Communing in Christ: John 17 and Christ-Centered Associationalism

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Communing in Christ John 17 and Christ-Centered Associationalism from New Testament BC,Biloxi MS on Vimeo.


*This message was originally given at New Testament Baptist Church in Biloxi, MS at the “Holding Communion: Baptist Associationalism Conference” on 11/20/2020.*

Good evening. It is a joy to be with you tonight, to be back down here on the gulf coast, and to be opening God’s word with you together this evening.

I appreciate Tom and Jake for their labor and their talks this evening, and now I am tasked with discussing with you Christ-centered associationalism from John 17. Tom and Jake have covered a lot of the historical and practical issues related to Baptist associations, and I will endeavor to take a look at associations from a different angle: specifically, a theological view. I won’t be examining associationalism from a rigorously exegetical view, that is, looking at Acts 15 and other relevant passages. Many others have done that, especially those in our Baptist tradition over the last few hundred years. I will, rather, seek to zoom out and look at some of the theological foundations, connections, and implications of our unity as believers in Christ and how it relates to Baptist associationalism, and I will attempt to do this by using Jesus’s prayer in John 17 as our launch point.

Let’s begin by reading John 17:

17 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

“I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. 11 And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. 13 But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.[a] 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.17 Sanctify them[b] in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sake I consecrate myself,[c] that they also may be sanctified[d] in truth.

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one,23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Our passage tonight is a well-known portion of scripture. Christ is giving his upper room discourse in the last couple of chapters, and he’s about to be betrayed in the following chapter, chapter 18. But here in chapter 17 we are given a peek behind the veil. Christ is speaking to the Father, speaking of huge theological categories like glory, and authority, and unity, and mission.

I’d like to spend our time this evening reflecting upon what Jesus says about the unity that we have in him. This unity is granted to every believer through their union with Christ, and this unity should mark every believer, and every church, and by extension, should mark Baptist associations between individual churches.

So, I have for us 4 different theological descriptions, or 4 different theological aspects that describe our unity in Christ, and thus our associational unity, that we can locate in this text. Each one has a fancy theological description, which I will then break down, so don’t zone out if you hear a word that is new to you. I will explain it, and explain why that particular big word has been used in church history.

Let’s begin with #1. The first aspect of our unity is that it is nominally-revealed. Our unity nominally-revealed. By nominally, I don’t mean it the way you normally hear that word used. We might say that someone is nominal leader of a company, which means he is a ruler in name only, but not in actuality, not in practice. That’s not what I mean. I mean an older use of the word that comes from the Latin root, NOMINE, or name. Our unity is based upon a revealed name, which Jesus makes clear in our text.

Look again at verse 5, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world.” Part of Jesus’s mission is to reveal the name of God to the people of God. And of course, that doesn’t merely mean speaking the name of God, Yahweh, and the mission is over. Biblically speaking, the name of someone reveals something real and significant about the essence, the character of that person. And therefore, to reveal the name of God, means to reveal something significant about God, which is a huge part of the mission of God in Jesus Christ.

Jesus is one with the Father, a fact attested to throughout this gospel of John, and by seeing Christ, we see the Father; believing in the Son is believing in the Father, because to know the Son is to Know the Father.

As it relates to our unity, we need to remember that the name that is revealed to each and every one of us, the name that is spoken into our hearts, the name that brings faith to a hard and stony heart, the name at which every knee will bow and every tongue confess, is a name that we would NOT know, a name that we would not revere, a name that we would not love, if it had not been revealed to us.

This is a supernatural revealing, and it produces a supernatural unity. It is a name and a revealing that comes from outside of us, EXTRA NOS as our Latin-speaking fathers would say, a name that is alien, foreign to us. And that is what God’s people needed, something outside of themselves to procure for themselves the salvation they needed.

And the unity that is produced by this revealed name is not on the basis of anything inside of us. Not on the basis of how great of a preacher we have, or how righteous we are, or how rigorously academic our theology is, or how much pedigree our confession has, or how many missionaries we’ve sent out. This unity is based on something that is outside of us, that we would have never had without the sovereign act of God speaking and revealing his name to us in Christ. This unity is based upon the free working of God, not on our merit.

Thus, this unity ought to feed and sustain genuine humility. If we aren’t the foundation of our unity, if we and our gifts and abilities and our works and our righteousness aren’t the foundation of our unity, then in what ways have we to boast? In fact, if our unity exists IN SPITE of our sinful hearts and only because of Christ’s sovereign work according to HIS good pleasure, then we have even less room to boast.

Associations and individual churches will come and they will go. May we never boast in our strength, in our networking skills, in our planning, in our gifts, in our doctrinal purity, but boast only in the Lord who took the initiative to reveal his name to us, and therefore grant us a unity that we could neither create or maintain if it were built upon the name of any other man.

Our unity is based on the name of God revealed to us in the person and work of Christ, and not in the name of any other man or creation of man. Our unity is nominally-revealed.

Second. Not only is the unity that we have in Christ from outside of ourselves and based on the revelation of God according to his sovereign good pleasure, our unity is also Verbally-centered. Our unity is Verbally-centered.

Look again at verse 8: Jesus says, “For I have given them the words that you game me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you have sent me.”

By verbally I mean words, from the Latin VERBUM. Jesus has given to his people THE WORDS that they need, words that came from the father, and by receiving them, they have confirmed in their minds and hearts the truth that the Son has truly come from the father. It is the word of God that informs God’s people and conforms them to the truth.

We are unified in and through the Word that has been delivered to us. The word of God reveals the truth to us, for without it, we would be left to guess and wonder what truth really is. But because we have received the word, and have come to believe in the Son, we have come to know the truth, and to be unified in it.

The word-centered quality of true unity is significant for the churches of God. Our unity is not centered upon any other source of authority. We’re our unity isn’t contingent upon similar political leanings. We’re not united because we share certain conservative values. Our unity is not anchored in preferences, or strategies, or personalities, or any other human allegiances. Our unity is founded upon the word of God that has been given to us through Christ in his office as our great prophet, proclaiming the words of the father to us.

Our unity is not only to be centered on the word, it is also grounded on the word, and both those realities of a word-centered unity, should inform how believers act among one another, and how churches should act among other churches.

If the unity we share is centered on the word, then there will be a stability to the unity. We won’t be swayed and distracted by every wind of change and doctrine. There will be longevity in the unity. Only unity founded upon the word of God will be able to last the test of time.

Further, there will be an edifying quality to the unity, because it is founded upon the Word of God. True word-based unity will be ever encouraging to the saints of God because God’s word is the spiritual food that nourishes our souls.

To go one step further in applying this truth, if God’s word is the center of our unity, then that means that no Christian, no church, and certainly no association has the liberty to adjust the center. We don’t have authority to tamper with God’s word. We should speak where it speaks, and we should give liberty where it is silent. Many Christians and Christian institutions have gotten into dangerous waters when they don’t proclaim clearly what God has made clear. Either out of fear of man or a desire to be liked by the world, they will edit, tweak, soften, and try to otherwise remove the offense from God’s law. I think this is a driving force in the doctrinal shallowness that often characterizes Baptist associations today.

Brothers and sisters, we have no authority to adjust the word of our great prophet. What he has declared, we must declare, in all of its doctrinal integrity, never shying away from the offense of the cross, which will always be offensive to the world.

But not only that, the other end of the spectrum is also true today. While some shrink from speaking clearly the things that God has made clear, others make to opposite mistake of speaking authoritatively about matters on which scripture is silent. I believe this to be equally damaging and disrespectful to God. Some would risk constraining the consciences of others in ways that scripture does not constrain, thereby over-stepping their biblical authority, and turn themselves into the very Pharisees that Christ so harshly condemns.

If our unity is founded upon God’s word, then let us never be guilty of speaking where God is silent. Let us trust in the sufficiency and authority and Power of our great prophet who has revealed to us the very words of God that we might be fully equipped and united in our battle against sin, Satan, and the world. Our unity is to be verbally-centered.

Third, not only is our unity nominally-revealed and verbally-centered, our unity is (big word here, hold on) perichoretically-informed. Our unity perichoretically-informed. To say it another way, our unity should be informed by how the persons of the trinity relate to one another. Let me explain, using some thoughts from a helpful article just written by Kevin DeYoung:

“It is a recurring theme from the lips of Jesus that the Father dwells in the Son, that “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (John 14:10-11). All that Jesus asks in the High Priestly Prayer is rooted in the reality that the Son is in the Father, and the Father is in the Son. The Apostle Paul, likewise, testifies that in the incarnate Son “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19).

We usually understand these verses to be about Christ’s deity. And rightly so. But they also speak to the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct persons—distinguished, respectively, by paternity, filiation, and spiration. And yet, we must not think of the three persons as three faces in a yearbook. The Father indwells the Son; the Son indwells the Spirit; the Spirit indwells the Father (and you could reverse the order in each pair).

The Greek term used to describe the eternal mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity is perichoresis (in Latin, circumincession). The word circulatio is also sometimes used as a way of metaphorically describing the unceasing circulation of the divine essence, such that each person is in the other two, while the others are in each one. At the risk of putting things in physical terms, perichoresis means that “all three persons occupy the same divine ‘space.’”(Gerald Bray, Doctrine of God, 158). In other words, we cannot see God without seeing all three persons at the same time.

The mutual indwelling of perichoresis means two things. First, the three persons of the Trinity are all fully in one another. And second, each person of the Trinity is in full possession of the divine essence. To be sure, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father. Perichoresis does not deny any of this. What perichoresis maintains is that you cannot have one person of the Trinity without having the other two, and you cannot have any person of the Trinity without having the fullness of God. The inter-communion of the persons is reciprocal, and their operations are inseparable. As Augustine put it: ‘Each are in each, and all in each, and each in all, and all are one.’ (Augustine, De Trinitate, 6.10).”[1]

So, the three persons are united in their mutual intercession, or mutual inter-penetration. They’re forever and perfectly loving and delighting in each other, completely honoring and beholding the beauty that each possesses as they each share in the same beautiful divine essence.

In verse 11 of our text Jesus prays that his people would share in the oneness that the Son has with the Father. Of such unity, John Gill wrote: this unity is “in nature, will, affection and understanding; [this unity is an] abiding together, cleaving to each other, standing fast in one spirit, having the same designs, and the interest of the redeemer in view, and at heart.”[2] The unity of God’s people, analogous to union with Christ and analogous to the unity of the godhead, ground Christian community. Heavenly unity is the source and example for believers.[3]

Now, we obviously won’t share in exactly the same kind of unity. We don’t share the same perfect divine nature. But there are some principles that we can extrapolate in an analogous way that I think that help inform our understanding of Christian unity, both in the church and in an association.

First, see how unity is essential. Unity is essential. Just as it is inconceivable for the Father and Son to be divided, so too ought the church of God to be jealous for a unity that mimics God’s own indivision. If love-based unity marks the divine essence, then what is proclaimed by an individual or church or group of churches that can’t stay united? That means there is some measure of love lacking, some measure of hate that has intruded. That’s why scripture speaks clearly and often against division and disunity. Proverbs 6 tells us that one of the things that God HATES is one who sows discord, or disunity, among the brothers. We have one Lord, one Faith, One Baptist, one Spirit, and we ought to manifest that essential one-ness through unity. Word-centered, love-driven, Unity is essential.

Second, we see in the divine unity an illustration of how unity does not mean uniformity. Unity does not mean uniformity. The goal of a church or an association can’t be to produce more of their particular brand. We’re not here to make more copies of ourselves, as if we are the standard of what a church ought to be.

Rather, the people of God should see the various gifts, talents, and strengths of its constituents, and praise God for the diversity of gifts that have come from His Holy Spirit’s work.

Particular Baptist Benjamin Griffith wrote in 1742 a treatise entitled “Concerning a True and Orderly Gospel Church,” which was adopted by the Philadelphia association. Speaking on this denominational unity and diversity, Griffith gives us one example of how diverse churches are still united for mutual edification, “Particular congregational churches, constituted and organized according to the mind of Christ revealed in the New Testament, are all equal in power and dignity, and we read of no disparity between them, or subordination among them,” [i.e., unity]. He continues, “Such particular distinct churches, agreeing in gospel doctrine and practice, may and ought to maintain communion together in many duties, which may tend to mutual benefit and edification of the whole: and thereby one church that hath plenty of gifts, may and ought, if possible, to supply another that lacketh.”[4]

Just as the Godhead share and possesses the same divine essence, and yet each individual person takes on specific roles, we can analogously see that the church has a unity grounded on shared possession of union with Christ, and therefore can diversely serve God and function in different ways without any decrease in dignity or value.

Some churches will be larger, some will have more money, some will be better gifted, some will be more effective. None should feel discouraged or devalued among the people of God, for we know that our union is grounded in what has been given to each, and God is not a haphazard gifter. He knows what he is doing, and we should rejoice in that diversity, seeking to responsible stewards with what we’ve each been given, while also rejoicing in how God has gifted and worked through the ministries of others.

Our unity is perichoretically-informed, or analogous to the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Finally, a fourth aspect of our unity seen in John 17. Not only is our unity nominally-revealed, word-centered, and perichoretically-informed, our unity is to be missiologically-oriented. Our unity is to be missiologically-oriented. Or we could say that our unity, the unity of the church, and the unity of an association should be aimed toward the world.

Look again at verse 21 where Jesus explicitly connects our unity with our mission. Jesus prays “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, (why?) SO THAT the world may believe that you have sent me.” And again two verse later in verse 23 our Lord says, “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” I wish I had three days to sit and unpack all the glory bound up in this verse. But alas, I’ll close with just two brief observations.

First observation is that the effectiveness of any human endeavor is tied to the unity of the participants, and that is no less true for a work of God’s people. Football teams must have a common aim, leaders must have a shared vision, and churches must have a unified vision, a common task, if any lasting kingdom work is to be accomplished.

God has so ordered the world that the proclamation of the gospel is the means through which men may believe that the Son of God has truly been sent from the Father. But, if the church or an association is not united, full of division and strife, full of anger and bitterness, full of dissention and all kinds of evil, then the gospel can be obscured, overshadowed. Peoples’ ears can become closed by what they see with their eyes. People will be turned off because of the incongruity between our lives and our message. If we live lives that contradict the truth being proclaimed by our lips, people will see the hypocrisy.

Praise God that Christ never spoke a word of truth that he didn’t live out faithfully. He always aligned his actions with the truth of God. There was no bit of hypocrisy or incongruity; no divisiveness or sowing seeds of division. Indeed, Praise God that Christ died on the cross for quarrelsome and divisive hypocrites like us. Even though we fail everyday, Christ was willing to die in our stead. Even though we preach Christ and obedience with our lips, and yet daily fail to love him and keep his commandment, Christ still receives us, forgives us, washes us, restores us, and grants us his holy spirit in order for us grow in our obedience, to more faithfully align the truth of our lips with the testimony of our lives.

May God ever grow us, redeem us from our hypocrisy, so that the eyes of the world would see no contradiction between our message and our lives. That we’d practice what we’d preach, just as Christ did, SO THAT the world may believe that the Father actually send the Son to redeem sinners.

Second observation from this verse: it’s not about you. It’s not about you. A church or an association that gets distracted by personalities and posturing and politicking and promoting will inevitably diminish the unity of the body, and ultimately undermine the mission. If unity is tied to mission success, then disunity is actively undermining the effectiveness of gospel proclamation to the world. Too often the mission of the gospel is obscured or impeded because egos get in the way. The emphasis goes from gospel advancement to career advancement, from love of neighbor to love of praise, from fear of the Lord to fear of man.

May we be ever on guard against such tempting pitfalls. Actively pursuing unity in Christ for the sake of unified mission success. Rather than putting the emphasis inward on ourselves, let us cast our eyes heavenward, to see again the beauty of our great God, be refreshed again by seeing Christ in all of his glory, and thereby be rejuvenated to return to our mission, unified, until our earthly labors are complete.

[1] Kevin DeYoung, “Theological Primer: Perichoresis,” (Accessed 11/19/2020).

[2] John Gill, Commentary on John.

[3] Sam Tyson, Dependent Independence: Toward a theology of Southern Baptist Associationalism, PhD Diss, SBTS, 2017, pg 172.

[4] Benjamin Griffith, “An Excerpt from Concerning a True and Orderly Gospel Church,” in Denominations or Associations: Essays on Reformed Baptist Associations, ed., James Renihan (Calvary Press: Amityville, NY, 2001), appendix 1, pg.166.


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