Results tagged “union with Christ” from Reformation21 Blog

The word "liturgy" continues to be a trendy--yet often indeterminate--buzzword among young(er-ish) Christians. This is especially so with regard to those who have recently made the shift away from broad evangelicalism and toward historic worship practices of Christendom. Alongside this phenomenon lies the ever present willingness of many professedly Protestant churches to embrace, either in part or whole, the liturgical calendar for the structuring of their worship services. One can see the apparent appeal. After all, many have suggested that the Liturgical Calendar offers a recognition of the organic unity of Scripture centered on the redemptive-historical nature of Christ's saving work and participated in through the corporate worship of God's people. But is this actually the case? Does the Liturgical Calendar enhance or undermine the redemptive historical nature of Christ's saving work? 

Not surprisingly, many Anglicans--at one and the same time--acknowledge the lack of biblical support for a liturgical calendar while insisting upon a pragmatic adaptation of it. For instance, N.T. Wright suggests:

"There is nothing ultimately obligatory for a Christian about the keeping of holy days or seasons. Paul warns the Galatians against adopting the Jewish liturgical calendar (Gal. 4:10)...However, many churches have found that by following the liturgical year in the traditional way they have a solid framework within which to live the Gospels, the Scripture and the Christian life. The Bible offers itself to us as a great story, a sprawling and complex narrative, inviting us to come in and make it our own. The Gospels, the very heart of Scripture, likewise tell a story not merely to give us information about Jesus but in order to provide a narrative that we can inhabit, a story we must make our own. This is one way we can become the people God calls us to be."1

While adherents of the liturgical calendar frequently insist that it aids our experience of the redemptive historical nature of Christ's work, the opposite actually proves to be the case. When we subject ourselves to a temporal recapitulation of Jesus' life and labors--from incarnation to baptism to wilderness testing to death to resurrection to ascension and to Pentecost--we end up undermining the full, rich implications of the once-for-all nature of that saving work. We run the risk of bifurcating the work of Christ. 

In doing so, we can also illegitimately make the Gospel something that we do rather than something done by Christ for us and received by faith alone. Strict adherence to the Liturgical Calendar puts us in danger of forfeiting the privilege that we have to live the Christian life in light of the full realization of what we already definitively possess in union with Christ--rather than seek to fulfill or appropriate it by our own experience.  When one intimates that we have to recapitulate the events of redemptive history in order to live the Christian life, he or she functionally denies those aspects of the Messianic ministry that are foundational to the "already" of our experience as believers. As Roland Barnes notes: 

"The Liturgical Calendar can be spiritually stunting insofar as it asks believers to suspend their living in the light of the finished work of Christ as they march along from incarnation to resurrection and ascension throughout the calendar. The Reformed observance of the weekly sabbath and the regular practice of expository, Christocentric preaching emphasizes that we are now living in the full realization of the finished work of Christ. Each Lord's Day we celebrate the fact that 'He is Risen!' We live each Lord's Day in the light of the triumph of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus."2

To prove this point, I'll share a story. A number of years ago, I was rebuked by a strict proponent of the Liturgical Calendar for preaching a passage of Scripture on the birth narrative on the first Sunday of Advent. His response to hearing that I had done so was, "Not yet!" That example serves to illustrate the hinderance that the Liturgical Calendar can have to our living the life of faith in light of the full realization of what we already have in our union with Christ. When we say, "not yet" to the fulfillment of all things in the finished work o f Jesus, we are in danger of laying aside our privilege of entering in on the application of the benefits of that once-for-all accomplished work.

A consideration of Reformed and Protestant thought on the Liturgical Calendar will also be of use to us as we consider whether we should adhere to it or not. However widespread adherence to the Liturgical Calendar may be in our day in Protestant and Reformed churches, it is far from the majority view of the continental Reformers, English Puritans and Post-Reformation scholastics. The Reformers' aversion to the observation of a liturgical calendar was built on their supposition that the Lord's Day was biblically sanctioned while "holy days" were rooted in the self-righteous Roman Catholic penitential system. In his monumental work, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures (vol. 5), Hughes Oliphant Old explained:

"Discontinuing the penitential seasons of preparation for Christmas and Easter was one of the first reforms of Reformed Protestantism. This may seem radical to some, but it is at the heart of the Reformed approach to worship. The whole history of these seasons of fasting had been marked by a legalistic asceticism which is far removed from Christian piety as taught in the New Testament. While specifically Reformed churches have been characterized by their avoidance of Lent and Advent, few Protestants find the kind of asceticism implied by these observances consistent with the teaching of Jesus. Most Protestants have found the old observances of Lent and Advent terribly reminiscent of the piety of the Pharisees which Jesus so explicitly condemned. The objection to Lent and Advent is that they overemphasize the penitential dimension of Christian devotion."3

"So, is it wrong for Protestants to focus in a special way on specific elements of Christ's saving saving work during seasons like Christmas and Easter?" This is, no doubt, a question brewing in the minds of any reading this post. At New Covenant, we loosely celebrate Advent with a month long sermon series on the incarnation and the second coming. At Easter, I preach a sermon from a particular passage about the resurrection of Christ. The reason is simple: The birth and resurrection of Jesus are crucial elements of His redeeming work. In that sense it is always spiritually beneficial to give them a focused place in our preaching. Barnes again notes:

"We can celebrate the incarnation during the Christmas Season (Advent), but we do so only in light of the fact that the incarnated Son is now our Risen Lord. We do not enter into worship during the months between Christmas and Easter waiting for a resurrected Savior. We come each Lord's Day to celebrate His resurrection and triumph over sin, death, and hell. At worse the calendar holds believers back from the celebration of the resurrection until Easter, or at best it subdues their celebration. The weekly celebration of the resurrection reminds us that the babe that was born in Bethlehem is our triumphant Lord, that He suffered so that we would be spared judgment for our sins, that the veil of the Temple was rent in two and that we enter in to the very Holy of Holies each Lord's Day as we gather for worship."4

Wherever one falls on the spectrum of adherence to elements of the Liturgical Calendar, we must learn to live our Christian lives constantly in light of the once-for-all atoning death and resurrection of Jesus. We must always live and worship in dependence on the One who ascended to the right hand of the Father and is our great High Priest ever living to make intercession for us. We must live our Christian life in union with the One who cried out "It is finished," even as we anticipate His return. All of our worship practices must coincide with those truths and must be derived squarely from the prescriptive elements of Scripture and the example of the Apostles. To that end, it will be an enormous benefit for us to submerse ourselves in the Scriptures and in the rich repository of Reformed, Puritan and Post-Reformation writings on worship. 


1. N.T. Wright For All the Saints? (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2003) p. 24

2. An excerpt from Roland Barnes' article, "The Practice of Lent in the Reformed Tradition" in The Confessional Presbyterian (vol. 10) 2014. 

3. Hughes Oliphant Old The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures, vol. 5, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004) pp. 60-61.

4. Ibid.

Unity in Multi-Categorical Diversity in the Church

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Without in any way wishing to take away from the ongoing conversation about the dire need for the church in North America to focus on attaining unity among ethnic diversity by means of the Gospel, I have long felt the challenge of fostering Gospel-unity and fellowship among existing diverse categories of people groups in the local church. 

Having been in ministry now for nearly a decade, I have observed a series of what seem like insurmountable obstacles to uniting diverse members of the church in fellowship. It is incumbent on pastors and church members to pursue growth in specific areas where Scripture calls for spiritual growth and vitality in the body of Christ. The Apostle Paul had this in mind when he charged the members of the church in Rome, Corinth and Ephesus to use the diversity of gifts that God had given them for the building up of the body as a whole (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12-14; Eph. 4). As I survey the landscape of the church in our day, I see four categories--in addition to ethnicity and spiritual giftedness--where there is a need for greater unity among the diversity of members in the church: 

1. Socioeconomic. The Scriptures have much to say about the implications of the Gospel on financial diversity in the church. The early church modeled what it looks like for the Spirit of God to work among the people of God of differing socioeconomic standing (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32). One of the great pastoral problems with which the Apostle James dealt in his epistle was the issue of the rich in the church showing disdain for and partiality to the poor in the church (James 1:9-11; 2:1-13). The Apostle Paul also warned against the way in which the rich in the church of Corinth had begun to discriminate against the poor at the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:21-22). 

The Gospel unites rich and poor when both groups recognize that they need the same atoning blood for the redemption of their souls. When we come to the law concerning ransom money in the book of Exodus, we read, "The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when you give an offering to the Lord to make atonement for yourselves" (Ex. 30:15). Both rich and poor need the precious blood of Jesus as the ransom price of their souls. The Law of God also revealed how showing partiality to the poor in his dispute (Ex. 23:3) or perverting the justice of the poor in his dispute was wicked in the sight of God (Ex. 23:6). The rich and the poor are to be dealt with by the same need for redemption and the same standard of justice. God shows no partiality in meting out justice to rich and poor. 

Unity of fellowship between the rich and the poor is not easily accomplished in the church. The poor of the church must not distance themselves from the rich in the church out of a sense of shame or pride; and, the rich of the church must not distance themselves from the poor in the church out of a sense of superiority or desire for status. In the church, the rich and the poor need one another. After all, the Scriptures reveal the following: "God has chosen the poor of the world to be in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love him" (James 2:5). The rich of the church often have much to glean from the spiritual-mindedness and example of faith from financially impoverished members of the body. By way of contrast, the poor in the church must allow themselves to be cared for by the generosity of the rich in the church. What a beautiful expression of Gospel unity when these things begin to take shape in a congregation of believers. 

2. Personality. There is a need for us to pursue unity among diversity of personalities in the church. Herman Banvick once made the astute observation about how God sanctifies and uses individual personalities in the body of Christ. He wrote:

Regeneration does not erase individuality, personality or character, but sanctifies it and puts it at the service of God's name. The community of believers is the new humanity that bears within itself a wide range of variety and distinction and manifests the richest diversity in unity.1 

It is far too easy for us to like those who are like us and to grow frustrated with those whose personalities are different than ours. 

Additionally, we must never confuse God's standard of holiness with our standard of personality. To do so is a sure recipe for divisive judgmentalism. We are called to love those whose personalities are different from ours--and to use our own personalities to benefit others. 

We see the way differing personalities worked to the benefit of the members of the apostolic band. The Apostle Peter and the Apostle John were two men with very different personalities; yet, they often spent time together for the sake of the advancement of the Kingdom of God. They ran together to the tomb (John 20:4). One almost gets the sense that they balanced each another out in ministry. No doubt, John admired Peter's boldness. Peter obviously looked on John's affectionate personality with admiration--and at times even sinful jealousy (John 21:20-21). 

Our Lord Jesus knit us together into a body of believers with all the strengths and weaknesses of our different personalities. While Jesus had a perfectly balanced personality and a personality that was perfectly sanctified by the presence of the Holy Spirit in His life and ministry, we--by way of contrast--will always have imbalanced and sin-tainted personalities. We need to learn to bear with one another and pray for one another (Eph. 4:2). I am sure that Simon Peter got a few eye rolls from members of the church, but when he was arrested "constant prayer was made for him by the church" (Acts 12:5). The church needs extroverts and introverts, those who have a natural boldness and those with a natural gentleness--all being sanctified by the word and Spirit of God. 

3. Personal Interest. In his masterful 1944 speech, "The Inner Ring," C.S. Lewis explained: "There must be confidential discussions: and it is not only not a bad thing, it is (in itself) a good thing, that personal friendship should grow up between those who work together." The same is true in the church. However, there tends to be a propensity for those in the church to form friendships exclusively on the basis of having similar interests with particular members of the church. When friendships in the church are formed predominantly on the basis of mutually benefiting one another socially--to the exclusion of forming spiritual friendships with others in the church--there is a unity problem that needs to be addressed. This is the essence of the problem of cliques forming in a church. 

Segregation in the body on account of interest can also happen when close-knit families choose to isolate themselves from the rest of the body. Members of the church need to intentionally invite into their homes members with whom they do not seem to have similar interests. When this happens, we will usually find that we have more in common with others in the body than we first thought. 

This problem can also manifest itself in church members of similar stage of life. The church is full of singles, widows, those married without children, those married with children and elderly. While there is value in churches seeking to create an atmosphere in which singles can spend time together in a focused way, or young married couples can get together and talk about unique aspects of their particular stage of life, church members at various stages of life shouldn't remain segregated because of lack of common "stage-of-life" interest. The members of the church should be reaching out to those in different stages of life than that in which they are at present. 

4. Generational. The Scriptures are clear that the fellowship among the members of the church is multi-generational in nature. The older men and older women are called to pour out their lives in service to the younger generation of believers. Paul charged the older men in the church to model godly live for the younger men of the church (Titus 2:2, 6). He then charged the older women to "admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed" (Titus 2:4-5). The younger members of the church need the example and wisdom of the older members and the older members need the zeal, excitement and care of the younger members of the church. 

As we work toward preserving unity in diversity (Eph. 4:1) in the church, we will start to see more of the beauty of the Gospel and of the Lord Jesus who has united us to Himself and to one another in His body. Christ is glorified by the realization of this loving unity in the church, and the entire body of believers is benefited by it.

1. Herman Bavinck Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church and New Creation (Grand Rapdis: Baker Academic, 2008) vol.4 p. 640

Nick Batzig is the organizing pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Savannah, Ga and the editor of Reformation 21. Nick writes regularly for Tabletalk Magazine and blogs at Feeding on Christ and the Christward Collective. Nick is also the host of East of Eden: The Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards. You can friend him on Facebook or following him on Twitter at @nick_batzig.

The Act & Habit of Faith in Relation to Union with Christ

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I've been meaning to write a book on important theological distinctions and how they can be of practical use to ministers and lay Christians. In the past I've discussed the distinction between God's absolute power and God's ordained power. Today I want to talk about the distinction between the act and the habit of faith in relation to union with Christ.

The act-habit distinction is pretty much the same concept as the act-power distinction. God grants the power, but we perform the act. So John Flavel: "though faith (which we call the condition on our part) be the gift of God, and the power of Believing be derived from God; yet the act of believing is properly our act..."

In other words, it is insufficient to merely possess the habit of faith in order to be justified; we must also produce an act of faith to be justified. True, the habit of faith enables us to believe; but we must really believe (i.e., it is our own act).

Peter Bulkeley argued that "the habit is freely given us, and wrought in us by the Lord himself, to enable us to act by it, and to live the life of faith; and then we having received the gift, the habit, then (I say) the Lord requires of us that we should put forth acts of faith." 

We are passive when God grants us the habit of faith. But upon receiving the habit of faith, we are then able to believe, and are therefore "active." How does this relate to union with Christ? 

Goodwin's The Object and Act of Justifying Faith is helpful in answering this question. In it, he speaks of the act of the will completing the union between Christ and the believer, which makes believers "ultimately one with him." 

However, as the bride, we are simply confirming a union that has taken place. So, contrary to the common view of marriage, which requires the consent of both partners since a man (usually) cannot marry a woman against her will, there is a spiritual union on Christ's part to the elect that does not require assent from the sinner "because it is a secret work done by his Spirit, who doth first apprehend us before we apprehend him." 

That is to say, Christ establishes a union with the elect sinner by "apprehending" him and then giving the Spirit to him. But this union is only complete ("ultimate union") when the sinner exercises faith in Christ. 

"It is true indeed the union on Christ's part is in order of nature first made by the Spirit; therefore Phil. 3:12, he is said first to 'comprehend us before we can comprehend him'; yet that which makes the union on our part is faith, whereby we embrace and cleave to him.... It is faith alone that doth it. Love indeed makes us cleave to him also, but yet faith first." (Note: The learned Bishop Davenant also argues the act and habit of faith precede the act and habit of love).

Goodwin is at his finest when he speaks of Christ "taking," "apprehending," and "comprehending" the sinner. Christ "takes hold of us before we believe" and "works a thousand and a thousand operations in our souls to which our faith concurs nothing...Christ dwells in us and works in us, when we act not and know not our union, nor that it is he that works." Before the new believer is aware, our Lord unites us to Himself ("takes hold of us") and works in us. 

As Witsius says, "By a true and real union, (but which is only passive on their part,) [the elect] are united to Christ when his Spirit first takes possession of them, and infuses into them a principle of new life: the beginning of which life can be from nothing else but from union with the Spirit of Christ...Further, since faith is an act flowing from the principle of spiritual life, it is plain, that in a sound sense, it may be said, an elect person is truly and really united to Christ before actual faith.

Witsius sounds very much like Goodwin and Owen in insisting that the elect are united to Christ when Christ's Spirit "takes possession of them" and regenerates them. And he likewise affirms that union precedes actual faith. But then he makes a similar point to Goodwin's, namely, that a "mutual union" inevitably follows from the principle of regeneration:

"But the mutual union, (which, on the part of an elect person, is likewise active and operative), whereby the soul draws near to Christ, joins itself to him, applies, and in a becoming and proper manner closes with him without any distraction, is made by faith only. And this is followed in order by the other benefits of the covenant of grace, justification, peace, adoption, sealing, perseverance, etc."

Not only is the "mutual union" emphasized by the act of faith in the sinner, but also by the fact that the benefits of the covenant of grace (e.g., justification) flow out of this union.

Pastorally:

1. The faith that justifies is really our faith, which is why we are justified. The act of faith becomes the instrumental cause whereby we receive the righteousness of Christ. Our act does not justify, but our act of faith is necessary for God to justify us.

2. The faith that justifies is, however, enabled by the power (habitus) that God freely (graciously) grants to us, apart from works. 
 
Hence, we avoid the antinomian error whereby Christ believes for us; and we avoid the legalist error whereby we contend that faith is not a result of the natural capacity of man. And we hold that justification is an act of God that can never be revoked because the habit is formed by God himself so that he may impute to us Christ's righteousness because our act of faith is the instrument which enables us to receive full justification (WCF 11.2). 

In relation to union, we hold that Christ, in his grace, first takes a hold of us and then enables us to take a hold of him in the act of believing. When this is done, and only when this is done, are we justified and ultimate union takes place. But we only unite ourselves to Christ because he first united himself to us. 

There are a lot of other distinctions related to the doctrine of justification that warrant further discussion. But I am constantly amazed at how the most sophisticated theologians that I have read have done me the most pastoral good. That's why Seminaries might do well to have their best theologians in the PT departments!

Union Mania!

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As a supplement to Paul Levy's notice about Dr. Letham's book on union with Christ, readers of Ref21 might be interested in the audio of a fall conference held recently at Calvary Church of Amwell in Ringoes, New Jersey, called "Alive in Christ: Saving Union with Christ" (scroll to the bottom of the link for the Mp3s; or, for cleaner versions, go here). The speakers were Drs. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. and Lane G. Tipton, both of whom see covenant union with Christ as the indispensable context of our election, the cross work of Christ, saving faith, together with every benefit of redemption, including justification, sanctification, and adoption. I've been enjoying listening my way through and especially recommend Dr. Gaffin's "Biblical Overview" on the topic of union.

As many are no doubt aware, there is a lively debate among the Reformed (both past and present) over whether or not a forensic benefit of redemption (i.e., justification) should be conceived as preceding (either temporally, logically, or causally) transformatory aspects of redemption (e.g., regeneration, sanctification) in the life experience of the believer. Some will even want to see justification preceding and effecting mystical union with Christ itself. To put it a bit differently, does the Reformation's emphasis on justification in its historical polemic against Rome match up with a deeper structural reality in the application of redemption? Or are the believer's vindication before the bar of God's justice and his Spirit-wrought liberation from sin's enslaving power equally basic, distinct, inseparable, and simultaneous benefits applied in the context of faith union with the risen Christ? In my mind, this is a debate worth having, with many significant and very real implications not only for our understanding of salvation, but for the kind of pastoral guidance we give to those struggling with shame, assurance, besetting sins, and more.  

As a disclaimer to Levy (who observed the "plain-Jane" cover titles to Letham's books), the titles of the lectures in this link aren't much to go for either (e.g., "Regeneration," "Sanctification")--but only if one prioritizes the fleeting dialectical play of fragmenting, flamboyant aesthetics in book/lecture titles over the enduring theological substance of Reformed Christianity...