Without Prayer there is No Salvation


Icon of the Ascension

Sergius Bowyer, in his delightful little book Acquiring the Mind of Christ, says that “without prayer…, there is no salvation” (p 12). I read that line months ago, and it has never left me: without prayer there is no salvation. It is, as should be obvious, an overstatement. From Protestant ears, it’s even a damnable overstatement!

But we must couch this statement within the context of Bowyer’s definition of prayer. At the beginning of this short, lovely chapter, Bowyer quotes St. John Climacus who defines prayer very simply as “union with God”. He goes on to say that “our task in this short earthly life is to resume a dialogue that was lost with God in paradise” (p 11). Prayer, for Bowyer, and following the early fathers of the church, is not simply saying stuff to God. Prayer is entering into a divine dialogue of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Prayer is, put simply: the final realization of mankind’s salvation in Christ.

But what does that mean?

The early fathers of the church expressed man’s final end in terms of union and communion. God in himself is a community of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And out of love, he created mankind not so that we might live independent parallel lives with God, but rather that we might be included in that divine community.

Andrew Louth, in his introduction to Christianity, explains that the Trinity must be explained in terms of relationship, prayer, and coinherence. He introduces John of Damascene’s doctrine of perichoresis to explain:

[John of Damascene] introduces a concept that had not hitherto been used with much confidence in relation to the Holy Trinity: the idea of perichoresis, interpenetration or coinherence. The persons of the Trinity are not separate from each other, as human persons are, rather they interpenetrate one another, without losing their distinctiveness as persons, their reality coincides or coinheres…

It seems to me that the doctrine of perichoresis, coinherence, that John introduces in the Christian theology, expresses well the realization that within the Trinity there is relationship, a relationship expressed in prayer. There is, as it were, a kind of mutual yielding within the Trinity: the Father makes space for the Son and the Spirit…and Son and the Spirit yield to the Father as they turn to him in prayer. (Eastern Orthodoxy: A Personal Introduction, p 31)

Human beings were created to enter into that relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And, the original sin is principally a refusal to be included into that relationship of reciprocity and incoherence. Adam (and all men after) wanted his “independence” from this community. He wanted to be his own man. And for that he fell away from communion into sin and death.

With this context, we look at salvation. Put within this frame of reference, salvation is nothing more than God’s own loving extension into space and time to gather all of creation back into this relationship of Triune communion. Indeed, in the incarnation the Son became one of us in order to give us what is his: Sonship. Robert W. Jenson, in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, explains this principle very well:

We dare speak to God at all— however others may dare it— only because our Lord permits us to join his prayer, only because he has said, “Trade on my unique filial relation to God, that I may call him ‘Father;’ begin with me, ‘Father . . . ,’ and make it ‘Our Father . . . ,’ not just ‘His Father . . . .’” Thus we pray with this Son, to his Father. Just so, we enter into the living community between them, that is, into their communal “Spirit:” we pray to the Father with the Son, in the Spirit. Indeed, the doctrine of Trinity can be derived by simply adding that only so, only as we occupy the space defined, as it were, by these coordinates—“ to,” “with,” “in”— is it the God of the gospel with whom we have to do. (A Large Catechism, p 14-15)

This paragraph is magnificent, by far my favorite from Jenson. However we speak of the atonement, the goal of God the Son’s incarnation among us and of his being gathered up in his resurrection and ascension, is to exchange his filial relationship with the Father for our sinful reality. The Father’s and the reformers spoke in terms of a great exchange happening through the incarnation, cross, resurrection and ascension. This is no bare legal exchange. It is a real transformation: God became man (incarnation) that man might become God (salvation) as St. Athanasius said.

Salvation is thus being gathered in the Spirit through the Son to face the Father in communal prayer. 

In this way, we simply must speak of prayer as a condition of salvation! Not because prayer is a work that makes us somehow acceptable to God: no, prayer is salvation. When we pray, we enter a new space: the space of Father Son and Spirit. We enter that space by the Spirit through the mediation of the Son, to the Father.

As St. Paul says: God “made us alive together with Christ… and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6-7). As Scott Hahn says about this passage: “This is not poetic speak, this is metaphysical reality!” Through salvation, we come to be in that space between the Father and the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is the final realization of that mystery. 

Worship as Participation in Christ


Jesus the Great High Priest Icon

James B Torrance, in his Introduction to Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace, defines worship as the “gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father” (p 20).

Torrance explains that humanity was created originally to be priests:

[P]riests of creation and to express on behalf of all creatures the praises of God, so that through human lips the heavens might declare the glory of God…But nature fails in its realization because of our human failure. Instead of singing songs of joy, the whole creation groans in universal travail (pp 13-14)

Humanity was called to offer themselves as a sacrifice and all of creation to the Father in true worship (Rom 12:1-2), uniting heaven and earth as a universal temple, world-wide temple. However, original sin derailed this vocation and so spiraled humanity into separation from the life of the Father and therefore into death. But, asks Torrance, “does God then abandon his purposes for humanity and for all creatures?” (p 14). The answer to that is no:

The good news is that God comes to us in Jesus to stand in for us and bring to fulfillment his purposes of worship and communion. Jesus comes to be the priest of creation to do for us, men and women, what we failed to do, to offer to the Father the worship and the praise we failed to offer, to glorify God by a life of perfect love and obedience, to be the one true servant of the Lord. In him and through him we are renewed by the Spirit in the image of God and int he worship of God in a life of shared communion. (p 14)

The gospel is that God the Son comes into our broken situation, taking upon himself our nature, and offering to the Father what he had always wanted — true priestly worship — thereby uniting heaven and earth. Christ’s self-offering therefore realized mankind’s vocation. And the resurrection was both the proof and the effect of Christ’s self-offering: human nature was raised to participate in the life and communion of the Father in the power of the Spirit.

Because Christ realized man’s priestly vocation, uniting heaven and earth in his self-offering, Torrance explains that all true worship now becomes a participation in Christ’s worship and self-offering. Mankind realizes their priestly vocation through union with Christ in the power of the Spirit:

Whatever else worship is, it is our liturgical amen to the worship of Christ.

This is the “wonderful exchange” by which Christ takes what is ours (our broken lives and unworthy prayers), sanctifies them, offers them without spot or wrinkle to the Father, and gives them back to us, that we might “feed” upon him in thanksgiving. He takes our prayer and makes them his prayers, and he makes his prayers our prayer, and we know our prayers are heard “for Jesus’ sake”. This is life in the Spirit, worship understood in terms of sola gratia. This is the Trinitarian nature of all true worship and communion.

Christian worship is, therefore, our participation through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father, in his vicarious life of worship and intercession. (p 15)

The takeaway here is that all true worship is not our activity for God; it is rather a participation in Christ’s self-gift to and worship of the Father on mankind’s behalf by the Holy Spirit. Our worship is taken up into Christ’s worship. Torrance finishes his Introduction by saying this:

[Christians] need to recover [the] New Testament understanding of worship which recognizes that the real agent in all true worship is Jesus Christ. He is our great high priest and ascended Lord, the one true worshipper who unites us to himself by the Spirit in an act of memory and in a life of communion, as he lifts us up by word and sacrament into the very triune life of God. (p 17)

In Torrance’s first chapter, he distinguishes between this participatory view of worship (through the Son in the Spirit) and a unitarian view, which I plan to cover in another post.

Man’s Final End


Icon of the Transfiguration. Most theologians understand this to be a retroactive-revelation of Christ’s resurrection glory, and a vision of man’s final end: participation in God’s glory

In this post, I want to consider what the early church fathers called theosis or divinization. They were convinced that this was man’s original calling, and it is principally man’s final end through salvation in Christ. But what does it mean? And how do we partake in it? This is what I want to answer through this post.

The outline of this post will take three steps. First, I need to define, primarily from the fathers and biblical metaphors, what divinization/theosis actually means. Second, I will look at the nature of sin as deprivation from the help of Augustine. Finally, I will look at what salvation in Christ means through the lens of the first two steps.

First, what does divinization mean? I realize that the word divinization or theosis sounds very foreign and strange. But these were words that the Fathers often used, and they are ultimately a biblical idea; so we must explore what they mean. Frederica Mathewes-Greens defines theosis by breaking down the word:

The goal of [mankind] is union with God. This is called theosis, which is usually translated “deification” or “divinization”. Those terms are misleading, if not alarming, since it could sound like we expect to become junior gods, each an independent owner-operator of a personal divinity franchise. Fortunately for everyone, that is not the case. We can dismantle the Greek word and see it is composed of theos, which means “God”, and the suffix -osis, which indicates a process. As red dye saturates a white clothe by the process of osmosis, so humans can be saturated with God’s presence by the process of theosis.

This was God’s plan from the beginning; we were created… to be increasingly filled with his glory (Welcome to the Orthodox Church, p 68-69)

Theosis, then, means that human beings were created to be increasingly filled with God’s glory. Or, put another way, mankind was made to participate and find its life within God’s divine life.

Aiden Nichols, in his book Chalice of God, tells us that the world was created to be a “beautiful receptacle”; that the “being of the world is so constituted as to receive” (p 12-13) and not to exist on its own. Rather it was created to receive the breath of God and to live in his own life. God, out of love then, created the world to participate or to be permeated with the divine indwelling.

But why is this so? Why was man created for this end? It is because only God has the infinite and unlimited resources that permit him to live independently. Aidan Nichols explains “anything whose nature does not demand its existence must have its being from another — meaning, ultimately, from the First Cause” (Chalice of God, p 14). God’s being, or his essence, is infinite, endless, and demands its own cause and existence. Created things on the other hand demand the cause of the other.

Frank Sheed explains:

[T]he infinite Being, having all perfections is utterly changeless. Nothing else is. Every created being, however glorious, contains a certain negative element, lacks something, from the fact that it is made of nothing.

So St. Augustine writes (De Natura Boni): All the things that God has made are mutable because made of nothing. And the Council of Florence tells us that creatures are good, of course, because they are made by the Supreme Good, but mutable because they are made of nothing. (Theology and Sanity, p 124-125)

All the created order is necessarily good (because God created it!), but is also necessarily changeable or even possibly corruptible because it is created and not eternal. Thus all of creation is made dependent, open, in need of receiving a life outside of itself. Left to its own resources, creation would change, degenerate, morph; because something created doesn’t have the capacity for eternal life in and of itself. For this reason, when God created the cosmos, he intended to dwell in it, to energize it with his life and to sustain it as his eternal temple. Nichols tells us the cosmos was made to “mediate the infinite” (p 21).

This is especially true of man: mankind was created commune with the triune community and life of God. Or, if I may put it biblically: man was created to be sanctified and finally glorified by participation in the triune God by the Spirit (Rom 8:28-30). When God created Adam, it is said that He “breathed” into him, and Adam “became a living being”. The fathers understood this breath to be the Holy Spirit, energizing Adam’s human nature with the divine life such that he was rendered immortal. Adam did not contain or own this life, rather it was a divine gift of grace.

The fathers illustrated this divine participation in several ways. Frederica Mathewes Green explains one way:

How can poor human clay take on the overwhelming presence of God? St. Cyril of Alexandria gives an analogy to the way fire acts upon metal. He wrote, “when the iron is brought into contact with the fire, it becomes full of its activity — that is, it takes on the properties, the heat and the light, of fire. “While it is by nature iron, it exerts the power of fire” (Welcome to the Orthodox Church, p 70)

Another good example, which I’ve mentioned before, is the temple. Many of the fathers understood Adam to be the priest within the temple of Eden. God thus made the world to be his dwelling place, his earth-temple. And Adam was tasked as the primordial priest to consecrate and offer the cosmos to God in thanksgiving, and for God to receive and fill the world with his life. Alexander Schmemman explains it this way:

The first, the basic definition of man is that he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and man was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament. (For the Life of the World, Kindle Locations 152-155)

Schmemman calls the entire cosmos the “matter”, and the man the “priest”. Man was created so that he could offer the “matter” of the world as a eucharist (thanksgiving sacrifice) to the Father in order that He may accept and transpose it with his glory.

I want to secondly move on to the nature of sin. Saint Augustine dealt with the heresy of Manichaeism, which held to a type of dualism akin to the gnostic heretics of the early church. The Manichaeans understood evil to be a substance, a thing that is part of the world that is in opposition to the good. Augustine’s insight against this impulse was to reason that if evil is a thing, a substance, then it means it was created. If it was created, it must have come from God, making God the originator of evil, or worse, evil in and of himself. This is obviously unbearable. God did not create or ordain evil.

From whence comes evil then? Augustine’s solution was to explain evil in negative terms. Evil is not a thing, something to be seen or grasped. Rather, evil is deprivation of the good. It is a corruption of the good. Evil is the very absence of what should be there. Evil is like rot in a tree, or darkness as the absence of light, or cold as the absence of heat. It is not a thing per se, but rather a reality of privation and incompleteness. Thomas Aquinas built on concept by furthering explaining that because evil is not a thing, or a substance, we may also affirm that evil is meaningless. Evil has no logical end or purpose. And actually, evil is the derailing of the purpose of a thing. Nichols says that “sin falls outside the divine understanding since it is objectively unintelligible, a falling away from being” (Chalice of God, 22). Sin is a falling away from being; meaning, it is a deprivation of that which should be. It is not properly something, rather it is a state of nothingness (this is the paradox of hell: it is simultaneously and eternally existence and non-existence. It is utter turmoil because man lives forever in this state of nothingness). Kallistos Ware expounds on this:

Against all forms of dualism, Christianity affirms that there is a summum bonum, a “supreme good” — namely God himself — but there is and can be no summun malum. Evil is not coeternal with God…

What then are we to say about evil? Since all created things are intrinsically good, sin or evil as such is not a “thing”, not existent being or substance… “Sin is naught”, says Augustine… And St. Gregory of Nyssa states, “Sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right”… Evil is always parasitic. It is the twisting and misappropriation of what is in itself good. (The Orthodox Way, 46-47)

Now, what does this have to do with theosis? The logical connection becomes evident when we ask: if evil is a privation, what is missing from the world that creates the evil of death and suffering? What is missing within man that makes him corrupt and die?

The answer is simply: God’s own life. If we tease out the metaphor of Adam as priest and the earth as God’s temple, when Adam sinned — when he seized the divine prerogative for himself — God’s presence was removed from his earth-temple. Adam’s sin was a turning-away from God’s very sustaining presence. And in turning away from the glory of God’s energizing presence, Adam turned into corruption, death, sickness, disease; or put another way, when Adam sinned, he forfeited the Spirit and was left to live autonomously and by his own resources; and having no eternal resources in himself, Adam become mortal, corrupt; he returned to the dust from which he was created.

Many people understand the punishment of Adam’s original sin to be an imposition of God’s hand on the nature of man: God struck the man dead. But death is not part of God’s nature. Instead, we must understand Adam’s sin as a punishment in and of itself. By this I mean that when Adam sinned, he turned away from God’s very life and forfeited the eternal, energizing presence of God. In other words, Adam dislodged mankind, even the entire cosmos, from the life of the triune God by his own sin. The communion he was meant to share in with the triune community was  broken through his disobedience. As Karl Adams says, mankind, “called to share by grace in the divine life… [became] detached from its original supernatural goal,…like some planet detached from its sun, [and] revolved only in crazy gyration round itself”. Aidan Nichols explains original sin in terms of a “failure to attain a telos” (Chalice of God, 22). This impulse, I believe is correct.

Original sin is therefore a reversal of man’s final end from eternal life in God to finitude and death in the self; and this death is not just physical, but spiritual as well. The body is not only bound toward corruption, but the soul with its moral and reasoning capacity is corrupted and in a state of death. Man’s moral compass and ability is thus askew, and his calling to be an image bearer is thwarted: instead of imaging God, he becomes animalistic and brutish. Man is stuck in this state of death — his will is bound as Augustine would say; he cannot rescue himself — and thus he needs deliverance.

This takes us to our last point: salvation. The question of salvation becomes: if man’s final end is union with God, theosis, divinization etc, and if sin is a derailment of that final end such that all mankind is constituted in death and corruption, how then does the human project realize it’s final purpose once more?

The answer is that mankind is saved through union with Christ who was obedient where Adam was not, and who was filled with new life through his resurrection from the dead. And by this I mean that salvation entails a rejoining with the divine life of God in the Spirit through mystical union with the resurrected Christ.

But what does this mean? And how does it happen? I will give two answers:

First, the patristic view. The patristic church was fond of saying that God became man that man might become God. And by this they meant that God did something through Christ such that man can be reconstituted in union with God’s life once more.

But what did God do in Christ? Very simply, God came down to where we are — into our sinful, dead situation — to raise mankind back to him in the fellowship of the Triune life.

Kallistos Ware explains:

The Christian message of salvation can best be summed up in terms of sharing, of solidarity and identification… Christ shares to the full in what we are, and so he makes it possible for us to share in what he is, in his divine life and glory. He became what we are, so as to make us what he is.

St Paul expresses this metaphorically in terms of wealth and poverty: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ: he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Christ’s riches are his eternal glory; Christ’s poverty is his complete self-identification with our fallen human condition. In the words of an Orthodox Christmas hymn, “Sharing wholly in our poverty, thou hast made divine our earthly nature through thy union with it and participation in it”. Christ shares in our death, and we share in his life; he “empties himself” and we are “exalted” (Phil 2:5-9). God’s descent makes possible man’s ascent. St Maximus the Confessor writes: “Ineffably the infinity limits itself, while the finite is expanded to the measure of the infinite”…

Christ who is the Son of God by nature has made us sons of God by grace. In him we are “adopted” by God the Father, becoming sons-in-the-Son. (The Orthodox Way, p 73-74)

In the incarnation, Christ took a share in our situation in order to reunite humanity with the life of God. This share in our situation was completed when Christ willingly partook in our death to reverse it with his life. Christ willingly experienced the enemy of death, so that through dying, he might touch it with the divine life and defeat it once and for all.
Second, I want to look at the reunion of God and man in Christ through the lens of his death as a sacrifice. I said above that God created mankind in order that mankind might give himself and the world back in love to God. Adam was created as a primordial priest tasked to give or sacrifice the entire cosmos to God in love and consequently be filled with his glory. Instead, Adam grasped the divine prerogative for himself and fell into sin and death.
What Christ did by coming into our situation was precisely to take up Adam’s failed vocation and offer himself and the entire world to God in a sacrifice of love. All of Christ’s life was a holy offering of himself, indeed of the entire world, to God. Christ was the true righteous priest who offered to God his entire life in obedience and love. This sacrifice was supremely fulfilled in the cross: the cross, we are told by Paul, was a “fragrant offering” (Eph 5:2) of the entire self to God. It was perfect obedience, an obedience which Adam failed to give up to God, and for which he experienced the fall. Christ came to reverse that disobedience by obediently offering himself in love to the Father. Here is what Thomas Aquinas says of Christ’s sacrifice:
[B]y suffering out of love and obedience, Christ gave more to God than was required to compensate for the offense of the whole human race. First of all, because of the exceeding charity from which He suffered; secondly, on account of the dignity of His life which He laid down in atonement, for it was the life of one who was God and man; thirdly, on account of the extent of the Passion, and the greatness of the grief endured… And therefore Christ’s Passion was not only a sufficient but a superabundant atonement for the sins of the human race; according to 1 John 2:2: “He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world. (ST, 3.48.2)
Aquinas explains that what Christ offered to the Father was a superabundant sacrifice which, in its offering, reversed and replaced the failure on Adam’s part. Christ, as Irenaeus says, replaced Adam and re-headed the world through his sacrificial love for the Father.
The resurrection means principally that God saw this sacrificial obedience, received it, took joy in it, and received Him in glory. This means that the glory forfeited in Adam is thus returned in Christ! What joy!

New Perspective on Luther?


I must admit that when I first became a Christian, Luther was a hero to me. He was my “go-to”, and I chose to read his works over really any other. Luther is one of those types of writers who is “in your face”, not afraid to call the Pope antichrist, etc. The youthful rebel in me loved that about him!

I still enjoy Luther, but as of late, he has fallen on hard times. In fact, he has seemed to come under fire by everyone: theologians, historians, etc. The critiques generally tend to view Luther’s theology of justification and salvation as too individualistic, nominalist, too legalistic in its emphasis. Historians especially have tended to place Luther’s view of salvation in the context of his overbearing father. They say Luther had “daddy issues”, and that he viewed God through that lens: God is this sort of overbearing, mean Father who demands perfect holiness. But, Jesus obeyed perfectly in our place, and by faith we get his record placed over our bad record, and thus we’re “saved”. Put another way, Dad is mad, but brother Jesus comes and gives Dad the obedience required, and he isn’t mad anymore. Because of this view of Luther, many theologians have critiqued his view of salvation as being simply too nominalist, “on paper only”, not realistic enough. Can God accept someone “on paper only”? And is God really that mad?

Certainly this picture is problematic. But is this really what Luther thought of salvation? Not really. In fact, there has been revived study of Luther which has tried to read him honestly. Lutheran Jordan Cooper explains this new reading:

In the mid-1970s a group of Finnish scholars, led by Tuomo Mannermaa, began to reevaluate Luther’s understanding of justification in the midst of an ecumenical dialogue between the Lutheran Church of Finland and the Russian Orthodox Church. Seeking to find common ground among the two theological traditions, the doctrine of theosis became a central point of discussion, especially in relation to the theology of Luther. Maannerma’s influential work, Christ Present in Faith,80 argues that Luther’s view of justification was not one of mere imputation; this was an innovation of Luther’s disciple Melanchthon. For Luther, justification includes an indwelling of the person of Christ. Christ is not outside of the believer in a law court, placing his works before the Father to satisfy the demands of divine justice. Christ, as the righteous God-man, imputes his righteousness through divine indwelling. The Righteousness of One: An Evaluation of Early Patristic Soteriology in Light of the New Perspective on Paul (p. 41).

What Cooper is meaning to communicate here is that for Luther, salvation is not simply this exchange of records: I’m bad, but Jesus is good and gives me his good report card. No, actually, for Luther, salvation in essence consists of union with Christ which entails death to sin and participation in his resurrection life. 

In fact, when one examines Luther’s works, especially his Freedom of the Christian and his famous Galatians commentary, there is simply no talk about extrinsic record-giving. Jesus doesnt appease the angry God by offering his perfect report card. When read carefully, Luther is found to say repeatedly that salvation is by faith alone because faith grasps the whole Christ, with everything that is his. 

Cooper illustrates from one of Luther’s early sermons called “Two Kinds of Righteousness”:

[In this sermon Luther] uses the imagery of a bride and her groom: “Just as a bridegroom possesses all that is the bride’s and she all that is his- for the two have all things in common because they are one flesh . . . so Christ and the church are one spirit.” Luther is drawing upon the common theme of his mystical heritage that the believer’s soul is united to and participates in the being of God…

Through faith, the believer is not only given Christ’s benefits, but also Christ himself: “Through faith in Christ, therefore, Christ’s righteousness becomes our righteousness and all the he has becomes ours; rather, he himself becomes ours.”… Luther does not connect Christ’s righteousness to his active obedience to the law. Throughout this sermon, legal metaphors of salvation are far from dominant. He expresses his thoughts primarily with participationist language. Rather than righteousness being imputed over the believer’s own sin, Luther describes this righteousness as that which is “an infinite righteousness, one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ; [the Christian] is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he.” The believer is not condemned because he participates in Christ’s person. As one who is divine, Christ does not and cannot sin. Thus, through the Christian’s participation in divinity, sin is not imputed to him. Luther sees Christ’s righteousness not merely as a legal covering, but as that which effects sanctification: “Christ daily drives out the old Adam more and more in accordance with the extent to which faith and knowledge of Christ grow. For alien righteousness is not instilled all at once, but it begins, makes progress, and is finally perfected at the end through death.” The believer is gradually perfected in his union with Christ until his Adamic nature is no longer present. Luther sees justification as a progressive act of participation in divinity, not merely an instantaneous forensic reality. (44-46)

So then, legal categories are “far from dominant”; in fact, union with Christ is paramount in Luther’s theology. It is not Jesus giving us some detached record of righteousness. Rather, by our union with Christ, we are joined to the one who has “infinite righteousness”. Imputation is there, but not out of the context of union with Christ. Union is rather “the ontological grounding for imputation and forgiveness” (62). In fact,  Cooper goes so far as to say, “imputation and renewal are so connected that Luther is comfortable at times using progressive language in reference to justification. One’s sanctification is, in a sense, bringing about the reality of the past event of justification” (52-53).

Taking all of this into account, Cooper goes on to argue that Luther is really in line with patristic thought and much of the medieval mysticism of his day. We cannot forget that Luther was in fact a medieval theologian, unlike Calvin and the other Reformers. Cooper goes on to explain that Luther’s thought, rather than being nominalist and legalistic in its emphasis, is right in line with medieval theologians like Athanasius: “along with Athanasius, Luther can speak of salvation in participationist terms (i.e. sharing in divinity through union with Christ) as well as in forensic language (i.e. Athanasius’ language of paying the “debt of death” all men owe to God because of Adam’s transgression) (64).

I could go on here, but when one really examines Luther’s early thought, his language is much more participationist, and ontological than is really credited to him.

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!

Christ as the Sole Foundation

Christ foundation

John Calvin, in his Institutes, speaks brilliantly of Christ as being the “sole foundation, [the] beginner and perfecter” of the believer’s faith.

Calvin says:

What sort of foundation have we in Christ? Was he the beginning of our salvation in order that its fulfillment might follow from ourselves? Did he only open the way by which we might proceed under our own power? Certainly not. But, as Paul had set forth a little before, Christ, when we acknowledge him, is given us to be our righteousness (1 Cor 1:30). He alone is well founded in Christ who has perfect righteousness in himself: since the apostle does not say that he was sent to help us attain righteousness but himself to be our righteousness (1 Cor 1:30). Indeed, he states that “he has chosen us in him” from eternity “before the foundation of the world”, through not merit of our own “but according to the purpose of divine good pleasure” (Eph 1:4-5); that by his death we are redeemed from the condemnation of death and freed from ruin (1 Cor 1:14, 20); that we have been adopted unto him as sons and heirs by our heavenly Father (Rom 8:17, Gal 4:5-7); that we have been reconciled through his blood (Rom 5:9-10); that, given into his protection, we are released from the danger of perishing and falling (John 10:28); that thus ingrafted into him (Rom 11:19) we are already, in a manner, partakers of eternal life, having entered into the Kingdom of God through hope. Yet more: we experience such participation in him that, although we are still foolish in ourselves, he is our wisdom before God; while we are sinners, he is our righteousness; while we are unclean, he is our purity; while we are weak, while we are unarmed and exposed to Satan, yet ours is that power which has been given him in heaven and on earth (Mt 28:18), by which to crush Satan for us and shatter the gates of hell; while we still bear about with us the body of death, he is yet our life. In brief, because all his things are ours and we have all things in him, in us there is nothing. Upon this foundation, I say, we must be built if we would grow into a holy temple to the Lord (Eph 2:21).


What Believers Gain by Union with Christ

If I could think of any doctrine that would sum up the Christian experience, for me, at least, it is union with Christ. As I look at the key texts on justification, regeneration, sanctification, glorification, it seems to me that every one of these benefits stems from union with Christ.

Paul says that “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in him” (Col 2:3), and that God has blessed believers “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). Paul then goes on for the rest of his eloquent run-on sentence in Ephesians 1 by saying that in Christ, God has given us holiness (v. 4), blamelessness (v. 4), adoption (5), redemption and forgiveness of our trespasses (v. 7), and the inheritance of the Spirit (v. 13-14). All of these are ours by virtue of being in Christ. As Martin Luther says, “all his is mine and all mine is his” (you can fine the full quote in my previous post here).

More than this though, Paul says that not only is Christ’s righteousness mine, and my sin his, but by virtue of being in him, even his present reign at the right hand of the Father is mine. He says, “so if you have been raised with the Messiah, seek what is above, where the Messiah is, seated at the right hand of God…For you have died (your old self), and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God” (Col 3:1-2). So because I am in Christ, I am seated in him at the right hand of the Father. Paul becomes even more ecstatic in describing the union we have in Christ by saying that “everything is yours, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Cor 3:22-23). In other words, not only do we reign in Christ, but the entire universe belongs to us be virtue of our union with him.

For Paul, the doctrine of being in Christ is central to the Christian experience. It is so central that all things are found in him, and nothing of value can be found outside of him. Perhaps Paul’s most encompassing statement is found in 1 Corinthians 1:30, where he says that Christ “became God-given wisdom for us — our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, in order that, as it is written: The one who boasts must boast in the Lord”. It’s all there. The entire Christian life is in Jesus!

As Luther once said, that by union with Christ, every Christian is “so exalted above all things that…he is lord of all things without exception, so that nothing can do him any harm”.


Martin Luther on Union with Christ


How does Martin Luther think of a believer’s union with Christ? He compares it to a divine marriage, saying:

“Who then can fully appreciate what this royal marriage means? Who can understand the riches of the glory of this grace? Here this rich and divine bridegroom Christ marries this poor, wicked harlot, redeems her from all her evil, and adorns her with all his goodness. Her sins cannot now destroy her, since they are laid upon Christ and swallowed up by him. And she has that righteousness in Christ, her husband, of which she may boast as of her own and which she can confidently display alongside her sins in the face of death and hell and say, ‘If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his,’ as the bride in the Song of Solomon says, ‘My beloved is mine and I am his,'” (from The Freedom of the Christian)