Unrecognizable Gospel Glue

The Gospel at Work in Dubai

DubaiSeveral months ago I visited Dubai to help put on a preaching workshop for pastors and ministry workers. There I witnessed the incredible work of God amongst a few churches in the United Arab Emirates. Over the last decade or so many residents in that region have converted to faith and churches are slowly multiplying. I could share many highlights, but allow me to describe one sublime experience at a church we visited.

To compensate for the Muslim Jum’ah on Fridays, the Arabian weekend is Friday and Saturday with Sunday being the start of the work week. So I found myself at church in Dubai on a Friday morning. We met in a nice hotel, the lobby brimming with people, coffee & pastries, and a well-stocked book table. As people mingled it was clear that anticipation was building. Worship was about to begin. The people of God were soon to gather.

Approximately 900 congregated that morning to worship God and celebrate the gospel. But what astonished me most was the radical diversity of those who assembled. Much like Dubai itself, which has a ratio of 10-to-1 Ex-patriots to nationals, this church is ethnically heterogeneous. I found out later that over fifty nations were represented. Fifty! There were dozens of Sri Lankans as well. Goodness, even my people are here.

My astonishment grew as I learned that folks from the servant class all the way up to the business elite were present. I was stunned and moved to tears. This was a picture of the beautiful unity God’s children will one day experience on the new earth. Perhaps it was a foretaste of what the elders in Revelation envisioned when they sang to the Lamb:

Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals,
For you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
From every tribe and language and people and nation,
And you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
And they shall reign on the earth (Revelation 5:9-10)

Gospel Glue

So what exactly brings all of these vastly different people in Dubai together on a Friday morning? What sustains their unity? Most would say the gospel is the glue. And they would be correct. The good news of Jesus Christ for faith-filled sinners creates and preserves a new family, the church. Jesus makes peace by His blood, making any two into one man (Eph 2:11-22). But how does Jesus actually accomplish this surprising unity? What exactly is the gospel glue that binds this new family together? Maybe it’s the doctrine of justification, heralded by many in Evangelical circles as the center piece of the Christian faith. Or maybe it’s not a particular biblical truth; maybe it’s the pragmatic reality of like-minded Christians coming to worship in a similar manner.

We haven’t dug deep enough if we give in to these causes for gospel unity. There is a deeper, more fundamental reason for this unity in diversity. Something profoundly spiritual is at work in the body of Christ which produces and sustains this unity: union with Christ. Our shared life in Christ is the gospel glue.  Yes, Christians may experience – to some extent – the benefits of this glue without ever acknowledging it. But not until this spiritual glue is understood, celebrated, and its implications embraced can we expect the church to fully function as God would have her.

A Neglected Doctrine

Unfortunately this doctrine is often overlooked. Why is this so? What accounts for the lack of clarity in modern evangelical conversation on this topic? Marcus Johnson offers four compelling reasons.[1] First, the typical biblical texts we turn to when we think about salvation do not include union with Christ. A typical gospel tract includes verses such as John 3:16-18, Romans 6:23, 1 Corinthians 15:2-3, Ephesians 2:1-9 just to name a few. These do not really touch on union with Christ. Even the verses that teach or allude to it – such as Ephesians 1:3-14 – are often sentimentalized, glossed over, and rarely mined fully for its teachings.

Second, the personal, organic, and communal categories have been assigned a secondary place in evangelical understanding of salvation. The dominant motif today is legal and forensic. We’ve forgotten that our Reformed Fathers Luther and Calvin have stated clearly that justification depends on union with Christ, not vice-versa!   How did that get lost in translation?

That brings me to the third reason we fail to pay attention to union with Christ: we forget the theological tradition from which the church has grown. We are quick to mine theological gems from church history when we want to talk about Jesus’ deity and humanity, or justification by faith alone. But we may be in danger of historical amnesia with our handling of union with Christ. Both our Early church fathers and our Reformation fathers gave oneness with Christ greater priority than we do today.

Fourth, there is a modern reticence to embrace mystery at the heart of the Christian faith. Robert Letham comments: “When one asks what in fact this union consists in…what it actually is, there is a general silence.”[2] Can you hear the crickets chirping? We all can. And that’s because union with Christ sounds rather strange. To the average Christian, it likely conjures up a mystical, other-worldly connection to Christ – a vague biblical concept where words fall short and the idea of mystery kicks in. Letham continues:

The reality far surpasses the ability of human language to describe it. Being united to Christ involves union with the Son of God, who himself transcends our finitude. Being indwelt by the Holy Spirit entails union with the whole Trinity. This goes beyond what we can even imagine.[3]

On the other hand, justification is rational and accessible. We can wrap our minds around it. Why bother with strange when you can embrace something concrete, right? This may explain why many Evangelicals are better at explaining the mysteries of the faith than actually savoring those mysteries in the face of Christ! I wonder how exploring the contours of our mysterious union with Christ can cultivate humility and awe-filled worship.

What’s Coming

This is the first of 4 articles in a series on union with Christ. The purpose of this series is to explore this intriguing New Testament teaching with particular attention given to its application for the church. My second article will explore the basics of union with Christ – its nature, scope, and place in Christian theology. The third article will study the foundations of union with Christ. I’ll reflect on how divine presence, covenant representation, and the incarnation of the Son help us better understand our oneness with Jesus. Finally, we will survey the blessings of our union, which include justification, sanctification, adoption, and the church. Along the way I’ll offer prayers and application points.

Prayer of Reflection

Father, we humble ourselves before You and Your word. We acknowledge that we have perhaps neglected an important teaching in the New Testament. Help us, Father, to gain clarity and understanding as we seek to mine the depths of salvation. Give us discernment and laser-like precision as we explore the various aspects of union with Christ. Help us to adore these mysteries of salvation as much as we delve into its intricacies. Amen.

Union with Christ Series

1.  Unrecognizable Gospel Glue

2. How We Get Life

3. Union with Christ and the Old Testament

4. Blessings of Union with Christ:  Justification, Sanctification, & Adoption

5.  Blessings of Union with Christ:  the Church

 

 

[1] Marcus Johnson, Oneness with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 24-28.

[2] Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scriptures, History, and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011), 1

[3] Letham, Union with Christ,  1.