[B17] The Virgin Birth

In our day these clauses, “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,” are seriously called into question. There are those who not only want them left out of the creed, but declare that it is a grievous wrong to retain them and insist on their acceptance as an article of faith. This controversy is known in the Church as the one concerning the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Of this I purpose speaking today.

Table of Contents

17. The Virgin Birth

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: and knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS. [St. Matt.] 1:18—25.

Lord’s day after Lord’s day millions, yes, actually millions, of Christian people publicly confess: “I believe … in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” From the beginning this has been the faith of the Church. Some, no doubt, have been without a clearly defined understanding of what these words mean. But most of those who make this confession have a fair conception of what it signifies.

In our day these clauses, “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary,” are seriously called into question. There are those who not only want them left out of the creed, but declare that it is a grievous wrong to retain them and insist on their acceptance as an article of faith. This controversy is known in the Church as the one concerning the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Of this I purpose speaking today.

I. The Denial of the Virgin Birth

Let us first consider the denial of the Virgin Birth, the grounds on which it is based, and the motives prompting it.

Had I attempted earlier in my ministry thus to explain the Creed, I probably would not have considered this subject as a separate topic. I think a few references to it, in connection with the humanity of Jesus, would have satisfied my conception of the need of special emphasis for it. I, of course, knew that in early days a few minor sects, alienated from genuine Christianity, questioned, or denied, the Virgin Birth. I equally well knew that the deists, and rationalists of the 18th century often questioned the doctrine, and sometimes spoke of it with scurrilous indecency. But I felt that such treatment was to be expected from men like Voltaire, Renan, and their ilk. Today this tenet of our faith is boldly and vehemently denied by preachers from Christian pulpits, by professors of theology, as well as by natural scientists, and all kinds of writers of every degree of attainment. In the early centuries the attacks on the Virgin Birth came largely from Jews and pagans. Now they come largely from those nominally within the fold. And my own experience has proven that the poison has penetrated farther than many realize.

Not long ago I was approached, after a funeral service, by a member of the funeral party. The man said, “Reverend, I wish I could make my own the comfort you held out today. But I cannot. It was based on Christ. And I have been taught to believe that He was but a man, born as we are of human parents.” Here was a practical result of the denial of the Virgin, or miraculous, birth of Jesus.

The denial of the Virgin Birth means the reduction of Christ Jesus to the practical level of other men. It means that He was born not only of a human mother, but also of a human father. In other words, it is the denial of any miracle in the birth of Jesus. Renan thus baldly and boldly stated the contention of the opposition:

“Jesus was born at Nazareth, a small town of Galilee, which before His time had no celebrity. … His father Joseph and His mother Mary were people in humble circumstances.”

Such a statement from the hand of Renan occasions but little surprise. But a noted, still living, London preacher, who, however, it is but proper to state, has renounced most of his radicalism, and re-entered the conservative church, wrote thus, eight or ten years ago:

“The simple and natural conclusion is that Jesus was the child of Joseph and Mary, and had an uneventful childhood.”

The ground of objection to the Virgin Birth, briefly stated, is as follows. The record which tells us of such a birth is found in only two of the four Gospels. These two Gospels, as well as the others, speak of Jesus as the son of Joseph and Mary. The preaching of the Apostles, as recorded in Acts, and the Epistles of St. Paul contain no record of this miracle. Nor is it a part of the body of doctrine held and proclaimed by the successors of the Apostles in the early Church. The contention is that the idea of the Virgin Birth was an afterthought, imparted from somewhat analogous pagan myths. Or from a mistaken understanding of Old Testament prophecies. Such, for instance, as this:

“Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).

At any rate, say these opposers, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is not an essential part of our Christian faith. The New Testament does not base anything on this doctrine. And it is such a mystery, so hard to believe, that consciences should not be burdened with the acceptance of it. And, say they, with great gravity, all the scholars have given up the doctrine of the Virgin Birth long ago. Thus have they shaken the faith of many.

The detailed consideration of these charges we shall take up later. But at this point we must uncover the motive which prompts to the crusade against the Virgin Birth. This motive becomes clearer with every new examination of the evidence. It is nothing less than opposition to everything in Christ’s life which is supernatural. The objectors want a Christ who is wholly conformable to natural laws. They do not believe in miracles. And because the Virgin Birth implies a miracle they repudiate it, repudiate it in the face of the best of evidence.

II. What the Virgin Birth Means, and Why We Believe It

Let us now consider what the Virgin Birth means, and why we believe it.

By the doctrine of the Virgin Birth we mean that the mother of Jesus was a virgin, in the true sense of the word, when He was born. Mary was actually the mother of Jesus. So far as the fact of birth is concerned, Jesus was born into the world as all other men are. But the Word of God teaches, and we accordingly believe, that the birth of Jesus was unlike that of all other children in this, that He had no human father. The conception of Jesus was purely a miracle. It was effected solely by the act of God’s will, in the person of the Holy Ghost, whose creative energy was as directly and immediately engaged here as it was in the beginning when all things were called forth. It was only after this miracle of conception was wrought that Jesus was born into the world in the natural way.

This is the teaching of God’s Word on the subject. In St. Luke, chapter one, we are told of the coming of the angel Gabriel, whose mission it was to make the announcement of the coming birth of Jesus. Thus did he deliver his message:

“Fear not, Mary; for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call His name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of his father David: and He shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His Kingdom there shall be no end.”

Mary was not surprised at the Messianic announcement. It was a familiar thought to her, as to all devout Israelites. But how, under the circumstances, it could be fulfilled through her she could not understand. And she exclaims,

“how shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” And the angel answered and said unto her, “the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”

This is one of the direct Divine records of the conception of our Savior. It is so chastely, so beautifully set forth that, in form as well as substance, it proclaims its heavenly origin, and calls us to our knees in adoration.

Here is a daughter of Eve who is divinely chosen to roll back the reproach, and undo the mischief, wrought by the mother of mankind.

“Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee.” Never before had holy angel so addressed one of the fallen race of men. It was not a mere heavenly courtesy. Heaven does not speak with unmeaning words. They do not proclaim Mary without the taint of sin. But they unquestionably do proclaim her the most immaculate of the daughters of Eve; the best suited, the God-chosen instrument, for the accomplishment of His plans. In a true sense Mary became the mother of God, in the person of Jesus, who was both God’s Son, and hers.

As to the precise manner in which the miracle of the conception, and the consequent Virgin Birth, was brought about God has not seen fit to enlighten us, and concerning it we should not be inquisitive. God’s Word throws around the subject the veil of sacred silence. Let us be reverently silent about it ourselves.

The modern critics, to whom this sacred mystery is an offense, were not the first doubters of the Virgin Birth. Our text tells us of the first doubter. He is none other than Joseph, who afterwards became the husband of Mary. He is the one whom the critics would make a party to what would be, if true, the greatest, the farthest reaching, the most pitiable deception ever perpetrated on the world.

Joseph, by the binding rites of betrothal, had become engaged to Mary, whom our Creed has immortalized as the virgin mother of our Lord. In the course of the passing months Joseph learned of Mary’s condition. Love pure and strong burned in the manly breast of the village carpenter. And when the delicate condition of his betrothed was made known to him, probably from her own lips, he was amazed and grieved beyond the power of expression. And all Mary’s words of explanation, all her protestations of innocence, were unavailing. Joseph was a doubter of the virgin conception. There was but one conclusion he could entertain, the flower of Nazareth had deceived him. Joseph thought he had been betrayed in the most grievous way in which men and women can be unfaithful to each other.

Joseph might have exposed what he considered Mary’s perfidy, and have had her stoned to death. Such was the law of ancient Israel. But the love in his breast, which would not die, restrained him from such a step. But he was determined that the tie which bound him to Mary should be severed. He would quietly get a writ of divorcement, and put her away. God, however, did not forsake his handmaid. An angel, very likely Gabriel, who had brought the announcement to Mary, appeared to Joseph, and said:

“Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife; for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus; for He shall save His people from their sins.”

What a thrill of joy must have filled the heart of this man of God when he heard these words. Not only was the supposed dark stain lifted from his best beloved; but they showed him that he, after Mary, was to be brought into the closest relationship to the fulfillment of the Messianic hopes of Israel. He was to be sheltering husband to the mother of the Lord; and care-taker, during His childhood, of the Lord Christ Himself. Thus were Joseph’s doubts most effectually removed, for it is written:

“Then Joseph … did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife; and knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born son, and he called His name Jesus.”

Modern doubters are not so easily entreated of the Lord as was Joseph. They are determined to get rid of this truth. It is seriously in their way. The admission of this truth necessitates the admission of other truths of which they wish to be rid. But with all their efforts, they are but deluding themselves with the thought that they have gotten rid of it. The records on which the doctrine of the Virgin Birth rest are as well authenticated, as trustworthy, as any other portions of the Gospel. And the fact that Jesus was frequently spoken of, especially by the populace, as the son of Joseph was the most natural thing in the world. They supposed Him to be so. And legally He was so.

As to the claim that, aside from the records in St. Matthew and St. Luke, the Scriptures of the New Testament are silent with respect to the Virgin Birth, it is sufficient to recall that there are other important matters contained in the Gospel record not even so often mentioned. But those who have eyes to see may readily discern that the miraculous birth of Jesus is everywhere understood, and not a few times clearly implied. If it was not known to the other Apostles, and believed by them, and proclaimed by them, how do we account for the fact that the Church everywhere believed this doctrine; and, by the close of the first century, or the early part of the second, incorporated it, in practically the same form in which we have it now, in the Apostles’ Creed?

It is equally clear that this doctrine was not interpolated from pagan sources. There were myths which professed to tell of the supernatural origin of certain great men. But nothing which told of one begotten by the Holy Spirit of God; nothing which by its simplicity, its chasteness, so bore the marks of truth as does this Gospel record. Nor is the charge sustained that the story of the Virgin Birth was taken over from Jewish conceptions, derived from prophecies such as that from Isaiah previously quoted, part of which is also used in our text by St. Matthew. The truth of the matter is that while Jewish interpreters had indicated a large number of Old Testament passages as Messianic, this one about the virgin conceiving and bearing a son was not so considered. It was only in the light of fulfillment that the Apostles, by inspiration, were led to understand its true meaning.

In this controversy concerning the Virgin Birth we are contending against the mutilation of God’s Word; a mutilation attempted not only without evidence, but against the evidence. And we are contending, not for a minor point, as we should do when it is revealed of God; but for the Christ of the Gospels, without whom we have no Gospel. We are fighting against accepting a Christ who was only a man, when God’s Word, and our own great need, tell us that we need a Savior who not only possessed a large measure of the Spirit of God; but who was God Himself.

Denial of the Virgin Birth of Jesus strikes a blow at the precious doctrine of His sinlessness. The sin of our first parents has been perpetuated in every one of the naturally born children of men. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh” (St. John 3:6). And “as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12). If Jesus was naturally conceived of a human father, then He stands in the same class with us, whatever charism He may have received afterwards. It was the miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost which made Jesus, as to His human nature, a new creation, the second Adam, qualified by His sinless humanity, as well as by His Divinity, to become the world’s Redeemer.

The denial of the Virgin Birth strikes a blow, not only at the sinlessness of Jesus; but at practically all the fundamental doctrines of the person and work of our blessed Redeemer. If this doctrine be not true I know not whether there is anything concerning Him we can believe, or that I would want to believe. If Christ was not born of the Virgin Mary, we have no assurances of His real Divinity. If He is not truly Divine we have no real Savior, the whole plan of salvation, as the Gospel presents it, falls. But we are not at all alarmed. The truth may be assailed, but can never be destroyed. The truth of the Creed concerning the conception and birth of Jesus still stands, and scarcely shows a mark of the assaults against it. Being a foundation stone in God’s plan of salvation it will naturally cause offense, but it is a stone against which all the wisdom, and all the hatred of this world will eventually wear themselves out. Let us not be alarmed. We may still hold up our heads, and join in the confession, “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” And in doing so we will still be in the best of company, not only in company with the angels and saints of the long ago; but the great majority of the most learned Christian scholars of today tell us that from the point of view of every angle of the most searching scholarship it stands, not unassailed, but indestructible.

Brethren, everything, the character of the persons involved, the angelic messengers, the ever adorable mystery of the message, the Divine and human issues involved in the doctrine of the Virgin Birth all conspire to urge us to prostrate ourselves before the throne of God in thankfulness for this truth. Here was the putting into concrete form the content of the words of St. John:

“God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

In the Virgin conception and birth our loving God was beginning His last active campaign for the destruction of sin, and providing salvation for a lost race. All the joy of redemption hoped for, and realized is contained in this truth. It is the real secret of our Christmas joy, and our Christmas glories.

By God's grace, each week LutheranLibrary.org will present a new message on the basics of the Evangelical Christian Faith. Our guide is the Small Catechism, as expounded by Traditional Pastor Robert Golladay. May this series bless and inspire you.

Luther’s Small Catechism: Series B – The Apostles’ Creed

Publication Information

  • Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
  • Title: “The Apostles’ Creed”
  • Originally Published: 1917 by Lutheran Book Concern, Columbus, Ohio.
  • Lutheran Library Edition: 2020
  • Copyright: CC BY 4.0