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Essay under review: CLARIFYING OUR THEOLOLOGICAL VISION … by Dr. Gary Deddo
The essay is in five parts …
- Part 1: Clarifying Two Key Terms: “All Are Included” and “Union With Christ”
- Part 2: Union With Christ, Christ’s Vicarious Humanity and the Holy Spirit’s Ministry
- Part 3: The Holy Spirit’s Ministry, the Christian Life, Believers and Non-Believers
- Part 4: Addressing the Christian Life
- Part 5: Foundational Insights and Conclusion
Last week, we concluded Part 1 …
Tonight we want to begin Part 2 — Union With Christ, Christ’s Vicarious Humanity and the Holy Spirit’s Ministry
Union With Christ and Christ’s Vicarious Humanity
In this part of the essay (Part 2), we’ll fill out what we covered in Part 1 concerning union with Christ and the vicarious humanity of Christ. We’ll then look at the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the related topic of the biblical distinction between believers and non-believers. These topics are of great importance to our understanding of incarnational Trinitarian theology.
Union with Christ
As we noted last time, the New Testament uses union with Christ to refer exclusively to the relationship the Triune God has with believers. We want to stick with that biblical usage, avoiding statements that imply that union with Christ pertains to non-believers. At times, we made that mistake, referring, for example, to the journey from non-believer, to new believer, to mature believer as progressing from union to communion with God. We also mistakenly said that all are in union but not all are in communion. Both statements are problematic for several reasons:
- The New Testament correlates union and communion so closely that they can be used interchangeably to refer to the same relationship. Although they can, and ought to be distinguished, they can never be separated.
- Though the New Testament declares that God loves all and is reconciled to all, it does not speak of all people as being in union with God in that particular way. The New Testament consistently uses union with Christ to speak exclusively of the relationship that believers have with God.
- The New Testament declares that, through His post-ascension ministry, the Holy Spirit frees and enables people to receive God’s gifts of repentance and faith (belief) and so to become believers. By the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit, those who are believing begin to share (participate) in all that Christ has accomplished for all humanity, including his ongoing intercession for us so that we might share in the perfect responses he makes for us, in our place and on our behalf. The Holy Spirit’s ongoing ministry is personal and relational, not mechanical or impersonal. It is not a causal fact, nor a general universal principle that is abstractly effective upon all equally. The Holy Spirit unites believers to Christ, incorporating them into the body of Christ (the church) for personal, relational participation (sharing) in the life of Christ.
Not a universal union
The mistakes we made in using the term union with Christ largely resulted from not realizing the potential for confusion when following the writings of some Trinitarian theologian-authors who refer to the Incarnation as creating, through Jesus’ vicarious humanity, a universal union of God with humanity in Christ (universal in the sense that it includes believers and non-believers). In their way of stating it, this universal union came about through what happened when the Son of God, via the Incarnation, assumed human nature. They thus equate union with Christ with the uniting of human nature with God via the hypostatic union. (IMO, they mistakenly think “in Christ” and “union with Christ” mean the exact same thing, every single time.)
Unfortunately, this confusion of terms leaves the false impression that the Incarnation itself resulted in all persons having an identical relationship with God — one more or less automatic and causal (and thus objective, in that sense). But that is not what the New Testament teaches in using the term union with Christ, and it is not what we believe and seek to teach.
Union with Christ (and related terms such as in Christ or in the Lord) as used in the New Testament, indicates a depth of relationship that, by the Holy Spirit, is reciprocal and interactive — a personal relationship possible for us individually only on the basis of the objective work of Christ who sanctified, personalized and brought into right, subjective, responsive relationship the recalcitrant human nature that he assumed, via the Incarnation, to himself.
The distinction between believers and non-believers
Misunderstanding union with Christ, some wrongly conclude that there is little, if any, difference between a believer and a non-believer, or at least that whatever we say of a believer should also be said of a non-believer (in the same way). For example, some conclude that all people automatically are united to Christ in the same way. But the New Testament consistently differentiates between those participating in (receiving, responding to, sharing in) the love and life of Christ (the New Testament calls them believers), and those who are not-yet participating (we call them non-believers, though we might appropriately refer to them as not-yet believers).
The erroneous conclusion that both believers and non-believers are in union with Christ results largely from not taking into account that the hypostatic union, which has to do with the union of divinity and humanity (two natures) in the one Person of Jesus, is not equivalent to, or identical with, or does not automatically result in, the spiritual union brought about by the Person and work of the Holy Spirit (who ministers on the basis of the Person and work of God in Christ).
In all cases where the New Testament refers to union with Christ (and equivalent phrases) it is referring to this spiritual union, not to the hypostatic union. For our teaching and preaching to align with the Scriptural usage, it’s best we limit our use of union with Christ to refer to the spiritual union — the relationship between God and believers by the post-ascension ministry of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that we must lead with and thus emphasize that non-believers are not yet united to Christ in the same way believers are. It also doesn’t mean we must try to figure out who is and who isn’t united to Christ, or determine where, on some kind of continuum, each person stands with God. These are not the reasons to hold to the distinction the New Testament makes between believers and non-believers. These would, in fact, be misuses of that distinction. Any distinctions we make must be made for the same reasons the New Testament makes them. Otherwise we fall into another error — an arbitrary, impersonal legalism.
The New Testament distinguishes between believers and non-believers for the purpose of holding out hope to those who are not yet participating, to warn those who are persistently resisting participation, to encourage those who have been participating to keep on, and to highlight all the benefits of participating as fully as the grace of God enables — benefits to oneself and to others, both believers and non-believers. Even more so, making this distinction gives God the glory for enabling us, through the Son and by the Holy Spirit, to enter into a personal, dynamic, responsive and loving communion with him in a relationship of worship.
Our message and emphasis should always begin with and continue to emphasize who God in Christ is, and what he has done for all — what theologian JB Torrance calls the “unconditional indicatives of grace.” Building on that foundation, we can then spell out, as does the New Testament, the “unconditional obligations of grace.” Our message is thus Christ-centered and grace-based, not human experience-centered and law-based.
The vicarious humanity of Christ
Before we start … two points for consideration …
- The meaning of vicarious
- The relevance of understanding the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ
1. The meaning of vicarious … (an adjective) …
- experienced in the imagination through the feelings or actions of another person
- acting or done for another
2. The relevance of understanding the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ
- Read the text below carefully
- Note, especially, verses 6 and 8.
|Romans 5:1, 6-11 (NKJV)||Romans 5:1, 6-11 (NLT)|
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ …
6 For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
7 For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. 10 For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
11 And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us …
6 When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.
7 Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8 But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.
9 And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. 10 For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son.
11 So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.
Let’s now shift a bit to consider again the topic of the vicarious humanity of Christ, which is related to the hypostatic union but focuses on the essential purpose of Christ’s assumption of our human nature.
Together, these truths tell us that Jesus, being fully God and fully human (the divine and human natures being united in the hypostatic union), is, in his humanity (human nature joined to his Person), our representative and substitute — the one who, in his humanity, stands in for us. He acts in our place and on our behalf as one of us.
What Jesus did (and still does) in his humanity, he did (and does) for us, in our place and on our behalf as one of us. Jesus was baptized for us, overcame temptation, prayed, obeyed and suffered for us. He died for us, rose from death, and ascended to heaven for us — clothed, as it were, in our humanity. That is what Jesus’ vicarious humanity is all about. It’s a powerful, consequential truth — the gospel in a nutshell. However, it does not tell us everything about our salvation and our relationship with God through Christ and by the Holy Spirit. There is more to the story and so our preaching and teaching must tell the whole story, not just a part. And the parts should fit together, as they do in the biblical revelation.
Filling out the story in no way denies the reality of what can be called the cosmic (or universal, meaning everywhere throughout the universe) implications of the Incarnation, by which the eternal Son of God assumed human nature on behalf of all humanity, and through his vicarious humanity (representing and standing in for us all) reconciled all humanity in himself to God. Indeed, in and through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, who is Lord and Savior of all, all have been reconciled to God — all have been forgiven, no exceptions. It is on this basis that we rightly declare that all are included!
The spiritual union involves participation
Though God has reconciled all humanity to himself in Christ, it is those who are participating in (sharing in) that universal, cosmic reality who are said in the New Testament to be in union with Christ living in relationship with God in what we refer to as the spiritual union. The New Testament calls these believers children of God, noting that they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit in a particular way, having been born from above (or born again, as some translations have it).
This participation is the gracious gift of God, in Christ, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and not something of our own making or something we have earned. Participation is not a way of qualifying for union with Christ — it is the way of receiving and sharing in the reconciliation we have already with God, in Christ.
This is why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that God has reconciled the world to himself, then immediately adds that those who are members of Christ’s body (the church) are ambassadors called to tell others to “be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:18-20). Paul is not contradicting himself. Because God “has reconciled” all, then all are called by that fact to act, live and so “be reconciled.” Paul is revealing the full story of salvation, of our real relationship with God that involves receiving and responding by the Holy Spirit to the gift freely accomplished and given by God through Christ and personally delivered to us by the Spirit.