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how taking up our cross grounds us deeper into the earth
As this Lenten season comes to a close, I have spent much time thinking about Christ’s atoning work and what it means for us today.
Revisiting Calvin’s Institutes in conversation with some readings from Augustine, Norman Wirzba, Jonathan Tran, Joan Lockwood O’Donnovan, T. Robert Baylor, my friend John Walker at Princeton University, and others, my attention has been drawn to Calvin’s account of atonement as the communication of merits.
A full explanation of Calvin’s reasoning is an essay in itself and not my purpose here. So, I will attempt to summarize it briefly.
Calvin assumes first that Christ, being God, has nothing to merit in and of himself. Christ has all he needs as it relates to his divine relationship with the Father — he does not need to merit further his standing at the right hand of God because of his position of eternal sonship. And yet, because Jesus is God, he alone is the only entity capable of receiving any divine merit.
What happens at the cross, Calvin says, is Christ’s meriting of salvation. But, this merit is not for his own possession but for the communication of such merits to God’s creation. Calvin says that whatever Christ gains he immediately shares (communicates) to those who belong to him.
As T. Robert Baylor explains, “Christ had no need to merit for himself since his exaltation is not the acquisition of some new grace, but the revelation of that glory and blessedness that Christ possessed in himself from the very moment of the incarnation.”
This means that, as Christians, our primary disposition should not be one of ownership but of receptivity. We live as recipients of the divine grace of God offered to us through Jesus Christ and then act out of this “recognition of the prior initiative of God’s gracious love in Christ,” as Eric Gregory wonderfully puts it.
Calvin’s discourse on merits has helped me reframe Jesus’ command to take up our cross and follow him (Luke 9:23). This is because his non-proprietary vision of flourishing sounds a lot like what Jesus says directly after this command:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit them if they gain the whole world but lose or forfeit themselves?
What does it mean to take up our cross and Follow Jesus in the world today? It is to recognize that our time in this world is marked by a sacred ephemerality. We are not here for long — and our ambition to store up treasures for ourselves and profit will merit us nothing at an eternal scope.
As Jesus says in Matthew 6: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
By speaking of the brevity of our life, I am in no way rejecting the sacredness of our earthly life—to conclude such would be to minimize the creative work of God, the incarnation of Christ, and the ongoing work of the Spirit in our world today. Instead, I think a recognition of our vaporous existence grounds us deeper into God’s divine action in the material world.
As Norman Wirzba writes in This Sacred Life:
To say that life is sacred is…to signal that places, ranging from wetlands and oceans to farm fields and city neighborhoods, and creatures, ranging from earthworms and raspberry shoots to bees and people, are the embodied expressions of a divine affirmation and intention that desires for them to be and to thrive. … This means that this life is not simply the object of God’s love; it is—in ways that remain incomprehensible to us—also the material manifestation of a divine energy that gives and nurtures and encourages diverse life without ever being exhausted or fully contained in the expression of any of its embodied forms. (xviii).
Jonathan Tran, in a brilliant essay on linguistic theology, further emphasizes the embodied, earthly nature of our faith. He concludes:
In redeeming us God does not, apparently, restore us to some other mode of knowing. Indeed, it seems as if God goes in a different direction; namely, God submits Godself to human ways of knowing and in so doing demonstrates that creation, even in its diminished state, can still receive, reflect and express God. (67).
To take up our cross and follow Jesus is not our exit plan out of this world—it is our journey through it. We see in the Scriptures that Jesus doesn’t take the path of the cross to depart from creation, but to redeem the whole world and draw us to God’s ongoing and redemptive work in the ordinary things of the world today.
It is fitting, this holy week, to conclude by remembering Jesus’ words the night before his crucifixion.
Pointing to two mundane objects in front of him, Jesus instills the ordinary with sacred meaning. Taking the bread in his hands and tearing it two he says “This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” Then, taking the wine he says to his disciples, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
It is my hope that as we partake in the eucharistic elements this holy week—consuming them and making them part of—we remember Jesus’ invitation to take up our cross and follow him through this earth as we participate in the divine life of God through the material world around us, which God has called good.
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Victoria Anne Turner, “Interrogating whiteness through the lens of class in Britain: empire, entitlement and exceptionalism” in Practical Theology 15:1-2 (2022)
Janette Ok, “The Fiery Ordeal Among You (1 Pet 4:12)” — The Sang Hyun Lee Lecture presented at Princeton Theology Seminary (YouTube)
Katherine Sonderegger, “A Cyrillian Christology Today” — 2021 Costan Lectures presented at Virginia Theological Seminary (YouTube)
Love Is Blind - Season 4 (Netflix)
If you want to read Calvin for yourself, you’ll find his discourse on merits in Book 2, Chapter 17 of the Institutes.