This post will be me very much thinking out loud – grappling with some questions, looking for feedback. So please share your thoughts about what I am saying. I am not committed to them, but just exploring some ideas.
Yesterday, during our church service, we sang “I Am Coming to the Cross” (#307 in the SDA Hymnal) for our opening hymn. The first line of the last verse got me thinking, causing me to start exegeting what the hymn writer was saying:
Jesus Comes! He fills my soul! Perfected in Him I am.
What, exactly, does he mean that “perfected in Him I am”?
It seems that this is our typical thinking: when God is considering my eternal destiny and looks at me, a wretched sinner, He instead looks at Jesus and sees His perfection and righteousness and thus, in a legal and forensic sense, I am justified and let off the hook because Christ, as my Substitute, was Himself perfect and died on my behalf. I thus don’t have to worry about being perfect or righteous myself; Christ was perfect and righteous for me.
Even a quote from Ellen White that I had included in my sermon yesterday, from that classic Steps to Christ, seems to bolster this model. “If you give yourself to Him,” she writes, “and accept Him as your Saviour, then, sinful as your life may have been, for His sake you are accounted righteous. Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and your are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned” (p. 62).
But it all of a sudden dawned on me that perhaps there is another way of looking at it (which doesn’t contradict Ellen White’s statement, but is simply another understanding of it). What if, instead of God looking at Christ and saying, “All right – Christ was righteous instead of him; I’ll let him off the hook for Jesus’s sake,” He actually does still look at Christ but instead says, “Oh, Jesus is a human being who lived a perfect life and thus represents the potential of what a faithful life looks like. I will not hold Shawn’s sins against him because I see that his life of faith will eventually look like Jesus’s life of faith”?
Thus, Christ didn’t simply life a perfect life for us (or instead of us), but as us, prefiguring what all those who are living by faith will experience. His life was thus typical rather than just substitutionary. God looks at me through the eyes of faith, seeing in Christ what I will eventually become as I live by His grace through faith – and is for this reason that God doesn’t hold my sins against me and justifies me. So not only does God see Christ when He looks at me, He sees me when He looks at Christ.
This is how Paul can say that we are “justified . . . by the faith of Jesus” (Galatians 2:16). Our lives are justified, not because of our faith, but because of the life of faith that Jesus lived which typifies what our lives will look like by His grace. We are also justified by God’s faith because He looks at us through His eyes of faith, believing that our lives will bear a resemblance to Christ’s life of faith.
This makes Christ’s humanity all the more important, by the way, because if Christ is going to typically represent me and thus be a picture of what my life of faith will eventually look like, then He had to be made just like me – otherwise His life wouldn’t accurately reflect what a sinful human could eventually reflect.
Just for a little Scriptural support to these ideas, consider a few texts. To begin with, Christ is referred to in Scripture as the “firstfruits” (1 Corinthians 15:20), the “firstborn” (Colossians 1:15), and the “forerunner” (Hebrews 6:20). As such, He represents those who are coming after Him, giving a preview to the universe as to what those who will come after Him will look like. Again, this means that Christ typifies and prefigures all the rest of humanity who are living by faith.
We also get a glimpse of this in 2 Corinthians 5:21, where Paul says that God “made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” We often interpret this in forensic terms – that Christ credits His righteousness to us and God lets us off the hook, but I’m not so sure we shouldn’t instead interpret it (or perhaps, also interpret it) in an experiential sense (see N.T. Wright’s Justification for an exhaustive exposition of this passage, in which he clearly steers away from a forensic-only interpretation of this pivotal text).
There is more that we could bring out from Scripture, of course, but that is just a sampling.
The natural question that arises is: does this mean that my justification is thus based, at least in part, on my performance? After all, if God is justifying me with the belief that my life will eventually look like Christ’s, what happens if I don’t live up to His expectations? Isn’t our objective standing with Him thus undermined?
I’m still working through all the implications, but I don’t think so. God will continue justifying me, continue forgiving me, because He never ceases to believe in me – never stops believing that by His grace I can live a life of full faith just as Jesus did. To put it more simply: our standing with God is not based on our performance but on His love and belief in me.
At the same time, Christ’s death is still forensic in the sense that it met the demands of justice that humanity’s sin required. But all that was taken care of at the cross.
Lastly, I think this model is a little more robust because it seems that the traditional model necessarily produces a, “Oh, good, I’m off the hook because of what Christ did, so I don’t have to worry about being perfect.” This explanation, on the other hand, obliterates the arbitrary distinction that we typically apply to justification and sanctification, recognizing that they started in the same action (again, this is not to say that our standing with God is based on our performance; it is simply to say when God justifies us – which happened at the cross – it was also the beginning point of our sanctification).
Again, I am still grappling with this concept and exploring all the implications. And I don’t necessarily think this replaces any other model of the atonement, but simply adds to our picture.
So what do you think? Where are the holes? What are the implications? Is it completely heretical? Is it confusing? Hard to understand?