In Cool Runnings, Yul Brenner asks Jr. “Look in the mirror and tell me what you see?” The idea is that you live in accordance with your self-identity.
That is essentially where Kevin DeYoung goes, without the Cool Runnings reference, in the 7th chapter of The Hole in Our Holiness. He hits on our new identity in Christ, or in union with Christ. He gives us a concise version of Walter Marshall’s classic The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification. Marshall sees sanctification as the result of our union with Christ.
In a sense, this goes into what the gospel produces. Our union with Christ is why we are justified, sanctified and empowered by the Spirit. But I am getting ahead of myself, and DeYoung.
Our union with Christ is a much neglected doctrine. But recent releases by people like Robert Letham, J. Todd Billings and Maurice Roberts are trying to rectify this. Our union with Christ brings us all the blessings of God found in salvation (Eph. 1:3). If we are not “in Christ” we have none of these many blessings.
It is not a spatial thing. We are not physically joined to Jesus, as if we are chained together, super glued together or some such thing. DeYoung notes three things our union with Christ implies: solidarity, transformation and communion. Covenant Theology understands that all are born “in Adam”, in covenant solidarity under his headship. As a result, we are fallen, guilty and sinning. The new covenant gives us a new head. We are in covenant solidarity in Christ so that His obedience is ours (Romans 5).
It is not just a legal state, but a transformative state. The Spirit dwells in us and changes us so that we increasingly resemble Jesus. By the same Spirit Jesus abides with us as our God so we experience communion with Him. So, there are objective realities at work which also produce existential or subjective realities.
We are united to Christ in similar fashion as man and woman are united in marriage. He is her covenant head before God (not in the place of Christ, but under Christ). They don’t cease to be individuals, but they become one in purpose, goal and action. They work together without losing their sense of self. They are not absorbed into one another. We are not absorbed into Christ.
Other ways to see this are the union of the Trinity. They are still distinct persons. In the hypostatic union, Jesus has 2 united natures that remain distinct. He is not a divinized man or humanized deity.
The Eastern Church has long talked about deification or theosis. Many in the Western Church, including John Calvin, also talk this way. We do not share in God’s essence, but in His “energies.”
“We participate in the active life of God, not in the ineffable nature of God. Even Calvin said that the purpose of the gospel is ‘to make us sooner or later like God; indeed it is, so to speak, a kind of deification.'”
This should guide our pursuit of holiness in a few way. First, “the pursuit of holiness is also the pursuit of Christ.” We are participating in our union with Him, seeking Him and growing in Him. We want to be like Him because we love, admire and are grateful to Him. Second, it puts “justification and sanctification in their proper relationship.” DeYoung rightly notes that we tend to view them not just as distinct (which we should) but in isolation from one another (which we shouldn’t). I’ve seen people push justification by faith so hard that they deny the necessity of good works as evidence of justification. Others pursue works in an attempt to justify themselves.
“Holiness is not ultimately about living up to a moral standard. It’s about living in Christ and living out of our real, vital union with him.”
Calvin, among, talks much about this “double grace” that comes to us in our union with Christ: justification and sanctification. They come together, like the sides of a coin. If we try to tear them apart, Calvin says, we are “tearing Christ to pieces.” (Calvin’s Commentary on 1 Cor. 30.) So, we are justified by faith alone but not by a faith that is alone. We are not justified thru our works, but we can’t be justified without works.
“Apart from our union with Christ every effort to imitate Christ, no matter how noble and inspired at the outset, inevitably leads to legalism and spiritual defeat.”
DeYoung sums up New Testament morality with “be who you are.” Who you are is not “the old man, in Adam”, but “the new man in Christ.” It is not an excuse to give free rein to your base passions. It is the calling to live as the new creation in Christ, to live out your new identity. Be who you are in grace, not by nature.
Ephesians, in particular, is a place to see this at work. In addition to laying out the gospel facts in the early parts of the letter, he also lays out their gospel identity. And that new identity is the basis for the imperatives just as much as the other gospel indicatives. “As dearly loved children,” for instance. We grow in obedience not so we can belong to God, but because we already belong to God.
Romans 6 is another place DeYoung points us. Grace is no excuse to continue joyfully in sin. We are dead to sin because we are in Christ and therefore alive to God. We were crucified with Christ, buried with Him and raised with Him.
Before we were in Christ, Adam was on the throne of our lives and Satan was his ally. Our flesh served them, even if it did so religiously. But in Christ that all changes. Christ is on the throne. Satan is His, and therefore our, enemy. There are temptations and assaults from without. Our flesh, meaning our sinful nature, is like a terrorist cell refusing to accept the reign and rule of Christ. But Jesus wins- against both. There is conflict, painful conflict. But we become more like Christ because of our union with Him, and His rule in and over us.
Jr. looked in that mirror twice. The first time he saw a weak little boy who was dominated by his father. And he acted the wimp. Later he saw a powerful, independent man. And he acted like a man instead of a child.
So, study the Bible and tell me who you see in Christ. “Be who you are.”