Union and Communion (2)
April 25, 2017
In the last article, I noted four points regarding a puritan doctrine of union and communion with Christ. Continuing that discussion, a fifth point is that communion is communion in what Christ himself possesses. The saving benefits that we receive in union with Christ are properly Christ’s own benefits. Christ doesn’t give us something that doesn’t already belong to him or that isn’t already true of him. Everything that we need in order to experience the promised salvation, Christ must first possess, including justification, adoption and sanctification. In other words, believers commune in Christ’s justification, adoption and sanctification.
Richard Sibbes said that “All the promises are made to Christ first, and all good things are his first.” Christ is pre-eminent in all things and so “nothing can be ours but it must be Christ’s first,” including our election, justification, resurrection and ascension. With respect to justification, Sibbes wrote: “Our justification is in Christ first. He is justified and freed from our sins being laid to his charge as our surety, and therefore we are freed.”
Samuel Rutherford wrote that the promises “flow from God to us but all along they fall first on Christ.” The promises are of two sorts, some only to Christ while others to Christ and his people. The promises to Christ and his people are also divided into two kinds: general and special. The general promise is “I will be your God.” Although Christ has “God to his Father by eternal birth-right,” he took a “new covenant-right to God for our cause.” The special promises, which “are first made to Christ and then by proportion to us” are a new heart and a new spirit, justification, victory and dominion, the Kingdom and glory, and resurrection from the dead. Concerning the promise of justification, Rutherford wrote:
Justification is promised to Christ, not personally, as if he needed a pardon for sin, but of his Cause, there is a cautionary or Surety-righteousness due to the Surety when he hath paid the debt of the broken man, and commeth out of prison free by Law, so he came out of the Grave for our righteousness, but having first the righteousness of his Cause, in his own person, Isaiah 50.8. He is neer that justifieth me (saith Christ) who shall contend with me? 1 Tim. 3.16. Justified in the Spirit. So have we Justification of our persons, and Remission in his blood, Eph. 1.7. and that by Covenant, Jer. 31.32.33.
More particularly, Edward Reynolds said that what Christ possesses becomes ours in communion with him. Even as Rutherford distinguished between promises to Christ alone and promises to Christ and his people, so Reynolds distinguished between privileges of Christ that are personal and incommunicable and privileges of Christ that are general and communicable. The communicable benefits and privileges that flow from Christ to us in communion with him include “the death and merit of Christ,” “the life of Christ,” “the Sonship, and, by consequence, inheritance of Christ,” “the kingdom of Christ,” “Christ’s victories,” and “[Christ’s] holy unction, whereby we are consecrated to be ‘kings and priests.’” The first three of these pertain to justification, sanctification and adoption respectively.
Of particular interest in the above list of benefits and privileges is the sonship of Christ. It might seem strange, even heretical, to suggest that the sonship of Christ becomes ours in any sense because he is the eternal Son of God. But Reynolds, of course, did not suggest any such thing. He carefully distinguished between Christ’s “personal sonship by eternal generation” from the sonship he received at his resurrection. Citing a number of biblical references (Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:2,5,6; Acts 13:33; Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5), Reynolds said that Christ became a son at his resurrection in the sense of the “dignity and honour which he had as the first-born over every creature, and heir of all things.” Believers “in [their] measure” partake of this sonship of Christ (Rom. 8:17; Gal. 3:29). Consequently, Christ and his church “do interchangeably take one another’s names,” including the name, son of God (1 John 3:1). Moreover, in sharing in Christ’s sonship, believers have “fellowship with the Father, access and approach with confidence for all needful supplies, assurance of his care in all extremities, interest in the inheritance which here serveth for his children, confidence to be spared in all our failings, and to be accepted in all our sincere and willing services.”
In expounding upon the meaning and biblical basis of a puritan doctrine of union and communion with Christ, I have noted five points:
- an actual union
- a spiritual union that binds the believer to Christ
- union with Christ is by faith
- communion follows union
- communion in what Christ himself possesses.
In the next article, I want to consider some theological and pastoral uses of this doctrine with respect to faith, justification, atonement and assurance.