“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2Corinthians 8:9).
This short verse from the apostle Paul takes us out a merely forensic or legal view of Jesus’ coming and gives us a much richer and far more profound vision. Here, as throughout the early Church, the coming of Jesus is not merely about the taking away of our sin, but about the staggering life that he brings to us, the very life that he himself enjoys with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Cleansing is certainly critical, but the taking away of our sin is unto a greater purpose, the sharing of his life. Jesus is, as the Baptist said, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And he is also the one “who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.” The saving work of Jesus, in the New Testament’s vision, always involves both dimensions. As John McLeod Campbell argued, there is both a retrospective and a prospective dimension to salvation in Christ. There is the removal, the cleansing, the taking away of sin, and there is the giving or sharing of life.
But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons”(Galatians 4:4).
In the West we have been so thoroughly preoccupied with the retrospective dimension of Christ’s work (redeeming us from the law, taking away our sin, justification) that we have almost forgotten the prospective dimension (baptism in the Spirit, adoption, union, the sharing of life). Hence there are thousands of books on justification and only a handful on adoption, even though our adoption stands as the driving reason, indeed as the eternal reason, for Jesus’ coming (See Ephesians 1:5).
My point is not to denigrate the work of our Lord in taking away our sin—such a work is fundamental—but to bring us back to the early Church’s vision that Jesus both takes away our sin and shares himself and his own life with us. The great early Church father, St. Irenaeus, put it this way, “our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself” (Against Heresies, V, preface).
Note John Calvin here as well:
This is the wonderful exchange (mirifica commutatio) which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness (Institutes, IV.17.2).
And James B. Torrance:
The prime purpose of the incarnation, in the love of God, is to lift us up into a life of communion, of participation in the very triune life of God (Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, p. 21).
In Paul and Irenaeus from the early Church, Calvin and Torrance from more modern times, we see that salvation in Christ is about a wonderful exchange involving not merely legal standing, but life itself. For Paul, the One who was rich before all worlds became poor in order to take away our poverty and give us his own wealth. For Irenaeus, the Son of God became what we are to bring us to be what he is in himself. For Calvin, the Son of God became one with us to make us sons and daughters with himself, and to share with us his own immortality, strength, wealth and righteousness. For Torrance, the Father's Son became incarnate to give us a share in the very triune life of God.
For all four, not to mention the apostle John, Karl Barth and many others, the incarnation was not a mere prerequisite for a spotless sacrifice on the cross, but the way of union between all that God is as Father, Son and Spirit, and all that we are in broken human existence. Without the cross and Christ’s death on it there could be no such union, and talk of the incarnation would be a farce, but the death of Christ serves the larger purpose of the wonderful exchange of Christ taking all that is ours and giving us a real share in all that is his.
In a variation on Paul’s great statement, “For you know the stunning grace of the Father’s Son that though he was rich in the shared life of the blessed Trinity, yet for our sake he became poor, suffering our wrath to meet us, and now through his suffering we who were so poor have been included in Jesus’ own rich relationship with his Father and Spirit.”
As Professor Torrance insisted, the Christian life is about participation, about our personal participation or sharing in the very life of Jesus himself, and thus in his life and relationship with his Father, and in his relationship with the Holy Spirit, and indeed in his relationship with all creation.
May the Holy Spirit quicken us with hope that such a vision could be true, and may the Spirit of adoption give us the faith that yearns to know and experience Christ’s life within us, until the life of the blessed Trinity—shared with us all in Jesus—comes to full and abiding and personal expression in all the earth.