Evangelicalism’s “Missing” Doctrine: Union with Christ

I am currently reading a massively important work entitled: One With Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation by Marcus Johnson.

In his introduction, Johnson says that the doctrine of union with Christ — which was a common doctrine not only in the early patristic fathers, but also in the Reformation theologians — is much neglected in today’s evangelical circles.

Johnson says,

In textbooks, sermons , and classrooms, salvation is often conceived of as the reception of something Christ has acquired for us rather than as the reception of the living Christ. In other words, salvation is described as a gift to be apprehended rather than the apprehension of the Giver himself. To put it yet another way, the gospel is portrayed as the offer of a depersonalized benefit (e.g., grace, justification, or eternal life) rather than the offer of the very person of Christ (who is himself the grace of God, our justification, and our eternal life). (p 17-18)

For Johnson, much of evangelicalism has articulated the gospel, and the benefits therein, in distinction or even isolation to the believer’s union with Christ. For instance, many churches today emphasize the doctrine of imputation — that a believer is declared righteous through the gospel — without at the same time stressing that this righteousness comes from being in Christ. For Johnson, this is a huge misstep. And Johnson brings in the Reformers to underline that this Protestant doctrine is indeed connected to union with Christ:

He quotes Calvin, who says,

[W]e must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore, to share in what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us . . . for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him. (p 23)

He also quotes Luther:

[F]aith must be taught correctly, namely that by it you are so cemented to Christ that He and you are as one person, which cannot be separated but remains attached to Him forever and declares: “I am as Christ .” And Christ, in turn, says: “I am as the sinner who is attached to me and I to him. For by faith we are joined together into one flesh and bone.” Thus Eph. 5: 30 says: “We are members of the body of Christ , of his flesh and bones,” in such a way that faith couples Christ and me more intimately than a husband is coupled to his wife. (p 22)

The Reformers had a deep and robust doctrine of salvation. But it was a salvation found in Christ. The believer is in Christ, and thus receives all that is his: his righteousness, his Spirit, his justification and vindication, his resurrection, etc.

Johnson also surveys the NT, specifically the Johannine and Pauline corpus, to argue that union with Christ is central to biblical soteriology.

Johnson cites the many times that Paul explains salvation in terms of being “in Christ”:

[We are] justified in Christ (8: 1); glorified in Christ (Rom. 8: 30; 2 Cor. 3: 18); sanctified in Christ (1 Cor. 1: 2); called in Christ (v. 9); made alive in Christ (15: 22; Eph. 2: 5); created anew in Christ (2 Cor. 5: 17); adopted as children of God in Christ (Gal. 3: 26); elected in Christ (Eph 1:4) (p 19)

He also gives examples of the frequent metaphorical imagery found in John’s writing that convey union with Christ:

Jesus is the living water (John 4, 7), the bread of life (John 6: 33, 48), and the one whose flesh and blood are to be consumed for eternal life (John 6: 53– 57); we have eternal life only if we have the Son (1 John 5: 11– 12), we are in the Son— who is true God and eternal life (1 John 5: 20)— and we live through him (1 John 4: 9). Jesus abides in us and we in him (John 6: 56; 15 :4– 7), and God abides in us and we in him through Jesus and the Spirit (1 John 3: 24; 4: 12– 16). We are one with Christ and the Father (John 14: 20; 17: 21– 23). Jesus is the true vine in whom we abide and apart from whom we can do nothing (John 15: 1–5), and he is the resurrection and life in himself (John 11: 25; cf. John 1: 4). (p 20)

Of course we can find this doctrine all across the pages of the NT. But we do find that both Paul and John see salvation in terms of being conjoined to Christ, and receiving his life as our own. We are nothing apart from Christ.

Johnson finishes this introduction, saying this important truth:

The premise of this book is that the primary, central, and fundamental reality of salvation is our union with Jesus Christ, because of which union all the benefits of the Savior flow to us, and through which union all these benefits are to be understood. (p 29)

I will write more on this work; but suffice to say, I think that this book is extremely important. And, I think that evangelical theology is indeed missing this doctrine, especially when we think about the ramifications of this doctrine in connection to justification, sanctification and sacraments.

I remember reading both Luther and Calvin on this subject. It is hard to count how many times Luther compared salvation to that of a marital union between the believer and Christ. All that is ours is His, and all that is His or ours. He would often quote Song of Solomon 6:3: I am my beloved’s and he is mine. As long as we are joined to Christ, we are righteous as he is. We are alive as his is.

Calvin often spoke of union with Christ as “being spiritual” in nature. And what he didn’t mean was that we are only grafted into Christ’s soul; instead, what Calvin meant was that by the Spirit, the believer is mysterious conjoined to Christ. Calvin would later connect this doctrine to the Lord’s Supper. In the Supper, the believer is mysteriously taken up by the Spirit into heaven to feed upon Christ. Union with Christ colored everything that Calvin taught.

This is a wonderful doctrine, and one to which we should pay more attention!

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8 thoughts on “Evangelicalism’s “Missing” Doctrine: Union with Christ

  1. One scriptural description of union that you don’t mention is Jesus being the groom and the Church his bride, as in Eph. 31:32: “’Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”

  2. Great article! When I was a brand new Christian, we did an inductive study on Jonathan and David. I’ll never forget the imagery and metaphors! Jonathan gives David his robe. In Biblical times that was just like becoming that person. With Jonathan’s robe, David had access to everything as if he were Jonathan himself. When we are born again we exchange robes with Christ, His robe of righteousness for mine of unrighteousness. I am now seen as Christ and I am joint heir with Him. When God looks at me, He no longer sees me, but His Son! Praise God!!

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