Forensic Atonement and “Partaking of the Divine Nature”

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas"; Caravaggio, ~1601-1602.

“The Incredulity of St. Thomas”; Caravaggio, ~1601-1602.

by Quiet George

Dear Robert,

It is most important that I begin by saying that I am but a first year seminarian and am by no means an authority or a great theologian. However, I am able to express the position of the historic Lutheran church on matters such as Justification as I have understood them from my readings of the Fathers (both Patristic and Lutheran) and from the lectures of eminent Lutheran scholars here on campus.

I must also admit that I am not much of a “scholastic”, and so I often write with a bit of imprecision. With that said, I hope you can discern the spirit of my words and that you will not hold any semantic inconsistencies against me.

You wrote that, according to the Reformed theology which you have inherited, you have understood Justification as being an attribution of Christ’s righteousness to the sinner, the concept of it being merely an attribution — that is, that some attribute, some nominal predicate, is being connected to the sinner which does not properly belong to him. But why is it merely attributed to him, rather than being truly his?

It is my impression that the Reformed tend vigorously to defend the complete transcendence of God. If God is truly to be “that which nothing greater can be conceived,” if He is to be the “unknowable, infinite, ineffable God,” then He must be infinitely separated from creation, for the distance between any finite thing and any infinite thing is infinite. This is a very rational argument, and there is indeed much good piety to be procured from a consideration of God’s transcendence. However, I believe the Calvinists abuse this doctrine by using it to deny the central mystery of Christianity: that this very infinite and transcendent God has become entirely immanent, that is, that He has united himself with His creation in man, and that He has done so essentially (that is, at the level of his essence).

The most startling way in which Calvinism realizes this separation of the transcendent Creator and the created is in a denial of any real communication between the two natures of Christ. To Calvinists, the hypostatic union between the human and the divine natures in Christ is little more than verbal. This being so, there is surely nothing “deified” about the nature of man in Christ, for human nature is incapable of interacting with the infinite Divine nature in any way. Similarly, the Divine is in no way bound to the human nature of Christ. The two, though in some sense “combined” in Christ, do not in any way communicate their attributes to each other. They are as two boards, glued to one another; connected by a certain tie, but utterly distinct. Theodore Beza writes:

To posit any communication that is an effect of the union and other than the actual and usual uniting that they call ‘grace’, I say, that is nothing other than intolerable Eutychianism (Resp. ad. act. Colloq., p.92).

Similarly, he writes:

We teach on the basis of the hypostatic definition of the union that neither the deity nor the properties of the deity can be said about the humanity in any way, not even in the union (ibid).

Elsewhere he again writes:

We call the communication of properties ‘verbal’ insofar as this is a figurative expression of speech. Yet at the same time we call it ‘real’ and ‘utterly true’ because it is said about the entire person against Nestorius, according as it is one. But if they are said about the natures, as our adversaries take this, we claim that it is neither verbal nor real, but blasphemy, something to be hated (Opera, vol. 1, p. 638).

What Beza seeks to make clear here is a teaching found already in the Institutes of Jean Calvin, that the divine and human are unbridgeably separated, not because of sin, but by nature — that is to say, even in the state of grace before the fall, there was an infinite chasm between Adam and God.

So, if to the Reformed there is a separation between the divine and human in the hypostatic union of Jesus himself, it is needless to say that there is an insurmountable divide between humanity in general and God. Because of this, to the Calvinist the goal of Justification is not to be in any real sense “returned to God” but rather just to be in a “right relation” to Him, in the same way that two friends can be put into a right relation. Since Calvinists see the problem to be relational and not ontological, they posit a solution which is relational and not ontological, namely, that God decides to accept the death of one man, Jesus, as a propitiation for the sin of all man, thereby forgiving the elect their sin, and granting them His favor.

The important thing to note about the entire Calvinist system is how much it relies on “decisions” by God, that is, on God’s will, and not on His essence. He decides to save man, and then decides which particular men to save (limited atonement) and then decides on a plan to save mankind (the salvation narrative) and then decides to accept Christ’s death as an atonement, though in and of itself it was of no particular value. God decides to forgive the elect, and since it is merely a decision on behalf of God, it need not have any “objective” substance. In a sense, it is very subjective, for it all occurs within the mind of God. This leads to Calvinism’s famous theology of “decrees” whereby all things pertaining to salvation happen primarily by God’s decreeing from His infinite holiness that it come to pass.

Lutherans differ here, for they would agree with St. Cyril of Alexandria that man was meant from the beginning to have a true, essential communion with God. It is for this reason that St. Peter writes that we will be “partakers of the divine nature” and the Psalmist that “Ye are gods, all of you are children of the most high!” Similarly, the language of adoption assumes an essential union between the adopter and the adopted, for a man can only adopt that which is another man, if a son is to be a son of a father, he must be like unto the father. The image of “family” employed in any way assumes a kinship. Therefore, if we are to be adopted by God, becoming sons of the Father, and the brothers of Christ, we must be likened unto God, or as Paul writes, we must be “transformed into the same image, from glory to glory.”

It is also not to be taken lightly that the communion between God and the Church is likened in the Scriptures to a bridegroom and his bride. God is not distant from His Church, neither does He merely “relate to it.” Rather, just as a bridegroom desires to unite with his wife, so does God long to unite with His Church. God’s love for the church is erotic, that is, He longs to pour Himself into His Church, to pour His being into mankind. It should not seem strange, therefore, that St. Ignatius, in his Epistle to the Romans, refers to Jesus as ‘Eros’ that is, a passionate love.

God, therefore, longs to bring mankind into Himself, not in such a way that man is “merged into” God, but in such a way that man and God might be said to be one, though they are also said to be distinct. Man must be deified. But some problems lie in the way, namely: that man has severed his nature from God’s love, and has instead devoted himself to the devil and all the powers of the demonic. Man is not only, then, separated from God ontologically, but actively hates God and serves Satan. How then, can he be saved?

In the Incarnation, Christ once again reunites the human nature to the Divine in Himself. The Reformed tend to think that the Incarnation means that the Son “became a man.” But note that the Nicene Creed reads that the Son “became man,” that is, humanity. In Him, the schism between the Divine and the human which was wrought by man’s rebellion was ontologically undone. By becoming mankind in this way, by uniting the two natures in his own person, He is able to conquer the devil as mankind, that is — He is able to undo the evil of Adam, not as God, but as man. Similarly, he can be put to death, and die not just as Jesus of Nazareth, but die as mankind. All man died in Jesus, and therefore God’s first promise that “if you eat of this fruit, you shall surely die” comes to pass in Him, not metaphorically, but truly.

To understand the Lutheran doctrine of “Forensic Atonement” you must first grasp the concept that Jesus was not just “God taking on flesh” but the Son taking on the human race in every respect. Further, you must realize that when the Bible says “He became sin for us,” this is not merely saying “our sins were attributed or imputed to Him” but rather that in some mysterious way He truly was sin. He was the greatest sinner of all. He was a murderer, a harlot, an adulterer, a thief, a backbiter, a rapist. He was all evil, and for this, He was put to a terrible death. Even more so, He was not just a generic “murderer” or a generic “harlot” but He was every murder and harlot individually. He was David, the killer and adulterer; He was Rahab, the prostitute; He was Adam, the rebel, the hater of God. He was them all, and they all received their death in Him, and so justice was wrought. The “account was settled” before God, for mankind had truly been punished. Jesus “bore our sorrows.” The more strongly and less metaphorically we are able to accept these truths, the closer we come to comprehending the great mystery of the religion.

But it is not just the case that the Son, being made man, was able to effect the forensic justification of mankind by dying as mankind, but rather, man has also been united to the Son, and so just as the Son is essentially eternal, so those united to him will be eternal as well. Death cannot bind us, for we partake of undying Divinity. We therefore will “rise to new life,” passing from “glory to glory.”

So the question then becomes, how is it that we are made such partakers of the divinity? How do we participate in the fruits of the Incarnation and Atonement of the Son? The answer is found in the ancient “economy of salvation.”

The Father is the fount of the divinity, it is to Him that man must be brought. The Father and the Son have an essential communion within the Trinity, and in the Incarnation, the Son takes on a human body and fills it with all the power of the Divine glory. His body, therefore becomes truly life giving. We, as lowly men can not directly commune with the Father, for, as the Reformed are quite apt to inform us, He is infinitely above us. But we can commune with flesh, for we are flesh, and so we commune with the flesh of Christ in the mysteries of the Church. By that flesh which is united to the Son, we too are united to the Son, and as the Son is united to the Father, so we are then united to the Father. It is therefore by the physical Body and Blood of Christ that we are found to be born unto the Father’s glory, and without this Body and Blood, there can be no union, and therefore no Christian religion. It is with this understanding that the Lutheran is glad to affirm St. Athanasius’s dictum, “God became man that man might become God.”

Now that I look back at what I have written, I realize it is terribly unorganized. You must forgive me, for I am currently battling a very resilient flu, and am therefore not at the heights of my intellectual capacity.

Again, I am but a lowly seminarian. I would, however, be glad to answer any other questions you might have, Robert. Also, I have been informed that Jordan Cooper (an actual pastor and a well studied theologian!) has been brought into the conversation, perhaps he can help you as well, and also perhaps correct me where I have been misled or at least unclear.

I hope and pray you are very well.

~ Q.G.



Quiet George


  1. Excellent stuff from George, as usual. I take exception to one part of it, though:

    “Further, you must realize that when the Bible says ‘He became sin for us,’ this is not merely saying ‘our sins were attributed or imputed to Him’ but rather that in some mysterious way He truly was sin. He was the greatest sinner of all. ”

    “He became sin for us” does basically mean “our sins were imputed to Him.” I’m aware that in the paragraph I refer to, George is basically paraphrasing Luther from the Lectures on Galatians, but that’s a passage where Luther went too far. He became sin for us, like the sin offerings in the Old Testament (the Hebrew word applied to them can be translated either as “sin” or “sin offering”–same word). He did not become a sinner.

    This needs to be said, although I hate reading a long virtuoso essay like that and then focusing on the one negative thing in it. It needs to be said because there are some in Lutheran circles who are making a career out of finding the places where Luther went too far rhetorically, and pushing them even further, so that they are no longer rhetorical. I have in mind especially Steven Paulson, who in his book Lutheran Theology, explicitly says that Christ sinned in the Cry of Dereliction. He also equates sin and human nature in a distinctly Flacian fashion, so that the incarnation becomes no longer about Christ assuming humanity, but about Christ assuming sinful humanity (the only kind there is for Paulson, who like Forde denies the posse non peccare). In fact I think he would disagree with almost everything else that George wrote.

    There really isn’t a category, or a continuum, between “imputed” and “real.” In the Incarnation (God becoming man) and in Glorification (us sharing the divine nature), it’s real. In the Atonement (Jesus bearing the sins of the world) and in Justification (God reckoning us righteous for Christ’s sake), it’s imputed.

  2. Dear Eric,

    Surely you are right. Forgive me for my misuse of words.

    I make a distinction between “imputed” and “real” not because the traditional dogmaticians see there as being one, but rather because people now seem to equate “impute” with “arbitrarily assign to,” though, as you have pointed out, for the old theologians, “impute” would have to be real unless it be a “false imputation” and therefore be, in some form, a lie.

    I will admit, however, that I am not sure to what extent it is proper to refer to Christ as a sin/sinner. Surely he committed no sin at all of his own, and so I would adamantly disagree with these ponderers that you speak of; he must be the spotless sacrifical lamb. However, if he has “taken on himself all the sin of the world,” does he then become a “sinner”?

    I do not know how I should speak of these things, but as opposed to arguing about idioms, I will just affirm your position and say that Jesus took on and bore all the sin of mankind within himself, while never sinning himself.

  3. Hi, George. Thank you for your reply.

    I haven’t picked up the idea that people associate arbitrariness with imputation. Perhaps they do, or perhaps some do, but the objection I’ve encountered isn’t that it is arbitrary but that it is fictional. To that, my answer is, “If you just look at me now, in myself, you would have to conclude that. But if you look at me in eternity, in Christ, you will see that it is absolutely true.”

    As to your question, “However, if he has ‘taken on himself all the sin of the world,’ does he then become a ‘sinner’?” the answer has to be “no.” The -er suffix in English, like the -or suffix in Latin (and latinate English words), means “one who ____s.” A waiter waits on tables, a director directs, a ball player plays ball, and a sinner sins. If Jesus never did the action, he doesn’t get the -er. The way He takes on Himself the sins of the world is that He offers Himself in the place of sinners.

  4. Eric Phillips- I think George is onto something. But as with most things it is both and not either or. In the incarnation both healed our nature and brought us into a right relationship with God. We receive both Jesus deified human nature and His relationship with the Father as the second person of the Trinity. I think more work needs to be done on George’s way of discussing imputation but I think He is on to something. Think of it this way, George has rightly pointed out that Jesus just did not become man but became mankind. His divine essence defied human nature. But sin is not part of human nature. The Formula is quite clear that sin is an accident and does not touch the essential nature of man which is good.The incarnation deifies a nature that is already perfectly good in essence. But those pesky accidents, sin, that is sin, has to be dealt with. So the metaphysical reality underlying the language of imputation must involve these accidents. Some how these accidents become connected with the Hypostatic Union of the Divine and Human in Christ, so that somehow Jesus can bring our sin into death with Him, thus healing not only our nature but our relationship with God.I don’t know if any of that makes sense. In what sense that cluster of accidents that constitute human sin can be united to the sinless Christ so that He who knew no sin becomes sin but I agree with Georges basic premise. The forensic language of imputation is at best a metaphor, a metaphor of realities that are metaphysical. What the metaphysical realities underneath I don’t think I understand fully, but I think George has put us on the trail.

    • Thanks Pr. DeVore. Is your comment a quote from Dr. Phillips? If so, is there a link to where that quote can be found?

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