The Gospel Coalition

 

Union with Christ

Robert Letham | Review by: Marcus Johnson



Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2011. 208 pages. $17.99.

Union with Christ is a terrifically significant theme in the Bible and in the theological expression of the reformational, evangelical tradition—John Calvin, for example, accorded union with Christ “the highest degree of importance.” It is no small wonder then that contemporary, accessible treatments on union with Christ are difficult to locate (although very fine scholarly treatments are becoming available: see esp. W.B. Evans, Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology; Mark Garcia, Life in Christ: Union with Christ and Twofold Grace in Calvin’s Theology). We now have Robert Letham to thank for beginning to address this theological lacuna. His most recent work, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology, although relatively succinct (141 pages of text), is still quite vast in scope and depth. Letham’s intention for this book is basically twofold: (i) to demonstrate the significance of union with Christ across the spectrum of God’s redemptive purposes, and (ii) to describe what it actually means to be united to Christ. 

 

To accomplish the first task, Letham opens with chapters on creation, incarnation, and Pentecost. Each of these epochal events, he argues, show us that God’s ultimate redemptive purposes are bound up with, and achieved, as he unites us to himself in Christ. Thus, God’s creative purpose in designing us for himself in his image has the goal of uniting us to Jesus Christ, the true image of the invisible God. In the incarnation, the eternal Word of God assumed our human nature into personal union so that we might be joined to him. At Pentecost, the Spirit comes to realize God’s purposes by indwelling us and bringing us into union with Christ.

 

In the final three chapters Letham accomplishes the second, more daunting, task of articulating the meaning of union with Christ, which he does in terms of representation, transformation, and death and resurrection. The chapter on representation allows Letham to discuss union with Christ by way of covenant headship and substitution, highlighting the doctrines of atonement, election and especially justification, all of which are founded on our representative union with Christ. The chapter on transformation, the longest in the book, expounds union with Christ in terms of sanctification and theosis, or what it means to say that we are growing into conformity to Christ. The final chapter describes the eschatological nature of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection and its present effects in the lives of Christians.

 

Among the number of important insights found in this study, the following represent those that are, in my view, the most significant for the contemporary evangelical church. The first insight is Letham’s able demonstration that union with Christ lies at the heart of Christian salvation—indeed, that union with Christ is central to biblical soteriology. Whether we speak of election, atonement, justification, or sanctification (or any other aspect of salvation), all are grounded in the determinative reality of being joined to the Savior. This is a needed reminder for the church, lest it lose sight of the fact that Jesus Christ is himself our salvation and that his benefits cannot be abstracted from his person. 

 

The second insight is Letham’s much-appreciated stress on the soteriological import of the incarnation of the Word of God, reminding us that the very theo-logic of salvation is wrapped up in the mystery of the incarnate God-man. The incarnation shows us in the clearest possible way that God’s redemptive intention is to join us to himself through the life-giving humanity of Jesus Christ. The incarnation, in Letham’s words, “is the indispensable basis for our union with Christ. Since Christ has united himself to us in the incarnation, we can be united to him by the Holy Spirit” (40). When evangelical theology loses sight of the saving significance of the incarnation, it is bound to myopically stress forensic, substitutionary understandings of salvation at the expense of the personal, participatory reality that undergirds them. 

 

The third insight is Letham’s unfolding of the meaning of union with Christ. By focusing on the doctrine of theosis as it has been variously understood in the history of the church, Letham shows that there is a thoroughly Reformed and evangelical (not to mention patristic) pedigree for the assertion that the union believers have with Christ exceeds merely legal or symbolic notions—it is a union with the very person of Jesus Christ. This does not mean, he rightly insists, that we participate in God’s essence, that we become “deified” or something other than human. But it does mean that—through faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and through the preached and sacramental Word —we become authentically human by participating in the present Jesus Christ himself. I cannot help but wonder of the benefits that might accrue to our churches if we were to re-appropriate this crucial aspect of our evangelical heritage.

 

This book is an important contribution in a number of senses. Letham has provided us an affordable and generally accessible text—not merely introductory, though also not pedantic—on a highly significant theological topic that has been strangely neglected and misunderstood. As we have come to expect from Letham, this book is clearly written, profound without being obtuse, and rich with historical insight. His writing is suffused with a pastoral and doxological tone, a mark to which all theological works should aspire (and which honors the very purpose of theology). In my view, this present work does not attain the heights of his earlier and similarly titled work on the Trinity (The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, and Theology), but it most certainly serves the purpose of awakening us to the fundamental importance of union with Christ for a properly biblical, historical, and theological understanding of salvation. It is to be hoped that the reformational, evangelical church will reflect deeply on what Letham has written here. 

 

When the church loses sight of the essential saving reality of being truly joined to Jesus Christ, it runs the risk of an (unintentional) subtle dichotomizing of the person and work of Christ in which salvation is portrayed in rather abstract, extrinsic, and impersonal terms. The effect is that salvation begins to be “objectified,” viewed as the reception of various benefits or gifts of Christ’s work that can be received apart from a reception of the living, crucified, resurrected Christ—Christ for us apart from Christ in us. Without the proper emphasis on our union with Christ, our understanding of salvation can devolve into a gift that Christ gives rather than the gift that Christ is. My hope is that Letham’s book is a blessing to the church and that it calls us to a retrieval of a theme so deeply imbedded in our Christian heritage, to the “glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col.1:27).

 

Marcus Johnson (Ph.D. St. Michaels College, University of Toronto) is assistant professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, IL. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Christ in You, the Hope of Glory:  A Theology of Union with Christ (Crossway Books).



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