Union with Christ: The Underdog Doctrine (Part 1)

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September 27 2013
Author: Pastor Bill Henderson

I can't explain it but I’ve always had a thing for underdogs (feel free to psycho-analyze). Whether it be choice of friends, team to cheer for, or movie to watch (think Rudy or Rocky), if there’s an underdog I’m engaged. I feel the same about Bible doctrine for Christians. If I were to list the various aspects of the Bible’s teaching on God’s application of salvation (like new birth, conversion, justification, adoption, and glorification) would it surprise you to know that the single and most dominant doctrine that underlies them all is that of union with Christ.

Union with Christ – overlooked, undervalued, and yet, if you are a Christian, such a treasure trove. No wonder theologian Anthony Hoekema says, 'This union is not only the beginning of our salvation; it sustains, fills, and perfects the entire process of salvation' (Saved by Grace, p.60).

Biblical Foundations for Union with Christ: How does the Bible Teach union with Christ?

In reading your New Testament, has your eye caught the large number of references to oneness between Christ and the Christian? The most basic references use the unassuming preposition “in” to assert that, as a matter of fact, believers are "in Christ" and that "Christ is in" the believer (e.g. Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 5:17; and Galatians 2:20; Colossians 1:27). And three passages explicitly combine both concepts in the same sentence (John 6:56; 15:4; 1 John 4:13). Furthermore, this special togetherness of Christian and Christ is described using some eye-opening language: crucified with him (Galatians 2:20); suffered with him (Romans 8:17); died with him (Colossians 2:20); buried with him (Romans 6:4); made alive with him (Ephesians 2:5); raised with him (Colossians 3:1); seated in the heavenly realms with him (Ephesians 2:6); glorified with him (Romans 8:17); joint heirs with him (Romans 8:17); and future reigning with him (2 Timothy 2:12). Wouldn’t you say that the English word "relationship" is really only scratching at the surface of what it means to be in union with Christ?

The Meaning of Union with Christ: In what sense can Christ be said to be in us, and we in him?

First, beware of the influence of various Eastern religions. Don’t be fooled by the pantheistic concept that we are one in essence with God, that we have no existence apart from His. We are not part of the divine essence and never will be. We are not part of God, nor is God part of us. Biblically, our union with Christ is not metaphysical.

Secondly, in the history of religion, some forms of mysticism have fostered the pursuit of a higher consciousness or awareness of the Divine aimed to be so deep and absorbing that one would virtually lose his or her own individuality. Today, in the West, the hub of mysticism is found in the New Age Movement and its many expressions (keep your eyes peeled). True, union with Christ may be rightly described as mystical in the sense that a Christian’s relationship with Christ and his benefits are ultimately inscrutable and beyond our limited understanding. But it would be unbiblical for us to think of union with Christ as mystical in the sense that believers allegedly melt into the Divine like a drop of water in the ocean. Even in some Christian circles, ceasing to be aware of oneself by either reaching a state of hypnotic-like frenzy or getting transcendentally "caught up with Christ," as it were, is deemed to be the height of spirituality, meditation, or religious devotion. But, biblically, deep commitment to Christ (while it may enjoy its peak experiences of serendipity) is never cast in terms of absorption into Christ by passively losing one’s self in him in the sense of obliterating one’s identity. Biblically, our union with Christ is not mystical like this, because Christ and the Christian never merge into one in the sense that one of them is swallowed up into the personality of the other.

Thirdly, if the mysticism just described makes for an over-estimated union between Christ and the Christian, the suggestion of C.S. Lewis makes for an under-estimated union. Lewis seems to picture union with Christ as the experience of friendship, or relationship between teacher and student, a psychological sharing of interests, objectives, a common acceptance of ideals, a sympathetic oneness, similar to that between the best of friends (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves [New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1960], 96-97). But, as helpful as this picture of sympathetic oneness may be, the biblical picture is much richer, portraying an even closer bond and stronger union.

Positively put, union with Christ has at least three characteristics. First, it is a judicial union. Since Paul virtually identified Christians with Christ in the great events of redemption (for we were crucified with Christ, we died with him, we were made alive with him), when God sees the merits of the cross He sees Christ and me together. Consequently, the benefits of Christ’s atoning death are credited to me. When God evaluates or judges my obligations before His Law, He does not see me alone. He sees both me and Jesus (who kept the Law perfectly), and He pronounces His verdict: "They are righteous." From a legal perspective the two are one. For all practical purposes the cross creates a new legal standing, a special judicial union. Therefore, I am justified before God because of my union with Christ.

But this judicial union is worth two moments of reflection. Some critics of the substitutionary atonement charge it improper for one person to be executed for another, or for a person to be legally treated as righteous when he or she really is not. But the answer to this criticism lies profoundly in this unique oneness of Christ and the Christian. The Bible says that as Christ and the believer were crucified and condemned together, they also are resurrected and justified together.

Also, sometimes in our attempt to understand Christ’s work on the cross we illustrate it my means of a simple commercial payment: on the cross Christ paid for my sins; by faith I receive that payment; and by grace my sin debt is erased. And this a great starting point. But imagine running up a bill at a restaurant only to learn that a kind friend had come and gone and paid the bill for you. Yes, you’d be floored and grateful to accept such a payment but you’d miss out on personally sharing the meal with your benefactor. Here lies the point at hand. It is misleading if we construe our judicial standing before God as the result of an impersonal transaction. Paul says, “It is because of [God] that you are in (union with) Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Yes, Christ is our "righteousness"(our justification) before God, but such an imputed legal standing must be seen in the light of our oneness with Christ in which we, as sinners, share in his attitude towards sin. This is because our justification is inseparable from our personal union with the justifier. So, to tease out the illustration, this judicial union means that while he underwrites the full cost we also enjoy his intimate company and gratefully unite our hearts with his at the banqueting table of his grace.

Secondly, union with Christ is a spiritual union. To state the obvious, union with Christ is not a physical connection like that of conjoined twins or two pieces of metal welded together. It is a union between Christ and the believer actuated by God the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we overlook the interpenetrating relationship between the Holy Spirit and Christ. Notice the unusual expression from Paul’s pen: "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ" (also note the interchangeability between the Spirit and Christ in Romans 8:9-11). Bottom-line: Christ dwells in us if his Spirit dwells in us, and he dwells in us by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:17; 12:12-13; 1 John 4:13). Therefore, with the Spirit as the bonding agent, an ultimately unfathomable spiritual union between Christ and the believer has been supernaturally and internally actualized – and this, not by human initiative, but by the Spirit of God himself (1 John 3:24).

Thirdly, union with Christ is a vital union. Our spiritual union with Christ is much more than sympathetic oneness, an example to follow, and counsel to heed. In a very real sense, the vitality of Christ’s life renews our inner nature (Romans 6:11; 12:2; 2 Corinthians 4:16) by imparting spiritual stimulus and energy (think of the organic flow of sap from tree trunk to branches and read John 15:4-5). As a result, Christ directly influences what every Christian thinks, feels, wills, does, and is. Jesus through the work of the Spirit shares himself and revitalizes the Christian for a qualitatively new life of fruitfulness. Therefore, while we are pilgrims and strangers on this earth, Christ is with us for his shared-life is in us, and forever.

Yesterday, I quoted a snippet from Revelation 14:13 at the Memorial Service for our beloved brother Calvin Stead whom the Lord took in his 84th year: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord" (cf. Romans 14:8). Here, in this single promise, is blessing that outlives our earthly lives made possible because of union with Christ. Calvin’s grace-initiated union with Christ was pre-planned by divine election (Ephesians 1:3-4), began at the moment of his regeneration (Ephesians 2:4-5), identified him with Christ the Justifier (2 Corinthians 5:21), tapped him into faith-appropriated spiritual life and vitality (Galatians 2:20), sanctified him for fruitfulness (John 15:4-5), but also carried him through death to experience an eternity of unmediated, joyous fellowship with his Lord: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on."

Once your radar is tuned into this doctrine of union with Christ, you will find it almost everywhere in your New Testament. In the next blog entry I’ll explore, illustrate, and apply it further still with the sentiment of Lewis Smedes in mind: union with Christ is simultaneously the center and circumference of authentic human existence, that is, authentic Christian existence.

Suggested Reading:
1. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000) 840-850.
2. Anthony Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989) 54-67.
3. Robert Letham, Union with Christ: in Scripture, History, and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P. & R., 2011).
4. Lewis B. Smedes, Union with Christ: A Biblical View of the New Life in Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983). 

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