In the last post on our destiny in God, I considered the importance of our union with Christ in his incarnation. We continue this series looking at our union with Christ in his living and dying.
Having considered Christ’s assumption of our humanity, we can proceed to reflect upon Christ’s full life of obedience. All Jesus accomplished for us he accomplished in union with us, with our humanity, and to facilitate a yet deeper union between God and man – the union promised Adam in the Garden but never realized due to Adam’s failure. Christ’s active obedience, his perfect conformity to the will of his Father, is an indispensable aspect of Christ’s work for us. Paul writes in Romans 5:19, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” While this verse seems to have Christ’s obedience unto death primarily in view (his passive righteousness) we cannot fail to acknowledge that this act of obedience was the capstone of all of Christ’s perfect submission to his Father’s will. As Jesus attempted to persuade John that it was appropriate, in fact necessary, for him to be baptized by John, he said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15; similarly see Matthew 5:17). Calvin insists that this fulfilling of all righteousness, in fact all of Jesus’ life and obedience, was performed as public man, consciously aware that he all he was doing was for the benefit of other. Canlis summarizes, “Every event in Jesus’ life was done with the intent that humanity be able to draw from it and be made new by it: (Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 99). From Calvin’s pen we read, “Therefore, our Lord came forth very man, adopted the person of Adam, and assumed his name, that he might in his stead obey the Father” (Calvin, Institutes, 2.12.3). Christ’s bringing our human nature into union with himself was crucial for his covenant keeping role. As the public man, Jesus steps into the covenant left unfilled by Adam’s failure. He resists the temptation that destroyed Adam and all humanity in Adam (Matthew 4:1-11) and keeps perfect faith with his Father. Christ conquers, he overcomes, and wins for all those who are in him the right to eat of the tree of life. Thus, in a very real way we can speak of Christ earning salvation and eternal life for us. Calvin speaks along these lines,
That Christ, by his obedience, truly purchased and merited grace for us with the Father, is accurately inferred from several passages of Scripture. I take it for granted, that if Christ satisfied for our sins, if he paid the penalty due by us, if he appeased God by his obedience; in fine, if he suffered the just for the unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent to meriting (Calvin, Institutes, 2.17.3).
Again, in danger of belaboring the point, Jesus’ union with our humanity is crucial, for in it this covenant keeping is rescued from being merely cold and legal. Nevin was correct in emphasizing the organic nature of this union (though not to the exclusion of the forensic),
The Word became flesh; not a single man only, as one among many; but flesh, or humanity in its universal conception. How else could he be the principle of a general life, the origin of a new order of existence for the human world as such? How else could the value of his mediatorial work be made over to us in a real way, by a true imputation, and not a legal fiction only…He [Adam] stood in the case as their federal head, because he was their true organic head…Christ too is the federal head and representative of humanity as a whole…Not in the way of a mere outward imputation…but on the ground of a real community of life (Nevin, Mystical Presence, 211-212).
Pointing to the significance not only of Christ’s union with our human nature, but our personal union with him as Savior, Letham writes,
Christ, in his incarnate life and ministry, was the second Adam. Man had sinned; man must put things right, not only by avoiding sin but by actually rendering to God the obedience that Adam failed to supply…[Christ fulfilled] the law of God, on our behalf and in our place but also in union with us…Because of our union with him, we were in him as he did it. He was captain of the team and his actions are ours (Letham, Union with Christ, 58-59).
Our personal union with Christ is vital for the “drawing from” Calvin refers to is not merely an external transaction, but one performed in union with Christ. Calvin never wavered on the necessity of our participation in Christ if we were to benefit from his work: “Would ye then obtain justification in Christ? You must previously possess Christ…”(Calvin, Institutes, 3.16.1).
What is true of Christ’s life is true of his death also – Christ died in union with our nature, we die in union with Christ. In addition, this work was done to enable a yet deeper union with God by removing the impediment of human sin and guilt. What was said above regarding the necessity of Christ’s union with our human nature so as to be in a proper position to merit on our behalf the rewards promised Adam holds also for his dying. For Christ to be in a position to die for us, to suffer the covenantal curse as our representative and substitute, he must have been truly human. The author of Hebrews is clear on this,
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people (Heb. 2:14-17).
Calvin understands well the importance of Christ’s union our human nature for the atonement, writing,
But special attention must be paid to what I lately explained, namely, that a common nature is the pledge of our union with the Son of God; that, clothed with our flesh, he warred to death with sin that he might be our triumphant conqueror; that the flesh which he received of us he offered in sacrifice, in order that by making expiation he might wipe away our guilt, and appease the just anger of his Father.(Calvin, Institutes, 2.12.3).
Beyond Christ’s taking of our nature into union with his person, we must also consider our experiential, personal union. Letham asserts correctly, “The concept of union takes us a stage further than either of these two metaphors [substitution and representation]. In this case, all that Christ did and does we do, since we are one with him…because of the union sustained between Christ and ourselves, his actions are ours” (Letham, Union with Christ, 63). In other words, when Christ died, we died with him. Paul makes this point in Galatians 2:19-20, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” It is at first hard to understand how Paul died to the law through the law, but when understood in connection with our union with Christ, it becomes clear. The demand of the law was harsh and unbending – death for disobedience. Through his union with Christ, Paul can say that he died (see also Col 2:20, 3:3). He was crucified along with Christ by virtue of his union with Christ (v. 20). Thus, since the law has exacted its punishment and received its pound of flesh, it has no more hold on him. He is dead to it. Paul expresses this union most profoundly in connection with our baptism in Romans 6:3, asking, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Not only is Christ’s cross work efficacious for us because of our union with him, but Christ’s goal is to reconcile the world to God, re-establishing the union lost by Adam and advancing it. Batey writes,
Before the foundation of the world God chose the Church, destining it in love to be the realization of his purpose to unite the universe in Christ in the fullness of time (Eph. 1:3-14). This union is being made possible by the power of God revealed in the cross. Through God’s power, motivated by love, the barriers separating men from God and one another have been destroyed, and the twofold reconciliation brings hostility to an end and makes peace (Richard A. Batey, “The Mia Sarx Union of Christ and the Church,” New Testament Studies 13.3, April 1967: 280).
Christ’s death is never less than penal, but it is also more than that. It is just (fair) punishment, but not just (merely) punishment. It is also epoch ending. The old humanity dies with Christ in his death. Canlis asserts, “Even as ascent is ‘natural’ to humanity (in that communion is God’s creation-purpose for us), it is also profoundly ‘unnatural’. Guilt had to be pardoned, sin had to be paid for, rebellion had to be quashed” (Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder, 93). This leads us to consider our union with Christ in his resurrection and ascent, which we will pick up on post #5 later this week.