Union with Christ and the Incarnation

Dr. Marcus Johnson speaks about One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation, his recent book, published by Crossway. While many books have been published recently on the topic of union with Christ, Dr. Johnson’s book stands out for its up-to-date analysis and unique approach. One with Christ charts a via media between federalist and realist approaches to the doctrine of union with Christ, a way which Johnson calls Christological realism. Listen to understand Dr. Johnson’s unique but scriptural treatment of the doctrine of union with Christ.

Dr. Johnson is Associate Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, IL. He received his M.A. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and his Ph.D. from Trinity College, University of Toronto. Camden Bucey reviewed One with Christ on a recent episode of Reformed Media Review.

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Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

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6 years ago

Enjoyed the program, even though it raised more questions than answers :p I was reading Jared and Jonathans’ review of KTC, and thought it was very helpful regarding the critique of the inadequate hermeneutic employed, but wondered if the portion of the critique focused on the perceived collapse of ordo and historia categories in KTC could be nuanced a little differently. The concern at one point was especially the idea that OT believers did not yet have union with Christ or the indwelling Spirit. Since union with Christ particular concerns our union with Him touching His human nature as our federal head, and in light of the NT strand of teaching regarding the Holy Spirit’s new ministry in the NC (not that He was not working in the OC of course, in regeneration and empowerment of leaders, etc.), would it not be better to say that OT saints had merely *prospective* union with the Christ who was to become incarnate (and therefore received all the appropriate benefits of union beforehand, like justification [cf. Rom. 3:21-26]), and only NT believers living after Pentecost (and departed OT saints *now*) truly have *existential* union with Christ and the *indwelling/baptism with* the Holy Spirit? So for OT saints there is no other *basis* than union from which there salvation comes, but actually experiencing existential union doesn’t happen till the historia is fulfilled, and the experience of the NC ministry of the Spirit in baptism and indwelling (new temple idea) is a NC distinctive. Thoughts?


6 years ago

Sorry for the typos/grammar errors.

Michael Ives

6 years ago


Great show. Stimulating to the mind and edifying to the soul.

A couple follow up thoughts here. Would Thomas Boston’s distinction of Christ as official Savior of the world and actual Savior of the elect help clarify the definite atonement / incarnation issue? If Christ is the official Savior of mankind at the cross (and consequently the in the free offer of the Gospel), might we say that He is the official Savior of mankind in the incarnation, while only taking flesh actually to obtain redemption for the elect?

On another note, doesn’t the universal cast of the incarnation need to be qualified by the particularity of his incarnation as a Jew and as the Seed of Abraham and the Seed of David? Heb. 2:11-18 seems particularly relevant here. The alternative to taking on the nature of angels is not taking on the nature of humanity in the general, but “the seed of Abraham.” It was necessary to be “made like unto his brethren.” Rom. 9:5 also indicates that He “came” for the Jews “after the flesh.” That qualifier there can’t be missed. Already the universal character of the incarnation is getting an interpretive caveat.

Of course, Jesus didn’t die merely for the Jews, nor all of the Jews. And that’s where federalism seems to come in, as I see it. There is a divine “reckoning” of who are Jews and who are not – and consequently, those for whom Christ “came” and died. “That is, They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed” (Rom. 9:8). So at the end of the day, the realistic dimension of the incarnation and atonement has to be qualified by the federal, decretal dimension. Yes, He came for Israel “after the flesh.” But the flesh is not everything. And he is not a Jew which is one outwardly, etc. So Gentiles get “counted” as the seed of Abraham and as the Israel of God.

And if I’m not off here, then can’t this notion of divine reckoning or counting help us with the issue of Christ coming (taking flesh) and dying for “the world?” If God gets to do the counting, and He subtracts many from the equation whom He doesn’t want to count, then we can unashamedly say that Christ took flesh for the world (humanity) and died for the world, full stop. It’s just that our conception of “humanity” and “the world” has to be squared with the divine accounting.

Again, thanks so much. And I can’t wait for the next installment!

Benjamin L Smith

6 years ago

Dear Friends,

This was a really excellent episode. I have pursued this question within the work of Thomas Aquinas, which may be of interest to you. Thomas explicitly denies that Christ, through the incarnation, is united to every human numerically. Rather, Christ’s human nature is his own, just as Cambden and I are both human beings, but I do not possess Cambden’s particular human nature, and he does not possess mine. I think this is quite right and avoids some of the problems that have come up in the wake of Vatican II (in particular the claim that simply through his incarnation Christ is united to every human being). Thomas goes on to define various levels of unity with Christ. Those who are actually fully united to Christ in glory, those who are actually but imperfectly united to Christ in this life, those who are not but will be united to Christ, namely, the elect, and finally those who are potentially united to Christ, but never will be, the reprobate. In Thomas’s view, Incarnation and union with Christ are related through the doctrine of grace and predestination. And since, predestination and final perseverance are matters of decree, it follows that the ultimate foundation of union with Christ is divine decree.

Best regards,


Benjamin L Smith

6 years ago

Dear Friends,

Just a quick follow up. Toward the end of the conversation I think two issues were conflated that really need to be kept distinct, namely, union with Christ and Christ taking on our sin. The absolute foundation of our union with Christ is the eternal decree of election. This is a foundation that existed before the incarnation and after, before redemption and after, before the application of redemption and after, etc. We do not really need to be speculative or confused about when Christ “took on” on sin. Christ took on our sin when he received the punishment due to sin. This satisfied the demand that sin be punished. Christ’s active and personal righteousness, includes all of his suffering, but this goes to Christ’s active righteousness. The atonement is what happens on the cross and satisfies the debt of punishment; the rest of the Christ’s righteousness, including his suffering, was His active law keeping for His elect, which satisfies for the elect, the demand that the law should be kept perfectly. I don’t think we want to get too clever here.

Finally, there is no opposition between “legal,” by decree, and personal. Indeed it is much more difficult to think of the mystical and metaphysical as person. I take God’s decrees to be very (scarily) personal indeed.

God bless,


Adam Smith

6 years ago

This was a great episode! It was a fun surprise to hear my old Sys Theo prof speaking on my favorite Reformed podcast. Dr. Johnson was the first one to teach me the doctrine of union with Christ. And, as was clear in the interview, his love for Jesus Christ is contagious .

He pointed me to Torrance’s stuff after I graduated, and I devoured his book on the Incarnation. But it wasn’t until I started taking the teachings of the Westminster Standards seriously (courtesy of this podcast, Lane Tipton’s teaching, Kline, etc.), that I began to see things like Torrance’s idea of Christ as having assumed fallen humanity as unbiblical.

I think he and our dear brother, Dr. Johnson, fall for this unbiblical notion at least partly because of what seems like a distorted or incomplete understanding of eschatology. Here’s why I think so: When teachers like Lane Tipton assert that Christ was an innocent human like prefall Adam (as opposed to a fallen human like postfall Adam, but w/o ever having sinned, as we all agree), that is not the same as asserting that Christ was a glorified human during his humiliation. His glorification doesn’t begin until the alpha point of his resurrection. So until that time, the estate in which Jesus first appeared, although pure, sinless, and innocent, is, however, to be seen as weak and provisional and imperfect until his resurrection (cf. 1 Cor. 15). His estate of humiliation was like the temporary tabernacle, and not until his exaltation was his estate like that of a permanent temple.

The eternal life offered to Adam was conditioned on his perfect, personal, perpetual obedience to God’s revealed will. He was weak but innocent, sinless but able to sin, until he met the conditions of this covenant of works. And so was Christ, the second Adam. During his humiliation he was innocent but not perfected until his resurrection.

That Christ did not participate in our fallen humanity (but only in unfallen-but-imperfect humanity during his humiliation, like prefall Adam) should be evident in Dr. Johnson’s own terms that he brought up during the interview. He referred to that church Father (Irenaeus?), who said that Christ “recapitulated” the story of humanity. If Christ recapitulated human history then he must have at least begun by assuming the first estate of human nature. And we may be able to substantiate this by looking at something in the Bible.

The angel Gabriel explains to Mary how she’ll get pregnant as a virgin, saying, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). What an extraordinary generation! Jesus is miraculously conceived by this virgin being overshadowed by the Most High’s power, and he is therefore called “holy—the Son of God.” So, extraordinary generation here yields a holy human. And we get light shed on this by a passage that follows soon after this one regarding another extraordinary generation of another innocent human called “the son of God,” Adam (Luke 2:38). As God begat Adam from the dust as a holy-but-imperfect human, even so did he form Jesus from the virgin’s womb.

But Dr. Johnson might object and bring up that Paul says Jesus was sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3), and add the famous patristic statement that “what is not assumed is not healed.” And I’m not saying that I fully understand how what I’ve said above can be true in the light of an objection like that. (Maybe the “likeness” of sinful flesh is different than if Paul would have said that he assumed “sinful flesh”?) Maybe this is where we draw the line of mystery? We can only apprehend and not comprehend the incomprehensible Savior’s amazing person and work (Eph. 3:19). But I do know that, as Dr. Johnson said so well, Jesus is our true theology. And as the eschatos adam, we would do well not to omit sound eschatology from a discussion of Christ’s incarnation.

And let us praise Jesus for being our true Healer. He took what was ours in his obedience unto death so that we might participate in the Father “healing’ him, so to speak, and raising him from the dead, and us in him.



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