“In what sense have I actually died with him? It all just seems like theological word games.”
The questions are certainly understandable in view of the real difficulty of this subject. Yet we should seek understanding, as Anselm suggested in his phrase Fides quaerens intellectum, “Faith in search of understanding.”
When we do, we find, as is generally the case, that the Bible has already provided much to assist our inquiry, especially in the way of illustrations.
The first illustration is the union of a husband and a wife in marriage. In Ephesians 5 Paul portrays Christ in the role of the husband and the church in the role of the wife. He concludes, “This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:32).
What kind of union exists within a good marriage?
Obviously, it is a union of love involving a harmony of minds, souls and wills. On the human level we do not always realise this as we should. Yet this is the ideal; and it points quite naturally to our relationship with Christ in which we are enabled increasingly to obey Christ’s great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:37, a reference to Deut. 6:5). We do not always succeed on this level either, but it is the ideal the Holy Spirit moves us toward.
It is possible, however, to conceive of a union of minds, hearts and souls apart from marriage. What makes marriage unique is the new set of legal and social relationships it creates.
Marriage changes the woman’s name. She comes into the church as Pat Potter, let us say. She is married to Bob Kerr and leaves the church as Mrs Kerr. Pat has been identified with her husband by means of the marriage ceremony. In the same way, the name of the believer is changed from Miss Sinner to Mrs Christian as she is identified with the Lord Jesus.
Accompanying the change of name there are also legal changes. If Pat owned property before the marriage ceremony she could have sold it as late as that morning with no signature but her own on the document.
After the marriage ceremony she can no longer do that, for the legal affairs of her husband and herself are bound up together.
This single fact throws penetrating light on the necessity of our union with Christ as the basis of our salvation. For through our union with him, he, our faithful husband and bridegroom, is able to pay the penalty which we have incurred because of our sin.
Finally, there are psychological and social changes. Pat knows that she is a married woman and no longer single. She expects to make adjustments to her new husband and will certainly regard other men quite differently from now on. She may even find herself in new company with new friends and new life goals as a result of her new relationship. In a similar way, when we are united to Christ, our old relationships change and Christ becomes the centre of our life and existence.
The second illustration of union with Christ is that of the head and the body. In Ephesians 1:22 23 we read, “And he (that is, God the Father), has put all things under his (that is, Christ’s) feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Again, in Colossians 1:18, Paul writes, “He is the head of the body, the church. The fullest development is in 1 Corinthians 12:12 27, which says in part, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
For by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body Jews or Greeks, slaves or free and all were made to drink of one Spirit.... Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
This illustration indicates first that our union with Christ is a union with one another as well. As we see in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the Christians there were divided, and Paul was striving to impress them with the need to realise their true unity.
Second, the “headship” of Christ stresses his lordship. We are all members of the body, but it is his body.
He is the head. The body functions properly only when it responds as he bids it. Third and most important, the illustration shows the union of head and body as a living and therefore growing union.
This means that the union is not established by the act of joining some external organisation, even a true church. Rather it is established only when Christ himself takes up residence within the individual.
The next illustration, that of the vine and the branches (John 15:1 17), highlights that the union of the believer with Christ is for a purpose: that we might be fruitful, that we might be useful to God in this world. Note that this fruitfulness is achieved by Christ’s power and not by anything in us. Indeed, “apart from (him we) can do nothing” (v. 5). Christ also prunes us, streamlines us for his work so we will be fruitful in the ways he desires.
The final illustration of the union of the believer with Christ is the portrait of a spiritual temple composed of many blocks but with Christ as the foundation: “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Eph. 2:20 22). There are parallels to this in Christ’s illustration of the “wise man who built his house upon the rock” (Matthew 7:24) and Paul’s other scattered references to ourselves as “God’s building” (I Cor. 3:9, 11 15).
In each of these cases the central idea is the same: permanence. Because Jesus is the foundation and is without change, all that is built upon him will be permanent also. Those who are Christ’s will not perish but will endure to the end.
Reverend Vaka Naro,
Cook Islands Christian Church