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.

About Pastor Andrew Preus

Pastor Andrew Preus is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran/St. Paul Lutheran, Guttenberg/McGregor, IA. He is the eighth of eleven sons, with one sister. He received his seminary training at Concordia Lutheran Theological Seminary, St. Catharines, ON (MDiv) from 2009 to 2013, and Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN (STM) from 2013 to 2014. His main theological interests include Justification and Church and Ministry. He is married to Leah Preus (nee Fehr), and they have five children: Jacob, Solveig, Kristiana, Robert, and Marian.


The Reality of the Christian Experience — 13 Comments

  1. Andrew,
    I was reading he Freedom of a Christian right before I read your post and was struck by the connection between what you wrote and what I was reading.

    “Here we have a most pleasing vision not only of communion but of a blessed struggle and victory and salvation and redemption. Christ is God and man in one person. He has neither sinned nor died, and is not condemned, and he cannot sin, die, or be condemned; his righteousness, life, and salvation are unconquerable, eternal, omnipotent. By the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of hell which are his bride’s. As a matter of fact, he makes them his own and acts as if they were his own and as if he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into hell that he might overcome all. Now since it was such a one who did this, and death and hell could not swallow him up, these were necessarily swallowed up by him in a mighty duel; for his righteousness is greater that the sins of all men, his life stronger than death, his salvation more invincible than hell. This the believing soul by means of the pledge of his faith is free in Christ, its bridegroom, free from all sins, secure against death and hell, and is endowed with the eternal righteousness, life, and salvation of Christ its bridegroom. So he takes to himself a glorious bride, “without spot or wrinkle, cleansing here by the washing of water with the word”[ Ephesians 5:25-27] of life, that is, by faith in the Word of life, righteousness, and salvation. In this way he marries her in faith, steadfast love, and in mercies, righteousness, and justice, as Hosea 2:19-20 says.”

  2. Christ becomes one with our sin
    Christ became my sin

    Many would object to the plainness and bluntness of these statements, but I believe they are warranted.

    Because of the many controversies over the nature of the atonement, it has been necessary throughout history to emphasize Christ as Surety. The qualification of a surety is worth or value. No one but Christ has sufficient value or worth to pay the debt of sin. We are bought, not with silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.

    Along with Christ as Surety, however, we also need to keep Christ as Mediator in view. The qualification of a mediator is sympathy. The mediator must be able to feel what it is like to be each of the two parties that he is bringing together. Since one of the parties is sinful man, as Mediator, it was necessary for Christ to feel what it is to be a sinner.

    He did so mediatorily and by sympathy, so that the saying remains true, that He was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin. That is, without sin of his own. Yet the saying also is true, He who knew no sin was made to be sin for us. In this making of him to be sin, the making was not only on the books of account, but in his person, when he knew no sin of his own, yet knew ours, by sympathy.

    When we know the enormity and depth of sin, this extent of Christ’s sympathy with us is the true measure of how far from heaven Jesus came to save us. It is one distance to be born in Bethlehem. It is a further distance, by galaxies, so to speak, to mediatorily enter into our sin. It is further from Bethlehem to Gethsemane than it is from heaven to earth.

    Without doubt, the cup that Jesus asked to avoid in Gethsemane included the wrath of God on sin, and that wrath would culminate on the cross. But another part of the cup was sin itself, before reaching the issue of God’s wrath on sin. Sin is the cause of death, and the mediatory, sympathetic taking on of our sin was killing Jesus already in Gethsemane. Every autopsy comes to one and the same conclusion: the cause of death is sin.

    Too many explanations of the condition and behavior of Christ in Gethsemane view the thing to be explained as fear. Supposedly, Jesus was fearful of the cross. But Jesus was dying in the garden. What we’re looking for is a cause, not of fear, but of death, and sin is that cause.

    “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death,” that is, I am so full of anguish, that I could die of agony.” Luther, Martin; Chris Rosebrough (2011-04-27). The Sufferings of Jesus Christ for Sinners (Kindle Location 47). Pirate Christian Media. Kindle Edition.

    “Since He became a substitute for us all, and took upon Himself our sins, that He might bear God’s terrible wrath against sin and expiate our guilt, He necessarily felt the sin of the whole world, together with the entire wrath of God, and afterwards the agony of death on account of this sin.” Id., Locations 54-56.

    “He is the Son of God, — the everlasting Righteousness! And although He assumed our flesh and blood, His flesh and blood is altogether sinless. Yet, since He took upon Himself foreign sin, namely that of all the world, in order to atone for it, this sin of others so affected Him, filled Him with such grief and anguish, and so terrified Him, that He began to tremble and quake, confessing: “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” Id., Locations 81-84.

    “Sin is so mighty that it can affect Jesus Christ, my Lord and God, with the greatest grief, though it be not His own sin, but entirely that of others;” Id., Locations 95-96.

    “That it is the most intolerable burden, because it so agitated His innocent heart.” Id., Locations 98-99.

    “He trembles at the mount of Olives, and feels such anguish that His sweat is as it were great drops of blood; my sins, which He has taken upon Himself, and whose heavy burden He has borne, have brought Him to this.” Id., Locations 129-130.

    “Thus the scene at the mount of Olives also serves for our consolation; it assures us that Christ has taken our sins upon Himself and rendered satisfaction for them. For how could we otherwise account for such fear and trembling?” Id., Locations 133-134.

    To die for sin is one thing. To be made sin is another, and it was the horror that threw Christ into his ekthambeo. Mark 14:33 It produced an ekthambeo in him because his experience of sin was mediatorial and sympathetic, and He of himself was still holy. It takes a holy perso to feel sin. Sinners hardly feel sin. Gethsemane could not have thrown anyone but Christ into an ekthambeo, because Jesus is the only man ever to have lived who could really feel sin.

  3. Similarly, Pieper:

    “We can understand the meaning of Christ’s being forsaken by God only if we fully accept the central Scripture truth of Christ’s substitution for us. Christ in Himself indeed was no sinner. The transfer of our sin to Him was a purely juridical divine act: “God made Him to be sin for us who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). But this divine juridical act of God penetrated to the very heart and conscience of the suffering Christ. When Christ was forsaken of God, He felt the sin and guilt of all men in His soul as His own sin and guilt. This is clearly brought out in the Old Testament prophesy in which Christ speaks of His own sin and guilt in the words: “O God, Thou knowest My foolishness; and My sins are not hid from Thee (Ps. 69:5). With our sin and guilt, Christ also felt God’s wrath, that is, God’s verdict of condemnation and rejection, in His soul, just as if He had personally committed all sins of mankind.” Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1951), vol II., p. 310.

  4. That is interesting when you look at the fact that Christ experiences in His body both the offended and the offender. T.R., that is a great point! Only Jesus truly felt sin. The devil and our sinful flesh makes sin a desirable thing for us. But Christ felt the reality of sin and the reality of being a sinner.

    Andrew, I have translated some of Mario Victorinus’ Galatians commentary (from the fourth century), and he makes the same point that our sin is forgiven by the sin of Christ’s cross. Maybe in my next post I can show how his language is very similar to Luther’s, and this shows that Luther’s theology was by no means new.

  5. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
    18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
    19 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.
    20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.
    21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.
    22 The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son,
    23 that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.
    24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

  6. @ AP
    Much of what you say is certainly true, however I wish you had placed more stress on Sanctification. The Holy Spirit leads us into a more Christlike view of the world, of our enemies, of our own condition, each day.

    You write, “So Christ being in us does not express a progressive justification, deification, or even a Christification.” Very true, execpt that Sanctification is a bit like “Christification” not in that we become little gods, or more saved, or better than other believers, but that our desire is to imitate Him in all things to reflect our love for Him.

    Sanctification, inspired, enabled, and guided by the Holy Spirit, does change us each day into better disciples.

    As I said, I agree with much of your post, but more emphasis on Sanctification (by name) would have been great.

  7. @Andrew Preus #4 I have to get this our of the way, Andrew. The picture on the post makes you appear to be about 12 years old. 🙂 Experience in Christ can be very uplifting but because of our sinful nature it comes and goes but God’s promises never waiver.

  8. @sue grabe wilson #6
    Thanks for you comment, Sue. I will have to follow your advice and work on an article about Sanctification. Here are some thoughts I have on the subject, which maybe I can construct into a future BJS article.

    I agree that we cannot neglect sanctification, but it is best to identify what sanctification truly is. Usually when we think of sanctification, we think of it in its narrow sense, that is, the increase of good works. This is better known as the new obedience (Augsburge Confession, article 6). Luther does make the point that our works as Christians are Christ’s works in us. But if we want to understand this topic more accurately, we should examine sanctification in its broad sense.

    The meaning of the Third Article in the catechism says: “… but the Holy Ghost has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He daily and richly forgives all sins to me and all believers…” So according to the Small Catechism, sanctification is equated with forgiveness. The Law certainly has its tutorial use; we are told to be imitators of Christ and to love our neighbors as ourselves. But Sanctification is best understood when we look at the whole picture, namely forgiveness through the use of the means of grace. Sanctification in the narrow sense (new obedience) describes the result of forgiveness. In 1 Corinthians 6:11 Paul uses the terms “wash,” “sanctify,” and “justify” synonymously.

    You are definitely correct that through sanctification, that is, through dwelling in the word of Christ, we daily grow in our relationship with our Lord. But being better disciples does not mean that little by little day by day we are getting better in every way. We may very well overcome many sins, and we do mature in morality to extents that vary. But growth in sanctification is better understood as growing in your trust in Christ. The older I get I realize how much of a sinner I am, and I can only assume that it will become more and more evident to me as I get older. So it is certainly true that through forgiving us our sins, God gives us power to do good works, even providing us the works to walk in; however, if we speak of a growth in discipleship, we must understand it as us learning how much we need Jesus and how much Jesus loves us. I am not saying that sanctification does not include ammendment of life and walking in good works, but emphasizing an increase of good works is simply emphasizing the law. Emphasizing the law is good, but the gospel must predominate. Sanctification is simply the Christian life, which includes both Law and Gospel (repentance and forgiveness).

    Again, thanks for your comment. I agree that sanctification is a topic that should be studied a lot. I enjoy Adolf Koeberle’s book “The Quest For Holiness,” because he does a very good job of explaining how justification and sanctification are distinct but not separate.

  9. @mames #7
    mames, I was 22 when this picture was taken. So I guess that means that when I am 40, I will look 30. I can live with that. 😉 Anyway, well said. That was basically the point I was trying to get accross. Our Christian experience does not always include feelings of joy; but like you said, God’s promise is always there.

  10. @Andrew Preus #8

    “if we speak of a growth in discipleship, we must understand it as us learning how much we need Jesus and how much Jesus loves us.”

    That view of discipleship is woefully incomplete, for Jesus himself plainly said:

    “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

    To be a disciple of Jesus is to want to imitate Him; it involves a desire to engage the world with the love of God that Jesus himself demonstrated. The Son did not free us just to live a life of contemplation.


    “[W]e are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)

    And this is work motivated by love, not fear of punishment under the Law.
    “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)

    “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:40)

  11. @Carl H #10
    I agree. Love for one another and for neighbor is a sign of discipleship, but we cannot have that love for one another if we do not learn “how much we need Jesus and how much Jesus loves us.”

    I addressed this in the comment you quoted. The law is good. We should preach it. But we should reject the idea that we need to preach sanctification (or new obedience) after the Gospel, as if it needs to be preached so that the Gospel does not become cheap.

    The source of true discipleship comes from having your sins forgiven, that is, experiencing the love of Christ in His Word. Love for one another and good works are definitely prepared for us to walk in. But preaching a new obedience does not entice people to be better disciples. The Law is preached as a didactic tool, but is always accuses.

    So all I am saying is that sanctification is not merely new obedience. It is law and gospel.

    Galatians 3:2-5 “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith”

  12. @Andrew Preus #4
    I really like your closing paragraph,
    “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.”

    Irenaeus as well…
    “so that neither should justice be infringed upon, nor the ancient handiwork of God go to destruction. Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and humanity, imparting indeed God to human beings by means of the Spirit, and on the other hand, attaching humanity to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God, all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. Against Heresies

  13. @Andrew Preus #9 As I remember many of the Preus men were blessed with good boyish looks their whole life. Nice gift to have! 🙂 It is so comforting to know that HE is joyful over me even when I am ignoring Him. In His child parent analogies, as a father, I can identify with loving your child even when they couldn’t care less (at the time). Praise His faithfulness.

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