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.

Oh God, I am furrowed like the field
Torn open like the dirt
And I know that to be healed
That I must be broken first
I am aching for the yield
That You will harvest from this hurt

Abide in me
Let these branches bear You fruit
Abide in me, Lord
As I abide in You

So I kneel
At the bright edge of the garden
At the golden edge of dawn
At the glowing edge of spring
When the winter’s edge is gone
And I can see the color green
I can hear the sower’s song

Abide in me
Let these branches bear You fruit
Abide in me, Lord
Let Your word take root
Remove in me
The branch that bears no fruit
And move in me, Lord
As I abide in You

As the rain and the snow fall
Down from the sky
And they don’t return but they water the earth and bring they forth life
Giving seed to the sower, bread for the hunger
So shall the word of the Lord be with a sound like thunder
And it will not return, it will not return void
We shall be led in peace
And go out with joy
And the hills before us
Will raise their voices
And the trees of the field will clap their hands as the land rejoices
And instead of the thorn now
The cypress towers
And instead of the briar the myrtle blooms with a thousand flowers
And it will make a name
Make a name for our God
A sign everlasting that will never be cut off
As the earth brings forth sprouts from the seed
What is sown in the garden grows into a mighty tree
So the Lord plants justice, justice and praise
To rise before the nations till the end of days

As the rain and the snow fall
Down from the sky
And they don’t return but they water the earth and they bring forth life
Giving seed to the sower, and bread for the hunger
So shall the word of the Lord be with a sound like thunder
And it will not return, it will not return void
It will not return, it will not return void
It will not return, it will not return void
We shall be led in peace
And go out with joy

And the sower leads us
And the sower leads us
And the sower leads us

By Andrew Peterson

FullSizeRenderThis week I’m vacationing with my family on the Vineyard (Martha’s).  Last year when we visited I found a quaint shop in Oak Bluffs that grabbed me.  Now you have to know I thoroughly abhor touristy shops, filled with annoying nick-knacks and postcards and t-shirts and coffee mugs.  Yuck.  And this store of mine was something like a touristy shop.  Except for some reason I kinda liked it.  Why?  Well, it had clever quotes on pieces of wood.  And I’m a sucker for good words and timber.  Last year I got a plank with the inscription “One day at a time.”  I needed that message every day this past year.  This afternoon I got something from the mind of Clive Staples Lewis: “Courage, dear heart.”

Why am I fond of C.S. Lewis?  Well, to be melodramatic, Lewis has left an indelible mark on my life – starting with the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when I was a silly middle school boy.  Lewis is something of an upper echelon writer for me, not because he’s a brilliant folk philosopher, or because he is a bleeding-heart poet.  He is one of those rare writers that can capture the imagination and usher the reader into thrilling worlds, while ever-so-subtly also impressing beautiful truths upon the hearts of his readers.  That is indeed a rare thing.  So with that, here is an excerpt from his Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This extended quote let’s us feel the impact of Aslan’s timely whisper to Lucy during her dark voyage.  May we hear Aslan’s whisper to us as well, when the waters are murky, the waves are crashing, darkness ever looms, and land is nowhere in sight.    

Drinian’s hand shook on the tiller and a line of cold sweat ran down his face. The same idea was occurring to everyone on board. “We shall never get out, never get out,” moaned the rowers. “He’s steering us wrong. We’re going round and round in circles. We shall never get out.” The stranger, who had been lying in a huddled heap on the deck, sat up and burst out into a horrible screaming laugh.

“Never get out!” he yelled. “That’s it. Of course. We shall never get out. What a fool I was to have thought they would let me go as easily as that. No, no, we shall never get out.”

Lucy leant her head on the edge of the fighting top and whispered, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little—a very, very little—better. “After all, nothing has really happened to us yet,” she thought.

“Look!” cried Rynelf’s voice hoarsely from the bows. There was a tiny speck of light ahead, and while they watched a broad beam of light fell from it upon the ship. It did not alter the surrounding darkness, but the whole ship was lit up as if by searchlight. Caspian blinked, stared round, saw the faces of his companions all with wild, fixed expressions. Everyone was staring in the same direction: behind everyone lay his black, sharply-edged shadow.

Lucy looked along the beam and presently saw something in it. At first it looked like a cross, then it looked like an aeroplane, then it looked like a kite, and at last with a whirring of wings it was right overhead and was an albatross. It circled three times round the mast and then perched for an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow. It called out in a strong sweet voice what seemed to be words though no one understood them. After that it spread its wings, rose, and began to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little to starboard. Drinian steered after it not doubting that it offered good guidance. But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, “Courage, dear heart,” and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s, and with the voice a delicious smell breathed in her face.

In a few moments the darkness turned into a greyness ahead, and then, almost before they dared to begin hoping, they had shot out into the sunlight and were in the warm, blue world again. And all at once everybody realized that there was nothing to be afraid of and never had been. They blinked their eyes and looked about them. The brightness of the ship herself astonished them: they had half expected to find that the darkness would cling to the white and the green and the gold in the form of some grime or scum. And then first one, and then another, began laughing.

From the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Chapter 12, C.S. Lewis

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.