Review: ‘One with Christ’ by Marcus Johnson

Johnson, Marcus Peter. One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013.

Aone with Christfter years of relative neglect, in the past century, the theme of union with Christ has begun to reclaim its important place at the heart of soteriology. In recent years, a number of biblical, systematic, and historical theologians have contributed to the revival of union with Christ, yet strangely, the trickle-down effect has been modest at best in the church, especially among evangelicals, where justification often sits in an otherwise soteriological void that sometimes incorporates a version of sanctification-lite (e.g., those who have been declared righteous will surely bear the appropriate fruit of redemption). Indeed, among the church populace at large, talk of benefits of Christ apart from justification and sanctification are often altogether lacking.

It is this tragedy that Marcus Johnson seeks to begin to correct in his recent volume One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation. His audience is decidedly the evangelical church and undergraduate students, though this is not to say that there is nothing here for the advanced theological student. Nevertheless, it is apparent that Johnson wishes to reintroduce the church to a theme that featured so prominently for the Protestant Reformers, particularly Martin Luther and John Calvin, yet largely fell away or found itself relegated mostly to talk of sanctification in the centuries to follow. In some sense, an evangelical ad fontes is at play—one that has received much attention in the wider scholarly guild of late—as Johnson appeals frequently to Luther and Calvin and chides many contemporary evangelical theologians for missing this emphasis.

Of the eight chapters, the first two appeared in the volume Evangelical Calvinism (ed. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow), which I previously reviewed for this blog. The two chapters constitute the more technical discussions on union with Christ, clarifying the ontology of union with Christ and its basic metaphysical contours. Chapter one, titled “The Nature of Union with Christ,” specifically outlines the trinitarian ontology of union and the manner in which this trinitarian spine provides the grounds to speak of a real, organic, and intimate union of the believer with Christ. Father, Son, and Spirit each feature in this union, as union with the Son by the Spirit enables intimate fellowship with the Father. The triune intimate fellowship ad intra serves as ontological pattern for the union that God effects in the person of the incarnate Son. Throughout the book, Johnson continually emphasizes that this union is “real” and “organic,” not metaphorical or spiritual. The fact that union with Christ is mediated by the Spirit and realized upon faith does not negate that this is no mere covenantal union of transferred headship. Nevertheless, Johnson treads lightly, choosing not to say too much with regard to the precise nature of this union, instead following Calvin’s lead in declaring the “sheer wonder” and “profound mystery” of such a “real” and “organic” yet Spirit-effected union (49).

Chapter two continues the careful treading, arguing that the realness of this union finds symmetry in the realness of natural humanity’s union with Adam and subsequent sin with him. Just as in Adam all are said to sin (Rom. 5), so also in organic union with Christ, all are said to be justified. Johnson demonstrates level-headedness, noting the important and sometimes insurmountable critiques raised against both specific realist and federalist versions of identity with Adam. Rather than defend and redeem what he sees to be devastating critiques on both sides, Johnson opts for a sort of third way that amounts to a chastened realism. Calling it “Christological realism,” Johnson contends that his version prioritizes union with Christ and seeks to work backwards to explain union with Adam in Pauline theology. Thus, while ultimately affirming realism, he seeks to avoid the pitfalls of traditional realism in the doctrine of the transmission of sin, which he sees as specifically vulnerable to extra-theological (read, “philosophical”) attempts to rationalize what is ultimately of the type of mystery that Johnson already declared for union with Christ. In this way, Johnson affirms his conviction that the New Testament makes the most sense with a realist reading but also distances himself from historical philosophical appeals to explain realism.

The rest of the book makes a significant turn in discourse, switching from ontological and metaphysical discussion to more pastoral and educational tones. That is, chapters three through eight seek to emphasize the various benefits that come through union with Christ. Whereas the first two chapters operate on the level of theological argument to say just what is this union that believers have with Christ, the remaining chapters speak of all that this entails for Christians. Using traditional Reformed categories, the discourse shifts to a celebration of sorts of redemption applied and applied abundantly in Christ, by the Spirit, in the forms of justification (ch. 3), sanctification (ch. 4), adoption (ch. 5), preservation (rather than perseverance) and glorification (ch. 6), the Church (ch. 7), and the sacraments—the visible words (ch. 8). In each chapter, Johnson’s attention is addressed toward the evangelical church that he finds sadly poverty-stricken because of its lack of appreciation for/understanding of the riches of these benefits due to its relative ignorance of union with Christ and evangelical scholars who have either short changed some of these benefits or have neglected them altogether. Rebuke certainly does not dominate the discussions, though, as Johnson works to correct the ignorance by unpacking the riches of each in light of the objective reality of “real,” “organic,” and “intimate” union with Jesus Christ.

 Evaluation

 There is much to commend in Johnson’s first book, for its strengths are significant. Of chief importance is the recovery of the person of Jesus Christ in evangelical soteriology. Johnson labors (successfully!) to emphasize the source of salvation: following especially Calvin’s lead, he rightly argues that apart from Christ, nothing. The benefits of salvation do not come to believers piecemeal or in a vacuum, as if the Father simply strikes believers with a lightning bolt that magically accounts for justification, sanctification, or any other benefit. Rather, as Johnson contends, all of the benefits are richly given in the person of Jesus Christ. Through Spirit-wrought union with him, the multi-faceted salvation of the gospel becomes reality for the Church. Two corollary strengths stem from this initial success: first, One with Christ demonstrates the unity of the soteriological blessings by joining them in the person of Christ and establishing the trinitarian economy in pouring out these blessings. The Spirit does not act independently of Father and Son but joins believers to the Son and brings them into fellowship with the Father. In this setting, the Spirit gives to believers from the abundance that is manifest in the incarnate Son and given him by the Father. Herein, there truly is unity to the soteriological blessings such that Calvin may call them collectively a gift, not gifts. Second, Johnson rightly emphasizes the unity of the body to whom the blessings are gifted, namely the Church. There is deep significance to the Church as the collective place where the Spirit rests and which the Spirit vivifies. The Church is the body of Christ and fittingly, by the Spirit, collectively receives the blessings of Christ. The evangelical church in whole is very much in need of hearing this good news.

As with most books, One with Christ does not avoid points of concern. Mention of three in particular should suffice. First, in what appears to be an uncomfortable blending of Calvin and Luther (by far the most cited theologians) with T. F. Torrance (easily the third most cited, though a distant third), Johnson seems to indicate that individuals’ union with Christ is objectively accomplished in the pre-creational divine act of election (“in some ineffable way,” p. 36). However, this sits uneasily with both basic understanding of the finitude of created beings who cannot exist in any state prior to their actual existence and the biblical principle of faith, which posits union on the basis of faith (a point Johnson readily endorses throughout the volume). For Torrance, following Barth, faith apparently only subjectively actualizes what is already objectively the case in election, while for Calvin, faith itself is the instrument of objective union with Christ. Johnson may well be the victim here of a poor choice of words, but on face value of his text, both concern and inconsistency seem to arise in his treatment of union and election.

Second, in his contention for “Christological realism” in opposition to traditional formulations of realism, this reader is left wondering whether he was victimized by sleight of hand. With one hand, Johnson acknowledges the weaknesses with traditional formulations of realism and accepts these as unsalvageable. With the other hand, he lifts up a version of realism stripped of any attempt at metaphysical explanation short of assertion of analogy to the mysterious “real,” “organic,” “intimate” union with Christ already affirmed. Yet some of the important critiques of realism do not address particular metaphysical defenses of realism but rather realism itself as a concept, thereby leaving “Christological realism” vulnerable to the same concerns. Furthermore, the assumption of symmetry between union with Christ and identity with Adam itself requires argument. In other words, that there is symmetry between the two economies on this level is not obvious. For instance, more than a few theologians have argued that the symmetry in Rom. 5 is only at the level of economies of existence, not organic union.

Finally, greater biblical discernment may be needed in the claim that God is not “pleased with our ‘moral goodness’ or ‘virtuous character.’ God, quite frankly, is not interested in our morality or virtue; he is interested in our reflecting his holiness. In fact, he contests our ability to determine right from wrong and good from evil” (135). Johnson’s concern is divine priority and initiative in the whole of sanctification and (apparently) slipping into some moralism wherein human action may merit favor before the Lord. Most assuredly, Johnson is correct on both fronts. Creaturely excellence (including moral excellence) has always been deeply dependent upon divine action, as is evident in Gen. 2 and the several biblical allusions to reconstituting (and heightening) this life-giving dependence by recapitulating the imagery of the Tree of Life. Johnson even rightly affirms human participation in divine action unto the believer’s sanctification. However, a false alternative enters when the choices are either God’s holiness or our holiness. Throughout Scripture, the imperative voice is used to affirm human striving for holiness, not least in the OT command repeated in 1 Pet. 1 to “be holy as I am holy.” If God did not delight in human strivings unto and attainment of holiness, this and other “moral” and “virtue”-inclined commands would be odd. Why command what God does not desire? Surely, human participation that includes development in personal virtuousness merits nothing before the Lord, but the same can and should be said of human participation that (somehow) had no need to account for personal holiness. The biblical command for personal holiness is not a matter of merit but rather of obedience, gratitude, and purpose. So, though Johnson is right to root holiness in God and even to allude to the need for the Spirit to produce the holiness of Christ in believers, it would be a false dichotomy and a strange reading of Scripture to deny that human participation includes non-meritorious training and striving unto virtue.

Concerns aside, Johnson’s work is a welcome and needed contribution to an evangelical church that has for too long fixated upon the benefits of Christ in isolation or under the assumption that they cause each other. Apart from laying hold of Christ himself, none of the blessings of Christ are available to humanity. Johnson’s contribution to the reeducation of the evangelical church is much appreciated.

Thanks to Crossway for providing a review copy of the book.

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About Ashish Varma

I am a PhD student under Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and my dissertation project pertains to defending the theological validity and identifying the dogmatic location of virtue in traditional Protestant thought, namely within the sphere of union with Christ. My wife Narissa and I attend College Church in Wheaton.
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