A Christian’s “union with Christ” has been a major doctrine of preaching and teaching at Graefenburg Baptist Church for the last 2 years. In January of 2014, I preached a series through the book of Colossians called “Transform” where we began helping our congregation notice the seemingly endless verses which emphasize the two words “in Christ.” When I was in middle school, there was a little game we would play where a person who notices a Volkswagen Beetle would shout the word “Bug!” and then give the person next to them a little punch in the arm. Well, it wasn’t a very nice game, but all of a sudden I started noticing Volkswagens all over the place. I mean, they had always been there on the road, but now I saw them all the time because I was looking for them. Anthony Hoekema wrote that “Once you have your eyes opened to this concept of union with Christ, you will find it almost everywhere in the New Testament.” The same thing started happening at GBC. Folks began to tell me that they were starting to notice how often the New Testament speaks of “Christ in us” and “in Him” and “through Him” and so forth.
Union with Christ is such an important and necessary doctrine that it naturally raises plenty of questions. As part of my “Question Vault” series of blog entries, I am going to write 3 or 4 articles responding to a few of these frequently asked questions . The first and most natural question with which we will begin is a reminder to us…
What does “Union With Christ” mean?
John Murray once wrote that union with Christ is “the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” When we speak of our union with Christ, we are talking about our identity, the very core of who we are and what we are capable of. It is sadly not a phrase that is well known in the church and has only recently seen a revival of sorts in Christian discipleship resources. When we think about who we are in relation to Jesus Christ, we tend to think of things such as “following” Jesus, “worshiping” Jesus, “submitting” to Jesus, “obeying” Jesus, and so forth. All of those descriptions are certainly true and clearly biblical, but they are only possible because of our union with Christ.
And let’s face it, most weeks we struggle to follow Jesus. Maybe we have found ourselves unhappy with the way we worship Jesus, as if we are just going through the motions. And obedience? If you are like me, then you are daily struggling in that department…big time.
What happens is that since we tend to think of our relationship to Jesus primarily through these kinds of things, we become guilt ridden when we have those bad weeks (or months) and our worship is off and our obedience is lacking. Guilt likewise leads to despair and feelings of worthlessness, that God might wreak havoc on us because of our shortcomings. Striving for holiness and living the Christian life will not only become a fruitless endeavor without a proper understanding of our union with Christ, but it will also become something we dread.
So, we must understand what Paul understood about his salvation that will do two things for us:
1. Keep us from feelings of guilt and condemnation.
2. Give us the power necessary for joyful Christian living and obedience.
What did Paul understand? His union with Christ. Here are just a few verses that show how Paul treasured and depended on this amazing truth:
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
“For you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:3)
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ he is a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)
All of these verses teach us a profound truth about the most fundamental aspect of our identity and our salvation: Because of our position in Christ, his actions are our actions, just as if we had personally carried them out. Christ was crucified, therefore we were crucified. Christ was buried, therefore we were buried. Christ was raised to new life, therefore we were raised to new life. To be in Christ means that Jesus is our representative; what he has done, we have done!
Think about it and be amazed all over again – the reason Paul says we are “hidden” with Christ is because the work of Christ has been credited, or “imputed” to us through faith. Thus, our old nature is dead, it is hidden, it is gone. What’s left is Christ’s work in us, because we are in him!
God looks at us and pardons us for one reason only. God does not pardon us because:
-He is willing to overlook sin.
-He is willing to cut us a break if we do our best.
-He is satisfied with our own works.
-He shows grace instead of judgment.
So what is the one reason why God forgives us and calls us his children?
-He sees perfect righteousness when he looks at us. How is that possible? Because he sees Jesus Christ and his perfect righteousness.
But it doesn’t stop there. Not only does our union with Christ impute his righteousness to us so that we are approved by God, but it also provides for us spiritual power to do what we could never do before. Willpower Christianity does not work. We will never be able to muster enough power from within ourselves to stay consistent with the things of God and find joy in them. It doesn’t matter how many conferences you attend, how many decision cards you fill out, and how many times you “recommit” your life (all of which are great things), only the power of Christ in you is strong enough to carry you to the finish line with joy. That is why the gospel must not be viewed as the thing that gets us saved and then we take over. No, the gospel is our power for daily living.
Consider one more text. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes our union with Christ in a remarkable way. He demonstrates how all humans are currently united with one of two people. Either we are united with Adam, and are thus marked by his sinful rebellion, or we are united with Christ, and are thus marked by his righteousness. Listen to Paul:
“For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22)
The rock band “Rush” once said, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” That is certainly true here. You will experience a union with one of two men. In Adam, there is death. In Christ, there is life.
So, with this remarkable truth that author Jerry Bridges called “breathtaking,” also comes some important questions. I will begin to address those in the next article.
Soli Deo Gloria!