Union with Christ: Life-Transforming Implications

Desiring God 2014 Conference for Pastors

The Pastor, the Vine, and the Branches: The Remarkable Reality of Union with Christ

It seems a longer walk to get here in the afternoon than it did in the morning actually. I don’t know whether that’s nervousness about what you may have been eating, but I’m sure in this light you will all look attentive.

Well, we’re continuing our studies in union with Christ. Hard to believe that we have actually, I think, now past the main central point of our time together. We’ve had three sessions, we’ve three main sessions to go, and we are basking in the joy of being united to Christ. And I want us to continue to do that from Colossians 3, which will certainly be the central passage in what I want to do this afternoon, although I’m going to stray out of Colossians 3 from time to time for reasons that I hope will become clear.

So let me read Colossians 3:1–4, and then pray and we’ll turn our minds to the word of God.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Contextual Background of Colossians

Well, Paul is writing to the Colossians and certainly looks as though he has almost certainly never visited Colossae if he ever did. There are many in Colossae who have never met him and never heard his exposition. The word has spread presumably from Ephesus, when all Asia heard the word that Paul was preaching there, and it spread down the valley to the Colossians through Epaphras during Paul’s three-year ministry in Ephesus.

And now he’s writing to them either because dangers have already encroached upon their little church’s life, or because he recognizes that those dangers are coming, whether the so-called Colossian heresy had arrived or whether Paul was issuing forewarning is in a sense irrelevant as far as our exposition of the passage is concerned.

And it’s not possible, I don’t think, to be absolutely dogmatic about what this false teaching was; but it certainly looks as though the buzzword — the rubric in which this teaching was brought together, the way it was packaged — the buzzword was the word fullness. They have received the apostolic gospel through Epaphras. And as quite often happens, I suspect as one reads between the lines, young Christians marvelously delivered from the reign of sin, experiencing the joy of the Lord against the contrast of the pagan background of Colossae.

And then as they go on a little, they discover they are still sinners. The reign of sin may be broken, but the presence of sin has not been banished. And, as we know, as pastors of the sheep, it’s often just then that young Christians are prey to the wolves who will come along and say, “What you have had is all very well, but if you want, in this case, fullness, or in another case, that kind of blessing that leads you into an order of experience that places you beyond what normal Christians will experience.”

And so often as we find younger Christians or untaught Christians are surprised as they discover the not just lingering presence of sin, but the fact that the nature of sin is unchanged. And so they fall prey to the kind of false teaching that endangered these Colossians. The kind of false teaching that has its simple principles, “questions of food and drink,” “worship of angels,” “visions, puffed up without reason” (Colossians 2:16–18).

And Paul says at the end of the day, “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom” (Colossians 2:23). That’s the point. They have an appearance of wisdom to the untaught believer, but actually, as he says, instead of setting us free, they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. And his response is so characteristic of Paul, isn’t it?

In these situations, you find it in his letters you have these massive exaltations of Jesus Christ. We used his exaltation of Christ in Colossians 1:15–20 as a kind of confession of faith — the sheer greatness of Christ. And especially, as he wants to teach them that all fullness is found in Christ. He is the one through whose crosswork that aspect of the divine family in heaven, and that fallen aspect of the divine family on earth, have been reconciled together through the flesh of Jesus Christ. He is brought together — as it were the cousins in glory — the creatures of unfathomable power and mystery, and the archangels and the angels, and all the hosts of glory — the cherubim and the seraphim. And in his death and resurrection, he has united that holy family with the new holy family that he has purchased with his blood.

The Marvelous Fullness in Christ

There is such fullness in Jesus Christ. And so, to lower your eyes to these things would be to miss the glory. It would be — and what he wants to emphasize here — it would be to miss the sense that if you are united to Jesus Christ, in whom all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily, who is the center of the reconciled family in heaven and on earth, if Christ is yours, then you have all fullness in Jesus Christ.

And so as we heard Calvin say at the end of Institute’s Book II, “let us drink our fill from this fountain, and from no other” than from Jesus Christ and understand what it means, that by the Holy Spirit, as you have been brought to trust in him (Institutes, 2.16.9). You have been united to this fullness.

As we saw last night, you have been made a branch in this vine. You have been baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and everything that you are being offered as a substitute looks cheap and tawdry by comparison with what he has given you in his blessed Son, Jesus Christ. And so he wants to help them to grasp this.

And as he does this, he does this now, not as it were, as a vista as I suggested in Roman 6, but now by an immense panoramic view of what it means to be united to Christ. And so he reminds them here at the beginning of Colossians 3 that in Jesus Christ they have been given a new identity.

And throughout this whole section in Colossians 2–3, he’s stretching beyond Christ crucified and raised. He says you have been circumcised in the circumcision of Christ. You have died in the death of Christ. You have been buried in the burial of Christ. You have been raised in the resurrection of Christ. You have ascended in the ascension of Christ. So that he says your true life is hidden with Christ in God. He understands that we don’t easily read this on one another’s faces, that the world does not know us because it did not know him. But the truth of the matter is if I’m Christ’s, then I am already so secure in Christ that my life is hidden with Christ in God.

John’s Gospel in Colossians

It’s interesting, isn’t it? How many ideas that we find playing out in John’s Gospel are played out in a different language in Paul’s theology:

  • No one will snatch them out of my hand (John 10:28).
  • No one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand (John 10:29).
  • I and the Father are one (John 10:30).

And so he says, “[Dear Colossian believers,] your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). And then in a word that makes the words of Calvin that we heard this morning so marvelously biblical, and “when he appears we shall appear with him [in glory]” (1 John 3:2).

As though as the son of a father, the Lord Jesus would turn to his Father and say, “I’m not going without them. I do not consider myself to be complete without those whom I have united to myself in the power of the Spirit, those, Father, you gave to me from before the foundation of the world.” You notice how as Jesus gets nearer the cross in John’s Gospel, that expression begins to dominate. It is clearly his deepest emotional feelings about these beloved disciples. They are those the Father gave to him in his love for him from before the creation of the world, and he will not come back without them.

And Paul is doing this to say to these Colossians, if you understand who you are in Christ, you will see all these cheap imitations of spirituality for what they are. They are not only drags, they are false. They cannot compare with the fullness, the riches that are ours in Jesus Christ. “And so beloved,” he says, “You need to learn to see. Oh, you not see yourself this way! That this is who you really are.”

And that that moment when you came through regeneration and faith, to be united to the Lord Jesus instantaneously, you didn’t need to grow in sanctification for this to be true. You don’t need to become a pastor for this to be true. You just need to come to Jesus and all of this becomes true of you and he gives you a holy new identity.

Actually, so much of pastoral ministry, doesn’t it boil down to this of sitting down patiently with people and saying to them, “Let me tell you who you are in Christ. Let me show you the wonders of the grace of God in the Lord Jesus. Let me show you the massiveness of his love for you. Let me show you how your salvation is anchored in Christ from before the foundation of the world guaranteed as your life is hidden with Christ in God and secured for that day when he will come again and he will come again with every single one of his blood-brought children.”

Our Corporate Identity in Christ

It’s a very striking thing I think in the New Testament, that there is one aspect of the ordo salutis that no one will experience as an individual. You experience all the aspects of the application of redemption as an individual in different lives, different places, at different times. But there is one aspect of that order of salvation that none of us will experience before any other.

And it’s what Paul speaks about here. That when he comes, whether we be alive or dead, in this world or already with him, as the spirits of just men made perfect, but not yet in the biblical sense, glorified — that moment will be simultaneous throughout all of Christ’s blood-bought children. As though the Lord himself wanted to say, “I’m not only keeping the best to the last, but I don’t want any of you to experience it before the rest of you. And so I’m going to glorify you together. So that’s who I am.”

I mean, what a difference that makes to how we view one another. Actually, this doctrine of being united to Christ is not an isolated individualistic thing. Ultimately, it’s something, as I hope we’ll see, that has an impact on the way we view one another, and how we think about the church, and how we think about the sheer wisdom of the Lord Jesus. So, it produces a new sense of identity. And it produces a new mentality.

Set Your Mind on Things Above

Notice how he thinks about this: “If then you have been raised with Christ, [then] seek the things that are above” (Colossians 3:1). And in verse two, “Set your minds on things that are above.” “Fill your heart with Christ” is what he’s saying. If you’re united to him, fill your heart with Christ. Don’t gaze on the union. Gaze on the Christ. You enjoy your wife not because you think about your marriage covenant of union but because you enjoy her.

So, he says fix your eyes on Christ. And then he says, “Set your minds on the things that are above” (Colossians 3:2). Set your minds on the things that are above. And clearly now he’s speaking about the way in which the Spirit engages us in actual activity, in the process of our transformation into the likeness of Jesus Christ. Salvation is not something that flies over our heads. Salvation is something that draws us into being saved. And being saved means that we set our minds on the things that are above and not on the things that are on earth.

I developed such a habit in church life in Columbia of asking the same question when candidates for staff positions were being interviewed that people began to expect that they would be asked the question. The question was this: What do you think about when you have nothing else to think about? What do you think about when you have nothing else to think about? And that’s what Paul wants here. When I have nothing else to think about, well obviously there’s only one thing I think about. I set my mind on the things that are above.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus Look full in his wonderful face And the things of earth will grow strangely dim In the light of his glory and grace.

But then you begin to see them with 20/20 vision, don’t you? And that’s what he’s after. He’s after men and women who are so conscious of their heavenly connectedness that they then begin to live the heavenly life here upon the earth.

The Great Need of the Church and the World

And that’s the great need of the church, isn’t it? The great need of the church is not for new strategies, it’s for new people. The need of the church is not to try to get the world to ask questions, but the need of the world is to live such a heavenly life here for all our thoughts and failures, to have a heavenly kind of family life here, that unbelievers ask as the question, “What is this atmosphere in which you live? There is an aroma that comes from you and I can’t understand it. Why are you like this?”

And the answer is not that we keep flicking the switch so that we can be the light of the world, but that we know that we are united to Christ and he will do his own work through us, that we have been crucified with Christ and yet we live and yet it’s not I that lives but Christ who lives in and through me.

So he is saying, “Beloved in Colossae, let this glorious Christology, the fullness that is yours in Christ. Now spell that out in terms of all that he has done for you. And see yourself as someone who is in a massive sense united to everything that he has done. And understand that for all you see in a very poor mirror, your life is hidden with Christ in God. And the day will dawn when you will see him face to face and be made like him.”

Satan constantly engages in identity theft in the life of Christian believers. And the apostle Paul is dealing with that just here.

Sharing in Christ’s Sufferings and Triumphs

Now, he’s going on to apply that, but I want to just pause. It’s after lunch, I know. I want to just pause, and before we deal with all that follows from Colossians 3:5–17, I want to take what he is saying here and begin to show how it actually impacts what he’s already said about his engagement with them as a pastor.

Because something very important for us, I think, to learn here. Not only this new sense of identity that we are given, but I think there’s a very important lesson for us to learn about how this impacts pastoral ministry. We have been crucified with Christ, buried with Christ, raised with Christ. Those are markers on our being. Those are not just inner realities in our soul. We are united to Christ as whole people.

And that’s the reason why in the light of what he says in Colossians 3, which was true for Paul before he wrote Colossians 3, that when he writes to the Colossians earlier on in Colossians 1:24:

I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you. . . . Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery. (Colossians 1:24–2:2).

Now, there’s a rhythm there. And it’s the rhythm of the minister who is united to Jesus Christ and sees that union flow out from him, not simply in the knowledge that he has died to the dominion of sin and been raised into newness of life, but that in the context of this union with Jesus Christ, he is, by the Spirit through the word and his sovereign activity in providence and his commitment to the Lord and to the Lord’s people — he is actually participating in the reality of being one who has died with Christ and being raised to newness of life.

Or if I can put it quite simply, he is participating in the reality of union and communion with a resurrected, crucified Savior, and therefore, he should anticipate that his whole ministry is going to fall into this pattern of sharing in union with Christ in his sufferings and triumphs.

And these statements here have all the hallmarks of that — although Paul actually speaks about it more clearly elsewhere — it has the hallmarks of the fact that if I’m united to Jesus Christ, I’m united to a crucified and risen Savior, and that therefore, my whole life is going to be shaped and molded by what it means to be united to such a Savior. So, that it is going to be a reality for all fruitful Christians.

And Paul is speaking here as a fruitful Christian. That there will be a filling up of what is lacking or behind in the sufferings of Christ in me — not his atoning sufferings. The lack is not in Christ; the lack is in me. It’s as though Paul is saying, “There is still a ways to go in my sharing in the sufferings of Christ in order that I may be fruitful in sharing in the resurrection power of Christ as he brings about new life and leads men and women and boys and girls to spiritual maturity.”

There is a deep costliness in being united to Christ for service, and there is a profound blessedness in seeing his resurrection power released into the lives of others. Because it is as true of ours as it was true of him. That unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it abides alone, but if it dies it will rise and it will bear much fruit.

Tasting Weakness and Comfort

May I just pause on this? Because it’s so much part of what the apostle Paul teaches that I think it really is worthwhile just considering it for a few minutes longer. There are many different ways in which we could do that. Let me do it by means of the way Paul works in two letters. Let me just for interest’s sake, read 2 Corinthians backwards and you will see the point. Second Corinthians 13:4: “[Christ] was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.”

Now you know the difficult situation Paul is speaking about here, but notice what he says. He does not say, “We are weaken ourselves, but we are strong in Christ.” He says, “We are weak in Christ and we will be strong in dealing with you.” It isn’t because he is outside of Christ that tastes weakness, it’s because he is united to the crucified Christ and shares in his sufferings that he tastes weakness.

And that would’ve been understandable in the light of what he had said in 2 Corinthians 4, wouldn’t it? These amazing words in 2 Corinthians 4:7–11: “We have this treasure in jars of clay . . . [We are] struck down, but not destroyed.” And then these words, which if they were true for him and granted written in large letters in his life, must also be true for every believer. And for all of us who are pastors of the flock of God, we are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

So, he says, “Death is in work in us, life is in work in you.” That’s not unique to apostolic ministry in the first century. That’s characteristic of ministry in every century if we live out our ministry in the context of our union and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ.

And that’s why at the beginning in the word we heard from John Piper last night in 2 Corinthians 1, he uses the same principle. We share abundantly in Christ’s suffering. Second Corinthians 1:5. “So through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” So that as we taste that comfort, we are able to comfort others with the comfort that we ourselves have received of God.

It’s actually the principle that he expounds to the Philippians, isn’t it? In what was surely one of the most personal passages he ever penned. He wants to know Christ and the power of his resurrection share his sufferings, become like him in his death and so attain to the resurrection. The Spirit is constantly molding the lives of gospel servants into this kind of Christlikeness but only because we are united to Christ. And he wants to fill us up with Christ. And he wants to fill others through us with Christ.

Tracing Paul’s Union

You know how Paul came to this, don’t you? Paul rarely tells us about the inside of his conversion, but he does give us some, I think, pretty striking hints. He tells us here in Philippians 3 that he had an outstanding pedigree and he was proud of it. That he was a zealous man and he sought to persecute the church. He tells us at the beginning of Galatians in a kind of post-conversion modesty, that he had outstripped many of his generation. I think you read between the lines and he’s saying, “I was head and shoulders above them all.”

Why then is it that when he speaks in Romans 7 about how the law of God found him out? How is it that he says, “It was the commandment, ‘Thou shall not covet,’ that came with power, and sin revived, and he died”? Why that commandment? Why that commandment for a man who stood head and shoulders above all others?

I think part of the answer to that question is found in the context of Stephen’s life. We’re told about Stephen in Acts 6 that,

[He was] full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. . . . And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6:8–15)

Now, granted, synagogue worship was present in Jerusalem. Why give us this boring list of the names of the people who were in this synagogue? Why does he do that?

Because this was the synagogue Saul of Tarsus almost sadly attended. He was from Tarsus in Cilicia. And here this young man arose in this context. He had a Gentile name, perhaps he came from one of these places. And there was nobody who could better him in the use of Scripture. There was no one else whose faith showed such grace. There was no one else who demonstrated the power and the wonder of the God of heaven. And for the first time in his life, Saul of Tarsus was looking up to someone who stood head and shoulders above him in everything he counted precious.

And you know what happens when that happens? You either join it and seek it or you destroy it. And so on the Damascus road, after he had destroyed it, a voice from heaven came and said to him, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). He considers himself to be incomplete without his church.

And so this theme that runs up and down through Paul’s letter, where did he learn it? He learned it from the martyrdom of Stephen. Death worked in Stephen. Life worked in Saul. Stephen’s life’s fingerprints are all over Paul’s theology. The experience into which God brought him in the context of the martyrdom of Stephen, it’s everywhere.

One might almost say this is how he got union with Christ. Maybe that’s what people are going to start saying after this conference now. “Have you got union with Christ?” And he saw it. And he began to expound it and he saw in Stephen the beautiful fruitfulness of a man who was united to Jesus Christ, but he saw especially what it meant to be united to Jesus Christ in his sufferings, in order that we might share in his fruitfulness and in his glory.

That puts an entirely different perspective on so many areas of pastoral ministry, doesn’t it? They don’t seem to make sense. Christians around us say, “Why are things going wrong? What’s happening here? Why is there suffering? Why is there opposition? Why is there persecution? What’s happening here?” But the only thing that’s ever happening here is he’s making us like Jesus. And he’s making us like Jesus the way he made Jesus like Jesus. That’s the whole point. And he’s determined to do the same with us.

So that’s moving backwards into how it is that on the basis of his thinking here, Paul could write what he has written earlier on.

Applying Union with Christ

Now, let’s move forwards to the way in which he then begins to apply our union to Jesus Christ and the practical outworking of the life of the Christian believer. And I don’t have time to go into the details of all this, but I do want you to notice the very obvious rhythm in which he speaks: United to Jesus Christ, therefore put off. United to Jesus Christ, therefore put on.

And it’s marvelous the way he does this. You can study these verses on your own and the way in which he almost categorizes the character of sin in its various forums, in the secret life of the individual, and in the fellowship life of the individual, and in these different ways in our Christian lives.

The Text Teaches

But the interesting thing is this. To me, this is the interesting thing. This is Paul, the marginally irritating pastor. I speak tongue in cheek. He tells me what to do but he doesn’t help me to do it. Now that’s one of the things the good teacher does, doesn’t he? Or she. Doesn’t just tell you what to do but enables you to transition.

And so when you’re reading Paul, here’s the basic way you read Paul, you read Paul to find out what you’re supposed to do, and you go to the local Christian bookshop to find out how you’re supposed to do it. Now I speak tongue in cheek, but that’s rampant, isn’t it? But you see, we had an illustration, a beautiful illustration, of this last night that I’m sure was very inspiring for many, probably all of us. The message is this, if you just keep your head down in the text, the text itself will tell you how to do what to do.

And you see this here, he’s speaking about modification. He’s not saying, I need to write some other letters. Go and read Owen volume six on The Mortification of Sin. I mean that’s a good thing to do. But don’t go and read Owen on the mortification of sin as a substitute for reading Scripture on the mortification of sin. And you’ll notice what he does here. And it really is very striking.

When he tells us to put these things off, to put things to death — actually, the most obvious thing he does is what? He names them. “Lord, I’m struggling a wee bit.” No, he says it’s sexual immorality. He says, “You know, don’t come to the Lord and say, ‘I know I’m not doing as well as I should, Lord.’“ No. He says, “Name it.” And he does. The fascinating thing is he actually names here. The things he says elsewhere shouldn’t be named among us. You understand those are two different things? But you understand what he is doing.

There was a “name it and claim it” movement. Was that twenty years ago? “Name it and claim it.” When I heard about that, I thought I’m going to start a movement called “name it and slay it.” “Name it and slay it.” And it’s so obvious, isn’t it? But you see, we never bring things out into the open to be exposed to the holiness of the heavenly Father. Unless we’re actually willing to articulate what they are. And that’s a huge, huge step in real mortification. And he says, “No.” He says, “You need to look at this from God’s perspective. On account of these, the wrath of God is coming.”

This is what your heavenly Father, this is what Calvin, we heard, is saying; this is what your heavenly Father hates. And his holy wrath is going to be poured out upon what he hates because it damages and destroys what he loves. And because we know the place where his holy wrath was most clearly poured out, we take these sins and tendencies that we hide and love and we bring them to that place where the wrath of God was poured out upon them. And we say to ourselves, “Can I live for this for which my Savior died under the wrath of a holy God?” And it’s here, it’s actually in the warp and woof of what he says here.

And then he says, “Remember who you are.” He says, “In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away” (Colossians 3:7–8). They don’t belong anymore.” And then as he moves through them, he tells us not to be false to one another. Seeing we’ve put off the old man.

Isn’t this one of the most beautiful things that happened to us when we became Christians? We realized, “I don’t need to be false with you any longer. You have loved me even when I was under your wrath. You loved me and sent your Son for me. Lord, take away all the masks, all coping mechanisms I use to hide from you and defend myself against you. You’ve united me to your Son. You look upon me in him, you love me in him. And so, I don’t need to pretend anymore.”

What I think that is actually for us as gospel ministers as well, isn’t it? That we don’t need to pretend anymore and we’re able to put it all away. And then he says so beautifully. You are doing this because “you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 1:9–10). And now he’s circling this principle of putting off within the context of our fellowship life. He says, “Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11).

How to Mortify Sin in Your Relationships

And he’s saying, “Here’s how you mortify sin in your relationship to other members of the fellowship. You look to Christ who is in all. And then when you have seen this Christ — this is the Christ of Colossians 1:15–20 — when you have seen this Christ, you think this and no other Christ is the one who dwells in the poorest and meanest of my brothers and sisters in the fellowship into which God has introduced me. And if Christ is not ashamed to indwell them, I will not be slow to embrace them.”

And you see what he’s doing? Sometimes when we pastors get together and a name pops up of a brother, a brother minister, somebody who’s beginning prominence, and the first thing we say is to cut them down. Why have we done that? Because we’ve lost sight of the great thing, which is what we have in common.

I remember I was a teenager, I read this article in one of the Scottish newspapers. I just found it so intriguing and so insightful. And in a way, so funny and what it said about British attitudes that I never forgot it. Remember it now fifty years.

There was a murder in a Chinese restaurant, and one of the waiters was only a few feet away from the actual murder and saw the Chinese waiter was brought into court — a British court, the wigs, all this stuff. And the prosecuting council said, “Got the man in the dark.” And he says to his number one witness, “Did you see the murder?” “Yes sir. I saw the murder.” “Did you see the knife?” “Yes sir. I saw the knife.” “Is exhibit B the knife?” “Yes sir. That is the knife.” He says, “Do you recognize the man who had the knife in this court?” And he said, “No.” Well, the guy who’d done it was standing there in the dark — astonishment. “You don’t recognize him. You don’t recognize him.” And the Chinese waiter said, “No, sir, all you Englishmen look alike to me.”

Now, why is that? Because when we look at people of a different ethnicity, we tend to see the things that are similar. But sadly in the church, we sometimes look at one another and the first things we see are the things that we are against and not the person that Christ is for.

All our churches are the same, aren’t they? In one way or another. We’ve all got cranky people, odd people. Some of us are those odd and cranky people. Is this just me? You see them and there is something in you that wants to make a beeline for the door, not him again.

But beloved, if they’re true Christians, Jesus is not ashamed to dwell in them. And there aren’t five thousand Jesuses and there aren’t five thousand Holy Spirits. There’s only one Holy Spirit. There’s not even two Holy Spirits. The Holy Spirit who dwelt on the Lord Jesus, and the Holy Spirit who comes to indwell me. The Holy Spirit who comes to indwell me is the spirit who dwelled on the Lord Jesus. The union is that clause.

And so you see there’s a marvelous connectedness between union with Christ, being in Christ, Christ dwelling in. That’s another conference altogether, the indwelling of Christ in ours. That so empowers us to put away what is offensive to the heavenly Father, and leaves a bad taste in the life of the fellowship. And then of course, this is so Christian, isn’t it? Because of us love this stuff. We love Owen on the mortification of sin. But no one has ever made progress in the mortification of sin who hasn’t simultaneously made progress in putting on the graces of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The mortification of sin is not the hall of sanctification, albeit it is an essential ingredient. So because we are in Christ who has died to sin, we put off that for which he has died. “And then,” says Paul, “we begin to clothe ourselves with all that he is in his grace and resurrection power.” And we begin to put on and he is this.

The Peace of Christ Fed By the Word of Christ

The way I like to put it is this, if you look at verse 12, I like to say in the context where people will not misunderstand me, here is the Bible’s definition of what it is like to be a Calvinist.

This is what a Calvinist looks like:

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:12–14)

How we distort the graces, the fruit of the spirit that he may have begun to produce in us if we haven’t bound everything together in love that holds them all together, we become itchy and twitchy and unbalanced. But where there is love binding them all together, that is the beauty of the risen Christ among his people. And so he says, “And so let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” Let the peace of Christ act as the umpire in your fellowship because you are called to peace, be thankful.

And now he says here, “Here is what feeds that: when you let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.” It’s so John 15, isn’t it?

  • Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you (John 15:3).
  • Abide in me, and my words abide in you (John 15:7).
  • Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Colossians 3:16).

Isn’t it interesting what a parallel there is between this and Ephesians 5:18? He says exactly the same thing is the fruit of being filled with the Spirit. Here he says it’s the fruit of being filled with the word of Christ indwelling you because, of course, the word uses the grace of preaching in the power of the Spirit to find deep in dwellings in our soul so that the word of God may get down to the very heart of our being. That’s how the Spirit loves to do it.

That’s why there is such a mystery to preaching, isn’t it? That you don’t always know where you’re going, but you have some idea of where you want to end, but you have no idea what the Spirit is doing out there as he causes the word to dwell richly in one and another. That’s why you know ache inwardly sometimes because you feel as though you may have torn the consciences of the people to pieces and you’re embraced at the door by a brother or a sister who says, “That was so encouraging to me.” Why? Because it’s the word of Christ.

And when people get a glimpse of Christ who is all sufficient for all the needs of all of his people all of the time, then of course no matter where you go with the word, if it’s the word of Christ, they are brought to him and are found by him and hear him and are nourished by him. And they say to him, “Say anything you want to me, Lord Jesus.” And as we do that, we’re singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and making melody to the Lord in our hearts so that whatever we do in word or deed, we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Well, I’m only beginning and the time is ending, but there is no end to him, dear brothers and sisters. This is a fountain from which we may drink forever and discover in our union with Christ wonder upon wonder, upon wonder — until sometimes we will say, “Lord Jesus, I’m not sure I can take anymore. You will need to enlarge my capacity for the knowledge of your love for me and the intimacy of your union with me.”

If you are a man and you love a woman, there is a wrong way with a bad motivation to say, “I want absolutely all of you. I will never be satisfied.” And isn’t the mystery of marriage? We’ve been married 43 years, I think I’m just beginning to understand my wife, find out who she really is and she’s just another human person. And I want to know more. I want to know those details that as memory brings them back. Because I love her, I want to know to know everything. I want us to be absolutely one together in that way. Love is the most demanding thing in the world actually, isn’t it? In a way, it’s not so much the righteousness of God that frightens us, it’s the love of God because he wants all of us and all of us in that love. And it’s like this with Jesus.

When you see a young man and a young woman standing proudly before you and you’re about to marry them? And what’s passing through the fellow’s mind? He’s standing there thinking, “There has never been a man in all history who has loved a woman the way I love this woman.” And you don’t want to upset the proceedings by saying, “This young man knows absolutely nothing about anything.”

But if he has given you a little indication that’s true, you want to make a ten-year appointment and for him to come back and say, “When I said that to you, I had no idea why I was talking about. I have a hundred thousand times more reason to love this woman now than I did then.”

And so it is with the Lord Jesus. And so it will be throughout all eternity. When he comes and that day dawns when as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 as the second man and the last Adam, he will have undone everything Adam did badly. He will have done everything Adam failed to do. He will have paid the penalty for all of our guilt and our sin and brought about in the resurrection, the restoration and recreation of all things.

And then Paul says so daringly, “He will come before his Father and kneel before his Father and present the kingdom back to his Father, and then the Son will be subject to the Father.” He doesn’t mean that ontologically, does he? He means that Christologically as the second man, as the last Adam. And then he will say to his Father, “Father, here am I and all the children you have given me, and we are coming to be with you in an everlasting communion because you gave us an eternal union.” What a privilege. Isn’t it the greatest thing in all the world to be a Christian?

is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.