Soteriology: Union with Christ (SBD 13)

[Note: I am attempting to keep these SBD installments under 2000 words each, but that is–of course–quite inadequate for the topics covered. Consequently, these contributions are more programmatic than they are explanatory or defenses of the positions stated. You may access the whole series at my Serial page.]

The Father elects, redeems and saves in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Union with Christ is the umbrella expression for the totality of our salvation. This union involves all aspects of our salvation. The wisdom of God—Jesus Christ in whom God is reconciling the world—is our righteousness, holiness and redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30).

This union with Christ is both redemptive-historical and spiritual-mystical. Christ’s work is for us and with us as he identified with us through incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection. Through the election of the Father, we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection so that his death and resurrection become ours. At the same time our union with Christ is effected through the Spirit of God so that we constitute the living body of Christ. We are the embodiment of Jesus in the world as the divine presence resides in us through the indwelling Spirit. We participate in the reality of God’s kingdom through the Spirit of Christ who empowers us to be like Christ. United with Christ redemptively and pneumatically, we embody the presence of Jesus in the world for the sake of the world. Redeemed in Christ, we become the presence of Christ in the world.

The Scope of Salvation

Soteriology is individual, communal and cosmic.

Western and Evangelical Christianity have generally focused on the individual aspects of salvation, that is, “God saved me and Christ would have died for me even if I had been the only one who needed it.” Evangelical theology, consequently, has often stressed individual assurance, justification by faith and personal holiness. This emphasis has generally been linked to “going to heaven when I die” such that salvation has sometimes been reduced to the forgiveness of sin and going to heaven.

Surely God saves individuals—God saves indivdiual people. God saves me. God’s Spirit dwells in each of our bodies, calls each one of us to personal holiness and the personal presence of the Spirit empowers each of us. God works in and through individuals and relates to us as individuals. There is such a thing as a “personal” relationship with God—there is communion between God and individuals. Soteriology does not undermine our individuality though it does not sanction our individualism.

At the same time God saves a people and gathers a people together. God—the relational, communal reality of Father, Son and Spirit—created a community (male and female), redeems a community and will glorify a people. The Father called a people into existence named Israel and even now renews that same people by uniting Jew and Gentile into one people of God. Soteriology includes ecclesiology. The church, ultimately glorified in the kingdom, is the object of God’s saving work.

Even further, however, God not only saves individuals in community with others (ecclesiology) but also intends to redeem the whole creation. The telos of God is to reorder the cosmos under the headship of Jesus the Messiah (Ephesians 1:10) and reconcile everything in heaven and on earth to God through Christ (Colossians 1:20). God will redeem the creation itself as well as a people (Romans 8:18-26).

Ultimately, salvation is not about me, or us, or the creation. It is to the praise and glory of God the Father who elects a people in Christ to become the living presence of God in the creation by the power of the Spirit. This is the glory of God, that is, to rest with a redeemed people in a redeemed creation.

The Temporal Dimensions of Salvation

Applied soteriology is past, present and future in the lives of believers. Believers have already been saved, are in the process of being saved, and will yet be saved. This is exactly how Paul uses the terms “save” or “salvation” in his letters. Salvation is something already accomplished (Romans 8:24; Ephesians 2:5, 8; Titus 3:5)—it is something that happened in their own existential past. Salvation is also something yet to be experienced in the future (Romans 5:9-10; 13:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:8-9; 2 Timothy 2:10)—we will be saved in the future. Salvation is also a process which we currently experience; it is a refining fire and pleasing smell (2 Corinthians 2:15)—we are in the process of being saved.

This redemptive-historical soteriological structure is illustrated in Romans 6:22:

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.

In the past God freed us from sin and enslaved us to righteousness—we have been freed (justified) from sin (Romans 6:7). Yet this saving reality continues in the present as we move toward holiness (sanctification) which is the fruit of having been set free from the guilt and power of sin. Further, our goal (end, telos) is eternal life (glorification). This single verse—and we can find this emphasis in many other places in Paul—summarizes the past-present-future soteriological structure of Pauline theology. Those who have been justified (set free) presently seek holiness (sanctification) in view of the goal of eternal life (glorification).

Systematic theologians, especially Protestant ones, have generally summarized the past, present and future dimensions of salvation with the technical terms “justification” (past), “sanctification” (present), and “glorification” (future). This language is helpful as long as the temporal qualifier remains the significant point. The language is problematic when a term is strictly identified with a particular aspect of salvation (e.g., when justification becomes the essence of soteriology) or when biblical texts are made to conform to the theological language (e.g., when “righteousness” is forced into the mold of technical meaning of justification in texts like Acts 10:35).

In fact, Paul uses the language of “justified” or “righteousness” (justification) to refer to past, present and future soteriological realities. He does not limit “justification” (righteousness) to a past forensic declaration though he often refers to justification as a past event in the life of the believer (Romans 3:24; 5:1, 9). Rather, he calls believers to “pursue righteousness” (Romans 5:13, 16, 18, 19) in the present as obedient slaves of God. And, further, we will yet be justified in the future (Romans 2:6-10, 13) as we live even now in the “hope of righteousness” (Galatians 5:5).

Paul’s soteriological language is rich with diversity as his language is not rigidly tied to temporal location. Sanctification (holiness) is also past (1 Corinthians 6:11—sometimes called definitive or positional sanctification), present (1 Thessalonians 4:3—sometimes called progressive sanctification) and future (1 Thessalonians 5:23—sometimes called entire sanctification). Glorification is both present (2 Corinthians 3:18) and future (Romans 8:17). And we could do the same with other language such as liberation, redemption or spiritual. The point is that soteriology is comprehensive—it encompasses past, present and future. To limit salvation to one temporal aspect is reductionistic.

Soteriology as Definitive and Participatory

Union with Christ is not only about the event of forgiveness but the process of participating in the life of Christ. Soteriology, then, is both declarative and participatory.

God saved through a declarative act but also saves through our participation in the life to which God calls us. We are declared “in the right” (acquitted) by a divine act of righteous imputation in what theologians have historically called “justification” (or definitive sanctification) but we also pursue and become righteous through participation in the holiness of God in what theologians have historically called “sanctification” (or progressive sanctification or impartation of righteousness).

The definitive is a divine act which we receive by faith, but we participate in the reality of the definitive act through becoming what we have been declared to be in the righteous act of God. The definitive is what some call the indicative—it declares what God has done and stresses the saving act of God. God justifies, sanctifies and glorifies. The participatory is what some call the imperative—it calls us to live out the indicative in our personal lives, community and creation. Significantly, the indicative grounds and empowers the imperative.

This relationship between the indicative and imperative is common in Paul. Since we live in the Spirit, let us keep step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25). Since God has demonstrated mercy toward us, let us be transformed by God rather then conformed to the world (Romans 12:1-2). Let us work out our salvation with fear and trembling because it is God who is at work in us (Philippians 2:12-13).

Believers do not simply receive the declaration of God’s justifying righteousness; they also pursue righteousness in order to become the righteousness of God (that is, the embodiment of God’s faithfulness in the world).

Believers are both passive and active in their salvation. They passively receive God’s justifying declaration through a living faith as beggars with an open hand, but they also actively pursue righteousness (holiness, sanctifiction) by a faith that works through love (Galatians 5:5-6) while at the same time passively receiving the empowerment (indicative) of the Spirit that enables faithful works of love.

While I think Paul maintains this balance in clear ways, many have stressed the Pauline definitive to the virtual loss of the participatory. If Western theology (especially Evangelicalism) had focused on the Gospels rather than Paul, perhaps the stress would lie on participation rather than definitiveness (as much of the Eastern church does in their concept of theosis). The call to discipleship in the kingdom of God in the Gospels emphasizes the participatory—we actively follow Jesus.

But it is not an either/or. Rather, it is a both/and. Salvation is both definitive and participatory. We accept God’s declaration by faith and we participate in God’s transforming work by pursuing righteousness, practicing kingdom life, and following Jesus. In this way we are both “justified by faith”—declared “in the right” by God’s righteous act in Jesus, and “justified by works” (doers of the law, Romans 2:13)—experience transformation through empowered right-living. The works (our “sanctification” and conformation to the image of Christ empowered by the Spirit of God) evidence our declaration (“justification”), embody our Christ-likeness, and bear witness to the reality of God’s kingdom in the world. By faith we are “in the right” (justified) and through good works (sanctification) we become what God has declared us to be.

We are declared “in the right” because we are united with Christ. United with Christ, we participate in the life of Christ as we become partakers of the divine nature (theosis). The theological goal of sanctification—our “entire sanctification” or glorification—is conformation to the image of God in Christ. We will become fully—in body and soul—like Christ in our future sanctification (resurrection).

The Triune Ground of Salvation

Faith is the means of justification, sanctification and glorification—to use Systematic Theology’s technical terms. In justification, faith receives God’s extrinsic declaration. In sanctification, faith participates in the life of Christ through works—faith works through love (Galatians 5:6). In glorification, faith hopes in the future to come and believers—those who have persevered in faith—will experience the fullness of God’s redemption.

But lying behind the imperative to believe (trust) is the ground of the divine indicative. The Father has justified us, continues to sanctify us and will glorify us. The faithfulness of the Son grounds our justification, models our sanctification and establishes glorified humanity. The Spirit generates faith in us, transforms us and will animate our bodies in the new heaven and new earth.

We are saved (justification) by grace (ground) through faith (means) unto good works (sanctification). This is God’s telos. God intends to redeem a people who will live as divine images (representatives) within the creation for the sake of the world and rest in God’s gracious, communing shalom.

So What?

Salvation, then, is about the present and the future. It is not only about living in the new heaven and new earth, but about rescue from the powers of darkness in the present evil age. Salvation is apocalyptic, that is, it redeems a people as part of the new age while still living in the old age. It is a new order within the old order—it is the kingdom of God present in the world.

Salvation, therefore, is not only about a personal decision for Jesus (e.g., a decision to follow Jesus into the water) and forgiveness, but it is also about discipleship and apprenticeship into the ministry of Jesus as a participant in the kingdom of God.

The saving work of God not only forgives but transforms. We are not only saved from sin but saved for good works (sanctification). The saving work of God not only prepares us for the new heaven and new earth but works through kingdom people in the present for the reclamation of the whole creation (both human and cosmic) for the kingdom of God. This work by God through the people of God not only involves proclaiming the good news of the kingdom but practicing the good news of the kingdom through reversing the curse.

The saving work of God manifests itself not only in believers assured of their forgiveness but in believers who proclaim the gospel and embody the good news of Jesus through “good works” (e.g., social justice, healing, benevolence, ecology, etc.). The church is the community of God that both proclaims the good news of the kingdom and practices it.

8 Responses to “Soteriology: Union with Christ (SBD 13)”

  1.   rich Says:

    well said my brother

  2.   rich constant Says:

    john mark would you mind weaseling some of new perspective from NT wright on the accomplishment that god focused in the umbrella of the declaration of righteous faith(promised blessing) compared to the Torah covenant(trap of sin and the curse ROM.7) found in the redemption of his son from the dead…. EEG.old Israel verses new cov. Israel and the 2ed temple and new temple.
    maybe from a first cent.hermeneutic and looking back at much of what god accomplished in the act of making his son to be sin to accomplish the reconciliation of the good of his creation through righteous loving faithfulness by their communion to the accomplishment of gods purpose through the spirit.

    rich constant

  3.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I plan to write a review of Wright’s recent book Justification early next week. So….patience. 🙂

  4.   rich constant Says:


    I MEAN


  5.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    This understanding of salvation is so needed in churches. Thanks for the post.

    Grace and peace,


  6.   Bruce Says:

    Salvation has come to our land. The curse was reversed in St. Louis in October 2004 (go Sox 🙂

  7.   rich constant Says:

    blessings my friend:
    well i been thinken again.
    specifically in relationship to a main ingredient, of the letter to the roman church,and this paragraph.
    i am sure it is only new to me, although the paragraph begs the by way of this thought,(If Western theology
    had focused on the Gospels rather than Paul,)
    Hopefully you find more words to affirm the comment that Paul was teaching exactly that…
    {because of the focus on the anthropocentric position of theology by Evangelicalism.
    again Luther asked the question not right.(I FEEL NOT RIGHT IS BETTER THAN SAYING WRONG) 🙂
    “How does god SAVE me FROM” .
    answer: of course my faith in JESUS.}
    which creates a shift in the perspective to the demise of the mystery of Christ in us.
    by way of the trinity’s act of faithfulness to their “intrinsic faithful nature to one another” and that’s all GOOD, in every since of the word.
    as expressed in their “story of deliverance”.
    (AH WHY NOT…This creation is their fault “they did it” :-).but then before the foundation they had a plan in-case “we did it” ) “free will”

    so we too deliver one another by the establishment of the story of the trinity’s actions in the face of what became a hostile creation.
    “self will run riot”through turning back to the exercised faithfulness of THE example.
    The Spirit of Christ that dwells in us Because of HIS faith in god who delivered HIM (raised from the dead) because of HIS FAITH for the purpose of deliverance THROUGH BELIEF (faithfulness to the will of god to establish faithfulness) , this establishes a community of the fathers goodness through acting out faith ,hope ,and love. Emulating the the words of faithfulness to the glory of the father,blessing the creation through HIS faith because of God’s grace.

    TO be sure more than faith in Christ is being expressed.
    IT becomes a story of faithfulness,to ESTABLISH Faithfulness for the purpose of deliverance through an ESTABLISHED community of believers doing gods good will, delivering people for the purpose of the gory of the father .

    i am not rambling i am skipping to make a point…
    so there… :-).
    you can always delete. bro

    by jmh
    “…While I think Paul maintains this balance in clear ways, many have stressed the Pauline definitive to the virtual loss of the participatory. If Western theology (especially Evangelicalism) had focused on the Gospels rather than Paul, perhaps the stress would lie on participation rather than definitiveness (as much of the Eastern church does in their concept of theosis). The call to discipleship in the kingdom of God in the Gospels emphasizes the participatory—we actively follow Jesus…”

    Romans is a story of establishing mutual faith(a like minded faith in what is good) because of the deliverance of the community of believers(creation) because the story of the ages is for the obedience of THE FAITH, TO ESTABLISH THE FAITH’ (OF CHRIST) WHICH IS BY PROMISE,AND LIFE THROUGH THE SPIRIT OF THE FAITH, WHICH IS THE TRINITY’S FAITHFUL RIGHTEOUSNESS MANIFESTED.
    as brought forward by the scriptures,for the purpose of reconciliation through the redemption because of faithfulness to and upon all that believe. in the community’s actions of THE established good.

    read ROM.1:11
    ROM. 16:25
    then for context

    who delivers the community from the bondage of corruption through the life in the Spirit of god in Christ the mystery reveled.

Leave a Reply