An Integrated View of Christ’s Work
Calvinists have always affirmed that the nature and effects of Christ’s saving work cannot be reduced to a substitutionary sacrifice that brings forgiveness of sins. Recognizing the vastness of sin’s effect, Reformed theology interprets Christ’s saving work as including the recapitulation of Adam’s disobedience, fulfilling all righteousness in our place as our federal head, “In short,” noted Calvin, “from the time when he took on the form of a servant, he began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us.” Atonement cancels debts, but justification raises us upright in God’s presence, with Christ’s righteousness credited to our account. Atonement bears away our guilt, but justification gives us that positive standing in God’s court so that we are not only forgiven but entirely acceptable, righteous, holy, and pleasing to God for Christ’s sake.
Therefore, rather than accept a false choice between a substitutionary death and saving life, there is much in the Irenaean theory of recapitulation that belongs to the warp and woof (Golden Thread) of vicarious substitution itself. Christ’s penal substitution is not the whole of Christ’s work, but without it nothing else matters. Therefore, his incarnation and obedient life are as necessary as his voluntary death.
Furthermore, Christ’s death conquers the powers of Satan, evil, and death that hold this present evil age in bondage, and his saving work encompasses the resurrection and ascension, and his return to make all things new. Christ not only redeems souls but bodies as well, and not only bodies but the whole creation. Reformed theology has always encouraged a richer and more integrated understanding of Christ’s saving work that encompasses his incarnation, obedient life, sacrificial death, and triumphant resurrection. Christ’s sacrificial love is also an example for us to imitate (Matt. 20:25-28) and establishes God’s moral government (Rom. 3:25).
However, Calvinism also points out that none of these other aspects can actually be realized unless Christ’s work is first of all, a vicarious substitution, addressing the objective problem of guilt before a holy God.
- Does Christ’s work undo Adam’s trespass, recapitulating a new humanity under Christ’s life, death, and resurrection? Certainly, it does, but we are still left in our sins unless Christ’s death actually cancelled our debt.
- Does Christ’s work conquer the powers of death and hell? Surely, but only because it first of all has satisfied justice so that the sentence of death may be lifted, and Satan be deprived of his claims against us.
- Does the cross-display God’s love? Indeed, it does, but if it actually satisfied God’s righteous demands and absolves us of our debt. Otherwise, it is a cruel object lesson. If the death of Christ was not necessary for the satisfaction of God’s justice, it then reveals God’s injustice rather than his love.
- Does Christ’s saving work uphold God’s just government and moral order in the world? Yes, but only if it actually satisfied the demands of justice to the full measure rather than serving merely as a moral deterrent.