The Believer's Union With Christ
The Scripture not only speaks of Christ being in believers, but of believers being in Christ. Although believers are very familiar with the former concept, most are not familiar with the latter. The concept of being in Christ is represented by such Biblical phrases as "in Christ," "in the beloved," and "with Christ." This concept appears some 164 times in the NT, but only in the writings of Paul and John. Although this doctrine is strongly attested to in the New Testament, most believers quickly pass over the passages and statements which teach it without thinking much of them. It receives very little recognition from theologians, teachers, preachers, and the laity.
Although the fact that there is a union between the believer and Christ is clear, Scripture has little to say in the way of direct statements about how the union with Christ is established. First Corinthians 6:17 refers to the fact of being joined to Christ, but Paul does not elaborate on the manner of the joining, or the meaning of such. This lack of direct and clear statements has caused several interpretations of the union. In what way are we to understand the nature of the union? What is the significance of our union with Christ? These questions will be answered in this paper. First, however, we will examine the various interpretations of the union.
Alternative Interpretations in the Church
Those who confess that the believer's union with Christ is metaphysical claim that the identity of the believer is changed into the identity of Christ. We receive the essence of Christ's person, and as such the believer's distinction from Christ is not preserved.1 This view is essentially pantheistic, viewing humans as partaking of the divine essence.
The Scripture used to support this view is II Peter 1:4 where Peter said, "By which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.." (NKJV)
This view understands the union between Christ and believers to run so deep that believers literally lose their personal identity while taking upon themselves the person of Christ. Jesus controls the individual believer so that any manifestation of individual human personality is, practically speaking, obliterated.2 It is not a matter of imitating Jesus' actions, but having Jesus literally take over the life of the believer, living his/her life for them.3
Scriptures used to support this view include Galatians 2:20 where Paul said, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." (RSV)
This view of the believer's union with Christ sees Christ and the believer as being united only in influence. The union is similar to that which exists between a teacher and his/her students, or friends. It only extends to the arena of influence. There is no real oneness other than that of the sharing of ideals and practices.
This view claims that we are unified with Christ through partaking of the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. It takes literally Jesus' words, "This is my body…. This is my blood (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20). Coupled with this are Jesus' words to the Jews, "Truly, truly, I say to you, Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh, and drinks my blood has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, dwells in me, and I in him" (John 6:53-56). When one takes of the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper, they become unified with Christ and receive of His life. One must continue to partake of the bread and the wine in order to continue to have life in Christ. If they do not partake of the sacrament of holy communion, they will not have Christ's life in them. This is the position of the Catholic Church.
This view of the believer's union with Christ sees two aspects to the union: judicial, spiritual. The believer is judicially declared to be one with Jesus Christ, and shares in all that Christ possesses: eternal life, righteousness, glory, etc. God looks at the believer as he looks at Christ, and looks at Christ as he looks at the believer. He sees the two as one in the sight of the law. This identification results in certain aspects of Christ's person and work being attributed to the believer.4 Whatever Christ did, the believer is also declared to have done. This does not extend to personal attributes of God, but only those which are communicable to man. This phenomenon is similar to that of a marriage in which the assets and debts of each party are mutually assumed.
The believer is also spiritually unified with Christ. It is a vital union whereby Christ becomes part of the believer, and the believer becomes part of Christ, but the individual personality and essence of each is still distinguishable as it pertains to their respective natures. Jesus does not become the believer, and the believer does not become Jesus, but rather the believer shares in the life of Christ by virtue of a spiritual connection with Christ. This connection is between the human spirit and the divine Spirit (I Corinthians 6:17). It is not a physical bonding like welding two pieces of metal together, nor is it a mixing of God's Spirit with our spirit, and neither does the union make us semi-divine. Rather, the union is a spiritual interpenetration of Christ and the believer which produces a new spiritual vitality and life in us that we could not have apart from Christ.5
Because the concept of being "in Christ" is found exclusively in the writings of Paul and John, only their contributions will be examined.
Of the two apostles, Paul is by far the most prolific writer on the subject of being in Christ. The verses which could be cited are numerous. In Paul's theology, believers are buried in Christ (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12); sanctified in Christ Jesus (I Corinthians 1:2); joined with Christ's Spirit (I Corinthians 6:17); made one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28); baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27); clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27); all equal in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28); heirs of the Abrahamic promise in Christ (Galatians 3:28); free from the necessity of circumcision in Christ Jesus (Galatians 5:6); receive all spiritual blessings in Christ (Ephesians 1:3); chosen in Him (Ephesians 1:4); receive the glory of His grace (Ephesians 1:6); made accepted in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:6); all things will be gathered in one in Christ (Ephesians 1:10); have an inheritance (Ephesians 1:11); made alive/resurrected with Christ (Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:12); sit in heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 2:6); created for good works in Christ (Ephesians 2:10); grow in Christ (Colossians 2:7); complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10); died with Christ (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 3:3; II Timothy 2:11); have their lives hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3); will be raised from the dead in Christ (I Thessalonians 4:16); have the promise of life in Christ (II Timothy 2:2); receive God's purpose and grace in Christ Jesus (II Timothy 2:9); and are baptized into Christ's body (I Corinthians 12:12-13).
Although Paul deals with the subject of union with Christ more than John, John is most definitely aware of the concept. John recorded Jesus' words, "At that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you" (John 14:20). This was the first time (historically speaking) that the concept of being "in Christ" was ever mentioned, and it was mentioned by Christ Himself.
Jesus was even more explicit in explaining the relationship of this union when he compared it to the relationship between a vine and its branches, saying, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away: and every branch that bears fruit, he prunes it, so that it may bring forth more fruit. Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can you, except you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches: He that abides in me, and I in him, the same brings forth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing" (John 15:1-6). Jesus made it clear that everything the believer has spiritually is directly based on their continual connection (abiding) with Him, and His abiding in them.6 Just as a branch derives every bit of its sustenance by virtue of its being "in" the vine, likewise the believer will draw every bit of his/her spiritual strength by virtue of being in Christ. Conversely, just as the branch cannot bear fruit if it becomes detached from the vine, a believer cannot bear spiritual if it is detached from Christ.
In John's first epistle he employs similar terminology, saying, "He who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked" (I John 2:6). Being in Christ necessarily implies imitating Christ. John went on to give his readers assurance of knowing that they dwelt in Christ, and He dwelt in them, by reminding them that Christ had given them His Spirit (I John 4:13).
The Biblical concept of being "in Christ" consists of two aspects: positional truth, spiritual reality. When we are born again, we are united to Christ both positionally and spiritually. We are united to His person and His work in such a way that whatever can be said of Christ can also be said of us.
Our very life and identity are bound up in Christ's identity. Paul said, "If you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is our life, then you will also appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:1-4). We are dead. Our life is not our own, neither is it self-generated. Rather our life is bound up in Christ's life. Our life is now hid with Christ's life in God, in the heavenlies. Paul made similar sentiments in Galatians 2:20 saying, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." (NKJV). After Paul's union with Christ he could no longer say that he lived his own life. He was crucified with Christ, dying to the old man, and living to the new man in Christ Jesus through faith.
The first aspect of our union with Christ is positional. All of humanity has one of two positions in the sight of God. They are either unrighteous or righteous; condemned or justified; guilty or innocent. Which position one stands in before the sight of God is determined by their relationship with one of two individuals. Those who are in Adam are the unrighteous, condemned, and guilty, and thus have spiritual death working in them. Those who are in Christ are those who are the righteous, justified, and innocent, which have spiritual life working in them. This is why Paul said, "For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (I Corinthians 15:22). Our position before God depends on who we are "in." This truth is most clearly defined in Romans 5:12-21.
Paul argued that through Adam all of humanity sinned, and as a result experiences spiritual death (5:12). This spiritual death affects all of humanity even though they did not personally commit Adam's sin (5:14). He went on to contrast Adam to Christ, showing how their respective actions have affected the human race. Although the many died through Adam's transgression, the many also had the grace and gift of God multiplied to them through Christ (5:15). Whereas Adam brought the human race into a position of judgment, condemnation, and death, Christ brought to us justification, righteousness, and spiritual life (5:16-17). Just as Adam's one transgression brought all of humanity into a place of condemnation before God, so through Christ's one righteous act at Calvary He brought spiritual life for all people (5:18). Through Adam all were made sinners, and his sin reigned in death over all, but through Christ grace reigns through righteousness, and many will be made righteous (5:19, 21).
Sin rules over us because of our union with Adam, bringing spiritual death and eternal condemnation. Jesus Christ, however, came to reverse the consequences of Adam's disobedience, bringing spiritual life and justification effecting both our present and future relationship to God. Adam is our natural representative head. In him we experience sin and its consequence, death. But just as Adam was our representative in his sin, so Christ was our representative in His sinless life and atoning death. As Adam's sin brought condemnation and death to all in Adam, so Jesus' act of righteousness brought justification and life to all those who believe. As A.H. Strong said, "…as there is one source of spiritual life in Christ, so there was one source of corrupt life in Adam; and that as we are justified by reason of our oneness with the justified Christ, so we are condemned by reason of our oneness with the condemned Adam."7
This can be likened to the power of attorney. When someone gives another person the power of attorney, that individual can make business transactions, sign documents, and other binding activities for the said person. Whatever is signed by the appointed individual through the power of attorney is legally binding on the one who was being represented. God has given two individuals the power of attorney over humankind: Adam, Christ. Through Adam's transgression, a document of judgment, condemnation, and eternal death was signed in our stead. To many this sounds unfair because we did not appoint Adam as our representative.
In our individualistic society this does seem unfair, but the fact remains that God appointed Adam to that position. It might be better to think of Adam's sin as a falling into a large hole with no way of escape. All of Adam's descendants are then born in this hole and are also confined to its depths, even though they were not the ones who originally fell into the hole. However it is conceptualized, this is the truth of the Scripture. As children of Adam, all of us have inherited condemnation, judgment, and death.
We are not left in this destitute position, however. Christ also signed a document in our stead. God appointed Him to be the second representative over humanity to succeed where Adam failed. Christ's obedience secured righteousness and eternal life for all of those who would put their faith in Him. When we are born into Christ we legally become one with Christ in God's sight, partaking of Christ's obedience. All our responsibilities rest upon Him and all of His merit is accrued to us. Just as Adam's sin is charged to us without us having actually committed it in the flesh, so Christ's righteousness is as much ours as had we performed it ourselves. It is as though we were the ones who died on the cross. God sees the believer in Christ's merit, not one's own merit. This is so eloquently stated in II Corinthians 5:21 where Paul said, "For he made him [Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." Jesus takes our sin upon Himself even though He did not commit the sin, while we take His righteousness upon ourselves even though we did not perform it.
Our position before God has been changed because we have changed our allegiance from Adam to Christ. Whereas we were under the umbrella of Adam's disobedience which sheltered us from a relationship with God, we are now under Christ's umbrella of grace, righteousness, and life which secures for us a relationship with God. Our relationship to Adam has been severed because we have placed our faith in Christ. Now that we are positionally unified with Christ, our relationship with God has been changed from one of condemnation to one of righteousness. Because Christ's work and merit is accrued to us by virtue of our being in Christ, God sees us as He sees Christ. He no longer sees us in Adam, or even in our own personal sin, but in Christ's righteousness and life.
Our position in Christ is not a conscious experience anymore than our position in Adam was a conscious experience. Apart from revelation we would not know why we are sinners, or why we are now considered righteous. Our feelings or perception of this positional union with Christ does not change the fact that we are now in Christ. It is an objective truth to be received by faith, not a subjective truth to be judged by experience, or the lack thereof. It is a spiritual fact that need only be known by faith, not felt by the emotions, to be considered true. Although our perception of this truth does not change the fact that it is true, our knowledge of this truth is important in order to existentially experience the benefits of being in Christ.8
Unlike spiritual growth and maturity (sanctification), our union with Christ is not progressive.9 From the moment we experience regeneration (born-again) we are in Christ. We can never be in Christ anymore than we already are. Our union is static, not fluctuating. It is complete, lacking nothing. Every spiritual blessing that is necessary for our spiritual life and salvation was given us in Christ, and remains with us because of that union. Although the union is not progressive, our understanding and perception of the union does grow. As our perception grows, it will affect the way we relate to God and others, but the union itself does not become stronger or weaker based on our perception and application of it in our daily lives.
Our union with Christ is not a mere external, legal union which brings about a change of our position before God, but it is also a spiritual union with Christ which is internal and vital. Christ not only works from without, being separate from us, but works spiritually from within. Our position in Christ is an external pronouncement, but the union extends beyond this to include an internal reality. He is in us and we are in Him. According to Paul our spirit is joined with His Spirit (I Corinthians 6:17). It is an interpenetration of spirits. We not only stand positionally in His righteousness and grace, but we actually partake of it through our spiritual union with Him. Just as the vine gives all things necessary to life to the branches (John 15:1-6), so Christ is our source for of every spiritual blessing and eternal life. Because of our union with Him we have the same life, united in such a way as if the same blood ran through both our veins.10 Our spiritual life flows from His. Apart from our connection to Him we cannot bear spiritual fruit, nor can we have life. But by virtue of our spiritual connection with His person and work, whatever can be said of Christ can be said of us.
Whereas Romans 5:12-21 speaks of our positional union with Christ in regards to the condemnation of the law and our justification, Romans 6-8 speaks of a spiritual union with Christ's person which goes beyond a forensic status and positional union; it is an organic union.11 Most passages which speak of the union mention it in passing without much explanation as to its meaning or significance. Romans 6-8 speaks more of the nature and practical results of our spiritual union with Christ than any other Biblical passage, and therefore will receive special attention, examining the key points of this passage.
Romans 6-8: The Believer's Relationship to Sin in Light of the Union
In order to understand the literary purpose of this section of Romans it is necessary to establish Paul's argument up to this point. In the first three chapters he demonstrated that both Jew and Gentile were sinners who had not lived up to the revelation given them by God. The Gentiles did not live up to the revelation of conscience and nature, while the Jews did not live up to the revelation of the Law of Moses. Paul made it abundantly clear that God's righteousness does not come through obedience to the Law, but through faith in Jesus' atonement for our sins. In chapters four and five Paul argued so strongly that God justifies the sinner apart from good works even in the face of sin, that he anticipated the natural human response—If where sin abounds, God's grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20-21), why not continue in sin so we can receive more grace? Knowing that some would misunderstand the implications of justification and new life through Christ apart from the law, Paul argued that a Christian should not sin (Romans 6), and then explained how they were able to not sin (Romans 7:1—8:17).
Romans 6 is divided up into two arguments. The first argument is that believers should not sin because they have been unified with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:1-11). Paul's second argument against continuing in sin is that this leads to enslavement to something other than Christ (Romans 6:12-23).
The Romans, being unaware of what happened to them at salvation, thought it good to sin so that grace may abound (6:1). Paul's answer to this ludicrous idea was the believer's spiritual union with Christ. Not only should a Christian not continue to sin, but the believer's union with Christ makes such a situation logically impossible. Paul's answer was not, "How can you think of such a thing," but, "That's impossible!"12 Christians are not only forgiven of sin, but they also die to sin's dominion.13 Through baptism we are baptized into Christ's death and burial, and therefore are dead to sin (6:2-4a). Because we have been identified with Him in His death and burial by means of baptism we will also walk in the new life of resurrection with Him (6:4b-5). As death frees people from committing sin, those who have been unified with Christ through baptism have died with Christ, destroying the sinful body that enslaved us to sin (6:6-7). Calvin observed that "through baptism Christ makes us share in his death, that we may be engrafted in it. And, just as the twig draws substance and nourishment from the root to which it is grafted, so those who receive baptism with right faith truly feel the effective working of Christ's death in the mortification of their flesh, together with the working of his resurrection in the vivification of the Spirit.."14
It should be pointed out that all of Paul's references to our death or crucifixion with Christ are in the aorist tense, indicating that this is a past event. Our death to sin became an accomplished reality when we were baptized into Christ. There is no need to continue to die to sin, for we have already died to sin. We can never be more dead than we were when we were initially born-again.
Just as we have died with Christ, we also know that we will be raised from the dead to live with Him forevermore (6:8-9). Since Christ's resurrection means that death does not have dominion over Him (He died once to sin), we also, by virtue of our union with Him in His death and resurrection, are to consider ourselves dead to sin (6:9-11a). We die to the ruling power of sin in our lives through our union with Christ. Because sin and death cannot rule over Christ, neither can they rule over us. The great truth that Paul was emphasizing was that what Christ did, we did.15 We were not the ones who died or were resurrected, but by virtue of our union with Christ God considers us to have performed what Christ performed. To illustrate this notice that Paul said in verse ten that Christ died to sin, and in verses six through eight he said that we died to sin through Christ. Because Christ died, we died.
If Christ had no sin, how can it be said that He died to sin? This dilemma is easily resolved when we understand that Paul is not speaking of dying to specific acts of sin, but to the legal reign of sin. Christ, although sinless, was subjected to its legal reign, or dominion at Calvary. He was made to be sin for us. He was charged with our sin. By virtue of our union with Christ we also die to the ruling power of sin over our lives, even as a dead individual is free from sin's rule over them. We are not, however, free from the sin-principle, or from ever sinning again. Paul's argument in 6:11-23 makes this abundantly clear.
Paul said, "He [God] made Him [Jesus] to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (II Corinthians 5:21). Jesus was subjected to the legal reign and punishment of sin in our place, even though He committed no acts of sin, being righteous. Conversely, we being sinners by nature and committing many acts of sin, are blessed with Christ's righteousness. His righteousness and life are not rightfully ours, just as our sins are not rightfully His, yet God imputes His righteousness and life to us as though they were truly ours, and imputes our sin to Christ as though it was truly His. All of this transpires by virtue of our union with Christ. Apart from this union we would necessarily be bound by the power of sin.
Not only are we to consider ourselves dead to sin through Christ, but we are also to consider ourselves as alive to God from the dead, in Christ (6:11b). Paul's reference to being "alive" to God in Christ speaks of a vital union. Because we died to sin and have been raised in newness of life we are not to let sin continue to reign supreme in our lives, obeying its lusts (6:12). We are not to present our bodies as instruments of unrighteousness, but as instruments of righteousness to God seeing that sin no longer has control over us (6:13-14). Sin cannot control us because we are under grace, and not under law (6:15).
At this juncture Paul argued that to continue in sin is to willingly subject ourselves as servants to it, rather than as servants of God and to His righteousness (6:16). We are not slaves to sin, but to God, so that we can be slaves to righteousness, having our fruit in holiness and eternal life (6:17-23). The legal reign of sin is replaced by the legal reign of righteousness and life that Christ possesses (Romans 5:21). Now the believer is dead to sin, but alive to God with righteousness.
We cannot continue to sin because we have been unified with Christ and have received of His grace. Whereas before we were only unified with Adam, now we are unified with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection, by means of baptism. Now whatever can be said of Christ can also be said of us. Just as He died to sin, but lives to righteousness, likewise we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to righteousness, experiencing a new life. Sin has no more power over us because we are in Him, and sin has no power over Him. Sin could only control us as long as we were in Adam, but it cannot control those who have died, been buried, and resurrected with Christ through baptism. Now we live in new life, being enslaved to righteousness as we await the bodily resurrection.
Turning to the subject of how not to sin (7:1—8:17) Paul used the analogy of the marriage covenant to explain how a believer is freed from sin. Just as a spouse is freed from the bonds of marriage when their partner dies, and can then marry another person, so likewise we have died to the law and to the dominion of sin so that we might serve God in the spirit and bear fruit to Him (7:1-6).
A momentary break in thought is utilized to dwell on the purpose of the law, which was to increase the sinfulness of man (7:7-20). After explaining his own losing battle with sin when he relies on the law of his mind or the Law of Moses, Paul exclaimed that the battle could only be won through the Spirit (7:21—8:4). Whereas the law could not help us to overcome our sin (because it actually increased our sinful desires) because of the weakness of our carnal nature, the Spirit of life set us free from sin and death and allows us to fulfill God’s will (8:1-4). As a result the church is admonished to not live after the flesh because we are under obligation to the Spirit who gives life, and not to the flesh that brings us spiritual death (8:5-14).
The truth of Romans 5:12—8:17 is that whereas we received the sin nature as a result of being born in lineage of Adam, and hence became separated from God, being reborn causes us to inherit a new lineage and a new nature. We died to old man and have been resurrected into Christ's life and therefore a new relationship to God. Our union with Christ changed the dominant affections of our soul.16 Like a wife who is no longer under obligation to her husband if he dies, our relationship with Adam has been severed.17 We are no longer under any obligation to our relationship with Adam because we died a death made possible by the resurrection of Christ. Our sin has been bonded with the blood on the cross. Now through the Spirit we are no longer condemned, or under bondage to sin and death, but receive the victory over sin (8:1-8), death (8:9-11), and slavery (8:12-17).18
Biblical Imagery of the Union
The Bible presents several images or figures to help us understand the nature of our union with Christ. The union is compared to a building wherein Christ is the corner-stone in the foundation, holding the building together (Ephesians 2:20).
The most notable analogy is that of the body. Paul said, "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? … Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?" (I Corinthians 6:15a, 19, NKJV). The most elaborate analogy is that of I Corinthians 12 where Paul compares the church to Christ's body, of whom Christ is the head. Verse twelve is telling where Paul said, "For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ." Ephesians 4:15-16 is equally vivid: "But speaking the truth in a loving manner, let us grow up into Him in all things, who is the head, even Christ, from whom all the body tightly framed and united together through each joint's supply, according to the operation in the measure of each one's part, making increase of the body to the building up of itself by means of love." The imagery is that just as the head and members of a body are all part of one body, believers are part of Christ. Just as the human head is the source of all activity and control of the body, Jesus is the source of all benefit for the spiritual body of Christ.19
Paul, who commonly used imagery to explain spiritual truths, used yet another figure in Ephesians 5:25-30. While exhorting husbands to love their wives, Paul spoke of Christ's love for the church as the ultimate example of how husbands should love their wives. He argued that the women should be loved as the man loves his own body, even as Christ loves the church (vs. 28-29). We are said to be members of Christ's body, flesh, and bones (v. 30). The way a man becomes one flesh with his wife is a picture of how Christ is one with His church, and hence the individuals in His church, which is His body (vs. 31-32). Paul considered this a great mystery. Just as a man and his wife can be considered one flesh, and yet they remain distinct, so spiritually Christ becomes one with believers, yet remains a distinct person from them.
A more modern figure may be that of electricity. Being in Christ is like an appliance plugged into an electric socket. If an appliance is not plugged into the source, although it has the capability of functioning, it cannot. The electricity, although always present, is useless to the unplugged appliance. Once the appliance is plugged into the source, however, it works as it was intended, drawing all of its energy from the electric source.
Another figure might be that of an embassy. Just as those living in a foreign country can obtain shelter and immunity from danger by seeking refuge in their own country's embassy, so believers have a shelter and immunity from their sin, condemnation, and death by virtue of being in Christ.
Spiritual Blessings from the Union
The spiritual ramifications of our union with Christ are numerous. Many of them were named when we examined the Pauline corpus of Biblical teaching, but they were not explored. Although I do not wish to be repetitious, it would be in order to review a few of the implications of the union as discussed by Paul.
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new (II Corinthians 5:17).
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love (Ephesians 1:3-4).
I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; That in every thing you are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge (I Corinthians 1:4-5).
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first (I Thessalonians 4:16).
As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive (I Corinthians 15:22).
And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together (Romans 8:17).
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Romans 8:1).
Wherefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law by the body of Christ; that you should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead, that we should bring forth fruit unto God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death. But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter (Romans 7:4-6).
But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us God's wisdom, righteousness, and also sanctification and redemption (I Corinthians 1:30).
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).
The great truth of being in Christ is that our relationship to Adam has been broken, and God has established in us a new relationship with Christ, in which and by which we relate to God. We no longer stand before God in Adam's guilt, condemnation, and death, but in Christ's obedience, righteousness, and life. We no longer have God's wrath directed toward us, but rather we stand in Christ's person, in Christ's stead. He met the demands of justice on our behalf, and gave us of His righteousness. We have been clothed in Christ by being baptized in Him (Galatians 3:27), and thus stand before God as though we were Christ Himself. It is a whole new way of relating to God that has been fully secured on our behalf by Christ. All that we have spiritually is dependent on Christ's work on our behalf, and our relationship to Christ. We do nothing but believe that it is true, and act accordingly. We are now saved and accepted by God because of our position in Christ; because of Christ's work, and not our own.
If we understand the union to be metaphysical, this is nothing short of pantheism, i.e. all is God. The Scripture is clear that there is a metaphysical distinction between God and His creation. God's nature is wholly Spirit while our nature is flesh and spirit. Those who wish to worship God must worship Him in Spirit and truth (John 4:24). If we become god by virtue of our union with Him, there would be no need for the Christian to worship God, for in essence he would only be worshipping himself. Our union with Christ is not one of essence, but of spirit. God is wholly other than man, and remains wholly other even in our union with Him.
The view that the union between Christ and believers runs so deep that believers literally lose their personal identity is a gross misrepresentation of salvation. A common theological maxim is that grace never destroys nature. Salvation does not consist of God replacing the human identity, or human faculties with that of Christ's. Christ does not control us, or take over our identity, but transforms it. We imitate Him, we do not become him.
When Paul said he was crucified with Christ He did not mean that he had actually been crucified with Christ, but that he was considered to have been crucified with Christ. This is clear because Paul testified that he still lived, but that he lived by faith in the Son of God (Galatians 2:20). When Paul said that it was no longer he who lived, he did not mean that the Son of God took over his life, but that he lived his life as though he were dead, and now alive to God. The Son of God did not take over Paul's life, but rather Paul lived his life through the Son of God.
That the union of Christ and believers is not a mere psychological union as between friends is evident by Jesus' statement in John 17:26: "That they all may be one; as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that you have sent me." Just as the Son's union with the Father was no mere psychological union, neither is the believer's union with Christ a mere psychological union. Although it is true that Christ's union with us influences us, the union surpasses a mere psychological connection.
The understanding of our union with Christ as being dependent on the sacrament of communion is not Biblically tenable. Of all the statement made concerning our union with Christ and its effects on us, not one of them connects the union with partaking of the bread and wine of communion. When Jesus said, "This is my body…. This is my blood (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20), Jesus did not mean that the bread and wine were actually His body and blood anymore than that Jesus meant He was actually a door or a vine when He said that He was the door (John 10:7, 9), or when He said that He was the true vine (John 15:1). Jesus used the bread and wine as symbols for the breaking of His body, and the pouring out of His blood for the deliverance of people, just as they had been used as symbols for the Passover.
When Jesus told the Jews, "Truly, truly, I say to you, Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh, and drinks my blood has eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, dwells in me, and I in him" (John 6:53-56), it is obvious from the context that He was not meaning this literally. In explaining these words to His disciples Jesus said, "It is the spirit that give life; the flesh profits nothing: the words that I speak to you, they are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:53). If the flesh profits nothing, then there is no reason to believe that we must eat Christ's physical body in order to have life. Jesus' point was that we must believe His words (which were spiritual) if we are to have life. The life was not in the eating of Jesus' body, but in the believing of His words.
Relevance to Life and Ministry
Of all the prominent doctrines of the Scripture, the doctrine of the believer's union with Christ is probably the most neglected. Even many systematic theologies tend to pass over it, only making brief comments here and there concerning its nature and relevance to the Christian life. Although it has not received much attention, the truth behind the doctrine is absolutely foundational to the Christian life. Our union with Christ is the basis of our spiritual life.
The doctrine of the believer's union with Christ is very relevant to the everyday life of the believer. Although we may be unconscious of this union as were the Romans, this does not make it any less real or relevant to our lives. Just as we are often unconscious of the blood which flows through our veins, yet the truth and importance of the fact is essential to our existence, even so we may be unconscious of our spiritual union with Christ, but it is the very life of the Christian believer. It is the basis for our self-worth, assurance of salvation, power over sin, approach to God, and acceptance before God.
Self-Worth and Self-Perception
There is much talk in today's world of personal worth. Usually it is spoken of in terms of self-worth or self-perception. Although there is great truth in the secular concept of self-worth, it is also a distortion of Biblical truth. We know from Scripture that all of mankind has fallen in sin, no one does good or is righteous in himself (Romans 3:10, 12), and therefore all are deserving of God's judgment (Romans 6:23). However, we also know that we are made in the image of God, and thus have infinite value to God. The doctrine of our union with Christ illuminates to us the true source of our worth. It is not generated in our self, but in the self as it is unified with Christ. Our self-worth and self-perception should be viewed through the lens of Christ, not our personal successes or short-comings, strengths or weaknesses. Only when we see how God views us can we really see who we are, and our true worth.
Assurance of Salvation
People are always trying to assure themselves of their salvation. There are so many reasons to doubt. Usually we doubt because we examine our own life to see if it matches up with Christ's life. Because none of our perfect our life never matches up with Christ's, which leaves us with doubts and worries about our personal salvation. Such doubts loom over the minds of sincere believers. The doctrine of our union with Christ, however, gives us assurance that we will be saved because we know that God views us as He views Christ. If we possess Christ's righteousness and life, there is nothing that can thwart God's love from being lavished upon us. We can agree with Paul that nothing shall separate us from "the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:39). Because of our union with Christ we can be assured that He will see us to the end!
Freedom From Sin
Because we have died with Christ to the dominion of sin, we no longer need to be enslaved to sin. People spend all sorts of time looking for the perfect step-program that will help them overcome sinful habits and live a victorious life. What we must realize is that our union with Christ has already broken the dominion of sin. There is no need for a program. It is by virtue of our union with Christ in baptism of the water and Spirit that we have had the power of sin's rule over us broken, and have received the power of the Spirit to live a righteous life. Some not realizing this have gone about trying to do all sorts of things to overcome sin. Although our death to sin need not be known to be true, it does need to be known to be useful to us.20 Once we realize that sin does not have the power to rule over us because of our union with Christ, and we put our faith in Christ to overcome habitual sins, we will naturally yield our members as instruments of righteousness to God. We will not continue to sin because we have died to it, and been made alive to God through Christ.
Performance/Approach to God
Our union with Christ makes our relationship with God complete and static. This is not to say that we cannot grow in grace, or that we can never displease God. What it is to say is that God's view of us and relationship with us does not change from day to day. Because we are in Christ, His righteousness has become our righteousness, and therefore our standing before God is not affected by our good-day/bad-day performances. But unless we learn to live daily by faith in and reliance upon His righteousness, however, our perception of our standing will vary depending upon our good/bad-day performance. We know by faith that our union with Christ secures us in our relationship with God. The way that God views Christ, He also views us.. As Christ pleased the Father in all things (John 8:29), likewise we have been made pleasing to God, because we believe on His Son and have been unified with Him. We have boldness to enter into God's presence, not because of our own good works or performance, but because of Christ's performance, Christ's blood (Hebrews 10:19). While coming before God's throne with Christ's blood we can have a "full assurance of faith" (Hebrews 10:22).
Accepted in God's Family
We live in a world in which we are constantly trying to be accepted by people. Whether it be in our families, at our jobs, or even in the church, sometimes we do not feel accepted by people, or sometimes we actually are not accepted. We live in a world where our acceptance is based on our performance. When we do good we are accepted. When we do bad we are rejected. One's performance affects the amount of love they will receive from family, friends, and co-workers. When we come to God we often carry this work-for-my-acceptance mentality over with us, and thus are always working to be accepted by God. The good news is that by virtue of our union with Christ we are accepted before God. Because God accepts Christ, He accepts us. Being in Christ means that God's favor rests on us. We are not accepted because we are good, but because we are in Christ.
In Christ we have free access to God. Paul said that God "has made us accepted in the Beloved [Christ]" (Ephesians 1:6), and that in Christ we "have boldness and access with confidence through faith in him" (Ephesians 3:12). Christ is our life-line to God. Our spiritual life flows from His. Our blessings come from His virtue. As in a blood transfusion, the life of blood flows from a healthy person to a dying person, so does His life flow into our dying existence, bringing new vitality and hope.
Because of union with Christ we are now God's children. Paul said, "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ" (Galatians 3:26-27). God does not conditionally accept us based on our good behavior. He fully accepts us because we have accepted His Son Jesus Christ. We have been accepted by God. He is our Father, and we are His children. He does not require us to work for our acceptance before Him, but accepts us based on our union with His Son, Jesus Christ. Christ has met all of the demands necessary for there to exist a relationship between God and men. By virtue of our union with Christ we have been made acceptable to God, and can now rest in this fact. There is no more need to perform to be accepted. God's acceptance of us is unconditional in Christ!
Bridges, Jerry, The Discipline of Grace, NavPress: Colorado Springs, CO, 1994.
Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book III, ch xv, sec 5. John T. McNeil, ed. The Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1960.
Elwell, Walter A., ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984.
Erickson, Millard J., Systematic Theology, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985.
Keathley III, J. Hampton, "ABCs for Christian Growth: Laying the Foundation," Part two, lesson three, "The Christ-Centered Life," found at http://www.bible.org/docs/splife/abc/abc-14.htm
Strong, A.H., Systematic Theology, found at www.arkbroadcasters.com/www.wilann.com/messages/ahsunion.html
Wallace, Daniel B., "Romans: Introduction, Argument, and Outline," found at http://www.bible.org/docs/soapbox/romotl.htm
Williams, David, "Union With Christ", found at www.tpub.com/religion/theology/unionwithchrist
1. David Williams, "Union With Christ", as found at www.tpub.com/religion/theology/unionwithchrist <back>
2. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 950. <back>
3. Ibid. <back>
4. Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 542. <back>
5. Erickson, 953. <back>
6. Erickson, 949. <back>
7. A.H. Strong, Systematic Theology, as found at http://abideinchrist.com/messages/ahsunion.html <back>
8. J. Hampton Keathley III, "ABCs for Christian Growth: Laying the Foundation," Part two, lesson three, "The Christ-Centered Life" as found at http://www.bible.org/docs/splife/abc/abc-14.htm <back>
9. Ibid. <back>
10. Stong. <back>
11. Daniel B. Wallace, "Romans: Introduction, Argument, and Outline," as found at http://www.bible.org/docs/soapbox/romotl.htm <back>
12. Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace (NavPress: Colorado Springs, CO, 1994), 63. <back>
13. Ibid., 61. <back>
14. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book III, ch xv, sec 5. John T. McNeil, ed. (The Westminster Press: Philadelphia, 1960), 1307. <back>
15. Ibid., 53. <back>
16. Strong. <back>
17. Keathley. <back>
18. Wallace. <back>
19. Strong. <back>
20. Bridges, 64. <back>
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