Review: Participating in Christ

Participating in Christ

Participating in ChristMichael J. Gorman. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.

Summary: A discussion of what it means to be “in” Christ, or to participate in Christ, drawing from the Pauline letters, and particularly what this means for living a cross-shaped and resurrection-infused life by which one becomes increasingly like Christ and God.

This book is about a small word, “in,” that carries a vital and transformative idea for the Christian believer. Anyone who has read Paul’s letters will no doubt have encountered the phrase “in Christ” numerous times. But what should we understand the significance of this phrase to be, both with reference to Christ and for those who have believed in Christ.

Michael Gorman argues that this is the language of participation of union, of an intimate sharing with Christ, and much of his work has been to develop the implications of participation for Pauline theology. His argument begins with the cross, which is at the heart of the revelation of the person of Christ, even as risen Lord. Furthermore, the cross not only tells us what Christ is like, but what the Godhead is like, a God of self-emptying love. And finally the cross reveals what both human beings and the church are meant to be, that individually and collectively, to be in Christ is to take on the cross-shaped character of Christ and God. The cross is not only the source but the shape of our salvation as we live by faith and faithfulness, love, power, justice and hope. Because the cross of Christ reveals the character of God, our lives are God-like (Gorman develops the idea of theosis here, perhaps the most controversial aspect of his work). The cruciform or cross-shaped life is not merely imitative, but transformative through participating in the life of the risen Messiah through the Spirit.

Gorman argues for justification as a participatory event that is both forensic in our trust in Christ’s atoning death and resurrection, and that incorporates us into Christ’s body as we share in his covenant faithfulness in our death to sin with Christ and experience in his resurrection the power to live a cross-shaped life. Therefore what Gorman proposes is a theology that bridges the divide between the historic forensic view of justification, and the New Perspective on Paul that focuses on justification as covenant inclusion into the people of God through the faithfulness of Christ.

To participate in Christ is not merely to believe but to become the gospel, advancing it through our embodiment of the cruciform life in reconciliation, restorative justice, forgiveness, and non violence. The transformative work of justification is also one of justice-ification. As we are transformed individually and corporately through being reckoned righteous or just before God (the same word in Greek), we embody this work in pursuing cruciform justice in society

Gorman develops these ideas in nine chapters considering Pauline texts from the Corinthian, Roman, Galatian and Philippian letters, ones universally accepted as Pauline. His final two chapters apply these ideas to the church today, the first through an imaginary epistle of Paul to the church in North America, in which he challenges the pursuit of political power and alignments with a call to cruciformity and latter in which he explores the critical relevance of the resurrection for both Christian hope, and resurrectionally infused ethics in the present.

I like the focus on this simple but often overlooked aspect of Christian living–what it means to live in Christ and how this is evident in the believer’s life. The cruciform shape, resurrection power, and missional presence in the world all are vital for both the individual believer but the body as a whole. I did wonder about the connection between our participation in Christ (and his body) and the idea Paul also develops of our partnership (koinonia) with one another. Gorman doesn’t develop this, but it seems a natural corollary to participation, and speaks to how Christians exercise solidarity across national and ethnic and gender and class lines in the gospel.

I’m also drawn to the way Gorman reconceptualizes the discussion between the New Perspective and forensic camps around justification, particularly in his emphasis on the transformative aspects of justification or being “righteoused.” While we sometimes separate justification and sanctification, and there are dangers of confusing them, to emphasize that justification does not just address our status but also the beginnings of new creation in the regenerate believer seems vital. This is a very different take than in Garwood Anderson’s Paul’s New Perspective (reviewed here) which takes more of a chronological approach to explaining passages that support more of a forensic view and others that support more of a covenant inclusion view as reflective of development in Paul. I’d love to hear the dialogue between these two scholars!

In any event, I found the book a rich exploration of the significance of being “in Christ,” a short phrase we often gloss over. I won’t be able to look at it in quite the same way again, thanks to Michael Gorman’s work.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.