Theologian Michael Reeves joins us one more time from the UK, filling in this week for John Piper. Michael you have written and spoken a lot about union with Christ. So why is it so important for Christians to understand and embrace the precious truth about union with Christ? What is lost if we don’t understand it?
What is important about union with Christ for the Christian life? Well, union with Christ is the Christian life. It is not some small, particular blessing that might go alongside the key blessings of the gospel. Union with Christ is the Christian life.
Now I think there are a couple of pictures of our union with Christ. Let’s try to understand what we are talking about. There are two main pictures that Scripture gives us.
Firstfruits and Seed
The first comes up in Romans 5 and in 1 Corinthians 15. Let’s look at the 1 Corinthians 15 example. Paul writes that “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:22–23). So what he has in mind is that everyone is in either Adam or Christ. No one is a self-determining individual. There is no such thing. You find your identity in either Adam or Christ. And the picture he uses in 1 Corinthians 15 to explain that — this “in Adam”, “in Christ” language — is that of the firstfruits. He sees Adam and Christ as the firstfruits of two different sorts of humanity: the old humanity and the new.
“No one is a self-determining individual. There is no such thing. You find your identity in either Adam or Christ.”
And I think what has been picked up there is Genesis language. On day three of creation, the firstfruits have seed within them (see Genesis 1:11–13). And so, just as a seed is found within the fruit, so the way you take the fruit and what you do with it happens to the seed — the seed goes wherever the fruit goes. So it is with Adam and Christ. If you are in Christ, you find your identity and status in him. You are like seed in the fruit. You need to be taken out of Adam and re-grafted — born again — in Christ.
I found this to be a revolution in my own Christian life. When I came to understand union with Christ, I saw that I do not stand naked before a holy God based on my own pathetic performance. I stand clothed in Christ, clothed in him. That is language that gets picked up a few times in Scripture.
All I Have, I Share with You
There is another very, very important picture of our union with Christ, which is marriage. And this is really Ephesians 5 territory. Paul writes, “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” And then Paul says, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (Genesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:31–32). He is saying that the relationship that the church has with Christ is a marital union. And actually, Martin Luther used this image as the first way in which he articulated his reformation discovery in 1520. He used marriage to explain the gospel to the world for the very first time properly. It is in a little work called The Freedom of the Christian.
He said what happens is this: It is rather like the story of a great king marrying a harlot. This harlot can’t make herself the great king’s wife by anything she does or her performance, but by his wedding vow, she becomes his. And he says to her, “All that I am, I give to you. All that I have, I share with you.” And so he gives to her the status of royalty and all that is his. And she turns to him and says, “All that I am, I give to you. All that I have, I share with you.” And so the poor sinner shares with King Jesus all her sin, all her death, all her damnation. And then Luther said, “Therefore, the sinner can consider her sins in the face of death and hell and say, ‘If I have sinned, yet my Christ who is mine has not sinned. And all his is mine and all mine — my sins, my death, my damnation — is his.’”
Saved to Know Christ
Union with Christ gives that beautiful, life-changing assurance that I can know the Father as my Abba. I can call with the son’s own cry to him. But it also changes the very nature of the Christian life. I have not just been given this package of blessing called heaven. I have been brought to know Christ. And that makes real sense of the Christian life and of holiness. I have not been given some package of heaven to wait for later. I have been brought to know Christ, meaning when a brother or sister sins I can say, “Why are you walking away from the salvation to which you have been called? Knowing Jesus is the only life and liberty for which we have been freely saved.”
So what happens when a Christian truly comes to grasp union with Christ for the first time?
I will tell you my own experience. It meant a freedom from a real despair because I was taking this seriously. I couldn’t be sure of how God would look at me until I knew about union with Christ. And it was actually reading Luther’s The Freedom of the Christian that convinced me of that, and I saw for the first time that I can have confidence before God in Christ. And that brought a freedom to be able to call out to God as Abba, and that liberated me from suicidal despair.