Monday, March 27, 2017

In Christ Alone: Perspectives on Union with Christ edited by Stephen Clark & Matthew Evans

Affinity/Mentor, 2016, 283pp 

This volume gathers together the papers presented at the 2015 Affinity Theological Studies Conference. I was present for that event and very much appreciated reading the various papers and discussing the issues raised by them with fellow conference members. 

The doctrine of union with Christ has rightly received renewed attention in Evangelical circles in recent decades. Few themes are so central to our understanding and appreciation of the work of Jesus on our behalf and how we come to benefit from what he has done for us. 

The chapters explore union with Christ from a variety of perspectives, biblical, historical and theological. Welcome attention is given to the writings of John and Paul, where union with Christ is explored most fully in the New Testament. The Reformer John Calvin and the Puritan John Owen placed union with Christ at the core of their presentation of salvation accomplished and applied. Much may be learned from their insights as teased out by Robert Letham and John Fesko. Papers are also devoted to the relationship between union with Christ and justification and sanctification respectively. 

In a final chapter Stephen Clark endeavors sum things up the heading, 'Union with Christ': Towards a Biblical and Systematic Theological Framework for Practical Living. This essay was not one of the papers written for the 2015 conference. Clark seeks to make good some aspects of the doctrine not covered by the six papers, reflecting on union with Christ in the Old Testament and the Synoptic Gospels. Especially helpful is his discussion of the union and the ordo salutis. Christ was united to his people in eternity, before the foundation of the world. Historically speaking they were crucified and raised with him. But they were only united to Christ existentially when drawn to him by faith that they might enjoy the benefits of his saving work on their behalf. (See Ephesians 1:4, Romans 6:4, 16:7).

A certain order applies even when it comes to the existential aspect of union with Christ. Logically, the sinner needs to be made spiritually alive in order to believe and so be justified by faith. Yet regeneration is not the grounds of justification. Rather God justifies the ungodly simply on the basis of Christ's obedience, blood and resurrection. Those who have been united to Christ for justification have also been united to him for progressive sanctification, having died with Christ to the old life of sin and been raised with him to a new life of holiness. 

The Christian life is not about trying to conform to a bunch of arbitrary rules laid down by the church designed to suck as much pleasure out of life as possible. It's about living out of the fullness of our union with Christ as justified sinners whom God is conforming to the image of his Son by the power of the Spirit. It is in Christ we live, suffer and die. And it is in Christ we shall be raised to everlasting glory. 

Some of Clark's lengthy footnotes are worth reading, especially the ones on time and eternity, and the interpretation of the Song of Solomon. 

I'm glad that these essays are now available to a wider audience. The authors' attention to the biblical texts offer surprising (if not always convincing) exegetical insights. At least I wasn't convinced by Cornelis Benema on John 14:1-6. Robert Letham provocatively advocates Calvin's view of the Lord's Supper in relation to union with Christ. The chapter on John Owen reminds us that unlike Lutheranism, Reformed theology is not overly based on the teaching of a single Reformer. And a good thing too. 

Theology students, pastors and serious Christian readers will find much to help them here as we seek to understand that which is beyond full human comprehension; the believer's mystical union with Christ. This work serves as a good companion piece to the 2007 Affinity Theological Study Conference papers on the person of Christ, published under the title, The Forgotten Christ: exploring the mystery and majesty of God incarnate

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