Clarifying Our Theological Vision, part 1

Here is part 1 of an essay titled Clarifying Our Theological Vision by Gary Deddo, with an introduction from Joseph Tkach. The essay is being published serially here in Equipper. To read each part, click on a link: introduction, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. To read the full essay in one article, click here. For the related essay, Covenant, Law and God's Faithfulness, click here.

Clarifying two key terms: “All are included” & “union with Christ”

By Dr. Gary Deddo

Gary Deddo

The goal of this ongoing series of articles is to clarify some of the key terms we use in communicating the wonderful truths of our incarnational Trinitarian faith. As Dr. Tkach mentions in his introduction to the series, though we’re not making significant changes, we are providing some clarifications to help us in our ongoing journey of theological renewal.

All are included

A key understanding of our theology has to do with what God has accomplished for all humanity in and through his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. For many years, we’ve summarized that understanding with the phrase, all are included (and the related declaration, You’re included). By all we mean believers and non-believers, and by included we mean being counted among those who God, in and through Jesus, has reconciled to himself. We thus mean to say that God has reconciled all people to himself.

Logo for GCI’s online program, You’re Included.

This theological declaration is based on the biblical revelation that Christ died for all and that God has loved and reconciled the world to himself (Rom. 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:14; John 3:16; 2 Cor. 5:19, Heb. 2:9). Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), and he is the “ransom” for all (1 Tim 2:4, 6; 4:10; Matt. 20:28). Because this reconciliation is accomplished, and thus a present reality, God’s desire, which is fulfilled by the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit, is for all people everywhere to come to repentance and faith so they may personally experience (receive and live into) this reconciliation and so not perish (2 Pet. 3:9; Ezek. 18:23, 32). Thus when we declare that all are included we are affirming several important truths:

  • Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all humanity
  • He died to redeem all
  • He has atoned for the sin of all
  • Through what he did, God reconciled all people to himself
  • Jesus is the mediator between God and all humanity
  • He has made all his own by virtue of his redeeming work
  • He is for all and against none
  • He is judge of all, so that none might experience condemnation
  • His saving work is done on behalf of all, and that work includes his holy and righteous responses to the Father, in the Spirit—responses characterized by repentance, faith, hope, love, praise, prayer, worship and obedience
  • Jesus, in himself, is everyone’s justification and sanctification
  • He is everyone’s substitute and representative
  • He is everyone’s hope
  • He is everyone’s life, including life eternal
  • He is everyone’s Prophet, Priest and King

In all these ways, all people in all places and times have been included in God’s love and life in and through Jesus and by his Spirit. In that we rejoice, and on that basis we make our gospel declarations. But in doing so we have to be aware of some potential for confusion. We must neither say too little or too much about inclusion (reconciliation). Perhaps, at times, we’ve said too much, making inferences concerning the reconciliation of all humanity that the Bible does not support—ones that are neither logically or theologically necessarily true.

It’s about relationship, which means participation

To avoid making unfounded inferences, it is important to note that when the Bible speaks about reconciliation (inclusion), what it is referring to is a relationship that God, by grace, has established in the God-man Jesus Christ between himself and all people. That relationship is personal in that it is established by the person of the eternal Son of God, and it involves human persons who have agency, minds, wills and bodies. This reconciliation involves all that human beings are—their whole persons. Thus this personal relationship calls for, invites, and even demands from those who have been included the response of participation. Personal relationship is ultimately about interaction between two persons (subjects, agents), in this case between God and his creatures.

By definition, personal relationships are interactive—they involve response, communication, giving and receiving. In and through Jesus, God has included all people everywhere in a particular relationship with himself for just these purposes so that what has been fulfilled for us objectively in Jesus by the Spirit, will then be fulfilled in us personally (subjectively) by the Spirit via our deliberate, purposeful participation (response) as subjects who are moral, spiritual agents. What Christ did for us, he did so that the Holy Spirit could work a response out in us.

When we understand that the person and work of Christ establishes or reestablishes a living, vital, personal relationship with all humanity, then the biblical teachings concerning inviting, admonishing, encouraging, directing, commanding and warning in regard to setting forth the fitting or appropriate response make sense. But if the gift of reconciliation (inclusion) is understood as merely a fixed principle, an abstract universal truth (like the sky is blue, or 2 + 2= 4), or as an automatic and impersonal effect brought about through a causal chain of events imposed on all, then the myriad directives in the New Testament concerning our response (participation) make no sense.

The indicatives of grace set us free to respond to the imperatives of grace

Many proclamations in the New Testament declare the truth of who God is and what he has done for us, including that he, in Christ, has reconciled all humanity to himself. These proclamations are the indicatives of grace, which, by their very nature, call forth and set us free for a joyful response to the imperatives of grace that are also defined in the New Testament. Here is a diagram showing how these indicatives and imperatives are related:

For more on this topic, click here to read part 5 of Gary’s essay on The Church and Its Ministry in GCI Weekly Update.

Our responses to the imperatives of grace, grounded in and thus flowing from the indicatives of grace, are made possible only because of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, who continues his work in the core of our persons (our subjectivities) in order that we might respond freely to God and his grace with repentance, faith, hope and love.

Source.

The Holy Spirit grants us this freedom to respond (even as we hear the imperatives) by releasing us from the bonds of slavery so that our responses are a real sharing in Christ’s own responses made on our behalf as our substitute and representative—our great and eternal High Priest. This indicative-imperative pattern of grace is found throughout the New Testament. For example, note Jesus’ first proclamation concerning himself and his kingdom (the indicative) followed by the imperative, which defines our response:

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15)

Note that the imperative,“repent and believe,” is based on and made possible because of the indicative that “the time is fulfilled…the kingdom of God has come near.” Because of who Jesus is and what he has done, people are given entrance into personal relationship with Jesus as their King and thus can respond by participating in his rule and reign.

At work here is a vitally important truth: because God loves us, he is interested in our response to him. He looks for it, notices it, even tells us the kind of response that is fitting to the relationship he has already given us by grace (through reconciliation). Moreover, by the Holy Spirit ministering to us on the basis of Christ’s completed work, our Triune God has even provided all we need to make that response. We never respond autonomously, simply on our own. Instead, by the Holy Spirit, we are enabled to begin sharing in Jesus perfect responses that he makes for us as our eternal mediator or High Priest.

Avoid two errors

There are two common errors in thinking about the indicatives and imperatives of grace. The first is to regard the indicatives proclaimed in the New Testament as fixed, impersonal principles or abstract laws—general and universal truths operating like the mechanical, so-called laws of nature, or perhaps of mathematics.

The second error (which often accompanies the first) is to regard the imperatives mentioned in the New Testament as sheer, externally imposed legal obligations that indicate the potential ways we can condition God to act or react to us in some way. Embracing that false notion, we are tempted to think of the imperatives as setting forth terms of a contract with God: if we do certain things (fulfill certain contractual obligations) we will bring to pass the responses from God that we desire and to which he has contractually agreed.

Both of these errors presume legal, mechanical, cause-and-effect, force-vector-like actions and reactions instead of what is found in a real personal relationship. These errors reflect thinking that is not grounded in the covenant of grace by which God has freely established a relational reality with humankind for the sake of dynamic, personal and interactive participation, communication, communion, fellowship—what the Greek New Testament calls koinonia.

We err when we imagine we are somehow coerced slaves to God and to his imperious ways, or when we imagine we can manage a contract with God where we attempt to negotiate terms of mutual obligation agreeable to both parties. Such imaginings are not how God operates. He created us for real, personal relationship in which we participate, by grace, through Christ and by the Holy Spirit. All our responses are real participation in an actual relationship—the relationship God has established for us for the sake of koinonia (fellowship, communion) with him in dynamic, personal ways—the ways of freedom in love.

We did not establish this relational reality by our responses. Only God can create the relationship, and so he has, on our behalf in and through Christ. Note, however, that though our personal responses create nothing, they do constitute real participation in the relationship God has given us in Christ. These responses are made possible by the freeing and enabling ministry of the Holy Spirit, based on the vicarious ministry of Jesus. We have been included, through Christ and by the ministry of the Spirit, in a saving, transforming and renewing relationship with God—a relationship that calls for our response.

With this clarification in mind, we can see that we must not use the phrase all are included to say too little or too much—and perhaps, at times, we have said too much. Yes, all humanity has been included in a saving, transforming and renewing relationship with God (referred to in Scripture as reconciliation with God). But this particular kind of inclusion in Christ is not a fixed, impersonal, causal and abstract universal “truth” that is divorced from real relationship. In fact, reconciliation is specifically for the sake of our response, and so it is for real, personal relationship.

What we can say is that all have been reconciled (included) but not all are participating. The God-given purpose of this relationship, established through reconciliation, cannot be fulfilled in us as long as there is little or no participation in the relationship—if there is resistance to and rejection of the relationship that has been freely given to us. The full benefits of the relationship cannot be known or experienced by us if we do not enter into it—if we are not receptive to it and its benefits.

Thus we must account for the difference between participating in the relationship, according to its nature, and not participating, thus violating its nature and purpose. Non-participation does not negate or undo the fact that God has reconciled us to himself (that he has included us in the relationship he has established, in Christ, with all humanity). To deny this reality does not create another reality. Going against the grain of reality does not change the direction of the grain, though it might gain us some splinters! We have no power to change the grain.

A good example of the difference between participation and non-participation is the elder brother mentioned in the parable of the prodigal son. He refused to participate—to enter the celebration the father established and invited him into. Note also this example in the book of Hebrews:

For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed. (Hebrews 4:2)

This personal and relational understanding of receiving the gift of grace freely given us by the whole God (Father, Son and Spirit) helps clarify many things in the New Testament that otherwise would seem inconsistent or even incoherent. To think otherwise (in mechanical or causal ways) would be to ignore, or (worse) to dismiss, whole swaths of biblical revelation. A personal and relational understanding of God’s grace helps make sense of the proclamation of the indicatives of grace and the proclamation of the imperatives of grace, the latter being the call to receive and participate in the gift of the relationship established in Christ that is being fulfilled by the Holy Spirit.

Union with Christ

Having looked at the term all are included (which pertains to the reconciliation all humankind has with God in Christ), we now can look at a related biblical teaching that also needs clarification—the term here is union with Christ. As with reconciliation, we err if we view union with Christ as a fixed, generic and abstract principle, rather than the dynamic, covenantal and relational reality that it is. In making that error it’s easy to erroneously equate the concept of the reconciliation (inclusion) that all humanity has with God in and through Christ with the concept of union with Christ.

Though some assume that all who God has reconciled to himself in Christ are automatically in union with Christ, there are significant problems with this assumption—problems that have become more apparent to us over the last four or five years as pastors have sought to teach about union with Christ and/or GCI members have tried to understand the concept. Because of these problems, we’ve spent time in further investigation of the biblical teaching and we’re now addressing those problems by providing this additional teaching (via this series of articles) on this important topic.

First, it’s important to note that the New Testament never equates reconciliation (universal inclusion) and union with Christ. The truth that Christ, who died for all, is everyone’s Lord and Savior, does not mean that everyone is united (by the Holy Spirit) to Jesus. Union with Christ, as that term is used in the New Testament, is limited to describing those who are receptive, responsive and thus participating by the Holy Spirit in the gift of relationship with God established by Jesus Christ. This delimited description of union with Christ also applies to other closely related New Testament expressions including being “in Christ” or “in the Lord.”

While God intends union with Christ for everyone on the basis of the atoning, reconciling work of Christ, not all have received that union or have entered into it. In that sense not all are united to Christ, not all are one with Christ, not all are “in Christ,” not all “have the Son” (1 John 5:12), and not all “have the Spirit of Christ” (Rom. 8:9).

None of this means that God is separate from, or has rejected non-believers. It does not mean that God is against them, has not forgiven them, has not accepted them, or does not love them unconditionally. It simply means that such persons are not yet participating in (or possibly are resisting) the work of the Holy Spirit, whose ministry it is to open the minds of non-believers to the truth of the gospel, unite them to Christ, and call forth a response of repentance and faith befitting that union. In the end, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32; Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:13; Psalm 86:5), though not all (yet) are calling on the Lord.

In the New Testament, union with Christ cannot be separated from participation in Christ or from communion or fellowship (koinonia) with Christ. Union with Christ, understood properly, is about personal relationship, and is thus limited to those who are participating in the relationship God has given us by grace. As James B. Torrance used to summarize it: union with Christ cannot be separated from communion with Christ. These twin doctrines cannot be separated even though they can be distinguished.

We must not think of union with Christ in fixed, mechanical, objective and impersonal ways, assuming that non-believers are automatically united with God, in Christ, in the same way as believers (who by definition, are participating by their believing, their faith). To do so would be to separate union with Christ from participation with Christ. If we are to follow the mind of Christ as found in the New Testament, we should reserve “union with Christ” and being “in Christ” as ways of describing those who, by the Spirit, are participating, receiving and responsive to Christ and his word. Participation does make a difference, though it does not make all the difference. It doesn’t, for example, change God’s mind or his intention or desire. However, our way of speaking and our theological understanding ought to be able to communicate the difference participation does make, and do so in ways that match the biblical ways of speaking.

Faithfully and accurately proclaiming the gospel

Carefully and closely following the biblical patterns of speech and thought will help us communicate the truth and reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ with consistency, clarity and biblical accuracy. It will also help us avoid contributing, even inadvertently, to confusion or hesitation about the truth of union and communion with Christ by the Spirit.

We should avoid, therefore, using the term all are included as an umbrella phrase that tries to say everything there is to say about salvation. What Scripture consistently means when speaking of union with Christ is not the same as what we mean to say in using the phrase all are included, which as we’ve seen, pertains to the gift of universal reconciliation.

Though in Acts 17:28 the apostle Paul (quoting a pagan philosopher known to his audience) says that “in him [God] we [all humans] live and move and have our being,” he is referring to the created state of all humans and not to union with Christ—a concept he develops elsewhere to refer to the reciprocal, personal relationship that exists, through the Holy Spirit, between God and believers (Christians).

Not properly distinguishing between all humanity having been reconciled already to God in Christ (and thus included) and the believer’s union with Christ, confuses or conflates biblical terms and thus risks the following:

  • The loss of most or all of the full understanding of the personal, dynamic and relational nature of the gift of salvation in relationship with the living, triune personal God.
  • The loss of the fact that the gift of salvation involves the ongoing ministry of the whole God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
  • Turning what is dynamic and relational into something non-relational, generic, impersonal, causal and a fixed fact or data point that does not necessitate (in a vital way) the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the members of the church, the body of Christ.

GCI’s incarnational Trinitarian faith is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, not a gospel of universal inclusion (where “inclusion” is used as an umbrella term to speak of all aspects of salvation). We proclaim the good news about the relational nature of the gift of grace that God, in Christ, and by his Spirit, freely gives us. Inclusion is one aspect of that gospel, but not the whole of it.

Two related, but distinct unions

This brings us to another point that needs clarification, as it too has contributed to some confusion or hesitation. In accord with the gospel of Jesus Christ, we rightly distinguish between two types of relationship, which, theologically, have both been referred to as unions, but when carefully treated by theologians are distinguished by qualifying each with a different accompanying term. The problem here is not so much one of biblical usage as discussed above, but one of how union is used in theological formulations. In the latter case, many overlook the important theological qualifications made and assume all unions involving God are identical, when they are not. The problem is made greater when an improper notion of inclusion is conflated with either or both of these notions of union.

The hypostatic union

The first union pertains to what theologians refer to as the hypostatic union. This is the union of divinity (divine nature) and humanity (human nature) in the one person (hypostasis) of the God-man Jesus Christ at his incarnation. It should be noted that this union does not amount to a fusion or confusion of these two natures, but a joining together that maintains their distinction while bringing about a true relationship and interaction between them under the direction of the subject of the eternal Son of God. (This theological understanding goes all the way back to the Chalcedonian Definition/Creed of the 5th century.)

The icon of Christ Pantocrator. The two different facial expressions on either side emphasize Christ’s dual nature as both divine and human (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

This hypostatic union pertains to all people since the human nature Christ assumed is common to all humankind—both believers and non-believers. Human nature, with all its attributes (mind, will, affections, etc.) has, in Christ through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, been regenerated, justified, sanctified and glorified. On that basis, God, in and through Christ has brought about the reconciliation of all humankind with himself. As a result, God holds nothing against humanity or human nature. In that way, Christ is the first-fruit or first-born from the dead and is the new head of humanity (the new Adam, to use Paul’s terms). Jesus has become the beginning of a new humanity. Thus we can say that there is a right way to say “all are included” meaning “all humans have been reconciled” on the basis of the renewal of human nature itself in Christ.

This understanding is why T.F. Torrance can assert that all are “implicated” (included) in what Christ has done, or that all humanity has been placed on a whole “new basis” in what Christ has done. Likewise, Karl Barth can assert that on the basis of the hypostatic union of the two natures in Jesus, all people are “potentially” Christians—“potentially” members of the church or body of Christ; or all can be considered “virtual” Christians (even if not actual Christians); or that all have been saved in principle by Christ (de jure) but not all are saved in actuality (de facto). These theological understandings parallel the New Testament understanding of Christ being all in all, but also recognizing that not all are participating in that relational reality—not all are believing, not all are responding to or are receptive of this reality. Not all are worshipping God in Spirit and in truth. Not all are active witnesses to Jesus Christ. And in that sense, not all are actual Christians.

The spiritual union

The second kind of union of which theologians speak pertains to the spiritual union that, by the Holy Spirit, unites believers with God in a particular type of relationship. The New Testament refers to this kind of union as “union with Christ”—a union and communion with God, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit. In this kind of union there is an essential recognition of a distinct, though not separate, ministry of the Holy Spirit to bring it about. After the incarnation and the earthly work of Christ, the Spirit is sent on a special mission, or for a special ministry, that is only now possible on the basis of the completed work of Christ accomplished with or in our human nature.

By this follow-up ministry of the Holy Spirit, individuals and groups of persons are freed and enabled to repent, believe, have faith, love and hope. They are able to enter into a worship relationship with God “in Spirit and in truth.” By the Spirit, persons are incorporated into the body of Christ as they respond (participate), typically by baptism, confession of faith, participation in communion (the Lord’s Supper) and in Christian worship where they receive instruction and put themselves under the authority of the apostolic/biblical revelation. The spiritual union thus designates participation by the Spirit in the renewed human nature Christ provides for us so that we might participate in right relationship with God through him, by the Holy Spirit.

It is also important to note that in this union and communion with Christ, by the Holy Spirit, we do not become one in being with Jesus Christ—we do not become Jesus, and he does not become us. Union and communion with Christ is not a fusion or confusion of persons—it is a personal and relational union or unity, which necessarily includes a participation that maintains the difference of persons, the distinction of subjects (or personal agencies). While the work of Christ reaches the very depths of who we are (our being or ontology), the ontological difference of persons is not erased in our union with Christ. We are not absorbed into Jesus, nor into the being of God. Thus the relationship between the two persons at the deepest (ontological) level of who we are remains a real relationship, with real participation and fellowship maintained.

Summary

With these thoughts in mind, we now can summarize our key points:

  • God has reconciled all people (believers and non-believers) to himself in Christ. All people have been implicated in the hypostatic union of divinity and humanity brought about through the Incarnation of the Son of God.
  • Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, believers are brought into the spiritual union of God and humanity, and thus are “in Christ” by virtue of their positive, Spirit-enabled response to (participation in) the relationship created by the hypostatic union.
  • Not all are included in the spiritual union since not all are participating in the saving relationship. Not all are included in that sense, even though the hypostatic union in Christ was accomplished for the sake of the spiritual union that would be brought to fullness through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
  • The goal of the hypostatic union is thus fulfilled in the spiritual union, brought about by the Holy Spirit as persons participate in the relationship begun in the reconciliation of all humanity to God in and through the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.
  • In our gospel declarations, we need to account for both types (or perhaps we could say both phases) of union, noting that both are aspects of the outworking of our salvation involving the work of the whole Triune God (Father, Son and Spirit).
  • We can rightly use the phrase all are included when referring to the hypostatic union (the first phase). In doing so we should note that human nature was joined (but not fused) to Christ, and thus included in his whole mediatorial ministry of learning obedience, overcoming temptation, ministering under the direction and power of the Holy Spirit, submitting to the righteous judgment of God on the cross, and in the resurrection of our human nature with him in his resurrection and raised up to glory in his ascension.
  • As we use the term inclusion to refer to the hypostatic union, it’s vital to remember that the purpose of this inclusion is personal relationship. Via the hypostatic union, God, in the person of the God-man Jesus Christ, has graciously reconciled all humanity to himself. All people (believers and non-believers) are, through the hypostatic union, included in a relationship with God for the purpose of personal participation—a personal response of repentance, faith, hope and love.
  • We should be careful to not talk about inclusion (which pertains to the hypostatic union) in ways that obscure or make seem minor the matter of the Holy Spirit’s ministry and the related matter of our participation and response to God, both of which pertain to the spiritual union.
  • The difference participation makes holds out hope of renewal and transformation for those who have not yet turned to Christ. It also provides insight and motivation for those who have begun to participate but who have grown weary or might be tempted to return to their old ways of non-participation. That’s the point of the many admonitions in the New Testament to continue living in relationship with and thus to turn back to Christ. That’s the point of its warnings to not resist the Spirit.
  • If we fail to uphold the differences that participation does make, we will be unable to talk accurately about the differences it does not make, namely that though we be faithless, God remains faithful (2 Tim. 2:13).
  • In our preaching and teaching we must account for both types of union, carefully explaining the importance of participation which relates to entering into deliberate, personal relationship with God, since that’s what God has provided so richly for us. We need to preach and teach together both the indicatives of grace and the imperatives of grace that call for and enable our fellowship and communion (koinonia) with God, through Christ, by the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

Because our Triune God, who is love, is interested in us, he wants to have with us a real, actual, living, loving, vital relationship. Through the hypostatic union of God and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, God reconciled all humanity to himself precisely so that humans may have a worship relationship with the Trinity. Now, God, in Christ and through the Spirit’s ongoing ministry, is drawing believers into a spiritual union (union with Christ) that involves participation (response, sharing in, living into, communion). In this koinonia there is a difference between those participating in God’s free gift of relationship (established in the hypostatic union) and those refusing to participate, or who have not yet begun to participate. That’s why, in the New Testament, the term “union with Christ” applies to persons in a posture of responding in the Holy Spirit, and not to persons in a posture of resisting or ignoring the Holy Spirit. That is why receiving what is freely given is often emphasized in Scripture, as seen in these verses:

[Jesus is sending Paul] to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26:18)

All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. (Acts 10:43)

If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. (Rom. 5:17)

Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)

Given this biblical emphasis and language, it would be unwise to equate the term inclusion (which speaks to the hypostatic union and thus to reconciliation) with the term union (as in “union with Christ” or being “in Christ” or “in the Lord”). Besides departing from the ways the Bible uses these terms, equating the two collapses the biblical distinctions between the hypostatic union and the spiritual union, thus leading to confusion, including obscuring or avoiding the personal and relational nature of salvation which calls for our participation by the Holy Spirit.

The hypostatic union in Christ is not the same as our spiritual union with Christ by the Spirit. Even though they cannot be separated from one another, they must be properly distinguished. Hopefully, it is now clear why, when speaking theologically of these two unions, we must carefully qualify each (as do careful theologians) so as to avoid confusion.

To reiterate this important point, in the New Testament, union with Christ (spiritual union) necessarily involves participation (koinonia, also translated communion or fellowship) with Christ. Why? Because the New Testament uses the word union to speak not of the hypostatic union (related to the vicarious humanity of Jesus), but of the spiritual union (union with Christ).

This spiritual union is not automatic—it is not impersonal or mechanically caused by the hypostatic union. If it were, that would make the full ministry of the Holy Spirit unnecessary, contrary both to how the New Testament depicts the Spirit’s ministry and how it describes the explicit purpose for which the Son sends the Holy Spirit in the name of the Father.

That being said, it’s important to note that the spiritual union is absolutely dependent upon the hypostatic union, wherein the eternal Son of God, via the Incarnation, assumed to himself our human nature (the nature common to all humanity). However, the phrases “union with Christ,” being “in Christ” or “in the Lord,” being members incorporated into “the body of Christ” (the church), being “indwelt” by the Holy Spirit, and being “born again” as a “child of God” are all phrases or terms the New Testament uses in a way that includes (and thus presupposes) the idea of participation—that is, communion with Christ through the Spirit, which is about living in active personal relationship with Christ as a member of his body, the church. Said another way, these particular phrases are reserved in the New Testament for Christians (believers). In GCI, we believe it is important that we use these phrases in the way the New Testament uses them, not assigning to them different meanings (as do some Trinitarian authors).

We’ve raised several issues in this lengthy article, and we’ll add further detail as this series unfolds. Some of the issues that we will be addressing more fully are the vicarious humanity of Jesus, and what union with Christ entails. In the meantime, you might want to review a GCI.org article I wrote that addresses union with Christ and our participation in Christ’s ministry. You’ll find it at http://www.gci.org/christian-life.

We encourage you to submit comments and/or questions related to this article using the "leave a reply" feature below. If you prefer, you may post anonymously.

31 thoughts on “Clarifying Our Theological Vision, part 1”

  1. Thanks for this article! Beautiful clarification of some complex topics. I think this helps with the over-simplified and airtight distinction between the “saved” and “unsaved.” The threshold is more porous and messy than that, and Christ is at work trying to draw all sorts to himself. Glory!

  2. Fantastic clarification, in my opinion, and matching up with what Jesus has been teaching me! Since learning a fantastic theological word coined by Thomas Torrance, “onto-relations” (which means that we have our “being in relationship”), we must indeed hold Union and Communion (or participation) together as 2 sides of the same coin.

    I thought it was greatly stated when you wrote about the weakness if “Turning what is dynamic and relational into something non-relational, generic, impersonal, causal and a fixed fact or data point that does not necessitate (in a vital way) the continuing ministry of the Holy Spirit in the life of the members of the church, the body of Christ.”

    As the true human, as well as being very God of God, Jesus reveals this in His life, words and work! And what he did, he didn’t do for himself (he is already that way!), He did for US, that we might participate! Ha!

    Thanks for explaining the Word (Jesus!) and word of God more accurately and may we, like Apollos, be greatly benefited by it as we live and share the Good News in this 500th year and celebration of the last Great Reformation! 😎😁

  3. I posted this on our local churches’ FB wall. I also emailed local church leaders and recommended it for their study. I say Amen and Hallelujah!

    Thank you Dr. Deddo.

  4. Thank you for your work and service to the church.
    I do have a question. I know that Christ divested Himself of His godly powers when He being a human being. Now many times Christ would answer His critics by stating that whatever He said and did was not of His doing but rather He was always doing the will of the Father and always felt the Father’s presents in in life having an intimate relationship with Him until He came to the cross and took on the sins of mankind. He then at that time cried out Father why has thou forsaken me. Christ was totally alone in his suffering and death. Do you agree if not please explain it to me.
    Thanks again,
    For all you do.

  5. Bob, your question is one often asked: Did God (the Father) forsake Jesus when our Lord took the sins of the world upon himself on the cross. Tom McCall addresses this question in his book, Forsaken. You’ll find a summary of the main points in the book in a series of posts on The Surprising God blog beginning at http://thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/2012/04/my-god-my-god-why-have-your-forsaken-me.html. Also see the GCI.org article at https://www.gci.org/jesus/forsake. What these articles note is that there never was a time when the Eternal Son of God and God the Father were separated. Indeed, the oneness of God, the Trinity, can never be broken. Why then did Jesus cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These articles will answer that question.

  6. This clarification is both meaningful and vital. A slight trip or stumble, if not corrected, can result in a fall. Thanks! Joyfully, the journey continues.

  7. Outstanding!!!!! The distinctions that you pointed out are vital to us being better witnesses to the God revealed in Jesus. I was blown away with what you said about the two unions ( Hypostatic and Spiritual) and how they can’t be separated. We absolutely need the Hypostatic Union of the Son of God, so that by the Spirit we can be brought to participate in the Spiritual Union. As you say, Jesus worked it out for us (Hypostatic Union) and the Holy Spirit works it out in us (Spiritual Union). Thanks so much!!

  8. This is excellent, Dr. Gary. The clarification on union and communion was needed, as well as the two types of union you mentioned. Thanks.

    Another point of clarification might be that when we in GCI refer to “universal reconciliation,” we are not saying the same thing as Christian Universalists.

    When Christian Universalists use the term, they mean that “all human beings will ultimately be restored to a right relationship with God in Heaven and the New Jerusalem.” (Wikipedia article, “Christian Univeralism.” Wikipedia is obviously not a scholarly source, but it does at least tell us what is commonly believed about the term and its association with Universalism.)

    While we are “hopeful” for all, unlike Univeralists, we cannot categorically affirm the final salvation of all.

    Thanks again.

  9. Such a good clarification of our denominational theology! I have always appreciated that the GCI has explained our beliefs to the lay member! I feel we are understanding in New and exciting ways! Thank you for including us in these understandings!

  10. Thanks, Dr. Deddo.

    I think we have to be careful not to make participation a work. Participation is an act of grace. I think all people are participating, to some extent, in the life and work of the Triune God – even if they are participating unknowingly, and without confessing Christ.

    As far as union goes, I find it hard to separate those who knowingly respond by grace, from those who unknowingly participate without knowing who they are in Christ. I think it’s easier for me to understand that some knowingly participate, and others do not, but all participate by the grace of God. Otherwise, we need to clarify the goodness, and the good deeds of non believers, and atheists.

    (See the “much more” of Romans 5; the “all” of Eph. 4:6; the “all” of Col. 3:11; the “all” of John 1:16; the Light that enlightens “every man,” John 1:9; etc.).

  11. So why use the term “inclusion” why not just use the word “reconciled”—it would create less confusion when explaining the hypostatic and spiritual unions. Does all humanity share in the life of the Trinity due to the fact that the hypostatic union was accomplished in the Incarnation?

  12. This essay was very helpful to me. It is packed full of thought-provoking statements that clarify GCI’s understanding of the Gospel. Each time I read it, 6 times so far, I get more clarity. Let me say this, if anyone reads this and perceives that we are walking back the goodness of the Gospel, I believe this clarification actually “walks forward” our understanding of the Gospel. Without personhood and distinction we are more lost than ever. If the life, death, resurrection, and ascension ever negates the “us” that is really us then we are in great jeopardy and in need of additional salvation beyond the finished work of Christ. We are included… and set aside for an “arranged marriage” but it is not a forced marriage. Indeed, the Gospel of Jesus is so good that we may say he has included all of humanity but will not ever usurp our freedom and distinction, as Imago Dei, to give our total and very real “yes” to his yes!

  13. So our view of salvation is an Arminian view. Non believers become believers through the help of the Holy spirit. One person’s response to his calling.

  14. From Gary Deddo, in reply to Joe Radosti:

    Thanks Joe for your comment. Yes, of course you are right—participation must not be construed as work—that is something some do to try to condition God to be for us, to incline or especially obligate God to treat us with love and grace/favor—even if we (mistakenly) think God had set up the obligations for us to fulfill that would obligate God to “fulfill his side of the contract” in order to appease him. There is no going back on that. And there are many ways to affirm and proclaim that, which we do and encourage and even direct our members and pastors to do.

    However, there are improper ways to guard against a “works righteousness” or contract view. There is more than one error to guard against. So the question becomes what all do we need to proclaim to assist our members and pastors to guard against multiple errors? It is not sufficient simply to guard against a “works” view when ministering over time to a congregation. But however done, it must, of course, not do so in a way that contradicts what has been affirmed about God’s freely-given grace. And that is what the article and the series will attempt to do. Partly because it is difficult to do, we tend to veer towards one curb or the other, when we need to avoid jumping over either. So we cannot avoid the problem of a works approach at any cost, especially the cost of fostering another error or by writing off sections of Scripture or its patterned ways of speaking about the truth of our life in Christ.

    Part of the clarification offered so far is to indicate how certain words are consistently used in the biblical revelation and what implications there are for a faithful theological rendering of these words so as to avoid creating confusion or hesitation and while promoting consistency. And the truth of the matter is that the word that translates koinonia, “participation,” is simply not used to speak of all persons. As we know, the biblical revelation does make a distinction between those who are believing and those who are not (or are not yet) believing.

    As we know, even in the Gospel of John where we hear about the light coming into the world and enlightening every person, John immediately follows up with at least an equally astounding fact, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:10-13). John is here distinguishing between humanity’s relationship to God via creation and its response to the same one who brings us redemption and reconciliation. Creation or existence is the gift of God, one that is largely external, fixed, relatively impersonal, mechanical and causal. Creation is in that sense a universal principle. Biblical teaching acknowledges this fact in a number of ways, for instance when Paul indicates, quoting a pagan philosopher, that all “live and move and have their being in God.” But the relationship of creation cannot be equated with the relationship of redemption or salvation. The fact that there are those who are created by God but who astonishingly reject his redemption and salvation indicates this is so. But there are those who have received the power to become the children of God, John goes on to indicate. The truth of creation is not identical to the truth of salvation. But the truth of creation does indeed provide, as Karl Barth puts it, an external basis for his covenant of grace.

    Of course Jesus calls for and even provokes a particular response to him throughout his entire ministry, including on the cross. Even there the man on one side responds to him in one way and the other man, on the other side, in an opposite way. Salvation is a personal relationship by the Holy Spirit on the basis of the objective work of Christ.

    As noted, there are other distinctions that are clearly and consistently made such as those who are “in Christ” or who are united to Christ, or those who are born from above and those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit in the way prophesied by Joel, for example. That’s what the article pointed out. That is because participation (koinonia) denotes a personal, relational, dynamic, active and responsive reality. Participation (and other English translations of the Greek word: sharing, fellowship) does not denote a general, universal principle (or law!), or an impersonal, fixed, static, mechanical, causal, or non-relational reality. That is why participation does not apply to all since not all are responding in the same way, not all are receptive to the freely given gift and some, apparently, can actively resist and reject it.

    Furthermore, if we do not follow the biblical pattern and make a distinction between those who are participating and those who are not, then much of the Gospels, most of Acts and nearly all of the epistles must be dismissed or entirely neglected. They specify the nature of the responses to God’s freely given grace brought about by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, namely the nature of our participation with its benefits and non-participation with its dangers. Our theology ought to make room for and make sense of what constitutes so much of the New Testament, new covenant, teaching, especially when in them we also find plenty of guarding against a “works righteousness” or contract view. We ought to be able to do the same in our preaching and teaching and in our theology that helps us prepare for our testimony, preaching, teaching and counseling.

    Of course, like any theological statement, the idea of participation can be misused. Even Jesus’ own teaching was misused, not to mention Paul’s. So that has to be guarded against too. And what guards best against its misuse is to always place it in the context of God’s prior, freely given, and unconditioned-by-us grace in the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension and promised return of Christ, and the sending of and ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. These are what JB Torrance calls the “indicatives of grace.” No imperatives of grace should ever be proclaimed apart from these indicatives of grace. But on that basis, following the absolutely pervasive pattern of biblical example, including Jesus’ own, and the biblical teaching othewise, we can and should, like good shepherds, guide people in making their responses to that grace, including the comprehensive category of response called participation. This is what Paul calls the “obedience of faith”—–faith in the unconditional indicatives of grace. But the unconditional indicatives of grace, because they involve real relationship, call for our response. Those responses can be described as the “unconditional obligations of grace” as James Torrance as put it. It is by the gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit that we are set free to share in Christ’s own regenerated human nature and in his perfect responses that he is making for us, in our place and on our behalf, as our living, great High Priest. Thus we are admonished to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).

    An analogy might be that no one, at least in the Christian church, is obligated to offer or receive the offer of marriage. But when two are married they take on the obligations of marriage, mainly fidelity and being “one.” Why? Because marriage is a relationship of a certain sort. No one says after they are declared to be married, “Well, since we are married there’s no point in living together. Let’s go our separate ways. And anyway, since we’re now married, infidelity won’t make any difference.” The point of being married is fidelity and living together as one. We could say that while God has betrothed to himself all persons in Jesus Christ, the marriage has not been consummated by all by making a response enabled by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. (Note that all analogies eventually fail, including this one.)

    Further, it is a misuse of the idea of participation to try and use it as an absolute criterion to enable us to identify exactly who is and who is not participating or who is participating too exactly what degree. That would be to approach participation in legal, mechanical, causal, impersonal ways! That is not its purpose and doing so would amount to a disregard for the larger relational reality of the indicatives of grace. As we’ll explore further in the series as it unfolds, we make those distinctions for exactly the same reasons the biblical revelation does: to hold out hope to those who are not yet participating, to warn those who seem to be obviously and persistently resisting participation, to encourage those who have been participating to keep on, and to highlight all the benefits of participating as fully as the grace of God enables—–not only for one’s own benefit, but the benefit of others, both believers and not-yet believers. And more than that, to give God the glory for his grace of enabling us, through the Son and by the Spirit, to enter into a personal, dynamic, responsive and loving fellowship and communion with him in a relationship of worship.

  15. From Gary Deddo in reply to Steven Sell:

    Steven, you raise a good question. We do not require our pastors or members to use the idea of “inclusion.” It has never served as a formal doctrinal term. It can be found in our Statement of Beliefs, but it is not used there as a key doctrinal term. It is primarily adjectival. So, it could be set aside. Or it can be used in a clearer and careful way and probably indicating, at least once in a while if not often, what it does not mean.

    All theological terms have a certain ambiguity to them, so they all have to be defined and used in a proper context. They all require some clarification and noting the biblical roots of these theological summaries or syntheses. There’s no such thing a doctrine that cannot be misunderstood! This is even more the case when using words informally that have little or no normative use in the history of the theology of the church.

    Inclusion needed to be addressed since it is an informal term that in GCI circles has been widely used for a good number of years. But without careful definition and qualification (what it does and doesn’t mean) we found that inconsistency and hesitation if not confusion was beginning to develop. It’s easy to make logical inferences (that are never necessarily true) from a word or phrase that is used, especially, when used informally. And that had begun happening. So inclusion itself requires at least clarification—–by referring to the Scriptural roots and making use of other more carefully defined and formalized terms in biblical studies and historically orthodox Christian theology. That’s what we’re attempting to do. It can be properly used, but, it can also be put aside if the term creates more problems than it solves. At this point, we leave it up to our pastors and leaders to discern what would be most helpful. But since it’s in our literature and history, it’s best if our GCI leadership can explain both what it does and doesn’t mean.

    The second part of your question about nonbelievers “sharing in the life of the Trinity” relates to the question of participation. Sharing is a translation of the NT word for “participation” (koinonia) along with communion and fellowship. It is also described in the NT without using that particular word. But given that “sharing” means being personal, relational, dynamic, interactive and responsive by the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the answer would have to be no, not all are yet sharing in the life of the Trinity, sharing in Jesus’ relationship with the Father by the Holy Spirit. But we can and should say that all that God has done for us, is doing and will do is with the aim to provide for and enable all to share by grace in the Son’s fellowship with the Father by the Holy Spirit, so that “all who call upon the Lord will be saved.”

  16. From Gary Deddo in reply to Steven Sell’s commment concerning the Arminian view of salvation:

    Steven, GCI is not beholden to have a theology that is, for instance, Calvinist or Arminian, or anti-Calvinist or anti-Arminian. While our theology may be descriptively closer, at various points, to one or another of these more or less traditional systems of Protestant theology (there are others, e.g. Anabaptist), they prescribe nothing for us. We may learn and benefit from both or neither, or from some parts of one and other parts of the other or from a third or fourth (Eastern Orthodoxy, Anabaptist, etc). The GCI Statement of Belief does not align neatly with either of these two systems although it does overlap with both at significant points. Ours indeed does align with the Protestant Reformation tradition of which both Calvinist and Arminian theologies have their roots. It would take a very long essay, even books, to explain how exactly our theology both overlaps but departs from these theologies, especially since they themselves are not monolithic, but have variations within them!

    Your necessarily simple summary could actually be adopted by both Calvinists and Arminians, each requiring further but differing qualifications. All biblical and historically orthodox Christian theologies call for some kind of participation or responsiveness enabled by the Holy Spirit. It’s at the point of the why’s and how’s of that participation that the theologies differ.

    GCI’s incarnational Trinitarian theology tries to account for the biblical centrality of the person and work of Christ and for the united ministry of all three persons of the Trinity, which allows for the dynamic, personal, interactive and relational elements depicted and derived from the biblical revelation. It especially attempts to make use of a comprehensive grasp of who Christ is and how his ministry is linked with a biblically comprehensive understanding of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

    Part of how we would differ both from most Calvinists and Arminians would be on the nature and scope of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In short, the Holy Spirit has the same scope or breadth as does the ministry of Christ, namely on behalf of all. But also the Holy Spirit is the one who enables us to share in what Christ has accomplished for all in his human nature: our justification, sanctification and glorification. Additionally, the Holy Spirit does not work causally, mechanically or impersonally, but relationally, dynamically and personally, but none-the-less effectively.

    Finally, in contrast to most Arminians, we do not teach that the Holy Spirit gives us a neutral (and in that sense “free”) will to choose or to reject God. There is nothing neutral about the ministry of the Holy Spirit any more than was/is the ministry of Jesus Christ. The two Persons are perfectly one—in character, mind and will, for us and our salvation. Their ministries are perfectly coordinated. Another difference from Arminian theology is that we do not teach that God elects individuals on the basis of God’s foreknowledge of our choosing.

    There is a great mystery as to exactly how the Holy Spirit works that cannot simply be understood by analogy with human agency or natural law. Thus the personal and personalizing ministry of the Holy Spirit, after Christ’s ascension, is essential to our participation, our fellowship and communion, which is a gift of grace to share in the dual mediation of Christ to us and in his responses in our place and on our behalf as one of us. By the Spirit we grow up into Christ, we call out Abba Father. What Christ has done for us, the Holy Spirit works out in us.

    I hope this brief description helps, although it certainly cannot answer all the questions involved in sorting this out. I suppose that’s why we also offer theology courses through GCS!

  17. Thanks very much, Dr. Deddo. The article is very helpful in clarifying many of the terms we use in our systematic theology and offers a more faithful explanation to the nuances of salvation in the Bible or biblical theology.

  18. Gary how can I, a member of GCI, participate in GCI seminary? Are there any scholarships that would help with cost. I have a very small pocket book. I would like to be a part of this but not sure I have the financial means.

  19. Hi Steven.

    The best way to get your questions answered concerning Grace Communion Seminary, is to phone the GCS office at 1-800-851-2611. They can acquaint you with the various related programs and policies.

  20. Thank you all for your questions and kind comments. I’m glad you have found the article helpful. It is a challenging topic!

  21. Dr. Gary –
    You recommended a linked article “The Christian Life and Our Participation in Christ’s Continuing Ministry.” I don’t know how I missed it, or perhaps I wasn’t ready to fully receive it until now, but I have to say it was one of the most amazing and logical and wonderful things I have EVER read. You made so clear, how we as preachers can and should preach grace (belief/response) in such a comprehensive way, that I don’t know why it isn’t included on the masthead of every publication and source we communicate on our website, and provided as must reading in the Equipper for anyone who preaches or teaches this gospel.

    I want to shout from the top of my lungs to those who have posted hear…PLEASE…click the link and take the time.

    If I had learned only that in all of my GCS classes and training (condensed to one article, without having to work it all out) it would have been well worth the time and expense of my eight year journey in our denomination’s seminary.

    I intend to use it as the key note article this Thursday Bible Study as we kick off an in-depth look and interactive dialogue into the Basics of Trinitarian Theology at New Hope.

    GOD BLESS YOU, man, for giving us such a jewel in that article, that was ironically only referenced as kind of a BTW to this article!!!

    Warmest,
    Craig

  22. If one were to oversimplify ( clarify ) I Timothy 4:10, this all is , in my opinion, what Paul means by saying “…the Living God is the Saviour of all men, ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO BELIEVE.” I appreciate the further clarifications and explanations. I also appreciate Hebrews 12`:2, that it is Jesus who is the ‘author, finisher and perfecter of our faith and Salvation.” I trust Him to take my hand and walk me into the Heavenly Realm and seat me at the right hand of the Father. Thank you Jesus! PK

  23. Dr. Deddo,

    I have a question in regards to participation. It appears from the article and especially from some of the answers to the follow up questions that GCI is now making the definitive statement that only believers are participating. I realize that the statement was made that we are not trying to legalistically determine who is or is not participating. However, it seems that the gist is that some are completely not participating, and it appears to make the tie in that those are nonbelievers. First of all, if this is incorrect please let me know.

    However, if this is correct and the distinction is made that only believers are participating, how does this reconcile with the realities of others living out what I would can only consider to be participation in everyday life. In fact, a good example that comes to mind would be the one from the scripture actually referenced in the article – Acts 17. Although the actual koinonia word is not used there, it would seem participation is at the very core of the persuasive statements that Paul is trying to make there. He calls out people who are worshiping an “unknown god” and essentially brags on it to a certain extent, declaring that they are worshiping in ignorance but then ties their worship into the fact that they are worshiping an unknown god, and in fact there is an unknown God that is the one true God. This seems to be very close to declaring that they are already participating to some extent, even though they do not know it and then openly declaring that he wants them to know it and therefore participate even more fully, a call that I certainly rejoice in proclaiming to believer and unbeliever alike.

    Any points of clarification on this would be appreciated. Thanks!

  24. Here is Dr. Deddo’s reply to Dennis’ comment:

    Dear Dennis,

    Thanks for your inquiry.

    Hopefully parts 2 and 3 of this series will fill out what we understand concerning our participation and thus provide a more full response to your questions. But here are a few things to consider.

    The aim of these clarifications is to fill out partial understanding or to correct possible misunderstandings of what we have been teaching over the last number of years. Unfortunately, there are a number of logical inferences that can be made from what we have taught about the completed and objective work of God through Christ, that are not logically nor theologically necessarily true. (No simple matter of logical inference regarding matters of fact are ever *necessarily* true.) And we want to clarify what we do and don’t mean on the basis of a comprehensive grasp of the biblical revelation of the reality to which it points. That means we want our theological formulations and understandings to cohere with that revelation and therefore result in a greater consistency and less confusion that fits with a comprehensive grasp of biblical teaching.

    As you will see in the following installments to the series, participation (koinonia), is a key term but not the only word that describes what participation involves. This word is also translated communion, sharing, fellowship. In biblical revelation this and related words or descriptions have a particular meaning that points to a particular aspect of a dynamic reality of relationship. It points to a personal, relational, interactive aspect of relationship with God through Christ, and (very important) by the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

    Participation points to a personal, conscious, interaction and fellowship taking place. It points to a personal face to face relationship. It does not refer to what is impersonal, automatic, mechanical, causal, or to an abstract universal principle—even those that might be true. It and the kind of relationship it points to is not a broad and generic term to which a whole wide range of meanings can be given.

    This dynamic is described in terms of persons partaking (also a translation of koinonia) of the Lord’s Supper. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? (1Cor. 10:16).

    It is also reflected in this passage from the letter of John, “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1John 1:6-7 NRSV)

    Another well known passage that shows the kind of fellowship being talked about is from Romans 10: 9-12 “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” Confessing and believing is how Christ’s the free gift of salvation is received or appropriated in response to its revelation and proclamation..

    Participation is used to speak of a quality of relationship of people with God through Christ and by the Holy Spirit. It indicates a personal, positive responsiveness, receptivity, interaction. And that quality of relationship is of course different from those who are not (yet) receptive or personally and positively responding.

    The word indicates an important aspect of the reality of our relationship with God. This is what we are made for, this is the ultimate purpose of the completed work of Christ brought about or fulfilled in us by the Holy Spirit. But it is not impersonally imposed or caused. Without this word, concept, and accompanying descriptions, we would not know what we were ultimately created for nor what we have been rescued from so that we no longer have to stay entrapped and out of personal communion with God. So Paul can warn of the problem of having fellowship (koinonia) with demons (1 Cor. 10:20) or being united with prostitutes (I Cor 6: 14-18). These are not ways to participate with Christ.

    All the exhortations, commands and directives to the church in the letters of the New Testament aim for promoting participation by those who are believing. Believing being one of the most fundamental, ways of participating, that is a trusting relationship.

    So to answer your question, yes, participation applies to believers as used in the biblical revelation. But it is held out to all. But there are certain aspects of relationship that do apply to those only who are receiving, receptive, responsive to the Word of God in personal relational ways. So these cannot be ignored. Our theology cannot simply run roughshod over them. There a difference between those who are participating and those who are not. The difference is a matter of participation and the consequences of either participating or not.

    But does that mean God has nothing to do with those who are not believing? No, not at all. If God had nothing whatsoever to do with them they would not exist! And they could never come to have repentance and faith for they are gifts to be received and are empowered and set free to receive by the Holy Spirit so that they can participate in Christ and share in his responses he has and is making for them as the high priest of all humanity.

    Perhaps we can think of this dynamic relationship with the living God as a continuum on a slope. One the low side we have complete repudiation and non-participation. AT the other high end of the slop, we have full participation by the Spirit in Christ’s responses for us. All persons are located somewhere on that slope. But what is important is not locating exactly where individuals are located, but that there is a slope and there are two directions to go on the slope: down towards the bottom or upwards towards the top. The biblical revelation seems to address more the direction individuals are facing and so headed than where exactly each one stands. Of course we can’t know exactly for sure where persons stand nor with absolute certainty what direction they are headed. But we don’t have to. Our ministry is to announce the Gospel and direct all persons in the direction to the “upward calling of Christ” no matter where they stand or which way they face. And there are times and places to warn persons in particular or in general of facing the wrong direction or heading in the wrong direction—simply because there are two directions—whether or not we can know exactly where a particular persons stands. And we can give descriptions, following biblical teaching on what going in each direction looks like and the consequences of going in one direction or another. And we will do so out of compassion for those we love and for whom Christ died. So while we do not do anything for our salvation, that does not mean there is nothing for us to do. It calls for a particular direction of response.

    But no, not all are participating. And some have not yet begun responding and others are resisting or rejecting. Thus the descriptions of proper responses and all the warnings given in the New Testament to those who might be resisting, rejecting the good news or presuming upon it. So Paul will speak of God’s kindness and patience this way: “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4)

    Again, we simply cannot dismiss those warnings as if they are not there. It is somehow possible for human beings to resist and deny the objective reality of who God is and what he has done and is doing for us. That doesn’t change the reality, but it does change radically the quality of relationship. And the warnings are given so as to avoid such a situation of non-participation, of rejecting grace, of repudiating the grace of God in Christ and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

    There are many ways to speak of God’s positive relationship to all humanity that matches the biblical testimony. All are created through Christ. All have the purpose of being created to image God through being joined to The Image of God, Jesus Christ, by the Spirit. All are upheld in their created existence by God through the eternal Son. And all do benefit in many of the less personal blessings of God that are externally available: the rain falls on the just and the unjust. We remain human even in sin, even as we reject God’s grace. So we have many created good human things—that are all still limited, perishable and corruptible too. But they are created goods. And we can certainly proclaim that. God remains “for” all and is against none. But he remains against all that is against us and against his ultimate purposes for us. And he is in a way against what is in us that is against us. God would not be loving if he were not against these things that are against us. That too, must eventually be brought out if we are to be faithful witnesses who desire, as God does, that others enter into a personal relationship and receive from God his blessings and do not simply presume upon his grace without receiving it.

    Now even good created things that all enjoy, whether or not they are participating in that personal relational and responsive way, can become barriers to personal participation with God through Christ Jesus. Any good created thing can become an idol. And when it does we must die to it. We must repent. We can even become idols to ourselves and to our capacities and abilities and even to our good deeds. We can presume upon God’s grace and live off our own resources, that may indeed be some the relatively impersonal gifts of God. You can see this in Jesus’ call to follow him. Often his disciples give up relatively good things, including fishing or comfortable relationships with family members to follow and be with him and learn from him. Seeking first the kingdom of God is essential to participation in a personal relationship. But this means that repentance is always a part of a personal response to God’s gift of grace in Christ delivered to us, to our very spirits, by the Holy Spirit.

    So God is indeed drawing all persons for whom Christ died–that they might participate. That is the purpose of our being the church and preaching and proclaiming the Gospel. But that ministry will call for the response of repentance and faith and a life of the obedience of faith in personal relationship with God according to his Word and Spirit. And all of Scripture is arranged this way. The reality of who God is and what he has done in relationship to us calls for very particular, personal responses, not no response or impersonal affirmation of an abstract universal principle. So Jesus: The kingdom of God is at hand (in my very presence and speaking to you personally here and now), so repent and believe in this good news.

    The proclamation of the indicatives of grace (what is true about God) always itself calls for a particular and personal response since it is meant to establish or set in motion a real personal and dynamic, interactive relationship. That’s what worship is and a life of the obedience of faith in who God is and what he has done for us. Reality calls for a response to correspond to it. And that response is called participation in our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit.

    Another way to put this is that conversion of mind and heart is a reality throughout the New Testament. This can be seen in those who respond to Jesus during his earthly ministry. It is clear throughout the book of Acts. Most notably this is clear in Paul’s own radical conversion. And in the letters it is clear in the range of reactions to the church and its leadership. Conversion is a dynamic of response to the Holy Spirit upon the proclamation of the Word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit specifically open eyes and opens hearts and transforms our minds and lives. Conversion in the NT is a real thing. It is a change of direction and a matter of repentance and faith. It is also called being born from above. (This does not necessarily mean there is a particular moment of conversion that everyone can point to. But often there is a noted change of direction of one’s life and a new dimension of relationship that opens up, that is characterized by responsiveness, by receptiveness, by openness and so trust in God because of Christ.)

    So our preaching, teaching, counseling, testimony needs to follow the same pattern. That is the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ. God has reconciled all to himself so we who personally acknowledge that, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, are now his ambassadors, announcing that truth and then saying: so be reconciled (1 Cor 5).

    Now to the question on the passage in Acts 17. It must be read in the context of the whole of the book of Acts. And then in its more limited context. Yes, Paul is happy to indicate that these particular folks worship an unknown god. He does establish some provisional common ground with them. But these he regards as idols (v. 16) and he radically contrasts these idols including the one with the inscription “to an unknown god” and indicates their foolishness in worshipping them. He proclaims a living God not made by hands. He points out that God created people to seek God in that hope that they might “feel after him and find him.” (v. 27). He indicates that the “times of ignorance” which God has “overlooked” has passed, and now “he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead. (vv. 30-31). The passage ends: “some mocked” and “some men joined him and believed” (and the woman Damaris and “others with them” (v. 34).
    Here are the two divergent responses. These two responses are clearly not both participation, fellowship, communion. And clearly Paul preached what he did to bring about the second response, not to have them continue on worshipping an idol, even one dedicated to the unknown god.

    Given all of what we read in Acts, those who did repent and receive Paul’s message on that occasion and who entered into a personal relationship with God indicated by following Paul, would not only move from a position of not knowing to knowing the name of the God. Rather, every aspect of their lives would be changed by that change, by ceasing to be idolaters and living in a personal relationship with the real God. Such “knowledge” is, as we say, life changing. That’s because it results in a real personal relationship—with the living God, no longer “relating” to a thing created by human hands that cannot speak, interact, give life, especially eternal life. The shift in direction of life is far greater than simply a cognitive identity of the proper name of God. Participation is much more than a cognitive change, more than a simple intellectual assent to an idea.

    Clearly, Paul did establish with his listeners a provisional common ground to get his them to make a particular response to the reality he proclaimed. But he directly called into question question their idolatry. His listeners were specifically called to repentance and to belief—that is to personal participation, as Paul counted on the working of the Holy Spirit even as he preached. And as he says elsewhere, this Gospel will always fulfill and offend, especially offend pride and self-sufficiency or self-righteousness. There is no Gospel that will only fulfill and not offend at least our pride. So Paul says:

    “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” (2 Cor 2:14-16 NRSV)

    Paul clearly outlines to different kinds of response and two directions in response to the proclamation of the Gospel. We can expect the same. There is no way to avoid this dynamic if we are to be faithful to Christ’s gospel. But our aim, of course to see others receive the good news and begin to personally participate in living, trusting relationship with God. But some will be offended along the way. It’s not our job to make sure this never happens. But of course it should happen for the “right” reason. If and when it happens it should be a reaction to the Gospel itself.

    We should not identify the good of creation (including our own being) with the good of redemption and our participation in that redemption. While they are both good and both demonstrate God’s being for us, we are not to stay reposed in the good (or goods!) of creation, but to respond personally to the good of redemption in Jesus and to repent especially of idolizing the good(s) of creation which cannot save us from sin and the power of sin or give us eternal life. We were meant for far more than enjoying or even making use of God’s good creation while remaining out of personal, participatory relationship with God. God came in Christ and accomplished for all what he did that we might enter into a worship relationship with the living God in Spirit and in truth and receive from him, personally, all he freely gives us by his Word and Spirit. And such a life is signaled by repentance, belief and a life of the obedience of faith according to God’s word. That is, those headed in that direction are those who are participating in the life of Christ.

  25. Here is a comment from an anonymous reader:

    Hi Gary
    Many thanks for all the good stuff you are sending out! So much is being clarified for me. It is exciting!

    But there is something I am finding difficult to wrap my little brain around:
    In your article “Clarifying Two Key Terms: All Are Included and Union with Christ” you write that “not all have received that union or have entered into it. In that sense not all are united to Christ, not all are one with Christ…not all have the Spirit of Christ.”

    We have often spoken in the past of the objective and subjective. ie all are in union and all have the Spirit objectively but not everyone knows that (subjectively). Or I have heard it put another way: God sees everyone being in union with Christ but not everyone is aware of that.

    But what we are now saying seems to be different?

    Is it still correct to say that in one sense everyone is in union with Christ but because they are not participating in the work of the Holy Spirit they are blind to the reality and do not understand that which is already true of them?

    Also, we have said that although everyone is not responding to the Holy Spirit, He is still working his work (because God is love and wants all to be saved) gently, quietly in everyone – often in ways we don’t understand.

    Secondly, if we are saying that “not all have the Spirit of Christ” then does that mean that there are some “places” where God is “not” But that doesn’t seem to make sense to my little brain.
    God is omnipresent and therefore isn’t he “in” everyone – even those who have not responded and not participating in the gift of relationship with God?

    You write “Now, God, in Christ and through the Spirit’s ongoing ministry, is drawing believers into a spiritual union (union with Christ) that involves participation….” But can’t that also be said about non-believers? In ways that we don’t always understand but because of God’s great love for all He is drawing non-believers into a spiritual union…..?” Because isn’t it true that we are only able to
    respond to God because, He, in the first place enables us to respond?

    Also, are you saying that when we say “yes” to God’s “yes” (to a Person, a relationship) it is only then that the Holy Spirit starts His work of sanctification? If so, it sounds like the Holy Spirit lies dormant (in us?) until we respond to God’s invitation. I realize dormant is not the correct word but I’m trying to understand where He is and what is He doing in the lives of non-believers.

    I hope I am making myself clear. I’m just finding it difficult trying to wrap my brain around this (and explain it to others). What am I overlooking, misunderstanding?

  26. Here is Gary Deddo’s reply to the comment from Anonymous (above):

    In these clarifications, we are upholding our understanding of what Christ accomplished in his earthly incarnate ministry on behalf of all. What is being filled out because not well explained before is the nature of our participation—the subjective aspect, we could say. Making use of as much of Scripture as is relevant to fill out our understanding of our participation has led to us to see that it would be best or more faithful to shift some words or phrases previously used for Christ’s work and ministry over to the ministry of the Spirit and our (subjective) participation. Probably the biggest change is to use “union with Christ” to refer our subjective participation by the Holy Spirit in the finished work of Christ. This matches the biblical pattern not only of the word “union” or synonyms for it, but also matches descriptions of the particular ministry of the Holy Spirit. Union with Christ and synonyms always indicates actual participation—it is a quality of relationship which indicates communion, responsiveness, fellowship, in short, faith, hope and love for God because of Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has accomplished for us.

    There is a way in which it is still correct to say Christ is “united” to all. That is, he as assumed human nature, the human nature common to all, to himself and transformed and restore human nature itself to be in harmony with God. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” That is a particular theological use of the idea of “union” (the hypostatic union) that means something different than what the NT writers meant when using that word or synonyms. Union being in Christ and in the Spirit, and members of the Body of Christ, etc. in the NT mean the result of the ministry of the Holy Spirit that has elicited the response of faith hope and love. These are most often and simply referred to as believers or those who are believing, or saints or those who are living as a part of the church, the ekklesia. They are enjoying a quality of relationship, a participation, that those who are not believing or not participating do not (yet) have.

    To avoid confusion and make sense a majority of the teaching of the whole of the NT directed to the church (members of the Body of Christ who are participating) it is best to reserve the idea of union with Christ and synonymous words or phrases for the subjective aspect and follow the biblical pattern. If we do speak of union with Christ to refer to his completed work then we need to consistently remind folks of the ministry of the Holy Spirit and our spiritual union which is the goal and aim of the hypostatic union (or vicarious human nature of Christ).

    One final comment about your question above. Participation and response to the truth and reality of Christ by the Holy Spirit is far more than a knowing about something that is already true. Participation is a transformative interaction and dynamic relationship. Participation makes far more than a cognitive difference. It involves repentance and the obedience of faith and hope and love and being witnesses to Jesus Christ and participants as members of his body, worshippers. It involves devtion to the teachings of the NT, being disciples and followers of Jesus. Ultimately it involves what the entire ministry of the Holy Spirit is about.

    The Spirit’s ministry is to free and enable everyone to receive the Gospel bring them to a lived knowledge of Christ so that they repent, believe and live lives of the obedience of faith. Only by the Spirit will anyone come to say in faith Jesus is Lord. The Spirit convicts of sin and so enables individuals to share in all of what Christ has done. The Spirit’s ministry is to bring to fulfillment the ministry of Christ, or to work out in persons what all Christ has done for them. That is why it is best to say that we are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit—which manifested by a growing participation in Christ. The Holy Spirit always prepares the way for us to get involved in drawing others to Christ that they might begin receiving what he offers. We join in with what the Spirit is doing which is to continue the outworking of Christ’s ministry.

    You commented, “if we are saying that ‘not all have the Spirit of Christ’ then does that mean that there are some ‘places’ where God is ‘not’?” My reply is that though this line of reasonging might be a possible logical implication, it is false. (No simple logical inference is ever necessarily true, logically or theologically. It’s one possibility. The Spirit’s ministry is not like that. While the Spirit can be said to be present everywhere and to everyone, the Spirit is not present or active in the same way everywhere and to everyone. Also the Spirit’s ministry is not an impersonal or mechanical or automatic one. So the Spirit works in may ways and can be present and active in any number of ways, and indeed in some ways we don’t’ and perhaps even can’t understand. But this can be seen in at Pentecost where the Spirit works very locally, falling on some, but not all are equally affected. Some scoff and say those affected by the Spirit are drunk. Pauls says to be filled with the Spirit and not to quench the Spirit. The spirit distributes gifts as he sees fit. All do not have the same gifts. The Spirit calls somefor some ministires and others not. And people can resist the Holy Spirit, for instance Annanais and Saphira or Simon the Sorcerer. Also recall that there is the possibility of blaspheming the Holy Spirit—as nearly unimaginable as that might be. The Spirit is the personalizing and personal Spirit and does not work in a force-field or vector kind of way, in a cause-effect way, or as a impersonal universal principle. The Holy Spirit ministry is to bring about personal, individual corporate transformation—by enable us to receive and participate in all that Christ has done for us, including participating or echoing his responses made in our place and on our behalf. Of course we make the distinction by saying of those who are participating that they are “in Christ” and “have the Spirit” and that (as far as we can tell) others do not yet, not on our own authority. But that is how Paul and Jesus speak. They make the distinctions themselves between believers and non-believers in that way.

    All humans are on the same continuum, but there are phases, perhaps we could say, so that not all are at the same spot, location on the continuum. There are those who are responding, and not rejecting. Perhaps would could say that there are those who are moving in one direction or the other. Moving towards Christ by the Spirit and Word of God always looks like participation, fellowship, communion, repentance and faith. And in the NT those moving in that direction are described in certain ways while those who are not are described in other ways. We want to follow that pattern. Direction is important. It means for those who are moving towards him, growing up in him, to keep on—don’t give up because God won’t given up. And for those moving in the opposite direction there is hope for change, for forgiveness for renewal, for a new kind of life and relationship with God (from our side). And for those who continually resist and reject there is to be warning. This is the biblical pattern—yes even though we are all on the same continuum, God’s intention is one. But participation does make a difference compared to non-participation. No one would ever respond and receive were it not for the personal and dynamic and interactive ministry of the Holy Spirit.

    The Holy Spirit works dynamically and personally and life itself, including Christian life, is dynamic, personal, relational and ongoing. It is impossible to say exactly “how” the Holy Spirit works in ways we can’t directly apprehend. But we are told certain things and we can experience the manifestations of the working of the Holy Spirit the Holy Spirit works out in us the whole of what Christ accomplished for us, give to us personally and dynamically our justification, sanctification and eventually our glorification, that is our whole salvation what is worked out in whole in Christ. The one whole work unfolds in our lives dynamically and manifests itself in our transformation, our participation more and more fully. The terms used to describe that unfolding are not exact, especially entirely sectioned off—the are all complete in Christ.

    But in general by the Holy Spirit we share in Christ’s righteousness (justification) and then as we grow in our relationship with Christ responding more and more fully we are said to be growing in our sanctifiction, that is grow up into Christ or become more and more conformed to him. On the other side of death we’ll be able by the Spirit to participate fully in Christ’s life and the NT calls that our glorification. But it’s all more and more participating in what Christ has accomplished for us. We participate progressively by the Spirit in what is complete in Christ.

    Why an individual is where they are we cannot exactly know. But as noted above, the NT indicates our responsiveness to the Holy Spirit is not static but can be resisted. So when we don’t see much or no participation it might be due to resistance. But the Spirit’s own decision to wait to interact in a certain way at a certain time according to his wisdom and love will also be involved. This process has been likened to wooing. So all we can do is encourage folks to begin to participate or continue to participate and warn against resistance. But we can always count on the Spirit’s wise yet dynamic ministry.

    I hope this is helpful. I think mostly we’re all concentrating more on seeing what our participation is like and the nature of the Holy Spirit’s ministry and how that’s jointed to Christ’s earthly and continuing ministry. So we’re all trying to get up to speed on this so we can better fill out more of the whole picture and bring to bear more of Scripture on our understanding and practice of ministry. I think some of this will come out in the next installment. So stay tuned.

  27. This article does help explain some questions I have had. I think of the first stage new human as accomplished, but union with Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit not accomplished unless we are in relationship with Christ and the Holy Spirit. But if we reject the relational union with Christ would we be the new man but analougus to the angels who became demons in rebelling against God?

  28. Anderson, I don’t think we have biblical warrant to compare the union all humans have with Christ via the hyposatic union with the state/staus of angels. Angels are, like humans, creations of God, however, Christ did not unite his divine nature with the nature of angels. Rather, via the Incarnation, with is hypostatic union, the eternal Son of God added humanity to his divinity. As a result, all humanity was placed on a new foundation—all, in Christ (via his representative humanity), are forgiven, accepted and so given new birth (no longer of Adam, now of Christ). This stunning, objective reality is then lived out (experienced) personally (subjectively) as the Spirit unites a person to Christ via the spiritual union. No angel experiences either the hypostatic union or the spiritual union other than in the ways all creation benefits from the reversal of the fall (leading to a new heaven and earth).

  29. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this clarification. As you remarked above there was some “inconsistency and hesitation if not confusion … beginning to develop. It’s easy to make logical inferences (that are never necessarily true) from a word or phrase that is used, especially, when used informally. And that had begun happening.”

    My conversations over the last few years with many GCI pastors and lay members were becoming more and more perplexing and troubling, and honestly, I was afraid that we had jumped into another ditch. Thank you for the clarification. I will encourage everyone to read these essays to avoid unintentional heresy. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

WordPress spam blocked by CleanTalk.