What is Union with Christ?

Last year I began one of my Sunday morning sermons with the following illustration:

“Before Holly and I got married I was a poor college graduate who had just begun seminary and that meant that I had zero income. Holly, on the other hand, had graduated, she had already started working, which meant her bank account was full. After an 8 month engagement the day finally came, and Holly and I arrived at a beautiful church in downtown McDonough, GA to be married in the presence of God, family, and friends. My eyes filled with tears as she walked down the aisle, my heart pounded with excitement, and a marvelous thing took place that day. Not only did I gain a godly and gorgeous wife that I didn’t deserve, I also gained a full bank account. I said ‘I do’ and my bank account went from empty to full. From no work of my own, simply because our lives were now united as one everything that belonged to her became mine and the little I had became hers. You see the greater lesson in this don’t you? When we become Christians, when we God saves us, we’re adopted into a family we we’re not naturally born into and united to Him, and from no work of our own everything that belongs to Him becomes ours.”

Recall a few weeks ago when we covered justification we said there were benefits from our justification: adoption, union with Christ, sanctification, and glorification. Today I want to continue addressing these benefits by turning your attention to our mystical and wonderful union with Christ. Let’s begin with two questions:

What is Our Union with Christ?

In his Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof defines union with Christ as an “…intimate, vital, and spiritual union between Christ and His people, in virtue of which He is the source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation.” So this union with Christ is greater than a merger or a blending, it is a vibrant, life giving, and familial bond. It is such a close bond Paul mentions that we have died and our lives are now “hid with Christ in God” in Colossians 3. This intimate, vital, and spiritual union is seen in the one phrase repeatedly found throughout the New Testament. In fact, it’s repeated so often that I believe this one phrase reveals the sum and substance of Paul’s theology. Do you know what this phrase is?

“In Him” or “In Christ”

In Him God has given us every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3), in Him we were chosen before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), in Him we have redemption (Eph. 1:7), in Him all things are united (Eph. 1:10), in Him we have an inheritance (Eph. 1:11), and in Him we were sealed with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13). We are the body in Him who is the Head (1 Cor. 6), we are the branches in Him who is the Vine (John 15), we are the sinners made the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21), and we are living stones in Him who is the Cornerstone (1 Pet. 2). In Christ there is no condemnation or separation (Rom. 8), all those in Christ are sons of Abraham (Gal. 3), we’re alive to God in Christ (Rom. 6:11), we have eternal life in Christ (Rom. 6:23), the Spirit of life has set us free in Christ (Rom. 8:1), we are wise in Christ (1 Cor. 4:10), God establishes us in Christ (2 Cor. 1:21), God leads us in triumph in Christ (2 Cor. 2:14), we become new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17), and on and on and on! The one dominating theme of Paul’s theology is that because of God’s work, we are ‘in Him’ or ‘in Christ.’ We truly do encounter our union with Christ from eternity to eternity.

Anthony Hoekema, in his book Saved By Grace (page 64), helpfully points out that we experience our union with Christ in eight different ways.

1) We are initially united with Christ in regeneration (Eph. 2:4-5, 10).

2) We appropriate and continue to live out of this union through faith (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 3:16-17).

3) We are justified in union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:8-9).

4) We are sanctified through union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:30; John 15:4-5; Eph. 4:16; 2 Cor. 5:17).

5) We persevere in the life of faith in union with Christ (John 10:27-28; Rom. 8:38-39).

6) We are even said to die in Christ (Rom. 14:8; 1 Thess. 4:16; Rev. 14:13).

7) We shall be raised with Christ (Col. 3:1; 1 Cor. 15:22).

8) We shall be eternally glorified with Christ (Col. 3:4; 1 Thess. 4:16-17).

This is distinctively Christian, no other world religion has anything teaches anything like this. Burk Parsons said it well on Twitter just this past week, “Union with Christ is a uniquely Christian doctrine. Muslims don’t claim to be ‘in Mohammed’ or ‘in Allah’ or Buddhists ‘in Buddha.’” Yet in the pages of sacred Scripture we find a thing of wonder. Not only has God elected us from the before the foundation of the world, not only has He called us, regenerated us, granted us repentance and faith, justified us, and adopted us. Wonder of wonders – He unites us with Christ so close that when He sees us (yes, sinners like us) He sees the manifold perfections of His Son. This is our union with Christ.

What does Union with Christ Lead to?

It is wise to remember that all ideas have consequences, some good and some bad. The truth of our union with Christ has only glorious consequences.

It Gives us a Sure Identity

At home we are currently teaching our oldest son about where his identity comes from. One of the ways we do this is to ask him two questions. First we ask ‘where do you find out who you are?’ The answer is ‘in Jesus.’ Then we ask ‘where do you not find out who you are?’ and the answer is ‘in yourself.’ We should be asking ourselves these questions daily. This all comes from our union with Christ. We do not find out who we truly are by looking at who we are, what we’ve done, or where we come from, no. We look to Christ. In Christ we have our sure identity.

It Transforms our Obedience and Repentance

Too many of us think that trying harder or doing better accomplishes our sanctification. Yet, Jesus plainly tells us the way we produce fruit and grow in our sanctification is by our abiding in Him and enjoying our union with Him. This is His entire point in John 15 when He speaks of us being the branches that must abide in Him, the Vine. The life sustaining power for growth is in the Vine, and if we’re to grow we must be united with that Vine. This is also true when we move over to Paul’s writing. In almost every place where the New Testament commands us to obey God in this or that way, close by and usually before the command we find a statement that we are ‘in Christ.’ Back in seminary Dr. John Fesko used to often tell us, “We do not live for our union with Christ or our acceptance with God, no, we live from our union with Christ and our acceptance in Him.” This changes how we obey God. We do not obey to earn a right standing with God. Rather, we obey from our right standing with God already given to us in Christ. So we obey from a sure identity in Christ, not from our activity for Christ. And think about the reverse and the wonders this does for our repentance. When you disobey we do not face an angry judge, but a grieved yet loving Father.

It Brings us into a United Family, the Church

What do I mean when I say that union with Christ brings us into a united family, the church? I mean this: union with Christ creates unity in Christ.

In Ephesians 2:1-10 we find out what God has done to bring us into union with Him. Then in a surprising twist in 2:11-22 we see what God has done to bring into unity with the Church universal. After 2:13 Paul doesn’t return to focus on who we once were apart from Christ, he turns to describe who we are after God has brought us to Himself through Christ. This has implications that are both personal and communal, and when you read 2:14-18 you can see Paul going back and forth between the personal implications of 2:13 and the communal implications of 2:13 almost in every verse which shows us that our life God started when He saved us individually, has more to do with just us individually, it has everything to do with the community of people God then brings us into. True unity of the Church, therefore, only comes through those who have been united to God through Christ by the Spirit.

Eph. 2:21 unfolds this profound reality by stating that Christ is not only the foundation as the Cornerstone of the Church, but that in Christ the whole structure is being joined together forming a holy temple in the Lord. This again shows us what the Church is – it is a unified community, which finds its unity in Christ. And O’ how important this unity is! All believers, you and I, being united to Christ by faith find ourselves united to one another in Christ. There is no society more sacred than the Christ’s Church. We together form what Paul calls a ‘holy temple in the Lord’ revealing again that when we move over from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant we find ourselves being moved by God out of the physical into the spiritual. The temple was to be the center of God’s activity among His people, to which all nations would come and see the King of Kings. Now in the New Covenant there is a spiritual temple as the center of God’s presence among His people – what is this spiritual temple being built up by the Lord? It is you and I, it is the Church. It is also dazzling in its beauty having every intricate detailed and mapped out by God to be beautiful beyond words. No longer do the nations have to come and see this beauty, but we as the unified holy temple of God go to the nations and bring the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Because of our great union with Christ, and because it produces a unity within the Church, we must come to see that our unity within the Church isn’t merely a good idea or a church growth principle that pastors and leaders try to convince you of. No, it’s life and death. Churches that are full of discord are unhealthy, inward focused churches that misrepresent and mar the true picture of the gospel to the communities their in. But, churches that are unified are healthy, gospel-spreading churches that display the truth of the gospel within their communities.

Our union with Christ is great. It is a great benefit of our justification, and it brings itself great benefits to the Church.

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