Why did Jesus come?

Thousands of sermons and talks up and down the land will have attempted to answer this question in the last week. Why did Jesus come, and what are we celebrating at Christmas? Justin Welby’s sermon in Canterbury on Christmas Day focussed on the theme of freedom or liberation:

In the manger is something completely different from all human strivings for freedom. The baby in the manger is a paradox from the first breath he draws in his mother’s arms to the last cry he utters on the cross. He is power seen in humility, and He offers freedom expressed in loving service.

It is this Christly paradox of freedom springing from the overflowing of love that leads to salvation, to the common good and human flourishing. There is no power in the universe stronger than God’s love and it is directed towards the liberation of human beings.

Just before Christmas, a tweet from Tim Keller (of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York) had a different (but possibly related) focus:

There was, not surprisingly, something of a reaction, pushing back against this claim—as you can see from the number of responses. The early parts of the Twitter discussion make quite interesting reading, not least because Tim Keller himself actively engages in the debate—something not many high-profile Christian leaders do on social media. The comment that attracted my attention came from Daniel Kirk, who had been teaching at Fuller Theological Seminary but left when he could no longer sign their basis of faith.

Leaving aside the assumed separation between the theologies of Jesus and Paul (which is worth another whole debate), I thought this was a very odd way of reading the gospels. I started at the beginning of Matthew to see whether sins and their forgiveness featured in his account of Jesus’ birth and ministry—and didn’t need to read very far. When the angel announces to Joseph that Mary will give birth to a son, he tells him to name him Jesus (Joshua) ‘because he will save his people from their sins’ (Matt 1.21). In John’s ministry preparing the way for Jesus, the people’s response is to ‘confess their sins’ prior to baptism (Matt 3.6). Jesus then arrives on the scene, announcing the presence of the longed-for kingdom of God in his own person and ministry. What is the first response to this to be? To ‘repent’ (Matt 4.17), meaning not so much (as popularly preached) simply to have a change of mind, but (in the sense of the Hebrew term in the OT shuv) to turn from sin to forgiveness. For Jesus, this appears to be an integral part of the process of believing and receiving (or entering) the kingdom. In his teaching about prayer in Matt 6, Jesus includes reference to the forgiveness of sins, which we pray every time we recite the Lord’s Prayer. It is interesting that, of all the petitions, this is the one that Jesus makes a subsequent comment on Matt 6.14).

When the paralytic is lowered through the roof, Jesus’ pronouncement is surprising for all sorts of reasons: ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’ (Matt 9.2). Jesus then characterises the purpose of his whole ministry as calling, not the righteous, but sinners (Matt 9.13) and Luke makes clear in his parallel account that the calling of sinners is not simply to being accepted, but to ‘repentance’ (Luke 5.32). Near the end of his account, Matthew is also clear about why Jesus will die and what we are remembering in the Lord’s supper: ‘This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26.28). We could do a similar exercise in relation to the other gospels, through this noting that Luke, too, sees the coming of Jesus related to the forgiveness of sins. Although we think of Mary’s Magnificat as focused on upending social structures and power relations, Zechariah’s Benedictus is clear that preparing to receive Jesus involves ‘the forgiveness of their sins’ (Luke 1.77).

Looking back over this cursory list, it seems odd to have to spell this out. But what is even odder is Kirk’s comment that the importance of forgiveness of sins is not a focus of the gospels. It seems to me that ‘progressive’ theology often pulls away from what the text of the NT actually says, driven by particular ideological concerns. That’s not to say that other theological traditions aren’t also shaped by ideology, including many strands of US evangelical theology. But the answer to ideological bias isn’t to offer an alternative bias; it is to read the NT more carefully and allow it to scrutinise all our biases.


Another ‘progressive’ who picked up on Keller’s statement was Morgan Guyton, a member of the United Methodist church in the US. Curiously, Guyton draws on Keller’s own writing to offer a critique of Keller’s tweet:

In any case, the argument Keller makes in Generous Justice is what I would use to critique the false dichotomy he creates in this tweet. In a nutshell, Generous Justice explains why a straightforward evangelical gospel of God’s mercy ought to make Christians into the most ardent advocates for the poor and marginalized. So why did Keller write this tweet in a way that perpetuates the false presentation of the social gospel and the evangelical gospel as zero-sum alternatives to one another?

Why didn’t he say that Jesus solves the economic, political, and social problems of the world by forgiving our sins (which is the thesis of Generous Justice)? That would have been a lot more thought-provoking. I could cosign that statement as long as we understand that sin is not a privatized system of demerit for rule-breaking but rather a global spiderweb of imprisoning toxicity in which we are all trapped.

What is interesting here is that a ‘progressive’ is actually aligning himself with the theological outlook of a Reformed conservative in Keller; his concern is the implications of the tweet as it is expressed. Keller appears to be well aware of this:

As Tom Wright has commented, the problem with being a theologian is that people expect you to say everything all of the time—if you ever make a particular statement, you get criticised for all the other things that you did not say! This is amplified on social media, and particularly a medium like Twitter which is limited in its character count.


At one level, this discussion is simply a re-run of the question found in the tension between reading Paul in Romans and James in his letter. Paul teaches that Christians are not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 2.16; Rom 3.28). He refers to Abraham as an example of one who was justified by faith, not works, citing Gen 15.6 (Rom 4.3; Gal 3.6). James seems to claim just the opposite: A person is justified by works, and not by faith alone (2.24), and he too uses Abraham as an example, also citing Gen 15.6. Although their points are different, the parallels in argumentation appear as follows (cited from Dunn, Romans I:197):

Romans James
Issue posed in terms of faith and works 3.27-28 2.18
Significance of claiming ‘God is One’ 3.29-30 2.19
Appeal to Abraham as test case 4.1-2 2.20-22
Citation of proof text—Gen 15.6 4.3 2.20-22
Interpretation of Gen 15.6 4.4-21 2.23
Conclusion 4.22 2.24

The tension here can be resolved by noticing that Paul and James actually use their language in different ways. So for Paul, ‘faith’ is trust in Christ that manifests itself in love (Gal 5.6), whereas for James ‘faith’ is mere intellectual assent that only professes belief without demonstrating it (2.14, 19). For Paul, ‘works’ means a continuing insistence on OT ceremonial, but for James (as elsewhere in the NT) ‘works’ refers to the fruit of a regenerate life—acts of kindness and obedience to God (2.15-16). What both are concerned about is that trust in God for salvation—if it is real—will make a measurable difference in the conduct of life, which is why Paul often follows his exposition of what God has done for us in Christ with quite lengthy ethical instructions. Keller seems very well aware of this connection:


It is worth noting (in passing) that the language of Jesus ‘coming’ is often thought of as Johannine: in John’s gospel Jesus appears to have a very developed sense of his pre-existence, particularly when talking about ‘coming into this world’ (John 5.43, 8.14, 12.46, 14.28, 16.28, 18.37 and elsewhere). But Simon Gathercole points out (in The Pre-existent Son) that this language of ‘coming’ is also present in the Synoptics gospels, and has similar overtones to the language in John. He highlights ten important Synoptic ‘I have come’ + purpose sayings:

  • “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” (Mark 1.24)
  • “What do you want with us, Son of God?” they shouted. “Have you come here to torture us before the appointed time?” (Matt 8.29)
  • “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (Mark 1.38)
  • “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5.31–32)
  • “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5.17)
  • “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” (Luke 12.49)
  • “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt 10.34)
  • “For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter–in–law against her mother–in–law—” (Matt 10.35)
  • “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.45)
  • “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19.10)

It shouldn’t really surprise us to find hints at pre-existence here—since all these as texts post-date Paul’s language in Phil 2 which most commentators see as clear exposition of belief in Jesus’ pre-existence. There might even be a sermon series in this list of sayings.

But the question remains: if at Christmas we primarily celebrating Jesus coming for the forgiveness of sins, how can we speak of it in Christmas services? Certainly not in the crass way I once heard it from an earnest curate—telling the once-a-year congregation that they were all sinners, and that the first thing they needed to do at Christmas was to repent. Tom Wright argues, most recently in his The Day the Revolution Began, that we have a poor, pietistic and individualised understanding of sin, and we need to see sin as more fully that complex of failure which marks every aspect of life and catches us up in its web. We need to recapture the wide range of vocabulary used in Scripture of sin as missing the mark, failing, transgression, rebellion, guilt, bondage, slavery and alienation. If Jesus came to bring all these things to an end, then we have good news indeed.

The question remains: how can we do this in an engaging and inviting way? Answers on a postcard please…


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17 thoughts on “Why did Jesus come?

  1. Simon Gathercole’s work is a great blessing for several reasons:

    1. He is prepared to take on new shibboleths or orthodoxies that have conquered the small academic world of NT studies – his doctoral dissertation disagreed with his Doktorvater Dunn on Romans 3, and his book on pre-existence in the Synoptics counters the whole thrust of most liberal Synoptic studies (endorsed by John A T Robinson and Dunn) that Incarnation is found only in John’s gospel.

    2. Like Pete Williams at Tyndale House, he has developed ideas from Bauckham on names in the gospels (in this case, place names and historicity) – fine lectures out there on youtube (Lanier Library etc)

    3. His latest book shows that penal substitution is indeed part of the meaning of the Cross – not all but an indispensable part when critics have been given to speaking in sweeping condemnatory generalities, like Daniel Kirk above.

    4. He makes his work readable and accessible for busy people, remembering Callimachus’s warning about ‘big books’.

    As for this tired, tired repetitive debate about ‘the poor’, when is some Christian social commentator going to point out that poverty has many causes (some through injustice and inequality, some through personal weaknesses and failings, such as family breakdown, drug taking, school failure, indolence and waste) – and that the way out of poverty lies both in an equitable social order (providing opportunity, education and trustworthy banking) and the inculcation of personal virtues that master our destructive appetites (greed and prodigality included), make us fit for work and for accumulating wealth? Finishing school, staying married and accepting an entry level job (and then progressing in it) are still the three basic principles of leaving poverty. In other words, it’s about character. Ask yourself why we rarely see poor Jews and Chinese in our communities.

      • Phil – I’m pretty much in agreement with your article. The Sexual Revolution has been disastrous for poor people because it has left the mother quite literally holding the baby.

        Maybe half of all births are now out of wedlock, and even if many of these couples will eventually marry, a very large number won’t – and as I never tired of pointing out to students (something they didn’t want to hear), great numbers of those cohabiting end up separating, effectively severing links between children and their fathers.

        The numbers affecting Afro-Caribbean children are much higher – maybe 70% born out of wedlock. But to point this out is ‘hateful’ and ‘racist’ – such is the poisoned atmosphere we live in today, when the issues of race and religion have been demagogued.

        It was US academic and senator Daniel Moynihan who first explored the relation between family dynamics (rates of marriage and illegitimacy) and poverty among American blacks and his thinking was developed on a wide scale by the Catholic writer Michael Novak. In the early 60s, black births out of wedlock were only a small fraction of what they are now, and neither was there a culture of ‘gangsta’, hip-hop and crack cocaine. Put simply, the issue is not whether a particular community is poor but whether it *stays poor after one generation. American Jews, Chinese, South Asians, Vietnamese, Koreans etc were once much poorer as immigrants but they rose economically into the middle classes. Family solidarity, prizing education and a work ethic were critical in the transformation. ‘The poor’ is a Protean identity which can be sloughed off if the virtues of the bourgeoisie are learned and not despised. But it’s even better to learn the virtues of Jesus Christ.

        • This can be seen in school-entry: massive proportions of the more motivated are South Asian, East Asian. They are rich in what matters: family culture and good life principles. These riches enable them to attain economic stability too, but that is a byproduct not the main thing. Whereas currently sicker cultures like the English and hiphop/gangta cultures have no foundation for good character or outcomes, and are inimical to families. Result: poverty in all areas of life.

          Those who say all these are equal or equally good are not only lying but also know it; and they are actively damaging the future lives of many.

        • Hi Brian,

          There’s nothing ‘hateful’ and ‘racist’ about pointing out that the proportion of Afro-Caribbean children born out of wedlock is much higher than for other races.

          What would be ‘hateful’ and ‘racist’ would be to attribute simplistically that higher proportion to a greater moral defectiveness among Afro-Caribbean people. It would also be hateful and racist to dismiss/avoid any analysis of the acknowledged socio-economic correlates and causes affecting Afro-Caribbean ‘out-of-wedlock’ births.

          • I know – hence the ironic scare quotes. I haven’t checked the stats but I suspect the social characteristics of British Afro-Caribbeans are not markedly different from indigenous white working class / underclass with respect to: births out of wedlock; single-parent led households; unemployment and underemployment; school failure; and drug use; while I suspect that these characteristics are different from growing community of African Britons. That community appears to me to be more middle class and professional, with stronger family integrity.

            I wonder how much of this is the long shadow of slavery, then generations of subsistence living and poverty. A key question is how far a popularly adopted Christian faith affects sexual behaviour and views of marriage. I have read that illegitimacy levels among US blacks were not much different from the population at large until the 1960s and then they began to diverge notably.

            Among other religious and ethnic communities a different sexual ethic seems to prevail. You rarely hear of illegitimacy among Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, where a strict (and sometimes deadly) ‘honour’ code prevails regarding the sexual behaviour of females (of course, a double standard for men is implicitly accepted).

          • There’s no way that individuals of a culture can just so happen to be more or less morally defective – since, insofar as they were, that would just be attributable to their being members of that particular culture, which is not something that they can help. And that would amount to racism.

            Nor is there any way that different cultures can possibly be precisely equally morally upright or defective – the odds against that are astronomical. At any one time and place, some cultures will be doing a better job than others. Not only that, their ingredients will not be of precisely equal value.

            We cannot logically discriminate in favour of or against races. We can and should discriminate between cultures. An FGM culture is (to that extent) inferior to a non-FGM culture – and so on.

  2. “Certainly not in the crass way I once heard it from an earnest curate—telling the once-a-year congregation that they were all sinners, and that the first thing they needed to do at Christmas was to repent.”

    I didn’t realise you were listening to my Christmas sermon…

    Good post Ian, for my part I think it’s worth emphasising “life to the full” (John 10:10) – Jesus didn’t come simply to forgive our sins but to enable us, by the power of the Spirit, to transform our lives. Forgiveness is just the start.

    I also think the gospel is the biggest agent of social change there is – that is, it is as people hear and respond to the good news that society is transformed. We can’t seek to do social transformation apart from the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

  3. “But the question remains: if at Christmas we primarily celebrating Jesus coming for the forgiveness of sins, how can we speak of it in Christmas services? ”

    I’m genuinely puzzled when (crass presentations on one side) this isn’t proclaimed at Christmas services. The press will only print its own take on things (and I admit I don’t read all the ‘senior clerics’ sermons) but does sin feature in any obvious way however worded? It’s almost as if there is an avoidance of it. For me the result is an emaciated social improvement gospel. Just another call to love but without highlighting the chains that hinder it’s working.

    As many of us will put this message inside the wrapper of a communion service this is a particularly theological irony. Cradle without cross…really?

    Of course ‘personal salvation’ isn’t the whole story but I do believe it to be the foundation of all else. At Family Communion I preached on the three gifts of God’s love that bring new life: Incarnation, Forgiveness and Resurrection.

  4. I like what you did, showing how Paul and James were tackling the same issue, using the same words and proof texts (yet seemed to be contradicting each other). Progressives have a very James platform. They are deeply concerned with the seeming fake faith of evangelicals.

    Sadly, I think Keller’s statement is profoundly lacking, that an attitude of gratitude should drive charitable good deeds. Such a statement hardly approaches what forgiveness of sin actually means.

    Forgiveness of sin, like the word “grace,” is code for a mind-blowing, full-body metamorphosis that transforms the mortal into immortality. Something so stupendous it requires the supreme paranormal power source of God Himself. And not just as a one shot deal, but as an ongoing, concrete, very real and irreversible process that includes the very life of God Himself inhabiting, and changing, that person.

    That is not mere gratitude.

    Such a supernatural occurrence can’t help but have visible effect. Polotically, economically, socially.

  5. “But the question remains: if at Christmas we are primarily celebrating Jesus coming for the forgiveness of sins, how can we speak of it in Christmas services? ”

    Please forgive a non theologian’s comment here but, if you are regarding your Christmas congregation as a once-a-year audience for the Gospel (a perfectly reasonable thing to do), surely you have to put on your salesman’s hat?

    And no salesman is going to end his pitch at the point where his prospective customer has been made aware of his problem: sin. Forgiveness of sin is good, essential even, but we can no longer assume that people understand the true significance of forgiveness of sins (as they might have done years ago from Sunday school attendance).

    If God were to forgive our sin and then walk away we would still be mortal creatures, left to our own devices and our own fate. Surely the great selling point is right there in John 1.12-13: new life as a child of God – and that’s the unique selling point which is only available because of who this child in a manger was and what he was born to do (forgive our sins).

    So forgiveness of sin is not the selling point, it’s the gateway which, if you walk through it (‘to all who received him…’), makes new life possible – and it is new life that we all need. And there’s the opening: to explain the amazing benefit(s) of that new life.

    As ever, the rest is up to the Holy Spirit.

  6. Let me put this as simply as I can. Jesus came to live, die, be raised, and ascended to heaven in order to reclaim us from the bondage into which we have fallen (sin and the power of evil) AND restore us to our primal dignity and vocation (to live as royal priests caring for one another and nurturing the creation). Let us not put asunder what God has put together. Anything less or other is not biblical!

  7. I have found Justin Thacker’s discussion of the meaning of sin in his recent book on global poverty very helpful in this context. He refers to Cornelius Plantinga’s definition of sin as ‘culpable shalom-breaking’ to describe sin as anything that fails to promote God’s shalom for his creation. This catches individual corporate relational and international activity. It also enables repentance and forgiveness to be put in a positive light – repentance results in good things happening for everyone as it is the first step in the right direction.

    A similar approach is found in The Crowded House’s equivalent of the Alpha course which is called ‘The world we all want’ and which works from what people think is wrong with the world, compares it with the new creation God promises and bridges the gap with salvation in Jesus.

    I am reminded of Derek Kidner’s comment on Hosea that whilst Amos says to God’s people ‘Turn back because destruction lies ahead’ Hosea says ‘Turn back because God is waiting behind you’. Both are true and both appropriate in different contexts.

  8. Isn’t the real point in the context of the Jewish faith in Palestine that at the time of the birth of Jesus the answer to sin was to offer sacrifices in ritual purity and ‘try harder’ not to sin. The poor really hadn’t the money or the time to do this so were stuck in their sin. Jesus comes to save his people from their sin by offering God’s unconditional love and forgiveness to all who would receive it in repentance and offers the Spirit so that people have the resources to live the New Life of the Kingdom of God. That is good news.

  9. Thanks Ian, for a really balanced and interesting article.

    Your final question is what I think the church should be concentrating all it’s effort on, but sadly, as you say, Tom Wright points out the church is very good at focusing on personal sin and distributing “get out of hell free” cards, rather than the much bigger picture I think Jesus explains in gospel.

    For a very interesting take on what Jesus came to do, have a look at “The Idolatry of God” by Peter Rollins. You probably won’t agree with it, but it’s a very interesting and thought provoking book, and not very long.

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