The Christian life can be boiled down to three words: union with Christ. The New Testament refers to our union with Christ over 250 times. These references are woven throughout the New Testament in terms such as "in Christ" and "Christ in us". But despite its prevalence throughout Scripture, many have completely missed this concept while reading their Bible. The doctrine of union with Christ has been largely overlooked.
A. The Importance of Union with Christ
The Scriptures teach us that our life is indispensably connected to our union with Christ. It is the source and guarantee that the blood-bought children of God will receive all the spiritual blessings of salvation. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin explained that the blessings given to Christ from the Father are useless to us so long as Christ remains outside of us. In order for us to obtain the benefits of Christ's work, he must dwell in us and we in him. So the doctrine of union with Christ teaches us how spiritual blessings are applied to Christ's saints.
B. Origin of Union with Christ
The New Testament reveals a great mystery: that our salvation was anchored in Christ before God spoke creation into existence. This means that the union of Christ and his saints exceeds time and space. Although we had not yet sinned, God knew that we would and was therefore pleased to set apart a people who would eventually belong to Christ through his redemptive work.
Ephesians 1:4 says, “even as he chose us in him (Christ), before the foundation of the world.”
2 Tim. 1:8-9 says, “...share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.”
Though it difficult to grasp, Scripture teaches that from God’s point of view, we were considered as being present in Christ’s suffering and exaltation. This does not mean that our soul existed before God created our physical bodies. Nor does it mean that our union with Christ was literal or actual, but in some sense, God had us in mind as being united to Christ prior to our conversion. This is why Paul can say, "I have been crucified with Christ" (Gal. 2:20) and "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death..." (Rom. 6:4).
Everything that Christ did as our representative was effectual for the saints of past, present and future. His life was counted as our life. Therefore, we died in the death of Christ (Gal. 2:20), were buried in the burial of Christ (Col. 2:20), risen in the resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:4), and exalted in the exaltation of Christ (Eph. 2:6). We were identified with Christ at every stage of his redemptive work.
C. How is Our Union Effected?
Although our union with Christ began in the mind of God before the foundations of the world, we needed to be brought into an actual relationship with Christ. It's helpful to think of our origin with Christ as the blueprints or plan for each individuals personal conversion. The Scriptures show us that the Spirit of God is the agent who brings believers into an actual relationship with Christ.
1 John 4:13 says,“...We abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”
Titus 3:5 says, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit...”
When God summons his people to believe the Gospel through the preaching of his word, the Spirit applies the benefits of Christ's work to those who responded in faith and repentance. In Ephesians 1, Paul provides the most comprehensive list of benefits we receive by virtue of union with Christ. In Christ, we have election, adoption, redemption, forgiveness, blessing, and the seal of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:1-14).
D. Life-Transforming Implications of Union with Christ
1. In Christ, we receive new life.
The death and resurrection of Christ produces real results in our life. Not only do we receive forgiveness of sins, we also receive a new life in Christ. When we became Christians, the Spirit of God brought about a change in our character and personality. We refer to this as receiving a new heart. We were formally dead and unresponsive to the commands of God, but through union with Christ, we have been made alive to him.
Rom. 6:11 says, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Our new heart produces new desires. As Christians, we want to delight in God and obey him. Our connection to Christ in this life gives us the power to continually put sin to death. He gives us the strength and desire to remain unpersuaded by the lure of sin.
2. In Christ, we are adopted into a new family.
When we are individually united to Christ, we become members of Christ's body, which is the church. So, we must fight against the idea that we were saved into isolation. Individuals are not the church, rather, the church is both the local and universal collection of all saints throughout history.
Rom. 12:4-5 says, “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
Worldly division, hostility, and status are broken-down in Christ. Those who were once far and cut off are brought into fellowship with one another. Unity with Christ creates the basis for unity among all Christians.
Gal. 3:28-29 says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.”
Our unity should be so harmonious that, as the body of Christ, we become the visible display of the gospel to those around us.
3. In Christ, we receive a new identity.
Union with Christ is the foundation of our Christian identity. Our life is now hidden with Christ, meaning his righteous becomes our righteousness and his glory becomes our glory. We are no longer seen by God as sons of disobedience, enemies, and lovers of darkness. No matter what we’ve done or what has been done to us, we are considered children of God in Christ.
When we reflect on who we really are in Christ, it will enable us to live the way we should. (Col 3:1-3). When our minds are sent on things above, the pleasures of this world will pale in comparison to the riches that we have in Christ.
We can have confidence that the Spirit will continue to keep us in this union by sustaining our faith. The very fact that we were anchored in Christ prior to our existence ensures us that our union with him is unending. Our lives are so secure in Christ, that no man nor devil can separate us from him (John 10:27-28; John 6:37-39).
The saints of Christ should revel in this truth. How else can we rejoice in the absurdity of life? What can possibly sustain our perseverance until Christ returns? How can we have confidence that we will pass from death to life? In Christ alone, amen.