In between readings of “Your Best Life Now,” I occasionally like to look back, dust off the cover of some old, stuffy theologian and see what he might have to say that was important enough to endure 1800 years of Christian thought. To this end we turn to the early church father, Irenaeus. For those of you caught unawares, Irenaeus lived from 120-202 A.D., studied as pupil under Polycarp and later became the Bishop of Lyon (178). He devoted much of his life to combating heresy, specifically the many heresies that fall under the big tent of Gnosticism. His most famous work, adversus haereses, is a celebrated Christian classic. While he is principally known for his defense of orthodox Christianity, Irenaeus is also known for his thoughts on recapitulation, which actually speak in some quite important ways to major life changes (such as our title infers) that introduce no small degree of difficulty in our lives and leads us into no small measure of sin.
First off, what is recapitulation and why should I care? Let’s begin with the condition of our humanity. Genesis ch. 3 presents us with the narrative of the fall of humanity into sin and disobedience. If Gen ch. 3 presents the fall, it is the Apostle Paul who presents the consequences of the fall. The consequences are as follows:
1. Sin came into the world through Adam’s disobedience (Rom 5.12)
2. In the one man’s sin, all have sinned in him (Rom 5.12)
3. Since all have sinned in him, all men have been made sinners (Rom 5.19)
4. Death enters the world as penalty and condemnation for sin (Rom 5.14; 5.16)
5. Death reigns over the world (Rom 5.14)
One quick note of clarification on point two. How did all men sin in Adam? Why does the responsibility not lay on his shoulders alone? There are two ways to look at it. The first way to look at it is through the lens of human solidarity. Human solidarity is the rallying cry for all of us to band together against injustice, global warming, poverty, etc. Why? Because we are all one. The one’s decisions affect the many. Adam’s one decision, as the father of all humanity, has affected the many through his disobedience. The second way to look at this is genetically. The author of Hebrews can easily conceive of this, as he sees the Levites, born after Abraham, nevertheless part of Abraham as they were “still in the loins” of their ancestor (Heb 7.9-10). Adam, the father of all humanity, carried a DNA that was radically corrupted by the fall, a corruption that he has not failed to pass down to each and every one of us.
So where is the specific application to puberty? Well, this sin and disobedience passed down to us from Adam affects the whole of our life. There is not one age, nor desire or motivation from that age that can be said to be free from the taint of Adam’s corruption. From birth until death you and I will demonstrate through our private thoughts and our public actions that we are indeed heirs to a fallen race. There are portions of our life when this is more evident than others and the two I have identified compose the title of this post although we could easily identify others. However in terms of puberty, it is easy for the parents or concerned well-wishers to say, “it is just a phase,” or “he’ll grow out of it.” While he may “grow out of it,” it does not mean that it is merely a phase, but is evidence of a deep corruption of the soul that the individual may learn to disguise but will never grow out of nor escape from by his own power. “For was it was not possible that the man who had once for all been conquered (by sin), and who had been destroyed through disobedience, could reform himself, and obtain the prize of victory” (Irenaeus, AH).
What then can be done about this? We have a two fold problem. First, we need something (or someone?) to, like bleach through shirt stains, pass through the many troubled layers of our lives (puberty, mid-life crisis, etc.) and wash them clean. This will take care of the corruption. However, as the Apostle Paul has already noted, corruption is not the only problem, but we also have to deal with the penalty for corruption and this is the greater problem. When I was at military college, to have a stain on my shirt was a problem, but the real problem was the penalty that the sergeants would impose upon me for that stain. To arrive before the throne of God with stains on the soul carries with it a penalty. Namely, that we must be excluded from his presence (Psalm 5.4) and cast into hell. So we not only need a solution to the corruption, we need to pay the price for the time that we have carried the corruption. In Christ, we have a solution to both problems.
First off, the answer to the problem of our corruption. Irenaeus writes “For He came to save all through means of Himself- all, I say, who through him are born again to God- infants, and children, and boys and youths and old men. He therefore passed through every age, becoming an infant for infants, thus sanctifying infants; a child for children, thus sanctifying those who are of this age…so likewise He was an old man for old men…Then at last, he came to death itself.” Like bleach through many blankets, or a mighty river that over time wears through the surface of the earth, washing each layer as it passes through, so too Christ has passed through every stage of human life and sanctified it with his perfect life. This means that Christ has passed through the utter selfishness of my infancy, the wild lusts of my teenage years, and the return of my selfishness in my twenties! and will be with me through every stage of life, having already passed through it and bound it to himself. If then through I receive this gift through faith, he has passed through my life, then he has been my selfless infancy, he has been the purity of my teenage years, he has been the courage and innocence of my young adult life because in passing through my sin I have taken on his righteousness. “Because of his measureless love,” Irenaeus writes, “He became what we are in order to enable us to become what He is.”
If we were to leave it here, however, we would be missing the crucial piece of the puzzle. There is a difference between removing the stain of sin, as a simple matter of spring cleaning. It is another thing altogether to remove the stigma and penalty of sin. This is what we turn to next. As Christ has become an infant for infants, a teenager for teenagers, an adult for adults, and an old man for old men, he has not only cleansed their lives, but he has appropriated their lives to himself. In a very real exchange, we have taken on his righteousness, but he has taken on our sinfulness. To allude once again to our analogy of the river cutting great deeps into a canyon, the canyon rock is cleansed by the rushing river, but the river itself carries with it ever increasing amounts of sediment and filth from the canyon rock. So it is with Christ, who after passing through humanity and cleansing it, leaving behind clean rock, the Christ himself has picked up our stench and filth and carried it straight to the throne of the Father…that he might bear the condemnation for our corruption.
Ireneaus writes: “this then is what we call the day of retribution…this day does not signify one which consists of twelve hours, but the whole time during which believers in Christ suffer and are put to death” in Him, having been gathered together in his flesh and punished corporately in his crucifixion.
Adam introduced sin into the world, Christ passed through the sin cleansing it and gathering it to himself. All who have descended from Adam sinned in Adam, but all who are descended from Christ through faith have been innocent in him. Adam’s transgression brought the condemnation of death upon us all, but Christ gathering us to himself bore our condemnation releasing us from the penalty of death. Adam’s descendants, sold as slaves to death and sin because of the debt of their father, are released not only because the debt is paid, but because they have a new Father in heaven that is indebted to no one. Or, as Paul put it
“Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 5.12-21)
This is the comfort of that peculiar word “recapitulation” and it is the marvelous work of Christ both in his incarnation, but especially upon his cross.