Union with Christ is central to the doctrine of salvation, theologian Fred Sanders told the Southern Seminary community during this year’s Norton Lecture Series, held February 9-10 at the Heritage Hall.
Sanders gave three lectures on “Union with Christ, systematically considered. Sanders is professor of theology at the University of Biola and author of numerous books, including The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything and The Triune God.
In the first lecture, Sanders argued that union with Christ is a unifying theme in soteriology, even if it is sometimes underestimated in contemporary theology.
“Although it is logical to speak of the Christian doctrine of God or the The Christian Doctrine of Incarnation,” Sanders said, “somehow it seems less believable in the contemporary world to assert that there is one Christian doctrine of salvation.
“It is the powerful scriptural and spiritual impulse towards union with Christ that gave birth to beliefs.”
Featured prominently in early church councils and in the writings of the reformer John Calvin, union with Christ is fundamental to any unified Christian teaching on salvation, he argued.
In the other lectures, Sanders examined the doctrine biblically and theologically.
Union with Christ is one of the key themes of the theology of the apostle Paul, especially in Romans 5-6 and the first two chapters of Ephesians – often summed up concisely in two words: in Christ . But the doctrine is also present in the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, he said.
Sanders presented several complementary definitions of the gospels, agreeing with another contemporary theologian that a gospel is “the life of Christ written in his presence”. A crucial part of a Christian’s union with Christ is for a believer to read the story of Jesus’ life with Jesus spiritually present in the believer. Another Gospel Sanders definition given that relates to union with Christ is “a life of Christ written in his presence for the purpose of being read in his presence”.
Sanders said, “The gospels exist because the risen Christ oversees this type of written record of his life. When Jesus rose from the dead, not only did he come back to life, but he also brought back with him the life he had already lived. In addition to being physically elevated now, he was also now – we might say – biographically elevated. His biography came alive with him and manifested his identity as the human life of a divine person.
“This biography is where we seek to know him as he still is now – the medium for a personal encounter with Jesus here and now is the record of what he did and said then and there. The writing of a gospel is made possible by the Holy Spirit. Writing is also shaped by the presence of the living whose story it is told. The living presence makes a crucial difference in what is selected and how it is told because the words of a Gospel are the self-presentation of the risen Christ.
Building on the work of the theologian Hugh Martin – particularly in his Christological work The permanent presence—Sanders showed the devotional importance of understanding more deeply our union with Christ. Too often, Sanders said, Christians tend to settle for the simple biography of Jesus to the exclusion of Jesus’ spiritual presence — or vice versa.
To leave out either the life of Christ as expressed by the evangelists or the presence of Christ as we read about it in the Holy Scriptures is spiritually unhealthy, sometimes even leaving us with a Jesus of our own making.
“One fear is that many believers may settle for a life of Jesus that is not much more than a life of Lincoln or Napoleon or Frederick Douglas,” Sanders said, quoting Martin in part.
“If all we had was the presence of the risen Christ but no written biography, what would we have? A powerful spiritual reality – Christ himself – but what would be our thoughts and conceptions about that presence? What would guide or shape them? It’s all vague and solemn, very hazy — very encouraging and consoling — but also very indefinite and a bit ghostly. Soon, instead of a concrete knowledge of the life of Jesus Christ, our lives and our affections would be filled with emotions, imaginations and conceptions of our own provision, mere pietistic and sentimental conceptions of his existence.
“Many believers risk settling for an untrained and undisciplined sense of the presence of Christ that always transforms into a personal Jesus fashioned to fit our own heads or hearts.”
Sanders recommended a book by Puritan theologian Isaac Ambrose, Watch Jesusas a solid resource for deep meditation on a Christian’s union with Christ.
“One of the important parts of Ambrose’s work is that he shows the difference between knowing a doctrine and considering it,” Sanders said. “Considering a truth about Jesus is a step further than knowing. To consider is to digest a truth to strengthen and nourish our souls. This is the work of meditation. We need both ways of looking at Jesus.
He pointed out that theologians and seminary students often read far more theological truth than they can meditate on and experience in a short period of time. Union with Christ is one of those doctrines that deserves a deep dive and deeper meditation, he said, because the Holy Spirit has revealed so much about Christ and a Christian’s relationship. with him in doctrine.
“You’ll absorb more truth in an afternoon than you can experience, so you’re very heavy that way, walking around with a bunch of notions that you haven’t experienced yet,” he said. .
“There is no way to catch up. If you read a lot of theology, you will always have more in your head. You just have to remember to keep a card in your pocket (that says) “I don’t actually have an experiential understanding of anything that I know to be true.” But we must always work toward a deeper experiential understanding of God’s truth.