Category Archives: Union with Christ
Here’s one quote from what I think will end up proving to be one of the very best books published in 2014, Michael Reeves, Christ Our Life (Paternoster; September 1):
When Christians define themselves by something other than Christ, they poison the air all round. When they crave power and popularity and they get it, they become pompous, patronizing, or simply bullies. And when they don’t get it they become bitter, apathetic or prickly. Whether flushed by success or burnt by lack of it, both have cared too much for the wrong thing. Defining themselves by something other than Christ, they become like something other than Christ. Ugly.
Our union with Christ thus has deep plough-work to do in our hearts. It automatically and immediately gives us a new status, but for that status and identity to be felt to be the deepest truth about ourselves is radical, ongoing business. That is the primary identity of the believer, though, and the only foundation for truly Christian living. For our health, our joy and fellowship, then, we must take up arms against the insidious idea that we have any identity — background, ability or status — more basic than that of sharing the Son’s own life together before the Father.
One of the interesting connections Edwards makes on the topic of sanctification is found in his sermon on 2 Corinthians 5:8 delivered at David Brainerd’s funeral on October 12, 1747. There, in one section, Edwards connects sanctification within his broad (and glorious) worldview. Edwards makes the following points:
- Sanctification is the progressive emerging of Christ’s holiness in our lives through (a) our vision of Christ’s glory, and (b) our union with Christ by the Spirit.
- We see Christ’s glory partially now, therefore our transformation can only be incomplete in this life.
- We experience vital union with Christ partially now, therefore our holiness will never fully emerge in this life.
- In death we behold Christ’s full glory (beatific vision), and there our sanctification is complete (glorification).
- In death all hindrances to experiencing vital union with Christ are removed, and there our sanctification is complete (glorification).
It’s interesting how Edwards merges here two key themes of sanctification: (1) vital union with Christ in progressive sanctification, and (2) our sight of Christ’s glory in progressive sanctification. Those two realities are really one reality for Edwards. To see Christ’s glory is to experience unhindered union with Him. The beatific vision of Christ perfects our vital union with Christ. And it’s at that point his holiness will then flow unhindered in our lives, to our delight and to God’s glory.
All that may be a little more than we would wish to hear at a funeral sermon, but nevertheless it’s here in Edwards, and here it is in his own words (Works, 25:230–232):
III. The souls of true saints, when absent from the body, go to be with Jesus Christ, as they are brought into a most perfect conformity to, and union with him. Their spiritual conformity is begun while they are in the body; here beholding as in a glass, the glory of the Lord, they are changed into the same image: but when they come to see him as he is, in heaven, then they become like him, in another manner. That perfect right will abolish all remains of deformity, disagreement and sinful unlikeness; as all darkness is abolished before the full blaze of the sun’s meridian light: it is impossible that the least degree of obscurity should remain before such light. So it is impossible the least degree of sin and spiritual deformity should remain, in such a view of the spiritual beauty and glory of Christ, as the saints enjoy in heaven when they see that Sun of righteousness without a cloud; they themselves shine forth as the sun, and shall be as little suns, without a spot.
For then is come the time when Christ presents his saints to himself, in glorious beauty; “not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; and having holiness without a blemish” [Ephesians 5:27]. And then the saints’ union with Christ is perfected. This also is begun in this world. The relative union is both begun and perfected at once, when the soul first closes with Christ by faith: the real union, consisting in the union of hearts and affections, and in the vital union, is begun in this world, and perfected in the next. The union of the heart of a believer to Christ is begun when his heart is drawn to Christ, by the first discovery of divine excellency, at conversion; and consequent on this drawing and closing of his heart with Christ, is established a vital union with Christ; whereby the believer becomes a living branch of the true vine, living by a communication of the sap and vital juice of the stock and root; and a member of Christ’s mystical body, living by a communication of spiritual and vital influences from the head, and by a kind of participation of Christ’s own life.
But while the saints are in the body, there is much remaining distance between Christ and them: there are remainders of alienation, and the vital union is very imperfect; and so consequently, are the communication of spiritual life and vital influences: there is much between Christ and believers to keep them asunder, much indwelling sin, much temptation, an heavy-molded frail body, and a world of carnal objects, to keep off the soul from Christ, and hinder a perfect coalescence. But when the soul leaves the body, all these clogs and hindrances shall be removed, every separating wall shall be broken down, and every impediment taken out of the way, and all distance shall cease; the heart shall be wholly and perfectly drawn, and most firmly and forever attached and bound to him, by a perfect view of his glory. And the vital union shall then be brought to perfection: the soul shall live perfectly in and upon Christ, being perfectly filled with his Spirit, and animated by his vital influences; living as it were only by Christ’s life, without any remainder of spiritual death, or carnal life.
I look forward to that day!!
It is not difficult to find the rich teaching of union with Christ so beautifully displayed in John Calvin’s writings, but the theme is suspiciously absent in so much American reformed theology. Even where the phrase “union with Christ” has been used in the past it often refers to something quite a lot different (ie less) than Calvin intended.
This is the question behind William Evan’s book Imputation and Impartation: Union with Christ in American Reformed Theology (Paternoster, 2008).
For Calvin, union with Christ was “a matrix of realistic, personal, and forensic categories” (39). For him, “union with Christ may be described as the instrumental basis of both justification and sanctification.” In other words, “both justification and sanctification are subsumed under a more comprehensive reality—union with Christ. In this way Calvin avoids the problems of making justification dependent upon sanctification (and this robbing justification of its synthetic character) or of making sanctification a mere response to justification (thus rendering sanctification ultimately superfluous).”
However, for his unity of thought about the believer’s union with Christ, Calvin really never explained how the realistic, person, and forensic categories work together. More specifically, how is forensic justification mediated to the believer through personal/ontological union with Christ? Confusion over this point led to varying developments throughout the centuries.
Evans traces out the evolution of union with Christ in the writings of Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Hopkins, Timothy Dwight, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, and Louis Berkhof. Increasingly union with Christ was split into two separate categories of legal/federal union (justification) and a spiritual/vital union (sanctification). The blame for the breaking apart of impartation and imputation from a cohesive union with Christ seems gets laid at the feet of a hardening ordo salutes. “Only when the traditional ordo salutis is eschewed can a truly forensic and synthetic doctrine of justification that is at the same time relational and dynamic be articulated” (265). In other words, by viewing justification singularly as a historical point in past history in the life of the Christian, a present tense dynamic of our present justification in Christ is lost.
On this point Evans commends Richard Gaffin’s argument in Resurrection and Redemption (P&R, 1987), 114–127. There Gaffin argues in part from Romans 8:34 and writes that “justification depends not simply on an action in the past experience of the believer but on his present relation to the person of the resurrected Christ” (133). Thus, for Gaffin, forensic justification is a present reality via the believer’s personal/ontological union with Christ.
This union of the union contradicts Berkof and the federal trajectory in reformed thought, writes Evans.
The federal trajectory reaches its logical conclusion in Berkhof. Justification and sanctification are completely separated from each other, even in the mind of God. The gratuity of justification has been preserved, but at a great cost, for the integration of Christian life and experience has been sacrificed. The linchpin of the Christian’s relationship with God—justification—has been wholly abstracted from the life of faith and from union with Christ.
Second, as the bifurcation of union with Christ became complete, the theme itself also became superfluous as an umbrella concept unifying justification and sanctification. To speak of a federal or legal union with Christ is simply to describe justification without remainder. Likewise, to speak of a vital union is to speak of sanctification. To the extent that the theme of union with Christ remains present in the successors of the Hodges and Berkof, it is largely vestigial.
The religious implications of this federal trajectory should also be carefully noted. There is, on this soteriological model, no real and complete forgiveness of sins, only an attenuated justification involving the satisfaction of a liability to punishment. The Christian can have no confidence that he or she really enjoys the favor of God, because the culpability and demerit of sin remain. Furthermore, with justification almost completely abstracted from the life of the church and from the ongoing economy of faith, the problem of assurance is only heightened. Finally, the bifurcation of forensic and transformatory categories made it virtually impossible to grasp the essential unity of salvation, and the Christian is left with an unstable dialectic tending toward legalism one moment, and antinomianism the next. (237)
The bottom line: “If justification is viewed as an ongoing participation, through the life of faith and the Spirit, in Christ’s justification, then the importance of the life of faith and all that relates to it is heightened, and it becomes possible to move beyond a preoccupation with the puncticular. What is important is not so much the initial act of faith, but the life of faith in Christ” (266).
In his book, Evans shows rather conclusively that the theme of union with Christ was split in American theological development, and there justification, a truth of inestimable importance and value, became abstracted from union with Christ.
A. H. Strong, in his 1905 sermon in London:
How shall I, how shall society, find healing and Purification within? Let me answer by reminding you of what they did at Chicago.
In all the world there was no river more stagnant and fetid than was Chicago River. Its sluggish stream received the sweepings of the watercraft and the offal of the city, and there was no current to carry the detritus away. There it settled, and bred miasma and fever.
At last it was suggested that, by cutting through the low ridge between the city and the Des Plaines River, the current could be set running in the opposite direction, and drainage could be secured into the Illinois River and the great Mississippi. At a cost of fifteen millions of dollars the cut was made, and now all the water of Lake Michigan can be relied upon to cleanse that turbid stream.
What the Chicago River could never do for itself, the great lake now does for it. So no human soul can purge itself of its sin; and what the individual cannot do, humanity at large is powerless to accomplish.
Sin has dominion over us, and we are foul to the very depths of our being, until with the help of God we break through the barrier of our self-will, and let the floods of Christ’s purifying life flow into us. Then, in an hour, more is done to renew, than all our efforts for years had effected. Thus humanity is saved, individual by individual, not by philosophy, or philanthropy, or self-development, or self-reformation, but simply by joining itself to Jesus Christ, and by being filled in Him with all the fulness of God.
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” –Galatians 2:20
Richard Gaffin, WTJ 38.3 (1975), 299:
How many believers today understand themselves with the apostle as those “upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11)?
How many experience that they are members of God’s eschatological kingdom not only at hand but already present?
How many grasp with some perception of its vast implications that in the interim between the resurrection and return of Christ the existence of the church in the world is determined by the overlapping tension between this age and the age to come?
Richard Gaffin, JETS 41.4 (1998), 585:
How many believers today recognize that the present work of the Spirit within the Church and in their lives is of one piece with God’s great work of restoring the entire creation, begun in sending his Son “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4) and to be consummated at his return?
How many Christians grasp that in union with Christ, the life-giving Spirit, the Christian life in its entirety is essentially and necessarily resurrection life?
How many comprehend that in terms of Paul’s fundamental anthropological distinction between “the inner” and “outer man” (2 Cor 4:16), between “heart” and “body,” believers at the core of their being will never be any more resurrected than they already are?
Richard Gaffin, By Faith, Not by Sight (2006), 75:
How many Christians understand that the Holy Spirit presently at work in them is nothing less than resurrection power, that the Spirit, through whom God “will give life to your mortal bodies,” is “his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11)?
How many believers grasp that the Holy Spirit indwelling them is an eschatological power, that, in terms of the metaphors Paul uses, he in his activity in the church is an actual “down payment” on our eschatological inheritance (2 Cor. 1:22, 5:5; Eph. 1:14), the “firstfruits” of the full “harvest” of his eschatological working (Rom. 8:23)?
How many appreciate that Christ himself, as “life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45), is present and at work in our lives in his resurrection power?
The disciples found it difficult to get their arms around Jesus’ concept of union, notes Puritan Thomas Goodwin in his Works (9:114). He makes this point from John 14:1–26. The passage is an interesting one.
- In 14:1–9 Jesus says that to believe in himself is to believe in God. Jesus is “the way” to God.
- In 14:10–14 Jesus takes it to another level by saying he dwells “in the Father” and that the Father dwells “in me.”
- In 14:15–19 Jesus then tells them to anticipate the arrival of the Holy Spirit.
- In 14:20 Jesus presses even further: “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
Jesus continues stacking the line of thought until he delivers verse 20. If the disciples were perplexed at the first idea (and they were; see v. 9), how much more perplexed as the line of reasoning continued to develop? The whole trajectory of thought must have been overwhelming. In effect Jesus introduces what will get filled out in John’s writings as something of a triangle* of abiding: believers abide in the Savior (and vice versa), the Savior abides in the Father (and vice versa), and the Father abides in believers (and vice versa; see 1 John 4:12–16).
Goodwin wants us to note the immanence of the Holy Spirit. He was coming to help the disciples make some sense of it all (vv. 25–26).
* Oepke, TDNT, 2:543
The believer’s union with Christ is one of the richest and most precious doctrines. It is a doctrine that can be misunderstood without the proper nuances, but the proper nuances still do not make the doctrine simple or easy to comprehend. It is incomprehensible–Christ is in us, and we are in Him. We strive to better appreciate this marvelous truth, which is what the Valley of Vision calls our “felt union” with Christ.
This union is precious to those of us in the reformed tradition. Puritan Thomas Goodwin said that union with Christ was the ocean into which all other doctrines run. John Murray writes that “union with Christ is the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.” The theme of union with Christ permeates John Calvin’s commentaries and his Institutes. And the description we read of union with Christ in The Marrow of Modern Divinity is comprehensive, breathtaking, and much too long to repost (but you can read it here).
Recently I’ve begun thinking about the ways our individual union with Christ influences how we view our corporate life together. This was originally provoked while reading the works of Thomas Manton where he writes [Works, 10:323]:
Mystical union is the union of believers with Christ the head, and with one another; with Christ the head by faith, and with one another by love. … This union of believers in the same body is often compared with the mystery of the Trinity; and it is elsewhere expressed by one body.
That is both a huge claim and a broad definition of union.
In the context Manton makes very careful and important distinctions between Trinitarian unity and the nature of our union with Christ. Nevertheless, these themes seem to be inseparable (see John 14:20–23; 17:11, 20–23).
Manton then further explains the connection between union with Christ and union with one another.
[The church] is a place full to this purpose, where all believers, in regard of their union with the head, and with one another, are set forth as one body, governed under one head, by one spirit, by which they increase and grow up, till they come to such a kind of unity as is among the divine persons.
But in what ways is the connection between our union with Christ and our corporate life together in the church expressed in the New Testament, if at all? If it is connected, what are the main ramifications?
With those questions, I began my search.
I cannot deal here with every ramification, and the ones I have here identified I cannot address at length. This post intends just to put forward a few themes for further study. I’ll begin with a few foundational points before moving into specific applications:
- Union with Christ means inclusion into His Body (the Church). This really gets at the heart of the main question: Is the theme of the believer’s union with Christ wed to the theme of union into the body of Christ (the Church)? Or are these separate and distinct unions? The simple answer is that it appears the unions are united in passages like 1 Corinthians 10:17 (see also 12:12–13 and Colossians 3:3 and 3:11–15). That is why I think Manton is correct in saying that “mystical union is the union of believers with Christ the head, and with one another.” Our personal union with Christ is the basis of our union into his body, the Church. Okay, so what are the consequences?
- Union with Christ is the foundation of our corporate solidarity and mutual ministry together. This is especially clear in the words of Romans 12:3–5.
- Union with Christ, and corporate solidarity, are displayed in the Lord’s Supper. I don’t think we have a clearer visual picture of our union with Christ than in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (see Matthew 26:26–27 and John 6:41–56). With that in mind, the Lord’s Supper is where we show ourselves to be “one body” as we partake of “one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16–17).
- Baptism is a symbol of our union with Christ and our union with all those who are in Christ. The NDT states, “Baptism signifies union with Christ in his body, the church, for to be ‘in Christ’ is to be one with all who are united to him.” See Galatians 3:26–28 and 1 Corinthians 12:12–13 for this connection.
- Union with Christ is the context of our corporate maturity and growth. We are growing up, growing up together, growing up together “in him.” See Ephesians 4:11–16 along with Colossians 3:12–17 (in light of verses 1–4).
- Union with Christ is the basis of our mutual dependence. We are united to Christ, we are one body. Therefore, we need one another. This unity in Christ showcases the diversity of gifts and our need for one another in 1 Corinthians 12:12–31.
- Union with Christ is the basis for corporate sexual purity. See 1 Corinthians 6:12–20.
- Union with Christ is the basis for church membership. In the context of church membership, John Piper writes: “becoming a Christian means being united to Christ, and union with Christ expresses itself in union with a local body of believers. It seems to us that in the New Testament, to be excluded from the local church was to be excluded from Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 5:1–5). Union with Christ and church membership are seemingly inseparable.
- Union with Christ is the foundation for corporate unity in the local church. Richard Baxter writes: “As their union with Christ the head and principle of their life is principally necessary, so unity among themselves is secondarily necessary, for the conveyance and reception of that life which floweth to all from Christ” (Works, 5:170). Clearly Baxter imagines union with Christ requiring corporate solidarity and it’s not hard to see how he came to this conclusion, given the NT passages above.
- Union with Christ is a basis for racial and social unity in the local church. In his New Testament theology George Eldon Ladd writes, “When we believe in Christ, we are made members of Christ’s body; we are joined to Christ himself and therefore to all others who in union with Christ constitute his body [note that Ladd here merges the personal union/corporate union themes] … Race does not matter; social status does not matter; by Spirit baptism all kinds of people are equally members of the body of Christ” (page 588).
This brief list merely suggests a few of the many ways in which our individual union with Christ provides us with a helpful context for better understanding our life together in the church. But I think that much work could be done on this topic.
As I continue to study the many facets of union with Christ I discover myself simultaneously being led deeper into ecclesiology, nearer to the communion of the saints, and closer to the heart of God’s plan for his Church. So I am not surprised when Michael Horton writes, “The communion of saints, in Calvin’s thinking, has its source in union with Christ” (The Christian Faith, 745). And I’m not surprised when Edmond Clowney writes, “Paul describes the church as the body of Christ because of its union with Christ.” It all makes sense. Our personal union with Christ is the basis for our life together.
The bottom line for me is this: In our union with Christ we discover the groundwork for our corporate life and solidarity. In union with Christ we find the source and purpose for our spiritual gifts, we become less inclined to favoritism and racial division, and we find the basis of our unity with other Christians in our church, our cities, and around the globe. These are just a few ways in which I think further study on our union with Christ will deepen our ecclesiology.
Ultimately, the life and vitality of the church is directly connected to the life of the Savior. Charles Spurgeon perhaps captured this point best in sermon #2653. I’ll close with a quote from it:
Union with Christ is essential to the life of his Church.
Men sometimes lose a, foot, or a leg, or an arm, or an eye, or an ear. It is very remarkable how a man may continue to exist after he has lost several of his limbs, but he cannot live if his head is taken away. Cut that off, and the decapitated body is dead in an instant.
So, brethren and sisters, the Church of God lives because Christ lives, and its life is entirely derived from him. If there were no Christ, there would be no Church; and if there is, anywhere, a body of professors without vital union to Christ, they are not a church. They may have the name of a church, but they are assuredly dead. The Spirit of God flows through Christ into the whole of his true Church, permeating every part of his wonderful mystical body.
Another gem from the writings of Dr. J.I. Packer. This one is from his book Growing in Christ (Crossway, 1996), page 120:
God’s eternal Son became Jesus the Christ by incarnation; to put away our sins he tasted death by crucifixion; he resumed bodily life for all eternity by resurrection; and he reentered heaven’s glory by ascension. This is the Christ-event. It is truly historical, for it happened in Palestine 2,000 years ago. Equally true, however, it is trans-historical, in the sense of not being bounded by space and time as other events are: it can touch and involve in itself any person at any time anywhere. Faith in Jesus occasions that involving touch, so that in terms of rock-bottom reality every believer has actually died and risen, and now lives and reigns, with Jesus and through Jesus. This is the new creation aspect of our link with Jesus. …. The way to express it is that in the Jesus to whom we go in faith the power of the whole Christ-event resides, and that in saving us he not only sets us right with God, but also, so to speak, plugs us in to his own dying, rising, and reigning. Thus we live in joyful fellowship with him, knowing ourselves justified by faith through his death, and finding therewith freedom from sin’s tyranny and foretastes of heaven on earth through the transforming power within us that his dying and rising exerts. This is an over-short statement of an overwhelming truth.
The magnitude of Christ’s work is mind-numbing. And the thought that I am now “plugged in” to his completed work causes me to marvel at God’s grace!
In his exceptional commentary on Romans, Douglas Moo cites Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs on the connection between growth in personal holiness and the believer’s union with Christ. Burroughs writes, “from him [Christ] as from a fountain, sanctification flows into the souls of the Saints: their sanctification comes not so much from their struggling, and endeavors, and vows, and resolutions, as it comes flowing to them from their union with him.” Union with Christ is the fountain, the source, of personal holiness and two Pauline texts make this connection clear, Romans 6:1–14 and Colossians 3:1–17. And while a number of books on sanctification and biblical counseling mention this union at some point, it seems to me that too few books on personal holiness have roots sunk deep into this Pauline soil. One fine example of how union can provide a rich framework for personal holiness can be seen in Jerry Bridges’ classic book The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness. Just a few of my early Monday morning thoughts, fwiw.