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Union with Christ and the Problem of Identity

J. V. Fesko reviews a new treatment of union with Christ

Grant Macaskill’s latest book, Living in Union with Christ (Baker Academic, 2019) is a follow-up volume to his 2018 academic study on the doctrine, Union with Christ in the New Testament (Oxford, 2018). Macaskill’s chief aim is to prove that the Christian’s moral life must begin and end with Paul’s famous statement from Galatians: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (2:20). The goal of our salvation is not merely moral improvement or renovation but that we manifest Christ’s moral identity (1).

The book consists of seven chapters. The first sets the stage and succinctly explores the scholarly landscape for recent treatments of justification and sanctification (15-38). He then unpacks the Christian’s union with Christ (39-58), baptism (59-72), the Lord’s Supper (73-96), adoption (97-114), prayer (115-26), and a summary chapter that synthesizes his overall argument (127-46).

Charter of Christ’s kingdom

Macaskill’s overall case is strong and much needed in the church today. He notes how some in the past and present has viewed union with Christ as the indwelling of the Spirit’s power, an infused spiritual energy that enables Christians to live in an upright manner. But such an understanding is a deflection from the Bible’s teaching.

The Spirit is a person, not a power (56, 58). But Christians do not have the Spirit’s indwelling merely to up their moral game (40). Christ personally indwells believers through his life-giving presence of the Spirit to transform them. On this note a continual refrain throughout his book is Galatians 2:20. The gospel, therefore, is not merely the entry point to the kingdom of God but is the very ground for the recovery from daily sins and the charter of Christ’s kingdom (41).

One of Macaskill’s chief concerns is legalism, the idea that one can somehow supplement the all-sufficient work of Christ through his own obedience (8). Macaskill’s emphasis on union with Christ, therefore, is a welcome biblical message that Christians need to hear on a regular basis.

Macaskill traces the implications of union with Christ through baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which highlight their necessity and place in the Christian life. Romans 6:3-4, for example, invites Christians to “identify with the past of Jesus, to make the narrative of his death our own, and in doing so they invite us to identify also with his future” (66). A similar theme appears in the Lord’s Supper as Christians both look to the past and Christ’s death and to the horizon for his future act of deliverance (80). There is much in Macaskill’s book that reminds readers of vital biblical truths and invites reflection, meditation, and worship.

The problem of “identity”

One area that deserves more thought, however, is Macaskill’s use of the term identity. The word has become popular in recent years. A Google definition search shows that in comparison with its use in 1800, the word appears eight times more frequently in books published after 2000. The term became popular in the 1950s with the work of psychologist Erik Erickson (1902-94) and his book Identity: Youth and Crisis (1968). The problem with the term is that it is vague and this ambiguity unfortunately marks Macaskill’s book at key points.

He never formally defines the term, for example, but only presents functional descriptions: Identity is “who we are and why this must be determined by the phrase ‘in Christ’” (41). “[Identity] is not just about what we do or how we do it but about who we are and how we conceive of ourselves” (50; cf. 56, 59, 60, 73, 90). In spite of these descriptions, his use of the term is unclear at other points in the book.

What does it mean, for example, to “identify with the past of Jesus . . . and . . . to identify also with his future” (66)? How does one identify with Christ’s past? What does it mean that in the Lord’s Supper “the body is represented as having a singular identity that is associated with his prior singular identity” (69; cf. 85)? Regarding the Supper, Macaskill rightly notes that participation is always a factor: “If you sit at the table of a demon . . . you are participating in the identity of that demon” (88). Does this mean that we become the demon? I am dubious about the utility of the term identity and believe that it unnecessarily weakens Macaskill's otherwise excellent work. Click To Tweet

When Macaskill writes about the significance of baptism, he states that the death “of the old self” “is a consequence of identification with the death of Jesus, and the life of the new person is identified with the life of Jesus” (65). What exactly does it mean to be “identified with the life of Jesus”? How does identifying with Jesus differ from identifying with a demon? They are obviously different things, but Macaskill’s imprecise use of identity might leave readers puzzled.

Identity and cultural baggage

Macaskill rightly warns at the conclusion of his book that much of evangelicalism has been compromised by modernity, by that which is “more cultural and much less theological than we often think it to be” (144). My concern is that Macaskill’s use of identity has weakened his otherwise excellent case. One might contend that we need to speak in the words the culture will understand, hence identity is an important term. But when the word identity is so fluid (e.g., “I self-identify as a man, woman, a different ethnicity, etc.), might the price of usage be too high?

In other words, if psychologists have noted the term’s ambiguity and people regularly use it to ignore objective reality, then is the term truly useful? Does the term have too much cultural baggage? If I “identify with the past of Jesus” is this real or contrary to fact the same way a man might self-identify as a woman contrary to his biological nature?

Macaskill has done an admirable job of exploring our union with Christ and presents his case in a persuasive and commendable manner. I am dubious, however, about the utility of the term identity and believe that it unnecessarily weakens his otherwise excellent work.

Image credit: David Le Batard, See You on the Other Side

J. V. Fesko

J. V. Fesko (PhD, University of Aberdeen) serves as professor of systematic and historical theology at RTS Jackson. He has been an ordained minister since 1998 in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a church planter, pastor, and now teacher. Dr. Fesko has authored or edited more than twenty books including Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith, The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, Death in Adam, Life in Christ: The Doctrine of Imputation, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, and The Covenant of Works: The Origins, Development, and Reception of the Doctrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

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