The Reality of the Christian Experience
When we often hear many American Evangelicals go on and on about their experiences, it might make us not want to talk at all about the Christian experience, but when we understand it correctly, the Christian experience is truly a comfort. I have lately become interested in this topic as I have been reading Luther’s Galatians lectures of 1535 (AE 26).
In his lectures, Luther goes so far as saying that by faith we are so united with Christ that we are as one person (168). Now, at first, this seems a bit extreme, as if Luther is confusing the personal union of Christ in His divine and human nature and the mystical union by which we are united with God. But Luther sees this in light of the fact that we are “joined together into one flesh and one bone.” (Eph 5:30) Therefore Luther says that we can declare: “I am as Christ.” And Christ replies: “I am as that sinner who is attached to Me, and I to him.”
So are we then justified by the indwelling of Christ? When we actually read how Luther expresses this unity with Christ, he speaks of it as the believer having an “alien life.” (170) So Christ being in us does not express a progressive justification, deification, or even a Christification. Christ becomes one with our sin, and we with Him, that is, His righteousness. Luther simply expresses the truth of the Gospel, that Christ became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). And this Righteous One, this sin bearer, this Christ, is alien. Luther demonstrates how this objective external reality applies to the individual by faith. As Professor Kurt Marquart pointed out, it is not merely a change in us, but rather a most blessed exchange by which “the Prince of Righteousness trades places with us paupers of sin.” (Luther and Theosis, CTQ, Vol 64:3, 2000, 197-98)
When we consider Christology and the two natures of Christ, we can better understand the kind of righteousness we actually receive and possess by faith. The first genus (genus idiomaticum) teaches that the attributes essentially belonging to either the human or the divine nature are ascribed to the entire person of Christ. The attribute of righteousness is eternally God’s, and He created man in it. Here is an attribute which is essentially God’s, but this righteousness was not an extra gift that was added to Adam after he was created. He was created in God’s image; he was created in righteousness. Luther says (AE 1:164-65):
The scholastics argue that original righteousness was not a part of man’s nature but… was added as a gift… Let us rather maintain that righteousness was not a gift which came from without, separate from man’s nature, but that it was truly part of his nature, so that it was Adam’s nature to love God, to believe God, to know God, etc.
Christ was righteous even as an unborn baby according to both His human and divine natures, but this was one righteousness of one person, true God and true Man. Christ’s righteousness was not built up throughout his life for the purpose of being simply communicated to us, as we imitate them with the help of His gift of grace. At the same time, however, He fulfilled all righteousness in our stead in a real human lifespan by His active and passive obedience to God.
So what kind of righteousness do I need? Is it an unknown, hidden, and unrevealed righteousness? Is it a purely transcendent righteousness that must be obtained through a deep spiritual fervor of the heart that detaches me from my physical reality? Neither of these will do, because I am a man, so I need a man’s righteousness. But do I need the quantitative works which are left over from another? No, this won’t do either, since the God of the most high requires much more from me. I need the obedience that brought righteousness to all men. I need the righteousness that loved my neighbor when I didn’t even think to do so. I need the righteousness that resisted even the desire to sin while I was deep in it. I need the righteousness that, as Paul Gerhardt put it, bore the stripes, the pain, the death, anguish and mockery and saith: “All this I gladly suffer.” I need the righteousness of the Man Jesus, that righteousness of God in Christ, revealed in the Gospel, received by faith.
It is really silly to think that since Jesus is in us by faith, we are therefore justified by an increase of good works through the indwelling of Christ. It is also silly to think that justification does not meet its reality until Christ dwells in me. Justification met its reality after Christ became my sin, because it was there that He became my righteousness. What other Christ can we know? The Christ that dwells in us by faith is the same and only Christ who was delivered up for our sins and rose again for our justification. The Christ whose true body and blood we eat and drink is the same Christ who is sitting at the right hand of the Father pleading for us. The experience of the Christian is not what makes justification a reality; rather the reality of the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus won by His suffering, death, and resurrection, this reality is what makes the Christian experience.
So even though the basis for our Christian experience is not inside us, it does happen to us personally. When we struggle with all sorts of contempt and lust in our hearts and our consciences are struck by the Law, and we wonder how Christ can possibly dwell in us, the Word of the cross comes to us by the Spirit, and He comforts us. He renews in us our unity with our Savior, but our Savior does not come to us merely to make a progressive change in us so that we can be worthy recipients of His Kingdom. Rather, He brings with Him His eternal victory over sin, death, the devil and all temptations. He brings with Him a reality which existed while we were still sinners and enemies of God. He brings it all with Him, banishing our sin by the sin of His cross. This is the Christian experience.