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As Christmas is almost upon us this year, I’ve been thinking about why Jesus came to earth. In reading the Scriptures this week, I was struck again by the clarity of this statement:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
(Matthew 1:20-21 ESV)

“For He will save His people from their sins.” What beautiful words.

N.T. Wright and others in the progressive/New Perspective crowd believe that believers have gotten too caught up with salvation and sin as it relates to individuals:

the normal Western Christian view: that salvation is about “my relationship with God” in the present and about “going home to God and finding peace” in the future … to make the point once more as forcibly as I can, this belief is simply not what the New Testament teaches.

N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, pg. 196

Instead, Wright believes:

The New Testament, true to its Old Testament roots, regularly insists that the major, central, framing question is that of God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos. The destiny of individual human beings must be understood within that context-not simply in the sense that we are only part of a much larger picture but also in the sense that part of the whole point of being saved in the present is so that we can play a vital role (Paul speaks of this role in the shocking terms of being “fellow workers with God”) within that larger picture and purpose.

N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, pg. 184

As a result, N.T. Wright explains Matthew 1:21 this way:

Matthew agrees with his Jewish contemporaries that the (Babylonian) exile was the last significant event before Jesus; when the angel says that Jesus will “save his people from their sins,” liberation from exile is in view. Jesus, David’s true descendant, will fulfill the Abrahamic covenant by undoing the exile and all that it means.

N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus, pg. 159

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see great comfort in Wright’s interpretation of the passage. We were a people in exile, however, our exile was not merely from the promised land, but a much greater one. We were exiled from the very presence of God. Every believer who is aware of his sin knows how desperate his situation is apart from Christ.

I find that I much prefer Matthew Henry’s discourse on this passage:

In the reason of that name: For he shall save his people from their sins; not the nation of the Jews only (he came to his own, and they received him not), but all who were given him by the Father’s choice, and all who had given themselves to him by their own. He is a king who protects his subjects, and, as the judges of Israel of old, works salvation for them. Note, those whom Christ saves he saves from their sins; from the guilt of sin by the merit of his death, from the dominion of sin by the Spirit of his grace. In saving them from sin, he saves them from wrath and the curse, and all misery here and hereafter. Christ came to save his people, not in their sins, but from their sins; to purchase for them, not a liberty to sin, but a liberty from sins, to redeem them from all iniquity; and so to redeem them from among men to himself, who is separate from sinners.

Matthew Henry, Commentary on Matthew 1

Maybe I’m overemphasizing the work that Jesus did in reconciling God and man. Then again, maybe Wright et al are seriously under emphasizing the gravity of sin and what it cost Him to save us from it.