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Part 1: Clarifying Two Key Terms: “All Are Included” and “Union With Christ”
All are included
By all we mean believers and non-believers, and by included we mean being counted among those who God, in and through Jesus, has reconciled to himself. We thus mean to say that God has reconciled all people to himself.
Thus when we declare that all are included we are affirming several important truths:
- Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all humanity
- He died to redeem all
- He has atoned for the sin of all
- Through what he did, God reconciled all people to himself
In all these ways, all people in all places and times have been included in God’s love and life in and through Jesus and by his Spirit. In that we rejoice, and on that basis we make our gospel declarations.
It’s about relationship, which means participation
That relationship is personal in that it is established by the person of the eternal Son of God, and it involves human persons who have agency, minds, wills and bodies. This reconciliation involves all that human beings are — their whole persons. Thus this personal relationship calls for, invites, and even demands, from those who have been included, the response of participation.
By definition, personal relationships are interactive — they involve response, communication, giving and receiving. In and through Jesus, God has included all people everywhere in a particular relationship with himself for just these purposes so that what has been fulfilled for us objectively in Jesus by the Spirit, will then be fulfilled in us personally (subjectively) by the Spirit via our deliberate, purposeful participation (response) as subjects who are moral, spiritual agents. What Christ did for us, he did so that the Holy Spirit could work a response out in us.
The indicatives of grace set us free to respond to the imperatives of grace
Many proclamations in the New Testament declare the truth of who God is and what he has done for us, including that He, in Christ, has reconciled all humanity to himself. These proclamations are the indicatives of grace, which, by their very nature, call forth and set us free for a joyful response to the imperatives of grace that are also defined in the New Testament. Here is a diagram showing how these indicatives and imperatives are related:
Our responses to the imperatives of grace, grounded in and thus flowing from the indicatives of grace, are made possible only because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who continues his work in the core of our persons (our subjectivities) in order that we might respond freely to God and his grace with repentance, faith, hope and love.
The Holy Spirit grants us this freedom to respond (even as we hear the imperatives) by releasing us from the bonds of slavery so that our responses are a real sharing in Christ’s own responses made on our behalf as our substitute and representative — our great and eternal High Priest. This indicative-imperative pattern of grace is found throughout the New Testament. For example, note Jesus’ first proclamation concerning himself and his kingdom (the indicative) followed by the imperative, which defines our response:
Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)
Note that the imperative, “repent and believe,” is based on and made possible because of the indicative that “the time is fulfilled … the kingdom of God has come near.” Because of who Jesus is and what he has done, people are given entrance into personal relationship with Jesus as their King and thus can respond by participating in his rule and reign.
At work here is a vitally important truth: because God loves us, he is interested in our response to him.
- He looks for it, notices it, even tells us the kind of response that is fitting to the relationship he has already given us by grace (through reconciliation).
- Moreover, by the Holy Spirit ministering to us on the basis of Christ’s completed work, our Triune God has even provided all we need to make that response. We never respond autonomously, simply on our own. Instead, by the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to begin sharing in Jesus’ perfect responses that he makes for us as our eternal mediator or High Priest.
Avoid two errors
There are two common errors in thinking about the indicatives and imperatives of grace.
- The first is to regard the indicatives proclaimed in the New Testament as fixed, impersonal principles or abstract laws — general and universal truths operating like the mechanical, so-called laws of nature, or perhaps of mathematics.
- The second error (which often accompanies the first) is to regard the imperatives mentioned in the New Testament as sheer, externally-imposed legal obligations that indicate the potential ways we can condition God to act or react to us in some way. Embracing that false notion, we are tempted to think of the imperatives as setting forth terms of a contract with God: if we do certain things (fulfill certain contractual obligations) we will bring to pass the responses from God that we desire and to which he has contractually agreed.
Both of these errors presume legal, mechanical, cause-and-effect, force-vector-like actions and reactions instead of what is found in a real personal relationship. These errors reflect thinking that is not grounded in the covenant of grace by which God has freely established a relational reality with humankind for the sake of dynamic, personal and interactive participation, communication, communion, fellowship — what the Greek New Testament calls koinonia.
We err when we imagine we are somehow coerced slaves to God and to his imperious ways, or when we imagine we can manage a contract with God where we attempt to negotiate terms of mutual obligation agreeable to both parties. Such imaginings are not how God operates. He created us for real, personal relationship in which we participate, by grace, through Christ and by the Holy Spirit. All our responses are real participation in an actual relationship — the relationship God has established for us for the sake of koinonia (fellowship, communion) with him in dynamic, personal ways — the ways of freedom in love.
We did not establish this relational reality by our responses. Only God can create the relationship, and so He has, on our behalf, in and through Christ. Note, however, that though our personal responses create nothing, they do constitute real participation in the relationship God has given us in Christ. These responses are made possible by the freeing and enabling ministry of the Holy Spirit, based on the vicarious ministry of Jesus. We have been included, through Christ and by the ministry of the Spirit, in a saving, transforming and renewing relationship with God — a relationship that calls for our response.
With this clarification in mind, we can see that we must not use the phrase all are included to say too little or too much — and perhaps, at times, we have said too much. Yes, all humanity has been included in a saving, transforming and renewing relationship with God (referred to in Scripture as reconciliation with God). But this particular kind of inclusion in Christ is not a fixed, impersonal, causal and abstract universal “truth” that is divorced from real relationship. In fact, reconciliation is specifically for the sake of our response, and so it is for real, personal relationship.
What we can say is this: all have been reconciled (included) but not all are participating. The God-given purpose of this relationship, established through reconciliation, cannot be fulfilled in us as long as there is little or no participation in the relationship — if there is resistance to and rejection of the relationship that has been freely given to us. The full benefits of the relationship cannot be known or experienced by us if we do not enter into it — if we are not receptive to it and its benefits.
Thus we must account for the difference between participating in the relationship, according to its nature, and not participating, thus violating its nature and purpose. Non-participation does not negate or undo the fact that God has reconciled us to himself (that he has included us in the relationship he has established, in Christ, with all humanity). To deny this reality does not create another reality. Going against the grain of reality does not change the direction of the grain, though it might gain us some splinters! We have no power to change the grain.
A good example of the difference between participation and non-participation is the elder brother mentioned in the parable of the prodigal son. He refused to participate — to enter the celebration the father established and invited him into. Note also this example in the book of Hebrews:
For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. (Hebrews 4:2)
This personal and relational understanding of receiving the gift of grace freely given us by the whole God (Father, Son and Spirit) helps clarify many things in the New Testament that otherwise would seem inconsistent or even incoherent. To think otherwise (in mechanical or causal ways) would be to ignore, or (worse) to dismiss, whole swaths of biblical revelation. A personal and relational understanding of God’s grace helps make sense of the proclamation of the indicatives of grace and the proclamation of the imperatives of grace, the latter being the call to receive and participate in the gift of the relationship established in Christ that is being fulfilled by the Holy Spirit.