“Keep Christ in Christmas!”
This proverb was fixed in my head as a child. And before I began learning Greek in college, I thought “X-mas” was anti-Christian because it took Christ out of Christmas. I don’t hear this argument much anymore. Thankfully, it seems to have faded.
Every Advent, I teach my congregation another proverb: “Christmas is more than baby Jesus.” For as long as I can recall, I’ve made a point to remind the people I pastor that we ought to remember the cross during Advent—not only that Christ came, but also what he came to do. What a fitting reason to celebrate in this season!
And yet, Luke’s Gospel indicates this is still too narrow an Advent depiction.
Whole Life of Obedience
Luke’s account indicates that our perception of Jesus’s saving work may be focused on Christ’s passive obedience (bearing the Father’s wrath on the cross) at the expense of his active obedience (obeying God’s law perfectly as a man). Ask any collection of Christians what Christ came to do, and a majority will likely respond with something like, “To die for my sins.” This answer is certainly correct, even glorious, but it’s incomplete.
Christ entered human history to die for the sins of his people—but don’t overlook some of the finer details of Luke’s birth narrative:
And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.” (Luke 2:21–24)
Why do we need to know that Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, that Mary offered sacrifices for purification after childbirth, and that Jesus was presented in Jerusalem? The questions all have the same answer: God’s law commanded these things.
Luke’s emphasis on the law is plain. He uses the word “law” three times in these three verses, and again a couple verses later. Why? He wants us to recognize that, from the beginning of Jesus’s life, obedience to God’s law was central. Luke is setting up the rest of the Jesus narrative—a life of unflinching obedience to the Father’s commands. Even though Jesus would be tempted in every way as we are, not once would he succumb to sin (Heb. 4:15).
His Merits Are Our Merits
If we sprint from the manger to the cross, we bypass his active righteousness. This is why “he came to die for my sins” is true but incomplete—it focuses only on his passive obedience at Calvary.
And if his death is all we have, we’ve only been brought back to Eden—having our sins forgiven, yet possessing no righteousness. Why? Because the 30-plus years leading up to that first Good Friday is how we’re made righteous. Paul says it this way: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19).
There are only two ways to fulfill the law: obedience or payment. When we drive by a radar-detecting police officer, we will fulfill the law. Either we will obey the speed limit and thereby fulfill the law, or we will disobey, receive a ticket, and pay the penalty—also meeting the law’s requirement.
Jesus Fulfilled the Law Twice
When we obey, we aren’t punished; and when we’re punished, it’s because we’ve disobeyed. Not so with Christ. He fulfilled God’s law twice. He perfectly obeyed and paid the penalty as if he hadn’t. This double-work of Christ—his passive and active obedience—is the only way we can be reconciled to a holy God.
This is why the Father can look on us and see his Son’s righteousness instead of our sin. This is why the Puritan John Owen can say that God in Christ loves us, delights in us, is well pleased with us, and only has thoughts of kindness toward us.
Notice that the Father didn’t send Christ to the cross as an infant, nor did he send him to earth as a fully formed adult on Good Friday morning. He sent Christ into human history as an infant, not to die for decades, so that he could both live for our righteousness and also die for our sin.
In his 1744 Advent hymn “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” Charles Wesley had Christ’s active obedience in mind: “By thine all-sufficient merit, raise us to thy glorious throne.” His death atones for our sin, and his merit is now our merit.
The Gospel of Luke invites us to keep our Savior’s active obedience in view as we reflect on his first coming. Yes, we ought to keep Christ in Christmas. Yes, we ought not leave Jesus in the manger, but reflect on what he came to do. But he came to do more than die. He came also to live—for our righteousness. A blessed Advent reminder indeed!