Note: I’m stepping back from writing a new entry every week in order to have more time for other writing projects. Prayers are appreciated. Look, too, for some edited versions of earlier entries.
I attended a Good Friday service this Easter weekend. A local church offered a powerful Good Friday vision: we are sinners and Jesus died for our sins on the first Good Friday. Satan’s downfall came at the cross in the very moment he murdered the Son and presumed he had defeated God. A wonderful truth!
Yet I was disappointed. Union with Christ was missing so the presentation was a picture half-painted.
Without union Christ’s work isn’t applied to us. As Paul wrote in Roman 6:8 the solution to sin comes by our participation in Christ: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” The key word is “with”. But what does this union—the “with Christ”—mean?
Let’s consider two options.
Forensic: Many treat union as a strictly legal transaction. Salvation is placed in the context of Christ’s righteousness: the Father calls for perfect righteousness by all who would live with him and only Jesus meets those demands. Adam broke this Law in Eden by his disobedience and we, with Adam, are now given over to sin—a standing we’ve all affirmed in practice. Yet God is free to declare us righteous once the penalty for our sin has been paid and his wrath satisfied. So on the cross Jesus paid our penalty, swallowed the Father’s wrath, and now, by faith, we are freed from our guilt and given Christ’s righteousness. The “with” speaks of our legal alignment or standing before God—Jesus is judged and we are set free. It’s all a bit of dispassionate truth.
Participation: Others see union as a shared life, the reality of two becoming one. In this view Adam and Eve were meant to live in a marriage-like bond with God. But they despised that bond in favor of a separate and competitive existence—to “be like God” rather than to trust and love God. Their deepest sin was self-love or—put crassly, as often done throughout the Bible—whoredom. The new realm in which they live is death—the realm of those who, led by Satan, live apart from God, his love, and his Life.
Paul, for instance, spoke of salvation in light of the marital language of Genesis 2:24, “the two shall become one flesh.” In 1 Corinthians 6:16-17 he wrote, “For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” And, therefore, “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God”. And in Ephesians 5:31-32 he cited the Genesis 2:24 marriage text and concluded, “it refers to Christ and the church.” Marriage, then, is the proper picture of our union with Christ.
The early church recognized this marital union as the basis for salvation, as does the Orthodox side of Christianity today. The union is something Christ’s Spirit brings about as he joins himself to a believer’s spirit—a restoration of the Spirit-to-spirit bond Adam once knew. Believers thus share the life Jesus offered Nicodemus when he called him to spiritual new birth: “that which is born of the flesh is flesh and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Participation has a forensic element—a legal notice of the marriage and the features of inheritance that come with it—but the legal elements come out of the union and not the other way round.
Why, if the Bible affirms this participation, was it missing this past Friday night? It’s almost certainly because our Western theological tradition prefers seeing salvation as a legal rather than an ontological—‘being-based’—truth.
But why? Here’s some background. Thomas Aquinas—a 13th century theologian who held the forensic view—is a key figure. He adopted a premise from pagan Greek theology that God’s Being and the being of all he created are completely different in kind and are therefore unable to be united so they are “incommensurate.”
Yet Jesus resolved this by becoming a true man while he is already truly God. He, then, is the bridge for us: the means of our entering into God’s eternal Life. By becoming a man forevermore we have union with Christ as the Man-who-is-God. And his eternal Spirit ensures that bond. Thomas, it seems, was reading too much of Pseudo-Dionysius when he came to his views and not enough of his Bible.
As in a marriage there isn’t a ‘blending’ of being in this union, but a new being in which the personal distinctions remain intact as a new “one” comes about. Peter wrote about this: we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Christ, then, is fully present in the soul by the Spirit and he offers the intimacy of a marriage in every sense but the physical.
Does this make a difference for Good Friday, and for every other day of the year? Yes! As much difference as a marriage makes compared to a simple business contract. In a marriage every aspect of life is brought into a communion of two where before the marriage there had been independence. So the idea that salvation is strictly ‘legal’—and, with that, only a rational embrace of Christ’s benefits—misses what Christ really wants: our hearts!
So my prayer is that all who read this would pause and ponder the meaning of the Easter weekend. Jesus wants us to be “with” him for the rest of eternity—and that represents our becoming his beloved bride. The bride price? He needed to swallow our death on Friday in order to give us his life on Sunday. And the Father is delighted because that was his plan from the start.