The Incarnation or Substitutionary Atonement, which is the grand miracle? CS Lewis and John MacArthur say the former; George MacDonald, definitely not the latter

Hugh Binning says of the Trinity, “All mysteries have their rise here, and all of them return hither. This is furthest removed from the understandings of men,—what God himself is, for himself is infinitely above any manifestation of himself. God is greater than God manifested in the flesh, though in that respect he be too great for us to conceive.” (Lecture X11 “Of The Unity Of The Godhead And The Trinity Of Persons“).

Which of the following do you consider the grand Christian miracle, the Incarnation or the Passion? I explain “Passion.” In normal English usage, “passion” means “strong emotion” of short duration. The heart of the “Passion” lies in its historical (etymological) meaning. “Passion” comes from the Latin root passio “to render.” So when we suffer, we have to submit to causes that deprive us of our freedom or well-being. We remain passive (passion). (See Passivity and Suffering in the Passion of Christ). Why did Christ suffer and die? The Bible is clear: To substitute Himself in the place of mankind as the object of God’s just punishment for sin.

In Hebrews 2:6, the writer quotes Psalm 8:4, “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” In his commentary on this verse (in the MacArthur Study Bible), John MacArthur says, “the incarnation of Christ is the greatest proof of God’s love and regard for mankind. Christ was not sent in the form of an angel. He was sent in the form of a man.”

Hebrews 1 is the great chapter on the incarnation. Here is an excerpt from the chapter:

6 And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,

Let all God’s angels worship him.”

(Only God is to be worshiped)

7 In speaking of the angels he says, “He makes his angels spirits, and his servants flames of fire.”

8 But about the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.

We return to Hebrews 2. Here is Hebrews 2:6 in context. (the section in italics is from Psalm 8):

In Hebrews 2:6-9, 14-18 we read:

6 “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?”: 7 He made him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands: 8 Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him. But now we see not yet all things put under him. 9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.

Hebrews 2:14-18

Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15 And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. 16 For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. 17 Wherefore in all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people. 18 For in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted.

Surely, the Incarnation, although chronologically and logically prior to the Passion (suffering and death of the Messiah), and indeed a great miracle – is only the curtain raiser to ”the greatest proof of God’s love for mankind” (which MacArthur credits to the Incarnation), namely, the Passion – the torn crucified curtain of flesh, through which believers ”enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (veil), that is, through his flesh” (Hebrews 10:19-20).

CS Lewis (with MacArthur) believes that the Incarnation is the “grand miracle” (Lewis). In the rest of this discussion, I focus on Lewis. Here is his opening to “The Grand Miracle” (in ”God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975, p. 80), wherein he stresses the importance of miracles in Christianity, and the pre-eminent miracle of the Incarnation:

“One is very often asked at present whether we could not have a Christianity stripped, or, as people who asked it say, ‘freed’ from its miraculous elements, a Christianity with the miraculous elements suppressed. Now, it seems to me that precisely the one religion in the world, or, at least the only one I know, with which you could not do that is Christianity. In a religion like Buddhism, if you took away the miracles attributed to Gautama Buddha in some very late sources, there would be no loss; in fact, the religion would get on very much better without them because in that case the miracles largely contradict the teaching. Or even in the case of a religion like Mohammedanism, nothing essential would be altered if you took away the miracles. You could have a great prophet preaching his dogmas without bringing in any miracles; they are only in the nature of a digression, or illuminated capitals. But you cannot possibly do that with Christianity, because the Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.”

 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

It is true, indeed it’s a truism (an obvious truth) that without the incarnation, there would be no crucifixion, no resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and for sinners, no salvation, no resurrection, no eternal life, no new earth. What is the most glorious act that Christ did for sinful mankind after taking on flesh? He redeemed (many of) them through the shedding of his blood. And without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness. I proceed to argue for the shedding of the Blood as the ”grand miracle.”

C S Lewis

We read in Hebrews 9,

12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. 14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God.

15 For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance —now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant… 20 In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

In Lewis’ “mere Christianity”, you can believe in the shedding of Christ’s blood for your sins if want or you can choose a different option. The main thing, for Lewis is don’t be quarrelsome with other Christians:

You can say, says Lewis in his “Mere Christianity,” that Christ died for our sins. You may say that the Father has forgiven us because Christ has done for us what we ought to have done. You may say that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb. You may say that Christ has defeated death. They are all true. If any of them do not appeal to you, leave it alone and get on with the formula that does. And, whatever you do, do not start quarreling with other people because they use a different formula from yours.”

No narrow formulas, recommends Lewis. Nor should we want a “cosy ecumenical love-in thing” (as someone said). Lewis indicates throughout his theological writings that this cosy love-in is the last thing he would desire. I wonder, however, whether this is what Lewis has encouraged with his idea that Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice is not a necessary belief (for salvation).

Lewis regards the shedding of the blood of the precious Saviour as an optional “formula” of belief. It is hard to fathom that a good reader such as Lewis could arrive at such a view of clear scriptural passages that stress the centrality of the “blood” in redemption. As I mentioned earlier, for Lewis, the great miracle is the incarnation, not the shedding of blood unto death for those the Son prayed for in John 17. When we see who the writers were whom Lewis admired the most, most of them would have rather have perished than harboured the thought of the “washing in the blood” as either optional or a “formula.”

There are, in contrast, many other churchmen, who, in their effort to “reform” the understanding of the Gospel, have shucked off this “formula” all together from their mortal coil. The rejection of blood atonement is common among “men of the cloth.” They believe that the idea that God (the Son) would sacrifice Himself and in such a bloody manner is a barbaric. The idea that the Father would plan – even if with the Son’s cooperation – that His Son would suffer such cruelty and anguish to propitiate the Father’s wrath against sinners who purportedly deserve eternal damnation. This is something that not even Old Testament “barbarism” (in their view) ever conceived. (Penal substitution: C S Lewis and the “formula” of Christ’s blood shed for our sins).

In his introduction to a translation of Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation” (De incarnatione) Lewis says:

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor and Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were ‘influences.'” Well may Lewis have put “influences” in inverted commas, because, for them, the life-giving fluency of the Gospel is the blood of the Lamb. Consider a few of these influences in terms of blood atonement (other terms for the same concept are penal substitution, substitutionary atonement and vicarious sacrifice).

There’s Dante. We can discard him forthwith (not as poet, of course), for he believed more in the soporific of Virgil and Beatrice than the salvific of Jesus Christ, it seems. There’s also George MacDonald. Here is Lewis:

“George MacDonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity.” What was one of things, Lewis was ignoring? MacDonald execrates blood atonement, which he considered an affront to God’s justice. “Because he is just, says MacDonald, we are capable of knowing justice; it is because he is just, that we have the idea of justice so deeply imbedded in us.” One of MacDonald arguments is that because the one who commits an offense is totally responsible, he or she is the only one who can atone for it.

George MacDonald

Suppose my watch has been taken from my pocket; I lay hold of the thief; he is dragged before the magistrate, proved guilty, and sentenced to a just imprisonment: must I walk home satisfied with the result? Have I had justice done me? The thief may have had justice done him—but where is my watch? That is gone, and I remain a man wronged. Who has done me the wrong? The thief. Who can set right the wrong? The thief, and only the thief; nobody but the man that did the wrong. God may be able to move the man to right the wrong, but God himself cannot right it without the man. Suppose my watch found and restored, is the account settled between me and the thief? I may forgive him, but is the wrong removed? By no means. But suppose the thief to bethink himself, to repent. He has, we shall say, put it out of his power to return the watch, but he comes to me and says he is sorry he stole it and begs me to accept for the present what little he is able to bring, as a beginning of atonement: how should I then regard the matter? Should I not feel that he had gone far to make atonement—done more to make up for the injury he had inflicted upon me, than the mere restoration of the watch, even by himself, could reach to? Would there not lie, in the thief’s confession and submission and initial restoration, an appeal to the divinest in me—to the eternal brotherhood? Would it not indeed amount to a sufficing atonement as between man and man? If he offered to bear what I chose to lay upon him, should I feel it necessary, for the sake of justice, to inflict some certain suffering as demanded by righteousness? I should still have a claim upon him for my watch, but should I not be apt to forget it? He who commits the offense can make up for it—and he alone” George MacDonald, Sermon on “Justice”). Here in stark contrast is John Owen:

Whereas God was highly incensed with, and provoked against all and every one of those whom he was to save and bring to glory, they having all by sin come short thereof, and rendered themselves obnoxious to the law and its curse ; it was requisite for attaining the ends of this covenant, that he [the Messiah, Jesus/Yeshua] should, as the servant of the Father, make an atonement for sin in and by our nature assumed, and answer the justice of God by suffering and undergoing what was due unto them, without which it was not possible that they should be delivered or saved unto the glory of God (Isaiah 53:12). And as all the other terms of the covenant, so this in particular he undertook to make good; namely, that he would interpose himself between the law and sinners, by undergoing the penalty thereof; and between divine justice itself and sinners, to make atonement for them. And so are we come to the well-head, or the fountain of salvation. Here lieth the immediate sacred spring and foundation of the priesthood of Christ, and of the sacrifice of himself, which, in the discharge of that office he offered unto God.”

(John Owen, Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Volume 1)

The popular Jewish view is found in the Baal Shem Tov, who said that while we cannot actively change others we can and should change ourselves to help others. And “If you want to, you can overpower the Evil Inclination, as it says, ‘…it desires to control you, but you can overpower it” (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 30b). (Jewish and Christian views on substitutionary atonement).

Lewis says more about his favourite writers:

“They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think – as one might be tempted who read only con- temporaries – that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible.”

Except for Dante (we can’t tell much about this poet’s – or most poets’ – beliefs) and George MacDonald, all the authors he cited earlier would never substitute “substitionary” for anything, for they considered it the marrow of their theology and of Christ’s divinity, his love. Consider two of these waiters, Richard Hooker and Thomas Traherne.Hooker, the Anglican “Maimonides” (both Maimonides and Hooker were radical rationalist theologians; all theologians, we hope, are rational), says in his “Laws:” “That which must save believers is the knowledge of the crosse of Christ the onlie

subject of all our preachings.” Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, II, p. 96. Thomas Traherne’s “Centuries of Meditations” is, says, Lewis “almost the most beautiful book in English.”

In his “Centuries of Meditations,” Traherne speaks of the Blood (of Christ) about 20 times. For example,

Would men consider what God hath done, they would be ravished in spirit with the glory of His doings. For Heaven and Earth are full of the majesty of His glory. And how happy would men be could they see and enjoy it! But above all these our Saviour’s cross is the throne of delights. That Centre of Eternity, that Tree of life in the midst of the Paradise of God!” (Free ebook).

At least CS Lewis kept open, in contrast to his mentor, George MacDonald, the “washing in his blood” option. Not that this concession will make it any easier to appease divine justice. Both these writers stand in stark contrast to Hooker and Traherne – and Bunyan, another of Lewis’ “influences.”

There is yet a more “beautiful book” than Traherne’s “beautiful English book” (Lewis), It’s a Greek book, the Book of Revelation. What is the first revelation in this book? He loves his own and frees them from their sins by his the shedding of his blood:

Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen (Revelation, 1:4-7)


Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,and they shall reign on the earth (Revelation 5:9-10).

To reiterate (and perhaps re-irritate), without the incarnation, there could be no redemption. But the incarnation is not Christ’s crowning glory; his crowning glory is his flock, whom he redeemed from every tribe and language nation through the shedding of his blood. Christ’s crowing glory is indeed to be Head of all things, but most of all Head of His “body,” the Church (built out of living stones).

At the beginning, I quoted Lewis:

“One is very often asked at present whether we could not have a Christianity stripped, or, as people who asked it say, ‘freed’ from its miraculous elements, a Christianity with the miraculous elements suppressed. Now, it seems to me that precisely the one religion in the world, or, at least the only one I know, with which you could not do that is Christianity.”

It’s a pity, though, that Lewis stripped the atonement of its flesh. Here is Spurgeon’s Saviour stripped of all that he had in order to become the saviour of the world:

I read, the other day, — I cannot exactly quote the words, though I give the sense, — a sentence by Samuel Rutherford, in which he said that he would like to pile up ten thousand million heavens upon the top of the third heaven to which Paul was caught up, and put Christ in that high place; and then he would not be as high as he deserved to be put; and, truly, no honors seem sufficient for him who stripped himself of all he had that he might become the Savior of sinners” – his church (Chatres Spurgeon, ”Christ’s crowning glory’‘).

Even if we – like all the Apostles and fathers of the church – prize the substitutionary sacrifice above all, the powers of our human frame are unable to fathom the glorious abyss of the cross. Taking all my sins – as well as of billions of others – past, present and future, including my sinful nature, and nailing it to the cross; this once-off dying miracle of the incarnate God is far more staggering than the birth in the stable. The cup of staggering:

Wake yourself, wake yourself, stand up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath, who have drunk to the dregs the bowl, the cup of staggering” (Isaiah 51:17).

How shall we escape if we reject, neglect, or blanch such a great salvation, reducing it to an optional formula (Hebrews 2:3).

“Many assume, says, Oliver Crisp,that the Crucifixion and Resurrection make our transformation in Christ possible. And of course, there is a great deal of truth in this assumption. But we often think of the Incarnation as the warm-up to the real drama: Jesus needed to become human so he could die for us. What many Christians have forgotten is that our redemption began with the Incarnation.”

Yes, our redemption begins with the miracle of the Incarnation. But do not let that new insight make the miracle of the washing away of our sin by the Blood merely a consequence of the Incarnation. The death not the birth of Christ was the greater miracle, because it is His death that raises us from the dead (Ephesians 2).

The great miracle

John 1:14

And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…

The grand miracle

Philippians 2:5-8

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

I end with Adolph Saphir, from his lectures on 1 Corinthians 2:

“But while we adore the great mystery of the Incarnation, let us remember, that the Incarnation necessarily leads to the Crucifixion. The mystery of the manger involves the mystery of the cross. It is not enough to know that unto us the Child was bom, the Son was given, that the Word was made flesh. He never would have come down to earth unless His purpose had been to ofier His life as a sacrifice for sin.”