As we near that magical day when children will eat far too many sweets and parents will get far too little sleep, we are continually reminded that the Christmas season isn’t just about Santa Claus, elves, and reindeer (a.k.a. caribou). Slogans such as “Put Christ back in Christmas!” and “Jesus is the reason for the season!” abound, all of them meant to call our minds back to the true meaning of the holiday, or at least question whether or not atheists should be allowed to join in the fun.
One saying that seems to have a stronger theological grounding is some variation on the following: “Jesus Christ was born in order to die.” The motivation behind this choice of phrase is a good one. While the manger, angels, and donkey are all nice, the story of Christmas cannot be properly told without mentioning the problem Jesus came to solve. He was not born merely to proclaim peace on earth and goodwill toward men. Rather, He came to save us from our deadliest enemy: sin. The peace He brought us is not a temporary, earthly one, but rather an eternal, heavenly one. He made it possible for us to be permanently at peace with God.
Therefore, it is entirely appropriate and even necessary to link the incarnation of Jesus Christ with His atonement. Christmas means nothing without Easter. The first step in appreciating Christmas is to understand that the Son of God took on flesh to make an end of death and sin. His sacrifice allows us to be forgiven. We must never lose sight of that fact or diminish its importance.
Nevertheless, stating that Jesus was born to die puts us in danger of minimizing other parts of His work that were equally important and necessary. The Son of God became incarnate as a human being not only to remove our sin, but also to make us righteous. Yes, those two things are connected, but they are not exactly the same.
In order to understand this, we need to go back to the Garden of Eden. Adam was created without a sinful nature. He did not need God’s forgiveness, for he had never transgressed God’s laws. However, God also gave him a commission to fulfill. “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28b) This is our one recorded example of the fact that Adam was expected to positively fulfill God’s commands by doing righteous deeds, in addition to abstaining from unrighteous deeds (i.e. not eating from the wrong tree).
What does this mean? It means that while the sinless Adam did not merit eternal punishment, there was still something he lacked: righteous deeds, also known as good works. Now, if you’re a good Protestant, you might be thinking, “No, no, no! God doesn’t require us to do good works in order to gain eternal life.” Well, yes and no. God actually does expect us to do good works, but He knows that is impossible for fallen human beings. With our souls chained to sin and our hearts unyielding to the Spirit’s call, we fulfill the words of the Psalmist: “There is no one who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:3b) As Isaiah wrote, “For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment…” (Isaiah 64:6a)
We need righteous deeds in order to be declared “just” by God, but we have no ability to perform them in our flesh. Therefore, it was necessary for someone else to stand in our place and fulfill God’s commands on our behalf, so we might be credited with that righteousness by faith. The one who did this was Jesus Christ, the second and better Adam.
Many verses testify to Christ’s obedience and the way it was imputed (that is, transferred) to believers. Jesus established the need for perfect obedience in the Sermon on the Mount. “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) However, just a few verses earlier, He noted, “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill,” (v. 17) indicating in part that He would actively obey every one of God’s commands.
When Jesus went to be baptized by John, His cousin asked Him why such a thing was necessary. After all, John had been preaching a baptism connected with repentance and forgiveness. As Jesus had no sins, He did not need to repent. However, Christ told John, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15b) This is because Jesus’ righteousness was not merely about avoiding sin; it was also about positively doing the good works prepared by His Father. As He said on another occasion, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to accomplish His work.” (John 4:34b)
Jesus fulfilled every one of the commands in the Mosaic Covenant. He fulfilled every bit of God’s moral law. Because He was without sin, His deeds were truly pure. Unlike the supposed good works performed by humans deep in iniquity, Jesus’ good works were actually good. That is why He is the better Adam. While Adam passed on sin to all who were bound to him, Christ passes on righteousness.
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul taught that in order to be justified before God (that is, declared righteous), we needed to receive righteousness from someone else. You see, those Christians who belong to the Roman Catholic Church and other denominations that teach the need for righteous deeds preceding justification are not entirely off base. Righteousness is absolutely required for a person to be declared “just” by God the Father. However, they err in their assumption that the righteousness that justifies us is our own. In fact, it is Christ’s imputed righteousness that allows us to be justified.
Paul points to the example of Abraham as proof that we must have righteousness credited to us by faith. “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness…” (Romans 4:3-5) This is the clear teaching of scripture: unrighteous people are credited with the righteousness of Jesus Christ by faith, and it is this righteousness that justifies them.
Our salvation depends upon this double exchange. Our sin was imputed to Christ when He was nailed to the cross. As Isaiah tells us, “…the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” (Isaiah 53:6b) In addition, Christ’s righteousness was imputed to us. “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 5:21) Therefore, sin is removed from our account and righteousness is credited, allowing us to be legally declared just.
When you understand this double exchange, you begin to see how important every moment in Jesus’ earthly life was. It would not have been sufficient for Him to be born and then immediately killed. He had to live a life in which He not only abstained from sinful deeds, but also performed righteous deeds. He never lied, but He always proclaimed the truth. He was never unduly prideful, and He actively took steps to humble Himself before men. He never stole, but He always gave. He never acted in hate, but He continually showed love to all.
Jesus also acted to fulfill every prophecy concerning Himself. He completed every ceremonial requirement in the Mosaic Law. Had He not kept all of the ceremonial requirements, He could not have been the perfect Savior for those under the Law in addition to those who were not. Every moment of His life had to be perfectly righteous, both actively and passively—both in doing and not doing.
Therefore, saying that Jesus “lived to die” (in the words of one popular worship chorus) only tells half the story. His death would have been all for naught without His perfect life. Moreover, His death had to be followed by His resurrection for three reasons: as a proof of His saving work, as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy, and as part of His promised exaltation. Yes, the resurrection was necessary, and so was the ascension, for we need Him standing at the right hand of the Father as our perfect Mediator. There is no part of Christ’s saving work that stands alone. God ordained it all for a reason.
Jesus’ priesthood does not, therefore, begin at Golgotha, but from eternity to his incarnation, life, and death, all the way to his present intercession in glory. His priestly life is referred to as his active obedience (i.e., actively obeying the entire law), distinguished from his passive obedience (i.e., his suffering at the cross). In short, Christ is our priestly Savior by offering both the lifelong ‘living sacrifice’ of praise and thanksgiving and by offering himself as the guilt sacrifice for our sins. He was not only sinless but righteous, not only a nontransgressor of the law but the joyful fulfiller of all righteousness. His commission was to bring not only forgiveness of sins but also that positive righteousness that God wills for us and his world―and beyond even this, the confirmation in that righteousness, peace, and blessedness [of] which the Tree of Life was the sacramental sign and seal.
Michael Horton, The Christian Life
Yes, Jesus Christ was born to die, but He was also born to live. Every part of His work was necessary, and we would do well to remember that this Christmas season. The double exchange is the source of our righteousness. We thank God for Jesus’ amazing gifts to us in His life, death, resurrection, and continuing reign.
All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.
 Horton, Michael. The Christian Life: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), pg. 490.