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Posts Tagged ‘Walter Marshall’


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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In the past year so there, a discussion (not a conversation!) has been going on about the nature of sanctification. Much of this as taken place on the internet, among people who are (or seem to be) friends or at least acquaintances. One of those men was Kevin DeYoung. He believed that he should write a book examining the Reformed Tradition’s view of sanctification. I, for one, is glad he did. The Hole in Our Holiness is that book.

Kevin avoids the temptation to write a polemic against other views. Instead, he is more positive approach, instructing people line upon line. He generally writes concisely, making the book accessible for lay people. He is not overly technical either. The most technical chapter is “Be Who You Are” because it covers our union in Christ. He does a good job explaining what it is, and how our sanctification flows out of that union.

DeYoung begins by addressing the odd gap that exists in broader Reformed circles. We speak much of being gospel-centered, but we don’t seem to be making as much progress in our sanctification as we would think. Isn’t the gospel sufficient? Yes, it is. And yet God has appointed various means of grace.

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In Seinfeld they talked about having “hand”, short for “the upper hand”, in a relationship. This is not to be confused with George’s short time as a hand model. They were addressing the reality that in relationships there is often one in control, the one who has the most power in the relationship.

This is not particular to human. My sister-in-law’s German short hair pointer Billy was “top dog” in their neighborhood for years. Those years have caught up to him, so he’s probably lost that status. The top dog is literally the dog on top because the dog on the bottom has submitted. He’s the boss.

Yesterday on the Shamrock Farms tour, I learned that cows have a pecking order. One is the boss and all the others know their place in line and follow along. This usually makes life much easier for the dairy farmer. Control the one cow, and you control the others in her group of 20.  When you have 10,000 cows, you can see why this matters.

Relationships are all about negotiating the balance of power.  Typically the one least concerned with the relationship has more power, “hand” and is in the driver’s seat. They have less need for the other person’s love, affection, admiration, attention etc. So they are less likely to be manipulated into doing the other person’s will.  We can see this in the recent labor negotiation in the NFL and NBA. The owners typically have the upper hand- they don’t need the sport to make a living. They have other revenue streams. The players on the other hand are dependent upon their paychecks.  Unions are only successful if a company has no other revenue streams. But in these cases, they don’t.

Edward Welch addresses this in his latest book, What Do You Think of Me? Why Do I Care?.

“We prefer to be liked, loved, admired more than we want to like, love, or admire. That imbalance gives power in a relationship, and by power I mean the less invested person has less chance of being hurt. So goes the arithmetic of human relationships.”

There you have it. The person who wants out of a relationship usually has all the power, unless the other person poses a physical, emotional or financial danger.  Most of us cave in when the other person leaves. What are our options? Unless we are willing to blackmail, beat or rob them blind we recognize we can’t win and move on with life.

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This weekend our Community Group wrapped up our study of Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands by Paul Tripp.  In that final chapter Tripp talked about self-identity and accountability.  I thought them an odd choice.

That was until we met together, I showed a few clips from Cool Runnings to illustrate the points and it all began to click as we talked together.

“We always live out some kind of identity, and the identities we assign ourselves powerfully influence our responses to life.”

Often our sins or our afflictions define us.  “My name is Fred, and I’m an alcoholic.”  You could substitute sex addict, bulimic or any number of sins.  We begin to identify ourselves with the patterns of sin in our lives.

We can also identify ourselves with our afflictions.  For some time I assigned myself “Failure”.  The church had “failed” and many seemed all too quick to assign that to me.  I began to own it.  Sometimes it starts with others assigning us the identity, but eventually we own it for ourselves.  I could be “loser”, “wimp”, “handicapped”, “divorced”, “single parent” or any host of self-identities.

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I recently had a conversation with some people who were uncertain about Sonship, a ministry of World Harvest Mission.  They thought the idea that we “never move beyond justification” (accepted by God on the basis of Jesus’ obedience) meant that Sonship did not move on to address our progressive sanctification (becoming more like Jesus in character & obedience).

I tried to explain that “not moving beyond justification” means that our acceptance before God is always based on Jesus’ substitutionary obedience and punishment.  We never become so good, so righteous that we no longer need the work of Messiah on our behalf.  We never out-grow our need to hear, and believe, the gospel.  As such, Sonship is a grace-oriented lifestyle.  Our salvation by grace alone through faith alone includes our sanctification.  As Paul chastized the Galatians, we do not start by grace and persevere by the flesh.  It is from grace to grace, as we trust God to apply the work of Jesus to us by the power of the Spirit.

I think that what throws some people off is that Sonship focuses on our new identity as adopted children of God as a foundation, with justification, for our progressive sanctification.  You find this most clearly in Walter Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.  Counterfeit sanctifaction is when we change through self-effort rather than by grace.  It is an attempt to earn or maintain our standing before God.  But properly understanding and believing in our justification and status as heirs frees us from such attempts, and we rely further for his grace to transform us.

Another aspect that throws some people off is the focus on sins of the heart instead of the external behaviors or sins.  Many people only address that which is seen- words, actions.  These are but the tip of the iceburg, or the stem of the weed.  Beneath them are attitudes of the heart and mind- idols- which produce these effects.  Our sinful attitudes and attachments are the ice below the surface, or the roots of the weed.  To truly make progress in our Christian experience, we must address these in addition to the visible sins.  If you don’t pull up the roots, the weed just grows back.  So, by grace, we seek to kill the root.

So we find that Sonship is concerned about sanctification, but it keeps our progress rooted in our justification, our new status, and addressing our heart in addition to our actions.  I find it to be a more biblical approach to life change, for, after all, grace teaches us to say ‘no’ to ungodliness (Titus 2).  I discover that I’m a bigger sinner than I ever imagined, but that Jesus is a greater Savior than I could ever imagine (1 Timothy 1:15).  Sonship is about gospel transformation!

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The struggle between faith and doubt takes place in every Christian’s heart.  Our circumstances can foster doubts.  These doubts will either drive the roots of faith deeper, or expose that our faith is misplaced such we “lose our faith.”

Dan Allender addresses this in The Wager of Faith, part of The Healing Path.  Here are some things I need to remember, and perhaps you need to remember as faith and doubt do war in your soul.

“Faith involves placing our well-being into the hands of others who we hope are committed to do us good.”

God is committed to my well-being.  Ruthlessly committed to my well-being.  This does not mean that my circumstances will be good, but that God is conforming me to the likeness of Christ (Romans 8:28-9).  Not everyone is so committed to my well-being, and sometimes we are betrayed.

“Our past may blind us or distort what we consider good or bad, but our conscience continues to warn, chide, and rejoice in truthful loving. … Faith is trust in the goodness of God.”

Our own sinfulness, our particular sins and how we’ve been sinned against color our perspective.  This creates some of the doubt we experience.  We struggle to believe that God is good when life is particularly difficult.  I know I do. 

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