Session 3 – (Wed. 9:00 AM)
“Union with Christ: The Architectonic Principle of Holiness in Calvin’s Institutes”
GRANTHAM, PA – Even if a word like “architectonic” was too big for 9 AM, one of the great anticipations of the conference for me was to learn more about John Calvin and his theology (part of my preparation for this conference was the Humble Calvinism series we started in January). Derek Thomas is a man well qualified to teach on Calvin. Thomas originates from
Whales Wales but now ministers in Jackson, MS as professor of systematic and practical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and Minister of Teaching at First Presbyterian Church. Recently we looked at Thomas’ excellent book, Calvin’s Teaching on Job (Christian Focus).
Thomas is very familiar with the Banner of Truth Conference, first attending in 1974. He began his address with kind compliments and thankfulness for the past 30+ years.
Thomas was encouraged to make one theologian his lifelong hobby. In seminary he discovered Calvin when studying Calvin’s Institutes. No one should graduate from seminary without studying them, he said.
Thomas’ messages for the conference would center in book three of the Institutes and especially upon a small section published by itself as the Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life (still in print). This small book has enjoyed, Thomas said, “a life of it’s own.” [The content of this small book can be found in the third book of the Institutes (3.6-3.10 or pp. 1:684-725 in the McNeill/Battles edition).]
Thomas began by reading the sixth chapter of Romans and a short reading from the Institutes. Coming out of Book 2, where Calvin explained the person and work of Christ, he goes on in Book 3 to explain how this is applied to the Christian. Calvin begins Book 3 by writing:
“How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son – not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that 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 to dwell within us” (3.1.1, p. 1:537).
This quote provides the critical bridge between Book 2 (the work of Christ, His Cross and the Resurrection) into Book 3 (the application of grace to the sinner). Without union to Christ, the application the work of Christ does not happen.
History of the Institutes
The Institutes first appeared in 1536 as a small book but would grow through many editions until the final French edition in 1560. The plan of the original Institutes was different than the final. The first edition followed the structure of a catechism. But in 1559 the Institutes would be remodeled to follow the outline of the Apostle’s Creed – following a Trinitarian design of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Some other significant changes include the moving of predestination from the opening chapters of the doctrine of God, into Book 3 being placed under the application of the Holy Spirit — because as Calvin says, “Election is the secret of God’s people.” Once you are born again, then predestination makes sense (similar to how predestination fits into the flow of Romans). Another change was that Calvin’s teaching on the Christian life formerly was a conclusion to his teaching on the church, but in the final edition is a subsection of Book 3 as can be seen from the third book’s title: “The way in which we receive the grace of Christ: What benefits come to us from is, and what effects follow.”
So if you look at the headings of Book 3, Calvin begins with a section on the Holy Spirit and then addresses faith, regeneration, repentance and justification. This is no proper ordo salutis! But Calvin is not attempting here to write an ordo salutis. Calvin is in a place where salvation by faith alone is charged as antinomian by his Roman Catholic critics. Therefore, Calvin first sets up sanctification to remove the ground of his opponents before jumping into justification. In other words, justification by faith alone does not undermine sanctification.
For Calvin, regeneration is not a one-time event that happens in the past. Rather, regeneration is an ongoing process of renewal in our sanctification. [The example of the Christian’s continued repentance for sin throughout life is an act of regeneration. Calvin writes, “in a word, I interpret repentance as regeneration, whose sole end is to restore in us the image of God that had been disfigured and all but obliterated through Adam’s transgression” (3.3.9, p. 1:601)]. It is important to know how Calvin uses the term “regeneration.”
Union with Christ
Union to Christ is the key truth of the application of His work. This union is a multifaceted and multidimensional truth. There is a mystical union with Christ brought about by the Holy Spirit where we are brought into spiritual union with Christ. But this union also incorporates Christ and believers whereby we share communion also in human nature, body and soul together. Christ identifies with believers in both a spiritual and physical union. Calvin’s eschatology includes an existence after glorification where we will have physical bodies and be in an incarnate union with Christ. Christ is the firstborn, elder brother in the family we are adopted: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Rom. 8:29). We are engrafted into Christ and we draw from the sap and vitality of Christ (Rom. 11:17). We put on Christ and grow into One Body with Him (Gal. 3:27-28).
Calvin expands on this union with Christ and its significance to sanctification.
1. Basis of holiness. Christ possessed a spiritual wealth to give to the needy and He prays to His Father that this spiritual wealth would be to the believer’s sanctification. This profound truth is reflected in the prayer of Jesus, “And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19). On this passage, Calvin writes in his commentary on John,
“It is, because he consecrated himself to the Father, that his holiness might come to us; for as the blessing on the first-fruits is spread over the whole harvest, so the Spirit of God cleanses us by the holiness of Christ and makes us partakers of it. Nor is this done by imputation only, for in that respect he is said to have been made to us righteousness; but he is likewise said to have been made to us sanctification, (1 Cor. 1:30) because he has, so to speak, presented us to his Father in his own person, that we may be renewed to true holiness by his Spirit.”
Thus, our union with Christ achieved both justification and sanctification for believers. Our sanctification is the result of Christ’s sanctification and it is His perfect sanctification now being worked out in our own lives! This is the union. So how are we saved? Calvin says, not by Christ but rather in Christ. A most common phrase of Paul is to be “in Christ” and this “in Christ” is the key to our justification and the key to our sanctification. Our holiness is His holiness, our righteousness is His righteousness.
Our union with Christ as the basis of holiness is evident in the beginning lines of First Corinthians. “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor. 1:2). The Corinthians have two zip codes – one zip code that places them in this world where they are attacked and tempted, but a second zip code that sets them in heaven because they are united with Christ. In this union with Christ we have a divine nature in this world, which means we can put off all vices of the flesh (2 Pet. 1:4).
2. Means of holiness. The Holy Spirit is the applier of the works of Christ. It’s the same Spirit that indwelt Christ in His Incarnate life. See the references to the “Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9, 1 Pet. 1:11). The Holy Spirit is the bond uniting us to Christ. None know Christ more intimately nor has experienced more fellowship with Christ than the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ.
So where is Christ now? Christ is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father, but we are still united with Him. In the Lord’s Supper there is a deep mystery here. Calvin speaks of the Holy Spirit drawing us into fellowship with Christ as the Spirit draws our affections towards Him. Our hearts are lifted into communion with the Body and Blood of Christ. The Spirit comes to us because of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
To signify the Spirit being poured over the Body from its Head (Christ), Calvin builds from the image of Psalm 133: “It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” (v. 2). Christ is our Head. He pours His Spirit over Himself and the oil of the Holy Spirit runs down from the Head over the rest of His Body the Church. Sanctification from the Spirit of Christ flows from our union with Christ.
3. Shape of holiness. The Christian receives all the fullness of Christ in all of His accomplishments (justification, sanctification, glorification, etc.). Grace reigns through righteousness. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2). As Calvin writes, “Medicine does not foster the disease it destroys” . We have died to sin and the claims of sin have been fully met (Rom. 6:10, 23). “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). The body of sin has been destroyed. Sin was manifested in the body and now righteousness must be manifest in the body, too. The believer has been freed from sin, freed from guilt and the power of sin. The bondage has been broken.
Being freed from sin’s bondage is no mere speculation for Calvin. For Calvin, communion with the death of Christ energizes the imperatives that follow. The imperatives – like “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” — come after the indicatives (Rom. 6:11). The template of holiness is union/communion with the death/resurrection with Christ. Calvin sounds so Pauline. This is why when we have a hard time understanding the Pauline texts, Calvin is most helpful. He thinks so much like Paul.
So what does it mean to commune with Christ? Communion with Christ functions in our lives and is manifested in the perpetual death/resurrection cycle of life. The cross is the way to victory and death is the way to life. Don’t be surprised that to know life and joy we must first experience death and crucifixion. Christ is the one who blazes the trail for the Christian and we follow Him (Heb. 5:9).
So reckon yourselves dead and look to heaven where Christ is. The Christian life is not about the imitation of Christ. WWJD is not a sufficient ethic for the Christian life. We act in the Spirit of Christ, not to the details of Christ’s life.
The same Spirit that indwelt Christ is the same Spirit that molds us and takes us along the path of crucifixion and resurrection on our path to glory. Don’t be surprised if that is an increasingly difficult path as we die to self, die to the world, die to the devil, and live more for Christ and His glory.
Related: For more posts and pictures from the 2007 Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference check out the complete TSS conference index.