Book Notice: Living in Union with Christ

Grant Macaskill. Living in Union with Christ: Paul’s Gospel and Christian Moral Identity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019. 176 Pages. $24.99 (Hardcover).

Grant Macaskill, Kirby Laing Chair of NT Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, addresses matters of practical theology in his new work Living in Union with Christ. In his preface, Macaskill lays out the impetus behind this book: the way current evangelicals tend to think about morality is, he asserts, “functionally Christless” (viii). Christian virtue, in Macaskill’s eyes, is all too often self-centered, since it is fundamentally viewed as something Christians can accomplish. Since humans cannot attain to God’s righteous standards of morality on their own, their only prospect for salvation lies in being “inhabited by another self, a better self who can act in them to bring about real goodness” (ix). Macaskill uses Gal 2:20 to argue that we cannot “think of the Christian moral life as something ‘I’ do, assisted in some sense by the Spirit. It is something that Christ-in-me does; he is as much the acting subject of my verb of obedience as I am” (56).

Macaskill surveys current scholarly literature about justification and sanctification before turning to Pauline texts about union with Christ. His overview of the literature challenges any Pauline scholarship that does not properly address Paul’s radically different concept of moral identity or agency. When Macaskill examines Paul’s writings, he starts with Paul’s view of moral identity—namely, that all believers are “in Christ.” The “sacraments,” Macaskill then argues, take on a new meaning as the means of grace by which the church participates publicly in Christ, adopting his story as her own (72, 95). Immersed in this new story, Christian virtue is repackaged into the framework of identity, because our sins “involve the true atrocity of living against the one who lives in us. They are all the worse because they involve a kind of denial of who we really are” (72). Macaskill then addresses suffering. By understanding their union with Christ, Christians can understand their painful experiences as taking part in what Christ experienced. But Christians can also have sure hope for the end of suffering because of Jesus’s resurrection (122–23). Hope is grounded in union with Christ.

Two further aspects of the book are worth commenting on. First, throughout this work, Macaskill writes with strong conviction. His passion is clearly rooted in a desire for the purity of Jesus’s church. This book serves primarily as a critique of prevalent trends in modern evangelicalism (x–xi) and will convict readers who seek to commodify morality and follow forms of pharisaical legalism. Second, Macaskill utilizes the term “identity” without clearly stating what he means by it. He writes that identity “is not just about what we do or how we do it but about who we are and how we conceive of ourselves” (50), and the term functions as a core element to his argument. In contemporary culture, “identity” is filled to the brim with connotations, and greater clarity about Macaskill’s understanding of it would have aided this otherwise excellent work.

CBS book notices provide brief descriptive summaries and assessments of new publications in biblical studies and biblical theology. The present book notice was written by Jonathan Wright, a Ph.D. student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.


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