Reformed Communion

The Church in Our Time: Nurturing Congregations of Faithful Presence (Part 6)

iv. The Complex Meaning of Union with Christ

Of the many glories of Christian confession the greatest, surely, is this: That in Jesus Christ, God makes His life with us.  It is this confession that throughout the centuries has confounded the wise, cast down the proud, ennobled the suffering, enveloped the lonely, and liberated the tongues of a hundred thousand choirs.

And so it should.  Human beings were made for God: He is our original desire, our deepest pleasure, and our truest home. And yet because of sin, we are estranged from Him and this estrangement is the sorrow at the heart of all our sorrows. But the Bible teaches that because of His great love for us, God came to us in Jesus Christ.  And He did this so that those who are estranged from Him by sin might be once again united to Him by grace.   Alleluia. 

Because life with God is our original desire, and estrangement from Him is our enduring wound, it is hardly surprising that in Christian theology, union with Him in Jesus Christ is our abiding theme.  And so it is.  In Paul’s early meditations on being hidden in Christ, Ignatius of Antioch’s teachings on suffering in Christ, Athanasius’ musings on the world’s healing in Christ, Augustine’s search to find rest in Christ, Benedict’s labor to walk in Christ, Bernard’s desire to be caught up in Christ, Luther’s insistence on righteousness in Christ, Calvin’s wonder at the mystery of life in Christ, Teresa of Avila’s longing for the embrace of Christ, Owen’s celebration of divine communion in Christ, Bavinck’s insistence on the world’s significance in Christ, Bonhoeffer’s reflections on dying with Christ—and many, many more—we see that union with Christ is the central mystery to which Christian reflection is irrepressibly is drawn.

And yet it remains the case that in much of the contemporary church, union with Christ—when it is considered at all—is often plagued by the tendency to reduce the depth of its meaning to one of its constituent themes. This tendency takes several shapes:

First, in the reduction of union with Christ to a merely legal reality.  This rendering—animated by convictions of divine justice and articulated in the language of human courts—sees union with Christ primarily through the lens of the problem between human sin and divine righteousness.  In union with Christ, the guilt of the sinner is transferred to Christ, and the righteousness of Christ is transferred to the sinner through faith.  It is, in other words, an essentially judicial union. Secondly, in the reduction of union with Christ to a merely ethical reality.  This rendering—animated by a conviction of human calling and articulated in the language of divine summons—sees union with Christ primarily as a Spirit-wrought life of imitatio Christi in which the believer takes on Christ’s character, adopts His life-pattern, walks in His steps, and participates in His mission. It is, in other words, an essentially moral union.  Thirdly, in the reduction of union with Christ to a merely experiential reality. This rendering—animated by a vision of divine love and articulated in the language of matrimonial embrace—sees union with Christ primarily as deep mystical communion between the Divine groom and His beloved bride.  It is, in other words, an essentially existential union.

There are great strengths to each of these perspectives.

On the one hand, they each represent something that is deeply biblical.  The legal view faithfully attends to the judicial overtones of the Scriptures—the covenant ceremonies of Genesis, the cultic laws of Leviticus, the prophetic visions of Israel’s exoneration, the tightly argued judicial metaphors of Paul, the sacrificial typologies of Hebrews, and—above all—the divine judgment displayed in the crucifixion of our Lord.  The ethical view accurately reflects the biblical summons to bear God’s image in the world—the original mandate given to Adam and Eve, the repeated call to love God’s law, the sober summons of the Sermon on the Mount, the morally perfect life of Jesus, and Peter’s call to follow in His steps.  The experiential view accurately reflects the deeply relational imagery of the Bible in which God relates to His people as father, mother, shepherd, spouse, and friend.  Each of these perspectives, in other words, faithfully reflects biblical themes of union with Christ.  

On the other hand, each is spiritually consoling.  The legal view—given the reality of our estrangement from a holy God, the judgment that flows from this estrangement, and the terrible shame that attends it—forever quiets our fears through its emphasis on a perfect righteousness given to us by faith.  The ethical view—given our creational orientation towards holiness, the corruption of our holiness through sin, and the misery that attends this corruption—comforts us by reminding us that we can even now, by the power of the Spirit, take on the very character of Christ.  The experiential view—given the depth of our yearning for God and the pain of our exile from His presence—enraptures us by reminding us that through Christ we may once again have sweet communion with the living God.  For these reasons, each of these aspects of union with Christ must be proclaimed with joy.

But, when taken in isolation, each of these themes has weaknesses as well. 

First, each—in itself—is biblically simplistic. The simple fact of the matter is that the Bible uses a variety of images in describing our union with Christ: familial, marital, military, legal, athletic, agricultural, ethical, etc.  To emphasize one of these images—no matter how personally significant or pastorally effective—to the exclusion of the others is to simplify the glorious complexity of the Biblical witness to our life with God.  If we are to speak of union with Christ in a way that reflects its deep meaning, we must labor to recover and proclaim the fullness of the Bible’s vision.

Secondly, each—in itself—is theologically inadequate.   The nature and meaning of union with God in Christ is the deep mystery and the great joy of theological inquiry.  As such, attending to this union requires every theological resource at our disposal—no single tool will do.  The legal theme for example, teaches us much about the way in which sinful human beings can be rightly and justly related to a holy God.  But it teaches us little about how God interacts with us on a daily basis, and little about what it means to follow Him and participate in His work in the world.  The ethical theme tells us a great deal about the shape of holy moral action in the world, and about the virtues required for such action.  But it teaches us little about the motivation for such action or about the power by which it is carried out.  The experiential theme teaches us much about the beautiful and mysterious quality of inner communion with God—with all of its joys and travails.  But it teaches us little about the basis upon which we come to commune with God in the first place or about the moral life to which communion obligates us.  Thus each of these themes—in spite of their respective strengths—is inadequate to support the deep theological meaning of union with Christ, and to emphasize any one of them to the exclusion of the others is to inevitably truncate this meaning.

Thirdly, each—in itself—is spiritually limiting.   Paul teaches us that God has called His people that they might be conformed to the image of His Son.  This is the great calling and final goal of union with Christ.  But faithfulness to this calling requires us to view this union in comprehensive terms.  Viewing union with Christ only through the legal lens leads us to embrace his righteous record by faith, but it teaches us neither to follow Jesus in concrete ways in the world, nor to relate to Jesus as a living person who communes with us.  Viewing union with Jesus through the ethical lens teaches us how to imitate His life in the world, but it does not teach us how to find forgiveness for our sins, or how to live with God in intimacy.  To view union with Jesus through the experiential lens teaches us how to commune with God, but it does not teach on what basis this communion happens, nor what kind of life this communion creates.  As such, each of these lenses, if taken by themselves, inevitably and sadly limit the spiritual life which they seek to nourish.

Because union with God through Jesus Christ is the central mystery, the animating power, and the ultimate goal of the Christian life, we must self-consciously labor to recover it as a theological foundation in our time.  To fail to do so is to ensure the deformation of the church.  But doing so will require us to attend to the deep meaning of union with Christ—not just to what He has done for us, or what He models to us, or what He shares with us—but to the glorious whole. 

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