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The Mystery of Being In Christ: A Review of Paul and Union with Christ

Jesus Christ savior messiah union with christ

You can’t read more than a few paragraphs of Paul’s letters without bumping into something about Christians being “in Christ.”  It’s so prevalent that many would say that it’s the most important theme in Paul’s theology, a concept you must grasp if you’re going to understand anything Paul says about salvation, the Christian life, or God’s plans for creation itself.

But there’s just one problem. No one seems to know what it means.

Thanks Paul.

paul and union with christIn steps Con Campbell with his book Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Zondervan, 2012). Campbell’s goal is to take another look at the biblical texts and see if we can work out what Paul means with this pivotal idea. And in the process he offers a thorough and insightful study of what it means to be “in Christ,” why that matters for how we read Paul, and, more importantly, how that shapes our view of salvation itself. Campbell’s book is a must-read for anyone looking to wrestle with these central issues.

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Union with Christ vs. Imputation: A Smackdown with Con Campbell

paul and union with christOkay, so this video isn’t really a smackdown. And union with Christ vs. imputation probably doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of a cage match. But many people do think that if we emphasize our union with Christ as the central aspect of our salvation, we will end up downplaying imputation — that is, the “great exchange” between us and Jesus where we receive his righteousness and he takes on our sin.

According to Con Campbell, though, this is a false dichotomy. Rather than seeing the two in opposition to one another, we need to understand imputation as flowing out of our union with Christ. I’ll be reviewing Campbell’s book Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study later this week. Until then, here’s a short video of Campbell explaining how he understands the relationship between these two important concepts.

Two Are Better Than One: A Meditation in the Key of We

Every now and then someone comes along and helps you hear a familiar passage in a new way. Last week I was blessed with one of those opportunities. Sandra Richter, fellow newcomer to the faculty at Wheaton College, presented the following devotional as a reflection on Ecclesiastes 4:9-12. And she’s graciously permitted me to post it here for your edification. Enjoy.

Ecclesiastes 4 teamwork community fellowship koinonia

Further, Not Faster

If you have been so blessed as to have received an e-mail from me, you know that the signature line on my new Wheaton e-mail account includes an old African proverb:

“If you want to fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”

I’ve placed it there because I want to remind myself, in this particular season of my life, of the wisdom that it teaches.

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The Trajectory of Biblical Literacy

Bible3 (250x227) biblical literacyGeorge Lindbeck, longtime professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, once commented on the trajectory of biblical literacy during his decades-long teaching career. Phil Ryken, who attended the meeting, recently shared Lindbeck’s comment. According to him, Lindbeck lamented the fact that evangelical students at the end of his teaching career know less about the Bible than the non-Christian students he taught at the beginning of his career. That’s a remarkable transition in just one lifetime.

People often lament that today’s students just aren’t like they used to be. Apparently students in earlier generations wrote like Hemmingway, reasoned like Aristotle, read 1,000 pages an hour with total recall, and never complained about doing homework. I think they could also capture moonlight with their hands and weave it into magical cloaks that would let them fly to the stars. They were impressive beings.

Obviously I’m a little skeptical about some of the criticisms often leveled at today’s students. Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue with this one. The overwhelming consensus of those involved in biblical education, whether in the church or in academia, is that we have witnessed a monumental shift in biblical literacy in just a few decades.

People often say that the church is only one generation away from losing its commitment to the gospel and the Bible. Lindeck’s comment is a powerful reminder of how true that can be.

That We Should be Called Children of God!

“Consider who we were, and who we are now; nay, and what we feel ourselves to be even when divine grace is powerful in us. And yet, beloved we are called “the sons of God‘. It is said that when one of the learned heathens was translating this, he stopped and said, ‘No; it cannot be; let it be written ‘Subjects’, not ‘Sons’, for it is impossible we should be called ‘the sons of God’.” What a high relationship is that of a son to his father! What privileges a son has from his father! What liberties a son may take with his father! and oh! what obedience the son owes to his father, and what love the father feels towards the son! But all that, and more than that, we now have through Christ. ‘Behold!’ ye angels! stop, ye seraphs! here is a thing more wonderful than heaven with its walls of jasper.”

~Charles Haddon Spurgeon in “Exposition of 1 John 3:1-10,” The Spurgeon Archive, (quoted in Ron Highfield, God, Freedom, and Human Dignity, p. 159)

The State of the Bible in 2013 (infographic)

The Barna Group has produced its annual study of what Americans think about the Bible. Here’s an interesting infographic summarizing their results.

Three of the more interesting results:

  • Young people (18-28) are more likely to see the Bible as an important source of “wisdom” in many life areas.
  • They often see the Bible as an important source of wisdom for addressing family conflict and parenting, but not divorce.
  • The percentage of Americans who are openly “antagonistic” toward the Bible has increased sharply in the last two years.


Browsing the Bible’s Self-Help Aisle

People like Proverbs. When I ask my high school students what they’d like to study, Proverbs always appears toward the top of the list (right behind Genesis and Revelation). And, when pastors preach through Proverbs, they often get more comments from people expressing how much they appreciated the sermon.

proverbs, wisdom, godly living, self improvementAnd I’m sure it’s because Proverbs has so much practical advice for daily living: disciplining unruly children (13:24), controlling your temper (14:17), managing your money (21:5), finding the perfect wife (31:10-31), just being wise (6:20-23), and much more. This is good stuff! Unlike those boring laws in Leviticus, these are things you can apply every day. (Before you start defending Leviticus, I don’t really think this. But admit it, most people think that Leviticus is boring and irrelevant while Proverbs is fascinating and practical.)

I recently sat through a sermon series on Proverbs that was just like this: every sermon packed with wise tidbits. I felt like I was hearing Benjamin Franklin reincarnated: be more disciplined, wake up earlier, control your temper, choose your friends carefully, spend wisely, and so on.  This is good advice that everyone should follow: the Bible’s own self-help aisle.

But is this really what Proverbs is about? Should we read Proverbs as a book of wise advice that anyone can and should follow?

This is the beginning of my latest monthly article over at So head over there to read the rest and let me know what you think.

All Is Vanity Mirrors

What happens when you combine Ecclesiastes, fatalism, and vanity mirrors? A great comic strip.

ecclesiastes, vanity, fate, fatalism

Understanding Biblical Theology

Biblical Theology is all the rage these days. A quick Amazon search will turn up all kinds of books on biblical theology, many of them written in just the last few years. But if you skim through those books, you’ll quickly notice something rather interesting: no one really seems to know what “biblical theology” means.

Biblical theology is one of those phrases with an obvious surface meaning (who wouldn’t want their theology to be biblical?) that grows hazy the minute you begin to ask some of the difficult questions:

  • What is “theology”?
  • What does it mean to be “biblical”?
  • Whose theology are we after (e.g. the Bible, the biblical authors, the religious communities of the biblical authors)?
  • Given the different perspectives in the Bible, can we really talk about just one biblical theology or are there many biblical theologies?

And we could keep going. With just a few questions, we begin to see why it can be so frustrating to figure out what people mean when they talk about biblical theology. It’s because biblical theology is a label that covers a multitude of differences.

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9 Reasons We Need the Gospels

Some Christians downplay the Gospels. We don’t do it on purpose, of course. After all, those are the books about Jesus, so they must be important. But we still have a tendency to prefer the letters to the Gospels. Stories are interesting, but they’re also a bit messy and complicated. So it seems easier, faster, and clearer to skip past the stories and just hear Paul tell us what we’re supposed to believe.

In Reading the Gospels Wisely, Jonathan Pennington offers nine excellent reasons that we should not do this. Beyond some nifty stories and fascinating parables, the Gospels have a lot to offer. And we’re missing out on a lot as Christians when we don’t allow us ourselves to soak in these life-changing narratives.

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