Here is part 4 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, 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8. For all 8 parts combined in one article, click here.
Recap of part 3
In part 3 of this series we addressed several common objections to taking seriously and realistically our union with Christ: It sounds too good to be true; it seems to say we are somehow confused with Christ; there seems to be no place for us to be or to act. All of these objections are misunderstandings based on false assumptions and false logic. Now in part 4 we’ll explore more in depth what our union and communion with Christ involves.
Who We Are: Our Identity in Christ
What does our union with Christ add up to, if it is not a moral, psychological, volitional or telic union? Perhaps the best word we can use in our contemporary situation to convey who we are in Christ is to say our union with Christ determines our identity. Identity seems to be summed up in who or what gives us our meaning, our purpose, our significance, our security, our dignity and destiny. These elements are essential to who we think we are, and how we act and respond to things around us. Union with Christ means that he is the sole and ultimate source of our meaning, purpose, significance, security, dignity and destiny. Others may remind us of our identity in Christ by what they say to us and in how they treat us. We may, and indeed ought to, remind others, be signs and witnesses to who others are in Christ. But only Christ, our Creator and Redeemer, can be the source of our identity. This is why we worship God alone. We worship what gives us our ultimate identity. In this sense who or what we serve or treasure indicates our identity. We can serve/worship only one real master.
The problem is, there are many sources we may look to in order to derive or secure our identity. In our secular society none of them have to do with the God of the Bible, revealed in Jesus Christ. So we can seek to establish our identities through our work or careers, through financial success, possessions, through social approval, personal achievement, leisure activities, educational achievement, political power and influence and through relationships with family, friends, co-workers, etc. The list is endless. Representatives of these various spheres of human life often broadcast grandiose promises of giving us a more secure sense of identity if we will only fulfill certain conditions: get that degree, achieve that promotion, buy a certain thing, live a certain place, realize some potential, fall in love, fulfill a certain fantasy, etc. But these are all conditionally offered potential sources of identity. Only if and when, a, b, c, then you can gain a more secure identity, be somebody. Even more important, these things cannot give us our real identity. They are false idols and cannot provide us with any ultimate or lasting meaning, purpose, security, dignity, or destiny. They cannot tell us who we are, for they do not know, and do not care! They are not your Creator nor your Redeemer. They are no gods!
The Danger of Christ-Plus
The danger in the church, the believing community, is to acknowledge Christ, but then seek out supplemental sources of identity. That amounts to serving two masters—trying to live a Christ-plus life (Christ plus x, y, or z). But what we add on can never serve as sources of identity. They can only be spheres in which we live out our identity given to us as a free gift by the grace of God. Once we add on the plus, the plus will inevitably make itself the key and central point. A competition will be set up in which the plus element demands to take over and serves as the real ultimate source of identity.
This dynamic is addressed often in the New Testament, especially in the letter to the Galatians and in the letter to the Hebrews. Adding on something to Christ is not a neutral and safe thing. It is a danger and ultimately means Christ is not being honored as the only ultimate source of identity, is not the only object of our worship. We become at best divided in mind and heart, soul and body. As we say these days, this is not sustainable. Our union with Christ means he provides us with our true identity as a freely given gift of his grace. We are the children of God sharing in his very Sonship with the Father by the Holy Spirit.
The Christian Life as Participation in Christ’s Continuing Ministry
So then what light does our union with Christ shed on the Christian life of obedience, or our calling to ministry? I have found that the word participation, which is a translation of the biblical Greek word koinonia, is indispensable. Our obedience and our ministry can only be properly grasped as a sharing in or participating in the obedience and ministry of Jesus Christ.
But if Christian life and ministry is somehow participation, what is it that we actually get involved in? Christ has completed his once-for-all ministry. How can we get involved in that? We can’t attempt to redo what he has done. How can we participate? This line of questioning indicates that we often forget or perhaps never fully grasped the fact that the risen Christ ascended in his bodily form with his humanity, a humanity not only intact but now glorified. James Torrance used to put these questions to his classes: “When do we really see the true humanity of Christ? Was it when he was hungry? Was it when he was asleep in the boat? Or was it when he was angry in the temple? No. We see Christ’s true humanity and so ours, in his ascension. There we see our humanity sanctified and glorified in him as he takes us with him as our substitute and representative into the very presence of the Father.”
The humanity Christ assumed at conception was not cast off like the empty external fuel tank of the space shuttle, only to fall back to earth some minutes after its blastoff for outer space. No, the incarnation is permanent because, as Paul put it, the man Jesus Christ is (and remains to this day) our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). His perfected humanity remains the only meeting place for God and humanity to meet.
But not only does his humanity abide, his ministry also continues. His gracious service did not end at the cross. Yes, the reconciling work was finished, but that reconciling work was for the sake of our living out of that recreated relationship now securely reestablished. As we see throughout the book of Hebrews, we serve a living Lord who continually intercedes for us. He remains the one true apostle, the one true leader of our worship, the one true pioneer and perfecter of our faith. Our Lord Jesus Christ remains ever vigilant, ever active. He is no retired Savior who is now unemployed.
All our responses to Christ are nothing more than following Christ in his present activity and engaging in the ministry that he is actively doing now through the Holy Spirit. When we preach the gospel, we participate in the apostolic ministry of Jesus, by the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit continues to bear witness to Christ and to our need for Christ. When we love a neighbor, or love an enemy, for the sake of Christ and his kingdom, we are merely catching up with God. We’re merely going to work with God. When we pray, we’re joining Christ in his faithful prayers of intercessions for us and for the world. When we worship, we are joining in with all the faithful, including those who have gone before us who are continually worshiping following the leadership of Jesus Christ, our great worship leader (leitourgos).
Even when we confess our sins, we join with Jesus himself who is the only one who truly knows the depth of sin, who is perfectly repentant and so for us received the baptism of John the Baptist. But as our great mediator who knows our weaknesses, he takes our weak faith and meager repentance and graciously makes it his own, perfects it and passes it on to the Father. On the basis of the work of Christ to save us, rescue us from sin, we are saved for participation, fellowship, communion in an ongoing relationship of wonderful exchange.
When we see our whole lives this way, we join with the apostle Paul, who proclaimed, “I live yet not I but Christ who lives in me.” That is not just a platitude that sounds nice. The whole of the Christian life is actually a participation in the life and ministry of Christ. So we can say, I pray, yet not I but Christ prays in me. I obey, yet not I but Christ obeys in me. I have faith, yet not I but Christ has faith in me. I hunger and thirst for righteousness and reconciliation, yet not I but Christ in me.
The joy, peace and love that Christ wants for us is not a joy, peace and love that are like Christ’s, that we somehow achieve with God’s help. No, by his Spirit, Christ tells us he intends to share with us his joy, his peace, his love, and his righteousness. And, from the foundations of the earth, he never thought otherwise!
Never view yourself apart from Christ, for that is not who you are.