For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous. -Romans 5:19
The Christian life between Christ’s two advents is characterized by a tension sometimes referred to as an “already/not yet” dynamic— Christ’s kingdom is already here, though not yet in its fullness; we are already living in the “last days,” but the “last day” has not yet come; we are already justified, though our sanctification has not yet been completed. In Romans 5, Paul paints a picture of Christ as the new Adam. Just as Adam’s sin spread through all humankind like a virus, so Christ’s life of obedience provides the antidote to those who are in Christ. We can look to Christ, in his human nature, and see what true humanity looks like—the model of who Christ is making us to be. Presently, however, we are somewhere in between our old and our new humanity, between our Adamic and our Christ-like natures. We are already being cleansed and transformed, but we are not yet “complete” in our Christ-likeness.
This “already/not yet” tension, as it pertains to our sense of identity, creates a kind of Jekyll and Hyde opposition within us (think of Paul in Romans 7). The consistent counsel of the New Testament for dealing with this internal division without succumbing to a clinical personality disorder is to focus our gaze on Christ (this is expressed perhaps most directly by the author of Hebrews: “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith”). In a section of his Church Dogmatics where he addresses the nature of true humanity (taking Nietzsche’s twisted and self-aggrandizing anthropology in Ecce Homo as a foil), Karl Barth explains that we must look at the human nature of Jesus to have any true understanding of humankind: “this is the standard of what [humankind’s] reality is and what it is not. It reveals originally and definitively why God has created man.”
So often we get this backwards…in seeking to understand the nature of humanity, we look instead at ourselves (more specifically, at our Adamic nature). But in so doing, we define humanity according to an aberration from the true humanity. 2012 was a devastating year for the Michigan apple crop. An unseasonably-warm late winter coaxed all of the apple trees into blooming prematurely, and the next cold spell that hit killed the blossoms, and the crop for the entire season. Walking through an apple orchard that spring, one who had never seen an apple tree might have thought that this was normal—row after row of naked, barren branches. To know what an apple tree was supposed to look like in April or May, one would have to have in mind the image of a healthy tree.
Two problems predominate when we fix our eyes not on Christ, but on our fallen, Adamic nature: either we despair of our utter rottenness, or we come to see our universal foibles as normal and normative—as constitutive of our very nature (“all of these trees are desolate and fruitless…that must therefore be what an ‘apple tree’ is”). How often do we excuse our selfish and sinful behaviors and attitudes by rationalizing that they are “only natural”—when in reality they are not “natural” to our true humanity, but to our fallenness!
We do well—for the sake of humility and gratitude—to remember our sinfulness and our “old” nature, but a healthy recollection of this is only possible when we have our eyes on Christ. If you were scaling the Empire State Building, among the more helpful pieces of advice shouted at you from below would be “Don’t look down!!” You wouldn’t want to forget what was behind you (lest you decide to step away from the building for a quick breather), but actually looking down would be disastrous. Instead, you would (I imagine—I’m no skyscraper-climbing guru) want to keep your eyes fixed on the goal towards which you were climbing. With this approach in mind, we can navigate the “already/not yet” tension between our two natures with grace and with confidence in God’s guiding and protecting hand, proclaiming along with Paul (Philippians 3:12): “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”