The Spirit Unites Us To Christ: The Christian Life

Author: Richard Topping.
Contents current as of November 3, 2011.

Rev. Dr. Richard ToppingIn order to become a person who can be taught by others, nothing less than conversion is required; and that is a work of the Spirit who tames our egocentricity so that we can learn as pupils, together with other pupils, in the school of Christ.

In the last issue, we closed Part Two of Rev. Dr. Richard Topping's article with this first sentence. Now we move into the third and final instalment of this wonderful reflection, which was originally presented at the Renewal Day in November 2009 at St. Andrew's Newton Presbyterian Church in Surrey BC. Dr. Topping is St. Andrew's Hall Professor of Reformed Studies at the Vancouver School of Theology, Vancouver BC. — Kit Schindell

Read Part 1 and Part 2

What would this mean for sermon preparation and/or personal Bible study? Do we get our ideas of Christian scholarship more from the academy than from the Gospel and our Reformed tradition?

Jesus Christ by his death and new life has won the benefits that God intended for us. Salvation is won through Christ. God redeems what is broken in the world that He has made. However, these benefits lost in the fall and won back by the Son of God remain external to us. There is potential grace afoot in the universe through Christ. This grace is apart from us, external to us, because we are sinners; we don't receive grace automatically. Book Three of the Institutes of the Christian Religion is called, "The Way in Which We receive the Grace of Christ . . ." and the whole of this section is about how the benefits of salvation won in Christ come to us through our contact with God.

Christ is the mediator of grace and so to receive the benefits of his life into our lives we need personal contact with Christ. "He must become ours and dwell in us." Calvin loves to speak of our union with Christ, our engrafting into Christ, our being made one with him: "We are apparelled with him." So close is our fellowship, our personal contact with Christ that we are united with him more closely "than are the limbs with the body." Calvin says that our hope for resurrection and eternal life would be faint were it not for our "complete and entire" union with Christ. Fellowship with Christ is close, personal, intimate — he lives in us and we in him. What happens to Christ, death and resurrection, happens to us, because we are in him. Our union with Christ is the condition for our access to a spiritual life.

But Christ remains outside of us, apart from us, until by faith we are joined to him. And for Calvin, faith is always and everywhere the work of the Holy Spirit. Faith is confidence and trust that the benefits of Christ are mine. That what happened back there and then on the cross and at the empty tomb applies to me here and now. Jesus Christ by his death and new life achieves salvation and the Holy Spirit is the means by which this salvation reaches even us. It is the work of the Spirit to create faith, not just that God and Christ exist but faith in God come among us in Christ for us and our salvation. Faith is the channel opened by the Spirit, at the hearing of the Gospel Word and at the sharing in the sacraments, through which the blessings of salvation achieved in Christ flow to us. Faith is what is generated in us by the Spirit's work of breaking down our sinful resistance to God so that we can behold the love and grace of God come in Jesus Christ. By faith, which is the work of the Spirit, we are bound to Christ and his benefits. "Perfect salvation is found in the person of Christ . . . that we may become partakers of it, he baptizes us in the Holy Spirit and fire . . . bringing us into the light of faith in his gospel and so regenerating us that we become new creatures." And again, "The Holy Spirit is the cause of our enjoyment of Christ and of all his benefits."

The Spirit works (ordinarily) by means of the Word and Sacraments. In Calvin's thought, while it is certainly true that the Word read and proclaimed is never effective without the agency of the Spirit, it is also certainly true that Calvin is not an "enthusiast" or a spiritualist, and his thought could never give rise to a generic understanding of spirituality. While Calvin always respects the freedom of Almighty God to work as God chooses, he does note again and again that the Spirit works by certain regular means in the life of the people of God. These are scripture and the sacraments.

Scripture is a clear and sufficient witness to the Gospel in its own right. However, we misconstrue and misunderstand it because of sin. And so the Spirit illumines the Scriptures so that we see what we ought to see and know by means of it. Nothing is wrong with the Bible, for Calvin. It speaks clearly and plainly and sufficiently of God and the Gospel and of the benefits of Christ. However, something is wrong with us. God is broadcasting, but our reception is faulty. And so the Spirit, as we have noted, repairs what is broken in us so that we can know God and share in the benefits of Christ. The Spirit adds amplitude so that we get God and the Gospel and our need for them. The Spirit creates faith by means of the witness of the Word and we are united with Christ.

The Spirit also works in the sacraments. We are weak. Our imaginations, as we noted, lead us astray. We like tangible and visible things and so we fall into idolatry. Ah, but God, gracious and accommodating as God is, comes to us not just in a verbal witness (scripture), God presents Christ and his benefits to us in visible items/actions (the sacraments). We hear God's word in Scripture by the grace of the Spirit, and we see God's Word in the bread and the wine. Indeed, for Calvin and Calvinists, one of the reasons we break the bread — 'fraction it' — at Holy Communion is as a symbol of Christ's body broken for our benefit. And when we share together at our Lord's Table, praying, "Lift up your hearts," the Spirit actually and truly answers our prayers and we are raised up to commune with Christ at the right hand of the Father. We share spiritually in the life of Christ by the work of God's Holy Spirit — and faith is created and helped by this intimate communing, this fellowship with our Saviour.

What then are the benefits of Christ communicated to those who have faith by the Spirit? It is a double grace: justification — that is the imputation of Christ's good standing with God to us so that our sins are forgiven. Engrafted into Christ a blessed exchange takes place, our sins are laid on him and his new life is infused into us. We are in Christ, clothed in his righteousness. He is in us, and we are in him.

The benefits of Christ come to us from the Spirit and we make progress in holiness. If in the fall of human beings the image of God in us is corrupted, the Spirit is busy in the lives of the saints to restore it. We are, for Calvin, never made entirely holy in this life. In fact, part of sanctification (becoming holy) is found in the recognition of how far from it we are. Calvin sees regeneration, being made over again in the image of God, as consisting in two parts: mortification of the old person and vivification of the new person. The shape of the Christian life is in this way determined by the shape of the life of Christ who died and then rose again. We are "in Christ" by faith and the grace of the Spirit, and so what happened to Jesus happens to us. We die with him to an old way of living for sin. We rise with him to live our lives to God. The power of the reign of sin over and in us is done.

However, Calvin says that this life is "a perpetual battlefield" with sin. God by the Holy Spirit is continually at work in the saints killing in us what kills us so that God may fill us with the life of Christ. Calvin says, "This restoration is not accomplished in a minute of time nor in a day, nor in a year; but God continually abolishes the corruptions of the flesh in his elect in a continuous succession of time, and indeed little by little; and he does not cease to cleanse them of their filth, to dedicate them to himself as temples, to reform their senses to try piety, so that they exercise themselves all their lives in penitence, and know that this war never comes to an end until death. (I Corinthians 1:8)". Self-love and ambition were, for Calvin, particularly besetting sins. In the fall from right praise, the praise of self — ego-centricity — is particularly troublesome on Calvin's account.

On the other side is vivification — life — new life in Christ born of the Spirit. If mortification of the flesh is the answer to the fallen praise of idols, then vivification is the answer to our ingratitude and self-congratulation. We are raised with Christ to live gratefully all the days of our lives to God. Here and now in definite deeds of gratitude, the image of God in us begins to be restored. Every thankful deed offered at the prompting of the Spirit (our obedience) for new life in Christ is a restoration of what we have been created for. Obedience to God is for Calvin the form that gratitude and love for God takes in this life. "The Spirit nourishes and confirms in us the love of obedience . . ." and "The aim of regeneration is that people may perceive in our lives a melody and harmony between the righteousness of God and our obedience; and that thereby we ratify the adoption in which God has accepted us as his children."

New life in Christ includes the love of our neighbour. We praise God in the love of the neighbour for they are created in the image of God. It is regard for the neighbour as image bearer that stokes the believer into the service of others and so to praise God. In a striking passage, Calvin writes, "We ought not to dwell upon the vices of men, but rather to contemplate in them the image of God, which by his excellence and dignity can and should move us to love them and forget all their vices which might turn us therefrom."

Our gratitude to God — in the form of obedience to God and love of our neighbour — ought to be spontaneous and free. However, we resist the Spirit through sloth and we struggle, particularly in times of trouble, to be faithful. And so the law is given as a spur and help to guide us in the right direction. We require guidance in the new life God wants to give us. And here Calvin lays down a very different path to Luther. The law has a positive use in the life of the Christian, it guides, it leads us to life; the Spirit makes use of it to guide us toward right and grateful living in the love of God and neighbour — we were created for this.

The new life comes hard, on Calvin's view. For it is guided not just by the law but by the life of Jesus Christ himself. To live for Christ in this life is to suffer. Calvin doesn't say that the whole of the new life in Christ is suffering, but almost. Suffering and tribulation predominate in this life, and if there are moments of respite in the struggle to deny ourselves and take up our cross, those are allowed by God so that we may take up the struggle again with renewed vigour.

For Calvin, the sufferings in this life, taken up in faithfulness to Christ by the power of the Spirit, are to be viewed in the light of eternity — if we share in Christ's life of suffering, we shall share in his glory as well. "We must," he writes, "always look to the end, to accustom ourselves to despise the present life . . . the Lord knows very well how prone we are to a blind and even brutish love of this word" and so God uses affliction "that our heart should not be too much attached to such a foolish love."

Calvin will also speak of prayer as the intended result of the suffering we undergo. When what faith seeks is not plain to sight, obscured as it is by present sufferings, we pray and ask for the fulfillment of God promises. In this movement toward God in affliction, it is the Spirit at work in us, inciting us to call out "Abba Father." "Wherefore God, in order to make up for our weakness, give us his Spirit for a master, who teaches us and tells us what it is legitimate for us to ask, and who also rules our affections."

Let me end with a question? Is this good enough? Is this a scriptural and Christ-centered enough way of speaking about the Christian life? Do we have sufficient warrant to summarize almost the whole of the Christian life in terms of suffering? Is the almost principal warrant to pray to be found in suffering? What about gratitude to God for so great a life and so great a salvation — doesn't the Spirit move us to thanksgiving too?

We might note that here Calvin follows the Apostles' Creed, which summarizes the whole of Christ's life in these terms: "suffered under Pontius Pilate." I've always wondered whether we might add a line in the creed here from Acts 10 — "he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed." It seems to me that Calvin's account lacks the liberating, healing, lifting work of grace, even in the here and now. He seems to equate vivification (new life in Christ) with suffering; new life with just about dying?

Karl Barth says that Calvin on the Christian life is "stern," "sombre" and "forbidding." He argues that, "Calvin suffers from a curious over-emphasis on mortification at the expense of vivification." And Barth asks, "Who authorized him to almost completely conceal . . . the clear and positive meaning and character of conversion as liberation by giving vivification only a minor position as the reverse side of mortification." And then here's how the Reformed tradition reforms: Barth writes: "The truth is that in the New Testament the real dying and passing and perishing of the old man is matched by a no less real rising and coming and appearing of the new."

Reformed and always reforming according to the Word of God; it is the perpetual work of the Spirit in our lives and in Christ's church. (Dogmatics, IV/2: 575, 579).

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