What the Missional Church Should Learn From the Confessional Church: Union With Christ and Justification

Today’s topic is one that is dear to my heart and Christian walk.  I became a Christian when I was 13, but it wasn’t until my college years that I was confronted with the centrality of the gospel in the Christian life, particularly the doctrines of union with Christ and justification.

My RUF Campus Minister demonstrated how justification is central to my identity as a Christian and how it deals with my insecurities and idols such as my wanting to be liked.  I remember attending an RUF conference where the speaker spoke on justification.  When we got back to campus my campus minister asked me what I thought about the conference.  I said, “It was alright.  The fellowship and  music were great.  But the teaching was just okay.  I mean, he just preached on justification.”  My campus minister responded, “Daniel, that is why you needed to hear those sermons on justification.  If you knew how important justification was, you wouldn’t say that.”

I bought into the RUF preaching-teaching philosophy at that moment.  Justification-Sanctification-Glorification is a grid I constantly think through and see how it applies to my discipleship and how I disciple others.  My counseling of others goes back to how we often confuse or mix justification and sanctification.

My academic career led me to value the doctrine of union with Christ.  I’m thankful for Bill Evans and his influence on my thinking as he had me read the pertinent literature on the topic (Imputation and Impartation, Resurrection and Redemption, By Faith Not By Sight).  In terms of the contemporary debate on soteriology, I firmly side with Evans, Gaffin, Mark Garcia, Sinclair Ferguson, and others.

But it isn’t that I think these guys are cool in how they describe soteriology.  I think they are appropriating the insight of John Calvin who said, “First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.” (Institutes, 3.1.1)

To see union with Christ as the fountainhead of our salvation, the basis of our assurance before God (Christ is the “mirror of our election” as Calvin said), and the central motivation for our identity and security in this world is extremely important if we are to be the hands and feet of Jesus in this world.  Indeed, the missional emphasis that we operate out of an incarnational mindset for ministry seems dependent on our mystical union with Christ.

Unfortunately, these doctrines aren’t always explored by missional gurus and their literature.  I think the overreaction to the cozy, comfortable culture of the American church and its rugged individualism is why this is the case.  While I am total agreement with my missional friends regarding the biblical storyline of creation-fall-redemption-consummation and that God is redeeming all of his creation, not just souls, I don’t see any incoherence between this narratival perspective on the gospel and the individual application of the gospel.  Both need to be held in balance with each other if we are to be truly missional and truly confessional.

I would recommend that my missional friends check out the books I’ve cited already and from there do more research on the topic.  The cash value of the doctrines of union with Christ and justification are that we invite people to participate in the very person and life of Jesus and to see what God has done for us and for the world in Jesus.  In other words, if we preach union and justification, we preach Jesus and all that he is and all that he has done.  Individualism is hard to survive in light of such a teaching and preaching ministry.

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