The Inner Sanctum of Puritan Piety: John Flavel’s Doctrine of Mystical Union with Christ

tsslogo.jpgBook Review
The Inner Sanctum of Puritan Piety: John Flavel’s Doctrine of Mystical Union with Christ
by J. Stephen Yuille

At the very heart of Puritanism is the saints’ mystical union with Christ. We are in Christ! He is our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption. From this union to Christ we experience all the blessings and delights of communion with God and find spiritual vitality for obedience, prayer, ministry and sacrificial love. This powerful union is mystical because we cannot see it with our eyes. It is a spiritually-revealed truth.

Puritan John Flavel is certainly one of the most valuable (and perhaps one of the more overlooked) of the Puritans. The theme of mystical union with Christ is threaded throughout his entire ministry. A study of Flavel on this theme has become one of my favorite books of the year: The Inner Sanctum of Puritan Piety: John Flavel’s Doctrine of Mystical Union with Christ by J. Stephen Yuille (Reformation Heritage, 2007).

John Flavel (1628-1691) had an eventful life on the run as a nonconformist preacher (see Beeke’s bio of Flavel here). He is remembered for his books The Mystery of Providence, The Method of Grace, Christ Knocking at the Door of the Heart, The Fountain of Life, and Keeping the Heart. His complete works are still in print and available from the Banner of Truth in six volumes. These works remain strikingly valuable for contemporary readers. Almost a year ago I wrote this review.

Back to our specific theme. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “If you have got hold of this idea [i.e., mystical union with Christ] you will have discovered the most glorious truth you will ever know in your life.” It is glorious because it reminds us that in all things, at all times, Christ is central to our lives. All of our spiritual vitality and life comes through Christ. Christ is the “Head” from whom the whole Body is nourished, knit together and grows (Col. 2:19). Paul’s phrase for Christ is simply “who is your life” (3:4) and says our lives are hidden in Christ (3:3). This glorious truth of being united to Christ is at the core of the Christian life.

And Flavel “got hold” of this idea. It became central to his ministry and from this center flowed his understanding of pursuing obedience, prayer and communion with God. Now, Yuille has taken the highlights of Flavel’s teaching on this theme and systematized them into one short volume (128 pages).

Yuille covers the full spectrum of the doctrine in this book. I have taken the index and provided it to the right (click for larger image). The comprehensiveness of this volume does not make it unreadable or overly academic. Yuille is a professor at Toronto Baptist Seminary, but he is also a pastor and this book shows the intellectual awareness of a scholar and the experiential sensitivities of a pastor.

Whether this is your introduction to the full scope of the mystical union with Christ, or your introduction to John Flavel (or both!) this short work will richly bless your soul. Yuille has well-captured the precious truth of our union with Christ through the ministry of a first-rate Puritan. The result is a contender for the 2007 TSS book of the year award.


Title: The Inner Sanctum of Puritan Piety: John Flavel’s Doctrine of Mystical Union with Christ
Author: J. Stephen Yuille (forward by Michael A. G. Haykin)
Table of Contents: scanned and posted online by TSS [click here]
Reading level: 2.75/5.0 > moderate
Boards: paperback
Pages: 128
Volumes: 1
Dust jacket: no
Binding: glue
Paper: normal
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: no
Text: perfect type
Publisher: Reformation Heritage Books
Year: 2007
Price USD: $12.00/$9.00 from RHB
ISBNs: 9781601780171

13 thoughts on “The Inner Sanctum of Puritan Piety: John Flavel’s Doctrine of Mystical Union with Christ

  1. thanks for the review. looks like a great book. this subject, the mystical union, is one that i have a hard time really wrapping my head around just because it is so…mystical. but i’m constantly drawn toward trying to dive a little deeper into it. when you read a quote like that from Lloyd-Jones like that, you really start to wonder if you’ve fully comprehended how incredible this incredible union (obviously one will never fuly comprehend this mystery). i will defnitely add this book to the wishlist. do you have any other suggestions beyond Flavel of Puritan or Reformed authors who speak directly to this topic?

  2. Great question! The best contemporary works on the believer’s mystical union with Christ (or Unio cum Deo mystica) are tucked into larger works on theology and soteriology.

    Probably the best overall treatment I have seen is Bruce Demarest in The Cross and Salvation (Crossway: 1997) pp. 313-344. The entire work is excellent, too!

    As is Lloyd-Jones in Great Doctrines of the Bible (Crossway: 2003). This 3-in-1 volume includes a short chapter on the topic in 2:106-116. Very helpful, though.

    Of course I cannot fail to mention John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Eerdmans: 1954) pp. 161-173. His detailed exegesis makes him very valuable here.

    I have not read it myself, but Union with Christ: A Biblical View of the New Life in Jesus Christ (Eerdmans: 1983) by Smedes has been recommended, too. It looks good.

    Outside the Reformed tradition, this theme of union with Christ does not find the same emphasis.

    I hope this helps, cameo! Tony

  3. … I also see that Kenneth Keathley addresses other perspectives of union in A Theology for the Church (B&H Academic: 2007) pp. 687-696. He discusses the views of Eastern Orthodoxy (union as deification) and Roman Catholicism (union as sacrament). Rome would want to make sure the authority of the church squeezes between the saint and Christ. … Keathley has some great points here. Blessings! Tony

  4. Thank you for the recommendation of the book on Flavel’s exposition of this central and crucial doctrine, I ordered it last night. I have long enjoyed reading from my set of Flavel’s Works.

    As to the question of who else addresses union with Christ, Calvin properly accords this as foundational to our understanding of salvation and life with God. Commenting on Romans 6:11 he says “I prefer to retain the words of Paul, ‘in Christ Jesus,’ rather than to translate with Erasmus, ‘through Christ Jesus;’ for thus the grafting, which makes us one with Christ, is better expressed.”

    In the Institutes this doctrine is likewise foundational. “We 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 with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us. For this reason, he is called ‘our Head’ (Eph 4:15), and ‘the first-born among many brethren’ (Rom 8:29). We also, in turn, are said to be ‘engrafted into him’ (Rom 11:17), and to ‘put on Christ’ (Gal 3:27); for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him.” (Institutes 3:1:1)

    Similarly, in 3:11:10 he writes, “Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts–in short, that mystical union–are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Chirst, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body–in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.”

    Also in Book Four Calvin discusses how our union with Christ is nurtured by the sacraments. As Ronald Wallace says in chapter three of “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Christian Life”, “The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were instituted by Christ in order to make this union continually effective in the life of the Church, and to impress upon us continually that this union is the source of our justification and sanctification.”

    For summaries of Calvin’s significant teaching on our union with Christ, Wallace’s two books are helpful (the above quoted, and “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Word and Sacrament”). There is also an interesting book by Dennis E. Tamburello published by Westminster John Knox Press that compares the teaching of Calvin, and one of his most quoted sources, St. Bernard of Clairvaux on this doctrine. It is titled “Union with Chirst: John Calvin and the Mysticism of St. Bernard.

    Hope that is helpful.

  5. A few more resources to mention, as I have been studying this theme of our union with Christ in preparation for this week’s Sunday school lesson.

    “The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification” by Walter Marshall is a practical exposition of our union with Christ as it shows itself in our growth in holiness. Directions 3 and 4 are explicitly devoted to union with Christ.

    In Thomas Boston’s “Human Nature in its Fourfold State”, the second head under part three, The State of Grace, is all about the mystical union between Christ and believers.

    Luther writes with characteristic vigor and color on the subject, commenting on Galatians 2:20 in his 1535 Lectures: “Just as Christ Himself was crucified to the Law, sin, death, and the devil, so that they have no further jurisdiction over Him, so through faith I, having been crucified with Christ in spirit, am crucified and die to the Law, sin, etc., so that they have no further jurisdiction over me but are now crucified and dead to me.”

    Later he says, “Christ is fixed and cemented to me and abides in me. The life that I now live, He lives in me. Indeed, Christ Himself is the life that I now live. In this way, therefore, Christ and I are one.”

    Again, “So far as justification is concerned, Christ and I must be so closely attached that He lives in me and I in Him. What a marvelous way of speaking! Because He lives in me, whatever grace, righteousness, life, peace and salvation there is in me is all Christ’s; nevertheless, it is mine as well, by the cementing and attachment that are through faith, by which we become as one body in the Spirit.”

    And finally, “But faith 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 that sinner who is attached to Me, and I to him. For by faith we are joined together into one flesh and one bone.’ Thus Eph. 5:30 says: ‘We are members of the body of Christ, of His flesh and of His bones,’ in such a way that this faith couples Christ and me more intimately than a husband is coupled to his wife.”

  6. May I ask from where is the Lloyd-Jones quote you used in the body of your review? It is an excellent statement of truth, and I noted it in my journal yesterday, but would like to have an attirbution for future use. Thank you.

    Here is another quote from Lloyd-Jones showing how crucial this doctrine is to our proper understanding of who we are in Christ, and what he has done for us. It is taken from chapter three of his book on Romans 6, which is a wonderful exposition of the doctrine.

    “There is nothing, perhaps, in the whole range and realm of doctrine which, if properly grasped and understood, gives greater assurance, greater comfort, and greater hope than this doctrine of our union with Christ. As we shall see, if we are not clear about this doctrine, we are missing, in a sense, one of the pivotal aspects of the whole doctrine of salvation.”

    One more place I have found a good explanation of our union with Christ is chapter 11 of Sinclair Ferguson’s “The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction.”

  7. For the quote by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, see footnote 8 on page 116 of Yuille’s book. It reads: Martyn Lloyd-Jones, “Romans – The Law: Its Function and Limits: Exposition of 7:1-8:4” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), 277.

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