Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Richard Hooker on Christ our Righteousness

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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1 Corinthians 1:30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

In church, we can through around a lot of big words. And sometimes how they relate to Jesus and our life can be confusing. I find it easy to forget how justification, sanctification, and glorification relate to one another, to my life, and especially to Jesus Christ. In my studies, I’ve found that seeing how all of these relate to being united to Christ helps align the words to the reality of salvation.

Richard Hooker, in his sermon, A Learned Discourse on Justification, offers a helpful summary of how justification, sanctification, and glorification all relate to Christ and our union to him. Hooker argues that all of humanity stands before God as unrighteous and enslaved sinners. But Christ, in his death and resurrection is made the “righteousness of men.” Following Paul in Romans 5, Hooker argues that just as all of humanity were captive in death because of Adam, so all were made righteous in Christ. In Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension, he saved humanity from sin through his atoning and substitutionary death on the cross. 

In other words, those who are in Christ are united to his work of salvation, are made right with God and humanity. Christ’s being our righteousness – a reality that comes from outside of unrighteous humanity, i.e., we do not earn nor do we deserve it; it is a total gift. It is one work of salvation in the one person of Christ, but it is distinguishable in three different ways.

“There is a glorifying righteousness of men in the World to come: and there is a justifying and a sanctifying righteousness here. The righteousness, wherewith we shall be clothed in the Lord to come is both perfect and inherent. That whereby we are justified is perfect, but not inherent. That whereby we are sanctified is inherent, but not perfect.” (Sermon II, sec. 3).

Hooker’s language is Old English and can be a little confusing, so let me parse out a bit what he is saying.

First, the glorifying, justifying, and sanctifying righteousness is Jesus Christ’s life and work applied to us. There are not three different righteousness, but one right person, Jesus Christ. Imagine one beam of light refracting out of a prism. Jesus is the righteous one who works his righteousness for humanity in three distinct but united ways.

The first refracted beam is glorifying righteousness. Hooker begins with glorifying righteousness to establish the end goal of human salvation:  communion with the triune God perfectly and inherently. Perfectly meaning that we are as we were created to be, and inherently, it is an internal condition – we are made entirely holy inside and out. This is the goal end to which God created and redeemed us to draw us into union with God in Christ. But we do not yet have this righteousness.

The second bean is the justifying righteousness. In the death of Christ, we are justified by his perfect righteousness,  but it is outside of us.  We are declared sinless and united to Christ’s death. It is important that the death of Christ justifies us from the outside and is perfect because it establishes the security and reality of salvation. We are made right with God because of Christ’s perfect obedient righteousness, and it has nothing to do with our ability to be right with God. Christ the righteous one dies for the unrighteous. The perfect righteousness of Christ becomes ours as a gift without works. The reality of justification is sometimes scoffed at as a mere judicial fiction. It is not fictitious because it is a perfect gift given and established in the infinite Triune life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Nothing can change the justifying work of Christ, it is done and accomplished it is perfect, and it is given to those who are united to Christ in the Holy Spirit. Which brings us to the third beam of refracted light.

Jesus’s righteousness, his life, death, and resurrection, is infused into us through the Holy Spirit, making his righteousness ours internally but not perfectly. This is the processes of sanctification. Jesus is our righteous and gives us his Holy Spirit who infuses us with Christ’s virtues, habits, and life. It is not perfect, that comes in glorification, but it is a real infusion and process of growth and maturing. This righteousness is no less a gift, while at the same time it is internal and real because it is the Holy Spirit of God dwelling in us, uniting us to Christ, who gives us his eternal life and love with the Father.

In his magnum opus, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Hooker puts what we’ve been saying differently.

“Thus we participate Christ partly by imputation, as when those things which he did and suffered for us are impulsed unto us for righteousness; partly by habitual and real infusion, as when grace is inwardly bestowed while we are on earth, and afterwards more fully both our souls and bodies made like unto his in glory. The first thing of his so infused into our hearts in this life is the Spirit of Christ…” V.56.11.

Here we see that we are perfectly justified by the imputation of Christ’s work on the Cross for us, and sanctified internally by the infusion of grace in our lives through the Holy Spirit which eventually leads us to be glorified perfectly and inherently.

In the end, what Richard Hooker helps us see is that Jesus Christ is our righteousness at all points in the Triune God’s economy of Salvation. When we struggle to believe we are loved, known and forgiven, Christ our justifying savior is there to tell us that he has completely saved us. When we struggle with Sin and the desire to know and love God Christ our sanctifying savior is with us and in us through the Holy Spirit drawing us further up and further in. When we look to the future, Jesus our glory is there calling us home and cheering us on to the full communion that awaits us in the new heavens and new earth. This is the light of the Christian, and because it is all Jesus Christ, we have nothing to boast about, and that is good for us because Christ is our Righteousness.

This compact summary of Christ as our Righteousness helps me think clearly and worship more faithfully the fantastic and beautiful Triune God. I hope it blesses you and leads you to worship God the Father, Son, and Spirit in heart, mind, and action.

 

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.

A Brief look at Union with Christ

I wrote this to help me think through explaining union with Christ in the context of a discipleship group I am trying to start at the church I am serving. It isn’t an exposition of the whole doctrine of Union with Christ. In the future, I hope to examine how the doctrine of Union with Christ relates to the Hypostatic Union, specifically, how theologians have articulated the location of our union with Christ in relation to the Hypostatic union. 

We know that as Christians we are disciples of Christ, called to follow, imitate, and do what he says. We’ve also established that for many of us, the gap between what we know we are supposed to do and what we are doing is often pretty extensive. We could try to double down and exert our wills and just force ourselves to be disciples, but this always leads to some kind of exhaustion mixed with a sense of guilt and shame at our failure. Last week we learned that Christian’s are not just saved from death and sin, but we are also saved for a certain kind of life: life submitted to Christ and in obedience to his will. The question that still remains is how is this done? How is the gap bridged? How do we live in obedience without shame overwhelming us when we faith, and pride overwhelming us when we succeed?

The Christian answer to this is the doctrine of Union with Christ. To understand the doctrine, we must first define it and consider its benefits for the Christian. So what is union with Christ?

Rankin Wilbourne offers this, simple and biblical definition: Union with Christ means that you are in Christ and Christ is in you.” (43). What does this mean? First, to be in Christ means that everything Christ has done and is doing is yours – his life, death, resurrection and ascension. In Galatians 2:20 Paul says it this way, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Paul can say this because, in a very real, not metaphorical way, he has died with Christ and now lives in Christ. This is true for anyone who believes in Jesus Christ – His life is your life. The second part of the definition is that Christ is in you. How is this possible? In John 14 Jesus tells his disciples that he is about to leave, but that he will not leave them as orphans but he will come to them. How does Jesus both leave and come to them? He says, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” How is this possible? This is all possible because the Holy Spirit, the advocate, and helper will dwell in his disciples. Jesus leaves his disciples, physically, but remains with and is one with his disciples, through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit, the Son and Father come to dwell in the hearts of his disciples. (see John 14:23). As Wilbourne says, “To be united to Christ is to have the Spirit of Christ within you. The Spirit is the real, living bond between Jesus and us.” (51).

This is the basic doctrine of Union with Christ, but how does this relate to our lives? Gordon T. Smith summarizes it this way:

“Christ himself, his very self, becomes our true home even as we ourselves, our embodied selves, are the home of Christ. Therefore we do not merely follow Jesus, though we certainly follow. We do not merely obey Jesus, though we certainly live as those who do his will. And we Do not merely imitate Jesus, though, without doubt, we follow his example. Rather, we participate in the life of Jesus – literally, not metaphorically.” (41).

So Union with Christ is a literal reality, not something we just conjure up or imagine. But how does Union with Christ happen? Well, we’ve already seen that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, drawing us into Christ and Christ into us. God also uses the means of Grace, Word and Sacrament (baptism and Eucharist) to strengthen and ground us further in our union with Christ. (Smith, 41).

At this point, you might be wondering where the classic words of Justification and Sanctification have gone? Nowhere. Justification is the beginning of our union with Christ. When God in Christ justifies us objectively, we are forgiven and liberated from sin. This leads to sanctification: where Christ’s whole life is poured into our lives uniting us to his life through the Holy Spirit (see Smith, 49-50). To see this at work in Scripture, read closely Ephesians 2:1-10.

Union with Christ then is the central reality of salvation; it is the reality that moves every part of the Christian life. To see this, let us consider how Union with Christ benefits our daily walk with him. Following Wilbourne, Union with Christ gives us a new identity and purpose.

In a world obsessed with self-definition and glorification, Union with Christ is good news. Wilbourne says it this way, “If you are in Christ, your life and your story become enfolded by another story, Another’s story. You don’t have to discover or craft, create or achieve, invent or reinvent your identity. Your identity is found not deep within you but outside yourself.” Your identity is Christ himself, you are the beloved Child of God in Christ. This takes time to believe and sink in, that is why we need to continually be reminded of our identity through Worship, Word, and Sacrament, but it is the truth. God has adopted you to be his very own. Paul in Ephesians 2 Says that you’ve been made alive together in Christ, you’ve been created in Christ. Your life is his life. This means that we don’t have to strive or work for our sense of identity and belonging: it is already given to us in Jesus.

Union with Christ also gives us a new purpose. Out of our identity in Christ, we don’t need to fear or prove ourselves anymore because we are beloved Children of God. This means that some of the harder verses in scripture can begin to take on a new light, especially the verses that challenge us to grow in Christ-likeness, in holiness. Ephesians 2 10 says “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We are created in Jesus Christ, saved by grace through faith as a pure gift (see Ephesians 2:8-9), with a purpose: for good works. However, this is not some sort of exchange: we are saved so now we have to do good works. How is that possible? Union with Christ.

“In the Bible holiness is both what we already are and what we are called to become” (Wilbourne, 180). Wilbourne uses two images that help communicate this: union with Christ is our anchor and our engine for growth in sanctification and good works. On the one hand, Christ is your anchor, your complete salvation and sanctification. You are in Christ, totally sanctified and completed in Him. So when we struggle with doubt, failure, or the desire to prove ourselves,  we Look to Christ who has completed his work of sanctification in us already. To return to Ephesians 2, we are already created in Jesus Christ, everything is accomplished. We don’t have to make ourselves holy; it is a gift.

Further, we are called to be holy, to be transformed, grow in holiness, and do the good works prepared for us (Lev. 11:44; Eph 4:15, Rom 12:2). These verses point us to the reality that we are holy in Jesus objectively, and yet, we are called to grow in holiness as we journey to our final home. Jesus “Not only declares us holy, but he also empowers us to be holy. Union with Christ means Christ is in you. The presence and power of Jesus now dwell within you by his Spirit…. And Just as Christ lived a completely holy life and was able to overcome every temptation, so now, because he is within you, he gives you a new disposition to live for him” (Wilbourne, 181).

The combination of these two images: anchor and engine, gives us both assurance that when we struggle we are not lost – you are in Christ – and courage and confidence to continue to pursue holiness – Christ is in you.

Union with Christ is the heart of the Christian life. Because Christ is in us and we are in Christ we can talk about how to grow in holiness without worrying about trying to earn our salvation. Because of Union with Christ, the gap between our beliefs and our actions can slowly close because Christ is with us and in us making us like him. So, in summary, we have learned that: Union with Christ is the doctrine that believers, through the Holy Spirit, are united to Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension with the result that we are literally in Christ and Christ is in us, giving believers a new identity and purpose.

 

Resources:

The two books I used for this short lesson are one of many books on the topic of Union with Christ. I liked Wilbourne’s book because of its accessibility. Smith’s book casts a vision of Christian Maturity with Union with Christ as the starting and ending point.

Smith, Gordan T. Called to be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity.  Downers Grove: IVS

Wilbourne, Rankin. Union with Christ. Colorado Springs: David Cook, 2016.