The Real Meaning of Christmas (Phil Johnson)

Galatians 4:4-5   |   Sunday, December 7, 2014   |   Code: 2014-12-07-PJ

Every year around Christmas, I start to get questions from

people who want some biblical justification for celebrating

Jesus' birth with a holiday. I'm sure you have heard all the

arguments about Christmas being a pagan holiday that was

adapted by the Romans and Christianized, and all the reasons

Christians shouldn't celebrate a pagan holiday and whatnot.

It's well-known, I think, that most of the puritans opposed

the celebration of Christmas on the grounds that it was a

vestige of Roman Catholicism, there was no biblical mandate

for such a holiday. It's one of a few issues where I think the

Puritans were wrong (even though in most other ways the

Puritans are spiritual heroes of mine).

But there seems to be a growing suspicion of the

Christmas holiday even todayCespecially among

evangelicals who are fed up with the shallowness and

superficiality of worldly worship. If Christmas is just one of

the avenues through which superficial worship finds its way

into the church, they say, maybe we should steer clear of it.

I got an e-mail a few weeks ago from someone in

GraceLife who wanted me to deal with these issues. I can't

really want to devote the whole hour to talking about the

Galatians 4:4-5 2

history of Christmas, I do want to answer the larger question

with two points from Scripture.

First of all, Romans 14:5-6 clearly puts the observance of

holidays in the category of indifferent matters. It's not a sin if

you celebrate, and it's not a sin if you don't: "One person

esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems

all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own

mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the


That's the first point: whether you celebrate holidays or

not is up to you. The second point is related to that and

there's a hint of this at the end of the passage I just read: If

you celebrate, do it in a way that honors God. Regard the day

as unto the Lord. Or, in the words of 1 Corinthians 10:31:

"So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the

glory of God."

My personal advice: celebrate Christmas, but do it in a

way that honors God and keeps Christ at the center of it.

You've seen, I suppose, a lot of news and commentary this

year about the secular world's campaign to remove Christ

from Christmas and turn it into a humanistic holiday. It

honestly doesn't bother me if there's no Christmas tree in the

public square or no manger scene on the lawn at City Hall. I

don't resent it if the unbeliever checking me out at the

grocery store says, "Have a nice holiday" instead of "Merry

The Real Meaning of Christmas 3

Christmas." It's our duty as Christians to tell the world about

Christ, not vice versa.

And even Christians sometimes need to be reminded of

what Christmas is really about. In 2012, the Washington

Times asked John MacArthur to write an editorial on the real

meaning of Christmas. Here is an excerpt that summarizes

what he had to say:

The fact that people think of Christmas trees as religious

symbols proves Christians have not made their message


For believers, this surely ought to be a more urgent matter

of concern than the so-called "war on Christmas."

Secularists who can't stand the sight of a Christmas tree

pose no real threat to the church or its mission. It ought to

be troubling to us that in a culture dotted with churches

and filled with professing Christians, we haven't managed

to break through the confusion and commercialization of

the year's biggest holiday and show the world what we're

actually celebrating.

Christmas is about the birth of Jesus Christ. It's not just a

poignant story about a baby born in a stable because his

family was turned away from an inn. According to the

New Testament, the baby is God in human flesh,

voluntarily stepping down to live among humanity, as a

servant, in order to take the burden of others' guilt and pay

the price for it by sacrificing his life for them.

Galatians 4:4-5 4

I remember when our three boys were small enough that all

five of us fit in a Honda, the whole family to Oklahoma to

celebrate Christmas with my family. In those days we had an

old car without a working cassette player, so for audio

entertainment we were at the mercy of radio stations along

the way. And once you leave Los Angeles, your choices get

pretty thin.

And at one point around Barstow, we tuned in something

so bizarre I have never forgotten it. I was tuning the radio,

trying to pick up something worth listening to. And I tuned

into a Christian radio station. I just caught the tail end of a

familiar Bible-teaching program, so I knew this was a

Christian radio station. And the program was over, so they

broke for a commercial. This commercial sounded like

nothing I had ever heard.

A giddy woman's voice was singing butchered Christmas

songs. She was singing, "Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin

laid an egg"Cand a whole bunch of other totally silly stuff.

And she was singing it in a dizzy, dumb, voice.

A more sober man's voice came on and asked, "What are

you so happy about?"

She replied in a sing-songy voice, "It's the birthday of my

favorite person."

And the guy asked, "Who's that?"

I thought she was going to say the Riddler or something.

But she said, "It's Jesus' birthday!" and then she launched

The Real Meaning of Christmas 5

into a giddy little talk about how the real meaning of

Christmas is how it's the season to be jolly, and it's Jesus

who makes real jolliness possible, and we all ought to be

jolly, and that kind of thing. I kept waiting for an announcer

to break in and say something about the real meaning of

Christmas, but it never happened. This was the message of

that little skit produced by a Christian radio station:

Christmas is about feeling jolly, and only Jesus can make

you truly jolly.

This time of year we are bombarded with television

programs, movies, and songs designed to probe the question,

"What is the real meaning of Christmas?" Even the secular

TV networks get in on it. And I guess we can expect the

secular stuff to be a bit off target. After all, these are the most

commercialized minds in AmericaCthe same people who

bring you "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" and "The

Vampire Diaries"Ctrying to teach you a moral and spiritual

lesson about the true meaning of Christmas.

And if you listen to these people, they're all saying

something similar. The true meaning of Christmas is joy. Or

it's giving. Or it's family, and friends, and love, and cheer,

and hope, and peace on earth, and human goodness, and

man's humanity to man.

Again, some of those things may be related to the

message of Christmas, but none of them gets to the real heart

of what Christmas means.

Galatians 4:4-5 6

The Christmas message is not about sentiment. I'm not

trying to be a Grinch or anything, but Christmas is not about

feelings. It is about an objective reality.

When the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream

to announce the birth of Christ, the angel said (Matthew

1:21), "She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus,

for he will save his people from their sins."

That is the real message of Christmas, and it is built right

into the name of Jesus: "He will save his people from their

sins." If you want to write it down in a single word, the real

meaning of Christmas is about redemption.

And this morning I'd like to take a close look at the real

meaning of Christmas from Scripture. And we're going to do

that from a text in Galatians.

Did you realize the apostle Paul wrote about the real

meaning of Christmas? You'll find it in Galatians 4. Turn

with me there, and I'll read verse 4 and the first phrase in

verse 5: "when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his

Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who

were under the law" (Galatians 4:4-5).

That is the apostle Paul's summary of the real meaning of

Christmas. This morning we're going to break that passage

down into four key phrases and look carefully at what it is

saying. First, notice the phraseC

The Real Meaning of Christmas 7


You know the Christmas carol "Hark the Herald Angels

Sing" by heart. There's a verse in that song that attempts to

echo Paul's words here in Galatians 4:4. The words of the

carol say, "Late in time behold Him come, offspring of the

Virgin's womb." I used to wonder what the songwriter

meant. It sounds like we're saying Jesus came a little late or

somethingCand as a child I thought Christmas always came

too late, so that verse made perfect sense to me. But

unfortunately, I think the songwriter actually missed the

sense of what Paul means in Galatians 4:4. "The fullness of

time" doesn't mean that He came "late in time." It means He

came right on time, at the perfect time, a time appointed by


Let's get the context of this passage in our minds so that it

makes more sense. Look back at Galatians 3:24. There Paul

writes, "the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that

we might be justified by faith." The Greek word translated

"guardian" (translated "schoolmaster" in the King James

Version) is paidagogos. It's the word from which we get our

English word "pedagogue, meaning "teacher."" But the idea

in the Greek word isn't really that of a schoolmaster. The

Greek word refers to a very specific kind of servant. If you

break the word down into its constituent parts, it literally

means "boy-leader." The paidagogos was hired to escort a

young child to and from school. That was his one jobCto see

Galatians 4:4-5 8

to it that his master's children made it safely to and from the

place where they could be taught. This servant was a

guardian and a trustee over the child. So the word guardian

in the ESV is a good translation.

Now look at the beginning of Galatians 4. Continuing in

the same vein of thought, the apostle Paul writes in verses

1-2, "the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a

slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under

guardians and managers until the date set by his father."

In other words, there's a sense in which a child might be

heir of his father's entire kingdom, "the owner of everything"

(as Paul says in verse 1)Cyet while he is a child, he has no

more authority than a slave. In fact, he might be placed under

the authority of a slave for his own good, until he reaches an

age where the father determines that the child is ready to

enjoy the privileges of adulthood.

Now follow carefully what Paul is saying here. The Law

is paidagogos, the trustee responsible for the child's welfare.

The law simply brings us to the place where we can learn

what we're supposed to learn. God is the authority figure, the

Father, who appoints the time for the child to be released

from the trustee's oversight. The children represent all

humanity, and the nation of Israel in particularCunder the

care of the law until the appointed time, the time appointed

by the Father.

The Real Meaning of Christmas 9

Then Paul says (v. 4), "when the fullness of time had come,

God sent forth his Son."

So the idea is not that Christ came "late in time," as the

songwriter says, but that He came right on time, at the time

determined beforehand and appointed by the Father. Paul is

making a statement about the sovereignty of God. This was

the plan and decree of the Father.

Christ's coming to earth in human flesh was not an

afterthought. God was not responding to human history. This

was His plan from the beginning. He appointed the time. He

appointed the means. And now He brings it to pass. So what

we see in the events of the Christmas story is the outworking

of God's eternal plan.

And God's plan did not stop with the birth of Christ. The

ultimate purpose for His coming was not fulfilled in his

birth, but in His death. Remember, we've already seen that

the real meaning of Christmas is redemption. And it was

ultimately the death of Christ, not His birth, that purchased

our redemption.

Even that was planned by God and fulfilled in His perfect

timing. Did you know that it was God who orchestrated the

death of His own son? In Acts 2:23 Peter, preaching at

Pentecost, told the people of Jerusalem that Jesus was "delivered

up [to be crucified] according to the definite plan and

foreknowledge of God." Acts 4:27 says that God's hand and

God's purpose predestined the events of the crucifixion.

Galatians 4:4-5 10

Why? because those events were necessary for our


God is sovereign. He is in control of everything that

occurs. He determines the times, He sets the boundaries of

human action, and, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:11, God

"works all things according to the counsel of his [own] will."

So the coming of Christ was in perfect accord with the

eternal plan of God. Having fixed the time before the

foundation of the earth, He brought it to pass right on time.

John MacArthur writes about this verse,

What was "the fulness of the time"? [It was] God's sovereign

timing. He ordered world events so everything was ready for

Christ's coming . . . . Christ's advent could not have been

timed more propitiously.

Politically, the Roman Empire was at its height. Rome

had given the world good roads, a fair system of

government, and most important, the pax Romana, world

peace under the rule of Rome. For the first time in history,

people could travel with relative ease almost anywhere in

the empireCand the apostles could carry the gospel

message the uttermost parts of the world.

Culturally, the world was becoming more unified. More

people than ever were educated, and . . . even the common

people . . . spoke Koine Greek, the dialect that the New

Testament was written in.

The Real Meaning of Christmas 11

Spiritually, the world was diverse, but open . . . . Among

the Jews, a renewed interest in the Scriptures was leading

to revival on the one hand, typified by the ministry of

John the Baptist, and a strong pharisaic movement on the

other hand. Christ could not have arrived on the scene at a

more opportune time. It was the perfect time, sovereignly

determined by GodC"the fulness of time."

Now look at the next phrase I want to call your attention



We won't spend long on this phrase, but I want to point

out that it underscores the eternality of Christ; the deity of

Christ; and the humility of Christ. Paul expands on this

thought in Philippians 2:5-7, where he writes that Christ was

in the form of God (eternally). But He considered equality

with God not a thing to be held on to, so He "made himself

nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness

of men." That's the Christmas story again. Eternal God

clothes Himself in humanity, and is born into a humble

family. It is an inconceivable step of unmeasurable humility.

You wouldn't think He could step down any further.

But again, the Christmas story doesn't end in the

mangerCit goes all the way to the cross. Even in Philippians

this is true. The apostle Paul goes on to write, "being found in

human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the

Galatians 4:4-5 12

point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8). (Again the

theme is redemption in the eternal plan of a sovereign God.)

This phrase "God sent forth his Son, born of woman," also

reminds us that Christ was virgin-born. The phrase also

points back to Genesis 3, one of the Bible's first promises

concerning the redeemer who would comeCGenesis 3:15,

where God curses the serpent and prophesies that his head

would one day be crushed by the seed of the womanCnot the

offspring of a man and woman, but the seed of the woman.

Unlike any other person ever born into the world, He

began life without the taint of human sin, without the fallen

nature of Adam. He was God in human flesh, sent by the

Father to accomplish the work of redemption.

Now look at the next phrase, which is where I want to



What does this mean that Christ was born "under the law"?

Someone says, "It means he was Jewish." And that is true, of

course, but I don't think that is all the apostle has in mind


The phrase "under the law" occurs at least 12 times in

Paul's epistles, so we know it is crucial in his thinking and in

his theology. Most of you will be familiar with Romans

6:14-15, for example, where Paul writes, "you are not under

law but under grace." In Galatians 3, just before the verses we

The Real Meaning of Christmas 13

are looking at, He writes, "before faith came, we were held

captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would

be revealed" (Galatians 3:23). That's the context where he

compares the law to our guardian, and two verses later, he

says, "now that faith has come, we are no longer under a

guardian." So he's talking about being under the guardianship

of the lawClike children with no grown-up privileges.

That conceptCand this phrase "under the law" has a

specific meaning to the apostle Paul, and I want you to see

what it is. So let's look once again at the context of Galatians


Remember what occasioned the writing of Paul's epistle

to the Galatians. Some false teachersClegalistsCthe

Judaizers, were trying to impose the ceremonies and rituals

of the Mosaic law on all Christians. They were in essence

saying that in order to become a true Christian, a person must

also submit to all the Law of Moses. In essence they taught

that only Jews could be saved, so if you were a Gentile, in

order to become a Christian, they said, you needed to

become a proselyte to Judaism.

Circumcision and the dietary laws became the test issues.

Even the apostle Peter compromised on this issue for a brief

time. It was not because he was confused about the doctrine,

but apparently because he was intimidated by the Judaizers,

still squeamish about Old Testament standards of ceremonial

uncleanness, or whatever. And he cut himself off from the

Galatians 4:4-5 14

Gentile Christians in order to eat at a segregated table with

the Judaizers. This was a tragic episode in the later ministry

of Peter, and it led to a public rebuke from the apostle Paul.

Starting in Galatians 2:11, Paul describes how he confronted


But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his

face, because he stood condemned.

12 For before certain men came from James, he was

eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew

back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision


13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with

him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their


14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with

the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If

you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew,

how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?"

The issue at stake was justification. Look at the next two

verses. The ESV punctuates this as if verse 14 is the end of

the rebuke he aimed at Peter. But I don't think so. Most of

the Galatians were Gentiles. I think Paul is still quoting what

he said to Peter. Verse 15:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;

16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of

the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have

The Real Meaning of Christmas 15

believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in

Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of

the law no one will be justified.

Paul is reminding Peter that the centerpiece of New

Testament theology is the doctrine of justification by faith.

This is the doctrine that makes Christianity distinct. Every

other religion known to man teaches some system of human

merit. Christianity alone teaches that the merit necessary for

our salvation is supplied by God on our behalf.

Now before anyone accuses me of straying too far from

the real meaning of Christmas, let me say that this issue is so

much at the heart of the Christmas message of redemption

that if you have never understood justification by faith, I'd

say you have never really understood what Christmas is all


Justification is defined theologically as the act of God

whereby He declares the believing sinner righteous. When

God justifies a sinner, he looks at the person and says, I

accept that person as completely righteous. It is a divine "not

guilty" verdictCand more. It elevates the sinner from the

condemnation he deserves to a position of divine privilege in


Now this poses a huge theological problem. Proverbs

17:15 says, "He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns

the righteous are both alike an abomination to the LORD." In

other words, God Himself strictly forbids us to declare a

Galatians 4:4-5 16

guilty person righteous. God Himself says in Exodus 23:7, "I

will not acquit the wicked." The King James Version translates

it this way: "I will not justify the wicked."

Two obstacles exist with regard to justifying sinners. One

is our sin. We accumulate guilt every time we sin, and true

justice demands that every sin be punished. To let an

evildoer go unpunished is by definition unjust. God is

obligated by His own perfect justice to exact a full penalty

for every sin. We understand this intuitively. It's unjust to

ignore the crimes of an evildoer. That principle is innate even

in the human conscience. Our sense of justice is twisted and

corrupted by sin, but no one believes it's OK to let evil go

unpunished. We all sinCand we sin more often and in worse

ways than we want to admit. We deserve punishment, and

even our own consciences tell us that.

The second obstacle to our redemption is our own utter

lack of merit. Not only do we accumulate guilt (or demerit)

every time we sin, but we also lack the necessary merit. In

other words, even if the slate could be completely wiped

clean, all we would have would be a blank slate. And in

order to be acceptable to God, we are required to have the

full merit that comes with perfect obedience His law.

Forgiveness for our sin isn't enough, we still need the merit

of a perfect righteousness.

Those would seem to be impossible obstacles, wouldn't

they? No one who really contemplates the human dilemma

The Real Meaning of Christmas 17

seriously from a biblical perspective can remain arrogant or


On top of all that, Scripture says, "all our righteous deeds

are like a polluted garment" (Isaiah 64:6). And (1 Corinthians

3:19) "the wisdom of this world is folly with God." The very

best things we do or think are tainted and defiled with selfish

motives, sinful pride, self-love, self-serving agendas, and

wicked self-righteousness. Nothing we do is truly righteous,

because it all comes from a heart tainted with sin. At our

very best, we fall short of loving God with a whole heart,

soul, mind, and strength. And since that's the first and most

basic of all the commandments, none of us can possibly

measure up to God's standard. The Pharisees devoted more

energy than anyone to the pursuit of spiritual merit, and

Jesus said, "I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that

of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of

heaven." (Matthew 5:20).

What is God's standard? Matthew 5:48: "You . . . must be

perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

But there were people in Paul's day who thought if they

could just be as good as they could possibly be, they might

earn enough merit to please God. And there are still people

todayCfor all I know, there may be some in this very

roomCwho think if they're as good as they can possibly be,

God will be merciful, and settle for their righteousness, even

though it's like a defiled garment. In short, they are trying to

Galatians 4:4-5 18

justify themselves before God through their own works, and

in the process, they only insult God and compound their own

guilt. They are trying to earn their own righteousness. That is

the very definition of "self-righteous."

I just quoted twice from Matthew 5. That's part of Jesus'

Sermon on the Mount, and that whole sermon was a full-on

attack against self-righteous religion. He singled out the

Pharisees, not because they represented some kind of

far-fetched paganism. They believed the Bible. They kept the

law more fastidiously than anyone else. By human standards

they were as "good" as it is possible to be. But Jesus said

their goodness is simply not good enough to please God.

That ought to tell us something, right?

Jesus was teaching as plainly as possible that God will be

pleased with nothing but an absolutely perfect righteousness.

He taught that it is not good enough to avoid killing; we

must also avoid the sin of hatred. He said if you lust in your

heart, it's the same as committing adultery. He set the

standard as high as it is possible to set it, and then said if you

don't have a righteousness that perfect, you cannot enter the

kingdom of heaven. Don't you see how that condemns us all?

The apostle James destroyed any vestige of hope we

might have for being justified by law when he wrote,

"whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become

accountable for all of it" (James 2:10).

The Real Meaning of Christmas 19

What are we supposed to conclude? That you cannot be

justified by the works of the law. It is utterly impossible. The

apostle Paul underscores this same truth again and again:

! Acts 13:39: "Y[ou] could not be justified by the law of


! Romans 3:19-20: "We know that whatever the law says it

speaks to those who are under the law, so that every

mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held

accountable to God. For by works of the law no human

being will be justified in his sight, since through the law

comes knowledge of sin."

! Romans 4:15: "The law brings wrath."

! Galatians 3:10: "All who rely on works of the law are

under a curse."

! Galatians 3:11: "Now it is evident that no one is justified

before God by the law."

Paul could not state it any more clearly than that. To make

the fatal mistake of thinking you can be justified by being

good enough to make yourself acceptable to God is to put

yourself under the condemnation of the law.

This was the whole problem in Galatia. People were

teaching that it was necessary to obey the law in order to be

justified. In Galatians 1:6, 1 Paul calls this "a different

gospel," and he pronounces a solemn curse on anyone who

would twist the gospel like that.

Galatians 4:4-5 20

Now follow this: When Paul spoke of those who were

"under law," he was speaking of people who thought they

could be justified by obedience to the law. Let me show you

this. Look at a couple of parallel passages, right here in

Galatians. One is Galatians 4:21: "Tell me, you who desire to

be under the law, do you not listen to the law?" Because if they

listened to the law itself, they would hear that it establishes

impossible conditions for justification. It actually condemns

those who fail to obey it. So for sinners, the law could be a

means of condemnation, but never a means of justification.

For a sinner to embrace the law as a means of justification is

sheer folly. Yet there were those who "desire[d] to be under

the law" (4:21).

Now look at the parallel verse in Galatians 5:4. And I'm

going to read it from the New American Standard Bible,

because it gives the sense more clearly. Paul writes: "You

have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be

justified by law; you have fallen from grace."

Do you see the parallel? Those "who are seeking to be

justified by law" in Gal. 5:4 are the same as those who "desire

to be under the law" in 4:21.

Therefore, to be "under the law" in Paul's terminology is to

be under the law as a means of justification. This is very

important. When Paul says we are not under the law but

under grace in Romans 6, he is not condemning the moral

teachings of the law. He is not releasing us from standard of

The Real Meaning of Christmas 21

righteous behavior established by the law. He is not setting

up some sort of libertinism where anything goes. In fact, in

Romans 7:12, he calls the law "holy and righteous and good."

So when Paul says we are not under law, but under grace,

he is not giving the thumbs up to antinomianism. He's not

consigning the Ten Commandments to the dustbin of

outmoded Old Covenant precepts. He is certainly not saying

disobedience to the moral teachings of the law is now OK.

When he says we are "not under law," He is teaching that we

are justified by grace through faith, not by the works of the


So are we clear on this? The phrase "not under law" means

that we are not trying to justify ourselves by obedience to the

law. We are no longer under the condemnation of the law.

And we are released from the duty of trying to attain a

righteous perfection of our own through our own works.

Now think about this: When the apostle says in Galatians

4:4 that Jesus Christ was born "under the law," this is much

more than a statement that Jesus was Jewish. It means that

He was under the law in every sense, obligated to fulfill the

law perfectly.

Look at our passage again (Galatians 4:4): "When the

fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of

woman, born under the law." Jesus was obligated to obey the

law as a means of righteousness.

Galatians 4:4-5 22

That takes us to the final phrase I'd like us to consider this

morning, the first phrase in verse 5:


Now Paul is clearly making a logical connection between

the last phrase in verse 4 and the first phrase in verse 5:

Christ was "born under the law," in order "To redeem those

who were under the law." There is a close connection between

his being under the law and our being redeemed from the

curse of the law.

Here's why: Christ lived impeccably "under the law." We

studied this truth a couple of months ago when we talked

about the baptism of Jesus, and His determination to "fulfill

all righteousness." Hebrews 4:15 tells us He "in every respect

[He was] tempted as we are, yet without sin." He fulfilled the

law perfectly, to the letter. First Peter 2:22 says, "He

committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth."

Hebrews 7:26 says He is "holy, innocent, unstained, separated

from sinners, and exalted above the heavens."

This is crucial to our redemption, because 2 Corinthians

5:21 says, "For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no

sin, so that in [Christ] we might become the righteousness of


If Christ was perfectly sinless, then He did not deserve to

die. As one born "under the law," He would have been subject

to the curse of the law if He had violated even one command,

The Real Meaning of Christmas 23

but of course He did notCHe could not, because He is God.

He fulfilled every aspect of the law to the letterCto the jot

and tittle.

Yet He did die. More than that, He suffered the wrath of

God on the cross. Why? Scripture tells us it was because the

Father imputed the guilt of our sin to Him, and Christ paid

the price for it. Consequently, the merit of His perfect

obedience can be imputed to our account.

So His death paid the price of our guilt, and His perfect

life supplies us with all the merit we need to be acceptable to

God. That is how God overcame the two great obstacles to

our justification. And as Paul says in Romans 3:26, that is

how God can remain "just and [yet justify sinners through

their] faith in Jesus." He has personally paid the penalty for

their sin, and He has personally obtained a perfect

righteousness on their behalf in Christ. So He alone can

justify sinners.

You say, Does the Bible teach that? Repeatedly.

We could start in Genesis 15:6, where Scripture tells us

Abraham "believed in the LORD; and it was imputed to him for

righteousness." Anytime any sinner is redeemed in Scripture,

it is by an imputed righteousness, not a righteousness that is

somehow earned or achieved by the sinner for his own


Galatians 4:4-5 24

Romans 4:6-7 tells us that David also knew the

blessedness "of the one to whom God [imputes] righteousness

apart from works."

This is the whole point Paul is making in Romans 4:

Justification has always been by faith, not by works, and

through a righteousness that is imputed to the believer.

Abraham understood the doctrine of justification that way.

David understood it. So, as Paul points out, from the

beginning of Scripture to the end we see that the only merit

God accepts is a merit that is imputed to our account. He

never pronounces us righteous because of our own works of


On the contrary, remember that God says all our

righteousnesses are imperfect, flawed. To God they aren't

good at all, but defiled, like soiled undergarments. In fact

that verse uses an expression so loathsome that it would be

impolite to describe it in a graphic way in mixed company.

But that is how God sees our worksCno matter how good

they are by human standards. They are unacceptable, filthy,

an offense to a righteous God.

That is why our obedience can never be good enough.

And that is why those who hang their hope of heaven on

their own good works only doom themselves.

Paul says this explicitly. Look at Romans 10. Turn with

me there for a moment. Here Paul is explaining why the

The Real Meaning of Christmas 25

majority of the nation of Israel rejected Christ. His heart was

broken for Israel. He wrote,

1 Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them

is that they may be saved.

2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God,

but not according to knowledge.

3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and

seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to

God's righteousness.

Rejecting the perfect righteousness of Christ that would have

been imputed to them if they had believed, they opted instead

for an imperfect righteousness of their own. They mistakenly

assumed, like most people today, that the best they could do

would be good enough for God. There's two obvious

problems with that: 1) our very best can never be good

enough for a perfect God; and 2) none of us can honestly say

we have ever really done our very best. So by any standard

they doomed themselves to failure. Their sin remained

uncovered, and they were condemned by the law.

Here's the good news of the gospel: for everyone who

believes, Christ's fulfillment of the law counts on our behalf,

and His blood counts as payment for our failures. Verse 4 of

Romans 10 says: "For Christ is the end of the law for

righteousness to everyone who believes." That little word

"end" is translated from the Greek word telos. It is a very

Galatians 4:4-5 26

strong word, meaning that Christ is the fulfillment of

everything the law intended.

In Christ, the ultimate goal of the lawCa perfect

righteousnessCis made available to every believer. His

righteousness is imputed to us by faith, and that is why God

accepts us in Christ and for Christ's sake. That is the doctrine

of justification by faith. That is what makes Christianity

different from every religion ever invented by the human


In Romans 4:4-5 Paul says this doctrine of justification by

faith makes the difference between heaven and hell. He

writes, "Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted

as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but

believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as

righteousness." In other words, if you want to try to earn

your own righteousness, you will failCand you will be paid

the wages of your sin. But if you believe in the God who

justifies the ungodly, full forgiveness for your sin has

already been purchased by Christ, and His perfect

righteousness will be imputed to your account.

The apostle Paul himself learned this truth the hard way.

He had labored his whole life as a Pharisee trying to establish

his own righteousness by the law. (I suspect he came closer

to succeeding than any of us would have.) He described his

efforts in Philippians 3:

The Real Meaning of Christmas 27

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the

flesh, I have more:

5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of

the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law,

a Pharisee;

6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to

righteousness under the law, blameless.

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of


8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the

surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For

his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count

them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ . . .

Why? What was so important to Paul about dumping all his

own righteousness on the rubbish heap? Because he knew it

was flawed. In fact, he uses a Greek word, skubalon, that's

much stronger than "rubbish." In the King James Version it's

translated "dung," and that's what it meansCmanure,

excrement, sewage.

And Paul knew that in Christ he would be the recipient of

a perfect righteousness. In verse 9 of Philippians 3, he says:

"[I want to] be found in him, not having a righteousness of my

own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith

in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith."

Galatians 4:4-5 28

That's the real meaning of Christmas according to the

apostle Paul: Christ came to justify sinners who had no way

of justifying themselves.

It is not about emotion, but it certainly stirs my deepest

emotions. It's not just a message of joy, but I don't know any

truth that brings me more joy. And this Christmas, as we

ponder the Christmas message, let's allow our thoughts to go

beyond the Son of Mary in a manger to the Son of God on

the cross, and let our hearts be filled with genuine wonder at

the richness of the real message: "Unto you is born this day

. . . a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11).