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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Letham’


Tim Keller says “This is the best book for laypeople on this subject.” This book is Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne. I think he is right.

Union with Christ is one of the more neglected doctrines in the contemporary church. This neglect has been addressed with a few releases in the past few years like the books by J. Todd Billings and Robert Letham. These tend toward the more academic or pastoral in nature. Wilbourne’s book is written for the lay person and is easy to understand, though the topic can still stretch our minds. He provides a number of good illustrations to help us understand this rather nebulous concept. Or perhaps enchanted, for in his introduction he relates this to our disenchanted (materialistic) culture, and to understand union we need our imaginations again.

“Coming to see your union with Christ is like finally putting on a pair of desperately needed glasses- Wow!”

He begins with reality of a gap between what the Bible says and our experience of that reality. We can often feel exhausted by our efforts and discouraged by a lack of “progress”. The gap is real and must be acknowledged. But God’s answer to all this is union with Christ.

“First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore … he had to become ours and to dwell within us.” John Calvin

Calvin, particularly his Institutes of the Christian Religion, is very present in this volume. United to Christ we have all the blessings of God (Eph. 1). Christ also dwells in us by the Spirit so we are empowered by Him to enjoy these many blessings. While this was understood by many in history (he quotes from Edwards and Goodwin, for instance) such talk is like a foreign language to many/most western Christians.

“If it ‘s true that nothing is more central or basic than union with Christ, and this book aims to show that it is, then it is fair to ask this: Why is union with Christ neither central nor basic to so many of us? Why, rather, is union with Christ, if it is talked about at all, reduced to some vague or optional aspect of Christian living…”

The only way we partake of the gospel promises is …. union with Christ. When we neglect this, the work of Christ for us is separated from the person of Christ in us and the gap between beliefs and experience begins to increasingly widen.

He moves on to what it actually is. One aspect of union is imputation: what happened to Him happened to us; what He earned we receive; and what we earned He paid the price for. Paul frequently uses the term “in Christ” to talk about how we live before God. Christ represents us so His death is our death to guilt & sin (Rom. 6; Gal. 2:20). His resurrection is our newness of life (Rom. 6; Eph. 2; Gal. 2:20). His obedience becomes our obedience. We have even been seated with Him at the Father’s right hand (Eph. 2).

“Faith is how union with Christ becomes operative and powerful in your life. Faith is a God-given gift that allows you to take hold of God’s having taken hold of you. … Your life, your story, becomes enfolded by another story- Another’s story.”

As Paul says in Colossians our life is hidden with Christ in God. United to Christ, Calvin says, we receive the double grace of justification and sanctification. Though distinct they are a package deal given simultaneously. We partake of His redemption because we are united to Christ, covenantally and spiritually. We enjoy our salvation as He works in us to transform us. Our faith is not simply in Christ’s work for us, but also that Christ continues to work in us and through us. He became like us to make us like Him so we look to Him to accomplish these things that are so beyond our doing.

Union with Christ also holds together some of the tensions that tend to tear God’s people apart. For instance, he mentions extravagant grace and radical discipleship. We see them both in Calvin’s double grace, but our tendency is to separate them. Apart from discipleship extravagant grace lapses into Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. Apart from extravagant grace discipleship degenerates into legalism. This conflict that has periodically emerged in the church is resolved in union with Christ. These two songs, as he terms them, meet in harmony in Christ. They cannot be separated because Christ cannot be separated (Ferguson makes the same argument in The Whole Christ). Wilbourne then explains and applies the “double grace”.

“Because we are relentless in trying to justify our lives, because we will use anything, even our virtue, to keep God at a distance, we can’t hear this song of grace too loudly or too often. … That hit home because that’s exactly what I had been doing- using grace as an excuse not to follow Jesus. … Undiluted grace and uncompromising obedience meet in the person of Jesus. He is always full of both.”

Rankin then spends a chapter showing us where all this is in the Scripture, a chapter on where it pops up in Church History (Augustine, Athanasius, Irenaeus, Bernard of Clairvaux, Luther, Owen and Lewis) and then what happened that we have fallen to this low estate. As mentioned, there is the disenchanted or materialistic worldview, the increase in self-centeredness (due to the eclipse of the gospel), our poor pneumatology, sound-bite culture, and pragmatism.

“Paul is saying union with Christ not only gives you a new identity; it gives you a new mindset, a new grid through which to filter everything that happens to you. For it’s not so much what happens that defines you, as how you interpret what happens to you.”

From there he delves into the problems union with Christ solves. We have a new identity, new destiny, new purpose and new hope. So many of the stories we love focus on people seeking to discover their identity. We think we have to establish our identity so we are insecure and exhausted. Many famous musicians (interviews with Madonna and John Mayer come to mind) feel the need to re-establish themselves, prove themselves. In Christ, we receive an identity we neither win or can lose. We don’t have to prove ourselves. This identity also shapes how we live, providing appropriate boundaries for us. We have a new destination too- not simply to decompose in the ground or simply cease to exist. Our destiny is to be what Adam and Eve once were, the image of God. Jesus, in His humanity, the perfect image of God restores God’s distorted image of us. We don’t lose our sense of self (just as in a healthy marriage we are one flesh but don’t lose your sense of self). You become more fully you with the unique gifts and experiences but without the sin and weakness.

“The purpose of the gospel [is] to make us sooner or later like God; indeed it is, so to speak, a kind of deification.” John Calvin

“Because love was central in the life of Christ, love is at the heart of the image of God. Your win is learning how to love. And your greatest losses are your failures to love.”

We are here for holiness, which for many of us, as he notes, is like broccoli. Good for us but …. (personally I like broccoli). Holiness is good, beautiful and attractive. It is something we only pursue properly in union with Christ (see Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification).  We are positionally holy due to our union with Christ, and dwelling in us He works to make us personally holy. These two tensions are brought together in harmony in Christ. The more holy we become the more we enjoy communion with God, in part because we now find His holiness more attractive and a greater source of joy.

“God wants us to grow in holiness, not as some sort of test or punishment, not even just as preparation for the future, but because he wants us to enjoy life with him more. The more we grow in holiness, the more we can enjoy his presence. He wants us not simply to press on but to soar. He wants holiness for us, for our joy.”

Our hope is life in the presence of God where Jesus currently is. This is unattainable for us apart from our union with Christ. He is there now, seated and interceding for us (Heb. 7:25). This means that our continuing sin does not separate us from God. We don’t have to look to our circumstances to gauge if God is pleased with us, we look to Jesus and know He is. Union with Christ holds the facts that God with for us and with us together.

“John Calvin said, ‘Let us therefore labor more to feel Christ living in us.’ John Owen added, ‘Labor, therefore, to fill your hearts with the cross of Christ.’ And Jonathan Edwards exhorted, ‘We should labor to be continually growing in divine love.'”

Wilbourne then moves into our daily life as people united to Christ. He begins with abiding. He brings up the illustration of sailing. Sailing depends on the wind, but you still need skills to get where you want to go in the power of the wind. This is communion with Christ, the subjective or experiential aspect of our union with Christ. We cannot be more or less united to Christ. But our sense of communion with Christ grows or diminishes. Faith always precedes our sense of communion for faith lays ahold of Christ. He warns us of our tendency to drift (pride, complacency etc.). If we are not manning the sail and the tiller we will not go where we long to go. He moves into the means of abiding, or the means of grace. Our sense of communion is tied to prayer, meditation on Scripture, and worship including the sacraments (signs of our union). This does not mean all will be exciting. There will be doldrums, just like in sailing. There will be times when all seems stagnant, and no progress is made.

“Jesus lived a perfect life and terrible things still happened to him. Jesus was the only one who ever trusted and obeyed God perfectly, yet he nevertheless was made to walk the way of suffering unto death…”

We are united to the Christ who suffered. As a result we should expect to suffer (Rom. 8; Phil. 1 & 3; 1 Peter 2-4). Because He suffered, He is able to comfort us in our suffering. He also provided an example for us in suffering, to continue to do good and entrust ourselves to our Creator. Will our suffering drive us from God, or deeper into God?

He then moves into the fact that each of us is united not only to Christ individually but also to one another. In Christ we are the people of God. Here, in a footnote, he surmises, that the tension revealed by the New Perspective of Paul finds reconciliation. In Christ we are justified by the imputation of His righteousness AND we are part of the community of God; soteriology and ecclesiology are united in Christ. Another tension that tends to tear the church apart is also reconciled in Christ: we declare and demonstrate the love of God to the nations. Many conservatives so fear the social gospel that they deny the social aspects of the gospel (and throw accusations at any who do). This is because Jesus not just declared God’s love but demonstrated it (see 1 John 3-4) and calls us to do the same (see also 1 Peter 2).

I found this to be a very encouraging book. He had a number of helpful ways to explain our union and its implications. I heartily recommend it to pastors, elders and ordinary people who want to grow in grace. He makes a difficult subject understandable, interesting and practical.

 

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If you are like me your experience with and knowledge of Eastern Orthodoxy is limited. I grew up Catholic so I understand Roman Catholicism. To many Protestants the Eastern Church is quite mysterious. Rare are the books by Protestants about Eastern Orthodoxy. Robert Letham has written a good book to help people like me understand our brothers and sisters from the East. In this day, with increased persecution in places like Iraq and Syria we hear more about Eastern Orthodoxy. The vast majority of them are not Protestant but either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

Letham’s book, Through Western Eyes, is not a polemical book. His purpose is not to expose the errors of Eastern Orthodoxy. He does compare and contrast its teaching on various doctrines with both Roman Catholicism and Reformed Theology. Why just Reformed Theology (and a bit of Luthernism)? Like Roman Catholicism it is a confessional faith. Much of evangelicalism shuns creeds and confessions therefore exhibiting a wide variety of beliefs. Letham himself also comes from a Reformed perspective and therefore compares it to what he knows and loves best.

Letham structures the book in 3 sections: history, theology and evaluation. The third section is not very long. In it he seeks to point out areas where we could learn from them, where they could learn from us, gross misunderstanding and divergence.

The section on theology spends much of its pages dealing with the ecumenical councils. How they do theology is quite different than how we have done theology. Since the Scholastics and particularly since the Enlightenment theology in the West has been done in the universities, and not necessarily in the church. There have been numerous confessions and catechisms to lay out theology as well as many systematic theology books. Theology in the Eastern Church is grounded on the Councils (which we also affirm for the most part), communicated in their liturgy and is done mostly by church men: pastors and bishops. Their dependence on the creeds reflect their understanding of polity: there is no hierarchical structure. The Patriarchs do not function like archbishops or the Pope. How their theology developed is interesting, at least to me.

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As usual, I depart from the usual blogging practice of listing the best books of a given year. I focus on the best books I read in that given year. So here are the best books I read in 2012! Perhaps some will make great gifts for Christmas or upcoming birthdays. Click those links!

The Meaning of Marriage by Tim and Kathy Keller. This is one of my favorite books on marriage. Keller just has a way of expressing himself, and bringing in contemporary issues in a way I haven’t thought about before. He does some good cultural exegesis in addition to the biblical exegesis needed to resolve that cultural quandary. There is enough here for singles to think about to make it worth while for them too!

Relationships: A Mess Worth Making by Tim Lane and Paul Tripp (my review). This moves beyond marriage into various relationships and how the gospel is at work in the mess that they are. That really is the point- the mess is part of how God changes us. So, it isn’t about mess-less relationships, but growing and loving in those relationships.

John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken. I find Newton to be a fascinating man. Aitken does a good job telling us his story. He shares his shame without trying to be scandalous or make him look bad. He shares his success without trying to glorify him. It comes across as a balanced, hopeful book about a man much used by God in his own generation.

Towards Spiritual Maturity by William Still. This small book is full of “spiritual dynamite”. It is a great little book on sanctification. It is obviously not meant to be exhaustive. But he hits on some much neglected realities in our sanctification.

Union With Christ by Robert Letham. This is an historical and scriptural study of our union with Christ. This is a much neglected subject that is of great importance. While it is more “intellectual” I think he does a good job of showing the benefits and implications of this doctrine that is foundational for Christian experience.

The Transforming Power of the Gospel by Jerry Bridges. What if you took the best ideas from most of his books and put them into one book? You would get this book! It is a great book about how the gospel changes us. Easy to read and full of great stuff.

Loving Well (even if you haven’t been) by William Smith. Yes, another book on relationships. This is for the person who really wasn’t loved well by their parents (which is most of us). You’ll still learn something if you were loved well. This is a great book about what it means to be loved and how God has loved us well in Jesus Christ. So, it isn’t about trying harder but being loved so you can love.

Fearless by Eric Blehm. This is the story of Adam Brown, a member of Seal Team Six who overcame great obstacles to even become a Seal. It is also about his faith in Christ and the destructive power of addiction (Christ is greater!). It is a very moving story, but not for the squeamish.

Jesus Loves the Little Children by Daniel Hyde.  This is a great little book arguing for infant baptism. He makes Meredith Kline’s arguments accessible to mere mortals. Well worth reading.

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom. I re-read this book as I was preaching through the life of Daniel. Hers is an amazing story of a middle aged woman who became a resistance leader, was imprisoned by the Nazis and was set free to preach God’s love in Christ to generations hardened by the war.

Union with Christ by J. Todd Billings. Billings approaches the subject from a different angle than Letham did, but wrote a very helpful book as well. He is a Calvin scholar and focuses on Calvin’s work on the subject, but by no means limits himself to Calvin.

How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home by Derek Thomas. This short book is a treatment of Romans 8. It is a great treatment of Romans 8. I think it is must reading for all struggling with assurance or painful providence.

The Hole in Our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung. A great little book on sanctification. It is not exhaustive, but I think he pretty much hits the struggles most contemporary Christians have in this area. He draws from Scripture, the Reformed Confessions and various theologians. It is an edifying read.

The Masculine Mandate by Richard Philips. There are lots of lousy books on mahood. This isn’t one of them. He doesn’t just proof test a theology derived from movies, he established a solid theological framework from Genesis to help us understand our calling within the context of our covenant relationships with God and others.

Loving the Way Jesus Loves by Phil Ryken. This is like an updated version of Edwards’ classic Charity and Its Fruits. He follows the essential pattern, but in each chapter brings us to how Christ has loved us illustrating the particular aspect of love. Lots of other great stories to illustrate it as well.

Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ by John Piper. The last (?) in the series The Swans are Not Silent. He begins by handling a difficult passage in Colossians 1 and then illustrates his conclusion thru the lives of William Tyndale, John Paton and Adoniram Judson. That conclusion is that the suffering of the church and missionaries is how God males the gospel known and delightful among the nations. Our suffering is not simply caused by the gospel but meant to be the means of propagation.

Every Good Endeavor by Tim Keller. This is in anticipation of its greatness. I’ve started to read it, and it holds plenty of promise. As usual, Keller is pulling a number of threads together to create a beautiful picture of God’s intentions for our vocations. I’m sure it will be very good.

A few thoughts:

My reading is often directed by my ministry and needs for personal growth.

This year was light on the classics. I’ll have to remember that for 2013.

While there are 4 biographies there, I should probably be reading more of them.

I filled in some gaps in my theology. This year I addressed our union with Christ. There are not many books on the subject out there. I’ve got a few more to read in 2013.

It is heavy on sanctification and love. I recognize my need to grow in grace and its manifestation in love. Books alone don’t mean I am growing. But they can be helpful in the process.

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“In Christ” is one of Paul’s favorite phrases. A parallel phrase he uses is “with Christ”. Both of these phrases are his shorthand for union with Christ. This is undeniably one of the most important theological concepts in the Scriptures, for our salvation is “in Christ”. Yet, this subject has been largely ignored by theologians for over 100 years. The contemporary church is much weaker as a result of the neglect of this foundational doctrine.

There have been a much needed spate of books that have sought to address this weakness and restore this doctrine to its rightful place in our minds and hearts. That this took so long reveals one of the weaknesses of the current state of publishing. Even Christian publishers are too focused on sales at the expense of needed truth. Thankfully, some smaller publishers have been acting contrary to common practice.

One of the authors of these books is Robert Letham. I must confess that I had not read any of his books, nor owned any until this past year. Now I own three of his books, including Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology. It shares its subtitle with his book on another neglected subject, the Trinity. The other work of his I recently purchased and began to read is on the also neglected Work of Christ (part of the excellent Contours of Christian Theology series).

Letham, for those unfamiliar with him, is the Senior Lecturer in Systematic and Historical Theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology. He has advanced degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and the University of Aberdeen. The book has an academic feel to it, and I was intellectually stretched while reading much of it. This is not a bad thing, people. This is not a fluffy topic, but one that requires rigorous thinking in addition to the illumination of the Spirit to grasp.

I was well rewarded for my efforts. This book is only about 140 pages long, but it is a dense 140 pages. It is full of meat as he grapples with the topic at hand. True to the subtitle, Letham examines Scripture, the history of the Church and theological formulations to help us understand and apply this most important subject. The importance of this subject is evidenced by how many doctrines Letham addresses in the course of examining it: creation, incarnation, the atonement, justification, adoption, resurrection, sanctification etc.

“Because man was created in the image of God, he was made for communion with God, to rule God’s creation on his behalf.”

Letham begins with creation, which surprised me. But since Jesus is the 2nd Adam, this is the best place to begin. Humanity’s communion with God was destroyed by the first Adam’s sin. Jesus would become man in order to restore this communion, and be the means of that communion. So you see that the book takes a few unexpected twists (I’ll be interested to see how the other books I’ve picked up on the subject work thru this). He spends a chapter on the Incarnation, surveying the development of the doctrine. The Eternal Son united himself with human nature, joining Himself with humanity in order to secure our salvation. In salvation, He then unites Himself with the elect as the means of their salvation thru the Spirit. We only partake of the benefits of salvation if we are so united to Him. This is one of the tougher chapters since it grapples with the nature of the hypostatic union. He traces its development through the ecumenical councils and expressions by Athanasius, Cyril, Nestorius and others. He also shows how this is not neglected by the Westminster Confession of Faith but expressed most often in the Larger Catechism.

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