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.

Boston2

How sweet and aweful is this place
With Christ within the doors,
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores!

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?

“Why was I made to hear Thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?”

’Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.

Pity the nations, O our God!
Constrain the earth to come;
Send Thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.

We long to see Thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May with one voice, and heart and soul,
Sing Thy redeeming grace.

Author: Isaac Watts, c. 1707

[This originally was published in the Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanood, 20.1 – Spring 2015]

Andreas and Mary Kostenberger.  God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey.  Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014. 380 pp. $22.99.

God has given me two compelling reasons to explore Andreas and Margaret Kostenberger’s new book on biblical complementarianism:  Emma and Sam.  My kids are too young to shape directly, but it’s not too early for mommy and daddy to start praying and preparing.    What will daddy say when Sam asks why Sarah is so weird and different?  How will mommy respond when Emma asks about the two boys holding hands in school?  What counsel will we give Emma when a young man is looking to date her?

Today the modern church lives in two-fold confusion.  First, the evangelical church is confused about what the Bible teaches on manhood and womanhood.  Some have strong convictions – one way or the other – while many avoid the topic for fear of entering into another divisive debate.  But what are the consequences of punting on this?  What happens when boys and girls, men and women within churches are confused about who they are as male and female?  Second, the broader culture is utterly confused on masculinity and femininity.  Will the idea of gender be eventually deleted from our societal vocabulary?  And if so, at what cost?

A Unique Contribution

KostenbergerThankfully, in God’s Design for Man and Woman Andreas and Margaret Kostenberger serve up the fresh, life-giving truth that only the Word of God provides.  They have written this book because they’re convinced “it’s vital to wrestle with our identity as men and women for the sake of healthy marriages, families, and churches, but more importantly, for the true expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world” (14).

God’s Design for Man and Woman is a unique contribution to the conversation in that its approach is biblical-theological – meaning, it traces the theme of manhood and womanhood across the scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation.  Many other important works, such as John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s classic Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womahood, address the topic from other angles (such as exegetical, theological/historical, and practical).  But no book-length study before this one maps out scripture’s overarching pattern related to masculinity and femininity.

The book is divided into eight chapters as follows:

  • God’s Original Design and Its Corruption (Genesis 1-3)
  • Patriarchs, Kings, Priests, and Prophets (Old Testament)
  • What did Jesus do? (Gospels)
  • What did the Early Church do? (Acts)
  • Paul’s Message to the Churches (First Ten Letters)
  • Paul’s Legacy (Letters to Timothy and Titus)
  • The Rest of the Story (Other New Testament teaching)
  • God’s Design lived out today

Each chapter is carefully organized, providing key points of summary at the outset, tables that highlight patterns, implication sections, and finally a resource list for further study.  The book closes with three appendices that address the three waves of feminism, biblical hermeneutics, and special issues in interpreting gender passages.

Continuity, Development, and Application

The Kostenerbers main argument is that the biblical narrative contains “a continuing thread pertaining to God’s plan for man and woman” and that “this plan is beautiful, consistent, and good” (258).  It’s not like the Old Testament brought out teaching that was later trumped by the New Testament.  While there is certainly development, the New Testament continues and fulfills the traditions of the Old in the life and ministry of Jesus.

So what is this “continuing thread” that is woven through the pages of scripture?  Mining the first three chapters of Genesis leads us to two initial truths.  First, man and woman are created in God’s image, to be partners in domesticating the earth and filling it with more image-bearers.  And second, in this unique partnership God has designed man to lead and be ultimately responsible, while the woman is called to be his collaborator and supporter.

The Kostenbergers believe this two-fold complementarian confession is consistently upheld throughout the biblical story.  Sin not only damaged God’s image in humanity but put a curse upon the partnership between man and woman.  The rest of the Old Testament documents sin’s impact on maleness and femaleness, including polygamy, divorce, homosexuality, and adultery.  Yet the biblical pattern of male leadership continues with male kings and priests as the institutional and authoritative leaders of Israel.

God’s Design for Man and Woman then examines the life and ministry of Jesus.  God’s Son clearly holds women in high regard.  He taught, healed, freely interacted with, and received support from both men and women.  Women were even the first witnesses of his resurrection.  All this was certainly stunning in a broader culture that deemed women as inferior!  Still, Jesus affirmed the same husband-wife relationship taught in the Old Testament and appointed only men as apostles, the institutional and authoritative leaders of the Church.  In their teaching the Apostles continued the traditions of the Old Testament and Jesus, fleshing out what biblical manhood and womanhood look like within Christian marriage and the church.

My favorite part of God’s Design for Man and Woman is the closing application chapter.  Some of us come from broken families and messy life situations where the complementarian vision feels confusing or even oppressive.  It’s certainly a vision that can be easily misconstrued.  What does it actually look like in the nitty-gritty, day-to-day life of a Christian?  The Kostenbergers give us keen wisdom and practical guidance without pulling punches or pressing beyond the biblical text.

Speaking the Truth in Love

My father-in-law recently commented on a sermon we heard together:  “I liked what he said and I liked the way he said it!”  The Kostenbergers get this right as well.  They tackle this touchy subject with both exegetical rigor and a humble, irenic tone.  They even say this is one of their goals in the introduction: “we’re committed to go about exploring the topic with an open mind and to reach out in love and ministry while doing so” (14).  How I wish more of our books and sermons and conversations would be like this!

I enthusiastically commend this book for three reasons.  First, it is a fresh study of a neglected topic within the evangelical world.  Second, applying its teachings will help grow healthy families and churches.  And third, Christian marriages and churches that embrace biblical complementarianism display the gospel more clearly to a watching world.  Read, digest, teach, and most importantly apply this book!