Is there a place for Christian “mysticism?” Thinking of the various incense-laden mysticisms of the East, some implying a denial of the Creator/creature distinction or a strong doctrine of Revelation, many Christians, especially Protestant ones, would vigorously reject the notion. Writing about the “intimacy of relation” we find in our Union with Christ, Reformed theologian John Murray does not shy away from suggesting properly Christian “mysticism”:
Here indeed is mysticism on the highest plane. It is not the mysticism of vague unintelligible feeling or rapture. It is the mysticism of communion with the one true and living God, and it is communion with the one true and living God because and only because it is communion with the three distinct persons of the Godhead in the strict particularity which belongs to each person in that grand economy of saving relationship to us. Believers know the Father and have fellowship with him in his own distinguishing character and operation as Father. They know the Son and have fellowship with him in his own distinguishing character and operation as the Son, the Saviour, the Redeemer, the exalted Lord. They know and have fellowship with the Holy Spirit in his own distinguishing character and operation as the Spirit, the Advocate, the Comforter, the Sanctifier. It is not the blurred confusion of rapturous ecstasy. It is faith solidly founded on the revelation deposited for us in the Scripture and it is faith actively receiving that revelation by the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. But it is also faith tha stirs the deepest springs of emotion in the raptures of love and joy. Believers enter into the holy of holies of communion with the triune God and they do so because they have been raised up together and made to sit together in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:6). Their life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3). They draw nigh in full assurance of faith having their hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and their bodies washed with pure water because Christ is not entered into holy places made with hands but into heaven itself now to appear in the presence of God for them (Heb. 9:24)
-Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, pp. 172-173
So is there a place for a properly Christian mysticism? Yes–within the coordinates of trinitarianly-conceived Union with Christ, the Scriptures teach us that we can rejoice and delight in communion with Father, Son, and Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria
It was in seminary that I began to appreciate the significance of adoption as a distinct moment in our salvation. Even greater than our justification, being declared and thereby rendered righteous with God the King, is being received by grace into his family as beloved children. It is as children that we call out ‘Abba, Father’ and approach the throne of grace with full confidence, knowing that the King of Glory delights to hear our prayers.
The question I had in seminary was, “Who exactly am I adopted by? Is it by the Father, or the whole Trinity?” I initially believed it to be the Father as I understood adoption to occur through union with Christ the Son into his relationship with the Father. Upon hearing me express this view, one of my professors quickly corrected me and warned against introducing a split in the Trinity. To him, it is only proper to attribute adoption to the whole Trinity. Since that time I’ve gone back and forth, but have come to the conclusion that my initial instincts were correct.
Two principles of trinitarian theology have guided me:
- First, that although the external acts of the Trinity are undivided, the persons are still to be distinguished. In other words, the Trinity acts in a trinitarian fashion. It’s not that the Father creates, the Son saves, and the Spirit does, whatever he does. Instead, the early church fathers would say that more properly the Father creates, redeems, and sanctifies through the Son and the Spirit. In every action, the whole Trinity is involved.
- Second, the complementary doctrine of appropriations teaches that, although the work of the Trinity is undivided, it is still fitting to attribute certain graces and actions more properly to a particular person. So, for instance, although the Father and the Spirit are involved, only the Son is properly said to become incarnate. Only the Son is born of a virgin, dies, and rises again, and so forth, even though they happen at the command of the Father in the power of the Spirit.
With these two principles in place, we are in a position to appreciate John Murray’s biblical arguments in Redemption Accomplished and Applied for thinking it is the Father who adopts us, although he does this through the Son and the Spirit:
- The first and simplest is that the name “Father” belongs to the first person of the Trinity, just as “the Son” is the second, and the “Holy Spirit” is the third. Jesus directed his prayers to the Father, and he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (pg. 137)
- In John 20:17, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene that he is not yet “ascended to the Father”, clearly referring to the first person, before going on “My Father and your Father, My God and your God.” (pp. 137-138)
- In a very similar point, Murray points out that Jesus’ frequent prayer to his “Father in heaven”, or some similar form of address. He also directs his disciples to pray to their Father in heaven, implying that the same divine person is in view. (pg. 138)
- In the New Testament, the term “Father” is the personal name of the first person of the Trinity. The Father is often called “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:6; 2 Cor. 1:3; 11:31; Eph. 1:3; Col. 1:3; 1 Pet. 1:3). The phrase “God the Father” also must refer to him (Gal. 1:1; Eph. 6:23; Phil. 2:11; 1 Thes. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:2; 1 Tim. 1:2; 2 Tim. 1:2; Tit. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:2; 2 Pet. 1:17; 2 John 3; Jude 1; Rev. 1:6) In almost all of these passages the Father is clearly not referring to the Son or the Spirit. From there Murray says that it is important to observe that “when God is called the Father of believers we have close similarity of expression” to the point where it is an unavoidable conclusion that the same person of the Trinity is being referred to. Again, in places like Romans 1:7 where the phrase “peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” is used, both persons are mentioned and distinguished, while one is named “our Father.” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:3; 2 Cor. 1:2; Gal. 1:3; Eph. 1:2; Phil. 1:2; Philemon 3)
For these reasons it seems Biblically-appropriate to understand ourselves to have been adopted through the mediatorial work of the Son and the gift of the Spirit into the Father’s family by grace. This is good news. As Murray writes:
Could anything disclose the marvel of adoption or certify the security of its tenure and privilege more effectively than the fact that the Father himself, on account of whom are all things and through whom are all things, who made the captain of salvation perfect through suffering becomes by deed of grace the Father of the many sons whom he will bring to glory? (pg. 140)
Soli Deo Gloria