Union & ministry with Christ, part 2

Here is part 2 of an 8-part essay by Dr. Gary Deddo titled “The Christian life and our participation in Christ’s continuing ministry.”  To read other parts, click on a number: 1, 3, 456, 7, 8. For all 8 parts combined in one article, click here.

Without Purse or Script by Liz Lemon Swindle, used with permission
Without Purse or Script by Liz Lemon Swindle (used with permission)

Recap of part 1

In part 1 of this 7-part essay we noted that in responding to the ethical challenges in our contemporary world, some churches have adopted an activism that, unfortunately, tends to misrepresent God and the Christian life. As a corrective, we noted the Torrance brothers’ emphasis on an approach that remains focused on the central question of Christian theology: Who are you Lord? With that focus, all we think about and do as churches remains centered on Christ, enabling us to enter more fully into what our Lord actually is calling us to do. At their core, Christian living and ministry are about living in union and communion with Christ. Now in part 2 of this series we’ll explore the biblical foundations and theological synthesis for understanding that union and communion.

Scriptural teaching on union with Christ

What do the Scriptures teach? What did the early church and the Reformers understand? And what legacy have the Torrance brothers left us regarding our union with Christ? Let me first summarize what that union is not:

  1. It’s not essentially a moral union with the result that I agree and am committed to doing what God regards as right and righteous. That may be a moral fruit of our union, but that is not what it is.
  2. It’s not essentially a psychological union where Jesus has positive regard for me and I feel warmly connected and desirous of his approval and presence. Again that may be a fruit, but not the source.
  3. It’s not essentially a volitional union where I am willing to do the practical work of God, accomplishing all that he sets out for me to do, so that my will is a mirror image of God’s will.
  4. It’s not essentially a union of purposes (a “telic union”), where my goals, aspirations, dreams, ideals and hopes match God’s.

Union with Christ is much deeper, more enduring and far more effective in our lives than any of these aspects of the Christian life. The New Testament message is that we are so united to Christ that the core of our very being is changed because it has become spiritually joined to the perfected humanity of Jesus. The apostle Paul writes that we are one in Spirit with Christ (1 Corinthians 6:17). In his letter to the Ephesians he writes that we are presently—right now—seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Ephesians 2:6). We are so joined that what happened to Christ 2,000 years ago has actually included us. So in Paul’s letter to the Colossians we read that we have co-died with Christ and have been co-raised with Christ (Colossians 2:12-3; 3:1). Paul announces this fact as a completed action that is true of all the members of the body of Christ.

Jesus himself indicated his purpose to unite himself with us. He teaches that our oneness with him is comparable to his oneness with the Father. He declares, “On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20, ESV unless noted). He prays, “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one…. that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:23, 26). Jesus teaches that eternal life, salvation, involves a close communion: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:56).

In 1 Corinthians, Paul announces that everything that Jesus has is also ours. He declares that Jesus himself is our wisdom, our righteousness and our sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30). The New Testament is filled with language that points to a profound reality: we belong in an astounding way to Jesus Christ. We can be said to indwell him and he us. We are often depicted as being in Christ, not just with or alongside him. The book of Ephesians is full of this kind of description that frankly blows our minds and fries our rational mental circuits. We have become new creatures “in” Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), because he has made us his own (Philippians 3:12) in such a way that there is what Calvin called a “wonderful exchange” at the deepest level of who we are. At that level Christ takes our fallen and broken natures and gives us a share in his sanctified and perfected human nature. Who we are is no longer who we are alone, for we are not alone. We are who we are by virtue of being united to Christ. As James Torrance tirelessly reminded us, by his grace we are given the gift of sharing in the Son’s union and communion with the Father in the power of the Spirit. As the early church expressed it: He who was the Son of God by nature, became a son of man so that we who are the sons of men by nature might, by grace, become the sons and daughters of God.

When Calvin and Luther commented on Ephesians 5:21-32, following the early church teachings, they did not exposit on the nature of human marriage, but marveled that we are far more united to Christ than a man and woman are in matrimony! Marriage is a dim and distant reflection of the deeper truth about our real communion with Christ. The ultimate companion we are made for is Jesus Christ who is truly bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh and to whom we are united by the Holy Spirit.

In the New Testament, especially in the book of Hebrews, we see that such a union had its beginning in the Incarnation, in Christ’s assuming a complete humanity, from conception to his death. What qualifies Jesus to accomplish this exchange with us is his assumption of our humanity along with its fallen condition. The early church recognized the depths of the incarnation when it declared not only that Jesus was “one in being” (homoousios in Greek) with the Father, but also “one in being” (homoousios) with humanity. His divinity by virtue of his union with the Father is no more true of him than is his humanity by virtue of his union with us. The apostle Paul laid the ground for this doctrinal explication of the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) when he identified Jesus with the new Adam (Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:45). Jesus Christ is united to us even more than we are united to the Adam of the Garden in Genesis. Thus our relationship with Christ puts our very existence on a whole new basis.

Our redemption does not just depend on what Christ did, but on who he is in the depths of his being—one with God and one with us. Our salvation, our life in Christ, was not only accomplished by means of Christ but “in Christ,” as Calvin used to say and James Torrance used to regularly remind us. Our new life is not external to us and layered on over us, but is worked out first in the humanity of Jesus and then given to us through his Spirit.

Luther, Calvin and Stewart on union with Christ

One older book that James Torrance often referred to was James Stewart’s A Man in Christ. Stewart concluded after his careful study of the New Testament that our union with Christ was the central element in the message of the gospel. That is, without union with Christ, there would be no gospel. God’s grace reaches that deep into who we are. We are no longer ourselves alone—we are who we are only in and through our union with Christ. We belong to God in Christ., body and soul.

Calvin used to warn that we ought never consider Christ at a distance. We are, to the root of our being, who we are in relationship to him who made himself one with us. This is why Luther and Calvin recognized that our whole salvation was complete in Christ: not just our justification, but our sanctification and glorification as well. To have Christ was to have the whole Christ. Christ could not be divided up into pieces, so neither could our salvation. What is complete and actual in Christ is truly ours even if it does not yet appear to be so. Our lives are hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3). Our life in him is being worked out in us by the Spirit. This new being wrought in us comes through the sheer gift of our union with Christ. It is not us working out a potential that might be true if we properly apply ourselves. Rather, the Christian life is living out and manifesting the present reality of our union with Christ.

5 thoughts on “Union & ministry with Christ, part 2”

  1. WOW, mind boggling truth..Thank you for explaining this to us. What a blessing indeed of who we are in Christ..Praise GOD!!!

  2. This is once again a thought provoking series. But I wonder how this relates to the concept expressed in panentheism [as opposed to pantheism] which is that everything is in God. There is no place in the universe that is not in God. He is everywhere at once. Examples: I Kgs. 8:27 “Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you.” Ps. 139:7-10 “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?…heaven…Sheol…the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” Acts 17:27-28 “[God] is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘in him we live and move and have our being'”. How does this relate to what Drs Torrance are indicating? Thanks for your help.

  3. Here from Dr. Deddo is a reply to James Lee’s question:

    James, your offer a good and important question. Thank you.

    Pantheism is the belief that creation is, itself, divine, is of the same sort of being that the transcendent, or ultimate, being or power (god) is. In pantheism, all is divine, the divine is all, they are identical and co-extensive.

    In contrast to pantheism, panentheism affirms that there is more to this “god” or the “divine” than the material creation. Often this is expressed by saying that the material creation is the body of the divine or “god.” Those who identify the divine with Gaia, for example, think in this way.

    The Christian faith is very, very different. Account for the whole of biblical revelation makes this clear. Understanding creation is key. God is revealed to be creator and not created. Creation is not god or divine and God is not creation or created. Creation is good, but it is not God and to worship it or any part of it is to commit idolatry. We receive and treat the good (but now fallen) creation as a good gift from God. Nothing more, nothing less.

    The distinction in the being of God from the being/existence of everything else is never to be erased or confused. This is why God alone is worshiped.

    But the fact that God is God does not mean God cannot be present to his (even fallen) creation. But God cannot be identified with his creation.

    As it turns out, God can be present to his creation in many different ways, but always without ceasing to be God and without creation turning into God. They can and do remain distinct in being. So in Scripture we find a variety of ways that God is described as being with or present to his Creation. Simple words like “with” and “in” by themselves can be taken in a variety of ways. So more information about who God is and what his creation is like is needed to fill the meaning out in the most accurate way.

    Jesus’ most simple but direct way of telling his disciples about the nature of God’s presence by the Holy Spirit is “he was with you but will be in you” (John 14:17). This indicates at least a two-fold way that God by the Holy Spirit is able to be present. Of course the promise Jesus makes indicates a new phase, a new depth and intimacy of relationship not formerly realized. This is marked also by Pentecost. The New Testament also reserves the idea of “indwelling” to indicate this new depth of relationship that was brought about by Jesus’ completion of his earthly ministry. Being united as members of his body, where we are the body but he is and remains the Head and so Lord and Savior of the Body, is also another way we are pointed to the relationship of presence of yet distinction. We are joined to Christ, but we do not become Christ.

    The unity of God with his people always assumes a distinction of person and being. The difference is never erased. Rather there is a sharing of life in and through the greater depth of relationship accomplished by God through Christ in the Spirit. So we should never take the idea of God’s presence or the biblical prepositions of “in” or “with” in a pantheistic or panentheistic way.

    But we can certainly say that the Creator God is present to everything he has created, and can be present in a variety of ways. The deepest, most intensive and personal way is by the gift of his indwelling of his Holy Spirit in his human creatures as they receive his Word, the proclamation of the Gospel. So Paul can say: “I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Union with Christ by the Spirit is a relationship, a relationship where there is never a confusion or fusion of the two who are nevertheless in deepest communion and fellowship.

  4. Wow! love the questions and answers. Iron sharpens iron. If not for the questions we would not get the answers. This is also a question that I had but could not put into words as Mr. James Lee did.

  5. Belated thanks for this great piece of work–when we began teaching about union with Christ ushering us into the heavenly places, it lit up our whole congregation. We’re doing Luther and Calvin right now in CH502 so very timely on what Orthodoxy and Neo-Orthdoxy is and was. Nice work–NE

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