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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Mount Moriah (part 2): The Only Loved Son

abrahamisaac

The other day, I wrote a small post on Genesis 22. You can read that here. I’d like to continue meditating on the implications found in Genesis 22, where God tests Abraham by telling him to sacrifice Isaac. In my previous post, I focused primarily on the fact that a substitute was provided on behalf of Isaac. In this way, Isaac’s life was saved, and the death was passed to the ram instead. This is a historical continuum found all throughout scripture, and it climaxes in the substitution of Jesus for the sins of mankind.

But now I want to look at Abraham’s love for his son Isaac. Three times in the text, God calls Isaac Abraham’s only son (v. 2, 12, 16); and two of those times, God refers to him as Abraham’s only loved son (v. 2, 16). All this focus on Isaac as being the only beloved son of Abraham is meant to illustrate how hard it was for Abraham to offer his son as a sacrifice to God. Of course, Isaac is not simply Abraham’s only sonButIsaac was the promised son (Gen 12, 15). Isaac was the son through which all of God’s promises to Abraham (and the world) would be realized. Only ten chapters earlier, God appeared to Abraham and promised that through his seed, the nations of the earth would be blessed. The problem was, his wife was beyond child-bearing age. They were unable to have a natural-born son. In Genesis 15:2, Abraham offered his slave as an adopted son — God said no. Then in Genesis 16, Abraham decided to have a son by one of his servants, Hagar. While this was a technically a biological son, it was not by Sarah, so God said no to that as well. Finally, God miraculously gave Abraham and Sarah a son in Genesis 21.

So, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice his only loved son, he meant: “offer the very promised son that I gave you” — the very one that would bring blessing to the nations! God wanted Abraham to give this one up. To Abraham, Isaac was much more than a child. This son was an encapsulation of all of God’s promises concerning Abraham and his descendants.

This was a hard thing to ask of Abraham. And yet, when Abraham is asked to give up Isaac, he never once questions God. In fact, Abraham is astonishingly deliberate in his obedience. When God told him to kill Isaac, Abraham got up early (Gen 22:3), gathered his materials (22:3), and went immediately to Mount Moriah (22:4-10). Never once did he doubt God. In fact, Abraham trusted that God would provide (v. 5b, 8). The amount of forced obedience involved in going to sacrifice Isaac is absolutely incredible. It was so incredible, that when the angel stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, he said: “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your only son” (Gen 22:12). Abraham’s fear and love for God was placed in the context of his willingness to give up Isaac. What a love Abraham had for his God!

But we must also remember that God stopped Abraham from doing this — God provided a substitute for him. And so, Abraham did not have to go through with sacrificing his only son. And God did this because Isaac was not the ultimate son. He wasn’t the ultimate promised seed from whom would come blessing. The substitute of the ram pointed to a better son; and this was fulfilled in Christ (Gal 3:16).

In fact, we are told in John 3:16 that Jesus is a fulfillment of Genesis 22: God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. What this means is that as much as Abraham was obedient and willing to give Isaac, and as much as he had love for God, God is the ultimate Father proving his love for the world by actually giving his only Son. And this means that God’s love is infinitely greater.

Can one even comprehend the unfathomable love the Father had for the Son? As much as Isaac was chosen, Christ was the ultimate chosen one one, chosen even before the foundations of the world (1 Pet 1:20, Rev 13:8). He is the ultimate Son who brings about the blessings promised in Genesis 12 (Gal 3:16). He is the true Israel who brings God’s people back from their wanderings and blesses the nations (Is 49:5-7). The love that God had for the Son was eternal, glorious, and perfect (John 17:5). And yet God, in his overwhelming love for the world (kosmos in Gk — this communicates God’s love not just for people, but also for the entire created order), actually gave his Son up as the true sacrificial Lamb (John 1:29). Abraham’s love is but a small glimpse of the love of God for sinners!

In fact, Paul says in Romans 5:8 that God proves his love for us by giving Jesus as a sacrifice. He asks in Romans 8:32 (no doubt thinking of Genesis 22!): if God did not spare his only Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not give us all things? What Paul means to say here is that there is no greater love found in God than the gift of Jesus. So while Abraham loved to the extent of being willing to give up Isaac, God loved to the extent to actually giving up the eternal Son; and not only for one person, but for the entire world.

What love God has for sinners!

 

Mount Moriah (part 1): The Place of Substitution

Abraham and Isaac Laurent de La Hire, 1650

We find Mount Moriah first in Genesis 22:14, where Abraham named it “The Lord Will Provide”. It was named this after God had tested Abraham by calling on him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. The test was incomprehensible for anyone. But it was even harder for Abraham because God himself had promised to miraculously conceive for Abraham and his barren wife. And in Genesis 21, God supernaturally provided this promise. But only a chapter later (perhaps when Isaac was only 10 years or so old), God commanded Abraham to sacrifice the boy back to God. We know this was a test by God to see if Abraham loved him more than his promises (Gen 22:1, 12); but certainly, Abraham didn’t know why God commanded him to give up what God had miraculously given him.

After seeing Abraham’s great obedience (Gen 22:3-10), God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, and instead provided a ram for him to sacrifice (Gen 22:13). For this reason, Abraham called it “The Lord Will Provide”. What this name is meant to convey is that God gave a ram to sacrifice in substitution for Isaac. Rather than having to kill his only beloved son (Gen 22:2, 16), Abraham was provided with a ram instead. Because of this, Mount Moriah was a place of substitution.

And in fact, Mount Moriah continued to be this place of substitution. 2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us that on that very mount, God had Solomon build the temple for sin sacrifices. And in 1 Kings 8:29-30, Solomon prayed that God might continually look on the mount, and hear the prayer of his people on the basis of the sacrifices. Solomon was even so bold to say that God had chosen to put his name on this mount; and because of that, when Israel sinned and prayed toward the temple, Solomon asked that God might listen and answer them (1 Kings 8:44, 48-49). And so God continued to provide by way of continued sacrifice in the temple. He continued to substitute that his people may not be killed.

But it does not stop there. While Abraham’s son was spared, and while God’s people were spared in place of a substitute lamb, Jesus was not. Jesus was killed right outside the temple on Golgatha in the very same region as Moriah. And Jesus was given as a substitute for the worldAnd in fact, John calls Jesus the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29); and even more prominently, John calls him God’s only Son (John 3:16). What else could John have in mind but this substitutionary pattern found in the Old Testament? Indeed, the writer of Hebrews tells us that all of the stories in the Old Testament ultimately pointed to Jesus as the true substitution, for bulls and goats couldn’t take away sins–no, we need a better sacrifice (Heb 10:1-4). This sacrifice is Jesus.

Rather than sparing his only Son as Abraham did, God gave him up, that we might be saved. And, God gave him as a lamb to be slaughtered for the people’s sins. Moriah, for God, was a place of substitution. It was a place where one dies in the place of another. And this place of substitution climaxed and was finished and fulfilled in the substitutionary death of Jesus. And he died that we might not die, but that we might be forgiven, cleansed of our sin, and received by God.

This is part 1 of a two part post. You can view the second post here.