How the Cross Elevated Human Nature

As we discussed last, sin left us in need of salvation. We need to be forgiven of our sin and healed of the wounds caused by our sin. To do this, God could have simply declared us forgiven; he didn’t have to die on the Cross as a matter of strict necessity. The fact that he did so is because the true and living God wills to get into our mess — he doesn’t just announce decrees from afar. The Cross demonstrates two powerful things: it shows us the true gravity of sin — for the wages of sin are death. Sin is a disintegrating force — it destroys the harmony within our souls, as well as leading to the dissolution of our bodies (the separation of body and soul). Salvation, then, restores the unity within ourselves and overcomes the ultimate evil which we perpetually face — death itself.

The second thing the Cross shows us is the unfathomable depth of God’s love. Since the Cross is not necessary in terms of strict justice, it is ultimately the gift of love — the gift of love from the Son to the Father on our behalf (as well as the Son’s gift of himself to us).

The Catechism points to four reasons why God became man, which can readily be applied to the Cross:

  1. to reconcile us to the Father (while the Cross is not necessary in terms of strict justice, it’s fitting that God would provide a way for us to atone for our sin — it’s fitting that God would enable us to make things right;
  2. that we might know God’s love;
  3. to be our model of holiness (the human vocation is to love and make a gift of ourselves, which is quintessentially manifest on the Cross [see John 15:13]); and
  4. that we might become partakers in the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4 and CCC 457-460).

A New Birth

This last item points to the ultimate reality of what salvation is all about. While sin has to be dealt with, the final goal is for us to share in divine life (see CCC 654). Salvation is not a mere legal acquittal. Salvation is an adoption into the divine family, making us sons and daughters in and through the Eternal Son. In other words, salvation is familial — not primarily juridical.

For this reason, God wishes not only to forgive and pardon, but to heal and transform. In this latter movement, he heals and elevates our fallen nature to participate in divine life. Moral perfection in the natural order couldn’t earn one drop of this divine life — this sharing in God’s own trinitarian life.

Salvation is about far more than a judge acquitting a defendant. Salvation is about God becoming man and dying our death and rising to new life — and sending the Holy Spirit to empower us to the do the same. God empowers us to love in a divine way and pours his life into us. Salvation is about the gift of divine life in a new birth and the maturation of this life, as we are ever more fully conformed to Jesus Christ (see Romans 8:29).

He Became Human So We May Become Divine

By nature, we are mere servants and creatures of the Most High. By the grace of Christ, we become sons and daughters in the Son — such that God the Father looks down upon us and loves us as he loves his only begotten Son.

This is the reality of grace: it is not just God’s favor; it is the gift of divine life, enabling us to participate in a dimension of reality that would be otherwise inaccessible.

In other words, the movement of salvation is a matter of condescension and elevation — in Greek, katabasis and anabasis. Christianity is not about man’s search for God, but God’s search for man — about a God who is so madly in love with us that he emptied himself to unite himself to us in our dysfunction and misery (see Philippians 2:5-11). In Christ, we have the marriage of divinity and humanity; as we said above, he took on our humanity in order to infuse us with his divinity.

Elevating Human Nature

Sin separates us from God — not because God doesn’t want us to be with him, but because of the very nature of things: sin (or any vestiges of sin) inherently hinders our full communion with the all-holy God. God seeks to remove sin and its vestiges — to forgive and heal us — in order to facilitate greater communion with him and thereby our greater happiness.

He elevates our nature to participate in his divinity in order that we may be sons and daughters, friends of the Most High God (see John 15:15). By sharing his divine life with us, we come to share in his own blessed life — his happiness and holiness.

The elevation of human nature is like a stained glass window: it’s beautiful by itself without sunlight (i.e., human nature); but it’s incredibly more radiant when illumined by the sun (human nature elevated by grace).

Forgiveness, Healing, and Transformation

Similarly, we always remain human; but the grace of God heals and elevates our human nature so that we may participate in the divine perfection of God himself — just as a metal rod placed in a fire begins to take on the properties of the fire, even if it does not have these qualities on its own.

Too often, we reduce salvation merely to forgiveness of sin; it is far more than that — it is participation in divine life, one that also brings about deep healing which leads to a deeper, more fulfilled life in this age and the next. Sin, at its root, makes us sad and turns us inward. The grace of God forgives, heals, and transforms us into divine-like lovers, turning us outward and enabling us to make a gift of our lives in love — that he may increase and we may decrease (see John 3:30).

As a Father, God loves us just the way we are, but too much to leave us that way.

This appeared at Ascension.
Image: Lisa, Flickr

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.