Image result for church congregationSo what does union with Christ have to do with the church?  Does it have a corporate expression or is it solely an individual benefit?

In the mid-18th century Henry Scougal wrote that “true religion is a union of the soul with God, a real participation of the Divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul, or in the apostle’s phrase, ‘it is Christ formed within us’.” [1] While everything we have studied so far affirms Scougal’s ideas, there is one piece missing in his thinking. What about the corporate expressions of our union with Christ?  Can the life of God be discerned in the soul of the local church? [2]

In a nutshell: union with Christ teaches that we were not only created for oneness with God but also oneness with one another. No doubt, Jesus came to first unite us with Himself and then God the Father and Spirit (John 14:18-23; 15:4-7; 17:20-25).  But his salvific work extends to create oneness with other Christians too, as we are joined together to Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22).

Corporate Dimensions

Let’s consider three passages that highlight the corporate dimensions of union with Christ, starting with 1 John 1:1-3…

“1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes,which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—2 the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—3 that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

This passage teaches us two things about spiritual fellowship with Christ.  First, the life of God is found in the soul of man through Christ (1 John 1:1-2). This “life” – who is Jesus – appeared and the apostles saw it, testified to it, and experienced it firsthand. Second, spiritual fellowship with Christ is shared relationally in the church (1 John 1:3). Thus, union with God through the Son makes union with one another possible.

Think about it this way:  the apostles did not preach the gospel so that there would be a new me, but so that there would be a new we. [3] The power of the gospel shows up in the creation of the bride of Christ – a new and royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God (cf. Exodus 19:1-6 with 1 Peter 2:9-11). The Church, not just individual Christians, is one with Christ. This leads us to two more passages for consideration.

In 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, the Apostle Paul used the body metaphor to encourage church unity. He taught them that they are the body of Christ and that each one is part of it (1 Corinthians 12:27). He spoke of Jesus’ blood making peace between Jew and Gentile, fashioning the two into one new man in his body (Ephesians 2:14-16). The nature of this body metaphor connotes incorporation and identification of God’s people with Christ. It denotes a close relationship and communion between Christ and his church, and between members of the Church.

One striking implication of this metaphor is that God’s children have a fundamentally new identity. They have given up their “I” status as individuals. Now they are a “we” – a new spiritual family. They are one with Christ as Paul explains in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” But they are also one with one another. This flies in the face of our hyper-individualized, self-actualizing culture where the main unit of existence is the self.  As a part of the New Covenant, Jesus ushers in a new inaugurated ontology, where our sense of being as a Christian is now radically corporate. [4]

Corporate Applications

Now that we have established the theological import of union with Christ for the local church, let’s consider some applications.  Let me drop this doctrine in on my own life as see what we get.

Sometimes I come home from a long day of work with a sinful, grumpy attitude. Now and then I complain (to myself if I’m smart) about the dirtiness of the kitchen or the mess in the living room or the pile of laundry on the bed. What has she done all day?  (Remember: sinful attitude).  But union with Christ teaches me that I am one with my wife through Christ and uniquely united to her in marriage. Therefore, that’s not just her mess; it’s our mess! Not only should I be more compassionate, but I should find ways to help her accomplish these tasks.

I enjoy spending time with my family, but also relish the opportunity to get away with the guys.  Some days or weeks when I am frequently away I notice my wife is overwhelmed and somewhat withdrawn from me (shocker!).  Union with Christ challenges my selfishness! Being united to one another in Christ compels me to love my wife and live out of our marriage union.  This means that my time is actually our time.

Of course our oneness with Christ and one another can be applied broadly to the local church, not just in Christian marriage.  Do you ever feel jealous towards a brother who has been blessed with success, be that financial or ministerial or vocational or relational?  Rather than competing with that brother, enjoy his blessing as your blessing.  His joy can be your joy, because you are one in Christ!

The church is messy.  It’s made up of broken, sinful people who live amidst broken, sinful circumstances.  You may be tempted to withdraw from a sister who is hurting terribly from a crisis.  I just don’t have time to care for her, you tell yourself.  I’ll pray for her and hope someone else will get to her.  I have other things to do with my time.  Union with Christ challenges this notion!  It tells us to get into the mess with her.  It pushes us to weep with her.  Because you are united through Christ to her, her mess and pain is your mess and pain.

You see, union with Christ pushes us to feel a brother or sister’s pain and joy as if it were our own.  Paul in 1 Corinthians 12:26 says something similar: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” – which is another way of saying that Christian empathy is rooted in our oneness with Christ.  Could this thinking be what unlocks a new level of love and compassion for Christians in local congregations?

It may be easy to picture the local church as made up of a bunch of individuals – individuals who have some things in common but think very individually.  This is my time; my money; my resources; my space.  But remember, when we become Christians we move from an “I” to a “We.”  Therefore, the local church is a single, spiritual entity – an entity that ought to think and act corporately!  Our time; our money; our resources; our spacesfor the glory of Christ and the spread of the gospel.  

Can you imagine that for a moment?  What would it look like if our local churches embraced a radical “we”-orientation rather than a culture-shaped “I”-orientation?

Would we experience a deeper, more profound unity within our congregation?  Would Small Groups and Elder boards and Missions committees function more effectively?  Would congregants absorb and bear up with more bites and offenses? Would more members move towards each other with compassion and empathy?   And would the world be powerfully drawn to God’s unified family, a concern that Jesus himself once prayed for (John 17:20-25)?

Finally, union with Christ teaches us that it’s not our efforts that create congregational unity.  God has already created unity by joining together individuals to Christ.  Unity then is a precious gift, to be received and cherished!   We don’t need to conjure unity up from nothing, as if the whole thing depended on prayer meetings or Peacemaker workshops or World-wide church councils (all good things).  Rather, our job is to eagerly “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).  

May the Lord grant us the strength to do just that:  prize the gift of our corporate union with Christ, and then eagerly maintain it for the sake of gospel life and mission!

Prayer of Reflection

Father, thank you for not only saving us from our sin and from your wrath, but for also saving us into a new life with a new family, the church.  May your Spirit empower us to fight against the strong, I-focused current of today.  May your Spirit show us the wonders of the gospel of oneness, which pushes us to sacrificially love those with whom we are joined together in Christ.  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

 

[1] Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publishing, 1996), 40-41.

[2] Thabiti Anyabwile, The Life of God in the Soul of the Church (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus Publishing, 2012), 9.

[3] Anyabwile, The Life of God, 18.

[4] John Jefferson Davis. Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2012), 113.

Image result for pitThe first time I heard the words to Psalm 40 was not in a sermon or a Bible study.  It was from the lips of U2’s Bono.  U2 put the first three verses of this psalm to song in “40” on their album War.  I learned it in church before I was a Christian in fact.  (You can watch a live version of “40” at the bottom of this post).

Since then Psalm 40 has become a favorite of mine. It highlights what David does when he needs divine help.  David remembers God’s past mercies (40:1-10) while imploring God for more mercy in his present time of need (40:11-17).  This two-step dynamic is crucial as Christians learn to walk with Christ during trials: remembering gives hope and builds faith; imploring puts words to our needs and welcomes God’s timely grace.

I want to take some time to explore this Psalm in the coming weeks and months.  Today let’s consider the first three verses…

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

These verses present a beautiful picture of God’s deliverance.  David lies in a pit which will destroy him if left alone.  It’s like a miry bog – a muddy, sticky place.  In other words, David is stuck!  His movements are limited and he can’t get out.  And he desperately needs help.  There is no indication that this was a particular historical situation for David.  Of course we can recall many times when David was stuck and hurting and needed God’s rescue, whether that’s when King Saul was hunting him or years later when his son Absalom was trying to kill him.

Maybe you feel stuck in life right now.  Maybe you feel trapped and unable to make progress with Jesus.  As if your feet are trudging through thick, sticky mud and you can’t get to where you need to be.  Or you’ve fallen into a pit and you’ve tried to claw yourself out.  But it’s just not possible.  We’ve all been there.  It might be the pit of debilitating depression, that sort of nagging, endless sense that we can’t go on.  It might be the muddy bog of bitterness from a painful relationship.  It might be lingering disappointment over dashed dreams.  Maybe we’ve fallen, yet again, into the pit of our besetting sin, a pit we have created for ourselves.  We wonder, will God help me even now?

What do you do when you’re in the pit?  And what will God do for us when we’re in the pit?  Let me point out 3 things we can do.  (In the next article I will reflect on 4 things God does for us).

Three Practices for Pit-Dwellers

#1  Remember.  Notice that all of the verbs in these verses are past tense (I waited…he inclined…he drew me out…). David is remembering a season when God pulled him out of the pit.  Remembering is a powerful practice.  Notice David doesn’t just remember vaguely, he remembers specifically.  He remembers the painful experience of pit life, the crying out, and the waiting.  And he remembers specifically the movements of God’s grace – inclining, hearing, drawing out, setting upon, giving a song.

If you’re in the pit, can I suggest to you this particular practice?  Remember specifically a season when God cared for you.  Journal about it.  Thank God for it.  Talk to a friend or spouse about it.  Write a song to convey it.  Set aside unhurried time to linger in God’s presence as you consider his past faithfulness.  Don’t rush this.  Learn to remember, because without it you may sink further into the mud.

Remember too the ultimate pit of destruction that God has pulled you from.  Through Christ, God rescued us from the pit of sin and wrath that we all found ourselves in.  His death and resurrection guarantee that repentant sinners can escape this pit and find sure footing all the way to the Promised Land.  And friends, if God can pull you out of that devastating pit, he can surely pull you out of your little pits along the way!  So remember the big pit and all the little ones afterwards that God has rescued you from.  Let these specific remembrances fuel your faith as you wait for YHWH to deliver you.

#2  Cry out.  In the pit David humbly cried out to God.  Sometimes we think it’s unspiritual to lament to God about our difficulties.  Sometimes we believe that if we truly trusted God then we would not lament.  After all, God is sovereign, we tell ourselves. So this pit of ours is according to his plan!  God will work this out for the good.

Well, that’s all very true.  But last I checked we are all still human!  The Bible never calls us to be anything other than human.  And in our humanity we hurt sometimes.  Expressing this hurt to God isn’t necessarily sinful communication; it can come from a very deep place of trust in our Father’s tender care.  Kids who scrape a knee and then bury their tearful faces in mamma’s lap communicate profound trust in mamma.  Likewise, God’s children run to their Father when they hurt too.  This is child-like trust, not godless defiance.

But Godwin, doesn’t the Bible teach that it’s wrong to grumble and complain?  Yes it does (see Philippians 2:14).  Grumbling is indeed sinful, but groaning is not.  Grumbling rebels against God’s hand and arrogantly believes God’s rule is inadequate.  Groaning accepts God’s hand while humbly crying out for relief.  Learn to groan in the pit, but never grumble!

Another angle on this: one-third of Psalm hymnal could be classified as laments!  That is truly remarkable.  One out of every three songs in the very first worship book express groaning to God.  Much like praise and thanksgiving, lament is an important prayer in our arsenal of godly expression.  Don’t neglect it!  You’ll need it when you find yourself in the pit.

#3  Wait.  The first three words of Psalm 40 often given me pause:  I waited patiently.  No one likes to wait for anything – whether it’s waiting for a cheeseburger or waiting to use the restroom.  Most situations of waiting aren’t so bad.  But waiting patiently for relief from chronic pain?  Waiting patiently after your best friend throws a grenade in your relationship?  Waiting patiently for the next cancer scan?  Waiting patiently for a job as you barely scrape by?  Waiting patiently for the grief to subside?    

But that’s exactly what David did.  Those three words – I waited patiently – tell us that there might be a long time between our cries to God and the rescue rope out of the pit.  Maybe weeks or months.  Or years.  Sometimes the darkness is stubborn.  Sometimes the clouds don’t break quickly.  So we learn to wait patiently.

But Godwin, what do I do as I wait?  The lesson here is more of an awareness and acceptance than a new action.  What you do is remember and cry out to God and cling to him and his people as best you can.  In doing that you will have enough wind in the sails to keep going another day.

While we wait, God is still works.  Let that sink in because it is crucial.  While we wait, God is active.  As one Pastor has said: “God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of only three of them.”  What we see is only a tiny fraction of what God is doing in our lives.  And the part we see may not even make sense to us!  But our job isn’t to make sense out of divine providence; our job isn’t to know the in’s and out’s of divine providence.  Our job is to simply believe in divine providence – to trust that God is working out good things despite the dark clouds.  As William Cowper has said:  “behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.

May God bring you comfort, peace, and even joy as you dwell for a time in the pit.   May he, like a good father, hear your cries and tenderly turn towards you.  And in his good timing, may he pull you out of that pit and bring you to a new place of security.  May his love for you be unmistakable – a love that is better than life.

U2 singing 40 at Red Rocks in 1983…

 

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.

OTAs we should expect, the doctrine of union with Christ has its roots in Old Testament teaching.  In this article we will explore these biblical foundations, because they lay the ground work and set the biblical-theological trajectory for our New Covenant understanding of oneness with Christ.

I am making an assumption as I approach our discussion: the Bible is One book with a Divine author who speaks with One unified voice. Thus the Old Testament is not just a historical back-story to the New Testament, as if the Old Testament is the optional Prelude to the actual Novel. Rather, the Old Testament is essential for understanding the New. In the Old Testament God promises what he then fulfills in the New. Specifically, God has hard-wired many sights & sounds, themes, characters, and practices into Israelite culture and history that point the way to the Messiah and our salvation in Him.  Let me pull on three of these threads that relate to union with Christ: divine presence; covenantal representation; and depravity & incarnation.

Divine Presence

Sometimes in our eagerness to grasp our salvation in Christ, we may sideline what that salvation is for and what repentant humanity is being restored to. We may have forgotten the goal of our creational existence and therefore the goal of our salvation: to dwell with God and his people forever in perfection and glory. That’s why were created and that’s where the Church is heading!  So it shouldn’t surprise us that divine presence saturates the entire Bible. It’s front and center in the opening chapters of Genesis (Genesis 1-3) and finds its glorious culmination in the closing chapters of Revelation (Revelation 21-22).

What’s in the middle is the person and work of the Messiah, anticipated in the Old Testament and realized in the New Testament. Yes, Jesus is the very presence of God on earth. He is also the True Israel and Last Adam, because he is what they should have been – humanity in perfect unity with God, walking daily in his presence. And through His life, death, and resurrection, Jesus makes it possible for repentant sinners to be with God.

In the Old Covenant God’s temple and priestly system mediated God’s favor and presence to Israel. But in the New Covenant, Jesus who is our temple and high priest, mediates God’s presence to us. The powers of the age to come are present in Christ and can be experienced by those who are jointed to Christ (Hebrews 6:5). John Davis comments: “Most remarkably in the new covenant every believer can be as close to God – indeed, closer – than Moses was under the old covenant.”[1]

Union with Christ encapsulates this wonderful restoration of relationship and explains how we can experience God’s presence today. Jesus has promised to indwell genuine believers, make his home in us, and be with us always as we make disciples (John 14:20, 23; 17:22-23, 26; Matthew 28:20). This day-to-day fellowship with Christ is described by Jesus as an abiding, residing, and remaining in Him (John 15:1-11). Because Christians are in Christ, they can draw near to God the Father, knowing the Father has also made his home with us (Hebrews 10:19, 22; John 14:23).

Practically, this means that God is really present to us in our prayers and meditative reading of Scripture.[2] Prayer and scripture reading can become more than just another opportunity to gain knowledge or change behavior. If we think rightly, these can become the very place of encountering the living God – because we are united to His Son who encounters His Father in every moment. As we approach God’s words and prayer, do we anticipate meeting with God? Do we relish his presence and power in our day-to-day lives? Or are we looking for good advice and a few inspirational thoughts for the day? If you’re looking for the latter, forget the Bible and go to your local Hallmark shop or search Google for “Maya Angelou quotes”. Just know that you are missing out on engaging in the here-and-now with the holy, majestic, and loving God of the universe!

Covenant Representation

As Michael Horton has said, “the Messiah not only saves; he is the corporate head of the people whom he represents and makes to share in the spoils of his victory.”[3] In other words, as goes the King so goes His subjects. But to properly comprehend this idea that Christ is our covenantal head, we must begin with Adam and Israel.

According to the Apostle Paul, Adam and Christ stand over against each other as the two great figures at the entrance of two worlds, two creations, the old and the new (Romans 5-6).[4] In their actions and fate lies the decision for all who belong to them. Thus before we were joined to Christ, we were joined to Adam – guilty and polluted by sin with Adam. Later Israel, who is called to be in covenant with God, continued in Adam’s ways and broke their union with God. Later still the prophet Isaiah spoke of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52-53) – not Israel but the Messiah who will represent His people as a substitutionary sacrifice.

The three major biblical offices of prophet, priest, and king reflect a mediatory and representational role within Israelite society. The prophet speaks on behalf of God to his people, and sometimes vice versa. The priest organizes sacrifices on behalf of God’s people to appease a holy God. The king rules as vice-regent of the Eternal King.

All of this paved the way for acknowledging Jesus as the Messianic corporate representative. He was born under the law, fulfilled the conditions of the Old covenant, took the curse of breaking that covenant, and his blood serves to ratify the New covenant.[5] Saving faith is the act of aligning ourselves with this Second Adam, True Israel, and ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King. Macaskill in his exceptional work on union with Christ notes:

To be united to Jesus means to be in the covenant through His covenant headship. It is to be in a condition of covenantal communion with God, with the covenant-fulfillment of Jesus serving as grounds for our communion. In Christ we kept the covenant.[6]

Now the story of the God-man Jesus is understood to be the story of his New Covenant people. Now when believers are joined with Christ, they identify with and participate in his narrative of life, death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:1-14).

Therefore all of humanity is either in Adam or in Christ. There is no in between with God; there is no progression. Those in Adam are guilty and corrupted by sin and will experience ultimate death. Those in Christ will receive all the blessings and benefits that flow from his righteous life, sacrificial death, and hope-giving resurrection. As we meander through our busy days, do we view every person around us as either in solidarity to Adam or in solidarity to Christ? May we proclaim the gospel to those in Adam! And may we encourage those in Christ to live out their new found status as children of the King!

Depravity & Incarnation

The basis of our union with Christ is the incarnation of the Son. That’s a big statement that needs some explanation. Let’s start in the opening scenes of Genesis. Adam and Eve’s transgression in the Garden of Eden plunged all humanity into sin (Genesis 3:14-19; Romans 8:19-22). Theologians will tell you sin does two things to every human being: makes them guilty before a holy God; and makes them polluted so they don’t fully bear God’s image. God’s Son specifically took on flesh to remedy this double-crisis. The Son had to add humanity to his divinity, to walk as Adam should have walked, to live the history Israel should have lived, in order that believers may be acquitted from condemnation (justification). And the Son had to add humanity to his divinity so that believers may receive his life-giving humanity which progressively gets rid of the pollution (sanctification). In this way, we become one with Christ only because he first became one with humanity.

Johnson points to three truths that arise out of our discussion about the Incarnation.[7] First, the incarnation helps us see that salvation is “in Christ” because it is only in him that humanity has been reconciled to God. Salvation isn’t found in what Christ gives us apart from Himself. It is only found in the God-man Christ. Second, the incarnation shows us salvation is a pure act of grace from the side of God. God accomplished what no human could accomplish, because only the Incarnated Son could serve in this capacity. Third, it helps us appreciate the work our church fathers did during the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. The very life and future of the church was at stake when they wrestled over the meaning of “the Word became flesh.”

Summary

We’ve covered a lot! Let’s take a moment to summarize. Union with Christ means Christians can engage with a holy, majestic, and triune God in the here-and-now. Oneness with Christ begins with Christians joining themselves to Christ their righteous, substitutionary representative before God. It’s only in Christ that we keep the covenant. And lastly, the incarnation is the basis of our union with Christ – God the Son joining himself to humanity means we can join ourselves to Christ.

Prayer of Reflection

Father, how marvelous a salvation we have in Christ that we can now boldly come into your presence! That we have a greater access to the holy of holies than even Moses is both heart-warming and mind-numbing. Thank you, Father. How marvelous a salvation we have in Christ that we can find solidarity with a Righteous King and share in his victory and spoils! That we have such blessings as to give us new life and sustain us to the next age is beyond encouraging. Thank you, Father. How marvelous a salvation we have in Christ that we find Your Son united to our creaturely flesh! That we are acquitted from guilt and being cleansed from pollution is exhilarating to ponder. Thank you, Father. May we daily rehearse this great gospel of oneness with Christ. Amen.

Union with Christ Series

  1. Unrecognizable Gospel Glue
  2. How We Get Life
  3. Union with Christ from the Old Testament
  4. Blessings of Union with Christ:  Justification, Sanctification, Adoption, and the Church (forthcoming)

 

[1] John Jefferson Davis. Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2012) 39.

[2] For more on this idea, see Davis’ Meditation and Communion with God, 122ff.

[3] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 588-589.

[4] Herman Ridderbos, “In Christ, with Christ: The Old and the New Man.” In Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. John Richard De Witt (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 57–64.

[5] Gregory Macaskill, Union with Christ in the New Testament (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press: 2014), 297-308.

[6] Macaskill, Union with Christ,  298.

[7] Marcus Johnson, Oneness with Christ, 78-80.