Romans 6:1-5 (ESV)
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Ever since I was a toddler, I have never been good at sitting still. Being an older man, I still act much like a toddler. So I have many scars –big and small, on my body and face. Most of them are invisible now. Yet there are few tough ones that refuse to stay low. They serve as mementos for me so that I may learn to be careful.

Theological students have theological scars –battle scars. Sure, we get picky and criticize other views. And we also get criticized. Usually we say, “Dude, it’s not personal, it’s just the business of getting at truth.” But there is one (or two) that may leave permanent scars. For me, it’s the Free Grace (FG) theology (which comes under different names: no Lordship salvation, the Grace Movement, the Grace Evangelical Society).

What is FG theology? They divorce faith and repentance for the sake of a noetic assurance of salvation. A peculiar blend of the faith-work (law-gospel) antithesis with classical dispensationalism. Added onto that, a spice of individualistic modern evangelicalism. There you have a “gospel” in which repentance from sin and confessing Jesus as Lord (which means commitment to obedience of faith, not perfection) is understood to be work apart from faith. Therefore, one may be saved  merely by accepting Jesus as Savior. Accepting Jesus as Lord, however, is seen to be optional. In essence FG theology is simply modern-day antinomianism (which means, anti-law) and an acceptance of such a theology would be destructive, to say the least. It gives you a false promise and it is exactly what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.”

I’ve never embraced this “cheap grace.” Yet it has affected a Christian fellowship that I held dear. Five years ago, I tried to fight this aberrant theology by collecting virtually hundreds of proof texts from Scripture, demonstrating that the FG dichotomy is wrong. Yet there is something about FG theology that appeals to our fallen mind –it may even appear to be logical despite what Scripture says … until one day when I learned about the richness of union with Christ from the seminary. To my shame, I had been quoting Rm 6:1-5 every time someone asked me to explain the absurdity of the so-called “carnal Christian” (not saying that true believers never exhibit carnal tendencies, but a “carnal Christian” was a term coined to refer to those who would supposedly never exhibit any change after their confession of faith). But the majestic truth of union with Christ did not dawn on me. It was staring at my face all the time, but it took me a while to discover it.

Rm 6:1-5 gives a graphic description of what union with Christ entails. It is as if we believer died and were raised together with Christ. The NT uses other pictures to depict this reality: such as the vine and the branches (Jh 15), the church building (1 Cor 3), marriage (Eph 5), and the human body (1 Cor 12). Paul says that it is no longer he, but Christ, who lives in him (Gal 2:20). The phrase “in Christ”, “with Christ”, and “through Christ” are virtually everywhere in the NT especially in John’s and Paul’s writings. Union with Christ is so embedded in the NT that we often miss it! It is not an abstraction. Try to combine all the pictures above and use your sanctified imagination! You will see such an intimate connection between Christ and you – and as a bonus, you and other believers. If we are so connected with Christ, how can we simply snatch his righteousness for our salvation without having a relationship with him? To understand your salvation in that manner would be analogous to exhibiting the desire for your dad to put you on his will (i.e. his money) while refusing to have any relationship with him. That would simply be absurd and borderline blasphemous!

As a Reformed Christian, I believe that the Lord had, in his sovereignty, placed me in such a saddening experience for a reason. Without this scar, I may not be able to appreciate the grandeur of the truth of union with Christ. Surely the doctrine of union with Christ does many more things other than merely debunking the quasi-gospel of preached in FG theology. Union with Christ is vital to our spiritual growth, even if sometimes it may appear to be too abstract. Yet remember, the NT is full of pictures of it. So grab your NT and start reading it again! Hopefully whenever you see “in Christ”, “with Christ”, and “through Christ”, you will read differently.

Last week, my dear systematics teacher Dr. Sinclair Ferguson says that the antidote for antinomianism is not a small dose of legalism. Likewise the antidote for legalism is not a small dose of antinomianism. The antidote for both is union with Christ. Can you say ‘Amen’ with me?

Eko Ong

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