Union with Christ Essay
Union with Christ
What does it mean to be “in Christ” or “united with Christ”?
EXPLANATION AND SCRIPTURAL BASIS1
The subject is so frequently mentioned in Scripture and so wide-ranging in its application to our lives that it deserves treatment here. That is the concept of union with Christ. As we shall see below, every aspect of God’s relationship to believers is in some way connected to our relationship with Christ. From God’s counsels in eternity past before the world was created, to our fellowship with God in heaven in eternity future, and including every aspect of our relationship with God in this life—all has occurred in union with Christ. So in one sense the entire study of the application of redemption could be included in this subject. However, we can simply summarize the incredible richness of the scriptural idea of union with Christ. John Murray says:
Union with Christ has its source in the election of God the Father before the foundation of the world and has its fruition in the glorification of the sons of God. The perspective of God’s people is not narrow; it is broad and it is long. It is not confined to space and time; it has the expanse of eternity. Its orbit has two foci, one the electing love of God the Father in the counsels of eternity; the other glorification with Christ in the manifestation of his glory. The former has no beginning, the latter has no end....Why does the believer entertain the thought of God’s determinate counsel with such joy? Why can he have patience in the perplexities and adversities of the present? Why can he have confident assurance with reference to the future and rejoice in hope of the glory of God? It is because he cannot think of past, present, or future apart from union with Christ.2
We may define union with Christ as follows: Union with Christ is a phrase used to summarize several different relationships between believers and Christ, through which Christians receive every benefit of salvation. These relationships include the fact that we are in Christ, Christ is in us, we are like Christ, and we are with Christ.
As this definition indicates, four different aspects of our union with Christ may be specified from the biblical material. We will look at each of these four in turn:
1. We are in Christ.
2. Christ is in us.
3. We are like Christ.
4. We are with Christ.3
A. We Are in Christ
The phrase “in Christ” does not have one single sense, but refers to a variety of relationships, as indicated below.
1. In God’s Eternal Plan. Ephesians 1:4 tells us that, God chose us in Christ “before the foundation of the world.” It was “in Christ” that we were “destined and appointed to live for the praise of his glory” (vv. 1:11–12). Later he “saved us and called us” because of “his own purpose” and because of the grace which he gave us “in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (2 Tim. 1:9 niv).
Since we did not exist before the foundation of the world, these verses indicate that God, looking into the future and knowing that we would exist, thought of us being in a special relationship with Christ. He did not first choose us and later decide to relate us to Christ. Rather, while choosing us, he at the same time thought about us as belonging to Christ in a special way, as being “in Christ.” Therefore, he thought about us as eventually having the right to share in the blessings of Christ’s work.
2. During Christ’s Life on Earth. Throughout Christ’s entire life on earth, from the time of his birth to the time of his ascension into heaven, God thought of us as being “in Christ.” That is, whatever Christ did as our representative, God counted it as being something we did, too. Of course, believers were not consciously present in Christ, since most believers did not even exist yet when Christ was on earth. Nor were believers present in Christ in some mysterious, spiritual way (as if, for example, the souls of thousands of believers were somehow present in Christ’s body during his earthly life). Rather, believers were present in Christ only in God’s thoughts. God thought of us as going through everything that Christ went through, because he was our representative.
When Jesus perfectly obeyed God for his whole life, God thought of us as having obeyed, too. “By one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Rom. 5:19). So Christ is our source of righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30; Phil. 3:9).
Because God thought of us as being “in” Christ, he also could think of our sins as belonging to Christ: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21 NIV), and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:6). These were sins we had not yet committed, but God knew about them in advance, and thought of them as belonging to Christ. Thus, it was right that Christ should die for our sins. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24; see also Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:3; Col. 2:14; Heb. 9:28).
But it was not just our sins that God thought of as belonging to Christ: it was we ourselves. When Christ died, God thought of us as having died. Our old self was “crucified with him” (Rom. 6:6). “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). “One has died for all; therefore all have died” (2 Cor. 5:14; see also Rom. 6:4–5, 8; 7:4; Col. 1:22; 2:12, 20; 3:3; 2 Tim. 2:11).
In the same way, God thought of us as having been buried with Christ, raised with him, and taken up to heaven with him in glory. “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6 NIV; see also Rom. 6:4–11; 1 Cor. 15:22; Col. 2:12–13).
When Christ returned to heaven, therefore, all the blessings of salvation were earned for us. God thought of these blessings as being rightfully ours, just as if we had earned them ourselves. Nevertheless, they were stored up for us in heaven—in God’s mind, actually, and in Christ, our representative—waiting to be applied to us personally (1 Peter 1:3–5; Col. 3:3–4; Eph. 1:3).
3. During Our Lives Now. Once we have been born and exist as real people in the world, our union with Christ can no longer be something just in God’s mind. We also must be brought into an actual relationship with Christ through which the benefits of salvation can be applied to our lives by the Holy Spirit. The richness of our present life in Christ can be viewed from four slightly different perspectives:
1. We have died and been raised with Christ.
2. We have new life in Christ.
3. All our actions can be done in Christ.
4. All Christians together are one body in Christ.
a. Dying and Rising With Christ: The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus now have real effects in our lives. “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). Here Paul’s references to baptism and faith indicate that our dying and rising with Christ occur in this present life, at the time we become Christians.
Paul sees this present death and resurrection with Christ as a way of describing and explaining the change that the Holy Spirit brings about in our character and personality when we become Christians. It is as if the Holy Spirit reproduces Jesus’ death and resurrection in our lives when we believe in Christ. We become so unresponsive to the pressures, demands and attractions of our previous, sinful way of life, that Paul can say we are “dead” to these influences, because we have died with Christ (Rom. 7:6; Gal. 2:20; 5:24; 6:14; Col. 2:20). On the other hand, we find ourselves wanting to serve God much more, and able to serve him with greater power and success, so much so that Paul says we are “alive” to God, because we have been raised up with Christ: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11; see also 1 Peter 1:3; 2:24). Because we died and rose with Christ, we have power to overcome personal sin more and more (Rom. 6:12–14, 19); we have come to “fullness of life” in Christ (Col. 2:10–13); in fact, we have become a “new creation” in him (2 Cor. 5:17, with vv. 14–15), and should therefore set our minds on things that are above, where Christ is (Col. 3:1–3).
b. New Life in Christ: These last verses suggest a second perspective on our being “in Christ.” We can think not only in terms of Christ’s past work of redemption, but also in terms of his present life in heaven, and his continuing possession of all the spiritual resources we need to live the Christian life. Since every spiritual blessing was earned by him and belongs to him, the New Testament can say that these blessings are “in him.” Thus, they are available only to those who are “in Christ,” and if we are in Christ, these blessings are ours.
John writes, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son” (1 John 5:11), and Paul speaks of “the promise of the life which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:1). We read that “in Christ” are “faith and love” (1 Tim. 1:14; 2 Tim. 1:13), “grace” (2 Tim. 2:1), “salvation” (2 Tim. 2:10), “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3) and God’s “riches in glory” (Phil. 4:19). Paul says that it is because of God’s work that Christians are “in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30), and that “God...has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3).
In fact, every stage of the application of redemption is given to us because we are “in Christ.” It is “in Christ” that we are called to salvation (1 Cor. 7:22), regenerated (Eph. 1:3; 2:10), and justified (Rom. 8:1; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 2:17; Eph. 1:7; Phil. 3:9; Col. 1:14). “In Christ” we die (1 Thess. 4:16; Rev. 14:13) and “in him” our bodies will be raised up again (1 Cor. 15:22). These passages suggest that because our lives are inseparably connected to Christ himself, the Holy Spirit gives us all the blessings that Christ has earned.
c. All Our Actions Can Be Done in Christ: The foregoing changes within our individual lives are accompanied by a dramatic change in the realm in which we live. To become a Christian is to enter the newness of the age to come, and to experience to some degree the new powers of the kingdom of God affecting every part of our lives. To be “in Christ” is to be in that new realm that Christ controls.
This means that every action in our lives can be done “in Christ,” if it is done in the power of his kingdom and in a way that brings honor to him. Paul speaks the truth “in Christ” (Rom. 9:1; 2 Cor. 2:17; 12:19), is proud of his work “in Christ” (Rom. 15:17; 1 Cor. 15:31), reminds the Corinthians of his ways “in Christ” (1 Cor. 4:17), hopes “in the Lord Jesus” to send Timothy to Philippi (Phil. 2:19), rejoices greatly “in the Lord” (Phil. 4:10), and “in the Lord” commands, beseeches and exhorts other Christians (1 Thess. 4:1; 2 Thess. 3:12; Philem. 8). He says, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
Paul also writes to believers about their actions “in Christ.” He reminds the Corinthians, “in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). It is “in the Lord” that children are to obey their parents (Eph. 6:1), wives are to submit to their husbands (Col. 3:18), and all believers are to be strong (Eph. 6:10), be encouraged (Phil. 2:1), rejoice (Phil. 3:1; 4:4), agree (Phil. 4:2), stand firm (Phil. 4:1; 1 Thess. 3:8), live a godly life (2 Tim. 3:12) and have good behavior (1 Peter 3:16). “In the Lord” they work hard (Rom. 16:12), are made confident (Phil. 1:14) and are approved (Rom. 16:10). Paul’s hope for Christians is that they live in Christ: “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him” (Col. 2:6–7 NIV). Then Paul will achieve his life’s goal, to “present every man mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). John similarly encourages believers to “abide in him” (1 John 2:28; 3:6, 24), echoing Jesus’ words, “He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5).
d. One Body in Christ: We are not simply in Christ as isolated individual persons. Since Christ is the head of the body, which is the church (Eph. 5:23), all who are in union with Christ are also related to one another in his body. This joining together makes us “one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 10:17; 12:12–27). Thus, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). The ties of fellowship are so strong that Christians may only marry “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39). In this body of Christ old hostilities disappear, sinful divisions among people are broken down, and worldly criteria of status no longer apply, for “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28; cf. Eph. 2:13–22).
Because we are one body in Christ, entire churches can be “in Christ” (Gal. 1:22; 1 Thess. 2:14). And the church universal, the church made up of all true believers, is collectively united to Christ as a husband is united to his wife (Eph. 5:31–32; 1 Cor. 6:17). Christ’s purpose is to perfect and cleanse and purify the church, so that it might more completely reflect what he is like and thereby bring glory to him (Eph. 5:25–27).
Yet another metaphor is used in 1 Peter 2:4–5, where believers, in coming to Christ, are said to be like living stones, built into a spiritual house (see also Eph. 2:20–22). Thus, they are unified and forever dependent on one another, just as the stones of a building are united to each other and depend upon each other.
But the boldest analogy of all is used by Jesus, who prays for believers “that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21). Here Jesus prays that our unity would be like the perfect unity between the Father and the Son in the Trinity. This is a reminder to us that our unity should be eternal and perfectly harmonious (as God’s unity is).
But this analogy with the members of the Trinity is very important for another reason: it warns us against thinking that union with Christ will ever swallow up our individual personalities. Even though the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have perfect and eternal unity, yet they remain distinct persons. In the same way, even though we shall someday attain perfect unity with other believers and with Christ, yet we shall forever remain distinct persons as well, with our own individual gifts, abilities, interests, responsibilities, circles of personal relationships, preferences, and desires.
B. Christ Is in Us
Jesus spoke of a second kind of relationship when he said, “He who abides in me, and I in him he it is that bears much fruit” (John 15:5). It is not only true that we are in Christ; he is also in us, to give us power to live the Christian life. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The factor that determines whether someone is a Christian is whether Christ is in him (Rom. 8:10; 2 Cor. 13:5; Rev. 3:20). God’s wise plan, hidden as a mystery for generations, was to save Gentiles as well as Jews. Therefore, Paul can tell his Gentile readers that God’s mystery is “Christ in you the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27).
It is important to maintain, on the basis of these verses, that there is a real, personal dwelling of Christ in us, and that this does not mean that we merely agree with Christ or that his ideas are in us. Rather, he is in us and remains in us through faith (Eph. 3:17; 2 Cor. 13:5). To overlook this truth would be to neglect the great source of spiritual strength that we have within us (1 John 4:4). To remember it destroys our pride, gives us a constant feeling of deep dependence on Christ, and gives us great confidence, not in self, but in Christ working in us (Gal. 2:20; Rom. 15:18; Phil. 4:13).
This indwelling of Christ affects our response to those in need. Whatever we do to help a Christian brother or sister, we do to Christ (Matt. 25:40). Keeping Jesus’ commandments is an indication that he is in us, and the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us that Christ is in us (1 John 3:24).
C. We Are Like Christ
A third aspect of union with Christ is our imitation of him. “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ,” writes Paul (1 Cor. 11:1). John reminds us, “He who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). So union with Christ implies that we should imitate Christ. Our lives ought so to reflect what his life was like that we bring honor to him in everything we do (Phil. 1:20).
Thus, the New Testament pictures the Christian life as one of striving to imitate Christ in all our actions. “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom. 15:7). “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church” (Eph. 5:25). “As the Lord has forgiven you so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13). “He laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). Throughout our lives, we are to run the race before us, “looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 13:2; see also Eph. 5:2; Phil. 2:5–11; 1 Thess. 1:6; 1 John 3:7; 4:17). By contrast, disobedience to Christ holds him up in contempt (Heb. 6:6).
Our imitation of Christ is especially evident in suffering. Christians are called to take suffering patiently, “because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Paul’s goal is to “share his [Christ’s] sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Phil. 3:10; see also 2 Cor. 1:5; 4:8–11; Heb. 12:3; 1 Peter 4:13).
Furthermore, our suffering is connected with sharing in Christ’s glory when he returns: “we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:17). This is probably because it is through suffering and difficulty that God makes us more Christ-like and causes us to grow to maturity in Christ (James 1:2–4; Heb. 5:8–9). Also, since Christ perfectly obeyed his Father even in the face of great suffering, so our obedience, trust, and patience in suffering more fully portray what Christ was like, and so bring more honor to him. It gives us great comfort to know that we are only experiencing what he has already experienced, and that he therefore understands what we are going through, and listens sympathetically to our prayers (Heb. 2:18; 4:15–16; 12:11). As the outcome of a life of obedience, we are able to share in Christ’s glory: “He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21).
Our imitation of Christ should not be thought of as a mere mimicking of Jesus’ actions, however. The far deeper purpose is that in imitating him we are becoming more and more like him: when we act like Christ we become like Christ. We grow up to maturity in Christ (Eph. 4:13, 15) as we are “being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). The final result is that we shall become perfectly like Christ, for God has predestined us “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29; 1 Cor. 15:49), and “when he appears, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). When this happens, Christ will be fully glorified in us (2 Thess. 1:10–12; John 17:10).
Yet in all of this we never lose our individual personhood. We become perfectly like Christ, but we do not become Christ and we are not absorbed into Christ or lost forever as individuals. Rather, it is we as real individuals who shall still know as we are known (1 Cor. 13:12); it is we who shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2); it is we who shall worship him, and see his face, and have his name on our foreheads, and reign with him for ever and ever (Rev. 22:3–5).
Just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are exactly like one another in character (John 14:7, 9), yet remain distinct persons, so we can become more and more like Christ and still be distinct individuals with different gifts and different functions (Eph. 4:15–16; 1 Cor. 12:4–27). In fact, the more like Christ we become, the more truly ourselves we become (Matt. 10:39; John 10:3; Rev. 2:17; Ps. 37:4). If we forget this, we will tend to neglect the diversity of gifts in the church and will want to make everyone like ourselves. We will also tend to deny any ultimate importance for ourselves as individuals. A proper biblical perspective will allow each believer to say not only, “We Christians are important to Christ,” but also, “I am important to Christ: he knows my name, he calls me by name, he gives me a new name which is mine alone” (John 10:3; Rev. 2:17).
D. We Are With Christ
1. Personal Fellowship With Christ. Another aspect of union with Christ concerns our personal fellowship with him. It makes little difference whether we say that we are with Christ or that Christ is with us, for both phrases represent the same truth. Christ promised, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20), and, “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Once again, since Jesus’ human body ascended to heaven (John 16:7; 17:11; Acts 1:9–11), these verses must speak of his divine nature being present with us. Yet it is still a very personal presence, in which we work together with Christ (2 Cor. 6:1), we know him (Phil. 3:8, 10), we are comforted by him (2 Thess. 2:16–17), we are taught by him (Matt. 11:29), and we live our whole lives in his presence (2 Cor. 2:10; 1 Tim. 5:21; 6:13–14; 2 Tim. 4:1). To become a Christian is to be “called into the fellowship of [God’s] Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9). Yet this fellowship can vary in intensity, since Paul’s benediction on Christians, “The Lord be with you all” (2 Thess. 3:16; cf. 2 Tim. 4:22) can only express a hope for still closer fellowship with Christ and a deeper awareness of his presence.
Furthermore, in some sense yet imperceptible to us, when we come to worship we now come into heaven itself, to “innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 12:22–24). This participation in heavenly worship is what the Apostles’ Creed calls the “communion of saints,” and what a familiar hymn calls “mystic, sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”5 Hebrews 12 does not seem to suggest that we have a conscious awareness of being in the presence of this heavenly assembly, but it may indicate that those now in heaven witness our worship and rejoice in it, and it certainly implies that we can have a joyful awareness that our praise is being heard in God’s temple in heaven.
In all our prayers now we are heard by Jesus and have fellowship with him (1 John 1:3), our great high priest, who has entered “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24; 4:16). Our fellowship with him will be greater yet when we die (2 Cor. 5:8; Phil. 1:23; 1 Thess. 5:10), and even greater still once Jesus returns (1 Thess. 4:17; 1 John 3:2). It gives us great joy to know that Christ actually desires to have us with him (John 17:24).
Our fellowship with Christ also brings us into fellowship with each other. John writes, “That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).
2. Union With the Father and With the Holy Spirit. This last verse suggests a final aspect of union with Christ. Because we are in union with Christ in these several relationships, we also are brought into union with the Father and with the Holy Spirit. We are in the Father (John 17:21; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; 1 John 2:24; 4:15–16; 5:20) and in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Tim. 1:14). The Father is in us (John 14:23) and the Holy Spirit is in us (Rom. 8:9, 11). We are like the Father (Matt. 5:44–45, 48; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:10; 1 Peter 1:15–16) and like the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:4–6; Gal. 5:22–23; John 16:13). We have fellowship with the Father (1 John 1:3; Matt. 6:9; 2 Cor. 6:16–18) and with the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:16; Acts 15:28; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:30).
These additional relationships are not blurred into a distinctionless, mystical ecstasy, however. Both now and in eternity we relate to the Father in his distinct role as our heavenly Father, to the Son in his distinct role as our Savior and Lord, and to the Holy Spirit in his distinct role as the Spirit who empowers us and continually applies to us all the benefits of our salvation.
QUESTIONS FOR PERSONAL APPLICATION
1. Before reading this, had you thought of yourself as being united with Christ from the point of God’s choosing you before the foundation of the world to the point of going to be with him in heaven forever? How does this idea change the way you think of yourself and your own life? How does it affect the way you think of difficulties that you may be experiencing at this time? In what ways can the ideas of having died with Christ and having been raised with him be an encouragement in your present efforts to overcome sin that remains in your life?
2. Have you previously thought of doing the actions that you do each day “in Christ” (see Phil. 4:13)? If you thought of doing the reading that you are presently doing “in Christ,” how would it change your attitude or perspective? What difference would it make to think of doing your daily work “in Christ”? What about carrying on conversations with friends or family members? Or eating, or even sleeping?
3. How can the idea of union with Christ increase your love and fellowship for other Christians, both those in your church and those in other churches?
4. Do you have any awareness in your day-to-day life of Christ living in you (Gal. 2:20)? What would change in your life if you had a stronger awareness of Christ living in you throughout the day?
5. For one or two days, try reading some section of the gospels and asking how you might better imitate Christ in your own life. What effect will the idea of following in Christ’s steps (1 Peter 1:21) and walking as he walked (1 John 2:6) have in your life?
6. Can you name some times in your life when you have sensed an especially close personal fellowship with Christ? What have those times been like? Can you think of anything that brought about that close fellowship with Christ? What can we do to increase the intensity of our daily fellowship with Christ?
7. In your personal experience, do you relate differently to God the Father, to Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Spirit? Can you describe those differences, if there are any?
1 1. The material in this document is taken from an essay written for Tyndale House Publishers (Wheaton, Ill.). Used by permission.
2 2. John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied p. 164.
3 3. Union with Christ is also sometimes referred to as the “mystical union.” This is because we do not fully understand the workings of these relationships with Christ, and because we know about them only through God’s revelation in Scripture.
NIV —New International Version
5 5. This phrase is taken from the hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” written in 1866 by Samuel J. Stone.
Grudem, Wayne A.: Systematic Theology : An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich. : Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 1994, S. 840