Richard Sibbes’ reading of Augustine’s The Trinity supported some important themes in his preaching as in a believer’s union with Christ in “A Description of Christ.” The 17th century English Puritan knew and loved his 5th century African mentor. And he was probably reassured to find this theme restated in Luther’s Freedom of a Christian (1520).
What about this theme? As a starter, God the Father loves his Son’s bride with the same love he has for the Son. Assurance of this familial love, these writers believed, helps stir and sustain a lively faith.
Let’s press on. These earlier Christian teachers all believed God’s creation plan was for his Christ to have a bride. And this collective bride—consisting in all whom the Spirit draws to know and love him—enters into the ultimate and eternal marriage. The Father delights in the outcome as he views the divine groom and his new bride as “one” in their marital union. Both bride and groom, then, are loved with an undifferentiated love.
Despite a strong theological heritage this theme isn’t widely held today—but it should be. It sets up two key biblical insights: how God engages us affectively—that is, how he “feels” about us—and how he achieves our salvation in the context of his very real love for us.
References to the bride as “Christ mystical” reflect the apostle Paul’s language in Ephesians 5:32 where he treated the inaugural marriage text of the Bible, Genesis 2:24, as a mystery unfolded in Christ: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that [the Genesis text] refers to Christ and the church.” Human marriages, then, offer a workshop that anticipates an ultimate and ideal marriage focused on relational devotion rather than sexual intimacy or procreation.
Yet there are sticking points here for many. One is the language of mystery and another is the related question of ontology. I’ll only touch on these two and invite any interested readers to chase them in advanced resources.
Let’s start with the ontology—the question of being. Many readers share a misgiving about claims that we can participate in God’s life or being: that we have real union with Christ. Yet it’s a teaching the New Testament offers regularly with the language of believers being “in Christ” and Christ being “in us”—we find a crescendo of this teaching in John 17—so that we even become “partakers of the divine nature” as cited in 2 Peter 1.
There is, of course, a proper restriction here: we never come to be blended or fused with God so that we gain a sort of autonomous and essential deity in ourselves. One historical example of apparent overreach here came with Anne Hutchinson’s “mortalism” in Boston’s 1536-38 Antinomian Controversy. She viewed herself as wholly dead as a human soul and newly alive with Christ’s life in her. So she spoke with a misapplied confidence that Christ’s voice was present in what she was telling others.
What the Bible does tell us—as in Paul’s confrontation of illicit sexuality in Corinth—is that we are “joined” to Christ by his Spirit who unites with our spirit in marital oneness: “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is written [in Genesis 2:24] ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him…. [so that] your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God (1 Corinthians 6:16-17, 19).
This piece of ontological revelation elaborated Paul’s earlier summary in the same epistle, in 2:9-13. And, as in a human marriage of believers, the two who are married still remain distinct persons even in their spiritual and physical union—they aren’t somehow blended as souls although they are truly “one” in their union. In strictly human terms this oneness is displayed by the procreation that normally accompanies human union.
Two recent books that chase this long-established theology of our union with Christ—known as participation or impartation theology—are Marcus Johnson’s One with Christ and William Evans’ Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology. Both invite a patient and reflective read.
The second question—about the rubric of “mystery”—invites a read of Heiko Oberman’s collected studies, The Dawn of the Reformation (1986) and chapter six in particular on “Luther and Mysticism” where Oberman helpfully discriminates various uses of the term. It’s enough to say here that Paul’s use of “mystery” is very different to those who have spiritual absorption—or who knows what else—in mind as they speak of mystery.
I began by mentioning Sibbes and his sermons on “A Description of Christ” and I’ll end by citing a segment of what he offered: “Doth God delight thus in Christ, in his person, or considered mystically? I answer: both. God loves and delights in Christ mystical, that is, in Christ and his members, in whole Christ…. Is it possible that he should delight in the head, and refuse the members? That he should love the husband, and mislike the spouse? Oh no; with the same love that God loves Christ, he loves all his. He delights in Christ and all his with the same delight.”—Sibbes, Works, 1.12.
So may all who are “in Christ” love the Father more than ever, even as he delights in us as in his Son: enjoy!