Our Destiny in God, Part 5

Having considered the necessity of our union with Christ in his humanity, his life and his death, we can now consider briefly our participation with Christ in his resurrection.

Resurrection (and Ascension)

Billings correctly asserts, “participation in Christ’s death is always followed by a participation in Christ’s resurrection, which involves a fulfillment of the original telos of creation” (J. Todd Billings, “United to God through Christ: Assessing Calvin on the Question of Deification,” Harvard Theological Review 98.3, 2005: 320). As the old humanity dies with Christ in his death, so in union with Christ a new humanity is raised with Him in his resurrection. Gaffin contends that apart from our union with Christ in his resurrection, the gospel and the Christian life are unintelligible, “’Raised with Christ’…is a most basic element in Paul’s soteriology; apart from it the structure of the whole cannot be grasped” (Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: a Study in Paul’s Soteriology, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1987, 59). When approaching our union with Christ in his resurrection, we must be aware of a tension in Paul’s writings coinciding with the already-not yet tension. On the one hand Paul can easily speak of the resurrection of the dead as a future hope to be anticipated. This is clear in 1 Corinthians 15:20-23:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.

Richard Gaffin’s comments on the term “firstfruits” are helpful:

‘Firstfruits’ expresses the notion of organic connection and unity, the inseparability of the initial quantity from the whole…His resurrection is the representative beginning of the resurrection of believers…His resurrection is not simply a guarantee; it is a pledge in the sense that it is the actual beginning of the general event…At the same time, however, he clearly maintains a temporal distinction between them (Richard B. Gaffin Jr., Resurrection and Redemption: a Study in Paul’s Soteriology, 34-35).

Yet, on the other hand, it is true that God has “raised us up with Him” (Eph. 2:6), that we “have been raised with him through faith” (Col. 2:12, see also Col. 3:1), and now we ought to “walk in the newness of life” (Rom. 6:4) made ours in our participation with Christ’s new resurrection life[i]. As Gaffin correctly points out, these layers of meaning cannot be divorced from each other – the ”organic tie” between the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection, the believers experiential event of being raised with Christ, and the future bodily resurrection from the dead must be preserved (Gaffin, Resurrection and Redemption, 60). We will come back to the significance of our future bodily resurrections below, as that brings us near the goal of this paper, but in this space it is fitting to reflect on our present experience of union with Christ in his resurrection (and ascension). Commenting on Ephesians 2:6 Calvin writes,

The resurrection and sitting in heaven, which are here mentioned, are not yet seen by mortal eyes. Yet, as if those blessings were presently in our possession, he states that we have received them; and illustrates the change which has taken place in our condition, when we were led from Adam to Christ. It is as if we had been brought from the deepest hell to heaven itself. And certainly, although, as respects ourselves, our salvation is still the object of hope, yet in Christ we already possess a blessed immortality and glory; and therefore, he adds, in Christ Jesus (Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians).

That this present possession of resurrection life (indicative) is the ground for whole set of ethical commands (imperatives) in Paul’s theology is most clearly seen in Colossians 3. In one stroke Paul connects death, resurrection, ascension and return in glory, making us participants in all of these events in union with Christ. We died with Christ, we have been raised with him and seated with him in heaven (where our true life is hid “with Christ in God”), and will one day return with him in glory. Paul immediately follows these statements with the instructions to “Put to death…” the deeds that characterized our old sinful humanity and to “Put on…” works in keeping with our new humanity. This is not simply a “he has done this for you, now do this for him” appeal. Rather, it is a call to recognize our union with Christ in his life and an appeal to allow this life to manifest itself in us. It is a call to be who we most truly are because of our union with Christ. This is Calvin’s “wondrous exchange”, and exchange that will be more fully realized upon Christ’s return, but is now our experience in part,

This is the wondrous exchange made by his boundless goodness. Having become with us the Son of Man, he has made us with himself sons of God. By his own descent to the earth he has prepared our ascent to heaven. Having received our mortality, he has bestowed on us his immortality. Having undertaken our weakness, he has made us strong in his strength. Having submitted to our poverty, he has transferred to us his riches. Having taken upon himself the burden of unrighteousness with which we were oppressed, he has clothed us with his righteousness ( Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.2).

Union with Christ’s death and especially his resurrection is transformative (while also being forensic, as Calvin establishes these cannot be separated for both come to us in Christ who cannot be divided; see Institutes 3.11.6). Calvin writes, “For if we have true fellowship in his death, our old man is crucified by his power, and the body of sin becomes dead…If we are partakers in his resurrection, we are raised up by means of it to newness of life, which conforms us to the righteousness of God” (Calvin, Institutes, 3.3.9). Hart sums this up well, writing that Christ establishes with humanity “a new relationship with God, the exaltation of humanity to a previously unknown glory…Far from leaving humanity essentially unchanged, the glorious exchange involves a radical transformation of our being” (Hart, “Humankind in Christ and Christ in Humankind,” Scottish Journal of Theology 42.1, January, 1998, 74-75). Yet again we cannot neglect the tension between the already and the not yet. We have already been transformed, we are being transformed as the Spirit works to bring us into deeper union with God, and we anticipate the completion of this transformation in the future. Calvin reminds us, “Redemption would be defective if it did not conduct us by an uninterrupted progression to the final goal of safety” (Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.1). This leads us to the third substantial section of this project, which I’ll take up in a post tomorrow, and close to answering the question posed in the introduction, “what makes our eternal condition more secure than Adam’s original condition?” [i] Gaffin goes into further detail, outlining another challenge in understanding Paul’s view of our union with Christ in his resurrection, namely, do the aorist verbs and the temporal references point “solely to what took place in the historical experience of Christ or do they apply to what has happened in the actual life experience of the individual believer?” (Resurrection and Redemption, 41).