Biblically speaking, what was the purpose of the incarnation? This question is of utmost importance and is not to be trivialized. To misunderstand the purpose of the incarnation is to misunderstand the righteousness of God and the necessity of penal substitution through a pure and sinless sacrifice for the purpose of legal pardon of sinners. When it comes to giving pardons there are only two possibilities: the pardon will either be legal or illegal. In other words the pardon will either uphold the law (legal) or nullify the law (illegal). Of the two kinds of pardons which one do you believe is the kind God gives?
God never gives illegal pardons. God only gives legal pardons. In simple terms, God is righteous and just and will never do anything wrong or unjust. Therefore God cannot and will not illegally pardon. So the question must be asked: “How can God pardon sinners and remain righteous and just in the process?” The right answer to this question will show that the incarnation is a crucial doctrine and that our pardon came at a great cost to God.
The Gospel of John answers how God can pardon sinners and remain righteous and just in the process. The Old Testament sacrificial system with its tabernacle illustrated that God would provide the only law upholding means of pardon. The innocent would have to die in the place of the guilty for pardon to be extended. The sinner’s death penalty for violating God’s Law had to be paid by an innocent substitute. This is called Penal Substitution, meaning penalty substitution.
Could the death penalty for a man really be paid by an animal? Never! That is why the Bible says, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). The sinner’s death penalty for violating God’s Law would have to be paid by an innocent man. Therefore the incarnation of Christ was a necessity for penal substitution and legal pardon. The Gospel of John shows Jesus as the fulfillment of the Tabernacle because He was God in flesh come to live a sinless life, die a sacrificial death, and experience a supernatural resurrection so that God could be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
This was the primary purpose of the incarnation – to make propitiation (legal pardon) for the sins of the people. It would not and could not be an innocent animal that allowed God to give a legal pardon but only an innocent, sinless man. The uncreated Son of God had to become a man to achieve our legal pardon. John said, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John ). Amazing truth – the Son of God on earth as a man! Even more amazing is the reason He was on the earth as a man – “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John )!
According to God’s Word, God could not have pardoned any other way, “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. For assuredly He does not give help to angels, but He gives help to the descendents of Abraham. Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tempted in that which He suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted” (Hebrews -18).
Penal substitution is the only way God can legally pardon. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians ). Therefore the incarnation was necessary for the realization of penal substitution (legal pardon) and that is the primary biblical interpretation for the incarnation. If God could have legally pardoned any other way, surely He would have done it!
Our salvation cost God everything! There has never been and never will be a greater demonstration of love than the truth that God sent His only begotten Son into the world as a man to die as a substitute for sinners (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). The incarnation is a precious doctrine; it is a marvelous doctrine; it is a crucial doctrine. No one can be saved apart from pardon based on faith in Jesus. God does not save any other way – there is no other way.