STUDY SIXTEEN: UNION WITH CHRIST
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2014
The New Testament teaches a union with Christ that is expressed in two ways: the believer is ‘in Christ’ and Christ is in the believer:
John 6:56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him
John 14:20 On that day you will know that you are in me and I am in you.
John 15:5 If a man remains in me and I in him …
1John 4:13 We know that we live in him and he in us
1John 4:15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.
1John 4:16 Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him
Note: the word ‘remains’ does not infer the possibility of ceasing to be in Christ; rather its meaning is something like ‘dwells’ or ‘has one’s habitual dwelling place’. The old ‘abides’ of the KJV, which has the meaning of ‘has one’s abode’, more accurately conveys the meaning. Yet the word ‘remain’ does have this in its favour: that if there is no ‘remaining’ there never was any union in the first place.
Jesus used similar language to describe the union between himself and his Father:
‘the Father is in me, and I in the Father’ [John 10:38];
‘Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?... Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me;’ [John 14:10,11];
‘you are in me and I am in you’ [John 17:21]
It is clear from the verses listed at the beginning of this study that this significant union between Christ and the believer exists, but the question is ‘In what does it consist?’ and ‘How does if happen?’ And many varied answers have been proposed, some of which confuse rather than clarify the issue, taking the Christian into quietism, mysticism and/or subjectivism, sometimes of a destructive kind, and even into what could only be called the deification of man.
Despite the difficult and confusing aspects of this concept of union with Christ, it is an extremely important concept, some writers even suggesting that it is this concept, rather than justification by faith, that is the underpinning concept of Paul’s understanding of our salvation. Certainly, all of the aspects of Christ’s saving work that we have studied are intimately related to and dependent on the believer’s union with Christ.
A. UNION WITH CHRIST – THE WORK AND ROLE OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
Here we find the answer to some of the questions about ‘union with Christ’. The New Testament teaches us that:
A.1 We are baptised into Christ by the Holy Spirit
How does a person become united with Christ? The New Testament teaches:
We were baptized into Christ Jesus, and into his death [Romans 6:3]
We were baptized into Christ, and have clothed ourselves with Christ and have, by that, all become one in Christ Jesus [Galatians 3:27]
Lest we think that this is referring to some effect of the rite of water baptism, this ‘baptism’ is elsewhere referred to as baptism by the Holy Spirit:
‘For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink’ [1Corinthians 12:13]
This is the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, which we studied in Study Four. This regeneration, in which we are brought from spiritual death to spiritual life, consists in a reconnection with God who is the source of spiritual life. As we saw in that study, we do not and cannot have spiritual life while we are disconnected from God. It is simply an impossibility. When he regenerates us, when he brings us to spiritual life, that life is always, and only can be, life in union with, and in dependence on, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He is life. Apart from him, not united to him, we do not have what the Bible calls ‘life’.
It is this initial regenerating work of the Spirit of God that establishes the believer’s union with Christ. He, the Holy Spirit, unites us with Christ. [See section B below for expansion of this concept.]
A.2 Every believer incorporated into the ‘body of Christ’ – the church
When the New Testament speaks of the believer being ‘in Christ’ this is not solely, nor possibly even primarily, an individual thing. While it is surely an individual thing, it is also a corporate thing: every believer is a member of the body of Christ, incorporated into the body of Christ by the Spirit.
Task #1: Scripture research
Discuss these verses. How do they describe the church [those who are true believers] in relation to union with Christ?
1Corinthians 3:9,16, 17
1Corinthians 10:16,17 [relationship of the Lord’s supper to union with Christ]
1Corinthians 12:12-14,27 [unity and diversity within the body of Christ.]
Galatians 3:26-29 [note the stress on ‘all’]
Ephesians 2:13-22 [There are at least 8 significant facts here about the unity of all believers in union with Christ.]
This corporate union with Christ does not include everyone who is a member of, or attends, a ‘church’, in our normal way of speaking. The church referred to as the ‘body of Christ’ is what some scholars call ‘the church invisible’, that is, those people from all ages, who, irrespective of ‘denomination’, are true believers in Christ, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, and united to Christ by God’s own action.
A.3 We are indwelt by the Holy Spirit
Not only does the Holy Spirit baptize us into Christ, he also indwells us. This indwelling of the Holy Spirit, which was promised by Jesus in John 14 – 16, is, as Jesus stated in John 14:18, 20 and 23, Jesus himself coming and making his home in us. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus. [Romans 8:9-11; Philippians 1:19; 1Peter 1:11]
The important point for our present study is that union with Christ both in its ‘us in Christ’ and ‘Christ in us’ aspects, is something that is done and achieved not by us but by God. It is yet another image of the salvation which we receive from God as sheer gift, by an act of his grace.
The impact and significance of this indwelling of the Holy Spirit – Christ in us – are enormous.
Task #2: What is the impact of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, in the believer?
Romans 8:9-11 [please read in several translations]
2Coromthians 3:17-18 [read in several translations]
Note: there are many more references about the impact of the indwelling Spirit of God; the above list focuses mostly on the salvation aspects of this indwelling, but include some referring to the implications of this indwelling for both our confidence in that salvation and life application of that salvation.
A.4 An important truth about the indwelling of Christ in the believer
If we were to ask ‘When does this indwelling of Christ in the believer begin?’ the Biblical answer is ‘At the point of genuine faith in Christ.’
Stibbs and Packer [The Spirit Within You, p 37f] refer to the following verses that teach the connection between faith in Christ and the gift of the indwelling Spirit:
‘”If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.’ [John 7:37-39]
‘So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God?’ [Acts 11:17]
‘God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.’ [Acts 15:8,9]
‘Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?’ [Galatians 3:2]
‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law … in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.’ [Galatians 3:13,14]
‘And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit …’ [Ephesians 1;13].
As Stibbs and Packer point out, studied in context these verses decisively connect the indwelling Spirit to the point of faith, and not to some second and subsequent experience additional to salvation. [The first reference above explains the delay in respect to the original disciples.]
B. IDENTIFICATION WITH CHRIST
We have already looked at the salvation concept of substitutionary atonement. There we saw that Jesus Christ took our place – he bore the guilt, the condemnation, the judgment, and the penalty for our sins. In addition to this identification with us in our guilt and condemnation, Jesus Christ also entered the presence of God as our great high priest – our Mediator, our Advocate. The letter to the Hebrews teaches us that to do so he had to be made like us in every way, in order to be a perfect representative qualified to stand in our place and represent us [Hebrews 2:10-11,14-18; 4:14-16]. Because he was thus qualified to represent us, those who believe in him are described as being identified and united with him in what he did on our behalf.
B.1 Identification with Christ in his death for our sins
Task #3: Scripture study
Study these texts carefully. What do they say about the union of the believer with the death of Christ? Describe and discuss the implications for your daily peace with God.
All of the above are expressions of the fact that when Jesus died the death penalty for our sin as our substitute, that death of Jesus Christ is counted by God as our death. God reckons that we have paid the death penalty for our sins in Christ our substitute. Because of this union with Christ in his death for our sins, we will never face that death penalty, that judgment, that condemnation again. It is done. In Christ our substitute, we died to sin, that is, we died the death penalty incurred by our sin. In Christ our substitute God judged and condemned our sin. As Paul expanded this concept in Romans 7 he explained that we also died to the law through the body of Christ [7:4, 6]. The law of sin and death [Romans 8:2] justly demanded our death; that death was provided in our substitute Jesus Christ. It can never be demanded again. Legally, effectively, we died to sin and the law in union with Christ.
B.2 Identification with Christ in his resurrection to new life
Task #4: More Scripture study
Study these texts. What do they say about the union of the believer with the resurrection life of Christ? Discuss the relevance of this truth for your life as a Christian.
Colossians 2:12 [middle section]
Colossians 2:13 [middle section]
All of these verses, and the passages from which they come, teach that the believer has been raised to new life in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and is, even now, seated with [or in] him in the heavenly places. The Romans 6 passage which we looked at under the previous sub-heading, also speaks of this new life of the believer in the resurrection of Christ, but its objective ‘in Christ’ salvation reality is often over-looked because of the question raised in verse 1, and answered by Paul by a further explanation of how salvation was obtained for us by Christ. New life in Christ is very present in Romans 6, indeed it is the basis of Paul’s refutation of the verse one question.
Thus Romans 6 also speaks of our being ‘united with him in his resurrection’ [verse 5], of our living with him [verse 8], and being ‘alive unto God in Christ Jesus’ [verse 11], and having been ‘brought from death to life’ [verse 13]. These are not things that are on or off, dependent on our level of spirituality or obedience, but facts about our union with Christ, facts about our salvation.
Note: In understanding the letter to the Romans it is helpful to note that Paul proceeds through his argument by raising, then answering questions. There are at least 41 questions asked and answered in Chapters 2 to 11.
Union with Christ then, is union with him in his death and union with him in his resurrection to new life. This new life is a life that has been freed forever from sin’s penalty, a life in which there is no further expectation of spiritual death, no further expectation that sin will ever again be held against us. Thus Paul teaches that because of this death, the life which we now have in union with Christ is a life in which we are free from both sin and the law. Not because sin and the law do not exist, or because we do not sin or break God’s law, but because our life in union with Christ is a life beyond their reach and beyond their authority. We have, in Christ, died and passed beyond their legal jurisdiction. We have, in Christ, a new life: his perfect life credited to us, counted ours [Galatians 2:20].
B.3 Together with Christ forever
This identification with Christ ensures the believers’ final resurrection and their life with Christ forever.
Task #5: Study these texts
Here union with Christ embraces the future with confident hope – with the certainty of our being raised to new life beyond death, and the certainty of being with him forever beyond and untouchable by the final judgment. Describe and discuss the certainty communicated in these expressions of union with Christ.
C. ‘IN CHRIST’ – EVERY SPIRITUAL BLESSING
Closely dependent on this identification with Christ in his death and resurrection is another aspect of our union with Christ. A clear teaching of the New Testament is that every spiritual blessing is given to the believer ‘in Christ’ [Ephesians 1:3]. God has blessed us in Christ, says Paul, with every spiritual blessing that heaven has to offer. He then proceeds to list some of these blessings that he has already given to every believer, not as a result of anything they have done, but ‘in Christ’. Because the believer is united with Christ all of these spiritual blessings are his/hers.
Task #6: What do these verses say that the believer has ‘in Christ’ or ‘with Christ’?
To receive and believe in Jesus Christ, to be united to him by faith through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, is to also receive complete salvation. As we have seen before, salvation cannot be separated from Christ. It is essentially connected with Christ. Indeed Christ himself, is our salvation.
D. IN CHRIST – THE WAY GOD NOW RELATES TO THE BELIEVER/THE WAY THE BELIEVER SHOULD NOW RELATE TO GOD
The reality of all that has been presented so far in this study is the reality in which God relates to the believer and the reality in which the believer should, by faith, see his relationship with God. Although at one level God still sees and knows our sins and our sinfulness, even far more clearly than we do ourselves, at another level, he does not relate to us according to that reality. He has ceased to relate to the believer as an isolated individual, but has chosen, according to his eternal will, his pleasure, and his indescribable grace, to relate to the believer always, ever and only ‘in Christ’. He has chosen to see not us, but Christ, in whom he has placed us, and in whom all our sin and guilt have been forever dealt with.
From God’s perspective this is in place. This is the permanent reality of his dealings with us.
But from our perspective we often fail to embrace this reality. All too often, and sometimes habitually, we live in his presence as if we were not ‘in Christ’ – as if we still had to stand on our own two feet in his presence hoping that our own puny handful of righteousness will be sufficient to please him today, fearful, or even convinced, that our current sin and our current guilt have severed us from him and that his judgment must surely fall upon us in some way or another.
As we saw in the study on justification/righteousness, Paul describes these two ways of approaching God as living ‘kata pneuma’ – according to the Spirit, and living ‘kata sarka’ – according to the flesh.
The contrast between the way of personal merit and the way of faith is clearly exemplified in two Biblical passages:
Luke 18:9-14 – The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
The Pharisee trusted in his own religious credentials. He did not go home justified.
The Tax Collector, aware of his own sinfulness, trusted in the mercy of God and went home ‘justified’, that is, acquitted.
Philippians 3:1-11 – Saul, the Pharisee and Paul, the Christian
Saul, prior to his conversion, was confident in his ‘flesh’ – his circumcision, his nationality, his tribe, his purity of race, his keeping of the law of God, his zeal for God’s honour and his ‘legalistic righteousness’.
Paul, after his conversion to faith in Christ, counted his own righteousness ‘dung’ and ‘a loss’. He stopped trusting in his own righteousness and trusted in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
The more we understand and appreciate the ‘in Christ’ concept the more we will live with this overwhelming reality that God no longer relates to us in ourselves. Our identification with Christ, our union with Christ, and with all that Christ did for us as our substitute, has liberated us from ever again having to stand in God’s presence naked and exposed in our sin and guilt. We stand and we trust not in ourselves, but in Christ.
E. GLORIFICATION WITH CHRIST
The Bible teaches that union with Christ also includes glorification with Christ, both present and future.
Task #7: Discuss the concept of the believer’s glorification with Christ in these verses.