Union with Christ: The Central Soteriological Claim

I have now read the sixth of twelve books suggested by FB friends. This one was recommended by Clayton Homewood.  This is my summary.

Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013).

Salvation, according to historic Christianity, is our personal union with the living Christ, our inclusion in the person of Christ. “Christ is our salvation,” and “our union with the living Christ is,” Johnson writes, “what it means to be saved.” Johnson provides a solid and helpful defense of this approach to soteriology. Historically, this is not a new position, of course. Early patristic writers stand in this tradition along with Calvin, and I affirm it myself.

“The mysterious reality of our union with Jesus Christ,” he writes, “by which he dwells in us and we in him, is so utterly essential to the gospel that to obscure it inevitably leads to the obscuring of the gospel itself.” This obfuscation happens when, among other things, one (1) identifies the “benefits” of Christ’s work as abstract or forensic (“depersonalized”) gifts, (2) understands salvation individualistically, and (3) divorces soteriology from the church and its sacraments. This corrective emphasizes a personal, organic, and participatory soteriology that understands any legal or forensic aspects of salvation as secondary, an effect of union with Christ.

The personal mutual indwelling of the living Son in us and we in the Son is the source of a healthy understanding of the meaning of salvation. This mystical union is the source of all the benefits God shares with us through the living Christ. This mystery is inexplicable, but it is a reality we apprehend and describe through the story of God in Christ and we also experience in the power of the Spirit. In other words, Johnson has much in common with the Eastern Orthodox notion of theosis (participating in the life of God) which is also part of Catholic and Protestant traditions in some authors (e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, etc.).

After defining union with Christ and its role in the history of theology, Johnson interprets the meaning of justification, sanctification, adoption, preservation, and glorification through this lens. These are inseparable benefits and gifts that come to us, he argues, because we are united with Christ.

At this point, I offer one caution. The book’s subtitle should perhaps read “Reformed” (i.e., Calvinist) rather than “Evangelical” (i.e., which would include non-Reformed theologians and believers). He mostly cites Reformed sources, though he occasionally utilizes authors from other traditions. His interpretation of the various dimensions of salvation are consistently Reformed. Indeed, Johnson represents a healthy form of Reformed theology that corrects some of the distortions of Reformed theology often found in contemporary advocates of Calvinism. In this way, he follows—for example—Torrance more than Piper or Grudem.

I think the major contribution of the book is not only reorienting evangelical (particularly Reformed) theology toward union with Christ as the central claim about salvation but also his incorporation of church and sacrament in this understanding of union with Christ. “Salvation is a communal reality,” and there is a sense in which there is no salvation outside of the church because we are all joined to each other through our union with Christ. This community celebrates and participates in this union through the sacraments, including the preaching of gospel and enactment of the gospel through baptism and the Lord’s supper.

In the two chapters on church and sacraments, Johnson provides a healthy and bold return to early Reformed (especially Calvin) tenets. Because the church actually participates in the incarnate, crucified, resurrected, and glorified Christ, it is the body of Christ. This is no figure of speech but an actual mystical union with Christ. It is no simile but real. He writes, since “it is an actual union with the incarnate person of Christ, who has a body—then we have reason to” affirm that “Paul’s body language is similarly realistic,” that is, it explains or points to a “reality.” The church is ”truly and actually” the body of Christ.

The importance of this point should not be undervalued. Cyril of Alexandria reminds us of its significance (quoted by Johnson): “So it is that the church is body of Christ, and we are its members. For since we are all united to Christ through this sacred body having received that one indivisible body into our own, our members are not our own but his.” The nature of our unity in the body is mystical because it is through our union with Christ. While the church continually seeks to embody that unity in visible forms, it often fails because we still live in the present age. Nevertheless, we are already united in Christ even as the church continually seeks communal sanctification. As disciples of Jesus, we seek to express this real mystical union with Christ and each other through visible and concrete means, though the process of sanctification continues and thus the visible unity is often flawed in its expression.

Union with Christ also entails that the sacraments have a realistic meaning. Water, bread, and wine “refer to, and bring us to participate in, the reality to which they point, namely, Jesus Christ.” In other words, the sacraments are not bare or empty signs but effective signs that provide a means of grace by which we participate in the reality of Christ himself. Thus, “God employs visible, created, physical means to save us and bless us,” and this is true only because Christ is the foundational sacrament (incarnated in the flesh) and the Spirit effectively uses creation to distribute grace. Thus, as Johnson writes, “Christ is the sacramental presence of God mediated to us (through faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit) in Word and sacrament.” This is a renewal of historic Reformed (in the Calvin tradition rather than the Zwingli one) understanding of the sacraments. Alexander Campbell himself was an heir of this Calvinian tradition (he even approvingly quotes Calvin on baptism, for example; cf. “Calvin on Baptism,” Millennial Harbinger 4 [November 1833], 543-47, ending the article with this statement: “We leave it to the good sense of the reader, whether John Calvin ought not to be called a Campbellite as well as the Apostle Peter”). Indeed, in the visible church and its sacraments, we concretely and visibly participate in Christ through our union wit Christ.

This particular summary near the end of the book provides a helpful perspective which permeates this book:  “The union [with Christ] does not exist merely in our minds or wills, it is not merely a legal or moral union, and neither is it a mere mental assent to the saving word of Christ in the past. It is, rather, a union with the present, living Lord Jesus Christ in the fullness of his saving person, and it occurs through (without being reduced to) faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit. This means, of course, that in order to save us, Christ must have been really, personally present to us. He, in his own person, gathered us into himself so that we might enjoy all the benefits he secured for us.”

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