Books Soteriology

Transformation through union with Christ







Having described the effects of our legal change in status through union with Christ, Robert Letham proceeds to discuss the internal transformation that results from our union, in the fifth chapter of  Union with Christ: in Scripture, History and Theology.

A recap of  Letham’s presentation

Letham summarizes the key biblical texts that address the inner effect of our union with Christ and then he discusses sanctification. He describes the definitive, already complete, aspect of our sanctification, in which we are transferred from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of God’s Son, having died with Christ and risen to newness of life, by the power of the Holy Spirit. This has ongoing ethical effects in our daily lives, as the Spirit transforms us into the image of Christ.

Letham acknowledges that Reformed theologians have struggled to identify the place of union with Christ within the traditional ordo salutis (“order of salvation”), but he warns against abandoning the concept of order. Instead, he proposes that a healthy biblical understanding of union with Christ preserves and enhances the concept, “by pointing to its integrating feature” (90).

In this chapter, Letham’s study of Eastern Orthodox theology bears particularly helpful results, as he examines the concept of theôsis, which is central to the Orthodox view of salvation, but which he believes has “usually been misunderstood” by Reformed theologians, who fear that it entails “the pagan notion of apotheôsis, humanity being elevated to divine status, undergoing ontological change” (91). Although Letham grants that some grounds for Reformed misgivings can be found in Eastern teaching, the Orthodox doctrine of theôsis more typically “encompasses under one umbrella what in Reformed theology is understood to occur in the entire movement of God’s grace in transforming us into his image in Christ: regeneration, sanctification, glorification combined” as one seamless process (92). This Letham unpacks through a brief study of the work of Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria.

For Athanasius, the first movement in theôsis took place in the incarnation, when the Son deified human nature by uniting it with the divine nature in himself. This union of the natures within the person of the Son is foundational for our own deification. It is not that we cease to be human, any more than Christ’s humanity was not real humanity, but “by participating in the Holy Spirit we become holy,” and “by participating in the Logos, we are able to contemplate the Father” (93, citing Letters to Serapion on the Holy Spirit, 1:23-24). Eventually, we will become exactly like Christ according to our humanity (2 Cor 3:18; 1 Jn 3:1-2). Participation in the life of God is what produces the renewal of our nature, as we share in the bond of love of the Father and the Son and finally enter into the kingdom of heaven in the likeness of Christ (94).

Cyril goes beyond Athanasius in emphasizing our relationship to the whole Trinity, in which the three persons are indivisible in the one identical being of God. Only the Son is God by nature, but we are children of God by participation, through the work of Spirit (Jn 14:24; and especially 2 Pet 1:4). In our experience, the transformation comes about through baptism, the Eucharist, and the moral life. It is not a private mystical experience but “a transformation effected within the ecclesial body” (95, citing Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition, 204).

Letham proceeds to unpack the biblical case for theôsis, which is most prominent in 2 Peter 1:3-4, John 14:66ff., 1 John 3:2, Ephesians 1, and 2 Corinthians 8, but which is connected to all of the New Testament references to the transformation that flows from our union with Christ. In the second moment of union, which was inaugurated with the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, “man’s nature assumes the form of the deified humanity of Christ,” and this “takes place not through the destruction of human characteristics but through their transformation” (99). What happens in us is “a microcosm of the redemption of the whole created order,” which “will be transformed and suffused with the glory of God,” at the parousia (100).

The language of deification is unfamiliar to many Protestants, but Letham demonstrates that the concept is part of the heritage of the western church, being found frequently in Augustine. He equated theôsis with our adoption as sons (sermon 192), since “the Son of God was made the Son of Man that the sons of men might be made sons of God” (sermon on Ps 82). Similarly, Thomas Aquinas agreed with his eastern contemporary, Gregory of Palamas, “that salvation consists in becoming participants in the divine nature, but also on the theological factors that surround it” (101). Both emphasized the distinction between Creator and creature, and both understood theôsis to be a gift. As to Reformed theology, Letham observes that it has been “more Christocentric, in contrast to Eastern pneumatocentrism,” but he urges us to “hold the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit together in unbroken union” (103).

In John Calvin’s work, Letham discerns a change in nuance at one point in Calvin’s career, seen in an enrichmnent in Calvin’s thought, in the 1550s, but not a substantial change. Letham concludes that “Calvin was closer to the East than many have realized,” though “pressure from Lutheran apologists and the need to conciliate Zurich after 1548 may have tempered his language,” without substantially altering his doctrine (115). Until around 1550, Letham finds in Calvin “strong language about our  participation in the substance of Christ’s flesh, Christ pouring out his life into us by the Holy Spirit,” and our nature being changed. Calvin “states on several occasions that Christ pours his substance into us. After that time, he seems to qualify those terms and to distance himself from the idea that somehow Christ’s substance was in any way transmitted to us by the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist.” But in this process Letham sees “a difference of tone rather than substance” in Calvin’s theology (114).

Amandus Polanus (1561-1610) even goes beyond Calvin, in his Syntagma, speaking of an essential union with Christ, one that is “substantial, actual, and corporeal.” The “manner of union is, of course, spiritual,” but it is “substantial and corporeal in terms of the subjects united, since it is true substance and nature, his body and our nature, that are related or akin (affine); and we are truly joined to the substance and both natures of Christ and thus to his body” (117-18). This substantial union with Christ “comes to expression especially in the Lord’s Supper” (119). In a 1668 work, Rowland Stedman discussed the biblical imagery concerning our union with Christ, observing that in each one the respective parts retain their particular distinctiveness. But he posits that our union with Christ is greater, closer, and more secure than any of [the analogies] taken singly or together” (119).

In regard to the Westminster Confession’s chapter on the Lord’s Supper, Letham identifies concisely the ways in which the statement differs from the perspectives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Anabaptists, the Lutherans, and the neo-Zwinglians. The faithful really and truly “receive and feed upon Christ,” but the feeding is spiritual, not corporeal, and so it depends on the Holy Spirit and requires faith on our part (120). But Letham sees an “unfortunate split” between the participatory and the forensic in the understanding of the union in Christ in numerous Reformed theologians in 19th century America, including the works of John Nevin and Charles Hodge. Letham thinks that this partially accounts for the eclipse suffered by the doctrine of union with Christ, in Reformed thought.

I think that the highlight of this very interesting chapter comes in the last section, where Letham does his own constructive work, drawing on his exegetical and historical work in the formulation of ten theses (123-28). These are worth pondering in detail, but I must state only the main points, for the sake of space.

1) “The union we enjoy with Christ is more real and more fundamental than the union we have with members of our own bodies.”

2) “This is not a union of essence—we do not cease to be human and become God or get merged into God like ingredients in an ontological soup. This is not apotheôsis.”

3) “We do not lose our personal individual identities in some universal generic humanity.”

4) “Union with Christ comes to expression in, and is cultivated by, the Word and sacraments.”

5) “The body and blood of Christ are not materially, corporeally, or physically present in the Lord’s Supper.”

6) “In the Lord’s Supper we are lifted up by the Holy Spirit to feed on Christ.”

7) “We are not hypostatically united to the Son.”

(8) “We are united with Christ’s person.”

9) “It is effected and developed by the Holy Spirit through faith, in and through the means of grace: the ministry of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer.” Hence, “it is churchly, not individualistic.”

10) “It will eventually lead to our being ‘like [Christ]’ (1 John 3:1-2; see also Rom 8:29-30; 2 Cor 3:18), for ‘it is the intention of the gospel to make us sooner or later like God’ (Calvin).”

My reflections

As I read this chapter, I was particularly thankful for Letham’s prior attention to the theology of the Eastern/Orthodox church. As an evangelical Protestant, I grew up without hearing anyone speak of theôsis or deification, and I recall some aversion when I first encountered that language in Eastern theologians. During the years in which I read more of that theology, while teaching historical theology, I grew in appreciation of the Eastern church’s appropriation of important New Testament teaching which seems to have been ignored in my tradition. Letham’s own construction has enunciated nicely truths which are not often heard in the segment of evangelicalism in which I spend most of my time.

Of course, my distance from the language of deification was accentuated by the fact that my theological heritage was Baptistic in orientation. In that regard, it strikes me as not surprising that my growing appreciation for the biblical concept of deification has been accompanied by a stronger sense of the sacramentality of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which I had been taught to understand as purely symbolic acts on our part, with little or no mention of God’s doing anything by his Spirit among those who participate in these acts by faith. I still identify myself as (lower case) baptist, but my immersion in Reformed theology and my opportunities to worship for extended periods in Anglican churches has led me to participate in these celebrations with an attitude which is not widely characteristic among Baptists, although I find a growing openness to it, even in Anabaptist contexts.

I have enjoyed the providential coincidence of my getting into two papers I had procured from presenters at the ETS meeting in Milwaukee last November, just as I was working my way through Letham’s chapter. These papers have contributed to my assessment of Letham’s construction. Jim Larsen had read a paper on “A New Creation in Christ: Evangelical Theologies of Salvation and Church, and the Ontology of Union with Christ,” and William B. Evans presented concerning “Current Models of Union with Christ.”

Larsen argues that “in order to make headway in contemporary soteriological and ecclesiological discussions, the ontology of union—believers’ union with Christ as well as the divine-human union of the Incarnation—must take center stage in evangelical theological reflection,” and Evans offers a very helpful survey of the key models being put forward within conservative Reformed circles. Their studies provide a particularly helpful supplement to the historical work in this chapter by Letham, and I find the three authors on somewhat the same page in their assessment of what is needed in evangelical churches’ understanding of the nature of our union with Christ and its implications for both soteriology and ecclesiology. I  said “Amen,” as I read these words in Jim Larsen’s conclusion:

Until the ontology of union is moved back to the center of soteriological and ecclesiological reflection, I do not believe we will be able to overcome the significant barriers that prevent ecumenical reconciliation, nor the difficulties that persist in contemporary soteriological dialogue.

Where Larsen was focused broadly on the ecumenical situation, Evans looks more narrowly at the Reformed context, giving his work greater overlap with Letham’s historical and systematic work. Evans finds three primary models on offer in Reformed circles:

  • in the bifurcation model, the operative categories are  “forensic, spiritual and virtual.” Michael Horton gets significant attention here, and Evans avers that he “does speak of a union with Christ’s humanity, but he clearly means a sharing in the transforming benefits of Christ’s work” (9). Evans is concerned about an “overloading of the forensic” in this model, in which “the forensic becomes more than forensic; it becomes implicitly transformatory in ways that would have made earlier Reformed thinkers quite uncomfortable” (12).
  • pneumatological realism was initially put forward by Geerhardus Vos and has been championed in the more recent work of Richard Gaffin, Jr. In Vos’s redemptive-historical emphasis, “reception of the Holy Spirit communicates both the forensic and the transforming benefits of salvation,” but there is “no reference to the mediation of the humanity of Christ per se to the believer” (16). Evans is concerned that, in this model, union with Christ is framed “entirely in terms (the work of the Holy Spirit) that most people associate with sanctification and the transformatory,” and he questions that this provides “sufficient foundation for the forensic” (18). The language in this model “never gets beyond the notion of the Spirit doing something in the believer like what the Spirit did in Christ,” so that “the redemptive experience of Christ is seen more as paradigmatic than as constitutive of the believer’s experience” (18-19). Though representatives of this model cite Calvin, Evans does not hear from them Calvin’s insistence that “union with Christ cannot be reduced to the benefits of salvation or to the work of the Holy Spirit as a sort of redemptive-historical representative. Rather, he insisted that the Spirit unites the believer to Christ, and in particular to the ‘substance’ of his incarnate humanity” (19).
  • pneumatological-incarnational realism insists that the relationship of union with Christ involves a realistic connection with Christ’s incarnate humanity through the Spirit and not merely the reception of the Spirit” (20). This position was put forward by Calvin, defended by John Nevin and John Adger in the 19th century, and more recently developed by T. F. Torrance and by Evans himself. He suggests that this is the direction in which Letham moves” (21) in this work that I have been going through for some time on this blog; that assessment sounds correct to me. Among the challenges Evans sees for proponents of this approach, however, are: (1) avoidance of philosophical captivity or dependence, particularly in a Platonic direction; (2) the risk of conflating Christ and the believer; (3) preservation of a robust emphasis on the justification of the ungodly as forensic and synthetic.

My reflection on Scripture with the help of these contributions from Letham, Larsen and Evans has led me to think that I have been inclined to conceptualize our union with Christ in an insufficiently realistic way. As I suggested earlier, the influence of a symbolic orientation within my Baptist context has contributed to my natural resistance to greater realism in regard to our participation in God’s nature, through union with Christ by the Spirit. For quite a few years, I have emphasized the foundational nature of union with Christ for our entire experience of salvation, and the centrality of Christ’s role as second Adam has become more clear in my thinking. I sense that I still have work to do in this regard before I’m settled, but I feel that I am being prodded in a beneficial direction, both by Scripture and tradition. If movement takes place within my own theology, as a result of a more realistic understanding of our union with Christ, I suspect that greater change might occur in my ecclesiology than in my soteriology.

As Easter approaches once again, it has been refreshing to reflect on the significance, to you and me personally, of Christ’s death and resurrection, and to appropriate anew the amazing reality that I have died and risen again with Christ, that I am seated in the heavenlies with him, that Christ lives in me and that my own life is only authentic and fruitful to the extent that I live in him. Christmas gave us a healthy focus on the mystery of God the Son’s uniting himself with our nature, but the Easter season pushes us to an even more personal awareness of the special relationship into which Christ inducts us when he baptizes us with his Spirit and makes us participants in the divine nature, daily working to transform us into the image of the Son himself.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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