Blessings of Our Union with Christ: Justification, Sanctification, Adoption

BlessingIt’s easy to think of union with Christ as one blessing or one aspect of salvation. However, it is best to think of our oneness to Christ as the center of salvation from which all else springs. Hopefully our discussion up to this point has reinforced this idea. If not, I’m sure Kevin DeYoung’s pastoral musings on Ephesians 1:3-14 will help:

Union with Christ is not a single specific blessing we receive in our salvation. Rather it is the best phrase to describe all the blessings of salvation. We have unconditional election in Christ (v4), adoption in Christ (v5), redemption and forgiveness in Christ (v7), and the fulfillment of God’s plan in Christ (v9), until the final uniting of all things in Christ (v10). Our entire blessedness—our victory, our happiness, our hope—is bound up in our being bound to Christ.[1]

I couldn’t say it better myself. DeYoung’s foundational thought is key: union with Christ is the basis for all spiritual blessings (Ephesians 1:3), not one particular blessing amongst a plethora. With this as the foundation, let’s examine the chief blessings that flow out of our union with Christ. These include justification, sanctification, adoption, and the church.  Today let’s consider the first three.

Justification

As we’ve considered earlier, justification has become theological shorthand for salvation. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines justification as “an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”[2] While this definition is biblical and clear, it does raise some questions. Doesn’t God’s acceptance of us as righteous “in his sight” convey a sort of legal fiction? How is Christ’s righteousness actually imputed to us? Let’s tackle these carefully by diving deeper into union with Christ.

In union with Christ believers participate in Christ’s passive obedience, his death on their behalf. We are not co-redeemers; yet our identification with Christ on the Cross is real (Romans 6:2-4). Johnson beautifully riffs on this truth: “By virtue of our union with Christ, we are incorporated into the sin-bearing, guilt-negating, wrath-absorbing, death-defeating, curse-annulling crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus Christ, through which our sins are forgiven and we are freed from the sentence of guilt, condemnation, and death which stood against us.”[3]

Now let’s turn to John Calvin to consider how Jesus’ active obedience is applied to our lives. Notice how Calvin guards against a misrepresentation of imputation – that is, thinking of Christ’s righteousness as a commodity that exists apart from His person, something that can  be transferred mechanically to believers.[4]

…that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body—in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.[5]

Calvin makes two profound points here. First, in our oneness with Christ He “makes us sharers with him in the gifts which he has endowed.” As the Righteous One and joined to us, he is able to share his righteousness in order for justification to take place. Second, Calvin says we ought not consider Christ outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness becomes our own. While his righteousness is certainly alien in that it is not our own, it is not alien in the sense that Christ himself is alien to us!

Thus union with Christ is the grounding for imputation and justification. It precedes justification in terms of causal priority.[6] We only receive a right status before God because we are incorporated into God’s righteous Son Jesus.

Sanctification

God not only declares us righteous in Christ, but makes us holy in Christ. It’s easy to think of sanctification as only a response to the saving work of Christ rather than an integral part of that work. As we peruse the New Testament scriptures, we’ll see sanctification as both definite and progressive. It is both an “actual, decisive break with the power of sin”[7] through our union with Christ ( 1 Corinthians 1:2; 6:11) and the experience of gradually growing up into our union with him (2 Corinthians 3:18, 1 John 1:8).

Two other passages give us insight into sanctification. In John 15:1-11, Jesus teaches his disciples that being joined to Christ produces fruit. Our union with Christ is the source of our holiness, according to Jesus. In fact it is impossible to bear fruit and grow in holiness apart from fellowship with Christ (John 15:5).

The Apostle Paul answers the question of license in Romans 6:1-14. Since mercy increases with sin, why not go on sinning? He gives two answers. First, being united with Christ in his death means our old selves are crucified with him so that we no longer are slaves to sin. And second, being united to Christ in his resurrection means we are enabled to walk in newness of life. Sanctification has negative and positive aspects. Christians put to death sin through the death of Christ and they rise to new life and holiness through the resurrection of Christ. Thus, sanctification is identifying with Christ’s death and resurrection by putting off the old and a putting on the new (see Colossians 3:1-5).

One last thought about sanctification in union with Christ. The Spirit plays an integral role in the lives of Christians, as Jesus himself said in his closing words to his disciples in John 14. However, the Spirit doesn’t replace Jesus in making us holy. Rather the Spirit mediates the presence and power of Christ to his church.

Adoption

How might we delineate between the salvation blessings of justification, sanctification and adoption? Johnson is helpful: “Justification (forensic benefit) addresses the guilt and condemnation that accompanies sin.   Sanctification (transformative benefit) addresses the depravity and pollution of our natures. Adoptive sonship (a familial benefit) addresses our estrangement and alienation from God.”[8] To be adopted into God’s family means we are restored to a familial intimacy with God and can be assured of his constant, fatherly provision and care. What a powerful thought! But how does adoption relate to union with Christ?

In John’s gospel Jesus repeatedly invites his followers to receive and partake of him, because he is the bread, living water, eternal life, and resurrection. Furthermore, believers share in the Son’s relationship to the Father (John 1:12-14; 14:16-20; 17:20-23). Jesus dwells in us; we dwell in Him; together we dwell in the Father. The Apostle Paul teaches on adoption in Ephesians 1:3 and Romans 8:15-23. Because we are co-heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17), we share in the privileges of the Eternal Son.

Justification and adoption are both declarations by God made on the basis of our union with the Son – so how are these declarations different? God justifies us (declares us righteous) because we share in the righteousness of Christ through union with Him. And God adopts us (declares us His children) because we share in the sonship of Christ through union with him.[9] Justification gets us cleared by the Judge, while adoption welcomes us into the Father’s living room.

Decades ago my grandmother composed the following short poem. It didn’t have any meaningful impact until recently.

The Son of God
Became the Son of Man
So that the sons of men
May become the sons of God

Think about it: because we are joined to the Son, we can become sons and daughters of God! Now we can experience the radical love that has eternally existed between the Father and the Son (John 17:20-23). Now we can cry out “Abba, Father” through the Spirit and know he accepts us without hostility (Romans 8:15). Now we are forever beloved by God and called the children of God (1 John 3:1). Now we can enjoy the rights and privileges of being included in God’s family (Romans 8:17). Praise be to God!

Summary

That gives us a lot to think about. Let’s collect our thoughts before concluding. Union with Christ is the basis for every blessing of salvation. God declares us righteous because we are united to the Righteous One and share in his righteousness. God declares us and progressively makes us holy because we are one with the Holy One and share in his real holiness. God declares us Sons and Daughters because we are united to the Eternal Son and share in his Father’s love.

Prayer of Reflection

Father, we are in utter awe as we consider the manifold blessings that flow out of our union with Christ. I praise you that our union with Christ conveys warmth and relationship, which your children desperately desire. I praise you that our union with Christ fixes our gaze squarely on Jesus – not just on judicial transactions or the need for behavior change. Help us dig deeper into this doctrine. Help us to apply this doctrine to our lives – both individually as we strive to commune with you and corporately as we seek to live in union with one another. Amen.

Union with Christ Series

1.  Unrecognizable Gospel Glue

2.  How We Get Life

3.  Union with Christ and the Old Testament

4.  Blessings of Union with Christ:  Justification, Sanctification, & Adoption

5.  Blessings of Union with Christ:  the Church (forthcoming)

[1] Kevin DeYoung, “Ephesians” in The Gospel Transformation Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 1585.

[2] G.I. Williamson. The Westminster Shorter Catechism: For Study Classes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2011).

[3] Johnson, Oneness with Christ, 102.

[4] Ibid, 104-11.

[5] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 3.XI.10 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 737.

[6] Johnson, Oneness with Christ, 114.

[7] Ibid, 115.

[8] Ibid, 146.

[9] Ibid, 149.