Becoming a New Creation with the Apostle Paul

Shortly after I graduated from seminary, I “tried on,” if you will, the penal substitutionary view of atonement as articulated in the writings of J. I. Packer. Some of you may have read his classic book Knowing God. I read it on the recommendation of my evangelical friends. Packer is very persuasive on the atonement. So for a few Sundays I appropriated the satis­faction theory into my preaching. But it didn’t fit. While I felt comfortable preaching that, in some undefined sense, the incarnate God has stood in our place and borne the divine judg­ment against our sin, I never felt comfortable proclaiming a full-blown presentation of penal substitutionary atonement. I couldn’t see a way to reconcile such a theory with my deep conviction that God is absolute and unconditional love; indeed, the two positions are quite contradictory. God does not need to reconcile love and justice within himself. He does not need to mete out punishment before he can be merciful. And so I put my copy of Knowing God aside. I would have to know God without Dr Packer.

If one does not believe that the Apostle Paul taught a penal substitutionary view of the atonement, as I and many others do not, then the justification by faith model becomes unconvincing as an expression of his deepest concerns. We need a different and more illuminating model through which to interpret Paul’s letters.

The New Creation Model

Of the three models discussed in The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, Douglas Campbell advances one in particular as the most helpful lens through which to read the Pauline epistles. He titles it the “pneumatological-participatory-martyrological-eschatological” model (PPME). Yeah, right. The title is accurately descriptive—Campbell might well indeed have added a couple more adjectives, e.g., “trinitarian,” “transformative,” “personalist,” and “apocalyp­tic” (PPMETTPA). Yet even PPME is too unwieldy. Elsewhere in the book Campbell momentar­ily entertains “participatory-eschatological,” but in the end he goes for the longer title. Well … the longer title simply will not do, and since this is my blog article, I hereby dub the third model as the new creation model (NC).

Campbell proposes the Pauline phrases “in Christ,” “in Christ Jesus,” “in the Lord,” and “in the Spirit” as the key to entering into the Apostle’s thought. These phrases, unlike “justifica­tion by faith,” are found throughout Paul’s letters. Though sometimes trivial or conventional, they are often deployed by Paul at critical points in his arguments (esp., Rom 5-8 but also several other places). “In these sections,” Campbell writes, “it is difficult to escape the idea that Paul is speaking of a profound transformation of the person through a partial identification with Christ”:

The very being of the sinful believer is taken up into Christ’s on the Cross, crucified, buried, then resurrected in a transformed state, and here free from sin, according to Paul. In a sense, then, a person is absorbed into the Easter events, and transformed through them and by them. Hence Paul can speak of a new creation, or of a new Adam, that is a new humanity, refashioned and remade “in Christ” as anyone experiences his resurrection—and here the connection with broader eschatological categories becomes apparent. And this is not just an idea, or a mental identification. Paul clearly believes that something quite real has happened; it is irreducibly concrete. The process also takes place in some relation to the Spirit. Indeed, for Paul the presence of the Spirit in the lives of Christians is the main testimony to the reality of the event. When the transformation is complete the Christian exists in a radically new way, in a relationship of filial intimacy with God through the Spirit (cp. Rom. 8.14-17; Gal. 4.1-7).1

I can imagine my Orthodox and Catholic readers nodding their heads and saying to themselves, “Yes, yes, yes. That is how I understand St Paul. This is what we experience in the Eucharist.”

At one point in the exposition of NC, Campbell even strikes a Zizioulian note:

I would suggest that Paul’s locative or spatial imagery about the Christian in relation to Christ (“into” and “in” Christ) is a metaphor for being or ontology, and its radical transformation. Hence the important thing for Paul is the new set of relationships created in Christ, as well as the new relational capacity humans possess “in” him. Through Christians’ relationships with the Spirit, they now relate, in Christ, to the Father. In short, Christ makes Christians into fully relational beings, that is, into real full persons. “In him” they can relate to God and to each other as they ought to. Outside of him, humanity is enslaved to hostile and evil forces that curve people in on themselves, away from God and from others, corrupting and distorting all their relationships.2

At the heart of the new creation model, proposes Campbell, is the narrative of the Son who has descended to earth to assume humanity’s fallen condition and to bear it unto death. This narrative, in turn, directs us back to the book of Genesis:

The story that describes “the problem” is, I would suggest, a modified version of Genesis 2-3. However, in Paul’s account, Eve is not deceived by the serpent, going on to beguile her dull-witted husband, but a generic figure, Adam, is deceived by the evil intelligence of Sin itself. As a result of humanity’s first transgression, Sin enters creation permanently, taking up residence within the very constitution of humanity, that is, in the Flesh. And the entry of Sin facilitates the arrival of the still more powerful and oppressive Death, creating a fundamental human condition of slavery within a kingdom ruled by evil forces. Indeed, the whole of creation has been joined to humanity’s enslavement and shares in its screams and groans.… Paul’s solution to this plight centres on the story of a protagonist, God’s “Son,” Christ Jesus, who enters the oppressed state of humanity in obedience to his Father’s wishes, assumes its enslaved nature, and then dies. However, he is raised to new life by the divine, life-giving Spirit, and exalted to the Father’s right hand, where he now reigns, judges and intercedes.3

The story as stated, though, is incomplete. It describes the divine mission of Jesus; but it does not tell us how humanity is saved by this mission. At this point Paul introduces the salvific work of the Holy Spirit:

Again apparently drawing on the first chapters of Genesis, Paul seems to view the present activity of the Holy Spirit as a repetition of his initial activity in the creation of humanity. Where the breath of God brought the figure of dust to life in Genesis 2, creating a “living being” (Gen. 2.7; cp. 1 Cor. 15.45), so too Paul seems to view the present activity of the Spirit in funda­mentally creative terms. But whereas the template of the original humanity was a creature modelled from the earth, the template of the new humanity is the second Adam, Christ, a figure who has undergone a starling termination and reconstitution. Hence as the Spirit “maps” or “moulds” people onto Christ’s prototypical trajectory, salvation is realized as the old state of bondage to Sin and Death in the Flesh is terminated, and a new resurrected eschatological state is effected (so also 1 Cor. 15.22, 42-49).4

By the Spirit believers participate in the Son’s obedience, sufferings, death, and resurrec­tion. The divine work of transfiguration has begun. Hence Paul exhorts his brethren to live their lives on the basis of what they are becoming rather than what they once were. Campbell writes: “as the Spirit configures people to the template of Christ—specifically to his descent into death and ascent into glory—they too are thereby delivered from their present oppressed and corrupted condition by means of its termination in Christ’s execution and their recreation in a new liberated and transformed condition that is grafted onto his resurrected existence and is now no longer inhabited by the powers of Sin and Death.”5

The Apostle’s theology is pneumatological, for by the Spirit the believer is made a new creation in Jesus Christ. It is participatory, for by the Spirit the believer is united to Christ and thus participates in his Sonship and work of redemption. It is martyrological, for by the Spirit the believer is conformed to the story of Christ’s suffering and death. It is eschatolog­ical, for by the Spirit the believer now lives the life of the coming Kingdom.

And at the heart of the salvation bestowed upon the Church is the unconditional and infinite love of God. “The PPME model does not understand salvation to be motivated by anything other than the limitless love of God for humanity,” explains Campbell. “So there is no implacable divine commitment to justice that must be bloodily assuaged, whether on the cross, or on the Last Day. The cross—and the resurrection!—are moments of divine identifi­cation and transformation, not punishment.”6 The individual cannot by an act of will bring himself into new life nor raise himself from the dead. He cannot incorporate himself into Christ and make himself a son of God. He cannot create for himself a paschal mode of existence:

This rebirth into a new way of being and relating is, from start to finish, a gift of God. It comes to people purely out of God’s freedom and grace, so, as I understand Paul, it is completely unconditional. No one can, strictly speak­ing, do anything to receive it or to make it happen—we cannot transform ourselves! It is therefore something of an extraordinary miracle, given to Christians purely because of the goodness of God. It is an act of sheer grace, although Paul does seem to allow for the possibility of this event’s repudiation—a position that links up with negative Arminianism. One can still it seems be a prodigal, but one cannot by dint of one’s own efforts be a son.7

One would expect at this point for Campbell to talk about baptism as the sacramental location for God’s gifting of salvation, but curiously he avoids the topic. Fortunately he corrects the omission, at least partially, in his most recently published book, Pauline Dogmatics: The Triumph of God’s Love. Campbell observes that in Romans 6 Paul goes beyond the obvious symbolic meaning of baptism as a washing or cleansing and innovatively interprets the sacramental event as a dying and rising with Christ:

Baptism denotes a concrete transformation in the baptized, coding that transformation explicitly in terms of rising from the dead. Baptism enacts our death and resurrection in Jesus…. In Rom 6 Paul is appealing to the ritual as it was practiced in the early church, in which people were immersed under water. Moreover, it seems that converts took off their clothes before­hand, being immersed naked, and then clothed with new garments that were possibly a gift from the community. Most people in the ancient world owned only one set of clothes, the generally ragged and dirty set they were standing in, so a gift of clothing would have been clean and fresh and rather special. But in Rom 6 Paul does not interpret this ritual in terms of cleansing, which water and clean clothes might first suggest. It is these things, but it is also more. The immersion is a participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. “Are you ignorant that whoever has been immersed into Christ Jesus has been immersed into his death?” (6:3). To go under the water is to die with Christ and to be buried with him, while to rise out of the water is to be raised from the dead and to ascend with him to new life.8

In Romans 6 Paul appeals to the transformation accomplished (or at least symbolically enacted) in baptism to address the question that his critics frequently posed to him: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Rom 6:1). Absolutely not, Paul answers. We have been baptized into the death of Christ and are therefore dead to sin and its power. And just as Christ was raised into glorified life, we too may and must “walk in newness of life” (6:3-4). Paul continues:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (6:5-11)

Paul, of course, is fully aware that we will only enjoy perfect freedom from sin when we are raised into the glorified life of the eschaton—hence the future tense (“we shall also live with him”)—but even now we share in the power of the resurrection of Christ in his Spirit, as he makes clear in Romans 8:

But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you. (8:9-11)

Unfortunately Campbell does not elaborate his treatment of baptism by reference to Galatians 3:23-4:7, where Paul links justification by faith, filial adoption, and the gift of the Spirit, or Colossians 2:11-12, where he states that in baptism we have been raised with Christ. Clearly the Apostle sees our incorporation to Christ as a unitary salvific event. Precisely because baptism exists in the past of every believer, it may be remembered as the moment in which the risen Lord bestowed upon him eschatological identity and life. As Paul tells the Corinthians: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11).9

The JF and SH models may both be described as prospective: they begin with a preunder­stand­ing of the pre-salvation state and then define the soteriological solution. The NC model, on the other hand, is retrospective: it begins with the gift of salvation experienced by faith in Christ and from this point reflects on everything that came before it. It begins with the soteriological solution, and from the solution learns of humanity’s plight. JF and SH work forward; NC works backwards.

If I were a young, well-trained Orthodox theologian, with a reading knowledge of both New Testament and patristic Greek, I would adopt the project of exploring the Pauline new creation model and connect it with subsequent Eastern reflection on theosis. St Paul has important things to say to the Orthodox Church.

“Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).

(7 June 2013; rev.)


[1] Douglas Campbell, The Quest for Paul’s Gospel, pp. 39-40.

[2] Ibid., p. 41.

[3] Ibid., pp. 57-58.

[4] Ibid., p. 59.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p. 144.

[7] Ibid., p. 41.

[8] Douglas Campbell, Pauline Dogmatics, pp. 124-125.

[9] See Rudolph Schnackenburg, Baptism in the Thought of St Paul; George Montague, The Holy Spirit; Edmund Schlink, The Doctrine of Baptism; Robert W. Jenson, Visible Words; and Alexander Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit. On justification as deification, see Veli-Matti Karkainen’s article in Justification: Five Views, pp. 219-243.

(Go to “Grace Ain’t Cheap–It’s Free!”)

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3 Responses to Becoming a New Creation with the Apostle Paul

  1. Dan says:

    It’s been around for a while, but are you familiar with the book Union with Christ, the New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, edited by Jenson and Braaten? If I remember correctly, the Finns were equating JBF with theosis.


  2. D.B. Hart in “That All Shall Be Saved” expresses well (of course, it’s DBH) his and my revulsion at the Satisfaction theory so prevalent in the West in the 2nd millennium. It still remains a main cause of atheism among many folks who believe our Father in heaven revealed in Christ is just a religious and odious version of Zeus and his thunderbolts. But “It’ll preach” — just ask J. Edwards. Here’s the quote:

    It is hard to know how often one hears it said, for instance, that the gospels or Paul’s epistles teach that, on the cross of Christ, God poured out his wrath on sin, or that the Son was discharging a debt humanity owed the Father, or that Christ’s blood was shed as a price paid by the Son to the Father to secure our release from the burden of that debt. And, supposedly, this was all inevitable not simply on account of sins we have individually committed, but because we have inherited a guilt contracted by the first parents of the race (which, of course, must be a purely imputed guilt, since personal guilt is not logically heritable). All of us, we are told, have been born damnable in God’s eyes, already condemned to hell, and justly so. And yet God, out of God’s love, races to rescue (some of) us from God’s wrath, because God would otherwise be technically obliged to visit that wrath upon us, if lovingly, on account of that ancient trespass that bound us helplessly and damnably to sin before we ever existed; at the same time, however, God also lovingly fails or declines to rescue many of us, because he lovingly grants us the capacity freely to love, even if he lovingly withholds the conditions that would allow us to recognize him as the proper object of our love … (and so on). In the end, somehow, justice is served, love is vindicated, God is good; of that we can be sure. Happily, all of that is degrading nonsense—an absolute midden of misconceptions, fragments of scriptural language wrenched out of context, errors of translation, logical contradictions, and (I suspect) one or two emotional pathologies.

    Hart, David Bentley. That All Shall Be Saved . Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. myasceticnotebook says:

    Although these verses are outside Eucharistic thought, a couple verses come to mind:

    “In Him we live and move and have our being.: (Acts 17:28) The idea is we are IN Him — without Jesus’ encompassing us (IN HIM) the whole faith thing does not work quite right.

    “To them [the Saints] God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col 1:27)

    I might go as far to say, since God is Love: even telling the mysteries between angels and humans without an underlying motivation of love might bring very small results. (a paraphrase of 1 Col. 13)


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