It is a key thought in the Lord’s teaching, as this lecture will show, and it is so important to Pauline theology that one commentator rightly calls it “the heart of Paul’s religion.”’
John Murray has written, “Union with Christ is the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” Calvin explains the point saying, “This union alone ensures that, as far as we are concerned, he [Jesus] has not unprofitably come with the name Saviour.”
Most emphatic of all perhaps is A.W.Pink. “The subject of spiritual union is the most important, the most profound, and yet the most blessed of any that is set forth in the sacred Scriptures; and yet, sad to say, there is hardly any which is now more generally neglected. The very expression ‘spiritual union’ is unknown in most professing Christian circles, and even where it is employed it is given such a protracted meaning as to take in only a fragment of this precious truth.”
This biblical theme is indispensable for understanding the work of the Holy Spirit in applying the benefits of Christ’s atonement to the Christian.
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
As with most New Testament teachings, the seeds of this doctrine are in the recorded words of Jesus, in this case conveyed under various metaphors and pictures. One key metaphor is that of the vine and its branches: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4 5). Another metaphor is contained in those expressions which refer to eating Christ as one would eat bread (John 6:35) or drinking him as one would drink water (John 4:10 14; compare Mt. 26:26 28). How Christ’s followers will be received or rejected by the world suggests the same idea, for this is tantamount to a reception or rejection of himself: He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16).
In the high priestly prayer of the Lord recorded in John 17 this union is discussed explicitly: “I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me...I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me” (vv. 20 21, 23).
In the writings of Paul this doctrine receives its greatest development and emphasis. We think of the important Pauline formulas, “in him,” “in Christ, “in Christ Jesus,” which occur 164 times in his writings. By use of these phrases, Paul teaches that we are chosen “in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph.1:4), called (1 Cor. 7:22), made alive (Eph. 2:5), justified (Gal. 2:17), created “for good works” (Eph. 2:10), sanctified (1 Cor. 1:2), enriched “with all speech and all knowledge” (1 Cor. 1:5), and assured of the resurrection (Rom. 6:5). The apostle says that in Christ alone we have redemption (Rom. 3:24), eternal life (Rom. 6:23), righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30), wisdom (1 Cor. 4:10), freedom from the law (Gal. 2:4), and every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1:3). He gives testimony to his own experience by saying, “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” (Gal. 2:20).
We can tell from these many expressions that the believer’s union with Christ is an extremely broad concept, dealing not only with our present experience of Jesus but also reaching back into the eternal past and extending forward into the limitless future.
First, looking back, the fountain of salvation lies in the eternal election of the individual by God the Father in Christ. This is the meaning of the full text from Ephesians 1, parts of which were cited above: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:3 4). We may not understand the full meaning of this eternal election in Christ, but at least we can understand that as far back as we can go we find that God’s purposes for us involved our salvation. Salvation is not an afterthought. It was there from the beginning.
One commentator has written, “The first work performed by the Holy Spirit in our behalf was to elect us members of Christ’s body. In his eternal decrees God determined that he should not be solitary forever, that out of the multitude of sons of Adam a vast host would become sons of God, partakers of the divine nature and conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ. This company, the fulness of him who fills all in all, would become sons by the new birth, but members of the body by the baptism of the Holy Spirit.”
Second, in the present we are united with Christ in our regeneration or new birth. Jesus spoke of this to Nicodemus saying, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Paul amplified it noting, “If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17).
We have a picture of our new birth in the physical birth of Jesus Christ. In his birth the sinless and divine life of God the Son was placed within the sinful and quite human body of the virgin Mary. For a time it appeared as if the divine life had been swallowed up. But it eventually revealed itself through the birth of the infant Jesus.
In an analogous way we experience the implantation of the divine life within us as the Spirit of Christ comes to reside within our hearts. We may say, as did Mary, “But how can this be, seeing that I have no power to beget the divine life myself?” But the answer is in the words of the angel, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). We do not become divine, as some of the oriental religions believe. But in some sense the very life of God comes to live within us so that we are rightly called sons and daughters of God.
Because we were united to Christ in the moment of his death on the cross, redemption from sin has also been secured for us, and we are justified from all sin. Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3). And again, “In him we have redemption through his blood” (Eph. 1:7). When Jesus died on the cross those of us who are united to him by saving faith also died with him so far as the punishment of our sin is concerned. God the Father put God the Son to death. Since we are united to him, there is a sense in which we have been put to death too. In this, our sin is punished and we need not fear that it will ever rise up to haunt us.
While we are united in Christ’s death, we are also united in his life. Paul develops this in the sixth chapter of Romans.
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 6:4 11)
Through our identification with Christ in his death the power of sin over us is broken and we are set free to obey God and grow in holiness.
Finally, looking forward, our identification with Christ in this spiritual union assures our final resurrection (Rom. 6:5; 1 Cor. 15:22) and glorification (Rom. 8:17). Since we are united to Christ, we must eventually be like him. Since we can never be separated from him, we will always be with him (1 Jn. 3:2).
In one sense “union with Christ” is salvation. Murray writes, “We thus see that union with Christ has its source in the election of God the Father before the foundation of the world and it has its fruition in the glorification of the sons of God. The perspective of God’s people is not narrow; it is broad and it is long. It is not confined to space and time; it has the expanse of eternity, Its orbit has two foci, one the electing love of God the Father in the counsels of eternity, the other glorification with Christ in the manifestation of his glory. The former has no beginning, the latter has no end.”
Apart from Christ we cannot view our state with anything but dread. United to him all is changed, and dread is turned into indescribable peace and great joy.
- (TO BE CONTINUED)
COOK IS CHRISTIAN CHURCH