Here is part 3 of a 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, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8. For all 8 parts combined in one article, click here.
Recap of part 2
In part 2 of this series we looked at the biblical foundations and theological synthesis of the revelation of the reality of our union and communion with Jesus Christ. This reality was not a secondary matter in the New Testament nor in Christian teaching down through the ages. But because it has been somewhat forgotten, there is the need to bring it back to light. However, there are some obstacles in the way of fully appreciating the truth and reality of our union with Christ. In part 3 of this series we will consider some of those barriers.
Obstacles to grasping the reality of our union with Christ
There are significant obstacles to our even beginning to grasp the truth of our union with Christ. I’d like to give some consideration to those concerns that often have blunted if not obliterated any concerted effort to grasp this profound theological truth.
Too good to be true?
First is the sheer wonder of the profound depths of such a grace. Would God really go to such lengths, heights and depths for us? It sounds too good to be true. But when it comes to God, shouldn’t we expect the good news to sound like it is too good to be true? Is not God’s grace beyond all we can ask or imagine? Certainly this response is no reason to rule out its gracious reality.
Confusion of ourselves with Christ
Union with Christ has often been avoided because of fear that if we say we are united to him at the ontological depths of our being, we will collapse ourselves into him and confuse ourselves with him. That misunderstanding of our union with Christ is a possibility expressed not just in what we think, but reinforced by how we are taught to think. We learn that what things really are is what they are all by themselves. They are individual substances, all one stuff. So, if two things are truly united, the difference between them as well as the distinction of each must be lost. Either one thing would turn into another, or both would turn into a third thing. Following this pattern of thinking, union with Christ would mean we turn into Christ or he would turn into us, each ceasing to be what we were. The Torrances were quick to warn that it is this way of thinking about ourselves as individual substances (a way that can be traced back to Aristotle) that leads to such confusion. If we assume that we are what we are independent of anything else, then a relationship, such as union, cannot contribute in any essential way to what things actually are.
But what if Aristotle was wrong? What if the essence of being human is defined by what we are by virtue of our being in some kind of relationship with God? What if relationship is essential to human being and not optional or accidental, but constitutive—such that we would not be what we are except by virtue of the relationships in which we exist, especially in relationship to God? If that is the case, then the Triune God who has his being as Father, Son and Holy Spirit reconstitutes our humanity by forging a new relationship with fallen humanity through his Incarnation and his entire life, death, resurrection and ascension as the New Adam. In that case, Jesus Christ has become our Lord from the inside of our humanity. We are now what we are because of Whose we are.
It was the truth of our union with Christ that led the Torrances to rethink our Aristotelian ontology (the study of the nature of being itself), and conclude that being itself, divine and human, is “onto-relational.” If relationship is essential to who we are, then in union with Christ, we are really united, but remain distinctly ourselves without confusion with Christ. We are most truly ourselves when we are united to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Union is a continual relationship with Christ at the deepest levels of our being, not a confusion of ourselves with Christ.
Grasping the truth of our relationship to Christ calls for the renewing of our minds so that we begin to think differently about what makes us who we are. In the end, we even have to approach reading Scripture differently. The challenge becomes not so much taking the Bible literally, but taking it realistically. When Paul declares that we are seated with Christ in the heavenlies, we have warrant, despite our Aristotelian philosophical training, to grasp this realistically. The good new is that we as Christians are united to Christ in such a way that all that is ours is his and all that is his is ours. Paul says, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
What does it mean to be a Christian? It means by grace we are united to Christ as his true brothers and sisters. Nothing less. That is who we are in him.
No place for us: antinomianism?
As noted above, some people worry that any real union must confuse us with Christ. This idea can be reinforced if we feel somehow compelled to trace out a false logic—a third obstacle, which goes something like this: If who we are is who we are in Christ, and our whole salvation is complete in Christ, then there is no place for me and no significance to what I do. This is the antinomian objection, that if we are really united to Christ then there is no reason or purpose for my choices or obedience. I can do what I like.
This might be one of many possible logical implication of our union with Christ. But theology is not the result of strings of logical implications. And simple logical inferences are never necessarily true. Second, everything depends on what we mean by union. The New Testament affirms a profound union with Christ, the completed work of Christ, and the wonderful exchange and yet it also calls for our involvement, our activity, our participation. Union in the New Testament sense does not rule out response, obedience, action and decision, but includes them.
Can we make any progress in understanding how these elements fit together? I think the answer is yes, and the Torrances lead the way. Union with Christ in this realist way does not eliminate the trusting obedience of the Christian life, but actually strengthens it!
A personal union
The biblical picture points to the union of persons who remain persons. The union is a personal union, not mechanical or functional or impersonal. Such a personal unity calls for interaction, for inter-relationship. A personal unity means that neither person is lost, but the distinction of persons is maintained while the personal, deliberate and chosen interaction takes place. Unity in this frame means the establishment and fulfillment of the creature in relationship to God through the humanity of Jesus Christ, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. This union is a reflection of the Triune relationships but now mirrored in God’s relationship to us in Christ and through the Spirit. Jesus can pray to the Father in a meaningful way even though he is one in being with the Father in the Spirit. From all eternity the Son can glorify the Father and the Father glorify the Son and yet be one. It turns out that the oneness of God is a unity where relationship is intrinsic to the being of God, so that if God were not Father, Son and Spirit, God would not be God. Aristotle’s presuppositions about what things can be and how they exist are apparently incorrect. Relationship can be essential to who, at least, God is—and who we are.
A saving relationship
Within those relationships there is real interaction, personal activity. So the saving relationship of exchange into which we are taken by grace calls for interaction, inter-relationship, and responsiveness. Salvation, rather than being an impersonal steady state of being, like a statue, is a relational reality. This is what makes salvation personal and alive. Being united to Christ is not being formed into a perfect, inert statue, but more living and being in a dynamic relationship where there is intimate giving and receiving in a wonderful communion. That relationship determines the essence of who we are and who we are becoming.
Perhaps we can draw a distant comparison with marriage in answer to the question, “Why should we do anything if we are united to Christ and our whole salvation is complete in him?” Raising the question that way about our union with Christ would be like asking why two people who are married should live together, since they have entered into the state of matrimony. But isn’t marriage by definition a sharing of life together? It would make no sense and be a violation of the logic of relationship to say, “Since we’re already married, there’s no point in living together.” So too in our union with Christ. As James Torrance used to exhort us, following Calvin, union with Christ and communion or participation in Christ are twin doctrines that can never be separated and never collapsed. Our unity with Christ in a relationship of wonderful exchange is a completed gift in which we personally participate so that the truth and reality of who we are in Christ becomes more and more manifest in our lives as we grow up into him.
We live our life in union with Christ because we live and move and have our being by being in communion with Christ. It is a personal reality in which we are meant to participate. Neglecting our active participation is neglecting our present salvation established in Christ. What does it mean to be a Christian? It means living daily by the grace that we are united to Christ as his brothers and sisters. Nothing less. That is who we are in him.