Thoughts for Ascension Sunday

Some mistakenly view salvation as an external, legal transaction. In doing so, they fail to appreciate the full depth, mystery, beauty and glory of all that Jesus is (in his being as the God-man), and all he has and will yet do for our salvation. In Communion with the Triune God, Dick Eugenio helps us understand the full scope of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) by reviewing what Thomas F. (T.F.) Torrance taught on the topic. Eugenio notes that T.F. was critical of transactional, truncated views of salvation that tend to give priority (or even sole place) to the cross. According to T.F., when it comes to salvation, there is much more to understand than what occurred on Good Friday, as important and central to salvation as that was. For T.F., the biblical account of salvation leads us to view the cross as one part of a larger, integrated whole, though T.F. does emphasize that the cross has a unique, central and distinct significance that other redemptive experiences of Jesus do not convey.

The point here is that the cross is not an aspect of salvation that stands alone, separated from the full sweep of Jesus' redemptive life, which includes the Incarnation, Jesus' virgin birth, ministry, suffering, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and continuing session. According to T.F., our salvation is directly tied to what Christ did and continues to do by embodying himself in humanity's predicament via his whole life and ministry. In this post, written near Ascension Sunday (5/24/2020) I want to draw our attention to the place in our salvation of Jesus' bodily resurrection and ascension.

Bodily resurrection

In his resurrection, Jesus embodied himself in humanity's final triumph over everything he had assumed. Apart from the resurrection, Jesus' death on the cross does not have sacrificial or vicarious significance. It is precisely because Jesus Christ triumphed over that which he assumed that his life and death become meaningful. As T.F. wrote, "The resurrection is the fulfillment of the incarnate mission of the Son of God who has taken up our worldly existence and history into himself" (see Acts 17:31, and note the reference to the resurrected Jesus as "the man").

The Resurrection by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In accord with the biblical and patristic witness, T.F. emphasized that Jesus died and rose again not merely to pay a ransom to redeem us, but so that we might forever share in his glorified, human life. As T.F. wrote, that life "is grounded solely upon the reality of Christ's bodily resurrection, and it is only in our sharing in his vicarious life that we find true life."

Bodily ascension

This reality was affirmed once and for all in Jesus' bodily ascension to heaven where the God-man Jesus is in perfect, non-ending communion with the Father and the Spirit. Thus the ascension is not some sort of minor footnote to our salvation. It is an integral, vital part of it. Jesus saves us by ascending -- taking our human nature (which he continues to bear as the now glorified human person "the man Christ Jesus" -- 1 Tim. 2:5) with him to the Father's throne in heaven. As Dick Eugenio notes, "Here we see salvation in terms of both the redemptive descent of the Son of God through the incarnation (including the virgin birth) and the redemptive ascent of the incarnate Son of God in the person of Jesus in the resurrection and ascension."

The Ascension by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

It is vital to understand that the bodily-human presence of Jesus in the incarnation and ascension establishes the real meaning and interaction between God and humanity. Jesus' bodily ascension vindicates our humanity, rather than demolishing it. Jesus did not shed his humanity at the resurrection or at the ascension (two erroneous ideas often taught by those who see salvation as an external transaction accomplished solely or primarily at the cross). Indeed, there is now a human being (the human person Jesus) seated in heaven at God's right hand ("right hand" being emblematic of authority and glory -- see Romans 8:34). 

Here is the amazing, glorious truth: our Mediator, Advocate and High Priest, as human and God (one person, two natures), represents us in heaven. Therefore, our future is not empty! Jesus has gone ahead of us, and our future is bound up with his.

Atonement: seeing the full picture

The atonement by which humanity is saved in and by the God-man Jesus Christ is not a mere "one time" transaction, which the human Jesus accomplished, then shed his humanity. No, our atonement is accomplished in Jesus -- in who he is as the union of humanity with the triune God. And it is for that union, that atonement, that Jesus remains fully human forever.

Jesus' own person (as fully God and fully human), constitutes the atonement (the "at-one-ment") of God with humanity, and humanity with God. In that sense, Jesus is the atonement. Rather than being transactional/forensic, the atonement is fundamentally personal/relational. For a wonderful presentation from Andre Rabe making this vital point, watch this video:

Acted out in the old covenant

The truth that Jesus, in his own Person, is our atonement with God was enacted in ancient Israel's worship under the old covenant in its Day of Atonement liturgy. The consummation of this annual liturgical drama was the physical presence of the High Priest in the Holy of Holies. There, representing the people of Israel (who, in turn, represented all humanity), the High Priest sprinkled the blood of the sacrificial animal on the Mercy Seat (Greek = hilasterion) sitting atop the Ark of the Covenant (see Heb. 9:5, NRSV and Romans 3:25, NRSV). In the ultimate sense, the Mercy Seat, as the place of atonement, represented Jesus himself (for more on this understanding, click here for "Christ: Our Mercy Seat" by Kyle Pope.

The High Priest Before the Mercy Seat by Holman
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
According to T.F., the liturgical rituals of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement were symbolic representations of the whole story of Jesus' vicarious work for us as our Savior. In keeping with Paul's comment in 2 Cor. 8:9, T.F. refers to Jesus' work as accomplishing an "atoning exchange." Eugenio comments: 
Through the incarnation, Christ took what was ours so that we may partake of what is his. In his entire atoning life, a reconciling exchange is taking place between the Triune God in Christ and humanity in Christ, between his obedience and our disobedience, his holiness and our sin, his life and our death, his strength and our weakness, his grace and our poverty, his light and our darkness, his wisdom and our ignorance, his joy and our misery, his peace and our dispeace, his immortality and our mortality.
I pray that on Ascension Sunday, this year and every year, we will celebrate with joy all that Jesus' ascension means for the salvation of humanity. May we remember (and give thanks) that Jesus, now ascended, remains fully human forever, permanently uniting humanity with God in his own person. In Jesus, we have salvation. He is our atonement with God. In a time of insecurity due to pandemic, we have peace and security knowing this is so. Amen.
For a detailed Surprising God Blog summary of Dr. Eugenio's book, click here.