Panel Discussion

Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the Vine, and the Branches: The Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ

David Mathis: Thank you for submitting questions. This may be the most questions we’ve ever had submitted, and I don’t think it’s a reflection of disagreements but trust for these speakers. This is a wonderful panel. I’m looking forward to our time here together.

This is a question from a missionary: “How would you explain the rather complex doctrine of union to Christ to someone who speaks English as their second language? We are hoping for a practical way to explain this to people who understand very limited theological language.”

John Piper: I would say picture a vine and a branch coming out of the vine, and that’s the way it is.

Sinclair Ferguson: You could market this worldwide.

John Piper: There must be more to that question than I’m aware of. It moves toward complexities, but it isn’t complex. It moves towards complexities as it relates to justification and sanctification. But as far as oneness, the Bible talks about marriage as a form of it, and a body with a head and arms and legs, and a vine and a branch and other images. I think the simplest answer I would say is look for the pictures of union in the Bible and then once the simplicity of a hand on an arm caring for the other hand, and the foot and getting its guidance from a brain, once the simplicity of that lands, then you can move towards the complexity. It looks like Sinclair has something on his.

Sinclair Ferguson: Yeah, I was actually going to say the same thing. So I’m very encouraged that two minds are on the same thing. The problem is not the English language. The problem of the English language, or the Western languages, is exactly what John said is going down into the complexities.

But all the pictures are actually in Greek in the New Testament. They’re transportable and they’re all life images. They’re not all life images, but they’re mainly life and horticultural images. And then there are images that people see around them in most places, buildings that are put together with some kind of conglomeration of blocks or other things that need to be hacked around in order that they can be fitted into the building and fitted into one another. I think I would begin with a kind of picture book.

David Mathis: We had several questions related to union and Christians being sinners. I’ll read a couple of quick ones to get the sense: “If we are definitively in Christ and no longer in Adam, are we not definitively saints and not sinners? If union includes our being a new creation, should we refer to Christians as sinners, or since they are defined by Christ, should we refer to them as those who sin, who are not sinners?”

Michael Horton: Well, I’m still a sinner. The difference is that sinner is no longer what defines my allegiance because as Dr. Ferguson was saying . . .

Sinclair Ferguson: Call me Sinclair.

Michael Horton: What we are in Christ is what defines us. And so that means that the bondage of sin is broken, the rule of sin is broken. But if Romans 7 is the description of ordinary Christian life, and I think that I’m one of eight people in the western world still believes it is autobiographical . . .

John Piper: Nine.

Michael Horton: Nine. Well, I was including you as one of the eight. And it’s not just Romans 7, it’s other passages. We are still sinful, but it’s not the same relation that we had to sin before we were united to Christ. It’s Christ who defines us, not Adam. Yet at the same time, we are simultaneously justified and sinful. It’s not only simultaneously justified and sinful, it’s also simultaneously regenerate and sinful. We are in no sense unregenerate. We are wholly regenerate and yet continuing to find ourselves doing that which doesn’t make any sense at all in the light of our union with Christ.

John Piper: I feel the weight of that question more than I used to, in part because of the issue of homosexuality. One of my really good friends who died of AIDS years ago would never let me use “homosexual” as a noun in relation to him, because he insisted, “That’s not who I am. I am a new creation and I am a struggler in Christ Jesus. My identity is not my sexuality, it’s Christ.” And the vocabulary mattered at that level. I’ve pretty much followed that ever since. I’ve tried to avoid ever typing anybody with a noun as their identity now.

That person who just asked that question is asking, should we do that with the word sinner? I don’t practically avoid the word “sinner”, and maybe I should for saints. The reason I don’t, I think, is that the activity of the old man and the reality of our need to pray for forgiveness every day — “Father, give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our sins” — which I think is just a daily rhythm, is a word in English that is not so much an identifier as it is a descriptor of activity. But I could be wrong. You need to judge in your church and your small group. When I say, “We’re all sinners”, are they hearing, “That’s our fundamental identity that trumps saint”? If that’s what they’re hearing, you probably should stop saying it and say, “We are saints who sin. We are new creations who are gnawed at by this old man who wants to be pulling himself off the cross.” Again and again, we need to reckon that sinful self dead, instead of honoring him by giving him a nice name that I carry around called sinner. I would take that, totally agree with everything Michael said, but wonder what do you think, Sinclair, about the actual word?

Sinclair Ferguson: Yeah, I think context probably is quite a significant thing. We’re not always good at knowing how people hear the words that we use. I don’t know what you two have done, but I might say to a group of believers, “We remain sinful. We need to be very clear about this.” And in that sense we remain sinners, but that is not what defines us. I think the notion of constantly calling saints sinners probably belongs to a slice of American evangelicalism. I could be quite wrong, but I think it probably does.

John Piper: If they’re in that slice?

Sinclair Ferguson: If they’re in that slice, then it probably means they have been so beaten down by an emphasis on an aspect of Scripture that remains true. But they haven’t had opened up to them the fact that we are brothers in Christ, we are the adopted children of God, we are saints, and in my tradition, this is really a very big thing that Murray especially highlighted in those essays he wrote in sanctification.

He wrote about how in the New Testament, the dominant tense of the “sanctify” language is past. The big thing has been done. We are sanctified in Christ. And it’s like Philippians 1:6, that God is putting the finishing touches on us. They seem huge to us, but he has done the big thing. He has moved us out of Adam into Christ. We’re no longer children of wrath, we’re children of God. Many people, because they’re so beaten down, need to hear these things more and more without us losing our grasp on the imperatives that follow.

Michael Horton: If I could just add one more. Alexander White, a famous Scottish pastor . . .

Sinclair Ferguson: Why am I smiling?

Michael Horton: You know the quote?

Sinclair Ferguson: I’m sorry. I know what you’re going to say. This was over against the Keswick teaching what you are going to say, wasn’t it?

Michael Horton: Thank you for that preface.

Sinclair Ferguson: That was the background.

Michael Horton: Thank you. Thank you Sinclair.

Sinclair Ferguson: I just wanted to introduce a little controversy . . .

Michael Horton: You’re good at that. No, he said, “As long as you’re under my charge, you’ll never leave Romans 7.” And I think this is no slight on Alexander White. He may have followed it up with his comment, but I’ve only heard that quote. I think we have to be careful. Sometimes in Reformed circles, it’s as if Romans 7 is the heart of the epistle. And it’s true that we will never leave Romans 7. The problem I think with Keswick is you have some Christians in Romans 6, some Christians in Romans 7, and some Christians in Romans 8. Some are triumphant and some are carnal, and what Paul is describing there is a carnal Christian in Romans 7.

But I think what’s so brilliant about Paul’s argument there in Romans 6, Romans 7, and Romans 8 is that every Christian is a Romans 6 definitively sanctified, regenerate believer. Every Christian is still sinful, desperately wicked (Romans 7), and every Christian finds satisfaction only in Jesus Christ in looking at his finished work (Romans 8). That is true of every Christian. There aren’t these stages or these separate classifications. There are no first class, second class Christians. We’re all simultaneously victorious in Christ and yet desperately sinful in ourselves.

Sinclair Ferguson: Yeah. I’ve actually only taken a congregation through Romans once in my life and that was the last congregation. But of course if you’re Scottish, when you’re in Romans 7, you drag the story out. And I dragged it out at the end and then I said, “As long as I’m your minister, you’ll never get out of Romans 6, Romans 7, and Romans 8.” And I wish White had said that. It was a partial reflection of himself, I think, as well as everything else.

John Piper: The fact that you said, “If you’re Scottish, you draw it out,” causes me to want to make sure that the American issue, as I see it, is clear. You mentioned there’s this little slice of America that’s dealing with this sinner issue. The big slice is Joel Osteen. The big slice is Joyce Meyer, who diminished sin so much in the conversation of what it is to be a Christian.

That’s where I would push back on that question. I would say there are huge slices of the American Christian pie that minimize sin, rather than maximizing it, calling people sinners. So let’s just, back to context, know your church. Know the person you’re sitting across the counseling room from. What do they need to hear? What do they need desperately from God at this moment? Be pastorally discerning.

David Mathis: Here’s a cluster of questions I think go together: “Is it possible to be united to Christ but not abiding in Christ?” And then this next question says, “One prayer in the Valley of Vision talks about a felt union with Christ. What is this? Is it a conscious awareness? Union obviously is an objective spiritual reality, but what of union suffers when we fail to live conscious of it? Or another way to say it is, what is a Christian unaware of union missing out on?”

John Piper: Well, Hudson Taylor certainly thought they were different, abiding and union, because he said union is fixed, firm, unchanging, and eternal, and abiding can be interrupted. And certainly that is why Jesus said, “You are branches. Now abide.” Those are different. So you are branches. That’s what you are. Now, abide.

So yes, abiding is something that needs to be embraced consciously all the time and it can be more authentically, intensely, deeply, thoroughly experienced sometimes than other times. What I mean by that, just quoting from my first talk, is, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy might be in you and that your joy might be full” (John 15:11). One way of abiding is to enjoy with the joy of God.

Jesus, my joy I give to you. So if you are enjoying God with the joy of Jesus that he has in God, enjoying the world that he made with the joy that he has in the world rather than a lustful joy that Satan has in trying to trip you up with the world, then you are experiencing abiding. You are abiding.

It’s the same thing with peace. He says, “My peace, I give to you” (John 14:27). Well, if you are not enjoying his peace at the moment, then you’re not abiding in the full way that you should be abiding. One of the experiential ways that Jesus seems to talk about this branch experience is to say love is there, joy is there, and peace is there. Those three are textual and therefore abiding is to rest in his love, his joy, and his peace such that it becomes yours. And as you walk into a tense situation, you are enjoying a settled peace and you’re not anxious. Jesus overwhelmingly desires that his people not be anxious. He speaks about it all the time. He says, “Don’t be anxious, enjoy my peace.” That’s what I would say.

Michael Horton: Well, I think of abiding as faith. It’s just a synonym for faith that’s resting and trusting in Christ. It’s not bringing anything of ourselves but receiving everything of Christ, and I think one of the benefits of the whole heritage of evangelical pietism has been to remind us of the experiential dimension.

But I think one of the dangers can be — and we even see this in the Reformation itself — is that people once were afraid and not knowing whether they were saved because they weren’t sure they had works sufficient to justify them, and then they began wondering if they had faith sufficient to justify them. Faith became a work and the Reformers realized that people were doing that. We have to remember the default setting for us is to become lawyers. It’s to always turn the gospel into something to do instead of something to believe, something to rest in. I grew up with that sort of emphasis on abiding and so forth. At some point, I forgot Christ. My focus was on abiding. And then we have debates about what abiding means, what’s the true nature of abiding?

I think abiding is just something that happens when we hear more of Christ, the more we get to know Christ through the means that he has provided, the more his imperative to abide actually makes sense because he’s saying, “Look to me.” Is that fair? What he’s saying there is basically, “Cling to me. I am the vine. Cling to me.”

John Piper: Clinging is a little more active than rest. Monkeys ride around on their mommy’s neck, holding on, and cats hold their kittens by the back of the neck. So we are kitten faith rather than monkey faith. It takes more effort to hold onto mom if you’re a monkey and kittens just hang there. Not that I prefer cats over monkeys, but they probably are cleaner.

But the difference between my answer and yours I think is that — and I totally agree, it’s faith — I just say, what is faith? Because the average American evangelical has slung around so much pietistic or religious language for so long that faith does not carry much. You added rest and trust. That’s helpful, rest especially. I just pushed into those three of joy and peace and love. When those are being offered to me in the vine as a branch, what does it mean to abide in them? Like get down to the details. My answer is that to receive or trust in a gift of joy is to enjoy. To receive a gift of peace is to have peace. That’s my definition of faith. Resting in peace is to experience peace. Resting in joy is to experience joy. Resting in love is to be a loving person.

David Mathis: Is there a difference then in the joy, peace, and love that is part of faith and the joy, peace and love that are fruit of faith?

John Piper: I think it is a spiral. I know that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is love, joy, peace, etc. Paul defines love as, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:4–6). I don’t want to be pushed into saying that joy is always the fruit of faith, therefore faith can’t be joy. That’s where that question is going. I’ve thought a lot about that, because I want to be faithful to “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace . . .” (Galatians 5:22), and the Spirit is received not by works of the law, but by hearing with faith (Galatians 3:5)

So are you saying then joy is the fruit of joy, peace is the fruit of peace? My answer is yes, because I don’t think they’re separable. Just try to get it in your head. What is the act of receiving like? A receiving of the gift of joy? If you say, “I’m receiving it but I’m not experiencing joy,” I don’t know what your receiving even means. Sinclair has something to say. It’s very important to hear what this is.

Sinclair Ferguson: Well, I’m a simple believer and just the phrase, “union with Christ,” you can say that in at least three different ways. When we speak about union with Christ in distinction from communion with Christ, we’re kind of placing the emphasis on the union. We really are united to Christ. But communion is the opening up of what it means to be united to Christ in whom are found all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, the fullness of the Godhead bodily.

First Corinthians 13 is embodied in him, the fruit of the Spirit are embodied in him. We don’t have the capacity to take in all that is ours in Christ as he gives it to us. The way I would understand what Hudson Taylor experienced, theologically, was the dawning of the fact that in a sense, he was striving for what there is in Christ by turning to the notion of considering, how do I get this by being united to Christ? He was turned away really to see that it was Christ. The way I would put it would be in terms of what Jesus says is, “When the Spirit comes, he will take from what is mine and he will show it to you” (John 16:14).

It’s in that relational dimension of being shown by the Spirit who Christ is, what he is for us, what he is to us, and actually who he is in us, that is the ongoing process of communion. When I think of these creatures saying, “Holy, holy, holy!” I’ve puzzled for years, thinking, how do they say that? You can say it in many different ways. Is it that they proclaim the holiness of God and then it dawns on them what that means and they have no other vocabulary but the vocabulary they’ve just used, but it’s now in a higher register and it’s again in a higher register?

Communion with Christ is a reality that will go on forevermore. We will never come to an end of peace, joy, and love, to us that language. That’s the language of heaven really, isn’t it? It’s a place of shalom, a place of joy. Nobody is unhappy or joyless in heaven. This isn’t something in addition to what he has accomplished for us. This is already for us in him and one day we will taste it fully.

When John was speaking this morning, I kept having popping into my mind statements from people of all kinds of Christian traditions saying the same thing: we live way below the privileges that are ours in Christ. Actually, when John said something challenging us, especially with the reference to John 4, Dr. Lloyd Johns preached this immense length of sermons on the living water, and I remember him saying, “You don’t think there is no more for you to experience. You wouldn’t be living the way you live if you had discovered all that is in Christ. Look at you pathetic little Christians.”

I think John got it right this morning to say, yes, there’s this Keswick stuff and some of that leads astray. But there were men in the Keswick movement who were longing to discover a reality they had heard about in the past but was not found in the teaching that they were getting in the present. They were conversationally being told the only thing that’s true of you is that you’re a wretched man. It doesn’t surprise me that because they were Bible Christians rather than carefully categorizing what they were talking about, and you find so many of these men actually experiencing the same reality but putting it in slightly different language.

David Mathis: Keep taking this to the personal practical level. The pastor asks here about a pastor’s typical day. What does abiding in Christ look like and feel like practically on a day-to-day basis?

Sinclair Ferguson: I finished, so I’ll start it. In my small talk the other day, I shared something William Still said to me. In the same year, I had read Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God, which is actually a better title maybe than it is a book, and then I read John Owen’s Communion With God, The Trinity, etc., which is a better book than it is a title.

Mr. Still said to me, “Sinclair, you have to live the rest of your life with a sanctuary in your heart for the Lord Jesus Christ that is hermetically sealed and nobody gets inside, even Dorothy” who was the lady I eventually married. That was help I got from three diverse sources as a teenager. I think it’s really a matter of living in that reality and understanding that Christ is himself the gateway, and this was Owen’s big point. He is the gateway to the whole divine being — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And there is therefore an endless security that gives you poise in living in the conscious presence that you are never alone. He is always with you. And when there is someone else there, or there are 5,000 people there, you are actually engaging with them out of this sanctuary in which you live and fellowship with Christ. I thank God that when I was a boy, somebody sat me down and told me that. It’s been a huge help to me.

Michael Horton: I think too, the experience rises and falls throughout our Christian life. One of the interesting things with Calvin is that he says, “Faith is assurance.” Faith is not wavering in the confidence that though we are sinful, Christ is sufficient for us. He has this on one hand, this very objective view of faith as assurance. You don’t look for assurance, faith is assurance. To look to Christ is to be assured.

On the other hand, he says, “Our faith is often batted around by the circumstances of life,” even to the point where he says, “We’re partly unbelievers till we die.” Well, which is true? And you see that kind of in the difference between the continental Reformed tradition and the Westminster confession on this one little point, whether assurance belongs to faith. I think, at least, one solution to this is that the experience of faith is often lacking in the feeling of assurance.

When we are drifting from the means of grace and when we are living in disobedience, we lack that joy of our salvation. We can really affirm both. In our experience there are ups and downs, but the good news is that the gospel is objectively true and it’s objectively for us, regardless of what I feel like that day. Sometimes I’ll come to church and I’ll hear the word and I’ll receive the Lord’s supper and I’ll remember my baptism and I’ll say, “Great. Terrific.” And then another time it will strike me, the recognition, not just knowing, but the recognition that this is for me. Well, I believed it was for me all the other time, but now I see that it really is for me. And it doesn’t happen every week. But the thing is the promise. God says, “I am working this out. And I’ve given the means for working this out, and your experience is going to rise and fall.” Every Christians’ conversion is different.

Every person’s Christian experience is different. It’s not totally dissimilar, but he works differently with all of us. The one thing that is the same is his objective promise and the objective means of grace, including preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s supper. Those don’t change. Those are how God pulls us out of ourselves and our varying experience and says, “This is true about you and for you, regardless of how you feel today.” That is of enormous comfort.

David Mathis: Does the doctrine of abiding in Christ, union with Christ, help the addict? Porn, drugs, alcohol? How so?

John Piper: Yes, because the way the Bible appoints our slavery to another master is to have our slavery transferred. We were once slaves of sin and now we’re slaves of Jesus. And the way the slavery worked in both directions is similar. The slavery to sin is that we are duped into feelingly believe this is the path of joy, this is the path of satisfaction. We’re persuaded of that. That’s why we click on this pornographic picture. The pleasure that is about to offer me is a compelling pleasure. When we experience union with Christ, this transfer of where our sap is coming from, then a superior pleasure is promised to us. It’s better. “My joy, I give to you. My peace, I give to you. My love, I give to you.” And then the issue there is, will we believe that? Meaning, will we taste it sweetly enough that it has power?

We’re not clicking, we’re not drinking, we’re not doing whatever has us tempted. I think the emphasis that Michael struck was that you don’t focus primarily on that event of motivation, you focus on the superior joy. You preach Christ, you preach the superior beauties of Christ, the joys of Christ. And you do say with Jesus, “If you don’t cut off your hand and gouge out your eye — in other words, if you don’t make war on this with the same seriousness that you would cut off your hand — then you’re going to have two hands in hell instead of one hand in heaven.”

There is both no to the sin,and yes to the joy. But a no will never work long-term. No might work once or twice, but if no isn’t followed with enjoyment (I’ve got this acronym in my head of ANTHEM), if it’s not followed with, “I now seek and find another alternative superior satisfaction,” then I’m going back to the mud pies in the slum, if I cannot really see the holiday at the sea.

So that union that we have with Jesus is the stream along which we experienced the superior pleasures either now or hoped for with such clarity and certainty that they liberate us from the present addiction. It’s not only relevant, it’s the only way long-term freedom comes.

Sinclair Ferguson: That passage I was dealing with yesterday afternoon (Colossians 3:1–17) I think is such a model for someone like this. Thomas Chalmers has this really famous sermon that I guess is only in the published version because Scottish preachers in the 19th century didn’t use orders of service with sermon titles. But he calls the sermon The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. One of the points, which is exactly what John is saying, I think, is that the negation of sinful patterns on its own is doomed to failure. There needs to be the expulsive power of the new affection grounding the way in which we deal with the old and also the new affections that are put on one.

I remember somebody somewhere, a physician was talking about life change. He said something that I thought was interesting psychologically, because the gospel needs to affect us intellectually, but also psychologically — in the way we are wired and framed as well as in our conscience. All of this needs to be transformed by the gospel. He said, “In our area of medical care, we find that if people have gone through a long period of a certain pattern of life and then there is, for whatever reason, a radical change, it usually takes those people 18 months before they begin to think about themselves as the ‘new person’ they really are.”

There are some people who just seem to be instantaneously delivered by the power of God. But then there are many people who are so wired, that they can scarcely take in, psychologically and emotionally, that they are Christ’s, they really are new men and new women. If any be in Christ he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). They’re living in a new order. I think they, in particular, need to constantly be returning to this kind of teaching. And this is why Union with Christ, I think, is just all over Paul’s letters. He was constantly dealing with people who had come out of that. We shouldn’t minimize pastorally the huge diversity of sinners who are converted and how they find their way. Sometimes, I think we measure people in our congregation.

Owen has a great saying. He says, “We measure people in our congregation by the point they have reached and not by the distance they traveled and the obstacles they overcame to get to whatever point they’ve reached.” That growth in people is going to vary from person to person at this psychological level. I was just very struck by what this physician said and I thought there is a parallel there.

David Mathis: The font and the table had some rich theology of baptism and communion here in the conference. Maybe a few quick questions on that.

Sinclair Ferguson: Don’t divide us by calling it “the font”, David, whatever you do.

David Mathis: How do you practice communion in a church service that emphasizes the communion of saints? I don’t know if this is a response to it not being individualistic . . .

Michael Horton: The way it’s actually received?

David Mathis: Maybe how would it be practiced by the congregation?

John Piper: Well, while you’re thinking. Are you ready? Did I stall long enough? I think it’s a beautiful thing if you have one loaf and everybody breaks off a piece. That’s what the question really is relating to, I think. But I just think we ought not to think that’s the only symbolic gesture that can communicate the preciousness of there being one bread and we are one people.

I personally would resist, if I were in charge, stations. We do it on New Year’s Eve. We have stations that people go to. You walk up, get your bread and your cup, go back to your seat, have your little cluster, and pray. And that has a truth. I can argue for that. But I like the idea, for example, of when the elements are passed, hold them and take them together. That’s just a little symbol of the togetherness instead of, “You go off and take it when you want. And you go off and take it when you want.” Lots of churches do that. Here’s what really happens. More and more churches are thinking they should do it weekly. It becomes unwieldy to do it weekly, so they strip it down. It goes really quick. Just get in a line, dip your thing. I just think this dipping thing is for the birds and I think there are some real issues.

But I know what’s driving that. Efficiency is driving that. So I would say everybody in your situation, your size of church, your service times, your whatever, think through what are ways to say the truth and say it in as many ways as it feels appropriate to say it. There are different ways to say, “We’re one in this. We’re communicating oneness in this. We’re minimizing atomization and we’re maximizing corporateness in this.” And you’re going to land on a lot of different practices there, but move forward symbolic gestures that help, not away from them.

Michael Horton: There was a historic practice of coming forward early in the Reformed tradition. As far as frequency, Calvin, not quite as stubborn as a Scott, but a stubborn Frenchman, said that we have to have it every week. He was so confident of this because it ratified the word. The word was preached promiscuously and then the sacrament ratifies it for you.

He said, “I’m putting it in the liturgy,” even though the city council said, “No, people aren’t ready for this.” In the medieval church, they were used to only receiving communion once a year by law. They had to come once a year. It was that exciting. They all wanted to be there once a year. They were forced to come and receive just the bread, not even the cup. Actually, the Lord’s supper wasn’t at all prominent in medieval piety, except as a spectacle.

The city council said, “We’re not quite ready for that kind of frequency.” But Calvin said, “I’ve included it in the liturgy just so that future generations may know that it’s not done properly in Geneva.” He was stubbornly committed to that to the end, but he was also careful to say, “Look, there’s a difference between elements and circumstances. He didn’t say this, but I would say frequency is a circumstance, not an element. Church elders need to decide what will be the frequency. We certainly shouldn’t divide over the frequency of communion when the whole point of the sacrament is to unite us to Christ as a body. But Sinclair can tell us about the more appropriate form of celebration later in the Reformed tradition, very soon after with setting up tables to express the corporate dimension.

Sinclair Ferguson: Do you all want to know about the later Reform tradition? You take as much of elements and circumstances that you find in the New Testament’s teaching and you then apply them to your local situation. If you’re a congregation of 50, that’s going to produce very different possibilities than if you’re in a congregation of 2,500. But there are certain basic elements that you want to find ways of emphasizing. What they did in the old Scottish tradition — paradoxically, they thought they were doing what they did in the New Testament, but it ended up dividing the congregation — is that they would set up a big table, and there are still some traditions where this happens. I’ve conducted this.

A wave of people would come forward. There would be the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. You would preach the second sermon of the service. They would all go back to the seats. Another wave would come forward, another celebration of the Lord’s Supper. You would preach the third sermon, another wave, and so on. Sometimes that’s why if you read like in 18th century Scotland, the services went on for six or seven hours. It’s not because they’re superiorly spiritual. It’s just that they don’t have a big enough table. But oddly enough, they were dividing the whole congregation by insisting that it should be an ordinary table.

Thomas Chalmers, whom I just mentioned, had the bright idea of saying, “Let’s turn the whole building into a table.” So when I was a very young Christian, if you went into the church on a communion Sunday, the whole church would be covered in white linen. The pews were covered in white, and everything was covered in white. And it was really a way of saying, “We are all going to be sitting around the same table here.”

And then there is something that stirs my blood about both intention and people coming forward. It’s so clear in what Paul says. The bread and the wine are received separately from one another. That is so clear in what Paul says. You wonder what possesses people to ignore, first, what’s in the tradition and, second, what’s in the Scriptures, to do that? The second thing is that I think it’s a very important expression of the unity of the body that we understand — if we are like I am as a Presbyterian and we minister the sacraments in Presbyterianism — that the minister is not the host at this table. The Lord Jesus is the host at this table. These elders are serving us, not even because of what is written into their job description, but they’re only there to help us serve one another. That in the passing of the bread and in the passing of the wine, we are actually giving expression to the fact that we have one host, that we are one body, and that we share together in the bread and the wine and that we serve one another. We don’t always do this, but we are saying something to one another, we are holding the gospel proclamation in our hands, and we are preaching the gospel to one another. There are very few circumstances where those basic elements can’t be put in place fairly simply.

One other thing I would say is I would love to see our churches bring the weak, the poor, the maimed, the halting, and even those in hospital beds, whose lives were not endangered by the event, to the service. In my tradition anyway, there’s been a tendency to take the Lord’s supper out and take a few elders. You don’t often do that to people who are likely to die in the afternoon. I’ve often thought, although never achieved, largely because of our convenience mentality, what would it mean to our church family if we had people brought here in their wheelchairs and their beds and their portable bag holders and all the rest of it? It would be an explosion of the reality of what it means to be one in Christ and really to be a family.

The other thing — I’m sorry, I’m not short — is that I always have the instinct if I have had communion with Christ at the Lord’s Table that I want to hug somebody. I want to do something physically, or say something to express it. I want with all my heart to be fully reconciled with you in this body. Sometimes, I think it can be helpful to provide opportunities for a quiet sharing of a gospel word with one another.

David Mathis: As we move toward the close here, briefly, what resources or practices do you recommend to us in order to grow deeper in our understanding of union with Christ as we go from here?

John Piper: Well, I’ll jump the gun and steal Communion with the Triune God from John Owen. If you’ve not read this book, it will be unlike any book you’ve ever read. You don’t presently have any idea what he means by that. It was a total surprise to me when I read the Trinitarian unpacking of communion in John Owen’s book, what it means to Commune with the Father, what it means to commune with the Son, and what it means to commune with the Holy Spirit in the receiving and the returnings of faith to him. So theologically it won’t get any richer, I don’t think. And then practically, cast about for the lives of those who seem to have enjoyed it most fully and read their stories. That would be my suggestion.

Michael Horton: One book I’d recommend is Thomas Goodwin’s The Object and Acts of Justifying Faith. It’s one of his volumes in his collected works and he was an associate of Owens. That gives him credibility.

Sinclair Ferguson: Actually, if you go to Amazon and just key in “Union with Christ”, for reasons I’m not entirely sure of, though I can make some guesses out of it, there are probably about eight books written on Union with Christ published in the last couple of years.

I actually haven’t read any of them. I’ve looked at some of them and they vary. Some of them are more kind of historical theological. Oddly, the people who have written on union with Christ by and large over the period have been theologians rather than New Testament scholars. But New Testament scholars, they found where the cookie is. So a number of them have written kind of exegetical books, or they’ve gathered together the big texts, and they’ve got exegesis with footnotes and that kind of thing. It’s apparently the coming thing.

Michael Horton: J. Todd Billings too. If you want to go a little bit deeper into Calvin’s view of union with Christ, you can read J. Todd Billings’ Participation in Christ, published by Oxford University Press is a great book.

Sinclair Ferguson: And then there’s Michael Horton’s forthcoming book on Calvin on the Christian life that is excellent.

Michael Horton: Thank you. The check is in the mail.

David Mathis: One last one here for John. In the conference, you said that Christ is your life. In the intro to the recent video, you say the doctrines of grace are your life. How can the doctrines of grace and Christ be your life at the same time?

John Piper: Yes, and I might say Noël is my life, or oxygen is my life. My answer would be that those doctrines have been found by me to be the place where he has shown himself to be the most precious. In other words, the way we use language in reality is that we can use it about a thing directly or about a thing as it’s mediated to us. What I mean by the doctrines of grace are the revelation to me that I’m dead and cut off from Christ apart from grace. That’s a hugely important discovery for his preciousness to be known.

Secondly, without the irresistible workings of his power, I would not love him. We sang, “If he had not loved me first, I would refuse him still.” To discover that I really was dead and only because I was greatly loved in regeneration that I’m alive, it endears him to me like few other things.

Thirdly, he chose to do that before the foundation of the world. You mean he had his affection set on me? Election is in Christ. He set his affections on me before the world? And your heart starts to explode more and more with the wonders of this relation to him. And then that he came into the world with me in mind and died for me, he laid down his life for the sheep, he laid down his life for his friends. And then you explode even further, that he’ll never let me go. He says, “I will never leave you. I will never forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). I don’t know how you can even talk about the preciousness of Jesus without getting doctrinally specific. And I just happen to find that those five truths along with many others — they’re not the sum of Reformed theology, that’s for sure — are the point, the point of powerful intersection with my deadness once upon a time.

It speaks of my being brought to life, my being rescued by blood, my being kept forever. I don’t feel any tension between saying Christ is my life, or God is my life, or heaven is my life, or the doctrine of justification is my life, or the doctrine of regeneration is my life. Those five truths are my life. They’re all points at which Christ, or the Trinity, has broken in and showed themself as all-satisfying to me.