We Are Not Ourselves

I am sinless. 

I am sinful. 

I am holy.

I am profane. 

I am righteous. 

I am guilty. 

What is all this babbling about? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Christian identity. People talk about how our identity is in Christ, but they rarely talk explain what that means practically. A lot could be said about it, really. But I’ve been thinking about one aspect in particular. 

In one way, we have two selves as Christians. There is the old man and the new. Often these are treated as simply two sides to your mind or heart, one good and one evil, but it’s really so much deeper than that.

The truth is that Jesus has actually and entirely remade us. We were one kind of person, one kind of human being, before, but He has broken that down into tiny pieces and rebuilt it from the ground up. He did this in His death and resurrection. When He died on the Cross, the humanity of our old, fallen, natural selves was crucified—brutally executed under the wrath of God—with Him. And then we were raised with Him to a new humanity, perfectly purified from sin and filled with the life and glory of God.

So where does that leave us now? In Christ, we are already perfected. I’m not talking sentimentally. I’m not talking about our legal status before God. I’m saying that the human life of Jesus in heaven right now is our life. He is literally our perfection, our sanctification, our regeneration, our glorification. Our redeemed selves are hidden with Christ in God 

But this hiding is, for now, essential to grasp. We can’t see our new selves but in glimpses, shadows, and holy moments by faith. Our new selves are in Christ alone, hidden in heaven, and the only way to see them in the present on earth is by union with Christ.

Because, the thing is, right now we are not ourselves. In a certain way we are, but in a more important way we’re not. The selves we experience right now—the ones deeply scarred by sin, guilt, confusion, insufficiency, fear, doubt, weakness, and death—are expired. We were crucified. Our flesh was mortally wounded on Calvary in the flesh of Jesus. Our existence as sinners is passing away, fading like a time traveler who has murdered his young grandfather.

So right now we are walking paradoxes. We are still our natural and decaying selves, but by grace the Holy Spirit has united us to Jesus, in whom our true selves are hidden. Although our new selves will have to remain essentially hidden with Christ until He comes, because of our present union with Him by the Spirit we can begin to live, inasmuch as we depend on Jesus in faith, as new creatures even today. As we draw nearer to Jesus, we become in this mixed present more like who we really are in the Savior. Yet because Jesus still remains hidden in heaven, we cannot yet fully escape who we have been, our old and dead selves. 

This, then, thrusts us back onto the practices that take us to Jesus. Our only way to be who we really are is to know Him, which means we are bound to pray, to read the Scriptures which testify of Christ, to take our place within His Body, the Church, to serve the least of these with whom He so deeply identifies, and to feast upon His new creation nourishment weekly in the Supper, to recall the promise and identity of our baptisms, and to suffer for the Gospel. These things deepen our union with Christ. Self-denial and cross-bearing connect us to His death, which killed our old selves. Likewise, the active life of believing, knowing, and loving Jesus connects us to His resurrection by the Spirit. And by this resurrection we experience in advance our new creation selves as pure gift in the person of Jesus.

So for now, we march on in tension. Our old, corrupted selves remain alive in this age but dead in Christ. Our redeemed and holy selves remain hidden in this age (they belong to the age to come) but present in Christ. Yet out of these two realities, this age and the age to come in Jesus, one is superior. Jesus is victorious, and all reality opposed to His is already defeated. This means that we, in our darkness and pain and struggling, are not ourselves. Our true selves are hidden in Christ to be revealed on the last day. That is hope and comfort, for the selves we see now obviously have no place in glory or eternal life. But if this isn’t who we are, if in Jesus we are something far better, then we know that there is real hope for us all.

To adapt something T. F. Torrance once said:

This Caleb Smith you see is full of corruption, but the real Caleb Smith is hid with Christ in God and will be revealed  only when Jesus Christ comes again.

Amen.

We Are Not Ourselves

Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?

Sometimes you’re reading an old Church Father or something along those lines when you suddenly feel the need to stop in your tracks because you hit a quote like this one from St. Athanasius:

For the Son of God became man so that we might become god.

If you’re not from an Eastern tradition of Christianity, you might think that sounds heretical.Then there are other statements like of Irenaeus: “If the Word became a man, It was so men may become gods,” or of Augustine: “But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ‘For he has given them power to become the sons of God.’ If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.” 

So what does this all mean? Were the Church Fathers just raving heretics who missed important doctrines like monotheism and the Creator/creature distinction? Were they basically the predeccessors of New Age charlatans? I’m going to say “No,” and if that seems indefensible I will go on to explain why, and what the line of thought they’re talking about has to offer us today, specifically from a more Reformed perspective.

The doctrine we are specifically dealing with here is called theosis (also deification or divinization). Broadly speaking, the term just refers to a creature somehow becoming more like a god. For Christian theology in particular it is about a way of looking at salvation focused on our union with God. So what exactly does theosis mean in that context?

First, I should point out that despite the strong language in those quotes I just provided, none of these people thought that humans were somehow going to become equal to God, members of the Trinity, secondary deities, or anything along those lines. What they actually meant is more nuanced. They all believed that there is and can be only one true God, and that humans can’t just become another one, or something just like Him. So we can ignore the initial fear and try to find the reality that the writers were pointing toward by using deification language. Specifically, I will look at this from a Reformed perspective, through the lens of union with Christ.

In Reformed and Lutheran circles, doctrines of theosis are sometimes called Christification to emphasize that we are not dealing with some generic turing of men into gods but that what is happening in theosis is the transformation of humanity into the pure image of Christ, who is the image of God. Theosis means that through Jesus we participate in the life and glory of God, and that is where we find salvation.

What does this mean more specifically? I’ll break it down a little more clearly. Man by his mere flesh, his nature without God, has no true life or glory. He is little more than a smart and emotionally complex monkey. He will pass away after a brief, absurd, and often miserable existence filled with sin. His life and glory can come only from God, only from His ability and call to display the image of God. The glory of God is the true life of man. But because of sin, man is separated from the glory of God. This leaves him with only death and misery.

Jesus came in to resolve this problem. Being Himself God, He took upon human nature so that in His person there could be a humanity who is truly the image of the invisible God. Jesus, being that image unstained, lived a human life which was completely filled with the glory of God both in His power and in His holy character. Unlike Adam, He carried out that union of man’s life and God’s glory all the way to the grave and even back. Upon returning in a victorious resurrection, He was glorified as a renovated human being. His resurrected humanity far surpassed the old, mortal kind. It was and remains filled to the brim with God’s life and glory. Jesus is therefore what God looks like as a man. Jesus’ glory as the resurrected Lord is the human version of the glory of God. He is the image of the invisible God, and the only person in whom human nature has been able to align perfectly with divine nature (though without the two being mixed up together). To reiterate in one more way, in Jesus God’s glory has been translated into a human glory, a glory owned by the risen Christ.

The result with Jesus, then, is this: in Him there exists a form of humanity that far surpasses our fallen, sinful state, and even surpasses Adam’s state in Eden. It is filled with more life, glory, and power than man has ever known because of His union with God the Father through the Holy Spirit.This is humanity grown up, perfected, and exalted as God’s partner in love. This is not by any power inherent in mere humanity, but by grace alone, the free grace of the Son in choosing to become man, the free grace of the Father in resurrecting and glorifying His Son, and the grace of the Holy Spirit in binding this all together by His sovereign power. And by this grace Jesus has formed a kind of humanity which, compared to us in our current state, is so exalted and like-God to possibly justify calling it deified humanity, man become god.

Now, because of this new kind of human existence which Jesus alone possesses by nature, a special union between God and man, the rest of us are invited to join in. But we are called by grace alone through a union of faith with Jesus in the Spirit. And in this union we are transformed. We get to participate in the new, glorious humanity of Christ. We are conformed to the image of Christ (thus Christification), who is the image of God. So by the Spirit we become like the Son who is the exact expression of the Father. In this way we also come to be filled with and to express God’s life and glory. The glory of God became the glory of the man Jesus, and by our union with Him it becomes our glory as well. This is, in the end, our salvation. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we commune with God so much as to become like Him in a supernatural way which transcends the natural possibilities of anything else in creation. As Peter put it, we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), not to become literal equals to God or sub-gods but to become in our human existence what Jesus is in His human existence, an existence which is created and animated by His divine nature.

The focus, then, is all about union with Christ. Theosis, in a Reformed key, is a way of saying, on the basis of Scripture alone, that by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone we are radically transformed and exalted from our totally depraved human existence to a state which lives by and expresses the glory of God alone. By the Spirit and word we know Christ, by Christ we know God, and by knowing God in Christ we are conformed to His image to His glory unto eternal life (2 Cor. 3:18, 1 Jn. 3:2, John 17:3).

This naturally makes for a great Christmas meditation. In theosis, everything has to go back to Christmas. If Jesus did not incarnate, if He did not enter our human existence as an infant in Bethlehem, then there would be no union between God and man, no restoration of human nature by the glory of God. It all began with the Son of God becoming a Son of Man, so that we might become sons of God. On Christmas, we find that by Jesus’ grace He partook in our nature, so that by the same grace we could partake in His.

Or, perhaps as Clement of Alexandria put it, “The Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become god.” Merry Christmas, children of God!

Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?

Through the EC Book: A Declaration about Union with Christ

I recently started the first volume of Evangelical Calvinism, the big book of essays meant to explain and present the basic mood and mode of this growing development in Reformed theology which goes by that name. It is something of an EC inaugural announcement, showing the basics of what an Evangelical Calvinist approach to the Reformed tradition can look like.

Needless to say, I’m excited. Last night I read the prologue, which was actually just a copy of a declaration by the Presbyterian Church (USA) about union with Christ. It makes for a lovely introduction to how Evangelical Calvinism views theology as a whole, which really is all about union with Christ. Because I love it so much, and because it does a great job indicating the basic mood and direction of EC theology, I’m going to quote it in full (the original can be found here):

Union In Christ: A Declaration

With the witness of Scripture and the Church through the ages we declare:

I.

Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God to the world and for the world.
He is Emmanuel and Savior,
One with the Father,
God incarnate as Mary’s son,
Lord of all,
The truly human one.

His coming transforms everything.

His Lordship casts down every idolatrous claim to authority.
His incarnation discloses the only path to God.
His life shows what it means to be human.
His atoning death reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.
His bodily resurrection shatters the powers of sin and death.

II.

The Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus Christ by grace alone, uniting our life with his through the ministry of the Church.

In the proclamation of the Word, the Spirit calls us to repentance, builds up and renews our life in Christ, strengthens our faith, empowers our service, gladdens our hearts, and transforms our lives more fully into the image of Christ.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore the need for repentance, that discount the transforming power of the Gospel, or that fail to pray, hope and strive for a life that is pleasing to God.

In Baptism and conversion the Spirit engrafts us into Christ, establishing the Church’s unity and binding us to one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that seek unity in theological pluralism, relativism or syncretism.

In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit nurtures and nourishes our participation in Christ and our communion with one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that allow human divisions of race, gender, nationality, or economic class to mar the Eucharistic fellowship, as though in Christ there were still walls of separation dividing the human family.

III.

Engrafted into Jesus Christ we participate through faith in his relationship with the Father.

By our union with Christ we participate in his righteousness before God, even as he becomes the bearer of our sin.

We turn away from any claim to stand before God apart from Christ’s own righteous obedience, manifest in his life and sacrifice for our sake on the cross.

By our union with Christ we participate in his knowledge of the Father, given to us as the gift of faith through the unique and authoritative witness of the Old and New Testaments.

We turn away from forms of church life that discount the authority of Scripture or claim knowledge of God that is contrary to the full testimony of Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Spirit working in and through the community of faith across time.

By our union with Christ we participate in his love of the Father, manifest in his obedience “even unto death on the cross.”

We turn away from any supposed love of God that is manifest apart from a continual longing for and striving after that loving obedience which Christ offers to God on our behalf.

IV.

Though obscured by our sin, our union with Christ causes his life to shine forth in our lives. This transformation of our lives into the image of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit begun in this life as a sign and promise of its completion in the life to come.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in the holiness of the One who fulfilled the Law of God on our behalf.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore Christ’s call to a life of holiness, or that seek to pit Law and Gospel against one another as if both were not expressions of the one Word of God.

By our union with Christ we participate in his obedience. In these times of moral and sexual confusion we affirm the consistent teaching of Scripture that calls us to chastity outside of marriage and faithfulness within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to pray for and strive after a rightly ordered sexuality as the gracious gift of a loving God, offered to us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We also turn away from forms of church life that fail to forgive and restore those who repent of sexual and other sins.

V.

As the body of Christ the Church has her life in Christ.

By our union with Christ the Church binds together believers in every time and place.

We turn away from forms of church life that identify the true Church only with particular styles of worship, polity, or institutional structure. We also turn away from forms of church life that ignore the witness of those who have gone before us.

By our union with Christ the Church is called out into particular communities of worship and mission.

We turn away from forms of church life that see the work of the local congregation as sufficient unto itself, as if it were not a local representation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church called together by the power of the Spirit in every age and time until our Lord returns.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in God’s mission to the world:
to uphold the value of every human life,
to make disciples of all peoples,
to establish Christ’s justice and peace in all creation,
and to secure that visible oneness in Christ that is the
promised inheritance of every believer.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to bear witness in word and deed to Christ’s compassion and peace, and the Gospel of salvation.

By our union with Christ the Church participates in Christ’s resurrected life and awaits in hope the future that God has prepared for her. Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Through the EC Book: A Declaration about Union with Christ

Whose Glory? On the Transfiguration

Alastair Roberts, a favorite blogger of mine, has just finished a 10-part series on the Transfiguration. It’s really interesting, and I highly recommend it for any of you who can fathom 10 blog posts covering just the Transfiguration. Reading this series has given me two thoughts I feel are worth sharing, one more directly from the series and less directly.

The first point of note is the dramatic role of the Transfiguration in the history of Israel and their God. From time to time in Israel’s history, God was seen, but never fully. Moses saw God’s back, the 70 elders saw His feet, Isaiah saw His robe and throne, but His face was not ever mentioned or described. It is something like in a TV show where you never see an important background character, only having name-drops, instructions, references, and maybe even an occasional glimpse of part of their body. Yahweh’s face remained a mystery, one too glorious for human viewing.

Yet there are references linking the Transfiguration to these events, and it is portrayed as essentially the same thing: a theophany. In the Transfiguration, the glory of God is revealed on a mountain like so many times before. But this time that glory shines from a face. The face hidden throughout the Old Testament is revealed, and it is no other face than that of Jesus Christ. Yahweh is no other God than the God whose fullness dwells bodily in Christ, of whose glory the Son is the radiance and exact expression. The face of the main character of the Old Testament finally comes into view, and it was Jesus all along. Now we know who God really is: whoever has seen Jesus has seen Him.

The other interesting point that I drew from Alastair’s posts is this glory is to become our glory. The glory which Jesus bears by nature as the Son of God, we will one day share by grace as sons of God. See, the glory which was revealed in the Transfiguration has been alternately viewed by some either as a divine glory (which Alastair focuses on) or as a prefigured resurrection glory. But there is no need to separate these. The glory of Jesus, of the one who is both God and man, is the glory of God in a human “shape.” Before Jesus rose, this glory remained veiled, with a single peek coming through in the Transfiguration. When He did rise, He was exalted and could be fully and simply an example of a glorious human filled with the life and glory of God.

We are also united to Christ, though. We share in His death and His resurrection, and one day will experience that fullness when our bodies are brought to new life. At that point, when Christ returns, John tells us, “what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him because we will see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2), Paul notes that we are “looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18), and Peter says that we will “share in the divine nature, escaping the corruption that is in the world” (2 Pet. 1:4). Our resurrection, an event in theology often called “glorification,” is the time that we will share the glory of Christ, who is the glory of God. The Transfiguration glory is our destiny. We will be truly and fully humans in the image and likeness of the Triune God. Or, as Irenaeus put it, “the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ…did…become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”1

With all of this in mind, let us read the Transfiguration account and be moved to worship. Jesus is the God who has been working in salvation history from Abraham to Malachi and beyond, and He is so gracious as to unite us with Himself and raise us to His very own glory. Amen!

Whose Glory? On the Transfiguration

How Pentecost Saves Us

Today is Pentecost Sunday, a day which often does not receive much attention in evangelical churches. That’s a bit of a shame, so for this Pentecost Sunday I want to peek into the role that Pentecost plays in our salvation through Christ. We all know that Good Friday matters, and I have written before on how Easter and the Ascension matter, but how does Pentecost save us?

After Jesus ascended, His followers were left waiting for the power to go out and become His witnesses.1 It was an awkward moment in which Jesus was no longer there, and the disciples had nothing to launch them forward. Yet before long, Pentecost arrived, and suddenly the Holy Spirit appeared and filled them all.2 Immediately the Church came to life in power. In the course of a day, 3000 people were converted. Something marvelous had just changed in the life of the Apostles. What exactly happened, though, and what is its significance?

What we are seeing here is the completion of Christ’s work of salvation. Jesus dealt with the sin problem, rose victorious to new life, and ascended to the throne of creation at the Father’s right hand. Still, one thing was left. Paul tells us that without the Spirit of Christ, there is no union with Christ.3 Without union with Christ, salvation in Him is still distant. The Apostles were waiting, not merely for power, but for the fullness of salvation itself. At Pentecost, the ascended Lord of the world poured out His own Spirit on His people so that, through this Spirit, they could receive the life He won for them and brought into heaven in God’s presence.

Yet this is where I will introduce a belief I have acquired from studying Scripture which I have not often heard, and which I know some people will not accept. I only add it because I believe it is core to what happened at Pentecost. On that day, the Church was baptized into the Spirit and born again. The new life they received through the Spirit isn’t just any new life, but the life of the new birth. For the first time in history, lost humans were regenerated.

The Biblical support for this view is, I believe, solid. It is clear enough that at Pentecost the Church received the Holy Spirit. Specifically, in receiving the Holy Spirit I propose that they received the new resurrection life of Christ which is the new birth. Some of the first Biblical evidence for this is found in John, where there is a constant connection between the new birth, water, the Spirit, and eternal life.4 In John Jesus teaches that the washing of the new birth will come with the gift of the Holy Spirit, which of course took place at Pentecost. John also specifically highlights that the Spirit was not given in this way before Jesus’ glorification.5

More evidence for this is found in the Old Testament prophecies about the New Covenant. In the prophets, it was foretold that God would restore His people from their exile, give them a new and better covenant, create in them a new heart of flesh rather than stone, and put His Spirit within them.6 This “heart transplant” is certainly to be identified with regeneration, and yet it is bound up with the giving of the New Covenant and the Holy Spirit. These were not Old Covenant realities, but new gifts brought to Israel through Jesus, the living Flesh of the New Covenant who replaces the Torah written on stone as the heart of God’s people.

We see, then, full Biblical reason to identify the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost as the giving of new birth to Israel, producing the Church who lives through Christ’s resurrection life. Pentecost is therefore the time of a truly new beginning, the day that salvation fully entered the lives of Christ’s followers. Even today, we who are alive in Christ have been born again because we have been given the same Spirit who was first given nearly 2000 years ago during the Feast of Weeks.

In this way, then, we see that even Pentecost, an event which occurred almost two months after the Crucifixion, plays a major role in salvation. It was at Pentecost that the Spirit was given, and with Him new life. We are united with the risen and ascended Lord who paid the penalty for our sins because He gave us His Holy Spirit. By this union we experience new life. By this union we are saved. Even Pentecost saves us.

How Pentecost Saves Us

In Christ, Out of Christ? For Eternal Security, from a Union with Christ Perspective

[For the second of these two essays, I will be arguing a defense of eternal security, after having written in opposition, again from a union with Christ perspective. You readers can judge between the two.]

For Eternal Security: Born Anew in Christ to a Faithful Father

In his first epistle, John explains the existence of false teachers in the church in this way: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us, because if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But they went out from us to demonstrate that all of them do not belong to us.”1 While one verse should never be the end-all be-all of any theology, there is much reason to believe that this verse should be understood not only as an explanation of false teachers, but for all who might appear to have “lost their salvation.” The grounds for this: Biblically, those who have truly been born again into union with Christ find that their union is firm and unchangeable, protected by their gracious new Father, unlike the apostates who embed themselves like cancer cells into Christ’s body on earth. The blessings of union with Christ should be understood as permanent, beginning with the moment of regeneration, the new birth.

At what point is someone to be understood as “saved?” In the Biblical order, this can first be said after regeneration, what John records Jesus as also calling being born again (or born from above, depending on the translation).2 This is the work of God, by which one enters into union with Christ, from whom all saving blessings flow.3 Scripture teaches that everyone who believes in Jesus as the Christ has been born of God,4 and that everyone who believes in Jesus and comes to Him will never be cast out, but in fact will be raised from the dead on the last day.5 Therefore the new birth is accompanied with the promise of resurrection, which is just that: a promise. In fact, there is good Biblical reason to believe that the new birth is nothing other than the personal beginning of the resurrection, though arguing that point is beyond the scope of this essay. Once born again into union with Christ, then, resurrection is assured. As brothers of Christ6 and children of God, there is no plausible alternative. Paul says in simple terms on this, “For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection.”7 To be born again at all is to be born into a firm and secure union with the faithful Son of a faithful Father, which ends in resurrection.

The security of the believer’s union with Christ is not magic or automatic, though, but the result of the kindness of the Father. He is the one who has promised to finish the good work which He began through Christ,8 to strengthen His children to the end so that they will be blameless on the last Day.9 Jesus explains that His work is not only to save, but to save all the way to the resurrection, those whom the Father has entrusted into His care, because this is the Father’s will.10 This is indeed the entire point of Romans 8:28-39. God works all things for good for His children, carrying them through the whole timeline of salvation from beginning to end, and allows nothing in heaven and earth to undo what He has accomplished. To suggest that salvation might somehow end is to say that there are things in heaven or earth which for some reason the Father will fail to work out for the good of His children. Yet there is no reason to suspect that the human heart’s weaknesses and sinfulness is exempt from the endless dangers God promises to carry His people through. God is able to save His people to the uttermost, for “nothing is impossible with God,”11 and He will do so, for He “does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”12 Ultimately, the Father will save all who are born of God, because they are brothers in union with His only-begotten Son, to whom He will ever be faithful.13

If, though, the Father does graciously preserve all who are born again into union with Christ, how should those who appear to be united to Christ by faith but later fall away be understood? To understand this, the previously cited text from 1 John is key. The false teachers only broke fellowship with the true Church because they never truly shared the same union with the Head of the Church. This is, to be sure, not only true of false teachers, but everyone who apostatizes (leaves the faith). There is ample evidence for this. For example, 2 Peter 2:20-22, which so often is cited to say that salvation can be lost, ends with two proverbs that make essentially the opposite point. “A dog returns to its own vomit” and “A sow, after washing herself, wallows in the mire” both indicate that the nature of apostates never changed. They were dogs and pigs in the beginning, and remained dogs and pigs until the end. They never experienced the transformation of new birth into sanctifying union with Christ, or else how would they still be dogs and pigs? Jesus likewise, in His parable of the soils, indicates that there was always a difference between those who believe to the end and those who fall away: they were different kinds of soil all along.14 This all is consistent with the view of the new birth presented above: those who truly believe are united to Christ in a transforming new birth, initiating them into the resurrection life which will not fail or perish. If someone falls away, this is evidence that they never were part of Christ. Rather, they are like a cancer: destructive cells of different DNA that may embed themselves in the body for a time, but a good surgeon will eventually expose and remove them.

All of this comes together in a coherent and Biblical picture. For a person to be united with Jesus in His death and resurrection through the new birth brings a permanent transformation in nature and relationship. Because of the careful concern and by the omnipotent power of the Father, all whom He has redeemed will remain redeemed. To be “in Christ” is permanent, for no one who comes to Him will ever be cast out. Those who do leave the faith are false converts, cancerous insertions into the body of Christ which do not belong. Ultimately, Christians can have confidence that they will are secure in Christ, born into a new, imperishable resurrection life, sustained by grace through faith.

Brief Response against Eternal Security

This is, no doubt, a good case, and the new birth was certainly not given a full place in my other essay. Nonetheless, some problems remain in this case. For one, the last point, that apostates were never really born again, is itself not particularly strong. If you take it as the logical outworking of the first two paragraphs, it makes sense, but the Scriptural case isn’t very tight. Using possible implications of two proverbial phrases to overturn the natural reading of 2 Peter 2:20-22 is, for example, at best questionable. Likewise, all of the verses cited are in their contexts specifically about false teachers. That doesn’t prove they don’t also apply to all people who fall away, but it nonetheless raises something of a red flag.

I also think it was a mistake not to address John 15 at all, given that it is one of the major texts for the other side and the pro-eternal security interpretation is not obvious. It seems to make the exact opposite point as the second paragraph of this essay. Does the Father guarantee unconditional perseverance? That text is relevant to the question.

Finally, it seems that the argument establishing the new birth as creating a permanent situation overstates the Scriptural case. Most of the promises cited in the first paragraph still make perfect sense with the conception of union with Christ in my other essay, as applying to whoever is a believer, without assuming that all believers will stay believers. On the flip side, the warning passages do not make obvious sense using this essay’s approach.

In Christ, Out of Christ? For Eternal Security, from a Union with Christ Perspective

In Christ, Out of Christ? Against Eternal Security, from a Union with Christ Perspective

[For the first of my two “union with Christ”-focused eternal security essays, I will argue that salvation can be lost. In the next post I will argue that it cannot, and leave you readers to judge.]

Against Eternal Security: Union with Christ, Tended by the Father

“You have fallen away from grace!”1 declared Paul to the Galatians who followed the Judaizers. There are many more statements like this one, and warnings along the same lines, in the New Testament. Paul, the author of Hebrews, John, and even Jesus all make similar remarks. Taken at face value, they seem to teach that one you are in God’s grace, a state most would call “saved,” there is still a possibility that you can walk (or perhaps, as in the Galatians’ case, fall) away. This essay will argue that the face value, one might say “literal,” reading is correct. In particular, three points must be made: that salvation is Christ’s possession alone in which believers share by spiritual union, that this union is maintained at the discretion of the Father and may be cut off in His judgment, and that these two factors nonetheless allow for a believer to be secure in his place and encourage a godly lifestyle. This whole appears to be the clear teaching of Scripture. The Biblical nature of this model is clear from the first point, that “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”2

That salvation is first and foremost the possession of Jesus Himself rather than that of individual believers is key to understanding why people can forfeit grace. Christians do not “have” salvation like one “has” a car. Rather, if the car analogy is continued, Christians share in salvation much like a child shares in the use of his parents’ vehicles. This continued sharing is sustained by union with Christ through His Spirit. Many lines of Biblical evidence support this view. In Revelation, the saints cry out that “salvation belongs to our God!”3 The apostle John defines eternal life not as something Christians get, but as the Lord Jesus Himself and knowing Him.4 Paul likewise explains that God gives eternal life as a gift which is located “in Christ Jesus our Lord,”5 and that there is no condemnation specifically for people who are “in Christ Jesus.”6 Believers are not sons of God in and of themselves, but by virtue of their union with Christ.7 This “in Christ” language is not mere fluff, decoration designed to remind the reader that Jesus saves. Rather, to say people are saved in Christ is to say that their salvation is altogether experienced through personal union with Him, who Himself is “wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”8 None should forget: what a person has by sharing with the owner, he may lose if he ruins the relationship.

If salvation is enjoyed exclusively as Christ’s possession by union with Him, then the possibility presents itself that one could lose what is not properly his own. There is evidence in Scripture that this can and indeed does happen at the discretion of the Father. The primary evidence for this can be found John 15. Jesus says that He is the Vine, and His Father is the Gardener. The Gardener removes every branch in Him which does not bear fruit.9 These removed branches are thrown into the fire and burned up.10 While various attempts have been made to argue that Jesus is speaking here of people who only appear to be united to Him, or perhaps are only united to Him “externally” through the “visible church,” nothing in the passage indicates this, and such an interpretation smacks of eisegesis. Jesus commands His disciples to remain in Him, quite directly implying that they might not do so, instead to be pruned by the Father. The most straightforward reading of the text is as follows: people who believe in Christ are united to Him like branches on a vine. If they do not remain in Him (presumably through faith), and thus they do not produce fruit, and the Father will cut them off and cast them into fire. Outside of this text, there is other evidence that judgment awaits those who once believed in Christ but depart from the faith.11 While people often argue that this temporary faith is not a “true” faith, a “saving” faith, this seems to be a cop-out. Of course faith without works is dead,12 but this does not imply that people who live active Christian lives for years before apostatizing (of whom there are very many) never had real faith. All of this evidence, on the other hand, makes straightforward sense if union with Christ through faith is the controlling concept. Those who trust in Christ are in Christ and enjoy salvation so long as they believe, but if they lose faith, if they stop trusting and abiding in Jesus, they are cut off from the only source of salvation.

None of this is to say that there is no security for the believer, or that his salvation becomes dependent upon himself. That would contradict the entire first point of this argument, that salvation is of Christ from first to last, and is entirely His work and possession. As mentioned earlier, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”13 Jesus will never cast out anyone who comes to Him.14 God promises to work in His children and sanctify them continually until the day of Christ.[Philippians 1:9] Yet the error of one-sidedness must be avoided. The Lord may be faithful, and He will not break His promises to those who are in Christ, but there is no promise that everyone who is in Christ will automatically remain in Christ. Even though the faith through which one is united to Christ is a gift from God,15 faith is a gift which can wither away through neglect and disobedience, leading to judgment.16 This is not a works-salvation, requiring continued obedience to stay justified before God. Rather, this is union-with-Christ-salvation, which requires only that the union not be broken through abandonment. For those who believe but wish to believe more,17 there is always grace. Whoever trusts in Christ, and only ever comes to Him alone in faith seeking His acceptance, he will find rest and security. This could even be called a kind of “eternal security:” everyone who is united to Christ through faith can be assured that his eternity is secure in Christ. Yet no one should think that he will enjoy permanent blessings if he stops trusting in the Son who is Himself eternal life. The Father loves the Son too much to allow such an offense to go unchallenged.

The conclusion, then, is not difficult to follow. Salvation is enjoyed by union with Christ, but union with Christ is through faith, and if faith departs the salvation in Christ is no longer accessible. Yet from the position of being in Christ, salvation is fully secure, as Jesus has full possession of it. Each of these points makes sense both from what Scripture says and what is theologically consistent. The doctrine of eternal security must deny the Father’s pruning of the faith-less branches, or change the vine from Jesus Himself into a visible representation of Him (e.g. the outward church), or redefine the nature of the relationship between vine and branch. Yet Christ is the true Vine, all who trust in Him, even for a time, are His true branches, and those who cease to believe in Him are cast into the fire, just as the Scriptures teach.

Brief Response for Eternal Security

Naturally, being myself the writer of this essay, I think it makes sense and the points are fairly good. But I can represent both sides easily, so from the other side I have a few criticisms. First off, the “take the Bible at face value” setup in the beginning is, as almost always, unnecessary. Proponents of eternal security will only take the verses used here as something besides face value because they want to take certain other verses at face value (e.g. Romans 8:28-39).

This essay also seems to neglect the role of the new birth which occurs when people are first united to Christ. While one can easily grant that salvation is exclusively Jesus’ own possession, in which we share simply by faith, is it unreasonable to think that, once united to Jesus and born again, certain permanent changes occur which prevent falling away? The Apostle John, cited so much in this essay, seems to give that impression throughout his first epistle. Likewise, John 6, which is also cited here at one point, seems to state quite strongly that those who come to Christ will certainly be raised at the last day, unless an alternative interpretation can be set forth (which, if possible, is at least not attempted in this essay).

It should also be noted that on both sides, we agree that unfaithful people, even if they used to act like good Christians, will not be saved. Yet is it really as implausible as this essay dismissively states that those who fall away like this were never really united to Christ to begin with? There is some Biblical reason to think so (1 Jn. 2:19, 2 Pet. 2:22).

In the end, while there are some good points here, there still seem to be some important unanswered questions and concerns which may warrant backing away from this approach. A fatal blow to the doctrine of eternal security this is not.

In Christ, Out of Christ? Against Eternal Security, from a Union with Christ Perspective