Reforming Calvinism, pt. 17: Irresistible Grace (The Vicarious Humanity of Christ)

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I. But Christ lives in me, and the life which I now life in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

I begin this entry in my series Reforming Calvinism with Galatians 2:20 because it succinctly states everything that I hope to say in this post regarding an Evangelical Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARCalvinist revision of the fourth point of TULIP: ‘irresistible grace’. In my previous post, I stressed the vital importance of the axiom ‘the gift of grace is identical with the divine Giver’. As I said there, this is the key insight upon which a reformed version of ‘irresistible grace’ must be constructed. What I want to do in this entry is flesh this axiom out specifically in relation to Christ before moving on to the Spirit.

To begin, I would like to quote T.F. Torrance for whom the doctrine so critical to correctly reframing ‘irresistible grace’ was especially precious. The doctrine of which I speak is the ‘vicarious humanity of Christ’, and nothing that I could say would improve upon how Torrance explains it here:

I believe that it is concentration upon the vicarious humanity of Christ in the incarnation and atonement, in death and resurrection, that is particularly important for us today. It is curious that evangelicals often link the substitutionary act of Christ only with his death, and not with his incarnate person and life – that is dynamite for them! They thereby undermine the radical nature of substitution, what the New Testament calls katallage, Christ in our place and Christ for us in every respect. Substitution understood in this radical way means that Christ takes our place in all our human life and activity before God, even in our believing, praying, and worshipping of God, for he has yoked himself to us in such a profound way that he stands in for us and upholds us at every point in our human relations before God.

Galatians 2:20 has long been for me a passage of primary importance…”The faith of the Son of God” is to be understood here not just as my faith in him, but as the faith of Christ himself, for it refers primarily to Christ’s unswerving faithfulness, his vicarious and substitutionary faith which embraces and undergirds us, such that when we believe we must say with St. Paul “not I but Christ,” even in our act of faith. This is not in any way to denigrate the human act of faith on our part, for it is only in and through the vicarious faith of Christ that we can truly and properly believe. Faith in Christ involves a polar relation between the faith of Christ and our faith, in which our faith is laid hold of, enveloped, and upheld by his unswerving faithfulness. No human being can do that for another, far less give himself as a ransom from sin, but this is precisely what the Lord Jesus does when in giving himself for us he completely takes our place, makes our cause his very own in every respect, and yields to the heavenly Father the response of faith and love which we are altogether incapable of yielding.[1]

Lest we think that Torrance exaggerates the claim that evangelicals have neglected the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, we need only consider the reaction that many might have to that which he says regarding not only Christ’s death for us, but also his believing for us. From my perspective, Torrance is dead on in his observation that evangelicals have a well-developed understanding of the vicarious nature of Christ’s death but not of his life. Although some might demur, protesting that Torrance’s critique is misplaced given that many evangelicals affirm the doctrine of imputed righteousness (which obviously necessitates some sense of the vicarious nature of Christ’s life), I think it can be safely affirmed that very few have a firm grasp on the totality of what this means. How so? While many are quick to agree that Christ obeyed for us, they will say that his obedience does not avail for our salvation unless we fulfill the condition of faith. In other words, they do not go so far as to affirm that not only did Christ offer perfect obedience to the Father on our behalf, but that he also perfectly fulfilled the ‘condition’ of faith for us as well. In other words, Jesus did not only accomplish the objective side of our salvation as the Son of God, he also accomplished the subjective side of our salvation as the Son of Man. That is to say, he not only offers us, as God, the gift of salvation, but he also vicariously lays hold of that gift in our flesh and on our behalf through his own perfect faith and faithfulness. This, as Torrance notes, is truly radical. It is also, I believe, truly biblical.

First, it is, in my view, the clear teaching not only of Galatians 2:20 but also of other passages, such as Romans 3:22 and Philippians 3:9, where Paul explicitly identifies as justification as occurring on account of the “faith/faithfulness of Christ”. Although this is not the place to delve into the exegetical arguments, I do believe that the Greek of these texts is best translated in this way. Moreover, it is the vicarious nature of Christ’s entire life of obedience and faith that the author of Hebrews has in view when he writes in 2:10-18 and 5:7-9:

For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” 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. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted…

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.

As these passages clearly indicate, the Son of God in his incarnation became like us in every respect, assuming into union with himself our very flesh and blood, that he might save us to the uttermost, including presenting himself before the Father as our great high priest who sings God’s praise and puts his trust in God for us and on our behalf! In his sufferings, tears, obedience, and prayers, he became the source of our eternal salvation. This means that we are thus not saved because we have properly appropriated Christ’s objective work, we are saved inasmuch as Christ also subjectively prayed, believed, and obeyed perfectly for us and thereby offered the perfect response to God in our place. As fallen human beings, we are incapable in and of ourselves of rightly appropriating divine gifts, and thus Christ not only brought salvation within our reach but also vicariously laid hold of it in our flesh and on our behalf. As Khaled Anatolios states, “the unsurpassable gift of the Incarnation is that we were given the very reception of the gift”.[2]

Although the strangeness of this idea may make it seem unorthodox to some, it actually boasts a long and distinguished pedigree, going back to orthodox church fathers such as Irenaeus and Athanasius. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is arguably what lies behind Irenaeus’ concept of recapitulation according to which “Christ ‘recapitulated in Himself the long sequence of mankind’, and passed through all the stages of human life, sanctifying each in turn”.[3] Moreover, it played an indispensable role in Athanasius’ argument against the Arian heresy inasmuch as the Arians adduced Christ’s human state as evidence of his creaturely nature. The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is that which enabled Athanasius to counter the Arian claim by saying, for example, that when Christ received the Holy Spirit at his baptism, it was not primarily for his sake that he did so; rather he received the Holy Spirit vicariously for us knowing that we were unable to do so:

And if, as the Lord Himself has said, the Spirit is His, and takes of His, and He sends It, it is not the Word, considered as the Word and Wisdom, who is anointed with the Spirit which He Himself gives, but the flesh assumed by Him which is anointed in Him and by Him; that the sanctification coming to the Lord as man, may come to all men from Him…Therefore ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever,’ remaining unalterable, and at once gives and receives, giving as God’s Word, receiving as man. It is not the Word then, viewed as the Word, that is promoted; for He had all things and has them always; but men, who have in Him and through Him their origin of receiving them. For, when He is now said to be anointed in a human respect, we it is who in Him are anointed; since also when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized. [4]

The practical importance of this doctrine is further emphasized by Torrance who writes:

There is a kind of subtle Pelagianism in preaching and teaching which has the effect of throwing people back in the last resort on their own act of faith, so that in the last analysis responsibility for their salvation rests upon themselves, rather than on Christ. In far too much preaching of Christ the ultimate responsibility is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and put on the shoulders of the poor sinner, and he knows well in his heart that he cannot cope with it…

Hidden deep down beneath all that there is a failure to take the New Testament teaching about the power of the cross of Christ and his substitutionary role seriously, a reluctance to allow it to apply to the whole of their being and to all their human activity before God, even to their believing and praying and worshipping. We need to learn and learn again and again that salvation by grace alone is so radical that we have to rely upon Christ Jesus entirely in everything, and that it is only when we rely on him alone that we are really free to believe: “Not I but Christ” yet “Christ in me.” Because he came as man to take our place, in and through his humanity is radically transformed, and we become truly human and really free to believe, love, and serve him That is the wonderful message of the cross and resurrection. [5]

The doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ is thus not only true but indescribably precious. It assures that our salvation is not in the end dependent upon us – neither upon our righteousness and good works nor even upon the quality of our faith and repentance – but totally, completely, and eternally dependent on Christ alone – solus Christus.

This, then, is the Christological aspect of our fundamental axiom ‘saving grace is identical with the divine Giver’. Rather than understanding faith as a quality or action of our regenerate will that is given to us by but ultimately distinct from God (for it is our faith), the faith by which we are saved is, in the final analysis, that of Christ. This is the meaning of Galatians 2:20: when I believe unto salvation, it is not I but Christ who lives in me. It is Christ who believed for me and in my place, and it by his faith – the faith of Jesus Christ – by which I am reconciled and redeemed. This is why the New Testament writers emphasize the completeness of our salvation. Not only has God’s objective work been accomplished, but so has our subjective reception of that work by Christ!

This is also why we can say, in a revised Evangelical Calvinist way, that grace is irresistible. It is not irresistible in the classic sense, namely, that it infuses in us a new disposition by which we cannot do other than believe. Rather, it is irresistible in the sense that it is grounded and actualized in the person of Christ. In the incarnation, the eternal Son of God united himself once and for all with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ (the hypostatic union), and this incarnational union occurred wholly prior to and independent of our response. Inasmuch as Christ represents all humanity in his incarnation, the existence of every human being is thus irrevocably grounded in and determined by him. As such, grace is wholly irresistible.[6] Grace is also irresistible in the sense that Christ never once resisted the will of the Father but always lived in perfect faith and obedience. Grace cannot be resisted anymore than Christ could have resisted his Father. It is therefore his ‘irresistible’ union with humanity in the incarnation (God’s downward movement to us) and his ‘irresistible’ obedience to and trust in the Father in our flesh and on our behalf (our upward movement to God) that fully achieves our salvation, both objectively and subjectively. Calvin thus spoke truly when he said that “Christ left nothing unfinished of the sum total of our salvation”.[7]

At this point, a question most certainly arises: if it is Christ who fulfilled the ‘condition’ of faith on our behalf to secure not just the accomplishment but also the ‘application’ of our salvation, then what need is there for us to believe ourselves? Doesn’t this idea downplay or eliminate the importance of our own faith? Wouldn’t this ultimately lead to universalism? These are all important questions, and I will tackle them in subsequent posts.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.30-31.

[2] Anatolios, K., 1996. ‘The Soteriological Significance of Christ’s Humanity in St. Athanasius’ in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 40(4), p.286.

[3] Kelly, J.N.D., 1977. Early Christian Doctrines Fifth, Revised., London; New Delhi; New York; Sydney: Bloomsbury. p.173.

[4] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Four Discourses against the Arians. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 334–335.

[5] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.35, 37.

[6] I am grateful to Bobby Grow for stimulating my thinking on this point.

[7] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. II.ix.3.

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This entry was posted in Apostle Paul, Assurance, Athanasius, Biblical interpretation, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, Christology, Classic Calvinism, Evangelical Calvinism, Evangelical theology, Five points of Calvinism, Grace of God, Holy Spirit, Irenaeus, John Calvin, Patristic theology, Reformed theology, Reforming Calvinism, Soteriology, T.F. Torrance, Union with Christ, Vicarious humanity of Christ. Bookmark the permalink.