Thursday, September 30, 2010

Struggle of Faith--The Incarnation

The Incarnation

We who have come to Christ by faith believe in the Incarnation, of course, as a matter of orthodoxy. We don’t believe, as Arianism teaches, that the Christ was a creation of the Father and so Jesus Christ as “Son of God” was a special creation of God for man’s salvation; we don’t believe that Jesus was just an exalted man as do the Socinians and Moralists; and we don’t believe, as the Modalists do, that God is one unitary Person who wears the “masks” of Father, Son and Spirit at any given time and who only assumed the “role” of the “Son” at the incarnation. We who bear the name and fragrance of Christ believe that God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, became a man, a real live in-the-flesh human being, without relinquishing His deity.

But do we really understand what this means? Do we understand the implications of Christ becoming human? We typically view the Incarnation as simply a necessary mechanism by which God saves us. In other words, “the flesh” (humanity, as such) is simply the “vehicle”, a contrivance, used by God to affect our salvation. God the Son had to come as a “man” in order to affect our salvation by living a perfect human life in obedience to the Law and thereby qualifying Himself to die for our sins. He had to come as a human being in order to be constituted able to die in our place and on our behalf so that we could have eternal life. But is this the full extent of the meaning of the Incarnation? Is the Incarnation relevant only to His final work and not to the totality of His Person? Does the Incarnation only speak to us with regard to His vicarious death and not also to His vicarious life? Is the importance and purpose of the Incarnation simply that Christ had to “take on flesh”, as it were, so that He was then capable of dying for our sins as atonement on our behalf?

Without necessarily realizing it, I think we typically reduce the atoning work of Christ to the Cross Event (His death, burial and resurrection) and neglect the atoning “work” of His life, thus missing the full glory and implication of the Incarnation. Why is this? Why do we so readily look to the Cross when we consider the “work” of Christ on our behalf without also recognizing the “work” of His life on our behalf? I’m not referring to a few miraculous things He did throughout His life that bore witness to who He was (which we all acknowledge), but His actual existence as a man that He lived on our behalf. We so easily separate or divide Christ into two, His Person (as the promised Messiah) and His work (of atonement upon the cross), that we miss, I believe, the point of the Incarnation: that the Person of Jesus is Christ’s work! Contra James Denney (The Death of Christ, 1973), the Incarnation is the very heart of Atonement which culminates in The Cross and Ascension. Jesus the Christ is our atonement in His very Person as the Incarnate Son.

Christ’s “work” of atonement (of redemption) is His entire life as a human being (the true and faithful “son”) lived out in our place and on our behalf in the power of the indwelling Spirit culminating in the Cross Event as He makes expiation for our sins; and although atonement has been made in full (as our Lord said, “It is finished”), nevertheless, He continues to work for us and on our behalf as our Ascended High Priest who has taken humanity into the Holy Place, into the very presence of God, in Himself where He mediates on our behalf as our representative. Humanity is seated with Jesus at the Father’s right hand because Christ has joined Himself to us irrevocably and forever; He is forever the God-Man, the Incarnate Son, who “ever lives to make intercession for us” as our Great High Priest.

Christ’s “work” of atonement is that He took on our humanity (our real, sin-cursed humanity) and cleansed it from the disease of sin and guilt (overthrowing the curse) by living the life of perfect, obedient “sonship” in true faith, prayer and worship to the Father in our place and on our behalf. His “work” of atonement is His entire life as a man (as the true and faithful “son”) lived out in our place and on our behalf culminating in the Cross where He died, was buried, rose again and ascended to God’s right hand. Christ’s “work” of atonement is taking our sin-diseased and alienated humanity upon Himself, overcoming it through a life of perfect, obedient sonship in true faith, prayer and worship, killing it by judging sinful humanity on the cross and raising it to newness of life as a new humanity (a New Creation) in Him. Humanity has been “born again”, as-it-were, in Him in objective reality. The “work” of Christ is His continued existence as the Incarnate Son who has ascended to the Father’s right hand and has taken our now cleansed and purified humanity into the very life of the Trinity in Himself.

The glorious truth of the Incarnation should inform and fill out our doctrine of atonement and should help us eliminate not only any bifurcation with regard to the Person and Work of Christ, but also any notion of a bifurcation within the category of humanity that Jesus died for. We too easily forget Paul’s words that “one died for all, therefore all died…that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them….”

The Incarnation as the ground of our Union with Christ

Christ’s union with us in the Incarnation, therefore, forms the very ground of our union with Him, though, as I mentioned in the first post, it is still a matter of faith. Why? It is still a matter of faith because we weren’t there to witness the life of Jesus Christ. But others were! The Scripture is clear and John tells us plainly that the Incarnate Son was heard, seen, beheld and handled. We believe in the Incarnation by faith, but it is a faith that is not without historical, empirical evidence. The Incarnation, because it is the basis of our union with Christ, tells us how it is that we are “in Christ”! The Incarnation tells us what it means that “we have died and our lives are hidden with Christ in God.” The Incarnation shows us how our spiritual or mystical union with Christ is relevant to us today. The Incarnation is the ground of our union with Christ because it is He who has united Himself with us forever! The tangible, ontological relevance of our union with Christ is found in His union with us in the Incarnation and the vicariousness of His life as a human being for us and on our behalf. Now when we read about our union with Christ, as those who have been joined to Him by the Spirit, we can have a tangible, ontological basis for understanding what this means and how it becomes relevant to us as we seek to live as Children of God. Our spiritual union with Christ as “sons” of God is an ontological reality because Christ has truly united Himself with us in our humanity!

The Incarnation speaks to the totality or wholeness of Christ on our behalf—His existence—not just toward His specific “work” on the cross. We do not simply have a new “standing” before God as those who have now been “forgiven”; we have truly been transformed into “new creations” by virtue of our participation in the One who has taken us into Himself! So what’s the point? As Jesus lived a life of ontological reality by simply being who He was, so we too, by virtue of our union with Him by the Spirit (our “in Christness”, as Paul refers to it), are called to freely live out the ontological reality of who we now are as Children of God in Him by the power of the Spirit. As Jesus didn’t have to purpose to do anything to live in conformity to who He was, so we, because we have truly been joined to Him by the Spirit, do not (and cannot) purpose to do anything to obtain or secure our place as “sons of God”; we simply come to Him by faith. As with Jesus, and in His power by the Spirit, we are to simply be who we are in the confidence that, because we have been united in Him by the Spirit, we are truly “sons” of God who are even now continuing to have the life of Christ formed in us by the Spirit.

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me.”

James B. Torrance’s little book, “Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace” is an excellent, easy-to-read introduction to the vicarious humanity of Christ and the ontological basis for our faith, confidence and life in this world.

The Vicarious life of Christ

We have no problem speaking about the vicarious death of Christ in His humanity as the One who died in our place and on our behalf. Why do we not also recognize the vicarious life of Christ in His humanity as the One who lived in our place and on our behalf? Christ is the “second Adam” not only because He died vicariously (in our place and on our behalf) as our representative, but because, as Adam, Christ is actually a human being who lived vicariously a true human life in perfect “sonship” to the Father (in our place and on our behalf) as our representative.

This "vicariousness" of Jesus is what Paul is trying to explain to us as he draws parallels between the two representative human beings—Adam and Jesus. Just as Adam represented us in his humanity, and we were found in him “in Adam” with respect to sin and death (the curse of alienation), in the same way Jesus now represents us in His humanity and we are found in Him “in Christ” with respect to righteousness and life (the blessedness of communion)! The sin-diseased humanity of Adam (of which we share) has been cleansed by Christ in and through His Incarnation such that as Adam was our representative and head with regard to sin and death (the curse), so Jesus is now our representative and head with regard to righteousness and life (the New Creation). In other words, as Adam lived out his humanity (and by extension and representation—our humanity) as “son of God” in sin and disobedience in our place and on our behalf as our representative and head (the “first” Adam), so Jesus as the true human being has and continues to live out His authentic humanity (and by extension and representation—our humanity) as “son of God” in righteousness in our place and on our behalf as our representative and head (the “second” Adam). Jesus in His Person “undoes”, as it were, the “work” of Adam. As Adam corrupted humanity in his falleness and so brought estrangement and death (the curse), so Jesus cleanses humanity in His righteousness and so brings communion and life (the overthrow of the curse). This is what the Incarnation speaks to—not simply the impending death of Jesus on the cross, but the whole existence of Jesus as the man who lives, responds and acts as a human being in our place and on our behalf.

Christ’s Humanity

But Paul is not suggesting that Adam and Jesus had two different human natures—one fallen and one exalted. No, Christ came and assumed our condition; our fallen, sinful nature. Christ’s humanity was identical to our humanity—and it must be this way if the creation is to be reconciled.

We will pick up here the next time (as…well…time permits).