Reviewed by Stephen Weaver
Marcus Peter Johnson is perhaps uniquely qualified to pen this work pleading for a more robust understanding of the doctrine of union with Christ in evangelical theology. He is a Lutheran who authored a doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto on union with Christ in the theology of John Calvin and who is currently serving as assistant professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute. Johnson believes that evangelicals have lost the richness of a biblical understanding of salvation as primarily being united with Christ. One with Christ is his effort to unite together again the saving work of Christ with the saving person of Christ. This, Johnson argues, is vitally important since we cannot be saved by the work of Christ without being united by faith with the person of Christ. This is essential since, as Johnson asserts, “To be saved by Christ…means to be included in the person of Christ. That is what salvation is” (12).
Johnson dedicates the introduction of his book to the statement of the problem which occasioned his writing of the book. He clearly articulates his purpose: “This book attempts to address this oversight [neglect of the doctrine of union with Christ] by articulating an evangelical soteriology from within the mystery and reality of the church’s union with its Savior” (17). Having stated the need filled by this book, Johnson labors to show that this approach is not an innovation, however uncommon it may be in contemporary evangelicalism. Johnson argues that union with Christ was a prominent theme in the New Testament writings, among the church fathers, and for the Protestant Reformers. This claim is substantiated throughout the remainder of the book as Johnson calls again and again upon these ancient witnesses to elucidate the doctrine he articulates.
Johnson devotes the first chapter to providing definitions of terms being used and by emphasizing the massive scope of his study. The entire order of salvation from eternity past to eternity future is comprehended in the recurring biblical terminology of “in Christ.” In chapter two, Johnson explains the relationship between union with Christ and the doctrines of the imputation of Adam’s sin and the incarnation of Christ respectively. In chapters 3-6, Johnson explores the relationship between the believer’s union with Christ and his experience of the benefits of salvation normally treated as distinct parts of an ordo salutis. These chapters describe respectively the way in which the benefits of justification, sanctification, adoption, preservation, and glorification come to the believer in Christ. Each of these benefits of salvation flow forth from the believer’s union with Christ. The final two chapters detail the implications for the doctrine of union with Christ to ecclesiology. In chapter 7, Johnson outlines the mysterious nature of the church in relationship to her union with Christ. The final chapter argues for the importance of union with Christ to understand properly the work of the word and sacraments in the church. Although, Johnson covers his topic thoroughly, the book ends rather abruptly without a proper concluding chapter. It is unclear whether this is simply a matter of word count imposed by the publisher or the preference of the author. Nevertheless, it does seem odd to this reviewer for the book to end so suddenly.
While the entire book is an important memory lesson for evangelicalism, chapter 2, on “Sin and the Incarnation,” may be the most constructive in the book. On the topic of original sin, Johnson proposes a third approach (a via media, if you will) between the two traditional Reformed approaches to the transmission of Adam’s sin to his posterity. Rejecting and affirming some aspects of both Federalism and Realism, Johnson proposes an approach that he calls “Christological realism,” which he describes as “a chastened, evangelical Reformed version of classical realism” (69). Johnson maintains that the only way to consistently maintain the transmission of both Adam’s guilt and sin nature is to understand it relation to the parallel understanding of the nature of union with Christ. Just as union with Christ has multiple implications (justification, sanctification, adoption, glorification, etc.), so too mankind’s original union with Adam has multiple implications (namely, the inheritance of both a sin nature and the guilt of Adam’s sin) (75-77).
The entire book is useful in that it reminds evangelicals of their historical moorings and the foundational doctrine of union with Christ in the proper understanding of soteriology. As Johnson shows again and again, attempts to discuss aspects of soteriology without reference to their connection to union with Christ has produced many of the distorted doctrines that have resulted in many of the intra-evangelical debates in recent years. This book serves both as a helpful corrective to these distortions while charting a positive approach to evangelical soteriology.
Selected quotes from One With Christ
“The mysterious reality of our union with Jesus Christ, by which he dwells in us and we in him, is so utterly essential to the gospel that to obscure it inevitably leads to an obscuring of the gospel itself.” (16)
“For Paul, our intimate union with Christ has both legal and transformative benefits. We are both justified and sanctified ‘in Christ Jesus’ in a way that answers both our guilt and pollution in Adam.” (73)
“The theo-logic of the Reformation confession sola fide is not that faith itself is saving, but that faith joins us to Jesus Christ, who is our salvation. Thus, strictly speaking, we are not saved because we believe, but because we are united to Christ through faith.” (99)
“…by virtue of our union with Jesus Christ, we are incorporated into the (sin-bearing, guilt-negating, wrath-absorbing, death-defeating, curse-annulling) crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus Christ, through which our sins are forgiven and we are freed from the sentence of guilt, condemnation, and death which stood against us.” (103)
“Christ is uniquely our sanctification because in him alone the sanctification of our human nature has taken place by union with his divine life.” (119-120)
“Adoption is that benefit of being united with to the Son of God through which we share in his sonship with the Father, become the beloved children of God, and enjoy all the privileges and rights of being included in God’s family.” (147)
“To say that we are preserved in Christ means that once we have been joined to him, he continues to hold us close to him and promises to never let us go.” (170-171)
“As Christ dwells in us and as we are joined to him, we are at the same time the recipients of salvation and the ones who constitute his body, the church. We are the church precisely as we are joined to him for salvation.” (194)
Dr. Stephen Weaver is Pastor at Farmdale Baptist Church, Frankfort, KY.