John Calvin on Union with Christ

 
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As I continue to research the doctrine of Union with Christ and other topics, I want to post significant or insightful quotes and offer some reflection on them.

Have you ever struggled with the feeling that all that stuff that Jesus did in his life is great, and sometimes you can sense that it means something to you, but it feels kind of cold and distance? Growing up in the Church I thought that a lot. Jesus died for me, 2000 years ago, but it didn’t get into my inner life, it didn’t sink down into my mind and heart and bring real change. So I was surprised when I found that this is actually a real problem and one that the doctrine of Union with Christ, rooted in the Inseparable and joyous life of the Triune God answers. Calvin sums it up the problem and solution splendidly in the following quote.

After presenting his doctrine of the knowledge of God, creation, and redemption in Books 1-2 of Institutes of Christian Religion, Calvin turned to the Christian life in Book 3. This is how he opens this book:

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separate 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 to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called “our head” [Eph 4:15], and ‘the first-born among many brethren” [Rom 8:29]. We also, in turn, are said to be ‘engrafted into him” [Rom 11:17] and to ‘put on Christ [Gal 3:27]; for as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. It is true that we obtain this by faith. Yes since we see that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel, reason itself teaches us to climb higher and to examine into the secret energy of the Spirit, by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits.” The Institutes of Christian Religion III.1.1.

This is a crucial passage on union with Christ in Calvin’s writing, and we can observe several essential things about union with Christ in it.

First, there is a Trinitarian pattern to Union with Christ. To receive the love of the Father and the salvation the Son achieved on humanity’s behalf, we must be united to Jesus Christ. For this to happen, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Father and the Son, must dwell in us. Salvation is accomplished in Christ, and applied to the Christian, in faith, through the Holy Spirit.

Second, Union with Christ puts us back on the right track towards humanity’s end goal. The end goal of union with Christ is humanity’s incorporation into fellowship and communion with the Triune God; so that we can be friends with God as we were created to be.

Third, note that salvation is only attainable in union with Christ. There are only two positions humanity can have in relation to Christ; outside, where there is no salvation, and inside Christ through the Holy Spirit, where salvation, life, and all goodness is.

Fourth, it is through the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity that we enjoy Christ and his benefits. The Holy Spirit is how Jesus Christ dwells in us and we in him. No Holy Spirit, no Union with Christ. In my growing up imagination, this was the link that was missing. I needed to see that the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, dwells in me and brings me into communion with The whole Trinity. The Holy Spirit applies the work of Christ in my life, personally.

Finally, the benefits that the Spirit applies – often summed up with words like justification, sanctification – are all found in personal union with Christ. That is not to say that justification and sanctification are the same things, rather, these are the double grace of union with Christ. We are declared in right standing with God because we have died with Christ and risen with him – passing through the judgment of our sin in Jesus – and we are continually being made new in the image of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit – who gives us the character, virtue, and life of the perfect human: Jesus Christ.

Union with Christ is the heart of the Christian life, it is how we are made right with God, brought into communion with God, and renewed in his image.

*Forgive the irony of using an Icon of Christ while quoting John Calvin. I appreciate a lot of his theology, but I disagree with his rejection of Icons, though I respect his concern about Idolatry.

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