One of my favourite childhood holidays was travelling through the Northern Territory when I was ten.
Dad and Mum had planned this amazing trip: flying to Alice Springs, and then driving to Darwin, visiting stunning places along the way, including Uluru, Kakadu, Katherine Gorge, and Mataranka Springs – before flying home to Brisbane again. I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to see the red earth of Uluru, the blue-greens of Katherine… maybe even a crocodile. And we had a fantastic time.
This trip would never have happened without Mum and Dad taking my brother and me. They planned the trip, paid for flights, helped us pack, fed us, drove us, kept us safe from crocodiles, and made sure we got home alive and well. We literally couldn’t have done or experienced any of it without them… It all depended on them taking us with them.
Union with Christ is something like this. Jesus has completed the work of our salvation through his perfect life, and his death and resurrection… yet, as long as we are separated from him, none of it benefits us. We need to be united to him; we must be in him. Because of this, there’s possibly no doctrine which is more central to the Christian life and salvation than union with Christ.
The Nature of our Union with Christ
What is union with Christ? It’s the act of God by which Jesus Christ unites us to himself. It’s the reality of which Paul speaks when he says,
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)
Union with Christ is a multi-faceted and rich concept.
It is, firstly, a mystical union – a supernatural union which transcends all earthly analogies, effected by the Holy Spirit, by which believers are joined together with Christ, permanently and tangibly, yet without blurring of the distinct identities of either Christ or his believers. Scripture uses marriage as a key picture of this mystical union: in marriage, a husband and wife become “one flesh.” (Gen. 2:24) In God’s eyes, they are truly and profoundly united, and cannot be separated, although they maintain their distinct individual identities. They belong to one another. The union of a husband and a wife in marriage is a picture of the union of Christ and his church, (Ephesians 5:29-32) a reality which shines all the brighter in Revelation 21, in which the church is the bride of Christ – united to him for all eternity. This is the basis of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20 that a sexual union is effectively a uniting of two people; and thus, because believers are united to Christ – joined to the Lord, and one spirit with him (v16) – they must flee sexual immorality, and not “take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute.” (v15) The foundation of this powerful argument is our mystical union with Christ.
Union with Christ also has a forensic, or legal, dimension.
In his death and resurrection, Christ is now the covenantal head of all believers; he is our representative and substitute, the one who has fulfilled the law on our behalf. This contrasts with the reality that all human beings, apart from Christ, are united to Adam. They are in Adam. Adam is the forefather and representative of all humanity, who inherit the sinful nature and penalty which flow from his original sin. However, for all who are united to Christ, Christ is now our representative – paying the penalty for our sin, removing its guilt and uncleanness, and crediting to us the righteousness of his life. Paul tells us this in 1 Corinthians 15:22:
“For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (See also Romans 5:12-21)
Finally, union with Christ also has an organic dimension.
In Christ, believers become a living organism together. Scripture pictures us as branches attached (united) to the vine that is Christ. (John 15:1-5) As a house of living stones, with Christ as the cornerstone. (1 Peter 2:4-5) A key, and very beautiful, picture of this facet of union with Christ in 1 Corinthians is the body of Christ. Believers are united together, with Christ, who is our head, forming a real, living, spiritual organism. (1 Cor. 6:12-27)
In addition to the vivid and rich images above, the most common language in Scripture to portray union is the term “in Christ.” When I started reading the New Testament with an eye for “in Christ,” “in Christ Jesus,” “in him” and other variations, I started seeing union with Christ everywhere.
Union with Christ is not only central to our salvation and relationship with Christ; it’s central to our relationship with one another as believers.
We aren’t united to Christ individually; we are united to him corporately. Together. (1 Cor. 1:9-10; 6:12) We aren’t a single branch attached to the Christ-vine; together, we are the branches. We aren’t just a single eye attached to the head that is Christ; it takes all of us to make his body. We aren’t one single stone attached to the cornerstone; we are all living stones which form Christ’s spiritual house. Sometimes this can be a challenging truth; after all, our fellow Christians are sinners just like us. Yet, we are united to them, all together, in Christ. It means we can’t ignore one another, disregard one another, or not care about one another. It means we can’t cease meeting together. We belong together, and together, we belong to Christ.
Union and Salvation
Union with Christ is critical and central in our salvation. Some theologians have talked and written about the “order of salvation” (ordo salutis). It’s an attempt to map out the “sequence of events” in a Christian’s salvation, including election, calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, sanctification, perseverance and glorification. (This varies slightly between accounts, but a helpful infographic is here: https://www.challies.com/visual-theology/visual-theology-the-order-of-salvation/)
What’s interesting about all this, in light of our topic, is that union with Christ doesn’t fit neatly anywhere.
Because it’s present everywhere.
We are elected in Christ. We are called in Christ. We rise to faith and repentance in Christ. We are justified in Christ. We are sanctified in Christ. We will be glorified in Christ. In this sense, union with Christ is a reality for the believer from beginning to end. (Although, importantly, union with Christ is also not a static thing: the sense in which a believer is “in Christ” when they are elected, or predestined, for salvation differs to the narrower sense in which they are “in Christ” when they rise to faith and repentance, and are justified and sanctified in him. Nevertheless, it all happens in union with Christ, in some sense.) For example: the Corinthian Christians are sanctified in Christ Jesus, cleansed and made holy in union with him, as Paul observes in his opening greeting (1 Cor. 1:2).
For the Christian, all of this happens in union with Christ.
We only receive all that Christ bought for us when Christ himself is ours, and we are his. When he belongs to us, and we belong to him. We only receive all the benefits of Christ when we are in Christ.
Thinking back to my childhood holiday: Dad and Mum could have paid for our tickets, and the campervan, and left it at that… but without my parents being with us, all we’d have had is a couple of aeroplane tickets and a booking form. There would have been no holiday. We couldn’t even get ourselves to the airport! We needed them. We needed them to take us with them. Only then did our holiday actually become a holiday. Only because they “united” themselves to us, in the form of their presence, did we receive what they had already paid for.
John Calvin puts this beautifully:
“So long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us.”*
The Implications of Union with Christ
Union with Christ is a precious doctrine, which pervades the entire reality of salvation and our experience of the Christian life. As such, it has profound implications for our lives, experiences and understanding as Christians.
Firstly, union with Christ gives us deep assurance.
Because our election, justification, glorification and everything in between, occurs in Christ, it reminds us of God’s sovereignty, and that our eternal security has been won, and is secure in, Jesus Christ. He has done all the work for us: from writing our names in the book of life from the foundation of the world, to the cross, to bringing us home as the bride of Christ at the great heavenly wedding feast, when his work in us, and our joy in him, shall finally be complete.
If we are in Christ, we can be absolutely certain of his promise of eternal life. For we have died with Christ, and we can rest truly assured that we will also rise with him, who is already risen. (1 Cor 15:50-58)
Secondly, our union with Christ brings us assurance especially in the face of suffering, trials, and death.
Scripture is clear that if we are in Christ, in union with him, then we can expect to share his sufferings. Our old selves have been crucified with Christ. (Rom. 6:5-6) Whilst this death of our old selves is the very thing which brings us new life and true freedom in Christ, it’s often painful. Our daily death to self hurts. Taking up our cross and following Jesus is uncomfortable, costly and exhausting at times. But we count the cost, and accept it with joy, recognising that it is infinitely worth it. Because, just as we are crucified with Christ, so also we will be raised to life with him, and that we will receive all the benefits of his completed work on our behalf. (Rom. 6:5-14) Our union with him also means that Jesus himself, who humbled himself to take on human flesh in the incarnation, all the way to death on a cross, identifies with us in our sorrows and sufferings, and gives us the certain hope of sharing in his life and final vindication.
Being united to Christ, with the Spirit dwelling within us (1 Cor. 3:16) and brought into fellowship with the Father (1 Cor. 3:23), means that God is never far away. It’s not uncommon for Christians to use language like, “I’ve been pretty distant from God lately.” Whilst this might communicate something about our felt experience, and especially our tragic tendencies to forget God, and to forget to pray – making us feel “distance,” – the reality is that he is never far from any of those who belong to him. If you are in Christ, then Christ lives in you – one hundred percent of the time. His Spirit dwells within you. You are joined to him, and belong to him. You literally cannot get any closer, or further away from him. What a great comfort amidst life’s ups and downs, times of suffering and sickness, our own emotions and doubts, and our cycles of sin, repentance and faith.
Finally, and perhaps (hopefully!) obviously, we cannot conceive of the Christian life without Jesus.
There are so many precious gifts which we receive in the Christian life. We have received life, love, forgiveness, hope, joy, adoption, justification, sanctification, a church family, spiritual gifts, and the promise of eternal life and glory… but above all, we have received Christ. He is ours. We can say truly: “I am his, and he is mine.” This is language of union. Belonging. All these gifts are wonderful indeed; but our best and most precious gift is Jesus. Jesus gives us himself – joining himself to us, and making us his. Forever. And when Jesus is our true and most precious gift, he makes these other gifts shine all the brighter. They are all the more magnificent because they are all enjoyed in him – in union with Christ, our Saviour and Lord.
*Quote taken from Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.1.1.