Book Review: Union With Christ (by Robert Letham)

union__lethamIn the opening sentences of the Introduction to his book, Robert Letham writes,

“Union with Christ is right at the center of the Christian doctrine of salvation. The whole of our relationship with God can be summed up in such terms” (p.1).

All of that is certainly true, and yet when was the last time that you recall reading a book or hearing a sermon on this core doctrine of the Christian faith? In his book, The Hole in Our Holiness (reviewed here), Kevin DeYoung goes so far as to say,

“Union with Christ may be the most important doctrine you’ve never heard of.” (p.94)

Sadly, for far too many Christians those words ring true. But even for those who have heard of it and are at least somewhat familiar with this vitally important doctrine of the Christian faith, there are just not that many books and other resources on the subject that are both readily available and accessible to help us grow in our understanding of it.

Robert Letham’s book, Union With Christ, is a welcome exception. It is a very helpful, but not overwhelming volume (totaling a mere 141 pages!). It’s brevity adds to its helpfulness. It is a scholarly work, but not so academic as to be inaccessible to the lay person without an advanced theological degree. As the subtitle of the book makes clear, he makes his case plainly from Scripture, history (citing various ecumenical councils and controversies in the early church), and theology (citing a multitude of Reformed theologians from John Calvin to Charles Hodge).

The layout of the book is simple and easy to follow. Letham opens with a chapter showing how the basis of our union with Christ can be found in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis and its account of creation. Man was created in the image of God in order to be compatible with God. He then moves on in the second chapter to show that “[T]he basis of our union with Christ is Christ’s union with us in the incarnation” (p.21). In chapter three he discusses Pentecost and the Holy Spirit’s role in effecting or applying our union with Christ by grace through faith. Letham very helpfully and succinctly sums up the first three (3) chapters at the end of chapter 3 before moving on to the next section of the book.

In the final three (3) chapters of the book, Letham demonstrates the vital relationship that union with Christ has upon our standing before God with regard to our justification (representation – chapter 4), our sanctification (transformation – chapter 5), and, finally, our glorification at Christ’s return (resurrection – chapter 6).  As he states on p.137, “Union with Christ is realized in its fullness at the resurrection itself, when we will be like Christ (1 John 3:1-2).”

If there is a weakness in the book, it may be in the somewhat parenthetical section on the doctrine of “theosis” (on p.91-102). Theosis (also known as deification) is a central tenet of the Eastern church’s doctrine of salvation, but is largely unheard of in the Western church. The terminology used can sometimes sound (especially to Western ears) as if the Creator-creature distinction were being blurred. I found Letham’s treatment of this subject here to be a bit confusing, even distracting. If you are reading through this book, and find this section to be too difficult, you could (in my humble opinion) easily skip over these pages and not miss a beat. It is interesting enough, but not in any way essential to his argument.

And on the very last page of the book, he makes a wonderful evangelistic appeal to the reader, lest anyone read this book and yet still not be united to Christ by faith. As Letham states there, this wonderful doctrine is much “more than an academic question. It is greater than life and death” (p.141).

This book covers a topic that is as important as it is neglected, and (Lord willing) many in our day may find it to be a helpful remedy for that neglect.


shorter-catechism-explainedThis is part 4 of a brief series of posts going through what the Westminster Shorter Catechism (in Q.57-62) has to say about the 4th commandment. Question and answer #57 deals with the actual text of the commandment itself (which is found in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15). The questions that follow explain and interpret the meaning of the commandment.

Question and answer #58 deals with the question of what – the substance of what is required in the fourth commandment – keeping one day in seven holy unto God. Question and answer 59 deals with the question of when – which day of the seven is now to be sanctified.

We now come to question and answer #60, which asks the all-important question – how? What exactly does it mean to sanctify the Sabbath or keep it holy?

Q.60. How is the Sabbath to be sanctified? A. The Sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.

So according to the Shorter Catechism, sanctifying the Sabbath involves at least two (2) things: holy rest and worship.  In his book, The Shorter Catechism Explained from Scripture, Puritan writer Thomas Vincent (1634-1678) puts it this way:

“We are to observe and keep the Sabbath as holy, partly by a holy resting, partly in holy exercises on that day.” (p.146)

Vincent there shows us the balance that we must keep between those two things, as well as the right relationship between them. Let us then briefly turn to look at them in order.

First the Sabbath (or Lord’s day) is to be sanctified “by a holy resting all the day.” Not just rest, but a holy rest. So it is clear right at the outset that what is in view here is not mere inactivity or sleep. So what does this holy resting entail? We are to rest “all that day” (not just for an hour or two) from two (2) things: our “worldly employments” (i.e. our work), and our “recreations” (i.e. our play).

And the point here is certainly not just that we are to refrain from sinful work and recreation, as we are always to refrain from those things no matter which day of the week it may be. No, the writers of the Catechism explicitly state that we are to rest from even those employments and recreations “as are lawful on other days.” So we are not to treat the Lord’s day like any other day, whether that be for work or for play.

Some people might be tempted to treat Sundays like just another work day, another day to labor and make money. Time (as the saying goes) is money, and so for some people, a holy resting all the day sounds costly, rather than beneficial. And so such people may need to learn to trust in God’s provision. Is that not the lesson we are to learn from God’s instructions regarding the manna in the wilderness in Exodus chapter 16? There was one day in the week when the manna would not appear – the Sabbath. Exodus 16:26 states, “Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” The only day that the people of Israel were allowed to gather extra to save for the next day was on the 6th day. Why? To free them up to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy. Even gathering food (manna) was not to be done on the Sabbath.

Others might be tempted to treat Sundays like just another day off, another day to play and have fun. Such people may need to learn to enjoy God more. (And who among us doesn’t need to learn that more?) To use a personal example, I like sports. I enjoy watching some sports on television and occasionally even in-person. (As a lifelong Philadelphia sports fan, my sports fandom is often more an exercise in patience and long-suffering than of celebrating championship parades, but I digress.)

Nothing wrong with enjoying the occasional game. But that being said, if I enjoy watching (for example) a football game (yes, even the Super Bowl) more than I enjoy spending time with the Lord and His people in worship, then both my priorities and tastes are out of whack.  Again, nothing wrong with sports or entertainment per se (as long as there is nothing inherently sinful involved), but those things should not be in any position to compete for our ultimate affection and enjoyment. And we are to rest from those things on the Lord’s day for our own good.

And that brings us to the second thing that sanctifying the Sabbath involves – worship. The Sabbath is to be sanctified, not just by a holy resting from worldly employments and recreations, but also by “spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship.” The whole time. And so the former is for the purpose of the latter. In the 4th commandment we are essentially being given a break from our worldly activities in order to free us up for worship.

Now if the first part (the holy resting) seems foreign to most people (even most Christians?) in our day, almost certainly this part (spending the whole day in the worship of God) is even more so. One need only look at the rarity of the Sunday evening worship service in our day to see something of a barometer of that. Structuring the whole day around worship seems like a nearly forgotten art. Sadly, many who were not raised in the Reformed faith (myself included) have had to learn much of this the hard way, with very little in the way of an example to emulate. This was not always the case.

Notice that the worship of God that is commended to us here is both public (corporate) and private (personal and with our family). And so we should make attendance upon public worship perhaps the highest priority of the day, although that by no means excludes time spent alone or with one’s family in prayer, the study of God’s Word, and even song (!). The latter is often closely-related to the former, with time spent considering and discussing the sermon from earlier that day. (How much more might we benefit from even the simplest preaching of the Word if we were to make that our practice!)  And here we also see that private worship is no substitute for diligently attending public worship of the church on the Lord’s day. In truth it should not be an either/or proposition.

That might sound like a rather daunting task. Surely there are things that cannot be left undone, even on Sundays, right? And that is where the common-sense exceptions to the rule come into view here in Q.60. It states that the whole time is to be spent in public and private worship “except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” One’s family still needs to eat, for example. The sick or injured must still be cared for. Someone in need must still be shown mercy. (In truth, the Lord’s day may actually provide us with more time and opportunity for this than other days.) And there are occupations or lawful callings in which people cannot reasonably be expected to take the whole day off from their work, which is necessary for the life, safety, and well-being of their neighbors (such as law enforcement, military, or medical personnel, just to name a few).

There is obviously much more that could be said, but I hope that you find this thumbnail sketch from the Shorter Catechism to be a helpful starting point, and perhaps something that may spur you on to more careful study and application of what the Scriptures have to say on this important subject. May we all learn to view this holy rest and worship, not as a burden, but as a blessing.

J.C. Ryle on the Leading Marks of a Forgiven Soul

old-pathsHow do you know if your sins have been forgiven? It would be practically impossible to overstate the importance of knowing the answer to that question for oneself.

In his book, Old Paths, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) offers five (5) distinguishing characteristics or “leading marks” of those who have truly found forgiveness through faith in Jesus Christ:

  1. Forgiven souls hate sin.  If you hate only the consequences of your sins, and would really much prefer to continue in them if only the consequences were once removed, then you have good reason to question whether or not you have truly experienced the grace of forgiveness. As Ryle adds, “If you and sin are friends, you and God are not yet friends” (p.188).
  2. Forgiven souls love Christ. As Jesus says of the woman who wiped His feet with both her tears and her hair (!) in Luke 7:47, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little” (ESV). She loved Jesus much because she had been forgiven much. The better we know the greatness of the forgiveness that is only to be found through faith in Jesus Christ, the more and more we will love Him for it!
  3. Forgiven souls are humble. Forgiven souls know that they owe all that they have to the grace, love, and mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ. Our sin is an infinite debt that none of us could ever hope to repay, and so those who have had an infinite debt of sin forgiven on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have infinite cause for humility.
  4. Forgiven souls are holy. This goes hand-in-hand with #1 (i.e. Forgiven souls hate sin). Ryle goes so far to say that anyone who is “deliberately living an unholy and licentious life, and boasting that his sins are forgiven” is, in fact, “under a ruinous delusion, and is not forgiven at all” (p.190). As is often said, justification and sanctification go together and are “inseparably joined” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q.77). You cannot have one without the other. As Hebrews 12:14 tells us, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (ESV, emphasis mine).
  5. Forgiven souls are forgiving. As Ryle adds, “They do as they have been done by.” How can someone who has been forgiven an infinite debt of sin, then turn around and persist in refusing to forgive the much lesser debts of their fellow servants? (See Matthew 18:21-35.) Ryle concludes by stating, “Surely we know nothing of Christ’s love to us but the name of it, if we do not love our brethren” (p.190).

Of course, Ryle’s objective here is not to disturb the tender consciences of sincere believers in Christ, but to awaken the false professor of faith, those who claim to know Christ and forgiveness in His name, but yet exhibit none of these “leading marks” of having actually experiencing that forgiveness.

If you are reading of these things and do see the presence of them in your life (even if also certainly seeing your ever-present need to grow in them), take heart and thank God for His grace in your life. As Ryle puts it, “saving faith in Christ is consistent with many imperfections” (p.191).

If you consider yourself a believer in Jesus Christ, and claim to be forgiven in His name, but honestly do not see the presence of these graces in your life, then (to use Paul’s words) “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5, ESV). Let this serve as a wake-up call if you find that you are not yet in Christ by faith. Turn to Him by faith, and you will at last know the joy of sins freely forgiven.

The Lord’s Day as the Christian Sabbath (Shorter Catechism Q.59)

1710_largeHave you ever wondered why Christians now worship on Sundays (the first day of the week) rather than Saturdays (the seventh day)? Why Sunday?

No doubt there are a great many believers who gather for worship regularly on Sundays (sometimes twice!), without seeing any relation of this practice to either the 4th commandment itself or any explicit statement in the New Testament. Still others may indeed gather with the Lord’s people for worship every Sunday, but view the choice of that particular day as somewhat arbitrary, perhaps chosen at some point by an authority figure or council early on in the history of the church.

Having established in the previous question (Q.58) that the basic requirement of the 4th commandment is that we keep holy to God one day in seven “to be a holy Sabbath to himself,” the Westminster Shorter Catechism now turns our attention to the question that naturally follows – which day of the seven has God appointed? Shorter Catechism Q.59 puts it this way:

Q.59. Which day of the seven has God appointed to be the weekly Sabbath? A. From the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day of the week to be the weekly Sabbath; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Note the dividing line between the Old Testament and New Testament observance of the Sabbath – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was raised from the dead on “the first day of the week” (Luke 24:1) – a Sunday. And so the reason for the change in observance of the Sabbath from the seventh day of the week to the first day is, in a sense, eschatological in nature. It is a weekly testimony to both the truth and the significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You could say that every Sunday (not just Easter Sunday) is resurrection Sunday. Every time the church gathers for public worship on Sunday (whether we realize it or not), we are in some way testifying to the truth of the resurrection, which Paul says is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).

Now is there a verse or passage in the New Testament that explicitly settles this issue for us? No, not if what you are looking for is a simple proof text. There is no verse that says something like, “Thou shalt now remember the first day of the week, to keep it holy.” Nowhere does the Apostle Paul or any other New Testament author come right out and say, “Of course the Christian Sabbath is now the first day of the week rather than the seventh day.” That would sure make much things simpler, wouldn’t it?

So then where do we get the idea that the first day of the week is the Christian Sabbath? From both Scripture and church history. In his book, Call the Sabbath a Delight, Walter Chantry points out:

“It became the habit of Christians to meet for worship on the first day of the week. This was firmly established in the apostolic era” (p.83).

Notice that he states that this was “firmly established.” It became a settled issue for the church. And how early was this the case? Chantry explicitly points us to “the apostolic era.” In other words, the church gathering together for public worship on Sundays was basically a settled issue in the early church, while the apostles themselves (at least some of them) were still with us.

How do we know this to be the case? There are a number of passages in the New Testament that are helpful here. First, there is Acts 20:7, where we read the following:

On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight.” (ESV)

What day was it when the church was gathered together for worship? Sunday. Why does Luke mention that it was “on the first day of the week”? His readers would have understood the implication. The context here is public worship. The breaking of bread was almost certainly the observance of the Lord’s Supper, and Paul’s “speech” was a sermon, and a rather long sermon at that!

In addition to that passage, we also see something similar in 1 Corinthians 16:1-2, where Paul writes,

“Now concerning the collection for the saints: as I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper, so that there will be no collecting when I come.”

When did the church gather together? And when was this “collection for the saints” (a relief fund of sorts) to be put aside and stored up? Not just on the first day of the week, but “on the first day of every week” (v.2)! Every week. The church in Corinth met for worship every Sunday.

Lastly, in Revelation 1:10-11 we read the following:

“I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”” (ESV)

What day was it? John identifies it as “the Lord’s day” (v.10). So as early as the first century A.D. Sunday was already being referred to as “the Lord’s Day.” Even in his exile on the island of Patmos, the Apostle John marked the time and the days Sunday by Sunday. The Lord’s day was meaningful to him, and the revelation that we now have in the book by that same name was given to John for the sake of the church on the Lord’s day!

May we learn by God’s grace to consider the Christian Sabbath or Lord’s day a delight!


Praying HandsIn our brief study through the Lord’s Prayer we now come to the sixth request, which is “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:13) . Sometimes the first half of that verse is thought to be a separate request from the latter half, and so “deliver us from evil” would then be the seventh request. Either way you slice it, the two parts are very closely-related. Simply for the sake of space, we will consider each half separately.

I must confess that I grew up reciting and praying the Lord’s Prayer in church from as far back as I can remember in my childhood. But in all that time I don’t think that I ever gave it enough thought to ask the obvious question – why do I need to ask God not to lead me into temptation? Does God ever actually lead his people into temptation? If not, is this request in the Lord’s Prayer superfluous? If so, then in what way can it be said that God does that? And why?

First things first – this request is not redundant; it is there for a reason. So we must conclude that in some way God may at times lead us into temptation. But the Scriptures are very clear that God tempts no one. James 1:13 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one” (ESV). No ambiguity there – God tempts no one. Period.

The account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness may prove helpful here. Matthew 4:1 says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (ESV). So the Holy Spirit led Jesus to the place of temptation. But who did the tempting? The devil. To be led into temptation is to be tested. To actually tempt is to try to cause someone to commit sin. There is a big difference between those two things. God’s goal in testing is never to cause sin. Satan’s goal in temptation is always to cause sin.

The Lord Jesus Christ passed the test in the wilderness that Adam failed in the garden of Eden (Genesis chapter 3), and that we all fail on a regular basis. Jesus was tempted in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). That is why sinners can be saved by the “precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot ” (1 Peter 1:19, ESV).

If we would sincerely pray, “Forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12), then we must also ask the Lord to keep us from temptation so that we do not just keep on committing those very same sins. A.W. Pink writes,

” . . .past sins being pardoned, we should pray fervently for grace to prevent us from repeating them. We cannot rightly desire God to forgive us our sins unless we sincerely long for grace to abstain from the like in the future.” (The Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer, p.117)

To desire forgiveness of a sin while not also desiring to be kept from that sin is nothing short of hypocrisy. And so the Lord Jesus teaches us to pray for forgiveness of our debts or trespasses, and also to pray for God to keep us from the temptation to sin as well.



Both the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms follow a pattern in their treatment of each of the Ten Commandments. That is, each commandment is unpacked and explained in terms of what is required, as well as what is forbidden in it.

As Larger Catechism Q.99 points out, one of the rules that we should keep in mind in order to have a right understanding of the Ten Commandments is that “where a duty is commanded, the contrary sin is forbidden; and where a sin is forbidden, the contrary duty is required.”

And so, of course, the Shorter Catechism’s treatment of the 4th commandment is no exception to that rule. It starts by asking what is required in it:

Q.58. What is required in the fourth commandment? A. The fourth commandment requires the keeping holy to God such set times as he hath appointed in his Word; expressly one whole day in seven, to be a holy Sabbath to himself.

So what is positively required by the Sabbath commandment? Keeping a day holy to God. Even the wording of the commandment itself (found in Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15) makes this clear. We are there commanded to “remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Thomas Watson writes,

“This word, ‘remember,’ shows that we are apt to forget Sabbath-holiness; therefore we need a memorandum to put us in mind of sanctifying the day” (The Ten Commandments, p.93).

Frankly, such a reminder (or memorandum, to use Watson’s term) is sorely-needed in our day, is it not? How many believers now practically live as if we had only nine commandments, and treat the day (with some minor exceptions) as if it were just another day? How many professing believers choose to skip public worship altogether, and refuse to set aside even an hour or two, much less the whole day?

Granted, part of how we are to keep it holy is expressed negatively (i.e. in the form of prohibitions), but the commandment itself should be understood first and foremost in a positive manner. We should be mindful of the day, remembering to keep it as holy unto the Lord.

God has set aside one day in seven for Himself. He has “appointed” it in His Word. The very next question (Q.59) deals with which day that was originally, and which day it is now (a topic for the next post in this series), but for the time being we should settle it in our minds and convictions that part of God’s moral law has to do with our time. Another way of putting it is to say that part of how we are to love God involves giving Him our time.

While, of course, every day of our lives belongs to the Lord, we are to set aside one day in seven as belonging in a special way to the Lord.  There is one day in seven that we are to treat in a distinctly different manner than the other six days. In essence, we are commanded to give God His day.


Praying HandsThe fifth request found in the Lord’s Prayer is “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, KJV). It is all too easy to focus our attention on the first part of that request (i.e. “forgive us our debts”), while giving little or no thought to what follows (“as we forgive our debtors”). We looked at the first part in our previous post, and so it is the latter part of this request that we will consider together here.

The Bible repeatedly reminds us of the need to forgive one another. There must be a reason for that! And so this part of the Lord’s Prayer serves as a reminder that forgiveness will be necessary. And it will be necessary because we all still sin against each other. Sometimes we will be the one sinned against; sometimes the shoe will be on the other foot and we will be the offending party. (Frankly, each of us probably fits the latter description more often than we might care to admit.)

This holds true in marriage. One of my favorite books on marriage is titled, When Sinners Say “I Do”, by Dave Harvey. The title alone speaks volumes, and is instructive. Even the most godly marriage imaginable is still a marriage between two sinners (even if forgiven, redeemed sinners). And so forgiveness will often be necessary. Harvey repeats one statement a number of times throughout the book: “Forgiven sinners forgive sin.” In some ways that is a good summary of this part of the Lord’s Prayer.

This also holds true in churches. Do you expect to find a perfect church? A church that is without sin? Good luck with that. In fact, the church this side of heaven is made up entirely of sinners. In this life every believer in Christ is a forgiven sinner, even a sanctified sinner (!), but still a sinner nonetheless. Put enough of those sinners in close proximity for long enough, and some sparks are bound to fly! And so we pray together as the Lord Jesus taught us, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matthew 6:12).

So when (not if!) we are sinned against, we must learn to forgive. And we must forgive as Christ has forgiven us (Colossians 3:13). Likewise when we sin against someone else, we must be quick to repent, and seek out forgiveness and reconciliation with them.

If you are a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, may the joy of being freely forgiven of all of your sins, lead you more and more to freely forgive others as well.