J.I. Packer once made the astute observation that “false proportions in our doctrine are the beginning of false doctrine itself.” If anything, this is a reminder for us to carefully weigh the emphasis that each of gives to the various doctrines of the Christian faith. When I was in seminary, I began to see that different groups in the church–who all cared deeply about sound doctrine–often placed an undue emphasis on the doctrine that they believed was the most important doctrine of the Christian faith. By the emphasis that was placed on the doctrine of adoption, one group gave you the impression, “get adoption right and everything else will follow.” By their emphasis on the doctrine of justification, another group seemed to suggest, “get justification right and everything else will follow.” Still others, so emphasizing the doctrine of sanctification, left you with the impression, “get sanctification right and everything else will follow.” The same was true for those who so emphasized biblical counseling and application in preaching. While none of these are, in and of themselves, false doctrine, they certainly run the risk of leading others to embrace false doctrine out of imbalance. For instance, an overemphasis on the doctrine of sanctification to the minimization of justification can lead to embracing a functional legalism and an overemphasis on the doctrine of justification to the downplaying of sanctification can leads to functional antinomianism. So what is the solution to this conundrum of false proportions in our doctrine? In short, we must “get Jesus right and everything else will follow.” Let me explain.
Jesus is the source of all “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption” for the believer (1 Cor. 1:30). As the head of the redeemed humanity, Jesus is the elect One (Is. 42:1), the regenerate One (Heb. 1:5), the justified One (1 Tim. 3:16), the sanctified One (John 17:19; Heb. 5:8), the adopted One (Rom. 1:4) and the glorified One (John 17:2, 5). In the historia salutis (i.e. the history of the accomplishment of the work of salvation), Jesus became all those things for us as the Covenant keeper, so that we, by union with Him, might also receive the spiritual saving blessings of God (Ephesians 1:3-14).
While all of the saving blessings are bound up in the Christ who lived, died, rose, ascended and ever lives to make intercession for His people, they all come to us through our union with Him. Union with Christ is what makes all of the saving blessings of God–the doctrines of election, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification and glorification a reality for us. Union with Christ makes those things possible. However, when we speak of union with Christ we must do so under it’s three dimensions–decretal, redemptive-historical and experiential (or existential). It is actually possible for us to have a truncated view of union with Christ–wherein we only speak of one of these three dimensions. Richard Gaffin helpfully explains these three dimensions of union with Christ when he writes:
For those “in Christ” this union or solidarity is all-encompassing, extending in fact from eternity to eternity, from what is true of them “before the creation of the world” (Eph. 1:4, 9) to their still future glorification (Rom. 8:17; 1 Cor. 15:22). Accordingly, in discussing union in Paul, it is hardly an alien imposition on the text or an undue systematizing or schematizing, but promotes needed clarity to recognize a threefold categorical distinction. His “in Christ” is either predestinarian (Eph. 1:4); past or redemptive-historical, the union involved in the once-for-all accomplishment of salvation, particularly in his death and resurrection; or present, the union involved in the actual possession or application of salvation, in that sense existential union.
These distinctions, it should not be missed, point not to different unions but to different aspects or dimensions of a single union. At the same time, it is essential to recognize each of these dimensions and to do so without equivocating on them, either by denying any one of them or by blurring the distinction between them. The need for such distinguishing can be illustrated by an instructive example directly pertinent to our primary concern, applicatory or actual union.
In Romans 16:7 Paul mentions those who “were in Christ before me” or “before I was.” Here Paul, speaking autobiographically but surely representatively of all Christians, brings into view a before and after of being “in Christ” that points to a critical transition. Within the overall context of his teaching, we may say, Paul knows himself to be chosen “in Christ” from eternity (“before the foundation of the world,” Eph. 1:4) and also as contemplated as one “with him” at the time of his death and resurrection (“in the fullness of time,” Gal. 4:4). Nonetheless, there was still a time in his life, during his pre-Christian past, when he was “outside” of Christ in the sense he speaks of here, and so at that time was, personalizing the plural in Ephesians 2:3, “a child of wrath, like the rest.”
All of this is not to say that there is not a logical priority to any of the blessings (i.e. regeneration, justification, sanctification, etc.) in the ordo salutis (i.e. the application of redemption). Surely there is, at the very least, an existential element at work in the relationship between justification and sanctification. If I forget that I have been justified by faith alone in Christ alone, I will not make much progress in the ongoing work of sanctification. Likewise, if I forget that I have been adopted, once for all, in Christ–and that God is now my Father (in the deepest and most meaningful sense of what it means to be loved by Him as a Father)–then I will spent much of my Christian life living paralyzed in terror and servile fear–which, in turn, will inevitably stunt my growth in grace and holiness. These saving blessings have their place and importance in relationship to other saving blessings. Nevertheless, all of them are “in Christ.” Additionally, it is only “in Him,” and on the basis of His finished work and ongoing intercession, that these doctrines are made efficacious to us.
So, when we consider what emphasis we place on our doctrine, in our quiet times, in the home, in the pulpit and in our conversations, we must always ask ourselves the following question: “Am I giving the Lord Jesus Christ the central place in my understanding of the Christian life? Am I acknowledging that all of the saving blessings–which have been freely given to me by God and are mine to enjoy and participate in by faith–are only mine by virtue of my vital union with Jesus Christ? Are all the other doctrines that I emphasize given due proportion in proportion to the emphasize I am placing upon Him?” May God give us the grace to honestly evaluate the proportion with which we promote any given doctrine and to believe that if we “get Jesus right, everything else will follow.”
1. Gaffin, R. B. (2006). By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation (pp. 37–38). Paternoster.