Calvin on Union with Christ

Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the Vine, and the Branches: The Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ

It would be a privilege to get to come here for free and listen to the talks of Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Piper, but to be able to speak to fellow shepherds of Christ’s church on such an important topic and to do so in such auspicious company is really a privilege for me. I’m very grateful for it. I’m also very glad to be able to talk about Calvin on union with Christ. I’d rather hear about Paul and the apostles and union with Christ , but one of the things that we notice over and over throughout history is how dependent we are on other people for getting biblical truth, right? It’s not as if we’re sitting in a corner by ourselves and suddenly happening upon the doctrine of election, for example.

It’s something that was mediated to us, just as Paul tells Timothy to remember those who taught him the truths of the faith and to respect that as God’s ordinary way of working. He works through great pastors in the past, and Calvin was certainly one of them. I want to focus on the context of union with Christ in Calvin’s thinking, and the nature of union as he saw it, and the benefits of union with Christ.

The Context of Our Union with Christ

The resurrection of Jesus Christ, 2,000 years ago, and the resurrection of you and me sometime in the future, is actually one and the same event. That’s why Jesus is called the “firstfruits” of the harvest (1 Corinthians 15:20). He’s the beginning. As the king goes, so goes the kingdom. As the head goes, so goes his body. But how can something that happened 2,000 years ago outside the city of Jerusalem, that first Easter Sunday, actually affect me here and now? That is one of the central questions that union with Christ addresses.

First of all, let me begin with the context. A little bit of the backdrop of medieval piety is important here for understanding, really, what not only Calvin but the whole Reformation broke through. There was this beatific vision at the heart of medieval piety, medieval spirituality, going all the way back to the ancient church. Plato, the great Greek philosopher, was the first to use this term. He says that we have to climb the ladder away from beautiful things to beauty itself. He didn’t believe in a personal God. For him, it was an impersonal principle called The One, and all of reality emanated from The One the way light emanates from the sun. So it falls in ever-diminishing grades of reality of being, from being to non-being, from supreme being to not being at all.

The goal of a philosopher is to set aside all of his practical responsibilities and distractions, and with his whole soul (as Plato puts it), turn himself away from this realm of material things and fasten his gaze only to the eternal, unchanging forms.

Now, Plato believed that our eternal soul is that part of us that is a spark of divinity. It’s a pretty sturdy weed, this idea, all the way to Oprah. It’s very thick in our culture, right? That’s what Dr. Ferguson was challenging when he was talking about the embodied character of salvation as the apostle Paul sees. It’s a very Pauline rather than Platonic way of thinking about it. Plato’s thought is that we were thrown mercilessly into bodies and our bodies and the senses that are attached to our bodies drug us so that our soul cannot remember what it was like to walk around in the arcades of the eternal realm, beholding the beautiful forms.

The best you can hope for is to die. The thing you do right now as a philosopher is contemplate the things that are not physical, and contemplate only those things that pertain to the upper world of eternity, not the lower world of time. The goal is nothing less than to be reunited with — after we slough off this mortal coil that is evil in itself — that eternal One from which our soul emanates, God as he is in himself, or The One as it is in itself. That is the goal of the beatific vision in Plato’s thinking.

A Continuation of Platonism

Now, you can see how those raised in that worldview would on one hand either try to refute it or on the other hand try to see how Christianity might be presented to the culture despisers of the age in a way that would resonate with folks. There were very few ancient theologians who just went along with it. Perhaps the closest one would’ve been Origen. Origen was the first systematic theologian in the ancient world. You’ve got to give him a little space. The poor guy didn’t have a lot of shoulders to stand on, although he did have the Scriptures. But Origen basically took over much of Plato and found Bible verses for things. He believed in reincarnation, that eventually all spiritual reality would be reconciled to God, including the Devil and the fallen angels. We’re basically here for the purpose of education, to be morally educated so we could be reunited to The One.

Now, there’s another trajectory in the history of the church, and that’s the second century bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, who was a disciple of Polycarp, the martyr, who was a disciple of the apostle John. Irenaeus is famous particularly for opposing gnosticism, that ancient heresy that swept over the church and threatened, humanly speaking, to engulf the church in its infancy. The Gnostics were basically Plato on steroids. They thought that the body was evil, positively evil, not just less being than the soul, but positively evil, and that the best thing that we could possibly do is avoid all association with bodily things. Death was what we were looking for when we finally could fly off — “I’ll fly away, oh glory.” The ultimate salvation is death, so that the soul is finally liberated from the body.

Irenaeus in refuting that heresy, of course, emphasized the earthiness of the biblical view of redemption and a good creator, not an evil creator. Gnosticism said that an evil God, Jehovah, the God of the Jews, created matter, and Jesus came to save us from it. He only appeared to have a body. He only appeared to bleed on a cross for us. He only appeared to have a body that was raised, because of course that wouldn’t be good news if you’re a Platonist, right? The good news is you’re finally done with the body, not that you have it forever.

It’s these two theories of salvation that generated two very different types of piety. It’s reducing things too much to say that it’s all a footnote to Plato, or that it is Origen on one side and Irenaeus on the other, but for our purposes here it will make the point. Irenaeus focused not on our trying to climb out of the body, out of this world, out of time, and out of history into an eternal realm of pure contemplation. Rather, he emphasized that there is a succession of historical covenants through which God has worked out his purposes in history, and that in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. One of Irenaeus’s great lines was that “God became small in Christ.” He became haveable. He became someone we could actually touch and hear. We could see God and live.

A Reforming Catholic

Now, Calvin wasn’t a Calvinist. He was a reforming Catholic, as most people wanted to be called in those days. Calvinist actually was a term of derision that Lutherans pinned Calvin’s view of the Lord’s supper with. Well, it’s not quite Zwinglian, it’s not Anabaptist, it’s not Roman Catholic, and it’s not Lutheran; it’s Calvinist. By that way, they thought they could dismiss it. Calvin certainly didn’t treat it as a term of endearment, thank you very much. He never thought, “I love that name. I always aspired to have a religion named after me.” If you asked Calvin’s friends, “Are you a Calvinist?” They would’ve said, “We love John. I mean, don’t get me wrong, but seriously, no.”

Calvin was a first-rate student of the church fathers. One of the ways in which he won a lot of the debates during the Reformation was simply out quoting both Scripture and the church fathers in Greek and Latin from memory. The legate sent from the Vatican simply couldn’t compete. He tried climbing that ladder of ascent really hard since he was a teenager as the secretary to the bishop in his hometown. He had tried at the University of Paris. He tried in very, very severe colleges where the regimen was night and day. Calvin had tried it. He was even nicknamed by his friends, “The Accusative Case.” He was always censoring people for not trying it hard enough.

But then he was liberated by the gospel message and he says that one of the things that he loved was Irenaeus’s line “God has become small in Christ.” Now, Luther of course blazed the trail with the Heidelberg Disputation just a couple of years after the 95 thesis with his contrast between a theology of the cross and a theology of glory. He says there are theologians of glory all around us who are trying to get a peak at the naked God. They want to see God as he is in himself, not as he’s clothed in Christ in the gospel. They want to see him as he is, in his very essence. They thought, “What is God?” Pull the curtain back, Toto. We want to see God as he is in himself. That was in 1518, long before Calvin was thinking about these matters.

But already there was plenty in Scripture to encourage the reformers down this path. Remember when Moses felt like he was getting so close to God he could say, “All right, now, we’re friends, right? We’ve gone through a lot together. Now show me your glory.” And God says, “I like you too much. No man can see me and live. You wouldn’t live to tell the experience to your children and grandchildren. If you beheld my face, you would be turned to ash, but I’ll tell you what I will do, I’ll hide you behind a rock and you’ll see my rear end pass by. The form that rear-end revelation takes is, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” He got a sermon. God preached the gospel to him and that’s what he could take. He couldn’t take God’s shining face in all of his glory, but he could take God’s humility, his backward parts.

Theology of Glory, Theology of the Cross

That’s the difference the reformers saw between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. In the theology of the cross, you’re content with God showing up how he knows he can show up without killing us. In humility, not in majesty, for in majesty he will destroy us. So Calvin says:

We know what he is like, but we do not know what he is. Thereupon in Scripture, his powers are mentioned by which he’s shown to us not as he is in himself, but as he is toward us, so that this recognition of him consists more in living experience than in vain and high-flown speculation.

In another place, he says:

When faith is discussed in the schools, he says, they call God simply the object of faith, and by fleeting speculations lead miserable souls astray instead of directing them to a definite goal. For since God dwells in inaccessible light, Christ must step forward and be our intermediary. Indeed, it is true that faith looks to one God, but this must also be added: to know Jesus Christ whom he has sent.

So apart from God’s self-humiliation, apart from God’s condescension out of love for us, the beatific vision in our present form, would incinerate us. As Martin Luther said, there are a lot of people who climb those ladders, and they’ll get to the top, and I don’t put it past him to have an experience of blinding light, because Lucifer disguises himself as an angel of light. Instead of climbing out of history, out of the body, out of his church by ourselves up into heaven with our little soul train, God descends to us in the flesh in history.

It’s like those escalators at the mall. When I was a kid, I used to love to run up the escalator that was actually going down. Now I’m just happy to get up the escalator without a problem. But it was fun to try to beat the escalator. That’s what religion basically tries to do. Here’s God descending, and we’re ascending. That’s why in Romans 10, Paul says, “The righteousness which is by faith doesn’t try to ascend, but receives God where he descends to us in his gospel.”

Calvin says:

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.

See, here is the fundamental critique of medieval piety. He continues:

Hence, it was necessary for the son of God to become for us Emmanuel — that is, God with us — and in such a way that his divinity and our human nature might by mutual connection grow into each other.

The Object of Our Faith

It’s almost like grafting. We grow into each other, so that, though distinct, they are one vine. And similarly, these two natures are so closely connected that we speak of one person in two natures. Calvin continues:

Otherwise, the nearness would not have been near enough.

This is docetism. Jesus Christ was God, but he wasn’t really a human being. He didn’t have a real body, he didn’t have real emotions, he didn’t have a real human soul. His humanity was kind of like a car that his divinity drove. So Jesus is hovering above us. Calvin says:

He wouldn’t have come all the way, he wouldn’t have really been Emmanuel with us, his nearness would not have been near enough, nor the affinity sufficiently firm for us to hope that God might dwell with us. Therefore, relying on this pledge, we trust that we are sons of God, for God’s natural Son fashioned for himself a body from our body, flesh from our flesh, bones from our bones, that he might be one with us.

The object of our faith is not God in the abstract, but the triune God. But Calvin goes on to argue that it is not just the triune God either, but the triune God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ. But that’s not enough. He finally reaches his destination when he says the goal of our faith is the triune God as he is revealed in Jesus Christ and as he is clothed in his gospel. Only then is it safe. Only then is it safe to approach God.

And so Book Two of The Institutes, much of it at least, is taken up with this emphasis on Christ, the Eternal Son, assuming our humanity so fully and so completely that what is said of one nature can be said of a whole person. You don’t have attributes of the divinity being transferred to the humanity and vice versa, but you can speak of the blood of God. In fact, you can call Mary the mother of God. She’s not just the mother of Jesus, otherwise who is Jesus. That’s how that title got thrown out there in the whole debate over whether he really was God. We can speak of God suffering on the cross, not because his divinity suffered, but because the man who suffered was also divine. What a wonderful truth that is. Calvin spends a lot of time on that.

That God Might Be All in All

Then he spends a lot of time on Christ’s act of obedience. He began winning our redemption, Calvin says, the moment he was incarnate. From his very conception, he began to win our redemption. There is a very heavy influence there from Irenaeus and other church fathers, but ultimately from Scripture. Calvin says:

Ungrudgingly, he took our nature upon himself to impart to us what was his and to become both Son of God and Son of Man in common with us.

Book Two really focuses on that point, that Jesus is God, Emmanuel with us. His union with us is the focus of Book Two. And then he comes to the question, “Well, if all this that he accomplished for us and outside of us in history 2,000 years ago has any relevance for us here and now, what is it?” That’s where he turns from his union with us in the incarnation to our union with him by the Holy Spirit. It’s a really marvelous transition, and as Dr. Ferguson just said, it really is a way that Calvin saw the apostle Paul hanging everything that we have in Christ together on one rack, as it were.

In The Institutes, Calvin’s preparatory address to the King of France pleads:

God has descended all the way to us and the apostle does not say that he was sent to help us attain righteousness but himself to be our righteousness. For what is more consonant with faith than to recognize that we are naked of all virtue in order to be clothed by God, that we are empty of all good, to be filled by him, that we are slaves of sin to be freed by him, blind to be illuminated by him, lame to be made straight by him, weak to be sustained by him, to take away from us all occasion for glorying, that he alone may stand forth gloriously, and we glory in him.

When we say these and like things, our adversaries interrupt and complain that in this way we shall subvert some blind light of nature, imaginary preparations, free will, and works that merit eternal salvation, for they just cannot bear that the whole praise and glory of all goodness, virtue, righteousness, and wisdom should rest with God. But your majesty, we do not read of anyone being blamed for drinking too deeply of the fountain of this living water.

The Nature of Our Union with Christ

Now he asks the question: What is our relationship to God now that God has become flesh in Jesus Christ, unless here and now, the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ? “Christ has merited our salvation,” Calvin says, and then he adds there are many who perversely twist this. Even though they confess that we receive salvation through Christ, they cannot bear to hear the word merit, for they think that it obscures God’s grace. Calvin says, no, Christ merited our salvation. But where does that leave us now? Calvin says:

As long as Christ remains outside of us and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and dwell within us. For this reason, he is called our head and the firstborn among many brethren.

That’s where Calvin begins to unpack, as Paul does, the so-called golden chain, or more technically the ordo salutis, the order of salvation that we find in Scripture. Basically, here is how Calvin moves logically through this argument. To save us from judgment, the Son became flesh and merited our salvation. Thus, the righteousness by which we are saved is alien to us. It doesn’t belong to us. It is a gift. It’s something that properly belongs to someone else but is given to us. Yet Christ must not only be given for us, he must be given to us. And not only the gifts, but the giver. This is very important. I think oftentimes in evangelical and Reformed circles today, we separate the person of Christ from the gifts of Christ. What we receive is the gift of salvation or the gift of this or the gift of that. No, what we receive is Christ. If you have him, you have everything. But it’s Christ, as we heard in the last hour.

We’re not only recipients of his gifts but of Christ himself with his gifts, which was Calvin’s fundamental difference with Zwingli. Faith unites us to Christ, but it’s the Holy Spirit who gives faith and it’s Christ who always remains the sole ground of salvation, never faith itself. To say we’re saved by faith is just shorthand for saying we’re saved by Christ. We should never allow that to be anything more than shorthand. We’re not saved by faith. We’re saved by Christ through faith. And so once faith grabs Christ, it grabs Christ for everything, all that he is. It would’ve been completely incomprehensible to Calvin to hear Christians talk about accepting Jesus as savior but not Lord. You can’t carve Jesus up, Calvin says. When you receive him, you receive him for everything he is and all that he provides. Calvin says:

After all, if faith in itself justified one by its own virtue, then seeing that it always is weak and imperfect, it would only partially be effectual and give us only a part of salvation.

No, Christ who became one with us in the incarnation now makes us one with him by his Holy Spirit through the word and confirms that through baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

A Happy Marriage

Now, Luther is famous for his marvelous exchange, right? You’ve all heard about the marvelous exchange. Christ takes our sins and debts and he gives us his riches. It’s a wonderful marriage. And he even recognized that he wasn’t an innovator here. He was the one who coined the term antinomian in his two treatises against the antinomians. In that treatise, he says what Calvin will say later, and what Paul said a long time before that, and what Jesus said in John 15. He said you can’t receive Christ as the husband with all of his benefits without also being changed, without also becoming a spouse. And he realized in this treatise that he was not alone here.

Bernard of Clairvaux was a medieval theologian and mystic (in the good sense of the word). Bernard was more of that Irenaeun stripe, and he really emphasized the marriage between Christ and the believer. He gets our debts and we get his riches. Now, he didn’t have justification clearly in focus there, but it’s a great example of how people in the Middle Ages could understand the gospel even though they didn’t formally get just justification right. But they could, practically speaking, cast themselves on Christ’s mercy with that great biblical metaphor of a marriage — our debts going to him, his righteousness devolving on us — without putting the right distinctions in place yet at that time. That’s really what Luther built upon.

Luther didn’t just come in speaking a language that no one understood. He was a reformer. So he said in this treatise, “This doctrine isn’t mine at St. Bernard’s. What am I saying? St Bernard’s, it’s the message of all Christendom, of all the prophets and apostles.” It’s Luther’s typical style of speech. Luther says:

And so, faith not only justifies, it unites the soul with Christ as a bride as united with her bridegroom. At this point, a contest of happy exchanges takes place. Is that not a happy household, when Christ, the rich, noble and good bridegroom takes the poor despised, wicked little harlot in marriage, sets her free from the devil and all evil, and decks her out with all sorts of good things.

This was important for all of the reformers, this idea of union with Christ.

Union and Justification

Calvin and his treatment in The Institutes, in his treatment of union, cites Bernard of Clairvaux 21 times in that section alone. What it reminds us is that people were standing on other peoples’ shoulders. It wasn’t as if the gospel just died with Irenaeus and then was rediscovered by Luther in the tower, but that God had been faithful to preserve his gospel, even through the darkness of those centuries.

Calvin also believed that within union with Christ justification is the central article of the contest between the reformers and the medieval church. He called it “the principle article of the Christian,” “the main hinge on which religion turns,” and, “the principle article of the whole doctrine of salvation and foundation of all religion.” It’s not really the case that you have Luther over here with justification and Calvin over with union with Christ. They both have union with Christ. They inflect that in different ways and they nuance it in different ways. But they both have union with Christ and they both give the same great place to the doctrine of justification within union with Christ.

Like the apostle, Calvin began treating the theme of union with Christ, at least in his Romans commentary, with Romans 6, as we’ve just heard. It answers the question, “Well then, should we sin that grace may abound?” If all we heard was the doctrine of justification, that might be what we would imagine. But what Paul says, as we’ve heard, is that the gospel is bigger than justification. You never get beyond justification. You never get over justification. But your problem is you don’t really see enough of the gospel.

It’s not that we have to set up hedges against libertinism by toning down the gospel; it’s that we have to realize that the gospel is bigger than being declared righteous. It’s being declared righteous in Christ and it’s also becoming a vine, a living fruit-bearing vine-branch of Jesus himself. That’s where he picks up on his emphasis on union with Christ in that commentary. Calvin says:

Within our union with Christ, the source of all spiritual blessings, there’s a logical order of dependence. Those he predestined, he called, those he called, he justified, those he justified, he glorified.

The Benefits of Union with Christ

Let me turn finally to the gifts of this union in Calvin’s view. Here again, really, all of the reformers are really on the same page. In fact, Calvin says that much of this he learned from Peter Martyr Vermigli. Have you ever heard of Peter Martyr Vermigli? He was one of the Zurich reformers in Strasburg and then he went and King Edward asked him to reform Oxford, so he taught Romans to a generation of students there. He was a really remarkable thinker. Calvin was indebted not only to people in the past but his own contemporaries.

Because we are chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, Calvin warns against trying to climb those ladders up to heaven on this one. See, you can say, “I’m justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, I’m done with the ladders. God has come down.” But then when we talk about election, we try to discover election within ourselves, or we try to speculate and climb into the heavens. And like Luther, Calvin calls this “seeking God outside the way,” or just “seeking outside the way.” It’s always dangerous to take this path of glory rather than to receive Christ as he’s proclaimed in the cross. Calvin says:

In the first place, if we seek the fatherly, liberality, and propitious heart of God, our eyes must be directed to Christ in whom alone the Father is well pleased.

He is not well pleased in you. Don’t find your election in you. He’s well pleased in him, so look to him and you find your election. He continues:

Consider and investigate it as much as you please. You will not find its ultimate scope extend beyond this. If we are chosen in Christ, we will find no assurance of election in ourselves. Not even in God the Father, considered alone and abstracted from the Son. Christ, therefore, is the mirror in which it behooves us to contemplate our election, and only here may we do so with safety.

That’s a narrow gate, isn’t it? It is a narrow gate. The theology of glory is a broad highway. The theology of the cross is narrow indeed. But the gospel is for every person. It’s to be preached to every person. Because we don’t know who the elect are, we preach the gospel indiscriminately. Calvin says:

The gospel is preached indiscriminately to the elect and the reprobate, but the elect alone come to Christ because they’ve been taught of God, and we must be concerned for the salvation of every single person.

Desiring All People to Be Saved

Calvin was, by all accounts, the most missionary minded of all the reformers. He sent the first missionaries to Brazil, to the new world. The first Protestant missionaries ever sent abroad were sent by Calvin, commissioned by the church in Geneva to Brazil. Renee of France, the sister of King Francis and also the Duchess of Ferrara, was very close with Calvin. Her palace was called the Hospital of Reformers. And so a lot of the people, especially Italian reformers, escaped persecution by fleeing to her comfort.

Because her son-in-law was one of the great persecutors of the French Reformed Church, she asked Calvin in a letter, “Is it okay for me to hate my son-in-law and to consider him reprobate?” Wouldn’t that be nice? If I could just check reprobate, then I can hate him, right? Because “Jacob have I loved, Esau, I have hated.” Calvin wrote this lovely letter back where he said, “Dear Renee, I’ve prayed often that the Lord would turn his heart, and if not maybe lay his hand on him, but to pronounce whether he is reprobate is not in my power or yours, for we shall all stand together at the judgment seat of Christ, and we should be so minded as to wish every single human being to be saved.”

Redeemed by Christ’s incarnation, active and passive obedience and resurrection effectually called into union with Christ by the Spirit through the gospel, and Calvin follows Augustine in distinguishing between an external call and an internal call for this union. This is the moment where we actually are united to Christ. We are chosen in Christ in election. We are redeemed by Christ at the cross. But we are only called into fellowship with Christ effectually through the hearing of the gospel, where the Holy Spirit takes us and gives us the faith by the gospel that’s proclaimed itself to trust in Christ, and from there we are justified being sanctified and will one day be glorified. Logically then, justification comes first in the order of the gifts that we receive in effectual calling.

That’s good news, because we are going to be effectually sanctified because we have been effectually called and justified. We are going to be conformed to the image of Christ. And that conforms to the spirit of what Paul was saying in Roman 6, right? He doesn’t say, “Well, you better not continue in sin that grace may abound.” He doesn’t say, “Well, then you’ve lost your salvation.” He doesn’t say, “Well, you could be a carnal Christian and lose your rewards.” He doesn’t do any of that. Instead, the apostle Paul says, “No, anyone who’s been justified is also being sanctified, because to be united to Christ for the one is to be united to Christ for the other.”

Our Settled Identity

Our identity then is settled because the forensic ground of our status before God has been settled. What is still being worked out now is not our justification or our election, but our gradual growth in this grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. We have to distinguish justification from sanctification but never separate them. Grace frees us to become not more and more justified, but more and more conformed to Christ who already is our righteousness. In other words, grace is not opposed to human activity, it’s opposed to human merit.

Grace actually is what frees us for the first time for a holy activism that was impossible for us before. To reduce salvation to forgiveness and justification is to reduce the amazing breadth of the good news that couldn’t be possible without justification. And like Luther, Calvin bathes in the Bible’s organic as well as legal analogies for this union — the vine and the branches, the head and the members. We cannot grasp Christ without receiving all of his benefits. Calvin says:

We are in Christ because we are out of ourselves.

We’ve sort of jumped out of ourselves into Christ. We have fled ourselves in order to have all of our good in him. He says:

Having been grafted into the body of Christ we are made partakers of the divine adoption and heirs of heaven. We are one with the Son of God, he says, not because he conveys his essence to us (like Plato’s idea of the sun emanating), but because by the power of the Holy Spirit, he imparts to us his life and all the blessings which he has received from the Father.

But Christ dwells principally on this that the vital sap — that is, all life and strength — precedes from him alone. Much of this medieval piety focused on the beatific vision was based on The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis’s famous medieval classic, the bestseller of the era. The idea is that by imitating Christ, one day you hope to be united to God.

Christ then becomes one of the rungs of the latter, and Calvin says, “No, he is the latter.” And he has come down, but by partaking of him, we partake of all that he has and all that he is. That means that there’s something deeper than imitation.

Now, listen, Calvin talks about imitating Christ’s example of humility and love and suffering and so forth. It’s not that he doesn’t talk about imitation. It’s pointless to try to pit imitating Christ against union with Christ, except for this, that there’s a lot of evangelical spirituality today that’s medieval Roman Catholic, that sees union with God and the beatific vision as the goal of following Jesus, the goal of imitating his example. What the Reformation said is flip that around. It’s the opposite. Only because we are united to Christ now can we bear the fruit of righteousness. It’s not that we’re kind of imitating a hero; it’s that we actually have been adopted into his family and now have the same relationship he has to God the Father by adoption.

United to the Whole Christ

That’s much deeper than imitation. Once you affirm that, imitation itself has richer connotations. In other words in, Calvin’s expression, “Surely those things which are connected do not destroy one another.” Just because justification and sanctification are connected doesn’t mean that they’re opposed, that they’re at war with each other. Calvin says:

Although we may distinguish them, Christ contains both of them inseparably in himself. Do you wish then to attain righteousness in Christ? Then you must first possess Christ. But you cannot possess him without being made partaker in his sanctification because he cannot be divided into pieces. Since therefore, it is solely by expending himself that the Lord gives us these benefits to enjoy, he bestows both of them at the same time, the one never without the other. Thus, it is clear how true it is that we are justified never without works and yet never through works. Since in our sharing in Christ, which justifies us, sanctification is just as much included as justification.

The key is that now God has changed from the relation of a judge condemning us through his law to a father who is leading us, never judging us or condemning us, but disciplining us and leading us as a father. The fatherhood of God is more central in Calvin’s thinking than the sovereignty of God.

People have pointed this out again and again. It comes up over and over. It’s far more formative in Calvin’s thinking. His view of God is far more the fatherhood of God even than the sovereignty of God. He thinks of him as a liberal father, an indulgent father. That’s true even in the good works, where, as Augustine says, “God is only crowning his work in us.”

My dad was an airplane mechanic in World War II and he used to fix everything. He built anything. He built most of the homes we lived in. The apple fell far from the tree and rolled down a hill and under a couple of buses and was crushed by moving traffic until it went into a gutter that went out into the ocean. I have absolutely none of his DNA apparently. When I was a little boy, I was out there working on the car with him. I was just getting my hands as greasy as I possibly could along with his, but contributing nothing to the process at all. There at the end, he said, “Press that down. No, no, no, don’t touch that. No, this right here. Just press that down.” I said, “Like that?” He said, “Yeah, like that.” And he went over and he turned on the car, the engine turned over, and he walked out. We both walked in with our dirty hands. I’m beaming at mom and my dad says, “Well, Mike fixed the car.”

That’s what a good dad does. That’s a good dad. That’s what God does. That’s what rewards are all about. God really does delight in our good works. And you know what? Yes, the sin clinging to our good works would vitiate each and every one of those if we were going to a judge, but we’re not, we’re going to a father, and he’s forgiven us all of the sin clinging to our good works in Jesus Christ. So stop being paralyzed, saying, “Well, they’re not perfect.” No, they’re not perfect, but a father doesn’t care. He’s received us in Jesus Christ and now we just do it out of love for our father and love for those who need our service.

The Final Fruit of Union with Christ

The ultimate goal of this saving work is our glorification. Glorification is a doctrine that has kind of fallen off in recent Reformed theology, it seems. It was really a big deal in the 16th and 17th centuries. The end of this beatific vision, especially with the theologians of the east, is theosis or deification. It’s not that we become divine in the sense that his essence merges with ours or ours merges with his, at least the Orthodox never taught that. There were some radical Western mystics who did, sort of in a Shirley McClain kind of way. But Calvin read these church fathers and he realized, “Yes, this is really what we’re looking for.” Justification is wonderful because it leads to sanctification and ultimately to glorification. Not even sanctification is the end. Calvin says:

Let us mark, the end of the gospel is to render us eventually conformable to God, and if we may so speak, to deify us.

It seems odd for us to talk about our glorification, right? We should talk about God being glorified. But Christ has so united us to himself that he will not be glorified without us. One of my favorite lines from Calvin is this: “Christ has so united us to himself that he considers himself right now somewhat incomplete and imperfect until we are raised from the dead.” Calvin says:

But the word “nature” (2 Peter 1:4) is not essence, but quality. The Gnostics formally dreamt that we are part of God, and after having run the race of life, we shall at length return to our original. And there are also at this day certain fanatics who imagine that we thus pass over into the nature of God so that he swallows up our nature. But such a delirium never entered the minds of the holy apostles. They only intended to say that when divested of all our vices, we shall be partakers of divine and blessed immortality and glory so as to be, as it were, one with God as far as our capacities will allow.

Isn’t that amazing? As far as our capacities will allow! In other words, it is without crossing that dividing line between creature and creator, but right up to the edge. Calvin says:

Plato recognized man’s highest nature is union with God, but he couldn’t even dimly sense its nature apart from Christ. Far from raising our minds away from the body to incorporeal things, they alone receive the fruit of Christ’s benefits who raised their minds to the resurrection of the body.

Amazing. Raise your minds to the resurrection of our flesh, which Christ now has in heaven. Christ is already still in our flesh, and when he returns, it will be just as bodily as it was when he left. And as he is, so we will be, because we are one with Christ.

Sharing in God’s Glory

The great Westminster Divine Thomas Watson said:

Even the dust of a Christian is a sacred part of the mystical body of Jesus Christ.

Isn’t that amazing? So there is a beatific vision after all, a sharing in God’s glory, but it’s not being absorbed into the divine essence. It includes the body as well as the soul, the whole church as well as the individual believer, who’s nimble enough at climbing those ladders. It’s even for the weakest believer, not just for the monk, and its focus is on the resurrection of the dead, not the ascent of the soul away from this world, because it is for this world that God sent his only Son.

And it’s not even paradise restored. It’s something no eye has seen nor ear heard, what Adam forfeited. No human being has seen it except Jesus Christ, the last Adam. It’d probably be appropriate to conclude with a marvelous summary from Calvin:

We see that our whole salvation in all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it anywhere else. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that it is of him. If we seek any gift of the Spirit, they will be found in his anointing. If we seek strength, it lies in his dominion. If purity, in his virginal conception. If gentleness, it appears in his birth, for by his birth, he was made like us in all respects that he might to feel our pain.

If we seek redemption, it lies in his passion. If acquittal, in his condemnation. If remission of the curse, in his cross. If satisfaction, in his sacrifice. If purification, in his blood. If reconciliation, in his descent into hell. If mortification of the flesh, in his tomb. If newness of life, in his resurrection. If inheritance of the heavenly kingdom, in his entrance into Heaven. If protection, security, and abundant supply of all blessings, in his kingdom. If untroubled expectation of judgment, in the power given to him as Savior to judge. In short, since rich store of every kind of good abounds in him, let us drink our fill from this fountain and from no other.