United with the Risen Jesus

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[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by my good friend and former seminary teacher Dr. Clair Davis.  Dr. Davis studied under John Murray at Westminster Theological Seminary before completing his Dr.theol. under Otto Weber at the University of Göttingen in Germany.  He then taught at Wheaton College, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.]

John Murray taught me so much.  He especially taught me how to say the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I used to pause after saying ‘death’ (was I meditating?) and then go on to ‘resurrection.’  Murray taught me to say, ‘death-and-resurrection,’ since those sides of Jesus’ blessing to us fit together, and have to fit together. How important is his Cross? Learn to look at it the way his Father and our Father did, it’s so enormous a commitment of Jesus’ heart and life that the Father exalted him and gave him to us as supremely worthy of our worship—and he did that by raising him from the dead! If you ask, how big is the resurrection, then the answer would have to be, as big as the salvation of the lost and dying world, you and me included!

Now here’s the next step. After you master death-and-resurrection, try out saying justification-and-sanctification, forgiveness-and-change.  I think that’s about the most important thing we need to do, right now. When we get that right, then we can tell the good news of Jesus so much better to ourselves, to each other and to the world—and biggest and best of all, to our Father. Something is very wrong right now. I’m not hearing passion and joy in our worship. I’m not hearing brothers and sisters in the Lord saying much to each other about Jesus. Outsiders are scoffing at our meaningless words, and I believe that’s about what those words deserve.

Think about those pieces isolated from each other. Justification is the biggest one for us Protestants. Medieval theology sounded like this: if you do your best, then God may give you grace, and maybe not. That kept on just looking at you and whether you’re trying hard enough. What a breath of fresh air the Reformation was: it’s not about you and whether your effort is enough, it’s about Jesus and what he did. Trust him, don’t trust how hard you’re trusting him (the most beautiful and joyful of all our technical terms: extraspective). If it’s not because we’re working as hard as we can at trusting Jesus, then why O why does God give us that saving trust anyway? There’s the biggest question ever, with its answer is so unexpected and fulfilling. Why? Because God loves us, that’s why. Wait a minute, we have a communication problem, just tell me, why does God love us? You still don’t get it, he loves us because he loves us! You can stretch that out forever, but that’s where it’s going to come out.

We have to say it that way to be faithful to God’s Word, that our salvation is not by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. But is that going to sound this way: Jesus did it all, so chill out? Enjoy life, tell each other sweet things about Jesus, get used to losing the battle with Satan? That’s called Antinomianism, it’s believing that following Jesus and obeying him, taking up your cross daily, are all just figures of speech.  Did anyone ever really believe that, I’ve never heard it? But there are people who talk nonstop about grace and hardly ever about battling sin. They just assume that if you really understood what Jesus has done for you, then you’d easily turn to what that has to mean in your challenged life. I understand that, but it’s not right—it says, if you understand part of the Bible you can ignore the rest, and that’s just foolish. Joy without the battle, that’s not the gospel, that’s not the Jesus of reality.

Or you can go just the opposite way: you think you already know enough about Jesus and grace, let’s take that part for granted, let’s work on the issues. That Neonomianism (following Jesus is a new law), is that exactly what we need to hear in this rebellious age today?  Maybe.  But I’ve heard too many sermons without any Jesus. That deep and moving Clowney biblical theology I learned in seminary was this: the Bible is from beginning to end about Jesus—so your life should be too! That has to be right.

There’s more misunderstanding and conflict over this than anything else I know. Should we baptize babies, drink wine with alcohol in it, vote Democrat—all those we can live with and love each other with, but not this one. What is it that we’re not getting, what’s the gospel truth that we need to live by? Sometimes in feels like we’re not going to get a clear answer but only more and more confusion. There have been quick and clear answers all divisive and unhelpful. Some have told us, we can explain law and grace with helpful charts—that was dispensationalism and it sounded very good but chopped up our Bible and moved toward antinomianism.  I loved Jack Miller and Paul Kooistra and their Sonship and Living in Grace, but somehow many couldn’t put that together with the how-tos of life.

So saying justification-and-sanctification together seems impossible, and we’ve almost stopped trying.  That’s why that all we can say now is vague and no-account.  There are so many things that the church of Jesus Christ needs, Bible knowledge, Christian conversations, finding the right place for women, etc. But I think this is at the top of the list, putting God’s grace in Jesus Christ and our hard battle together.

I just read again Bill Evans’s Imputation and Impartation, the best record of all those failed attempts.  He ends with an attention-getting word: bipolar. I think he’s right, we’re getting too good at schizophrenia. We can do one or the other, do justification in our evangelism, do battling Satan the rest of the time—but not together.  Never Jesus with battling, never joyful worship with seeing clearly our sinful hearts, but bipolar. Back then I was at Westminster Seminary when we tried for over seven years to figure this out, was Norman Shepherd right when he said justification was by our ‘obedient faith’? We were godly people committed to God’s Word, trying hard to understand each other—and we failed.  Should that have been in Bill’s book too?

This is not one of those things that a handful of people make a living at.  This bipolar thing is very big and we must all pray and work at it. Right now the story we tell to the nations can be fuzzy and trivial.

Bill tries to show us the way. There was John Calvin who saw it very clearly and told us that if you want to see how justification and sanctification work together, you need to see that they both flow from ‘union with Christ.’  Try saying this: from-our-union-with-Christ-we-receive-both-justification-and-sanctification. Calvin must have been right, it’s a mistake to try to put together two kinds of a grace thing without seeing everything coming from the love of our Savior who brings us to himself. But it doesn’t look like anyone got that much from Calvin. I learned the same thing from John Murray, union is usually at the ‘end’ of what we say about the ordo salutis, the way of salvation—but it really belongs at the beginning.  But none of us have been very good at putting feet on that.

Just what is it to be united with Jesus Christ?  That seems to me to be the most pressing question before us.  Probably in the past that was a question so ultimate that it hardly seemed reasonable to consider it now.  Of course we’ll experience that as we worship him in heaven forever.  Of course then we will grasp everything much more clearly than we do now.  But if our holiness is not just perfect then, but has a true beginning now, and if for everyone of God’s good gifts to his people the same could be said—then why should we not ask right now what is the reality of our union with him, now and forever?

We know that the end times began two thousand years ago. Everything in our experience right now is ‘eschatological.’  We will experience more in heaven, but we are sure that what we experience of Jesus is definitive forever.  We must not let the not-yet blur the reality of the already. Right now is the time for us to feast upon our union with him and for our hearts to overflow in worship, because being united with him is the heart and soul of our lives.

Specifically, we must worship the Lord right now because of the union we enjoy with the resurrected Jesus, just as much as with the one who has crucified for us.  Newness of life, resurrection, is what we now possess. The Wesley/Whitefield Awakening with its emphasis on the need for us to be born again was not at all one-sided but effectively comprehensive, more I believe than those later concentrating solely on deliverance from the wrath of God.  Isn’t it time to look more deeply at the resurrection of our Savior Jesus, and how we are united with our risen Lord?

My colleague Dick Gaffin has put that at the heart of his life of scholarly work, and speaks to us now of resurrection-justification!  While that focus points to Jesus, could that also be our way to union-with-Jesus-justification?  Could that be the fruitful beginning of a fresh and integrated, trans-bipolar way to trust, and obey, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ?  Are we now united with the exalted Jesus, exalted because of how he did his Father’s will for us, even unto death? Can we now live our lives of whole-hearted obedience from his exalted place at the right hand of the Father, exalted because of his whole-hearted obedience?

I need to put that all in the shape of questions, because while so far we can see the way ahead we have a long way to go.  As you look again at Bill Evans, after centuries of feeble one-sided appreciations of our salvation, are we now much closer than we ever have been to a whole-hearted singing faith for ourselves and for the nations? I believe so. I’m even starting to think that the Western side of our faith may well be helped by looking again at the Eastern side, with its deep appreciation of union through the incarnation—isn’t it time to remember Christmas with angel choirs reminding us of that amazing beginning of the Father’s love?

What can we see in Philippians 3?  That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.   There is the heart’s desire of Paul the veteran, but it fits us too, and it fits the unfulfilled hope of those who are still without God, doesn’t it?  Yes, God’s plan for us is fulfilled as we know Jesus Christ, as he is now exalted, the ruler of the world and one so worthy of our worship.  We desire to know him as the Father knows him, why he has exalted him.  We desire to know him as the fulfillment of all of God’s kind promises, of our deliverance from unbelief and slowness to obey.  We are ready to share his sufferings too, his path to exaltation.  As the myth of Christian America fades and the reality of Satan’s America becomes sharper, we are aware that the gospel is the ultimate hate crime and that we who express it must take the consequences, with our Jesus who was there first.  That path of worthy glory, for us and the Jesus we worship and adore, must go through the desolate valley first and we ready ourselves for that.  In all things Jesus shares his life and his way with us, and we joyfully glorify him as we go ahead.

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