Foundational to believers’ salvation is their union with Christ. In this accessible introduction, Johnson argues that this neglected doctrine is the lens through which all other facets of salvation should be understood.
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About the Author
Marcus Peter Johnson (PhD, University of Toronto) is assistant professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute. Along with writing his doctoral dissertation on union with Christ in the theology of John Calvin, he is also the author of One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation and the coauthor (with John C. Clark) of The Incarnation of God: The Mystery of the Gospel as the Foundation of Evangelical Theology.He and his wife, Stacie, live in Chicago with their son, Peter, and are members of Grace Lutheran Church.
Read an Excerpt
THE NATURE OF UNION WITH CHRIST
Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
Trying to explain mysteries is counterintuitive. If we succeed in the task, we risk losing the mystery; if we retain the mystery, we risk losing the explanation. We fail in succeeding and succeed only in failing.
However, we must at least attempt to describe mystery, for, after all, so much of the mysterious, enigmatic language in the New Testament is wrapped up with the theme of the believer's union with Christ. We read of feeding on flesh and drinking blood; of body parts and flesh-unions; of vines, branches, and living water; of dying in another's death and living in another's life; and of the indwelling Spirit and God becoming flesh. Perhaps it is because this language and these images mystify and puzzle us that we fail to reckon properly with them. We feel a bit like many of Jesus's contemporaries, confused and even troubled by what he says. But we must reckon with these words, because embedded in them are the most astounding of promises — eternal life, the hope of glory, forgiveness, holiness, redemption, resurrection, bodily transformation, and, most astonishing of all, the Son of God dwelling in us. This is the language of salvation and the logic of the gospel, and so we must attempt to understand and articulate the mystery of our union with Christ if we are to understand and articulate our salvation.
As I discussed in the book's introduction, "union with Christ" language pervades the writings of the New Testament, particularly the letters of Paul and the writings of John. The sheer number of instances in which such language occurs is instructive in its own right, for the repetition gives us an indication of the importance of this theme. But these instances occur in an array of contexts that address different aspects of this union and shed light on the manifold ways in which we may conceive of it.
In order to bring some clarity to such an expansive theme, this chapter will (1) explore the immense scope of union with Christ as it is presented in the Bible and offer some defining parameters; (2) define the nature or character of the union positively, so as to describe what our union with the Savior consists of and how it comes about; and (3) define the nature or character of the union negatively, so as to describe erroneous or inadequate notions. In one respect, this chapter is the most important of all, because our conception of the nature of our saving union with Christ inevitably (consciously or subconsciously) determines how we conceive of the nature of salvation more generally.
The Scope of Union with Christ
John Murray, longtime professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, was keenly aware of the massive redemptive scope of union with Christ in the Scriptures:
Nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ. Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation not only in its application but also in its once-for-all accomplishment in the finished work of Christ. Indeed the whole process of salvation has its origin in one phase of union with Christ and salvation has in view the realization of other phases of union with Christ.
Murray's words succinctly summarize the breadth involved when one undertakes to explain the centrality of union with Christ in the accomplishment and application of salvation in Christ. He was referring to the fact that the biblical account of salvation "in Christ" has an enormous reach. God elects people "in Christ" before the foundation of the world, Jesus assumes our human flesh in the incarnation, believers are savingly united to Christ, and, finally, that union is consummated in the resurrection and glorification of the saints "in Christ." To offer some conceptual clarity and dimension to the matter, let us consider these four phases of union with Christ.
1. UNION WITH CHRIST IN ELECTION
God's redemptive plan for humanity began long before the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of his Son. Astonishingly, as Paul informs us, God "chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4). In some inscrutable sense, the saints can be comprehended as in Christ before the temporal accomplishment and application of salvation through Christ in space and time. We gladly accept the pronouncement that God the Father blesses us "in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places" (v. 3). But as we read on, we find to our amazement that these blessings occur in the sphere of God's predestinating will and grace, so that the Father's eternal purpose and love for us are ours only and ever as we are included in Christ. In fact, Paul indicates that God's calling of us to salvation through the gospel is the magnificent outworking of what God has already given us "in Christ Jesus before the ages began" (2 Tim. 1:9). Whereas Paul's use of "in Christ" is usually reserved for the temporal inclusion of believers in Christ (and constitutes the focus of this book), in the case of election we can speak of a kind of pre-temporal union with Christ — a union that somehow existed before and above time — that is the source of the time-and-space application of that union to the people of God. As Murray writes, "And that means that those who will be saved were not even contemplated by the Father in the ultimate counsel of his predestinating love apart from union with Christ — they were chosen in Christ."
The fact that our union with Christ in election predates the realization of that union in time helps us to see how Paul can make the apparently audacious claims that Christians have been crucified, buried, and raised with Christ (Rom. 6:3–6; Gal. 2:20; Col. 2:12–13; 3:1). In some ineffable way, those whom God has chosen as his own have always been "in Christ," and so they come to enjoy the realization of that union in their earthly lives. Although the doctrine of election has been subject to unbiblical distortion — sometimes used as the occasion for speculating about whether someone is saved or not, apart from God's definitive self-disclosure and self-giving in Jesus Christ — it functions in Scripture in a very different way. It speaks to the church of the unconditioned love of God in Christ, insisting that the initiative of our salvation always rests with God — he loved us in Christ before we were born and will always love us so!
If we wish to know whether this eternal love is ours, John Calvin wrote, we are to look to Jesus Christ:
But if we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even God the Father, if we conceive of him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election. For since it is into his body the Father has destined those to be engrafted whom he has willed from eternity to be his own ... we have sufficiently clear and firm testimony that we have been inscribed in the book of life if we are in communion with Christ.
2. UNION WITH CHRIST IN THE INCARNATION
I will say more regarding the incarnation in Chapter 2, but it is important to notice even here the theo-logic of the incarnation and hypostatic union, in which God the Son took on flesh and wrought in himself a perfect union of the divine and the human in one person. Why was it that the "Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14)? Was it not so that in this union of our humanity with his divinity we might be restored to fellowship with God? Was not his taking on human flesh the taking on or assumption of our human flesh and humanity? According to the famous dictum of Gregory of Nazianzus, salvation depends upon the incarnate Christ assuming the fullness of our humanity: "For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved." If Gregory is right, then we are surely justified in claiming that we have been united to Christ in his incarnation.
The great mystery of the incarnation is that God, without ceasing to be God, became what he created in order to join us to himself. Thus, the Son of God entered into human existence to dwell among and in us, assuming our humanity into union with himself. Jesus's humanity was no phantasm, having only the appearance of genuine flesh and blood (Heb. 2:14). He entered into the ontological depths of our humanity, sinlessly assuming our sinful nature (Rom. 8:3; 6:6; 2 Cor. 5:21), in order that he might sanctify and justify our flesh in his birth, life, death, and resurrection, bringing us into his filial relation with the Father. All that Christ did in union with our flesh, in other words, was done vicariously for us. This is among the reasons why Paul, for instance, can speak of our participation in Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension in the past tense (Romans 6; Colossians 2–3; Ephesians 2). Herein we see the awesome logic of the incarnation — God has joined himself to us through Jesus Christ in order to save us.
Listen to the words of the church fathers Athanasius and Irenaeus:
You must understand why it is that the Word of the Father, so great and so high, has been manifest in bodily form. He has not assumed a body as proper to His own nature, far from it, for as the Word He is without body. He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men.
But how could we be joined to incorruptibility and immortality, unless, first, incorruptibility and immortality had become that which we also are, so that the corruptible might be swallowed up by incorruptibility, and the mortal by immortality, that we might receive the adoption of sons?
So at the very apex of God's redemptive action in history we see the joining of the eternal Son of God and humanity. The incarnation forms the basis on which our estranged humanity — flesh and bones, mind and spirit — may be united to our Maker once again. The incarnation tells us that God intends to save the whole of our humanity in Christ and that he is doing so through the flesh-and-blood existence of his Son. Indeed, the flesh of Jesus Christ is life-giving to us, a point Calvin thought crucial to emphasize: "For no one will ever come to Christ as God, who despises him as man; and, therefore, if you wish to have any interest in Christ, you must take care, above all things, that you do not disdain his flesh." The flesh-and-blood union of our humanity with the Son of God — in all that he did to achieve our salvation through his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension — is the objective basis for salvation, which is then realized in us as we are joined to him through faith.
3. UNION WITH CHRIST IN ACTUAL EXPERIENCE
The most common referent to union with Christ in Scripture is the union that follows both our election in Christ and the union of God and humanity in the incarnation. It is the union that occurs when these prior unions come to fruition and are subjectively realized and experienced by those who are savingly united to Christ through faith by the power of the Spirit. This union is what Paul has in mind, for instance, when he writes that we have been called by God "into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord" (1 Cor. 1:9).
This fellowship (koinonia: "sharing, participation") is expressed in numerous ways in Scripture. To experience fellowship with the Son is to be made alive in Christ, justified in Christ, sanctified in Christ, seated in the heavenly realms in Christ, built up into Christ, and given fullness in Christ. Those joined to Christ are "members of Christ," "crucified with Christ," "included in Christ," "baptized into Christ," and the "body of Christ." They eat and drink Christ; they are one with Christ; Christ dwells in them and they dwell in him; and they can do nothing apart from him. Salvation is realized and appropriated in the lives of fallen humans only as they apprehend Jesus Christ, who gives himself and all of his blessings to us in our Spirit-empowered faith response to his gospel. Through this gospel, God the Father incorporates us into Jesus Christ, who is the sum of all blessings: "And because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30).
Because this book specifically deals with the subject of applied soteriology (the application of Christ's saving work and person), the normal referent of the phrase "union with Christ" in this book is to this subjectively realized experiential union — that which occurs through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ by the power of the Spirit. It is because of this union that Christians are so named, and this union is the reason why Christians receive all the blessings of salvation. Anthony Hoekema views union with Christ as "having its roots in divine election, its basis in the redemptive work of Christ, and its actual establishment with God's people in time." It is this third aspect with which we are primarily concerned in applied soteriology, and therefore this aspect shall constitute the focus of the chapters that follow.
4. UNION WITH CHRIST IN CONSUMMATION
Even though believers have truly been united to Christ and have shared in all of his blessings, there is still a hope for which we wait — the final, full manifestation of that union in the eschaton. Thus, at one and the same time, we are included in Christ and yet we pray maranatha! — "Our Lord, come!" (1 Cor. 16:22). We are "found in [Christ]," and yet await his glorious return (cf. Phil. 3:9, 20–21). Jesus Christ returned to his Father, and yet he says, "You in me, and I in you" (cf. John 14:12, 20). The church does not await the return of Christ so that we may be united to him; rather, the church is united to Christ, and so eagerly awaits the consummation of this union.
The consummation of union with Christ is nearly synonymous with resurrection and glorification, when the blessings of our union with him will well up into their completed fullness. For instance, we read that "Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there ... who ... will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body" (Phil. 3:20–21, NIV1984). Similarly, "As we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven" (1 Cor. 15:49). These are phenomenal pictures of the coming glory we will share with Christ. We think also of the marriage supper of the Lamb, where the Bridegroom and his bride-church will feast forevermore.
Chapter 6 will unfold in more detail the eschatological blessings of this consummated union — the glorification of those who have been preserved by God's grace. For now, we simply note, along with Hoekema, that "future glory ... will be nothing other than the continued unfolding of the riches of our union with Christ. Much of what the future holds in store for us is left undescribed in the Bible. But of one thing we can be sure: we shall be eternally in Christ and with Christ, sharing his glory."
The Nature of Union with Christ
I began this book with the observation that a profound mystery lies at the heart of the gospel of our salvation. The mystery is that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God in the flesh, is "in" us (Col. 1:27); or, as Paul puts it elsewhere, we, the church, have become "one flesh" with Christ (Eph. 5:31–32). Jesus's words in the Gospel of John are equally mysterious and arresting: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (6:53). I suspect most of us, when confronted with these kinds of passages, react with equal joy and bewilderment. After all, we certainly desire to be one with Christ and to have the eternal life of which he speaks. But what can it possibly mean to say that we are united to the One whom we confess as God himself? What are we to make of the assertion that eternal life comes only through partaking of his flesh and blood? We know that we are to believe and confess it, but how do we understand and embrace it?
The words of the great fourth-century theologian Hilary of Poitiers seem especially appropriate at times like these:
We are compelled to attempt what is unattainable, to climb where we cannot reach, to speak what we cannot utter. Instead of the bare adoration of faith, we are under an obligation to entrust the deepest matters of faith to human language.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "One with Christ"
Copyright © 2013 Marcus Peter Johnson.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Union with Christ and Salvation,
1 The Nature of Union with Christ,
2 Sin and the Incarnation,
3 Justification in Christ,
4 Sanctification in Christ,
5 Adoption and Sonship in Christ,
6 Preservation and Glorification in Christ,
7 The Mystery of the Church in Christ,
8 The Word and Sacraments of Christ,
What People are Saying About This
“Theologian Johnson is a Reformed thinker who restates for us Luther’s and Calvin’s Bible-based insistence that union with Christ is the framing fact within which, and whereby, all the specifics of salvation reach us. His book merits careful study, for he does his job outstandingly well.”
J. I. Packer, Board of Governors' Professor of Theology, Regent College
“Johnson has produced an excellent discussion of union with Christ. I am sure it will be consulted widely and contribute effectively to the church’s understanding of salvation.”
Robert Letham, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Union School of Theology
“Evangelicals certainly love Jesus, but for too long they have loved him from a distance. He is the beloved man of the Gospels who did great deeds ‘back then,’ or the glorious Christ who reigns on his throne ‘up there.’ Marcus Johnson puts the Savior back where he belongs: in our midst as the one to whom we are truly united. This book is a timely reminder that our union with Christ is actual, mystical, and sacramental. Are we ready for that?”
Bryan M. Litfin, author, The Sword, The Gift, and Getting to Know the Church Fathers
“Inspired by the theology of John Calvin, evangelical Marcus Johnson offers up a timely and articulate manifesto on that most central of soteriological mysteries: union with Christ. Christ is beautiful, the gospel is beautiful, and at the heart of that beauty is the reality of our union with Christ by the Spirit. Johnson weaves together Biblical, theological, and pastoral theology into a rich tapestry, which deserves a wide reading.”
Myk Habets, Head of Carey Graduate School, Carey Baptist College, Auckland, New Zealand
“This fine book rightly expounds union with Christ as the heart of Scripture’s approach to the Christian life. Every aspect of Christian understanding is formed and informed by it; every aspect of faith, discipleship, and service radiates from it. Johnson reminds us that our proper preoccupation ought always to be the fostering of intimacy with Jesus Christ, who has been given to needy sinners for the sake of including them in his mercy and mission. This book will convince readers that all that the church believes, does, and aspires to coheres in our union with the One who remains the blessing, and whose including us in his life is the definitive truth of our lives.”
Victor A. Shepherd, Professor of Theology, Tyndale University College and Seminary; author, Interpreting Martin Luther and The Nature and Function of Faith in the Theology of John Calvin
“Thoroughly biblical, historically informed, and practically challenging, Johnson confronts the misconception that Christians receive the benefits of the work of Christ without taking into account that we receive the person of Christ in faith. Most helpful are his sections on how the mystery of the believer’s union with Christ more fully explains our justification and sanctification. This is a compelling work for those in the church and the academy, and, if you are not careful, it might just change the way you think and talk about salvation.”
Nicholas Gatzke, Senior Pastor, Osterville Baptist Church, Osterville, Massachusetts
“In this historically well-informed, theologically careful, and pastorally sensitive volume, Dr. Marcus Johnson seeks to remedy what he rightly calls ‘the glaring omission of the theme of union with Christ in the soteriological understanding of the contemporary evangelical church.’ He convincingly demonstrates that the recovery of this central biblical theme helps us as Christians to understand better and more deeply the relation of Christ’s person and work, the church as the body of Christ, and the glorious unity of our salvation in Christ. I am happy to recommend this book as an important addition to the growing body of literature on this significant topic.”
William B. Evans,Younts Professor of Bible and Religion, Erskine College; author, Imputation and ImpartationandWhat Is the Incarnation?
“Johnson is a master mystery writer. Chapter by chapter he unfolds the mystery of our new life in Christ. He does not solve the mystery, but rather draws us into its wonders.”
Bruce K. Modahl, Senior Pastor, Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, Illinois
“Seeking the core of biblical Christianity, Marcus Johnson probes the understanding of salvation, focusing on restoring to keen awareness the reality of believers’ union in Christ as ‘the essence and foundation of salvation.’ Pointed out among the factors contributing to the sad neglect of this essential doctrine is a too-timid fear of mystery and a too-bold confidence in reason. And in describing his own pilgrimage, Johnson considers persuasively that our union with Christ suffers from overemphasis on the work of Christ to the detriment of his person. Likewise, strong emphasis on the legal and forensic dimensions of justification has led to weak recognition of personal and participatory categories. Special care is paid to the salutary nature of the church. This book written from the heart speaks to the heart.”
Charles Partee, P. C. Rossin Professor of Church History, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
“The tendency in much contemporary evangelical thought is to view salvation as if it were the reception of an abstract and objectified commodity given on account of Christ yet apart from him, as if Christ were the agent and condition of our salvation, but not that salvation itself. Marcus Johnson demonstrates that this is neither the witness of the apostles nor the confession of the Protestant Reformers, who proclaimed salvation to be a life-giving, life-transforming participation in our incarnate substitute. Immensely important and timely, this volume provides a richly textured theology of salvation couched in the only context that allows soteriology to be truly intelligible, pastoral, and doxologicalthe context constituted by the church and her sacraments.”
John C. Clark, Assistant Professor of Theology, Moody Bible Institute