Hero-Image-LifeSciences-GeneralEvery person, everywhere yearns for life.  When I say “life” I don’t just mean physical life; I mean rather spiritual life.  I mean the energy, vitality, and strength that is necessary to not only survive this life, but to thrive in it.  It’s easy to see this life in some; it’s also easy to see the lack of life in others.   We all yearn for it, don’t we?  The anxious crave life-giving freedom from fear.  The depressed want life-giving hope.  The lonely desire life-giving relationships.  The burdened long for life-giving release or life-giving burden-bearers.  Every one of us wakes up each day and enjoys this life, or looks for this life, or longs for this life. Some of us find it; many of us are still looking.  And sadly, many of us think we have found it but we have not. 

Where do we find this life?  The world will offer a variety of answers: careers and resume-building; free sexual expression; material possessions and money; power and influence etc.  But the Christian gospel offers another answer: Life is only found in Jesus Christ.  Sounds like a Sunday School answer – and it is – but there is profundity in it.  We find this life that we long for when we are joined to Christ and experience his life.

Jesus gives believers true life; and the doctrine of union with Christ explains how we get it.  So let’s dig into the basics of the Christian’s union with Christ.

The Nature of Union with Christ

What exactly is the believer’s union with Jesus Christ? We can think of union with Christ from five overlapping perspectives.[1]

First, union with Christ is supernatural. In John 14:23 Jesus says that He and the Father will come and make their home in the believer. Elsewhere he prays that his disciples would be in Him and He in them (John 17:21-23). This is rooted in the Old Testament idea of God’s special dwelling with his people in the tabernacle and in the temple. What’s unexpected is that New Testament Christians can experience the Father and the Son dwelling in them, here and now.

When you and I have a sense of God’s presence – perhaps as we’re engaged in scripture meditation or singing to God with God’s gathered people or as we’re listening to a powerful sermon – we are experiencing the fruit of our union with Christ.  Because Jesus enjoys his Father’s presence, we can too.

Second, our oneness with Christ is an intimate union. Paul speaks of human marriage as a picture of the union between Christ the groom and his bridegroom the church. Marriage is the most intimate human relationship and so communicates something of the intimacy we can encounter in our union with Christ.

We all long for relational intimacy, not only a judicial sense that “I’m ok with God.”  Union with Christ guarantees that we can experience this deep intimacy with God.  We too can experience something of the love between Jesus and the Father.

Third, our oneness with Christ is spiritual. Christ indwells believers by the Spirit. Jesus said: “The Father…will give you another Counselor to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth…but you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you (John 14:16-17). This and other texts speak of the Spirit indwelling believers and mediating the presence and power of Christ in our lives.

So being filled with the Spirit is another way of describing our experience of union with Christ.  When we feel conviction of sin (Jn 16:8), when we see Christ as he is (Jn 14:26), when we cry out “Abba, Father!” (Rom 8:15), and when we produce the fruit of the Spirit in Christian community (Gal 5:22-23) – we are experiencing the very life of Jesus in us.  And that life is given to us by the Spirit.

Fourth, it is an organic union. Christians together make up the body of Christ (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 6:15; 12:12-27). So the organization of the church is similar in complexity to living, breathing things. The body grows up into its head, who is Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16). Through Christ, individual members of the body give and receive in mutually beneficial relationships (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:15-16).

Think about the members of your church.  Being united to Christ means you are, through him, united to those members in way that is stronger than your biological ties.  After conversion Christians are fundamentally different.  No longer are they a collection of diverse individuals living peaceably in a pluralistic society.  Their primary identity has changed from “I” to “we.”  Their identity is now the church family, the one body of Christ (cf. Eph 2:11-22).

Fifth, it is a vital union. In other words, it involves a totally new quality of life. Christ is the source of true life for any human being (John 1;4; 5:26; 11:25; 14:6). Therefore believers who are joined to Him share this life and vitality (John 15:1-8). The Apostle Paul wrote that “Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20), which isn’t high-falutin’ religious language.  It’s Paul’s way of acknowledging his new life in Christ.  It’s his way of saying “I abide in Christ…I put off the old and put on the new…I am filled with Christ’s Spirit…” (John 15:1-5, Colossians 3:5-17, Ephesians 5:18).

If we want life and strength and energy for each day, we will learn to abide in Christ – which is another way of saying, we will learn to live out of our union with Christ.  Every resource we need to get through the tasks and trials of our day is found in Christ.  As we approach each day, we must be able to say with Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

 

Prayer of Reflection

Father, words fail us as we begin to see new vistas of union with Christ. Yet we know enough to praise and thank you for this marvelous salvation in Christ! Thank you that because of this oneness with the only Righteous One, we are reckoned righteous before our heavenly Judge. Thank you that because of Christ’s vitality, we can have life and strength for each day. Thank you that because of Christ’s intimacy with you, we are no longer alone and can share intimacy with you. Thank you that because many sons and daughters are joined to Christ, we have a new spiritual family that is together joined to Christ. May our new identity in Christ and in His body give us fresh motivation to love one another and commune with You. May our union with Jesus bring us life today.  Amen.

 Union with Christ Series

1.  Unrecognizable Gospel Glue

2.  How We Get Life

3.  Foundations of Union with Christ:  Divine Presence, Covenant Representation, and the Incarnation (forthcoming)

4.  Blessings of Union with Christ:  Justification, Sanctification, Adoption, and the Church (forthcoming)

 

[1] See Bruce Demarest. The Cross and Salvation, 330-333 and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. “Union with Christ.” In God in the Holy Spirit, Vol. 2 of Great Doctrines of the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997), 106–16.

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.

[This post first appeared on the Gospel Coalition website early 2014]. 

A few years ago my wife and I left the comfort of our Midwestern life to partner in gospel ministry on Boston’s South Shore.  I remember the moment I pulled our U-Haul into our new driveway.  We were greeted by several members of our new congregation.  The nerves quickly wore off as we received warm smiles and hugs, then moving help and loads of gift cards to local bistros.

Those first few months were wonderful: my ministry initiatives were generally successful; lots of energetic congregants flocked to my planning and training meetings; and boy did my wife and I eat well.  I became excited to dig in and partner with this church.  Rocky soil?  Please.

Then the honeymoon wore off.  Volunteer numbers dropped.   Work hours increased.  I grew tired, lacked motivation, and picked up some grumpiness that I couldn’t shake.  My Senior Pastor took a sabbatical which meant piling on more preaching and leadership responsibilities.

ne-featureDuring this rough patch God taught me several lessons, but one piercing question really stuck out:  do I really trust the Word through the Spirit to do the work of ministry?  As I pondered this question I slowly recognized that my weariness and discouragement were partly due to trusting things outside God’s Word.  But the Bible is crystal clear:  the Word through the Spirit is enough (Mk 4:26-29; Rom 1:16-17; 2 Tim 3:14-17).  This is a glorious and freeing truth.  And it means something profound for the difficult work of making disciples in New England.

Here are 7 ways I’m attempting to prioritize the distinctive work of the Word.  I humbly commend them to you…

  1. Ruthlessly guard the work of the Word in your life.  I wonder how many of us truly experience regular communion with God.  Personal fellowship with our God is essential for our daily well-being and perseverance over the long haul in New England.  There is nothing more important that we can do for our spiritual health, our marriages, and our ministries than deep, daily fellowship with God.  Do we believe that?
  2. Cultivate the work of the Word in family life.  If we believe that God’s Word through His spirit transforms, and if our families are more important than our churches, then we will prioritize reading the Bible and praying with our wives and children.  I’m not always great at this.  Pastors, let’s make time to read and pray with our spouses and children.  Let’s get just as excited about their spiritual transformation as we do our flock’s.
  3. Affirm the work of the Word in your congregation.  In a region that is admittedly “rocky,” it’s tempting as pastors to complain, control, or bail.  Instead consider the many evidences of grace that are undoubtedly in your congregation.  Perhaps your church has recently witnessed a conversion.  Maybe a prodigal son came home, a marriage was healed, a young man found victory over pornography, or Sunday worship was especially meaningful.  God is surely working through His word in your congregation.  Look for these evidences of grace, and then share them with others!
  4. Make time for the work of the Word in individuals.  There was a season when I neglected my call as a Pastor to be regularly in the Word with individuals.  I dedicated too much time to administration and planning.  Not surprisingly my joy and motivation grew when I redirected some energy to Word-centered people ministry.
  5. Be tender and bold in the public work of the Word.  In a challenging spiritual climate it’s tempting to either force things from the pulpit or pull too many punches.  As a young preacher, I’m learning that God’s people need a shepherd and a prophet behind the pulpit.  Cultural and personal idols must be confronted.  But God’s Word should also uniquely comfort the sheep.
  6. Be patient with the work of the Word.  New Englanders don’t mind telling you what they really think so I wasn’t surprised when the pushback came.  When this happens, pastors typically walk one of three paths.  Some lead by conviction – meaning, get ready for the fireworks.  These are the purist pastors: the idealist, impatient ones who want their churches to exemplify biblical church right now.  Others lead by consensus.  These are the people-pleasing pastors, the men with little backbone and limited passion.  Thankfully there is a third option.  The wise and careful pastor responds to pushback by teaching towards a consensus. They trust that God’s Word will bring unity in time.
  7. Rest in and pray for the work of the Word.  One of my favorite passages is Mark 4:26-29, which reminds ministers of the gospel to sow and sleep.  After the long day of draining conversations, unexpected phone calls, a host of other interruptions, and almost no sermon prep, it’s tempting to go home and do more.  But the efficacy of God’s Word and Spirit implore us to unplug, unwind, and pray big prayers for our churches and towns.  We sow and sleep; He builds the crop.  So take a few nights off each week.  Forget about your work email until the morning.  Don’t overwork the sermon.  Invite a friend to preach for you.  Meanwhile, rest and pray!  Rest and prayer are expressions of trust in the power of God’s Word.  Rest and prayer are demonstrations of gospel-wrought humility.

Jesus is the Word.  We are mere John the Baptists – humble voices in the dessert that display the beauty and majesty of the Word.  We are like Paul – sometimes fearful, trembling, and ineloquent as we come to our people.  Yet God somehow makes dead people live when we open our mouths with His words.  The Word through the Spirit is sufficient for this extraordinary work of salvation in New England.  Let’s preach, disciple, pray, labor, and rest like that’s true.

Can you summarize the teaching of the New Testament in 10 minutes?

NTI probably couldn’t.  Andy Naselli took up the challenge recently at the Desiring God Conference for Pastors.  In just under 10 minutes, He beautifully articulates the main thrust of each New Testament book, connecting each to Christ and His gospel.

Why is this exercise important?  Each book makes a unique contribution to the magnificent redemptive story of God, which centers on and culminates in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  Understanding the “melodic line” of each book helps in two ways: it pulls us into the grand redemptive story of God; and it pushes us to contextualize individual passages so we’re consistent with the author’s unique contribution.  We see the big picture of the Bible more clearly; we see the details of the passage more clearly.  With that in mind, enjoy these crisp and insightful summaries…

In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus the Messiah-king climatically fulfills the OT.

In the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus (like Aslan) is on the move: Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, is a suffering servant and a model for his followers.

In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus the Messiah fulfills God’s plan by seeking and saving the lost. He is concerned especially for Gentiles and outcasts of society.

The Gospel according to John is evangelistic: Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, gives eternal life to everyone who believes in him.

Acts is history. It belongs with Luke’s Gospel as the second volume in a history of Christian beginnings (so Luke is volume 1, and Acts is volume 2). The word “Acts” denotes a type of writing in the ancient world that describes the great deeds of people or cities. The book of Acts describes the founding events of the church. Its message is that Jesus the Messiah continues to fulfill God’s plan by expanding the early church in the face of opposition through the Holy Spirit’s power.

Romans is the greatest letter in the history of the world: The gospel reveals how God is righteously righteousing (i.e., justifying) unrighteous individuals—both Jews and Gentiles—at this stage in the history of salvation. This happens by faith in Christ apart from the law-covenant, and it happens ultimately for God’s glory.

The message of 1 Corinthians is that God’s holy people (i.e., all Christians) must mature. As God’s holy people become what they already are (i.e., holy), they will increasingly not tolerate sin and will build each other up and will strongly affirm Jesus’s bodily resurrection.

The message of 2 Corinthians is that God shows his power through human weakness.

Galatians guards the gospel: both Jews and Gentiles are justified by (and continue to live by) faith in Christ, not by the works of the law.

According to Ephesians, the church (both Jewish and Gentile Christians) must maintain the unity that Christ powerfully created.

Philippians exhorts God’s holy people: conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel.

Colossians heralds that Christ is supreme. That is the basis for the letter’s many commands.

Paul wrote two letters to the new converts in Thessalonica to strengthen their faith: (a) walk (i.e., live) in light of Christ’s imminent coming, and (b) persevere because Christ will return and set all things right, especially by judging his enemies.

Paul wrote three letters to young pastors that we call the Pastoral Epistles. (a) In 1 Timothy, those in the church (especially church leaders) must oppose false teaching and be godly. (b) 2 Timothy exhorts: Persevere for the gospel. (c) Titus exhorts: Do what is good (by the grace of God).

Philemon is Paul’s shortest and most personal letter. Its message is that you should love your Christian brothers and sisters (regardless of social barriers) by valuing them above yourself.

The message of Hebrews is that Jesus is better, so persevere (i.e., don’t fall away from the faith). Jesus is better than the prophets, angels, Moses, Joshua, and any high priest under the old covenant. Jesus’s Melchizedekian priesthood is better than the Levitical priesthood. Jesus’s sacrifice is better than any under the old covenant. Jesus’s new covenant is better than any others. Jesus is better, so persevere.

According to James, faith works. That is, genuine saving faith must become evident in how we endure trials, how we treat the poor, how we speak, and how we relate to the world.

Two letters from Peter exhort Christians who are facing persecution and false teachers: (a) stand firm in God’s grace, and (b) beware of false teachers.

John wrote three letters. 1 John is a comforting letter about assurance of salvation. You can know that you have eternal life in three interlocked ways: believing in Jesus, living righteously, and loving believers. The second and third letters exhort believers: (a) walk in the truth and love by not supporting deceivers, and (b) work together for the truth by supporting those who spread it.

Jude exhorts those whom God is keeping for Jesus: contend for the faith against grace-perverting immorality.

Revelation.  The purpose of the last book of the Bible is to comfort and encourage Christians by revealing future events and providing a heavenly perspective on present earthly difficulties. You could title this book The Return of the King. We might quibble over how to interpret various details in the book, but the message is clear: God and the Lamb will consummate their kingdom for their glory. They will consummate their kingdom by saving their people and judging their enemies.