The Evangelical Calvin: Vicarious Humanity Edition

Following my post on the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, I thought it opportune to offer another installment of ‘The Evangelical Calvin’, this time in relation to – you guessed it – the vicarious humanity of Christ. As in previous editions, I will simply quote Calvin himself and allow him to speak in his own ‘unaccomodated’ way. May you be as blessed by this as I was!

From Institutes of the Christian Religion, J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. II.xii.1, 3; II.xvi.5, 11

Since our iniquities, like a cloud cast between us and him, had completely estranged us from the Kingdom of Heaven [cf. Isa. 59:2], no man, unless he belonged to God, could serve as the intermediary to restore peace. But who might reach to him? Any one of Adam’s children? No, like their father, all of them were terrified at the sight of God [Gen. 3:8]. One of the angels? They also had need of a head, through whose bond they might cleave firmly and undividedly to their God [cf. Eph. 1:22; Col. 2:10]. What then? The situation would surely have been hopeless had the very majesty of God not descended to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to him. Hence, it was necessary for the Son of God to become for us “Immanuel, that is, God with us” [Isa.calvin 7:14; Matt. 1:23], and in such a way that his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection grow together. Otherwise the nearness would not have been near enough, nor the affinity sufficiently firm, for us to hope that God might dwell with us. So great was the disagreement between our uncleanness and God’s perfect purity! Even if man had remained free from all stain, his condition would have been too lowly for him to reach God without a Mediator. What, then, of man: plunged by his mortal ruin into death and hell, defiled with so many spots, befouled with his own corruption, and overwhelmed with every curse? In undertaking to describe the Mediator, Paul then, with good reason, distinctly reminds us that He is man: “One mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ” [1 Tim. 2:5]. He could have said “God”; or he could at least have omitted the word “man” just as he did the word “God.” But because the Spirit speaking through his mouth knew our weakness, at the right moment he used a most appropriate remedy to meet it: he set the Son of God familiarly among us as one of ourselves. Therefore, lest anyone be troubled about where to seek the Mediator, or by what path we must come to him, the Spirit calls him “man,” thus teaching us that he is near us, indeed touches us, since he is our flesh. Here he surely means the same thing that is explained elsewhere at greater length: “We have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning” [Heb. 4:15]…

Accordingly, our Lord came forth as true man and took the person and the name of Adam in order to take Adam’s place in obeying the Father, to present our flesh as the price of satisfaction to God’s righteous judgment, and, in the same flesh, to pay the penalty that we had deserved. In short, since neither as God alone could he feel death, nor as man alone could he overcome it, he coupled human nature with divine that to atone for sin he might submit the weakness of the one to death; and that, wrestling with death by the power of the other nature, he might win victory for us…[O]ur common nature with Christ is the pledge of our fellowship with the Son of God; and clothed with our flesh he vanquished death and sin together that the victory and triumph might be ours. He offered as a sacrifice the flesh he received from us, that he might wipe out our guilt by his act of expiation and appease the Father’s righteous wrath…

Now someone asks, How has Christ abolished sin, banished the separation between us and God, and acquired righteousness to render God favorable and kindly toward us? To this we can in general reply that he has achieved this for us by the whole course of his obedience. This is proved by Paul’s testimony: “As by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience we are made righteous” [Rom. 5:19 p.]. In another passage, to be sure, Paul extends the basis of the pardon that frees us from the curse of the law to the whole life of Christ: “But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, subject to the law, to redeem those who were under the law” [Gal. 4:4–5]. Thus in his very baptism, also, he asserted that he fulfilled a part of righteousness in obediently carrying out his Father’s commandment [Matt. 3:15]. In short, from the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us.

Yet to define the way of salvation more exactly, Scripture ascribes this as peculiar and proper to Christ’s death…For this reason the so-called “Apostles’ Creed” passes at once in the best order from the birth of Christ to his death and resurrection, wherein the whole of perfect salvation consists. Yet the remainder of the obedience that he manifested in his life is not excluded. Paul embraces it all from beginning to end: “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, … and was obedient to the Father unto death, even death on a cross” [Phil. 2:7–8 p.]. And truly, even in death itself his willing obedience is the important thing because a sacrifice not offered voluntarily would not have furthered righteousness…Not, indeed, without a struggle; for he had taken upon himself our weaknesses, and in this way the obedience that he had shown to his Father had to be tested! And here was no common evidence of his incomparable love toward us: to wrestle with terrible fear, and amid those cruel torments to cast off all concern for himself that he might provide for us. And we must hold fast to this: that no proper sacrifice to God could have been offered unless Christ, disregarding his own feelings, subjected and yielded himself wholly to his Father’s will. On this point the apostle appropriately quotes this testimony from a psalm: “It is written of me in the Book of the Law [Heb. 10:7] … ‘that I am to do thy will, O God [Heb. 10:9]. I will it, and thy law is in the midst of my heart’ [Ps. 39:9, Vg.]. Then I said, ‘Lo, I come’ ” [Heb. 10:7]. But because trembling consciences find repose only in sacrifice and cleansing by which sins are expiated, we are duly directed thither; and for us the substance of life is set in the death of Christ.

In this sense Peter says: “Christ arose, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held or conquered by them” [Acts 2:24 p.]. Peter does not simply name death, but expressly states that the Son of God had been laid hold of by the pangs of death that arose from God’s curse and wrath—the source of death. For what a small thing it would have been to have gone forward with nothing to fear and, as if in sport, to suffer death! But this was a true proof of his boundless mercy, that he did not shun death, however much he dreaded it. There is no doubt that the apostle means the same thing when he writes in The Letter to the Hebrews: Christ “was heard for his … fear” [Heb. 5:7 p.]. (Others render it “reverence” or “piety,”26 but how inappropriately is evident from the fact itself, as well as the form of speaking.) Christ, therefore, “praying with tears and loud cries, … is heard for his … fear” [Heb. 5:7 p.]; he does not pray to be spared death, but he prays not to be swallowed up by it as a sinner because he there bore our nature. And surely no more terrible abyss can be conceived than to feel yourself forsaken and estranged from God; and when you call upon him, not to be heard. It is as if God himself had plotted your ruin. We see that Christ was so cast down as to be compelled to cry out in deep anguish: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” [Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46]. Now some would have it that he was expressing the opinion of others rather than his own feeling. This is not at all probable, for his words clearly were drawn forth from anguish deep within his heart…He had, therefore, to conquer that fear which by nature continually torments and oppresses all mortals. This he could do only by fighting it. Now it will soon be more apparent that his was no common sorrow or one engendered by a light cause. Therefore, by his wrestling hand to hand with the devil’s power, with the dread of death, with the pains of hell, he was victorious and triumphed over them, that in death we may not now fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up [cf. 1 Peter 3:22, Vg.].

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