(Excerpt from The Essentials of the Christian Religion ):
“Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit; Born of the Virgin Mary”
Jesus’ birth was not a normal birth. It was something very special, in fact, utterly unique. This only happened this one time. The child who was conceived in Mary was conceived by a miracle, by the power of God.
Does this matter? Many Christians today don’t believe that it’s very important whether Jesus was in fact virgin-born or not. What matters, they tell us, is that we believe what Jesus taught us about loving one another. It is of course very important that we believe what Jesus taught us, but the essence of Christianity isn’t first and foremost the teachings of Jesus; it is the life and work of Jesus. The teachings of Jesus show us the meaning of His life and work. The most important thing for Christians to know is not “what would Jesus do?” It’s “what did Jesus do?”
What He did is this: He came to earth to die for our sins, to pay the price for our failure to be what we were created to be, servants of God. Further, He came to be the perfect substitute, to be the obedient servant that we failed to be. His righteousness therefore becomes our righteousness. It is imputed to us, counted to us. When we have faith in Jesus, God regards us as being as righteous as Jesus Himself.
This is only possible if Jesus was not just another regular person. He had to be special. Why would Jesus succeed in living the perfect life if He was just another man like the billions who had gone before or have come since? He succeeded because He wasn’t just another man; He was the Son of God, God Himself, who took on human nature in order to come to earth to redeem humankind from our sins. Only as God Himself would He have the power and strength to overcome the sinful nature of fallen man and do what nobody else could do: live the perfect human life, be the perfect servant of God, and be able to carry the whole burden of God’s wrath against sin, which He did on the cross.
Jesus’ birth shows us something very important. There is, as everyone knows, a big problem with the human race. All of the wars and evil that we experience, all of the misery and despair that we endure, all of the disease and disasters that befall us point to this problem. People have tried endlessly to come up with theories and implement schemes that will solve our problems. Many believe that if only we elect the right politician, pass the right laws, discover the right scientific breakthrough or find some other solution, we can finally solve our problems. Others believe there is no solution, that humanity is simply doomed to be what it is. But Jesus’ birth shows us that being human is not the problem. God created humans, and He created them good. The problem is sin; we rebelled against God and suffer for that rebellion. Jesus showed that a real, true human could, by the power of God, overcome that sin and be what God had intended for humans to be. Jesus is the Son of God, born of a virgin. His true Father is God, not Joseph, and by the power of God He overcame sin. As a result, that power is available to all of us through faith in Jesus.
That’s why Christmas matters. That’s why the story of the shepherds, the angels, the wise men, the star and all the rest of it is significant. Christ’s birth is the means by which God will “save His people from their sins.”
Sometimes we’re reminded during the holiday season to “keep Christ in Christmas.” But it is just as important to keep Christmas in Christianity. When we think of ourselves as Christians, we cannot forget how important it is that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary.” If He was not, if He was just another man, then we are not saved from our sins. Christianity without the virgin birth is just another set of platitudes and well-wishes at best, and at worst is a manipulative deception.
And as far as “keeping Christ in Christmas,” all we have to do is keep Christ in our hearts all year, and He cannot be anything but the center of Christmas for us as well. Christmas is not some cultural artifact, some abstract element of our heritage. It is and must always be a central part of our faith as Christians. We cannot expect people who do not share our faith all year round to share it during that one season of the year. Christ will only be in Christmas when Christ is the center of our lives the rest of the year as well.