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.

Desire of Nations

As this time of Advent is quickly coming to a close, I would like us to take a second and remember the final verse of that great hymn that I have been walking us through the last few weeks, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. In the final verse we are reminded of one of the greatest gifts that Jesus would be and that is the desire of nations.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.

To fully appreciate the biblical significance of this closing verse we must remember that God was not a sectarian God and His desire for the nations to worship Him was not a new revelation only seen in the Birth of Christ.  In narrative form we see it throughout the Old Testament as men and women who are not from the Jewish people come and worship God. We see in the line of Jesus himself four women who have gentile origins. However, specifically when thinking about the nations worshiping God two sections of Scripture jump off the page. The first is in Haggai 2. Here the Prophet encourages the Governor and High Priest in Israel that there is coming a time where the glory of God will be truly revealed in the temple, and this is when all nations desire and worship Him alone. In this prophecy God declares that the nations are coming and will worship Him. If you are a believer in Christ today and are not of Jewish heritage this verse should be an encouragement to you. You were a part of the plan of God, your salvation was prophesied about long before you breathed a word in this life.

The other text which most evidently comes to mind is the celebration before the throne of God in Revelation 5. In this text a great song is sung before the throne of God, and in it His people and all the angels declare that the Lamb of God receives glory from people of every tribe, tongue and nation, through His death and resurrection. Here we see laid before us the clear truth that it is Christ who brought the nations back to God. It is through Jesus alone that the people of God following His resurrection begin to transcend their own geographical limitations. But even before the apostles go to the ends of the earth there is one final thing I think should be remembered about as it relates to seeing the Christ as the desire of nations and that is evidenced in Matthew 2.

In Chapter 2 we witness that Jesus’s birth narrative ushered in the beginning of this new global worship when it was not the rulers or religious establishment who came to Him in Bethlehem when he was a young child, no, it was Magi from Persia. For Matthew it seems very important for us to see that one of the key figures in the celebration and worship of the Messiah were men from the very nation that once held them captive. For out of Persia these men studied the stars and awaited a prophecy that was not from Jewish origin, that we are aware of, but one that pointed to a true Messiah who would save the nations. And so in the very opening to the first Gospel narrative written to a Jewish audience we have the nations gather to this Child to worship.

Now how does this affect us? There are several things that Scripture points to when we see God as being more than a 1st century sectarian deity. By understanding that He is the one and true God who rules over all nations and people, and that only in Him can true salvation be found, we become motivated to take the truth of this reality to others.  Therefore as believers it is our commission and honor to take the hope of Christ to the nations. For some that may mean traveling around the world preaching the gospel, others this could simply mean engaging with your neighbors from other cultures and backgrounds presenting them with the true meaning of Jesus. The commission to all of us is to go and make disciples, we see in the book of Acts the gospel goes forth beginning in Jerusalem with the people of Israel but then flows out across the nations to north Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, in Europe to the edges of Spain. The Word of God would continue and push forward to all people and in time to the ends of the earth. Today the call remains for us all to go and be lights in this dark world as we present the gospel and call people to worship.

So as you gather together this Christmas morning with the people of God to worship the birth of your Savior let it be a reminder as you look around the room at your brothers and sisters from many different lands that Christ is bigger than you, that His kingdom is global and eternal. 

Let us therefore worship the Desire of Nations and seek to join Him in calling the nations to worship. 

Advent and Immanuel

With the season of Advent coming into full bloom and the music of the season in the air I want to visit one of the most popular songs of the season: O Come, O Come Immanuel. 

It is a song rich with history, being originally traced back to the 8th century as a responsive reading, it is one of the oldest songs of advent we still sing in the modern Church. One of the reasons I believe it still holds a place so near and dear to most of us is its reliance on the biblical text to bring comfort, truth and grace through music to God’s children. This 1200 year old hymn points us straight back to Scripture and the truth and brings life and comfort to the weary soul. So over my next few blog posts I will walk through the biblical significance of this song’s verses and the comfort we can draw from the promise and fulfillment of Christ’s first Advent, and see how it brings greater joy and anticipation for His second.

So with that in mind we begin with the first verse of that classic song:

O come, O come, Immanuel,
and ransom captive Israel
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
shall come to you, O Israel.

This first verse has its origins back in  Isaiah 7 in the days of Ahaz king of Judah. In that day God offered the king a chance to ask of Him whatever he wished ask proof of God’s love and protection for His people, but rather than accept this gift of God, Ahaz spurned the gift and God in the process. Rather than trust in God for deliverance and protection for the people, Ahaz turned to political allegiance and military strength to find peace. It is in this setting that God brings forth the prophecy that a virgin will bear a son and he will be named Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14). This sign was meant to be a reminder that God was the only hope for His people, because before this even would come to pass His people would suffer at the hands of the very alliance the king had established.

However, The king’s disobedience and sin would make a way in time for God’s ultimate blessing. For God didn’t leave His people in exile and suffering but rather brought forth in time the fulfillment of the words of Isaiah to king Ahaz in the giving of His Son to the world. In the midst of the great fear of the ages and the new captivity of Israel to the people of Rome, God would now dwell with His people. Immanuel was to be born to a virgin in the city of David.

Now before the Child would be born the Lord sent an angel to instruct her fiancé in the truth of what was to take place. We see this in Luke 1:18-23 where we see a picture of angel’s interaction with Joseph. In this vision he is instructed to name the child Jesus, for He would save the people from their sins, but not only would He be named Jesus, He would be Immanuel. In this short passage of Scripture the name Immanuel become intricately connected to the name Jesus. In Jesus we see that God’s presence with His people is linked with His love for them and the desire to set them free from the lasting pain of sin. He takes on the name that echoed back to the very founding of the nation in the land of Canaan as Joshua lead his people to political freedom. Now the new Joshua (the Hebrew name that Jesus comes from) will set them free from a far greater danger, that of sin and death, and the only means by which he could do this is if he was the Immanuel, God himself residing with His people.

For us we are blessed to know that God did keep His promise to the people of Israel and we are the humble recipients of His grace and mercy. God came to us and set us free form our sin and set us on the path of righteousness, but He did not leave us on that path alone. 

In both Narratives we see God’s faithfulness to His people in the midst of uncertainty. So too in this advent season we know that God is still faithful to His people, though it took over 700 years for the true fulfillment of Immanuel to take place, He was faithful. In our day and age we have the blessing of seeing and experiencing the gift of the first Advent. As believers we experience the grace of God daily, all the more if you are not born Jewish, for in Christ He brought us gentiles into the family of God.

Today, while we experience the great blessings of Christ, may we also look forward to the eternal blessing of His second advent. One of the great blessings of God being with His people is that it is more than a metaphysical reality of the past, it is a real present experience, and a future hope in His final return. So let us sing out with gladness not only because He has come and set free the first captive Israel from their sin, but that He shall return again to bring the true Israel to Himself for eternity.