The Christian Life is Nothing More than a Daily Baptism

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The Baptism of Jesus Christ (source)

One of my favorite remarks from esteemed Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson comes from his Christian Dogmatics Volume II, in the abstract of chapter 4 on baptism. He says:

We are canonically commanded to initiate into the church those whom the mission proclamation brings to penitence, by washing them in the triune name. To those who have been initiated, baptism promises the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit. (p 315)

This is obvious enough. But then he adds at the end of this abstract this interesting statement:

The task of the church at the present moment is to recover the integrity of baptism. The task of believers is always to use their baptism“. (p 315)

This is curious statement: quite obviously the church is to administer baptism, but what does it mean for the Christian to use their baptism? 

Jenson, as one might expect of a good confessional Lutheran, is borrowing from Luther’s ethic of the daily use of baptism, or, put another way, the daily return to baptism. This is most prominently outlined in Luther’s Large Catechism.

In the section on baptism, Luther first defines what it is: baptism is no normal water. Rather, it is water sanctified by God’s word and made thereby holy. He says it thus:

What is baptism?…It is not simply plain water, but water placed in the setting of God’s Word and commandment and made holy by them. It is nothing else than God’s water, not that the water itself is nobler than other water but that God’s Word and commandment are added to it…

[And again,] Baptism is a very different thing from all other water, not by virtue of the natural substance but because here something nobler is added, for God himself stakes his honor, his power, and his might on it. Therefore it is not simply a natural water, but a divine, heavenly, holy, and blessed water… (LC, 4.14,17)

Notice that for Luther, a sacrament is something taken up into God’s Word and made holy thereby. So before the sacramental word is spoken, it is natural water; but after the Word is spoken over the elements, it is sanctified.

Next Luther asks: what does baptism give? Luther says simply: “This is the simplest way to put it: the power, effect, benefit, fruit, and purpose of baptism is that it saves” (LC 4.23). Wow! How can baptism do such a thing? For Luther, the water, when it is gathered up into the Word of God, is made holy, made to participate in and bestow God’s life. Thus, when baptism is applied, it gives what the Word names: the life of Father, Son and Spirit.

OK then, but still, how do we use this holy baptism? He answers this by asking in the third part of this section: what does baptism signify and why did God ordain it?

This act or ceremony consists of being dipped into the water, which covers us completely, and being drawn out again. These two parts, being dipped under the water and emerging from it, point to the power and effect of baptism, which is nothing else than the slaying of the old Adam and the resurrection of the new creature, both of which must continue in us our whole life (LC, 4.65)

This imagery is incredibly important to Luther. Baptism signifies and works the slaying of the old man and raising up of the new. And this work of slaying and resurrection, as Luther says, must continue “our whole life”.

Here we come to the use of baptism. Thus, says Luther,

a Christian life is nothing else than a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. For we must keep at it without ceasing, always purging whatever pertains to the old Adam, so that whatever belongs to the new creature may come forth (ibid)

For Luther, the Christian life is not a metaphysical improvement from being less to more holy. Rather, sanctification is living within the gift bestowed in baptism, never moving from the reality of dying and rising. Every day is a living out of the reality of baptism. There is no ascending to heaven. There is only death and resurrection.

Finally, Luther mentions the sacrament of penance, which for the medieval church was “another chance” at grace, as it were. If, after baptism, you sinned “mortally”, you could always go to the confessional and make penance. But for Luther, penance and baptism are not two different realities.

Rather,

Penance…is really nothing else than baptism. What is repentance but an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into new life? If you live in repentance, therefore, you are walking in baptism, which not only announces this new life but also produces, begins, and exercises it. (LC 4.75)

Now we may come to what Jenson meant by “using” baptism. He meant: do not progress past it. Always live in it. For in baptism is the very life of God given; the life of Father, Son and Spirit; living out the reality of baptism. And thus, the Christian life, as Luther says, “is nothing else than a return to baptism” (LC 4.77).

Jenson I think gets to the heart of what Luther means with this daily use of baptism in his little treasure of a book, A Large Catechism. He says this:

“Sanctification,” “Christian life” after baptism, is often misunderstood as a progress, kicked off, as it were, by baptism. This has obviously to be false. Baptism initiates into the life which God’s three persons, Father, Son and Spirit, live among themselves; what would we progress to from that? Rather, sanctification is the continual return to baptism, from the errors and forgettings and perhaps plain unbelief or crime into which life after baptism will lead us. Baptism is always there as a fact in my past; I can always, as Luther said, “creep” back to it and begin anew. (p 50)

Jenson continues:

If I do become more sanctified as time goes on, if my life does less fight against communion with Christ in the church, this will be because such fresh starts come closer together and are each time more drastic. (ibid, 51)

This is at the heart of Luther’s “daily use” of baptism. What a treasure!

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Justified by Faith: What Does it Mean?

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Robert W. Jenson, in the third chapter of his small booklet Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, talks about the misconception and confusion brought about by the slogan “faith alone”. Just how are we saved by faith alone? Or to put another way, what is it about faith that is so effective in saving man?

Jenson explains that faith, according to the classical Protestant accounts, justifies “because God credits the fruits of Jesus’ atoning work to those in whom he finds faith. Despite what God sees when he looks at us sinners, he for Christ’s sake judicially declares us righteous” (p 17). At the end of his chapter, Jenson ultimately finds this conception of justification lacking. In fact he calls it an “arbitrary” decree (p 21)!

In any case, he expounds on Luther’s own understanding of just how faith saves from his classic work The Freedom of the Christian. Jenson expounds two ways in which Luther understood that faith makes the sinner just, righteous, “saved”:

The first. Luther observes that believing in someone is the highest honor we can bring him. Therefore believing in God just is fulfillment of the first table of the commandments. And as ecumenical theology has always supposed, obeying the second table is the natural result of obeying the first, however slowly or with however many setbacks this may take place. If we trust God, we will seek to fulfill his stated will (p 18)

As Luther says in his Small Catechism, fulfilling the first commandment is very simply “trusting…God above all other things”. That, according to Luther, is the essence of faith: trusting God, placing your security in him, finding your ultimate source in him. In this way, to have faith in Christ is itself a righteous act, presumably brought about by the Spirit. And thus we are righteous by faith.

Second, Luther expounds upon an Aristotelian principle: “for Aristotle, seeing was the chief channel of openness to reality; therefore, so far as my subjectivity is concerned, I become what I see” (p 19). Luther took this concept, but applied it to the hearing of the gospel. Jenson explains:

[Luther] regarded hearing rather than seeing as the dominating way by which in this life we are opened to an other. According to Luther… I become what is addressed to me, what I must hearken to.

Therefore, if what we attend to is the word of God, we are merely thereby shaped by the Word’s content. Hearkening to the Word, we are constituted as persons by the good things the Word communicates, peace and love and righteousness and so on…[Thus], when Jones is grasped by the gospel, “Jones is righteous” is straightforwardly true… (p 19)

The adage “you become what you eat” might well be termed “you become what you hear” in Luther’s understanding. If we hear the word of the gospel, that gospel makes its way into us and thereby transforms us. Jenson takes one last step however. Because, according to John and other biblical writers, the ultimate word of God is the Word of God. Put another way, the fullest form of the gospel is the person of Christ himself. To grasp the gospel is to grasp Christ himself. Therefore, hearing and being grasped by the gospel is, for Luther, to be grasped by Christ himself, to be in vital union with his person. “Thus Luther made it a principle of his theology: ‘In such faith Christ is present’. Faith makes us personally and actually righteous because faith is a transforming and ruling presence in us of the righteous one himself” (p 20).

Just as an aside, this is why Luther was quite emphatic about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The sacrament of the Supper is nothing else than a verbal word of promise, and where the promise of the gospel is, there also, is Christ. Thus, he is right there on every altar wherever the Eucharist is practiced; and he’s there whether we realize it or not.

In any case, Luther understood that by grasping the promise of the gospel in faith, one was grasping none other than Christ, and this personal union of Christ and the believer was thus real and transformative: it made the believer really and truly righteous.

Jenson closes this chapter, as I have already noted, by stating that justification by faith as a bare declaration is simply not enough to get to the heart of this doctrine:

The alternative theory of justification, as sheer decree by the divine Judge “in the forum of heaven”, for all the genius that has been devoted to its plausible defense, cannot finally be rescued from making God’s justifying seem arbitrary” (p 21)

While I’m not sure I would go that far, I do agree with him that Luther’s own understanding of faith as involving a transformative union with the person of Christ is central to his teaching. We are justified not simply by divine decree, but by grasping Christ himself. We find our righteousness in none other than the righteousness of Christ himself!

Luther on Prayer

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In his book Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, Oswald Bayers argues that prayer is “constitutive…for Luther’s theology” (p 346). Bayer lays out Luther’s theology of prayer from his sermon May 13, 1520, Rogate Sunday:

As nowhere else, this text documents in a pregnant way Luther’s reformational understanding of prayer; it shows very clearly not only how Luther explained the Trinity is such a way that its theological character of as promise was central, but also how his understanding of prayer itself had a trinitarian character. Whenever Luther preached in subsequent years on Rogate Sunday, he came back to the basic structure of what he articulated in this sermon (346)

Bayers quotes this sermon, which follows 5 steps that, as he says, are centered around God’s promise and his triunity. Luther says:

Every prayer consists of five [identifying characteristics]; otherwise the prayer is offered in vain.

The first is the promise of God, which is the foundation on which the entire prayer relies: if there were no promise, our prayer would be worthless; it would be unworthy of a favorable hearing, since it would rely on its own merit.

The second is that one states the specifics…so that the scattered thoughts can be focused on the godly promise, because I hope to acquire help; this is what one calls gathering one’s thoughts. Based on this, [self]-selected little prayers… are not priestly prayers, since they do not gather one’s thoughts, nor do they summarize the matter on the heart that seeks resolution

Third: faith is necessary, by means of which I believe in the God who makes promises, that I can expect that what I pray for is possible without having doubt. To be sure, God ensures that all things are guaranteed not because of you and your prayer, but because of his trustworthiness, by means of which he has promise that he will give it…

Fourth, [the prayer] is uttered with earnestness, not with a vacillating spirit and not as if one does not urgently desire the thing for which one prays… This would be a mockery to God, as if he were not willing to guarantee what he had promised… (347)

Before we move to the fifth mark, which transitions to the trinitarian structure: notice here that all of prayer is dependent not on the one who prays, but on the God who promises. God is the one who gives the riches of himself in his Son, and promises to hear and answer because of his benevolence, not because of our worthiness or lack thereof. This is why Luther says in step two not repeat selected little prayers. He has in mind not liturgical prayers (Jesus gave us a prayer to memorize!!), but rather mindless praying. Prayer must be thoughtful, filled with the content of God’s benevolence. Prayer this is not a passive enterprise; it is one that remembers and claims God’s covenant promises in Christ.  

Next, Luther ventures into the trinitarian structure of prayer in his fifth mark:

Fifth, such prayer takes place in the name of Jesus, by whose command and by whose authority we can come confidently before the Father of all things. Thus it cannot happen that the prayer goes without being heard: the Father has promised an answer through the Son, as through an instrument. And our sins hurt Christ; he prays concerning them in heaven, as if they were his own. Tell me now: what could cause a rejection here? The Son prays in heaven in my name; I pray on earth in his name. Thus the righteousness of Christ is my own, my sins are Christ’s: this is admittedly an unequal exchange. And both come to purity together: my sins vanish in Christ and his holiness washes me clean, so that I become worthy of eternal life (347-8)

Notice here that prayer is located in the Son before the Father. This is what Bayer means that Luther’s theology of prayer is trinitarian. In prayer, sinners are unequally yoked to Christ, and being in him, they come worthily before the Father. And thus it is because of that union with Christ that their prayers are heard. We may speak to the Father because Christ has latched himself to us and us to himself, and thus we are one mystical person in conversation with the Father.

Bayer expounds on this principle:

The final section [of Luther’s sermon, number 5,] answers the decisive question: How can I have any right to address the one who has power over all things, and furthermore, how can I be confident I will be heard?

Freedom from such uncertainty and from our sins comes to us only in connection with that event in which God himself comes to us and brings us to himself: in the way God comes as the triune one. For only in the differentiation and yet mutual connection between Father, Son and Spirit can we be certain concerning the speech in action of God, as those who believe and as those who pray… (348)

Bayer means to say that our prayer is heard because in salvation, we come to inhabit the “mutual connection between the Father, Son and Spirit”. We become one person with the Son in the power of the Spirit, and thus the Father hears us because we are in his Son. Put more simply, we come to the Father not in and of ourselves, but in the Son. We are, to put it sacramentally, in vital union with Christ through baptism: we die and rise with him, and ascend with and in him to the Father. We are seated with him in the heavenly places (Eph 2:6).

Just as an aside as we end, it is worthy noting here that Luther did not have a merely extrinsic understanding of salvation, as many accuse. Christ is not “out there” representing us to the Father. Christ is in us, we are in him, and thus we are taken up with him to the Father. Luther famously says that “in faith itself Christ is present”. By this he means that to have faith means principally to be vitally united to Christ.

What all of this means is that prayer is effective because God donates the very person of his Son to us, and we become one person with him. We come in Christ by the Spirit to the Father. And thus our prayer is heard!

 

Athanasius, Atonement and the Image of God

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At the beginning of his supreme work, On the Incarnation, Athanasius explains that mankind was made according to the image of God. This theme of image, for Athanasius, is the starting and ending point for a proper theology of the incarnation and atonement. The inner logic of the incarnation and the death of Christ is, for Athanasius, connected to God’s creation of man in his own image. I want to survey Athanasius’ logic in this article.

First, Athanasius explains what is means to be made in God’s image: for Athanasius, to be created in God’s image means simply to share in God’s own life which allows man to become “like God”. Athanasius explains:

Upon them, …upon men who, as animals, were essentially impermanent, [God] bestowed a grace which other creatures lacked — namely the impress of His own image (p 3)

Athanasius calls the image of God “a grace” or gift above natural creaturely life, for mankind is “essentially impermanent”. Athanasius, along with all the early Fathers, understood that because mankind was created out of nothing (ex nihilo), they did not in and of themselves contain eternal life. Thus, God breathed into mankind a share in his own life, giving them a supernatural grace to share in his own eternal life and to be conformed to His image.

Athanasius continues by explaining just what sharing in God’s image entails, namely,

a share in the reasonable being of the very Word Himself, so that, reflecting Him and themselves becoming reasonable and expressing the Mind of God even as He does, though in limited degree they might continue forever in the blessed and only true life of the saints in paradise (p 3)

This is an incredible insight: Athanasius explains that because the Son is the express image of God — the very Word and revelation of the Father — the supernatural grace given to man upon creation was union and a share in the life of God the Son. This share int he Son allows man to have the mind of God (1 Cor 2, Phil 2), and to “continue forever” in God’s life. Put another way, Athanasius understands the supernatural gift of “the image” to be union with the Image of God, thus being formed into His image. The end goal of mankind then was to be conformed into Christlikeness!

But man sinned, and fell. And what were the effects of that fall? Athanasius understands sin not simply as a breaking of God’s law, but as a falling away or separation from union with the Son into corruption and “non-being”. Athanasius explains:

The transgression of the [first] commandment made them turn back again according to their own nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence. the presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good… (p 4)

This then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had graciously bestowed on them his own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption and death (p 5)

Sin for Athanasius is turning toward one’s own nature into corruption and eventually non-existence. Thus, man is born dying and decaying, and eventually “disappearing, and the work of God [is]… undone” (p 6).

But, as Athanasius explains, God did not want his work to simply “disappear”. What could He do? Athanasius concedes that God could simply offer repentance, but this would not be enough. And why? Because simple sorrow does not

recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough (p 8).

In other words, if the problem were just about an outward transgression, repentance and sorrow for sin would have been enough. But the transgression preceded a separation of man from participation in the Son, and thus toward corruption and decay. Put more simply, the problem wasn’t merely external, but internal. Something became fundamentally wrong with man’s own nature after Adam had sinned. God therefore had to renew mankind from the inside out, and conform him once again to His own Image. 

But how would God do that? How would he renew man to the image of the Son? Here we come to Athanasius’ supreme insight concerning the incarnation:

What else could [God] possibly do, being God, but renew His Image in mankind, so that through it men might once more come to know him? And how could this be done save by the very Image Himself, our Savior Jesus Christ? Men could not have done it, for they are only made after the Image; nor could angels have done it, for they are not the images of the God. The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father Who could recreate man made after the Image. (p 15)

Athanasius says that it is only the One true Image of God that could renew mankind after His own likeness. This is the impetus in Athanasius’ mind for incarnation: the Son comes into the broken down and corrupted image of man to renew it after his own likeness and sanctify it so that mankind can participate in God once again. 

Athanasius continues his line of logic:

In order to effect this re-creation, however, [Christ] had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image. The Image of the Father only was sufficient for this need (p 16)

In order for death itself to be undone, the Image assumed a human body (nature) and took into himself death and disease and defeated it from the inside out. Christ took the broken image and recrafted it according to Himself. Here we come to the genius of Athanasius’ atonement theology: The Image took our broken image and re-imaged it according to His own Image! The cross was principally an assumption of the deepest brokenness of mankind. The resurrection then is a defeat of death and a re-creation of mankind. What joy!

A New Temple, Priest, and Sacrifice

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One of the more famous stories from the life of Jesus is his cleansing of the temple. It is famous, of course, because it highlights Christ’s anger against the money-changers who were selling animals for sacrifice at a hefty price.

They were in essence using the temple sacrificial system for their own benefit. And not just that, the money-changers were hindering worshippers. The temple was a place of communion of YHWH with his people. And not just His people, but with the watching world. The outer most court of the temple — called the court of the Gentiles — was open to any and all who would want to come and see the temple. And yet, as soon as they walked through the door, any who entered would be halted by the swindling money-changers. It is certain that any righteous Israelite would be scandalized by it. It makes total sense that Jesus himself was infuriated.

Matthew’s account tells us that Jesus, upon entering, “overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold the pigeons. He said to them, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer, but you make it a den of robbers'” (21:12-13). Jesus says in essence that the money-changers had perverted the purpose of the temple as a place of prayer and fellowship into a place of profit.

While Luke ends his version of the story there, Matthew includes an additional part. He tells us that after Jesus overturned the tables, that the “blind and lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (vv. 14).

Now why would Matthew include this little addition? It certainly isn’t random. Matthew doesn’t waste space in his gospel. What is the connection?

The connection is this: the blind and the lame were seen as unclean according to the law of Moses. And should they desire to enter the temple beyond the outer courts, they would need to be cleansed by a sacrifice. And yet, Matthew tells here that when they entered they not only had no sacrifice (presumably they wouldn’t have been able to afford the animals the money-changers were offering!), but they were also immediately cleansed by Christ himself without a sacrifice. What I want to suggest is that within the context, Matthew means to picture Christ as a new temple and sacrificial system, one better than the old; one that supersedes and fulfills the old.

Matthew is presenting Christ as replacing the old cultic temple system. The old way of the Mosaic system had been perverted by the money-changers, and thus Christ becomes the new way into the presence of God. He is in himself a temple, housing God’s glory. And, he is in himself a new priest presenting himself as a cleansing sacrifice, thus enabling us to enter “through the veil of his flesh” (Heb 10:19-22). Matthew is, in his own brilliant way, presenting a rich atonement theology!

Trinitarian Atonement

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The cross is usually thought of as a work of the Son. And of course it is a work of the Son: a selfless giving-up — a priestly sacrifice — through which the sin of the world is forgiven.

But the cross is not just a work of the Son. Actually, the Bible presents the cross as a work of the entire Godhead done together. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:19 that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself”. What Paul means to communicate is that the whole God, not just the Son, was actively involved in the work of the cross to reconcile fallen humanity to himself. 

But in what way?

Donald Macleod, in his chapter on the atonement from Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, explains that “as in every outgoing act of the Trinity, all three persons are involved” (p 255). Macleod explains firstly, that though the Father was not on the cross,

yet it is to him that the New Testament characteristically traces back the cost of Calvary, as if it were of his love that the cross speaks above all. But how, if he felt it not at all? If he has compassion for us, his children (Ps. 103), had he no pity for his Son? Did he not long to intervene as he did in the case of Abraham, and cry, “Don’t lay a hand on the boy!”?

The greatest indictment of sin is that even the divine love and wisdom could save the world only at the cost of God sacrificing his own Son. It was, indeed, a free and loving initiative, yet once it was embarked on, the sacrifice became a necessity. There was no other way. The cup could not pass (Mark 14: 35), and it was a sacrifice for both the Father and the Son. (p 255)

The Father gives up his Son, and he does not intervene in his sufferings. This is properly in what manner Jesus experiences the wrath of the Father. God lets him go; he abandons him. And on this account the curses of the law are said to be satisfied before the Father.

In this manner, the Father can be said to have offered Christ for the sins of the world. Macleod explains that while it is Christ who is priest of the New Covenant — and while Christ freely, lovingly, offers himself as the pure lamb for the covering of the sins of the world —

[there are also verses such] as John 3: 16; Romans 8: 32; and 1 John 4: 10 [that] speak of another priesthood: the priesthood of God the Father. Here is the heavenly archetype of the story of Abraham and Isaac, where the Father delivers up his jachid, his beloved Son, and where Father and Son together proclaim that there is no length to which they will not go to save the world. This is what “theories” of the atonement have to wrestle with: the cross not only as a demonstration of the love of Jesus but also as a demonstration of the love of God the Father. His, ultimately, was the cost, and his the loss. It is his Son who bleeds and dies. It is from his own Son that he must hide his face, to his cry he must turn a deaf ear, to him whom he can extend no comfort and offer no hint of recognition. (p 247)

All throughout this chapter, Macleod rightly compares Abraham and Isaac to the Father’s giving up of the Son. The Bible makes this comparison as well: “God so loved the world that He gave up his only Son” (John 3:16); Jesus is said to have carried wood on his back to the top of the mount, with no sacrifice but himself! Macleod concludes that just as Abraham and Isaac went up together to the place of sacrifice, “they [also] went up, ‘both of them together’ (Gen 22:6, 8), not as helpless victims of an unavoidable destiny but as divine persons who had covenanted together to share the cost of saving the world and were now walking together toward the pain” (p 255).

But it was not just the Father giving the Son up. The Spirit was also involved in the cross. But what did he do? Macleod says that the Spirit empowered the Son to (1) be the pure Lamb, having obeyed the entire law from the beginning of his life, and (2) “upheld the Son through all the challenges of his self-offering” (p 251).

Christ, in all humility, as Paul says, did not utilize his divine attributes during his time on earth “but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:7). Rather than his own divine power, it was instead the anointing of the Spirit which enabled Christ to obey the covenant, and it was the same Spirit which empowered him to pain of the cross. It was by the Spirit that Christ refused to revile his enemies, but rather to ask the Father to forgive them. The Spirit was the power behind it all.

But one last thing must be said of the Father and Spirit at work in the cross: it was because Christ offered himself as the innocent victim, and suffered the violence of wicked men, that the Father, through the Spirit, infinitely pleased with Christ, raised Him up to glory. Macleod explains:

The loving, adoring Father, struck with the glory of his Son’s obedience, brings him back to life, raises him up, and seats him in the heavenlies (Eph. 2: 5– 6). He places that humanity, so abused by men, in the glory the Son had with the Father before the world was (John 17: 5). (p 255)

It is the Father, through the Spirit, who raises Christ to glory. Even the resurrection takes a Trinitarian shape! 

Thus the work of the cross is entirely Triune. In it, the Father gives up his Son, and the Spirit upholds the Son; and because of this Triune empowered obedience, the same Triune God lifts the Son to glory. What joy!