What Is Union with Christ?
Charles Spurgeon once said, “There is no joy in this world like union with Christ. The more we can feel it, the happier we are.” Union with Christ is the center of our salvation and our sanctification and central to all of our deepest joys in this life. Dozens of New Testament texts prove the dominance of this theme. So how can we get our head around all these texts to really feel this union as we ought? That’s today’s email.
“Hello, Pastor John! My name is Taylor, a 21-year-old student at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Thank you for your teaching and preaching over the decades. My question is: What is union with Christ? The more I study and read, especially older theologians and church fathers, the more I see this concept spoken of, but it does not make sense to me. I don’t hear a lot of pastors talking about it today. Can you help me? What does it mean to be united to Christ, and what are a few of the most significant implications of it?”
The Power of a Concordance
I think the most important thing I can do for Taylor is to give him confidence that he can answer this question for himself with his concordance. He can answer it in a way that will bring more assurance, more insight, more transforming power, more personal sweetness, and more life application than if he read ten books about the doctrine of union with Christ.
“No saving good, no eternal good, no God-exalting good, no soul-satisfying good comes to us except as we are connected to Christ.”
My strong suggestion to Taylor, and everybody else, is that if you must choose — and you don’t have to — but let’s just say you must choose between reading a book on union with Christ (and there are some great ones) or studying your Bible on union with Christ, then set aside time that you would have spent on that book and use your search feature in your Bible program on your computer.
Type in Christ, and you’ll find 89 uses (or something close to that). Then type in Jesus. You’ll only get a handful, like 9. Then type in the phrase in him. You have to exclude a lot of those because not all refer to Christ, but dozens of them will come up. Then type in the phrase in whom, and you will get a handful more.
Then read them over whatever days and weeks it takes, writing down all that you see about the nature of what it means to be in Christ. How do you get in? What is its nature? What’s it like to be in? What are its effects? What does it produce when you are in Christ?
I dare say that when you are done you will have a better grasp on the glories of this biblical truth than if you read many books, even though if you can, read the books too. You won’t see everything you need to see.
Let me just give you a taste of what you’re going to find if you do that.
More Than One Meaning
I’m saving my definition of union with Christ, which he asked for, for the end. It hangs in great measure on what the word “in” means in the phrase “in Christ.”
We would be totally unwarranted to think that the idea of being in Christ is used the same sense in every case. For example, Paul says, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Well, “in Christ” is like “in Adam.” What kind of “in” is that? Is that the same meaning as the branch is in the vine in John 15? I doubt it. I think John has a different conceptuality of what he’s talking about as he recalls the way juices flow from the branch to the vine. That is different from the covenantal idea that Paul had in mind with “in Adam” and “in Christ.”
So, the point is that there is not just one meaning of union with Christ.
Let me just pause here and put in a parenthesis. I am concerned that seminary students, and just Bible students in general, get a hold of a theological word or phrase, like union with Christ, and they have this idea, “Okay that’s a reality. I’ve got to go to the Bible and find what the reality is” — when in fact that limits their understanding of reality because they’ve already packed it into one single conceptuality. But, for example, there may be a half a dozen ways that union with Christ is conceived of in the Bible.
Here’s what you’re going to see if you just open up your Bible. These are just tastes.
Chosen, Justified, Sealed
Ephesians 1:4 says that God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. In Christ, in connection with Christ, God sees us before we existed in such a way that our election hangs on our being connected somehow with Jesus before we even exist.
“God’s purchase of us from bondage to sin and Satan and death becomes real and effective for us in connection with Christ.”
Ephesians 1:6 states that we have received grace in the Beloved, in Christ. The only way that grace flows to a sinner is somehow in our connection with, union with, relationship with, Christ. I know I’m leaving all those terms undefined right now.
Ephesians 1:7 says that we have redemption in Christ. God’s purchase of us from bondage to sin and Satan and death becomes real and effective for us in connection with Christ. Without this relationship, this connection — you could say union — with Christ, we’re dead. There’s no redemption.
Ephesians 1:13 declares that in Christ we were sealed by the Holy Spirit. Well that one’s interesting because now you have the Holy Spirit, who is the active agent, and he does this in Christ. Whoa, that’s worth an hour or two of reflection and prayer. The connection with Christ is what makes it possible for the Spirit to secure us forever.
Philippians 3:9 says that the righteousness we need to stand before God, we have in connection with Christ: “. . . and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ.”
Same thing in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We only stand righteous and un-condemned before God because of our connection with Christ — because we’re in Christ.
Paul helps explain why that is in 1 Corinthians 1:30: “You are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” In other words, in connection with Christ we have righteousness that is not ours but his. He became our righteousness. He became our wisdom. He became our redemption and sanctification, and it all happened in him.
From God, Through Faith
What’s the cause of this in-ness — this being in Christ Jesus? How did we get into this connection? Right there in 1 Corinthians 1:30, I left out a phrase. It says, “Because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus.” In other words, by God’s agency. This happens by the new birth, and you can see that in 1 John 3:6 and 3:9, where abiding in Christ comes from being born of God.
“The righteousness we need to stand before God we have because we are in Christ.”
One way to see the connection, or the relation, or the union being caused is by God’s seed in the new birth entering us so that now we have a new nature, a new seed, a new DNA from God, and in that sense we are united with Christ.
How then do we experience this day by day? Paul answers, “by faith”: “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith” (Colossians 2:12). So you identify with him, and you die with him, and you rise with him through faith.
If that’s how we experience our initial identity with Christ, how do we go on living it? Galatians 2:20 answers, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” — that’s an amazing union that virtually you say, “Not I, but Christ.” “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.”
If you say, “What does it mean to get up in the morning and experience union with Christ?” It means you bank totally on him for the living of your life.
No Good Apart from Him
The last thing I would say is, in general, I would define union with Christ like this: It is the reality of all the ways that the Bible pictures our human connectedness to Christ, in which he is indispensable for every good that we enjoy.
No saving good, no eternal good, no God-exalting good, no soul-satisfying good comes to us except as we are connected to Christ.