the word of God is particularly in view in connnection with his emptying himself, his making of himself of no reputation; while the humbling of himself in verse 8 presupposes his being found in fashion as a man, and especially is seen in his obedience unto death, even the death of the cross. The later stages of what we speak of as the humiliation of Christ are what are made prominent in the eighth verse, so that there is undoubtedly in the text a certain distinction made here, while at the same time we do not want to maintain that there is any fundamental difference between Christ’s emptying himself and his humbling himself. We use the expression, “the humiliation of Christ”, for what is designed in both cases.

Now when we bear in mind these features with regard to the language of Philippians 2, we might raise the great question which has been often debated even among very sound men. The question as to whether the incarnation itself was a part of the humiliation of Christ? Some have denied this to be the case on the grounds that God cannot be humiliated because God cannot be changed, and therefore the humiliation of Christ is thought of as belonging only to his human nature. His human nature did not exist prior to the incarnation; so the conclusion is drawn by this mode of reasoning, that the incarnation could not belong to the humiliation of Christ. The fallacy in this arises when one considers that a distinction may be made between the sense in which Christ as the eternal Son of God humbled himself in his great condescension in taking to himself our human nature, and especially in the concealment of the divine glory that was his behind that veil of flesh which he had assumed. So it has been the regular position of Reformed divines that Christ as Mediator in both of his natures, though in a different way as to each of his two natures, but it is Christ as the Mediator in the Person of the God-man who humbled himself. Now, there is a real change, of course, in the human nature because as we have observed, the divine nature of our Lord Jesus Christ is unchangeable as it is infinite and eternal, even as being the same nature that the Son of God has always possessed along with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

But now, what about this question as to whether or not the incarnation is a part of the humiliation of Christ? Now one thing our Larger Catechism is very explicit about, and that is that the conception and the birth of Christ do belong to his humiliation. If we think of the incarnation as including the conception and the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ which we very naturally do, then we would surely have to give an affirmative answer to the question that the incarnation is a part, and is the first part of the humiliation of Christ. But now this may appear perhaps to be somewhat subtle, but there is this consideration - If we ask the question just what do we mean when we talk about the incarnation. We may think in a concrete way of our Savior’s being conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and taking upon himself our nature, and then in the course of time being born. We may include this in speaking of the incarnation; but on the other hand, one might think of the incarnation of Christ in very abstract terms. One might think simply of the eternal Son of God taking into union with himself the created nature of a human being, both body and soul. If we think just of this in a quite abstract notion of the incarnation, there is not only that argument to which I referred, that the Mediator, strictly speaking, is the subject of humiliation; but there is also this very serious consideration, that our Lord Jesus Christ continues to be man also in the state of exaltation. He will never divest himself of that human nature which he has assumed. He has not done so in the state of exaltation and he will never do so to all eternity. And the fact that Christ is the incarnate Son of God does not involve him since his exaltation in a state of humiliation: hence, one is driven to the conclusion, that considering the incarnation in the abstract, one is not to regard this as being humiliation in the sense that which humilation is certainly spoken of in verse 8 of Philippians, chapter 2. There is humiliation in the concrete circumstances in which our Savior appeared in this world, even in his conception and birth. But we are not warranted, I believe, to say that the fact that the eternal Son of God is united with human nature, that this is itself properly speaking an ingredient of the Savior’s humiliation. To be sure even in in this, there is infinite condescension on the part of God, and that is undoubtedly true. If you want to call that humiliation, well and good. We can dispute about words in a matter such as this.

But if we think of the incarnation in the concrete, we can even before thinking of the details connected with the conception and birth of our Lord, even before that, we can ask the question, What is the human nature that our Savior assumed? Well, he did not assume the nature that Adam possessed prior to the Fall. He assumed – of course, humanity remains humanity, notwithstanding the Fall but also after Redemption. But humanity has, as Thomas Boston and others have pointed out, has existed in various states. Human nature was in a state of primitive integrity as it was created. It is in a very different state since the Fall, a state of total depravity; and the nature of the regenerate is one of begun recovery, and the state of glory for the children of God is one of happiness and blessedness, while the reprobate continue in the estate of misery for all eternity.

Well, what is the state of human nature assumed by our Lord? It is not exactly the same as the state of human nature that Adam was in prior to the Fall. It is true our Savior was conceived and born and he lived and he died without personal sins; but at the same time he took to himself the sinless infirmities of our fallen nature. If it had not been for the Fall, we would never have been subject to death. If it had not been for the Fall, we would have never been subject to any of the miseries of this life. We would not, I believe, have been subject to the pains of hunger and of thirst, to poverty and other features that might be counted among the sinless infirmities of our nature that are nonetheless consequences of the Fall. Our Savior took that human nature that while it was free from sin, nonetheless was subject to hunger and to thirst and to poverty and eventually even unto death itself.

Now, I am not wanting to endorse in the least that speculation that some have proposed, namely; that the Son of God would have become man even if Adam had not fallen. As we have observed last week, there is no Scripture support whatever to warrant our making any such statements as some men have attempted to make. While this is true, the question as to the relationship between the incarnation and the humiliation of the Mediator is one that cannot be answered in a superficial way in which even a great man like Dr. Abraham Kuyper has attempted to answer this question. The fear of an unsound speculation ought not to drive us, as I think it drove him, into an opposite extreme with respect to this subject. We have mentioned in our catechism in connection with Christ’s humiliation in his conception the fact that while from all eternity he was the Son of God in the bosom of the Father, he was pleased in the fulness of time to become the Son of man, made of a woman, in low estate. The humiliation of Christ is indeed to be seen in this that he that was in the bosom of the Father. And as the Son of God was pleased to descend to the womb of the Virgin and to become the Son of man. As it has been said, he did not abhor the Virgin’s womb. Galatians Chapter 4 verse 4 speaks of him as “made of a woman”.

Well, now with regard to the mode of the incarnation of Christ in this, the fact that the mother of our Lord was a woman of a low estate is an important aspect of our Savior’s humiliation. That Mary was a woman of low estate is stated by herself in Luke Chapter 1 and verse 48. It is not doing any dishonor to her in making this statement with respect to her, for it is a matter which she acknowledged herself and in acknowledging it implied that it was indeed in infinite humiliation that the eternal Son of God should be pleased to be conceived in her by the power Spirit of God. It is also evident that Mary was of low estate from the fact of her marriage to Joseph, who was a manual laborer and also from the sacrifice that she offered at the circumcision of our Lord in which we read in Luke, in the 2nd chapter and the 24th verse: “To offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” And Leviticus, chapter 12, verse 8, intimates that this sacrifice, instead of sacrificing a lamb, a turtledove was particularly designed for the needs of those who were poor in material things. We may also find in the opinion that men had of our Savior later in his life that he was reputed by them to be the son of Joseph, and they knew his mother, they knew those who they regarded as his brothers and as his sisters. In this too, we see the humiliation of our Savior. He did hold himself as a root out of the dry ground as we have it in Isaiah the 53rd chapter and the 2nd verse.

Now what shall we say with regard to our Savior in his state of infancy? There have been those, especially among Roman Catholic theologians, who have considered that the glory of the incarnation requires the supposition that even as an infant Christ had knowledge of everything that he never came to know as man. This means of course a denial on the part of some that Christ actually grew in the knowledge of anything. There is no dispute at all among those who believe in the deity of Christ that Christ as God and knew all things, and that the incarnation did not make a difference with respect to his divine knowledge. But the question remains whether or not he increased in knowledge so far as his human nature is concerned. Protestant divines and Reformers have universally maintained this to be the case. The Lord of glory was like other infants except that he was free from the guilt and stain of original sin; but otherwise, there was no difference between him and others who are found in a state of infancy. He did not as an infant draw upon his divine omniscience, but he remained unaware of much of what he came to learn at a subsequent time. This is not taking away anything of the deity of Christ. This is not taking away anything from the sinlessness of the human nature that he assumed; but it is simply following the sense of Scripture and not trying to explain it away by saying that this is only what appeared to men. We have the clear words of Luke 2:52 where it is stated that he “increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Not only did our Savior increase in stature, not only did he grow physically in the course of his childhood and youth, but he increased also in wisdom. He came to have an understanding of things which as an infant he did not understand in his human nature. I would say that we also see the humiliation of Christ in that he humbled himself in order to be like ordinary infants; and he did so in order that he might be the Savior of infants as well as being the Savior of adults. You see the sympathy here of our blessed Redeemer, that he is able also to sympathize with the infants crying as well as with the sentiment of the mother upon such an occasion, because he has so humbled himself and fitted himself to be the Great High Priest who has felt the feeling of our infirmities.

Now this stage of the humiliation of Christ, his conception and birth, was accompanied by unusual circumstances. In connection with the conception of Christ, we have spoken of Mary’s low estate. So let us in this matter, of course, never forget the stupendous importance of the fact of the virgin birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we do not exaggerate the virtue of virginity; neither do we ascribe to the mother of our Lord that which belongs only to her divine son. Yet we would see something of the wisdom of God in the matter of our Savior’s entrance into this world, the world that he came to redeem. What we may see, I believe, in that first impression that Joseph had with respect to his betrothed’s condition something of the humiliation of our Lord Jesus Christ that in becoming a man he allowed such a situation. I am not saying that Joseph was to be blamed for the supposition that he had prior to the revelation that was especially given to him. It was a perfectly natural human judgment that he made in this matter. I am not prepared to say that there was anything really wrong involved in this as such. But from the point of view of the Savior coming into this world under such circumstances. we see an intimation here of his great humiliation. As this was true with regard to our Savior’s conception, so we see attendant circumstances in connection with the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ that make so evident the fact that he humbled himself in his conception and in his birth.

We may just barely mention here in this connection the fact that first of all that there was no room for our Lord in the inn, that he was born in a manger, that he was wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in that manger. And then we think of the visit of the shepherds, the visit of these humble men who were the objects of a divine revelation and who did honor to our Savior at his birth. We know that there was also an indication of the majesty of the Lord in the visit of the wise men, true enough; but also in connnection with the wise men, we must ever remember the malice of King Herod and the slaughter of the innocents. And again, we may go a little bit ahead in the infancy of our Savior to think of his circumcision which was not for himself, but which he underwent as a Surety for his elect people. And then we could add the flight into Egypt and the settlement in Nazareth both of which are ingredients in the Mediator’s humiliation.

Even at this first stage of the humiliation of our blessed Redeemer, the Mediator as the High Priest was the representative and the substitute for sinners. He was not included in Adam as the Federal Head. This is a subtle error that even the great Reformed theologian, like Professor [Burl?] of Vienna evidently fell into, to suppose that the guilt of Adam’s first sin was imputed to Christ just as it is imputed to everybody. Now it is true that the guilt of Adam’s first sin was imputed to Christ, but not because Adam was the Federal Head and Christ a member represented by Adam. No, not on that account! The imputation of the guilt of Adam’s first sin to the posterity of Adam by natural generation and the imputation of the guilt of that transgression carries along with it the depravation of original righteousness, and the corruption of our entire nature which is commonly called Original Sin. From all this our Savior was exempted. He was not in Adam; he was the Second Adam! So, it was not as being included with the First Adam, but rather as the Second Adam the guilt of Adam’s first sin, together with the guilt of all else for which he atoned was imputed unto him. And, it was imputed unto him from the very beginning. We are not to think that the sufferings of Christ were restricted or limited simply to Gethsemane and Calvary; but it was indeed during his entire life, even from the very beginning of his incarnation that our blessed Redeemer, as the Surety and as the Substitute for sinners, bore the guilt that was imputed to him. The culmination of his sufferings undoubtedly was centered upon those last days in which he descended into the very depths of his humiliation. But let us never forget that from the outset our Savior suffered the punishment that was due to sinners overwhelmed with their original and actual sins. Well, we leave the subject at this point and may the Lord be pleased to add his blessing.


Almighty and Ever Gracious One, we would adore and admire thine unsearchable wisdom and thine infinite goodness, thine almighty power, that thou didst not spare thine only begotten Son, that he did not spare himself, that he was pleased to take to himself our nature; and that he was pleased to stand in the room and in the stead of those who such as we who have departed from thee, have transgressed thy law, and have become worthy of thy wrath and thy curse both in this life and that which is to come. Do thou, O Lord, grant that we would have the eye of faith with which to look unto him as our Sin Bearer and as our gracious Redeemer. Do thou, O Lord. go before us now, undertake for us, bless us in the course of this thy holy day that we might be enabled to render unto thee that honor which is thy rightful due, count the day that thou hast sanctified to be the holy of the Lord and honorable, that ours might be that promised blessing that thou dost give to those who so observe thine ordinances. Do thou, O Lord, grant thy blessing upon the children of thy children, that thou wouldst be pleased that they might have the knowledge of thee which is everlasting life, and that they may be found walking in thy ways, being protected from the evil that is without as well as the evil that is within. Do thou, Lord, be gracious also unto those that rule over us, that we might have rulers that rule in thy fear, that would subject themselves unto Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords. Pardon sin, wash us with the Fountain that has been opened. Look upon us in Christ, we ask all in his name, Amen!

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