The Glorious Offices of Christ

November 04, 2016

by Peter Lillback

While the “offices” of Christ have a traditional sense as defined by the Shorter Catechism, nearly a century before it was composed, Calvin, too, had wrestled with the concept of “office” in relation to Christ’s saving work. But the offices of Christ that Calvin identifies here are not literally identified as prophet, priest, and king as he does elsewhere. Instead, following Paul in 1 Cor. 1:29–31, he speaks of Christ’s offices as “righteousness, holiness, wisdom, and redemption.” Indeed, to use Calvin’s words, “You will scarcely meet with another passage of Scripture that more distinctly marks out all the offices of Christ.” These are not just mere titles for the offices of Christ; these terms describe his exclusive, glorious role in the accomplishment of our salvation. Calvin adds:

In fine, of all the blessings that are here enumerated we must seek in Christ not the half, or merely a part, but the entire completion. For Paul does not say that he has been given to us by way of filling up, or eeking out righteousness, holiness, wisdom, and redemption, but assigns to him exclusively the entire accomplishment of the whole.

Summarizing, Calvin says Paul “ascribes here to Christ four commendatory titles, that include his entire excellence, and every benefit that we receive from him.”

First, Christ the Redeemer. The connection between Paul’s four offices with the catechism’s threefold office of prophet, priest, and king can readily be seen. First, remember the catechism begins its discussion of Christ’s offices with Question 23, which asks, “What offices doth Christ execute as our Redeemer?” It is as Redeemer that Christ executes his threefold offices. Significantly, the fourth office listed by Calvin in 1 Corinthians 1:30 is “redemption.”

Second, Christ the Prophet of Wisdom. Yet we also can see the connection with Christ’s offices of prophet and priest as well. Paul uses the word “wisdom” as one of “the four commendatory titles” that present Christ’s “entire excellence.” Surely, the message of a prophet is the communication of divine wisdom:

In the first place, he says that he is made unto us wisdom, by which he means, that we obtain in him  an absolute perfection of wisdom, in as much as the Father has fully revealed himself to us in him, that we may not desire to know any thing besides him. There is a similar passage in Col. ii. 3—In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 

Third, Christ the Priest of Righteousness and Holiness. Moreover, Paul’s words “righteousness and holiness” describe the work of a priest. Calvin sees Christ as the one who provides righteousness by his sacrifice:

For when he calls Christ, our righteousness, a corresponding idea must be understood—that in us there is nothing but sin.
Secondly, he says that he is made unto us righteousness, by which he means that we are on his account acceptable to God, inasmuch as he expiated our sins by death, and his obedience is imputed to us for righteousness. For as the righteousness of faith consists in remission of sins and a gracious acceptance, we obtain both through Christ.

Christ’s work as priest is also reflected in his provision of holiness:

Thirdly, he calls him our sanctification, by which he means that we who are otherwise unholy by nature, are by his Spirit renewed unto holiness, that we may serve God.

Fourth, Christ the King of Glory. This is seen in the focus of verse 31, where Paul declares, “He that glorieth let him glory in the Lord.” Calvin explains this texts as follows: “Mark the end that God has in view in bestowing all things upon us in Christ—that we may not claim any merit to ourselves but may give him all the praise.” Is not such exclusive glory the prerogative of a king, indeed, the King of kings? Thus in this context Calvin declares the Reformation’s motto of soli Deo gloria—”to God alone be the glory.” Simply put, the redemptive offices of Christ underscore his unique glory as Savior.

Having seen that Christ occupies these glorious redemptive offices of the Messiah, let us next consider how this fact impacts our salvation.

Because Christ occupies all the glorious offices of our salvation, he alone is our Redeemer. Salvation is his work alone.

Christ’s Glorious Offices and Our Salvation

Calvin’s interpretation of Christ’s four offices emphasizes the exclusive and glorious nature of the redeeming work of Christ. Calvin asserts:

For when he calls Christ, our righteousness, a corresponding idea must be understood—that in us there is nothing but sin; and so as to the other terms. Now he ascribes here to Christ four commendatory titles, that include his entire excellence, and every benefit that we receive from him.

Righteousness and Salvation

As we engage Calvin at this point, we should emphasize that Calvin was greatly influenced, as were all the Reformers, by Luther’s seminal theological insight of justification of the sinner by faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Scriptures alone. Thus here he emphasizes that Christ’s four offices are directly connected with our saving faith:

Now as you will scarcely meet with another passage of Scripture that more distinctly marks out all the offices of Christ, you may also understand from it very clearly the nature and efficacy of faith. For as Christ is the proper object of faith, everyone that knows what are the benefits that Christ confers upon us is at the same time taught to understand what faith is.

Holiness and Salvation

Along with the critical point of our righteousness through faith in Christ, we also find here another significant insight of Calvin’s theology. This is the inseparability of righteousness and holiness—of justification and sanctification. To put it another way, Christ’s office of “righteousness” must not be separated from his office of “sanctification.” This Calvin describes as duplex gratiae, or the double graces, of the new covenant as seen in Jeremiah 31.

Luther’s motto was “justification by faith alone.” Calvin and his theological heirs agreed. However, they augmented his motto by saying, “We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone but is ever accompanied by all saving graces.” For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith declares:

Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and His righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification: yet is it not alone in the person justified, but is ever accompanied, with all other saving graces, and is no dead faith, but worketh by love. (WCF 11.2)

Thus Calvin emphasizes the inseparability of Christ’s offices of righteousness and sanctification. Calvin underscores Paul’s connection of Christ’s offices as justifier with his office as sanctifier. He explains:

From this, also we infer that we cannot be justified freely through faith alone without at the same time living holily. For these fruits of grace are connected together, as it were, by an indissoluble tie, so that he who attempts to sever them does in a manner tear Christ in pieces. Let therefore the man who seeks to be justified through Christ, by God’s unmerited goodness, consider that this cannot be attained without his taking him at the same time for sanctification, or in other words, being renewed to innocence and purity of life.

This in Calvin’s mind was a critical point in answering the Roman Catholic charge that the Reformer’s doctrine of justification by faith alone leads to an abandonment of good works. He declares:

Those, however, that slander us, as if by preaching a free justification through faith we called men off from good works, are amply refuted from this passage, which intimates that faith apprehends in Christ regeneration equally with forgiveness of sin.

Nevertheless, the interconnection of these two offices of Christ does not mean the equality of the two! In no way does he want to be misunderstood. He explains:

Observe, on the other hand, that these two offices of Christ are conjoined in such a manner as to be, notwithstanding, distinguished from each other. What, therefore, Paul here expressly distinguishes, it is not allowable mistakenly to confound.

It is true, Calvin insists, that justification and sanctification are inseparable. Yet he equally insists that they must be carefully distinguished!

Having considered Christ’s offices of wisdom, righteousness, and holiness, we must now see Christ in his office as Redeemer. Calvin explains: “If it is asked in what way Christ is given to us for redemption, I answer—’Because he made himself a ransom.'” For Calvin, redemption is both the first and the last blessing of our union with Christ.

Fourthly, he teaches us that he is given to us for redemption, by which he means, that through his goodness are delivered at once from all bondage to sin, and from all the misery that flows from it. Thus redemption is the first gift of Christ that is begun in us, and the last that is completed.

Theologians have often spoken of the “already-and-not-yet” character of salvation. Here we see Calvin’s expression of that reality when he writes: “For the commencement of salvation consists in our being drawn out the labyrinth of sin and death; yet in the meantime, until the final day of resurrection, we groan with desire for redemption (as we read in Rom. 8:23).”

Because Christ occupies all the glorious offices of our salvation, he alone is our Redeemer. Salvation is his work alone. It is not our work. Accordingly, he alone should receive the glory for our salvation. Next and lastly, we now follow Calvin’s insight into the Reformers’ motto soli Deo gloria “to God alone be the glory!”

This piece is adapted from Peter A. Lillback, “All the Glorious Offices of Christ—1 Corinthians 1:29-31” in Preaching Like Calvin: Sermons from the 500th Anniversary Celebration, ed. David W. Hall  (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010) 88–94. Used with permission of the publisher.

Read More On calvin, Christology, John Calvin

Peter Lillback

Dr. Lillback (PhD, Westminster) is president and professor of historical theology.

Next Post...

The Blessings of Salvation

November 02, 2016

by Brandon Crowe