The Work of Union with Christ

Here’s one quote from what I think will end up proving to be one of the very best books published in 2014, Michael Reeves, Christ Our Life (Paternoster; September 1):

When Christians define themselves by something other than Christ, they poison the air all round. When they crave power and popularity and they get it, they become pompous, patronizing, or simply bullies. And when they don’t get it they become bitter, apathetic or prickly. Whether flushed by success or burnt by lack of it, both have cared too much for the wrong thing. Defining themselves by something other than Christ, they become like something other than Christ. Ugly.

Our union with Christ thus has deep plough-work to do in our hearts. It automatically and immediately gives us a new status, but for that status and identity to be felt to be the deepest truth about ourselves is radical, ongoing business. That is the primary identity of the believer, though, and the only foundation for truly Christian living. For our health, our joy and fellowship, then, we must take up arms against the insidious idea that we have any identity — background, ability or status — more basic than that of sharing the Son’s own life together before the Father.

Vital Union with Christ and Sanctification in Jonathan Edwards

One of the interesting connections Edwards makes on the topic of sanctification is found in his sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:8 delivered at David Brainerd’s funeral on October 12, 1747. There, in one section, Edwards connects sanctification within his broad (and glorious) worldview. Edwards makes the following points:

  • Sanctification is the progressive emerging of Christ’s holiness in our lives through (a) our vision of Christ’s glory, and (b) our union with Christ by the Spirit.
  • We see Christ’s glory partially now, therefore our transformation can only be incomplete in this life.
  • We experience vital union with Christ partially now, therefore our holiness will never fully emerge in this life.
  • In death we behold Christ’s full glory (beatific vision), and there our sanctification is complete (glorification).
  • In death all hindrances to experiencing vital union with Christ are removed, and there our sanctification is complete (glorification).

It’s interesting how Edwards merges here two key themes of sanctification: (1) vital union with Christ in progressive sanctification, and (2) our sight of Christ’s glory in progressive sanctification. Those two realities are really one reality for Edwards. To see Christ’s glory is to experience unhindered union with Him. The beatific vision of Christ perfects our vital union with Christ. And it’s at that point his holiness will then flow unhindered in our lives, to our delight and to God’s glory.

All that may be a little more than we would wish to hear at a funeral sermon, but nevertheless it’s here in Edwards, and here it is in his own words (Works, 25:230–232):

III. The souls of true saints, when absent from the body, go to be with Jesus Christ, as they are brought into a most perfect conformity to, and union with him. Their spiritual conformity is begun while they are in the body; here beholding as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, they are changed into the same image: but when they come to see him as he is, in heaven, then they become like him, in another manner. That perfect right will abolish all remains of deformity, disagreement and sinful unlikeness; as all darkness is abolished before the full blaze of the sun’s meridian light: it is impossible that the least degree of obscurity should remain before such light. So it is impossible the least degree of sin and spiritual deformity should remain, in such a view of the spiritual beauty and glory of Christ, as the saints enjoy in heaven when they see that Sun of righteousness without a cloud; they themselves shine forth as the sun, and shall be as little suns, without a spot.

For then is come the time when Christ presents his saints to himself, in glorious beauty; “not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; and having holiness without a blemish” [Ephesians 5:27]. And then the saints’ union with Christ is perfected. This also is begun in this world. The relative union is both begun and perfected at once, when the soul first closes with Christ by faith: the real union, consisting in the union of hearts and affections, and in the vital union, is begun in this world, and perfected in the next. The union of the heart of a believer to Christ is begun when his heart is drawn to Christ, by the first discovery of divine excellency, at conversion; and consequent on this drawing and closing of his heart with Christ, is established a vital union with Christ; whereby the believer becomes a living branch of the true vine, living by a communication of the sap and vital juice of the stock and root; and a member of Christ’s mystical body, living by a communication of spiritual and vital influences from the head, and by a kind of participation of Christ’s own life.

But while the saints are in the body, there is much remaining distance between Christ and them: there are remainders of alienation, and the vital union is very imperfect; and so consequently, are the communication of spiritual life and vital influences: there is much between Christ and believers to keep them asunder, much indwelling sin, much temptation, an heavy-molded frail body, and a world of carnal objects, to keep off the soul from Christ, and hinder a perfect coalescence. But when the soul leaves the body, all these clogs and hindrances shall be removed, every separating wall shall be broken down, and every impediment taken out of the way, and all distance shall cease; the heart shall be wholly and perfectly drawn, and most firmly and forever attached and bound to him, by a perfect view of his glory. And the vital union shall then be brought to perfection: the soul shall live perfectly in and upon Christ, being perfectly filled with his Spirit, and animated by his vital influences; living as it were only by Christ’s life, without any remainder of spiritual death, or carnal life.

I look forward to that day!!

Union with Christ in American Theology

It is not difficult to find the rich teaching of union with Christ so beautifully displayed in John Calvin’s writings, but the theme is suspiciously absent in so much American reformed theology. Even where the phrase “union with Christ” has been used in the past it often refers to something quite a lot different (ie less) than Calvin intended.

But why?

This is the question behind William Evan’s book Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Paternoster, 2008).

For Calvin, union with Christ was “a matrix of realistic, personal, and forensic categories” (39). For him, “union with Christ may be described as the instrumental basis of both justification and sanctification.” In other words, “both justification and sanctification are subsumed under a more comprehensive reality—union with Christ. In this way Calvin avoids the problems of making justification dependent upon sanctification (and this robbing justification of its synthetic character) or of making sanctification a mere response to justification (thus rendering sanctification ultimately superfluous).”

However, for his unity of thought about the believer’s union with Christ, Calvin really never explained how the realistic, person, and forensic categories work together. More specifically, how is forensic justification mediated to the believer through personal/ontological union with Christ? Confusion over this point led to varying developments throughout the centuries.

Evans traces out the evolution of union with Christ in the writings of Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Timothy Dwight, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and Louis Berkhof. Increasingly union with Christ was split into two separate categories of legal/federal union (justification) and a spiritual/vital union (sanctification). The blame for the breaking apart of impartation and imputation from a cohesive union with Christ seems gets laid at the feet of a hardening ordo salutes. “Only when the traditional ordo salutis is eschewed can a truly forensic and synthetic doctrine of justification that is at the same time relational and dynamic be articulated” (265). In other words, by viewing justification singularly as a historical point in past history in the life of the Christian, a present tense dynamic of our present justification in Christ is lost.

On this point Evans commends Richard Gaffin’s argument in Resurrection and Redemption (P&R, 1987), 114–127. There Gaffin argues in part from Romans 8:34 and writes that “justification depends not simply on an action in the past experience of the believer but on his present relation to the person of the resurrected Christ” (133). Thus, for Gaffin, forensic justification is a present reality via the believer’s personal/ontological union with Christ.

This union of the union contradicts Berkof and the federal trajectory in reformed thought, writes Evans.

The federal trajectory reaches its logical conclusion in Berkhof. Justification and sanctification are completely separated from each other, even in the mind of God. The gratuity of justification has been preserved, but at a great cost, for the integration of Christian life and experience has been sacrificed. The linchpin of the Christian’s relationship with God—justification—has been wholly abstracted from the life of faith and from union with Christ.

Second, as the bifurcation of union with Christ became complete, the theme itself also became superfluous as an umbrella concept unifying justification and sanctification. To speak of a federal or legal union with Christ is simply to describe justification without remainder. Likewise, to speak of a vital union is to speak of sanctification. To the extent that the theme of union with Christ remains present in the successors of the Hodges and Berkof, it is largely vestigial.

The religious implications of this federal trajectory should also be carefully noted. There is, on this soteriological model, no real and complete forgiveness of sins, only an attenuated justification involving the satisfaction of a liability to punishment. The Christian can have no confidence that he or she really enjoys the favor of God, because the culpability and demerit of sin remain. Furthermore, with justification almost completely abstracted from the life of the church and from the ongoing economy of faith, the problem of assurance is only heightened. Finally, the bifurcation of forensic and transformatory categories made it virtually impossible to grasp the essential unity of salvation, and the Christian is left with an unstable dialectic tending toward legalism one moment, and antinomianism the next. (237)

The bottom line: “If justification is viewed as an ongoing participation, through the life of faith and the Spirit, in Christ’s justification, then the importance of the life of faith and all that relates to it is heightened, and it becomes possible to move beyond a preoccupation with the puncticular. What is important is not so much the initial act of faith, but the life of faith in Christ” (266).

In his book, Evans shows rather conclusively that the theme of union with Christ was split in American theological development, and there justification, a truth of inestimable importance and value, became abstracted from union with Christ.