He Died for His People, Not the Elect

The classical Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement is problematic in several ways, even if it does contain a nugget of truth. One of these problems is simply bad exegesis, which in turn results from an unbiblical hermeneutic. A key place where this problem manifests itself is in limited atonement prooftexts like this one:

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 1:21

The argument for limited atonement tends to read “his people” here as a reference to the unconditionally elect, a timeless mass of individuals chosen for salvation. Moreover, proponents frequently take this for granted, not seriously considering the possibility that the people to whom the verse refers might be a different group. (Indeed, this could be true even if limited atonement were correct.)

There is very little, if any, evidence that the Bible ever directly refes to a transtemporal elect consisting of all the redeemed in all ages (though of course some statements indirectly apply to this whole group). This doesn’t in itself prove that no such group can be defined, of course, but it does create a problem for the limited atonement reading of verses like Matthew 1:21. For there is a more natural referrent for the term “his people” when the context is the Messiah. This is simply Israel.

There is intertextual support for this reading. Take the following verses, for example:

In [the Messiah’s] days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
Jeremiah 23:6

God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.
Acts 5:31

Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.
Acts 13:23

The identity of the Messiah was bound up with being the representative of the people of Israel. This was a primary function of the monarchy. When Israel fell into a repeated pattern of sin during her quasi-anarchist theocracy in Judges, God raised up a king upon whom fell the corporate responsibility of keeping the covenant. David was the exemplary king who remained basically faithful to Yahweh and thus typified Christ. Jesus came as the Greater David, taking up the mantle of Israel’s corporate representative so that He could act on her behalf and bring her salvation. Jesus was Israel when He died on the cross, and He died for the sins of His people, His subjects as the King of the Jews. This is still the context of Matthew 1:21, where Jesus identified specifically as the Son of David and His ancestry is traced back to Abraham.

Of course, some will likely respond that “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.”1 Jesus died for Israel, sure, but this Israel is the true Israel, which is the elect. This response, however, has two flaws. First, and more controversially, it fails to recognize that Paul’s argument hinged on a new development in the constitution of Israel. Formerly, Israel was defined by flesh in the form of Torah observance and ancestry.2 Now, with the accomplishment of justification in Christ’s death and resurrection, Israel is defined by the Spirit around union with the Messiah. This point I have argued elsewhere and will not elaborate on here. Second, this is simply not an identification which is supported in the relevant contexts. As I mentioned above, Matthew 1:21 comes in the context of Jesus as the Son of David and heir to the Messianic throne, a role which is definitely representative of Israel corporately.

This applies to a handful of other texts, as well. Isaiah 53 speaks of the Servant dying for “my [God’s] people,” which there is no contextual warrant to read as referring to anyone but Israel. Many verses which speak of Jesus dying as an atonement for “many” may well also have Israel corporately in mind, although I think it is marginally more likely that the word has no specific meaning except the vastness of the number of people included. When Colossians 2:14 speaks of Jesus “erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands”3, Paul is talking about charges accumulated under the Torah, which was given to and only directly condemned Israel. When the Bible says, then, that Jesus died for the sins of His people, the first and foremost referent is Israel corporately.

However, there are two qualifications which must be made to this. For one, Israel is never just Israel. Election is by nature a representative status. The elect represents others to God and God to others.4 When God condemned in Christ the sins of Israel under Torah, He also condemned the sins of the whole world which Israel had summed up in herself. Israel was not any different from the other nations,5 and in their constant rebellion against God they epitomized and intensified the rebellion of all, so atoning for Israel meant atoning for the world. This reality, however, is not necessarily in view in texts which speak of Christ’s death for His people.

The other qualification is that sense still remains in which some texts certainly do speak more specifically of Jesus dying for the Church (though even this usually refers to the temporal, historical Church rather than the group of the eternally elect, at least directly). John 10 and several parts of Revelation emphasize this. Jesus died for His sheep, and these sheep were, at least to begin with, believing Israelites in direct contrast to unbelieving ones, though it also included believers far off. This operates on a couple of levels which do not necessarily correspond to what limited atonement says about the matter. Specifically, it involves the facts that Jesus died for Israel, but Israel was transformed in the process to consist of believing Jews and Gentiles rather than those who are Jewish by flesh, that the formation of this redeemed new form of Israel was an essential goal of the atonement, and that the Church is therefore the one people in whom forgiveness and justification actually take root and effect in their real lives. Thus it is right to speak of this new people reborn from Israel through Christ’s atoning work as the proper object of the atonement, even if it is not true that the atonement was in some sense “limited” to the sins of a timeless company of elect individuals. For more on this point, I refer you to a closely related post I made some time ago.

In all of this, there remains no particular reason to see any text as referring specifically to Jesus dying exclusively to pay the precise penalty for the sins of a particular company of elected individuals. That’s just not how the Bible thinks, or how the Bible talks about the people of God.

He Died for His People, Not the Elect

More on the Anthropology of Sola Fide: Enfleshed Forensics

My last post on the anthropology of justification, much to my pleasure, received some noteworthy criticisms. There were basically two objections:

  1. The proposed anthropology seems to solve the anthropological dualism in a technical, pedantic sense, but the solution is purely nominal. Now there is simply an alternative dualism, between the newly-conceived ontological self and the moral self, and justification still seems to be unrelated to the lived life.
  2. Closely related to this, Leithart’s account seems to express an undesirable theological voluntarism/nominalism. God’s will alone determines who and what things are without any particular controls of nature or reality. Seems like a high price to pay.

These two issues are very closely related, so I will not try to address them individually but will rather, hopefully, solve them together by unpacking Leithart’s wider account of anthropology and atonement.

How does Leithart’s account of anthropology avoid being purely formal or nominal? What prevents is from replacing a legal fiction with what basically amounts to a trick of ontological wordplay? In large part, the key here is to realize that Leithart does not allow for the existence of a “pure status” or a merely nominal relationship. If his ontology is relational, it is also realistic and enfleshed. It is impossible to have a relationship or status, either legal or personal, which does not have a concrete effect on the real-world life of the subject, both externally and internally. Indeed, the “external” application of a status pushes the “internal” self organically into a new shape and direction.

Another Leithart book, The Baptized Body, provides the President of the United States as an example. When a man is sworn into the presidency, nothing magically shifts in his inner “stuff.” Yet there is a definite change which cuts messily across the inner/outer, status/action distinctions. To quote (excuse the political anachronism):

William Jefferson Clinton is inaugurated President, and what makes this rite of passage real is that thereafter everyone treats Mr. Clinton differently. Everyone defers to him, calls him by his new name—”Mr. President”—cozies up to him seeking support for legislation or urging him to ignore human rights abuses in Indonesia or China. Each of these is a reaffirmation of his new status, and each affirmation reminds Bill Clinton of his status and the obligations it places on him. He is constantly challenged to make what the Westminster Larger Catechism might have called an “improvement” on his inauguration, to live up to the obligations imposed by the rite of inauguration.1

Immediately upon inauguration, starting from the outside, the new President’s life changes. People treat him differently in concrete ways, which in turn changes his own concrete existence. His thoughts, feelings, and behaviors begin to adapt themselves to his new relationship to everyone else, even when they do so badly. Instead of skimming past news about international political developments, he begins to think of them as relevant to his life, to feel anxious or excited or concerned, and to take actual steps toward addressing them (writing speeches, calling White House staff members, setting up meetings with foreign leaders) from his official position. Even just the shift of awareness, the self-knowledge of a new identity, physically changes what’s going in their brains and eventually forms new neural pathways if the identity is reinforced inside and out.

For Leithart, then, justification works similarly. The ontological change which is involved in the transition from an unjustified man to a justified man is not purely nominal, not just a semantic game, but affects his actual existence. Now aware of Christ’s sacrifice, God’s mercy, and his membership within the community of the righteous, his mind, heart, and practice immediately start to shift. The proper, natural, and organic direction of this change is toward the image of Christ. The newly justified man may not change in this way (either by refusing to change or by changing in a wrong direction), but this is a perversion and an absurdity. It is like a man who, after his wedding, moves off by himself and continues dating other women. And like such a man, the justified man is essentially different, and worse, if he behaves in such a way as a justified man than he would be if he were an unjustified man. Either way, he is changed in the concrete, lived life. For his patterns of thought, feeling, and action have shifted permanently in a new shape and direction, whether in faithfulness or unfaithfulness. And though both routes are possible, the “natural” direction of the essential change wrought by justification is sanctification.

If it seems like a stretch that justification conceived of in these terms should lead organically to sanctification, it must be understood that the mere consciousness of justification alone does not, in Leithart’s account, bear the full weight of transformation. Rather, the Spirit employs several effective means to cultivate fruit in the justified, all of which hinge on the accomplishment of justification in history. The mechanics of this are bound up with Leithart’s view of atonement. Any discussion here would be incomplete without this atonement framework, but this post will run far too long if I provide such help, so I will have to reserve it for a third and (probably) final post.

More on the Anthropology of Sola Fide: Enfleshed Forensics

Remnants of Revelation

I recently read a book by Winfried Corduan called In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism. If the title doesn’t make it obvious, the book is about the evidence (primarily the case of Wilhelm Schmidt) that the first religion of mankind was ethical monotheism (i.e. that there is a Supreme Being who made the world and gave humanity a code of morality). This contrasts with the common, evolutionary view that religion progressed from primitive ancestor or spirit veneration to animism to polytheism to monotheism. Much of the argument for this book works with the apparent preservations of an ancient monotheistic belief system in the cultures of small, primitive tribes around the world.

Corduan’s book was rather fascinating, and of course it raises a fairly obvious question if he is correct. If mankind started out from the beginning with a full-blown belief in a singular, personal God who made the world and instituted moral law, then from whence did this belief come? Corduan, a Christian, briefly argues that there is hardly a good answer except that such a Being actually did reveal Himself to primitive humanity.

So, all of that is great to think about, but it provoked me to some other theological considerations related to primitive revelation. If we take a basically literal reading of Genesis, we have to reckon with the fact that all people on the planet are descended from Noah and his family, all of whom knew God personally. This means that any such remainders of primitive monotheism as Corduan takes note of in his book must trace back to Noah’s family. And yet these remainders are also clearly quite corrupt, enough so that it is hard to imagine that tribespeople who follow these beliefs are actually following the true God.

Of course, this does raise the question: how long were people still worshipping Yahweh? Obviously, Noah’s sons must have known God for who He really is. And the modern tribes do not. So over the last few thousand years, it seems that God’s memory was slowly forgotten. But how long was true worship still a thing? How long were people around the world, not just in Israel, still aware of and faithful to the true God? Presumably, there could have been a number of such people who end up legitimately saved for many years. How long? Centuries? Millennia?

This brings up even more questions. Just how much of the original revelation does one need to know in order to be counted as believing in the true God? At what point in the process of forgetting and mythologizing did the cultures which retained monotheism shift from confused Yahweh-worshippers to idolaters? And is it possible for some people in such places to have continued clinging only to those beliefs which genuinely originated with God’s self-disclosure at the beginning of history, so as to be saved?

The possibility of remnants of revelation which, at the very least, kept a saving witness to God alive throughough the world for many years is, I think, not to be discounted and should be relevant to debates about the fate of the unevangelized. We also have to weigh whether this thought would open up the possibility of some rare people being saved even today by their memory of the oldest special revelation. It might not do so, but if nothing else it’s worth wondering about. Such an idea might be called “revelational inclusivism” and would, at least at a prima facie level, seem to be free of some of the problems with traditional versions of inclusivism which try to grant salvation to people who lack any special revelation. After all, in such a scenario people would only be saved by clinging in faith to whatever small bits of special revelation they had left. But on the other hand, even this might have its own issues when put to scrutiny. And it does not seem unlikely that we may have to conclude that man’s original knowledge of God became everywhere too corrupt to save anyone much too long ago to be relevant today.

Yet Paul did say that God had not left Himself without a witness…

Remnants of Revelation

The Backward Hermeneutic of Limited Atonement

Honestly, as much as I strenuously oppose the doctrine of limited atonement on logical and theological grounds, my most confident and compelling reasons are simply Biblical. I don’t think Scripture supports the doctrine in any way, shape, or form, but in fact entirely and completely contradicts it. I think T. F. Torrance was altogether correct in his response to a student prompting the doctrine:

That Christ did not die for all is the worst possible argument for those who claim to believe in verbal inspiration!

And this quote gets at the big problem I have with the way people use Scripture to support limited atonement. It requires a terrible, backward, inverted hermeneutic that does serious violence to the text. Specifically, this is the problem: the doctrine of limited atonement requires that we use human inferences from non-explicit texts to overturn or limit the meaning of explicit, clear texts.

Simple example: Hebrews 2:9, 1 John 2:2, 2 Corinthians 5:5, 19, 1 Timothy 4:10 are all very, very explicit about Christ dying for all men. I mean, in realistic terms, there is no way that the Spirit could have been more clear if He wanted to say that Christ died for all. These verses add up to the strongest possible terms save the rather extreme possibility, “Now beware those who will one day try to tell you that Jesus died only for the elect, because He actually died for every single human who ever lived.”

Nonetheless, apologists for limited atonement always feel the need to find convoluted ways to explain away the explicit meaning of these passages because of its overly rationalized readings of texts like John 6, John 10, or Ephesians 5. They draw out inferences from these texts which are at best tenuous, often don’t even logically follow, and in most cases try to force the atonement into a rigorous system of merely human logic. These inferences go something along the lines of “Jesus died for Christians, therefore Jesus did not die for anyone else,” something which (of course) does not necessarily follow. Other times they will make more complex inferences based on the nature of the atonement, pressing the legal metaphors of Scripture way beyond their bounds to create a double-jeopardy scenario for anyone who denies limited atonement. This again tries to overly rationalize God’s revelation in human limits, and in particular often fails to grasp the analogical and metaphorical nature of New Testament descriptions of the atonement, which in itself is a holy and transcendent mystery.

These human rationalizations and inferences, then, are permitted and in fact forced to overrule and twist the plain meaning of the other atonement texts, the ones which explain very straightforwardly that Jesus has died fully and truly for all people everywhere. This is a backward hermeneutical method. It is the opposite of how we rightly ought to understand Scripture. The clear and explicit testimony about Christ’s death for all men should lead us to hold back on our human inferences from other texts, not the other way around.

In this case, the classical Calvinists fall prey to the same trap they frequently find in others. The hermeneutic behind limited atonement is in principle no more legitimate or less legitimate than that of an Arminian who, applying human reason to the doctrine of God’s justice or love, rules out the possibility that the favorite Calvinist proof-texts could mean unconditional election or irresistible grace.

Basic moral of the story: don’t use human inferences from less explicit texts to block the explicit statements of others. So no limited atonement.

The Backward Hermeneutic of Limited Atonement

We Are Not Ourselves

I am sinless. 

I am sinful. 

I am holy.

I am profane. 

I am righteous. 

I am guilty. 

What is all this babbling about? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Christian identity. People talk about how our identity is in Christ, but they rarely talk explain what that means practically. A lot could be said about it, really. But I’ve been thinking about one aspect in particular. 

In one way, we have two selves as Christians. There is the old man and the new. Often these are treated as simply two sides to your mind or heart, one good and one evil, but it’s really so much deeper than that.

The truth is that Jesus has actually and entirely remade us. We were one kind of person, one kind of human being, before, but He has broken that down into tiny pieces and rebuilt it from the ground up. He did this in His death and resurrection. When He died on the Cross, the humanity of our old, fallen, natural selves was crucified—brutally executed under the wrath of God—with Him. And then we were raised with Him to a new humanity, perfectly purified from sin and filled with the life and glory of God.

So where does that leave us now? In Christ, we are already perfected. I’m not talking sentimentally. I’m not talking about our legal status before God. I’m saying that the human life of Jesus in heaven right now is our life. He is literally our perfection, our sanctification, our regeneration, our glorification. Our redeemed selves are hidden with Christ in God 

But this hiding is, for now, essential to grasp. We can’t see our new selves but in glimpses, shadows, and holy moments by faith. Our new selves are in Christ alone, hidden in heaven, and the only way to see them in the present on earth is by union with Christ.

Because, the thing is, right now we are not ourselves. In a certain way we are, but in a more important way we’re not. The selves we experience right now—the ones deeply scarred by sin, guilt, confusion, insufficiency, fear, doubt, weakness, and death—are expired. We were crucified. Our flesh was mortally wounded on Calvary in the flesh of Jesus. Our existence as sinners is passing away, fading like a time traveler who has murdered his young grandfather.

So right now we are walking paradoxes. We are still our natural and decaying selves, but by grace the Holy Spirit has united us to Jesus, in whom our true selves are hidden. Although our new selves will have to remain essentially hidden with Christ until He comes, because of our present union with Him by the Spirit we can begin to live, inasmuch as we depend on Jesus in faith, as new creatures even today. As we draw nearer to Jesus, we become in this mixed present more like who we really are in the Savior. Yet because Jesus still remains hidden in heaven, we cannot yet fully escape who we have been, our old and dead selves. 

This, then, thrusts us back onto the practices that take us to Jesus. Our only way to be who we really are is to know Him, which means we are bound to pray, to read the Scriptures which testify of Christ, to take our place within His Body, the Church, to serve the least of these with whom He so deeply identifies, and to feast upon His new creation nourishment weekly in the Supper, to recall the promise and identity of our baptisms, and to suffer for the Gospel. These things deepen our union with Christ. Self-denial and cross-bearing connect us to His death, which killed our old selves. Likewise, the active life of believing, knowing, and loving Jesus connects us to His resurrection by the Spirit. And by this resurrection we experience in advance our new creation selves as pure gift in the person of Jesus.

So for now, we march on in tension. Our old, corrupted selves remain alive in this age but dead in Christ. Our redeemed and holy selves remain hidden in this age (they belong to the age to come) but present in Christ. Yet out of these two realities, this age and the age to come in Jesus, one is superior. Jesus is victorious, and all reality opposed to His is already defeated. This means that we, in our darkness and pain and struggling, are not ourselves. Our true selves are hidden in Christ to be revealed on the last day. That is hope and comfort, for the selves we see now obviously have no place in glory or eternal life. But if this isn’t who we are, if in Jesus we are something far better, then we know that there is real hope for us all.

To adapt something T. F. Torrance once said:

This Caleb Smith you see is full of corruption, but the real Caleb Smith is hid with Christ in God and will be revealed  only when Jesus Christ comes again.

Amen.

We Are Not Ourselves

Who Acts in Our Salvation? Jesus!

When we’re initially saved, who makes it happen? If you’re not familiar with many aspects of the traditional Calvinist/Arminian debate, you may be wondering what quite this question is getting at. If you are, you may recognize the doctrinal point involved. The question at hand is the debate of monergism vs. synergism. If you don’t know what those mean, they are actually fairly simple to understand.

When we are first saved, how does it happen? Who does what? Obviously there are at minimum two persons in involved: God and you. But how do your roles relate? In the traditional forms of Calvinism and Arminianism, the answers are like this:

Calvinism affirms monergism, which means “one working.” In Calvinism, the only person who actually acts in bringing about your salvation (usually specified as regeneration) is God Himself. Your repentance and faith are altogether secondary and only happen because God first gives you a new birth which enables (and guarantees) your response to Him. God alone acts by the Holy Spirit to save you, and from this saved ground you can repent and believe in the Gospel. R. C. Sproul put it this way:

We also believe that regeneration is monergistic. Now that’s a three-dollar word. It means essentially that the divine operation called rebirth or regeneration is the work of God alone. An erg is a unit of labor, a unit of work. The word energy comes from that idea. The prefix mono– means “one.” So monergism means “one working.” It means that the work of regeneration in the human heart is something that God does by His power alone—not by 50 percent His power and 50 percent man’s power, or even 99 percent His power and 1 percent man’s power. It is 100 percent the work of God.

Arminianism, along with many Catholic view and Eastern Orthodoxy, counter with synergism, which essentially means “working together.” In synergism, God initiates and offers grace, and man must cooperate with his free will. Salvation essentiallly occurs by the acts of both parties, God in giving and man in receiving, with the idea of man’s reception being conceived of as an act of a human free will. In this view, repentance and faith are integral to the beginning of salvation, rather than a result of a beginning accomplished simpy by God alone. Some would characterize synergism as being a 50-50 view, although most synergists would disagree. In any case, synergism relies on man cooperating with God’s grace, so that God does part (certainly the superior part) and man does part (an inferior, receptive part). Eric Landstrom of the Society of Evangelical Arminians gives this explanation:

So important is it that God monergistically works that Calvinists have effectively written out and forgotten that all relationships are in point of fact synergistic. If any “relationship” isn’t synergistic, then it is said to be one-sided, and one-sided relationships are both sad and unhealthy.

But God is personable and so too are we also personable. As such, we should expect that, as a person, God interacts with us on a personal level and in a personal way…[W]hen God reaches out to us, we can respond—but just like any healthy relationship, we needn’t respond to God by necessity. But if we respond to God’s reconciling ministry of grace, and our response is theocentric and sustained by continuously drawing upon the strength of grace received by God, then God continues to augment the process with more grace; and by augmenting the process the relationship between the creature and God grows.

Now, if you don’t already have a settled opinion on this matter, which view will ring true to you probably largely depends on the preaching you’ve heard and the reading you’ve done. But before you consider making any conclusions, I would like to present an alternative.

See, my problems with both monergism and syngerism in their traditional forms are two: (1) they assume a competitive relationship between divine and human agency, and (2) they don’t take Jesus into account.

What do I mean by these? For (1), the problem is that Scripture does not assume any view of the relationship between God’s will and man’s will which must simply add up to 100%. Traditional monergism and synergism do. For monergism, the 100% of action must belong entirely to God, leaving man with 0%. In synergism, the numbers must be divided up some way, perhaps 50-50 or 90-10, or even 99-1. But there is no Biblical evidence for this kind of zero-sum game. All of God does not mean none of man, and neither does God and man mean only some of each.

But to make my (1) make sense, I have to explain (2). Neither traditional monergism nor traditional synergism make any explicit use of Christology, the doctrine of Jesus, instead either talking of God generally or specifiying the Father or the Holy Spirit. And yet, if we are trying to understand the relationship between God and man, we can’t bypass the one place in all reality where God and man are truly and fully one, hypostatically united as a single person named Jesus.

I follow, then, the Evangelical Calvinist tradition in focusing on what is called the vicarious humanity of Christ (posts related to this can be found here, and Martin M. Davis has a good series on it beginning here). Jesus did not simply die in our place; He was and is human in our place. Our true humanity is based in Him. Everything that needed to be done for our salvation, both on God’s part and on man’s part, has already been done in His own Person and work.

So how does this affect monergism and synergism? I look at it through Christ. Contrary to synergism, the only true cooperation between free human will and divine grace is found in Jesus, where He lived a whole human life in obedience to the Father, even unto death. If we are to respond to God at all, our reponse will have to begin with the human response of Jesus to His Father, not with our free will. Contrary to monergism, though, this does not somehow remove our response from the equation. On the contrary, our response plays a decisive role in our receiving salvation precisely because it is not our own response but rather the response of Jesus in which we participate by the Holy Spirit.

If you’re lost a bit, I’ll step back. For humanity to have a saving relationship to God, we need faithfulness and holiness. For sinful humanity to return to God, we need faith and repentance. We fallen men, however, could never offer God any of this. So Jesus offered it in our place. He gave God on our behalf perfect faithfulness, perfect holiness, perfect faith, and even perfect repentance.1 This perfect human response to God could only be given by Jesus who was Himself God. Jesus is both the Word of God who calls for repentance and faith as well as the true Human who responds to God’s word in repentance and faith.

With this in mind, perhaps I could call my view Christological monergism. In one sense, it is God alone who acts to bring us to salvation. The Father sent the Son, the Son gave the Father the necessary human response for salvaiton, and by the Holy Spirit we are brought into saving union with Jesus. The true actor in our salvation is Jesus for us, and He is God. But on the other hand, we are also involved. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we do truly and really repent and believe to be saved. I respond to God, yet it is not I but Christ in me, and the response I offer to the Father, I offer by the response of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.2 And God accepts this response, and me, because what He is really accepting in Jesus, who is in me, and I in Him, and His response.

So it is not simply 100% God and 0% man, nor is it part God and part man. In Jesus salvation comes as 100% God and, albeit in a secondary sense, 100% man. Yet even man’s part is not just man in and of himself, not any natural human free will, but the part of Jesus as a man for us. It is only through, in, and by Him—us united to Him by the Holy Spirit—that we can be free for God, and in this freedom choose life by choosing what Jesus has already chosen for us and in our place.

I’ll conclude, then, with an editor’s summary of T. F. Torrance’s view in his book Incarnation:

[F]or Torrance, the Christian life is one of union with Christ in which in faith we live out of his faith and his righteousness. Having no righteousness in ourselves, we arc united to him so that we may live out of his. Our faith is the knowledge, given to us in the Spirit, that he has accomplished our salvation in his person and work and that we are saved purely by his unconditional grace.

This does not mean that we do nothing although it does mean that we do nothing for our salvation. For Torrance, there is an analogy here with the person of Christ. The fart that the humanity of Christ owes its being entirely to the action of God in the incarnation, does not mean It is not real. The fact that Christ is all of God, or that all of God is in Christ, does not mean that there is nothing of man in him, but the opposite, that all of man is in him. Torrance used to explain that in the logic of grace, ‘All of grace does not mean nothing of man. All of grace means all of man.’ The knowledge that forgiveness and salvation is all of grace liberates us out of ourselves into union with Christ, freeing on to live fully and freely out of him. All of grace means all of man, just as the action of God in Christ means all of man in Christ.

Who Acts in Our Salvation? Jesus!

Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?

Sometimes you’re reading an old Church Father or something along those lines when you suddenly feel the need to stop in your tracks because you hit a quote like this one from St. Athanasius:

For the Son of God became man so that we might become god.

If you’re not from an Eastern tradition of Christianity, you might think that sounds heretical.Then there are other statements like of Irenaeus: “If the Word became a man, It was so men may become gods,” or of Augustine: “But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ‘For he has given them power to become the sons of God.’ If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.” 

So what does this all mean? Were the Church Fathers just raving heretics who missed important doctrines like monotheism and the Creator/creature distinction? Were they basically the predeccessors of New Age charlatans? I’m going to say “No,” and if that seems indefensible I will go on to explain why, and what the line of thought they’re talking about has to offer us today, specifically from a more Reformed perspective.

The doctrine we are specifically dealing with here is called theosis (also deification or divinization). Broadly speaking, the term just refers to a creature somehow becoming more like a god. For Christian theology in particular it is about a way of looking at salvation focused on our union with God. So what exactly does theosis mean in that context?

First, I should point out that despite the strong language in those quotes I just provided, none of these people thought that humans were somehow going to become equal to God, members of the Trinity, secondary deities, or anything along those lines. What they actually meant is more nuanced. They all believed that there is and can be only one true God, and that humans can’t just become another one, or something just like Him. So we can ignore the initial fear and try to find the reality that the writers were pointing toward by using deification language. Specifically, I will look at this from a Reformed perspective, through the lens of union with Christ.

In Reformed and Lutheran circles, doctrines of theosis are sometimes called Christification to emphasize that we are not dealing with some generic turing of men into gods but that what is happening in theosis is the transformation of humanity into the pure image of Christ, who is the image of God. Theosis means that through Jesus we participate in the life and glory of God, and that is where we find salvation.

What does this mean more specifically? I’ll break it down a little more clearly. Man by his mere flesh, his nature without God, has no true life or glory. He is little more than a smart and emotionally complex monkey. He will pass away after a brief, absurd, and often miserable existence filled with sin. His life and glory can come only from God, only from His ability and call to display the image of God. The glory of God is the true life of man. But because of sin, man is separated from the glory of God. This leaves him with only death and misery.

Jesus came in to resolve this problem. Being Himself God, He took upon human nature so that in His person there could be a humanity who is truly the image of the invisible God. Jesus, being that image unstained, lived a human life which was completely filled with the glory of God both in His power and in His holy character. Unlike Adam, He carried out that union of man’s life and God’s glory all the way to the grave and even back. Upon returning in a victorious resurrection, He was glorified as a renovated human being. His resurrected humanity far surpassed the old, mortal kind. It was and remains filled to the brim with God’s life and glory. Jesus is therefore what God looks like as a man. Jesus’ glory as the resurrected Lord is the human version of the glory of God. He is the image of the invisible God, and the only person in whom human nature has been able to align perfectly with divine nature (though without the two being mixed up together). To reiterate in one more way, in Jesus God’s glory has been translated into a human glory, a glory owned by the risen Christ.

The result with Jesus, then, is this: in Him there exists a form of humanity that far surpasses our fallen, sinful state, and even surpasses Adam’s state in Eden. It is filled with more life, glory, and power than man has ever known because of His union with God the Father through the Holy Spirit.This is humanity grown up, perfected, and exalted as God’s partner in love. This is not by any power inherent in mere humanity, but by grace alone, the free grace of the Son in choosing to become man, the free grace of the Father in resurrecting and glorifying His Son, and the grace of the Holy Spirit in binding this all together by His sovereign power. And by this grace Jesus has formed a kind of humanity which, compared to us in our current state, is so exalted and like-God to possibly justify calling it deified humanity, man become god.

Now, because of this new kind of human existence which Jesus alone possesses by nature, a special union between God and man, the rest of us are invited to join in. But we are called by grace alone through a union of faith with Jesus in the Spirit. And in this union we are transformed. We get to participate in the new, glorious humanity of Christ. We are conformed to the image of Christ (thus Christification), who is the image of God. So by the Spirit we become like the Son who is the exact expression of the Father. In this way we also come to be filled with and to express God’s life and glory. The glory of God became the glory of the man Jesus, and by our union with Him it becomes our glory as well. This is, in the end, our salvation. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we commune with God so much as to become like Him in a supernatural way which transcends the natural possibilities of anything else in creation. As Peter put it, we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), not to become literal equals to God or sub-gods but to become in our human existence what Jesus is in His human existence, an existence which is created and animated by His divine nature.

The focus, then, is all about union with Christ. Theosis, in a Reformed key, is a way of saying, on the basis of Scripture alone, that by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone we are radically transformed and exalted from our totally depraved human existence to a state which lives by and expresses the glory of God alone. By the Spirit and word we know Christ, by Christ we know God, and by knowing God in Christ we are conformed to His image to His glory unto eternal life (2 Cor. 3:18, 1 Jn. 3:2, John 17:3).

This naturally makes for a great Christmas meditation. In theosis, everything has to go back to Christmas. If Jesus did not incarnate, if He did not enter our human existence as an infant in Bethlehem, then there would be no union between God and man, no restoration of human nature by the glory of God. It all began with the Son of God becoming a Son of Man, so that we might become sons of God. On Christmas, we find that by Jesus’ grace He partook in our nature, so that by the same grace we could partake in His.

Or, perhaps as Clement of Alexandria put it, “The Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become god.” Merry Christmas, children of God!

Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?