Essay / Theology

Union with Christ and Two Types of Christians

It seems to me that there are basically two types of Christians. I know that’s a silly statement to make, since there must be dozens of meaningful categories to sort Christians into: doctrinal, denominational, sociological, temperamental, left-handed, and so on. But what I have in mind is the central issue of soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. When it comes to how people understand salvation, there is a watershed that marks some as believers of one type and some as believers of another type. The watershed is union with Christ.

The New Testament idea of salvation is that God has dealt with us by dealing with Jesus Christ: that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ are the place where God the Father took hold of human nature to save it, dealt with sin decisively, and poured out his Spirit without reserve. Then and there God and man became intimately united, and worked out the grievances that threatened to overturn their covenant relationship. In Christ, God was so overwhelmingly active and available that once and for all the second half of the covenant was kept: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” It all happened in the life, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Since it’s all accomplished in the life of Jesus, our salvation is a matter of being joined to him or united to him, or as Paul says succinctly: being “in Christ.” God apparently has two steps for saving people:

1. Accomplish salvation in Christ, and
2. Put people into Christ.

As Paul says in First Corinthians 1:30, “because of him you are in Christ Jesus,” (ESV) which could be rendered “by God’s doing you are in Christ,” or as the KJV has it, “of him are ye in Christ Jesus.”

This fact of union with Christ is the core of all the best theology in all the church’s divisions and departments. John Calvin put it classically when, having finished a thorough treatment of the work of God in Christ, he opened the third book of The Institutes with these words:

We must now see in what way we become possessed of the blessings which God has bestowed on his only-begotten Son, not for private use, but to enrich the poor and needy. And the first thing to be attended to is, that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us. Accordingly, he is called our Head, and the first-born among many brethren, while, on the other hand, we are said to be ingrafted into him and clothed with him, all which he possesses being, as I have said, nothing to us until we become one with him. (Institutes, III.1)

Salvation begins and ends in union with Christ, and all the blessings of salvation flow naturally from that union.

I hope that this is familiar territory to you, and that even though it might be helpful to hear Paul and Calvin called in as witnesses, that they are testifying to something you already knew. But I want to sharpen the point a bit, which is why I began by referring to two kinds of Christians.

The fact is that everyone who is saved is saved by union with Christ, but the division comes in between those who know that this is how salvation works, and those who have some other notion of salvation. If you don’t grasp and retain the fact that Christ saves by joining us to himself, you decline into some sort of soteriology that is simply sub-Christian. Examples are woefully plentiful, but here are the two most common.

Deficient soteriology type A: Rather than centering everything on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, some people conceive of salvation as essentially a here-and-now encounter in which they cry out to a higher power who hears their cry and performs an act of deliverance. The higher power is Jesus, and he has feelings of love toward you. How is this present act of deliverance related to the life of Jesus back then? At best, this soteriology thinks of the past event as a transaction which gives the present Christ his rights or abilities to save now, perhaps by settling an account with God. The emphasis for this soteriology falls on the emotional attitude of this present higher power toward the believer: Jesus loves me. One way to see the difference between this soteriology and the biblical one is to mark how Paul speaks of the love of Jesus for the believer:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, ESV)

The present-encounter soteriology says “Jesus loves me” in the present tense, but Paul hangs everything on the past tense of “Jesus loved me.” The present-encounter soteriology (like all soteriological self-misunderstandings by Christians) is maddeningly close to the truth: We do cry out to the powerful and present Jesus who does love us and will save here and now. But he saves us now and loves us now because he is the same yesterday and today, and because God places us in Christ so that we go to the cross and come out of the tomb in him. Galilee, Gethsemane, and Calvary are not just distant events in the prior biography of our present savior. Christ is present to us in the power of that finished work, and our salvation has the shape of dying and rising with him.

Which brings us to Deficient soteriology type B: This way of viewing salvation is focused on finding the right church with the right sacraments. Jesus started a spiritual organization which is still in existence, and it administers water baptism and communion with bread and wine. Locating this church from among the plethora of options and getting into contact with the proper sacraments is what matters. I have less to say about this soteriology because its inadequacy is more obvious. It’s the classic case of the sacramental tail wagging the soteriological dog: if this is the way sacraments matter, then nothing else matters and there is no such thing as a doctrine of salvation that isn’t identical with locating the right sacraments.

What is so frustrating about this deficient soteriology is that it is obsessed with tasting and handling the Christ-ordained rituals whose very meaning is union with Christ: baptism in water means burial and resurrection with Christ; the bread and wine mean actual partaking of the body and blood of Christ rather than notional assent to facts about him. Yet these symbols can so easily go opaque, and threaten to mean themselves rather than the things they signify. People who lapse into this soteriological self-misunderstanding are so close (much closer in many cases than the rival soteriology considered above) to recognizing union with Christ. In fact they recognize the form, but misunderstand the content.

In both cases, the deficient soteriologies are generated by Christians who have in fact been brought into union with Christ. They have probably even seen the fact of their union with Christ at some point –say perhaps Easter– but they have over-written it with a deficient soteriology which they impose on scripture day after day (either through mental slackness or, occasionally, with tremendous exertions of exegetical acrobatics). The two deficient soteriologies mentioned above (speaking very roughly you could call them a Baptist type and a Catholic type) are constantly fighting with each other, but it is usually a cases of “ignorant armies that clash by night” and an angry friction that generates more heat than light. For example, think of how they fight over whether grace is imputed by divine judicial declaration (“not guilty because I said so!”) or infused by sacramental operation. If they were to recognize consistently that the foundation of soteriology is union with Christ, however, they could have the kind of fight from which somebody might learn something. Here’s a sample question: How does God accomplish our union with Christ?

a. Forensically
b. Organically
c.Materially
d. Mystically
e. Spiritually
f. _________________

(the correct answer, by the way, is both a and e, but you have to specify what you mean by e)

In the final analysis, there’s only one kind of Christian: a person who is united to Christ. But the dividing line runs between those who are united to Christ and know it, and those who are united to Christ but labor under a drastic self-misunderstanding. May these deficient soteriologies gives way to the truth! May the eyes of our hearts be opened so we can see the power of God toward us who believe, in accordance with the power which he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his own right hand (Eph. 1:18-21).

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