One with Christ
Article byJune 2014
Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. 256 pp. $19.99/£12.99
Though I am not a Calvin scholar, there are few theologians who have influenced me as much, and consistently help me more than the great Reformer from Noyon. In his book, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation, Marcus Johnson has attempted to summarize and supplement Calvin's fundamental teaching on salvation vis-à-vis union with Christ. For that alone, we owe him a great debt. Beyond this, Johnson's book is a welcome contribution to the current burgeoning interest in the doctrine of union with Christ. In fact, the recent literature on union with Christ deserves a review article of its own. (1) Perhaps some aspiring young Ph.D. student will take me up on that challenge. In this review, however, I will simply summarize Johnson's main arguments, making a few editorial comments along the way, and then conclude with a series of pastoral reflections.
After an introduction and two ground-clearing (but nonetheless important) chapters, the book can be summarized under three main theological headings: christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. In large measure, the book is an argument that these three headings are inseparable. We will return to that point below.
Johnson begins the book with an introductory summary of where he is heading and why this book is necessary. Without delving into many particulars, Johnson is concerned about the "objectification of salvation," as he puts it. In short, many evangelical reformed-types (a category in which I happily place myself) are in danger of separating the person of Christ from the work of Christ (a danger to which I not so happily confess I am susceptible). The answer to this danger, Johnson argues throughout the book, is a robust understanding and application of the doctrine of union with Christ. Thus, in the first chapter, Johnson articulates the central thesis of the book: "The mysterious reality of our union with Jesus Christ, by which he dwells in us and we in him, is so utterly essential to the gospel that to obscure it inevitably leads to an obscuring of the gospel itself" (p.16). He adds a couple of pages later: "Our union with the living Christ is, in other words, what it means to be saved" (p.18). Thus, in the first two chapters, Johnson argues what union with Christ is--a "breathtaking, nearly unutterably glorious, deeply personal, profoundly real participation in the crucified, resurrected, living Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (p.57), why it is necessary--in brief, because of human sin, and how it is possible--because of the incarnation.
Much of chapter two revolves around Romans 5:12-19. After discussing the traditional federal and realist interpretations of this crucial passage, Johnson argues for a modified realist version, which he calls "Christological realism." It is this argument that is perhaps the book's most unique contribution, but also it is likely to be one of its most controversial points. Working backward from our "profoundly real" union with Christ, Johnson contends that God "imputes the sin of Adam to us in very much the same way that he imputes the righteousness of Christ to us: he regards it as ours because we really share in it" (p.73).
While I understand Johnson's logic, I am not certain that this argument maintains the tight parallel between the imputation of Adam's sin and the imputation of Christ's righteousness that the text demands. Apart from insisting that our union with Christ is in fact a real union (a point with which I certainly agree), it is not clear to me that our union with Adam is the same kind of "real." That is to say, our union with Christ is a mysterious reality. Our union with Adam is a seminal reality--the entire human race really was in his DNA, so to speak. While this is certainly a parallelism of sorts, I remain convinced that the language of Romans 5 requires a more precise parallel and that the federal headship view better accounts for this parallelism. Just as all who die in Adam are united to Adam as their federal, covenantal representative, so also all who live in Christ are united to Christ as their federal, covenantal representative. While granting the real danger of objectifying salvation, we must also let the text speak for itself. My concern with Johnson's reading of Romans 5 is that he is letting his definition of union with Christ color his interpretation rather than letting the text guide his definition. Could we not allow for a "Christological covenantal" reading in which Christ's covenantal representative role is the dominant emphasis in Romans 5 while also recognizing that union with Christ goes beyond the emphasis of this chapter?
Regardless of whether one agrees with his interpretation of Romans 5, most will find much to cheer in the middle four chapters. In this section, which is really the heart of the book, Johnson highlights the centrality of union with Christ for justification, sanctification, adoption/sonship, and in preservation and glorification. As I read these chapters, I repeatedly had to stop and put the book down, reflecting on how little I consider the reality of my own union with Christ and how much more this reality ought to shape the way I think about life and ministry. I also found myself frequently marking a paragraph or section, writing "good," "helpful," "fundamentally important" or some glowing superlative in the margin.
One of the most helpful arguments in this section was Johnson's reply to the common objection to imputation found in the writings of N.T. Wright and others. Johnson rightly observes, "If the objection to the doctrine of imputation rests on the notion that Christ's righteousness is transferred mechanically and extrinsically from him to believers--that is, the 'righteousness of Christ' is a quality or commodity that can exist apart from Christ's person--then I believe the objection is legitimate" (p.108). This of course brings to mind the well-known objection from Wright that "it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequeaths, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object, a substance or a gas which can be passed across the courtroom." (2) Johnson's citation from Calvin, however, is devastating to this caricature: "We do not . . . contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body--in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him." (3) That is to say, we have his righteousness because we have him.
The same could be said of our sanctification, sonship, preservation, and glorification. All of the benefits of salvation that are ours are already Christ's. And because they are Christ's, when we are united to him, we enjoy them. Of particular help to me was Johnson's description of glorification as a present-tense reality. "The glorification that we await is a participation in the glorified Christ to whom we have already been joined" (p.182). In other words, we are not waiting for the finality of glorification as much as we are awaiting the finality of our union with Christ. It is when that union is fully realized that we will be fully justified, sanctified, and glorified.
Much more could be said of Johnson's middle chapters; they are the theological heart of the book and I would commend them to any serious Christian. However, in the last two chapters, Johnson reflects on some of the implications of union with Christ in the life of the church. It is here that the inseparable links between christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology become plain. Johnson begins by discussing the way that our understanding of christology necessarily shapes our ecclesiology. As a consequence of union with Christ, Johnson makes a thoroughly evangelical (and convincing) argument that indeed there is no salvation outside the church. This is not because of some centralized authority in Rome or Avignon or Moscow or because of the authority that Christ has given to Peter or one of his many successors. Rather, there is no salvation outside of the church because there is no salvation outside of Christ, of whom the church is his body. Johnson concludes, "The church is a living, organic communion of those who have been united into the life of the crucified, resurrected, living Jesus Christ himself--the body of Christ and the mystery of the gospel" (p.211).
The necessary links between christology, soteriology, and ecclesiology continue in the final chapter. This chapter in particular should be of great value to those with a strictly "memorialist" view of communion as well as those who fear too frequent observation of the Supper might result in minimizing its significance. Johnson's main task in the chapter is to argue for a modified version of the Calvinist view of the sacraments. In short, Johnson contends, "To deny the true, sacramental presence of Christ in Word and sacrament is to implicitly deny that Christ continually gives himself to the church, his body" (p.217). After a short discussion of the "sacramental value" of baptism (because it results in real communion with Christ), Johnson focuses most of his attention on the Lord's Supper. It is perhaps in this chapter that Calvin's influence finds its clearest expression, for Johnson goes to great lengths to defend the great Reformer against misunderstandings of his view of the Lord's Supper while also providing a positive articulation of Calvin's view. For Calvin (and for Johnson and, I would argue, for the Bible), "Christ is truly present to bless and nourish us with his life-giving flesh and blood in the visible word of the Supper" (p.234). The real presence of Christ is the Supper is not a "sacramentalism" per se, but rather an extension of Calvin's soteriology. Although it is a mystery, through the Lord's Supper, the grace of God realized in our union with Christ is specially and particularly mediated. Because of this mediated grace, Johnson argues, "There is no more reason to fear idolatrous excesses in the Supper than there is to fear such excesses in our understanding of the Bible, preaching, or faith" (p.237). While it is not immediately clear to me whether the grace mediated through the Supper is of a different sort than the grace mediated through the preached Word, my inclination is to say that it is not.
We could add many more observations and commendations from this volume; however, you will forgive me if I conclude with a just few somewhat reflective observations. First, I fully recognize the problem could simply be my own density, but after spending a fair amount of time reading this book and pondering it, I am still not sure I completely understand union with Christ. But then again, I am not certain we will ever fully understand union with Christ. It is a glorious mystery, one about which I happily submit to continue learning!
Next, low-church evangelicals like myself need to keep working to apply the doctrine of union with Christ to our ecclesiology. In the preaching of the Word, in baptism, and in the celebration of the Lord's Supper, God does indeed convey grace in a special way and Christ indeed is present in a particular manner. My concern is that our fear of "sacramental Romanism" or some other bogeyman has kept us from many of the good gifts that God intends to give through these, dare I say it, sacramental events! Our union with Christ as a body is mediated and realized through these means. May we dive into them whole-heartedly and unabashedly.
Finally, I am not a big fan of the "I-am-a-biblical-scholar-so-I-don't-do-systematics" approach to theological study. Having said that, most of my advanced training is in biblical studies and biblical theology. Consequently, many readers of this review will have a stronger grasp on the intricacies and implications of this doctrine than I do. Nonetheless, I am convinced that Johnson's fear of the "objectification of salvation" is a clear and present danger, especially to many readers of this particular site. Therefore, brothers and sisters, let's remember that it is not faith that saves us. Faith united us to Christ, and it is he alone that saves us!
Chris Bruno (Ph.D., Wheaton College) is a pastor at Harbor Church in Honolulu, HI. He also serves with the Antioch School Hawai'i and Northland International University.
1. Apart from Johnson's work, recent studies of union with Christ including the following (among many others): J. Todd Billings, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011); Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2011); Constantine Campbell, Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012); Grant Macaskill, Union with Christ in the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
2. N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), p. 98.
3. Calvin, Institutes 3.11.10, cited in Johnson, 109.
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