Union with Christ: The Underdog Doctrine (Part Two)

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December 22 2015
Author: Pastor Bill Henderson

It almost goes without saying that every area of expertise uses its own special terms of reference. Good mechanics know limited slip differentials. Good carpenters know scissor trusses. Good nurses know cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Good Teachers know Bloom’s taxonomy. And good theologians know the underdog doctrine of union with Christ. 

Since every Christian is a theologian of sorts, and the concept of “union with Christ” is found almost everywhere in the New Testament (Paul uses his “in Christ” language over 160 x’s), it stands to reason that this undervalued oneness between Christ and the Christian should go viral. Unfortunately, as John Piper has said, “Union in Christ is probably the most important doctrine you’ve never heard of.” However, if Christ remains outside of us and completely separate from us then all he has suffered and done for our salvation remains useless to us. So I refer you to the last blog entry where I provided a biblical basis for, three misconceptions of, and three positive characteristics of union with Christ. 

But how does union with Christ make a difference in the life of us Christians? Think about one person actually breathing for another in mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Or think about a direct blood transfusion from the circulatory system of the donor to the circulatory system of the recipient. In both of these examples, infusion of life comes by union with another. Similarly, dwelling within us, in some way we cannot fully comprehend, Christ is able to animate and influence our spiritual lives, our very inner thoughts, and feelings. 

Perhaps the best biblical picture of union with Christ is that of husband and wife, a relationship described as “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). When formerly unrelated individuals are wedded together in holy matrimony not only do the two become one physically, but ideally they also become so close in mind, heart, and experience that they have great empathy for and understanding of one another. So in a great marriage, a husband will have an uncanny intuition about how his wife will respond to change, a compliment, or a crisis. The same goes for his knowing wife – she may even finish his sentences for him. Why? Because they’re so intensively united together, in mind and heart, that there is a kind of “interpenetration” at work. Similarly, a spiritual communion is experienced between us Christians and the Lord. 

Jesus taught that “no branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me (John 15:4). God’s purpose for believers is that they should produce spiritual fruit of lasting quality (John 15:16). This fruitfulness includes faithfulness in prayer (John 15:7), expressing complete joy in the Lord (John 15:11), interpersonal love (John 15:12-13), keeping Christ’s commands (John 15:14), the exercise of justice and the practice of righteousness (Isaiah 5:7), and so on. But this Christian fruit-bearing is not the natural outworking of unaided human nature. Nor is it a superimposed divinely controlled operation like a boy with his toy remote controlled helicopter. We neither generate life in Christ nor, like inanimate machines, passively act out the life of Christ. Apart from union with Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:5) but in union with Christ, we can cooperate with the very life of God in Christ by fulfilling the condition of remaining in Christ through keeping his word (John 15:6-7). So fruit-bearing is not simply a matter of trying harder or pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Nor is it a matter of “letting go and letting God.” Instead, we produce a “harvest of righteousness and peace” (Hebrews 12:11) through a supernatural dynamic – through intimate, loving, obedient union with Christ we responsibly work out our salvation because God is sovereignly working in us to will and do His good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).  

Finally, let me cast this dynamic shared union in the context of the local church. Did you know that Jesus Christ is a member of our church? He is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.  

Recently I was reading about Kimberly Flannigan from Cincinnati Ohio who, in the Fall of 2013, was a passenger in a vehicle that slid on black ice causing a violent accident. Upon arrival at the hospital, surgeons indicated she had suffered an internal decapitation. Her head trauma had fully separated her skull from her spinal column while leaving the exterior of her neck intact. The usual result is paralysis or death, but miraculously Doctors reattached her head, stabilized her spine, and prevented further damage and paralysis.

It occurs to me that Christ is the Head of the Church. Therefore, every member of His body must be connected to Him to experience life and vitality. But like Kimberly Flannigan, it is possible for believers to suffer from internal decapitation. We may look fine on the outside – attending church, singing in the congregation, working in the nursery, maybe not attending church but thinking of CHFBC as our church! But inside – in our spirits – we’ve become disconnected from our Head, Jesus Christ, and by consequence our brothers and sisters in Christ.

It's not enough to appear to be connected to Christ. Every member of His body, the Church, must be engaged in vital union with Him on the inside. That means experiencing intimate fellowship with Christ, our Head. "Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything" (Colossians 1:18). Putting Christ first means actively abiding in him so that he is the center and circumference of real Christian living – Christ in us and we in him.

Prayer: 

Heavenly Father, we are in awe of your amazing transforming grace. Forgive us because perhaps much more frequently we think of Christ our Saviour as outside of us rather than as a Saviour who dwells within us by Your Spirit. We confess that it is beyond the limits of our knowledge to fully appreciate the reality that the one who is God can abide in believers like us who are finite and sinful. So Lord, we know there’s no room for lazy passivity just as there’s no place for works righteousness. But in celebration of our union with Christ, may your pleasure be made full in us as we confidently press on in fruitful obedience reassured by the incentive of your wonder-working grace in our hearts. In Jesus’ name, Amen. 

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