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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Good Works in Christ, Imitation or Transformation?


Mark Garcia’s book Life in Christ has afforded me occasion to reflect more upon “union with Christ” in particular with respect to good works.

Scripture is clear that we are to be imitators of Paul (as he is of Christ), and of God. (1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 5:1) Yet for the believer it is not only true that we are to imitate Christ - we are indeed destined to do so. Moreover, not only is our imitation of Christ unavoidable (Ephesians 2:10) - it is no mere imitation but rather an actual fellowship in Christ’s suffering granted to all believers virtue of their spiritual union with Christ. As Mike Horton rightly noted (over ten years ago in his timely book “In The Face Of God”), “Christ’s cross was more than God’s method of saving us; it is our own cross, our own death, burial, and resurrection. We are united to Christ… Not only are we identified with his victory but are also destined to share in the ‘fellowship of his suffering.’”

We have an inheritance that is unshakable, which in a real sense serves as an impetus in the believer’s life toward the faithful reception of what the promise of final adoption contemplates. It is our unalterable union with Christ that not only ensures the eschatological reality that awaits all believers - it also defines the very path by which we must enter into that glory. That foreordained path is none other than Christ’s path of faith-wrought works and suffering. Just as we have been foreordained unto good works (Ephesians 2:10), we have also been predestined to become conformed to the image of Christ. (Romans 8:29) However, being an imitator and becoming like must be distinguished but can never be separated in the life of the believer. For one thing, the former can be the product of hypocrisy whereas the latter is unique to the believer and in one sense the very telos of our salvation. The believer’s obedience, which will be evidenced in this life and openly acknowledged on the last day in all who love the Lord, is not merely an imitation of Christ’s obedience but rather a divinely appointed fruit of being baptized into the once suffering - now glorified - Savior of men. It is part of our salvation and as such should be embraced through faith and certainly not avoided (not that it can be). Moreover, just as the believer’s alien righteousness is more near than far (to paraphrase Richard Gaffin), our obedience through suffering is granted within the orbit of a reality of intimate union with Christ’s "historical-experience", as opposed to being experienced in the context of mere imitation through vastly different circumstances that have little or nothing to do with the righteousness of Christ's gospel.
As we received Christ, so too are we to walk in him, and so we shall. We did not find Christ but rather he us. So too will our trials come in Christ, when we least expect them. We need not seek them out, let alone work for them. Our task, as we try to live peaceable lives in Christ, is to receive such trials and in turn respond in the strength and power of the Holy Spirit in a manner well pleasing to the Father through Christ.

To be saved from our sin is not only to follow Christ’s example by walking in his steps (1 Peter 2:21), it also entails a true participation in Christ’s sufferings to the end that we might be “overjoyed when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13) From the believer’s vantage point we imitate Christ by grace because he first loved us. But we have another perspective that we do well to reckon as fact, especially if we are to think Christ’s thoughts after him as we endeavor to imitate him as we ought: All things are divinely appointed and working together in order to conform believers not into mere imitators of Christ but into the very image of him in whom they are united so that he might be the firstborn of many brethren who share not only in his suffering but through that union-suffering, his glory. This suffering, which to our shame we too often so desperately try to avoid, is no less a gift than the faith through which our God-appointed suffering is to be interpreted. (Philippians 1:29) Being a gift, it is not something to be shunned but rather accepted in its proper season - if we are to desire and experience a more intimate fellowship with Christ.

Ron

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13 comments:

Joshua said...

I'm reading through Gordon Clark's commentary on Ephesians, where he mentions that he prefers to translate the Greek preposition "en" in terms of agency (by means of) rather than location, thereby stressing the intellectual and representative aspects of our relationship to Christ: he is our legal representative and we are accepted by means of His action.

In reading your post I was reminded of Clark's interpretation, because it is something that seems perplexing the more one considers it: what work that God works in us is not the work of Christ on our behalf?

To think about it more abstractly, what thought of ours is not the thought of God thinking our minds thinking the thought we conceive?

Certainly contemplation of Christ must precede imitation of Him. For we cannot do rightly what we do not rightly know to do. For in doing the thinking we do what is necessary for doing the subsequent act that is imitation. Indeed, we do well to know that Christ contemplated the will of God, and in so doing contemplation in the same way, our doing so, which is our thinking, is imitative.

Do you not think that thinking can be also a form of suffering?

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

Joshua,

If I understand your meaning, it is true that Christ “is our legal representative and we are accepted by means of His action.”

This next statement of yours needs some fleshing out, or so I would think: “What work that God works in us is not the work of Christ on our behalf?”

Yes, the works God performs in and through us are the works of Christ on our behalf if what you mean is that God in Christ by the Spirit is working in us both to will and to do of his good pleasure. However, if what you mean by “Christ’s works on our behalf” is the works he performed as our legal representative, which was your first context, then I would (of course) say “no”. Those works are not the works God performs on our behalf, but they are the basis upon which we perform volitional good works since our works in progressive sanctification are of course inexorably tied to our knowledge of the forensic aspect of our salvation (Romans 6).

You stated: “To think about it more abstractly, what thought of ours is not the thought of God thinking our minds thinking the thought we conceive?

Love it. When we think x, it is because God wills we think x. It’s not unlike creation. Let there be and it is.

Certainly contemplation of Christ must precede imitation of Him.

I take it that you’ve switched to discussing our contemplation as opposed to God’s contemplation. Most of our imitation follows, at least minimally so, some sort of conscious reflection or contemplation on our part if not even subconscious contemplation. Notwithstanding, there are what I would call passive “acts” of imitation, such as holy aspirations, which need not be contemplated per se prior to those “actions” coming into existence. When you believe what is true about Christ, and allowing belief to be an “action” (though not an action produced by the will), you need not contemplate the truth of what is believed; yet I would think you must comprehend the proposition believed. I see comprehension, belief and knowledge as logically sequential but not necessarily temporally sequential. Of course in the case of a priori comprehension, belief and knowledge – those strands are never temporally sequential by definition, being a part from experience. The main point is that not all imitations of belief are the product of discursive reasoning or contemplative reflection.

For we cannot do rightly what we do not rightly know to do.

You’re using “rightly” in two different ways. I’m going to assume that you are not equivocating and that you intentionally mean to do so. I’m going to take you to mean simply that “we cannot act in accordance to the law of Christ (regarding anything true) without first knowing the truth.” My issue is that if we in fact know what is true, then we’ve already thought Christ’s thoughts after him and therefore “done right” in the sight of God. At the very least, a priori knowledge is void of discursive reasoning, and a posteriori knowledge can be void of contemplation, being a direct result of immediate illumination, or Augustinian revelation. Acts of belief and knowledge are non-volitional acts though volitional acts can very well precede some such passive acts.

But yes, your point is well taken I believe. We can and do suffer in our thinking. If we had no minds, could we even suffer at all? Does a tree suffer when it’s sawed in two? When our Savior sweat drops of blood, his knowledge was most acute I would think.

Having said all that, do you see any significance in the thesis that imitating Christ is not the same thing as participating in his suffering through union?

Ron

Ron

Joshua said...

You are correct in reading a distinction between Christ's work as our legal representative being distinguished from his work in us by the ministry of the Spirit by virtue of our union with him. My intention sometimes transitions without the benefit of a sentence indicating as much.

I had a lovely conversation with Mark about the contemplation of God as it relates to our own contemplations, and even the subconscious and immediate aspects of our living and understanding. David said it best when he said there is no escaping God--indeed, His very thought of us is our life. Would that more contemplation of the truth of God's being were present in my thinking.

You are correct again to notice my transition without the clear indication. Forgive me for not making it as clear as it otherwise could have been.

I agree with your distinctions between passive "acts," immediate reception, and contemplation. Given the three aspects we have brought up, two being passive, and one being active, would you care to speculate on the proportion or degree to which our imitation of Christ involves the passive more or less than the active?

Ron said>>Having said all that, do you see any significance in the thesis that imitating Christ is not the same thing as participating in his suffering through union?<<

If I understand your post correctly, you are arguing that imitation is the same thing as participating in the sufferings of Christ through His vital union with us. I might only ask whether you would include under the term sufferings the joy that was set before Christ by which He endured the cross willingly. I am assuming that you would, although it is a point of emphasis that might speak well to a contemporary audience who has little experience with suffering, and might mistake it for something to be regretted, rather than to be joyfully accepted.

If I may be permitted to employ an effulgence of rhetoric once more: what would we warriors for the Word look like in this age if we embraced the shame of the Cross, not as something we must do for the sake of Christ, but as something that Christ is providing to us, and for our joy (namely, that we are made like Him in participating in His sufferings)?

Your thoughts are a challenge to me to spend less time fearing mortal men, who have no power over the soul, and more time enjoying the fellowship of our Lord's sufferings in whom my soul is secured forever.

~Joshua

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

would you care to speculate on the proportion or degree to which our imitation of Christ involves the passive more or less than the active?

Joshua,

I think the active often times precedes the illumination. We study God’s revelation with respect to faith and practice (what to believe and how to live) and then we’re quickened to the truth, which is a passive reception that comes by way of active contemplation. Just the same, I think that to imitate Christ to the fullest of our potential we must be a workman when it comes to the Word. The grace of the “active” is what causes one man to differ from another I would strongly suggest.

If I understand your post correctly, you are arguing that imitation is the same thing as participating in the sufferings of Christ through His vital union with us.

I probably wasn’t as clear as I could have been. Imitation does not always include suffering but suffering is always imitation. The most profound imitation is through the path Christ walked, which I believe is characterized by being a suffering servant more than anything else. Accordingly, to know Christ is to fellowship in his suffering.

I might only ask whether you would include under the term sufferings the joy that was set before Christ by which He endured the cross willingly. I am assuming that you would, although it is a point of emphasis that might speak well to a contemporary audience who has little experience with suffering, and might mistake it for something to be regretted, rather than to be joyfully accepted.

I would say that the two are related but not the same. The prospect of glory is not suffering but it is the finish line for the sufferer.

what would we warriors for the Word look like in this age if we embraced the shame of the Cross, not as something we must do for the sake of Christ, but as something that Christ is providing to us, and for our joy (namely, that we are made like Him in participating in His sufferings)?

Indeed. Yet the evangelical church, which the Reformed church is looking more and more like in many quarters, wants a theology of glory apart from cross. For the market place, Christ is the only one who is to suffer. Our task is to become a happier and more fulfilled person who never gets sick.

Your last comment about fearing men must be a very practical application. Lisa gleaned the same observation from this topic.

Blessings,

Ron

Joshua said...

Ron,

The grace of the “active” is what causes one man to differ from another I would strongly suggest. The grace of the “active” is what causes one man to differ from another I would strongly suggest.

I agree with these statements. Would that I responded with awe to God in receiving His illumination, or even in His withholding of it, rather than (which is more often the case) feeling pleased or frustrated with myself, respectively.

Imitation does not always include suffering but suffering is always imitation.

This is more clear than my attempt to arrive at this distinction by placing joy under the umbrella of suffering.

...a theology of glory apart from cross.

And it seems especially true in more recognizably intellectual matters. We may suffer with Christ when poor circumstances or illness or loss occur, but to do so in contending for the faith (and especially contending against wolves in sheep clothing in the Church) to suffer is a sign of overzealousness and/or a lack of love for the bretheren.

Your last comment about fearing men must be a very practical application. Lisa gleaned the same observation from this topic.

It has been, and continues to be. Being much younger and in a subordinate position to my professors no longer seems a legitimate excuse, nor does getting along for the sake of ease with regard to peers.

Thinking some more with regard to your original post, it has been remarkable to consider many of the foundational doctrines of salvation with regard to transformation, and especially considering transformation in light of the basic principles of philosophy, such as ontology and epistemology. Most of my life and experience under Biblical teachers has spoken of the Christian life in terms of rather superficial relationships, or with evocative terms that have a rather mysterious and unintelligible meaning. I have been so pleased in these last few years to have these fundamental doctrines expressed in more definitive and logical descriptions.

~Joshua

Prodigal said...

Excellent post!

Kingsdawter said...

"we are to imitate Christ - we are indeed destined to do so. Moreover, not only is our imitation of Christ unavoidable"
Destined to be like Christ. I like that. The "obedience" folks won't though. They're too busy trying to BE obedient.

Joshua Butcher said...

Random question Ron,

Which do you like better and why:

Venn diagrams or Euler diagrams?

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

Hi Joshua,

The shading introduced by Ven clearly allows for more information to be communicated while clearing up ambiguities that might arise from Euler diagrams. Peirce takes things even further by introducing symbols, which of course are not as visual, requiring more discursive reasoning, which in some sense defeats a purpose of diagrams.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Ron

Joshua Butcher said...

Thanks Ron!

I'm as novice as they come in mathematics, and only slightly better with logic, but I'm working slowly to enhance the latter, which should help with the former in at least some small ways, I suspect.

Happy Thanksgiving (a day late) to you as well!

~Joshua

Joshua Butcher said...

I have another question (in two-parts) for you Ron.

Have you ever dealt with a process theologian and do you know of any good presuppositional treatments of process theology?

I have a friend (a professing believer) who will be studying with a professor who is steeped in Process Theology. They are planning to read Whitehead's book "Process and Reality" and John Cobb's introduction to process theology.

Any help you might be able to provide would be wonderful, and thanks in advance.

~Joshua

Ronald W. Di Giacomo said...

Joshua,

It's my belief that process theology is best dealt with exegetically, and when dealt with philosophically it is best handled by reducing the philosphical surd of libertarian freedom to absurdity. It's not really a presuppositional matter since a process theologian will claim the Scriptures as he should. It's his use of Scripture that is heretical.

Ron

Joshua Butcher said...

Thanks Ron, I'll let you know how it goes as the semester progresses.