I wrote this to help me think through explaining union with Christ in the context of a discipleship group I am trying to start at the church I am serving. It isn’t an exposition of the whole doctrine of Union with Christ. In the future, I hope to examine how the doctrine of Union with Christ relates to the Hypostatic Union, specifically, how theologians have articulated the location of our union with Christ in relation to the Hypostatic union.
We know that as Christians we are disciples of Christ, called to follow, imitate, and do what he says. We’ve also established that for many of us, the gap between what we know we are supposed to do and what we are doing is often pretty extensive. We could try to double down and exert our wills and just force ourselves to be disciples, but this always leads to some kind of exhaustion mixed with a sense of guilt and shame at our failure. Last week we learned that Christian’s are not just saved from death and sin, but we are also saved for a certain kind of life: life submitted to Christ and in obedience to his will. The question that still remains is how is this done? How is the gap bridged? How do we live in obedience without shame overwhelming us when we faith, and pride overwhelming us when we succeed?
The Christian answer to this is the doctrine of Union with Christ. To understand the doctrine, we must first define it and consider its benefits for the Christian. So what is union with Christ?
Rankin Wilbourne offers this, simple and biblical definition: Union with Christ means that you are in Christ and Christ is in you.” (43). What does this mean? First, to be in Christ means that everything Christ has done and is doing is yours – his life, death, resurrection and ascension. In Galatians 2:20 Paul says it this way, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” Paul can say this because, in a very real, not metaphorical way, he has died with Christ and now lives in Christ. This is true for anyone who believes in Jesus Christ – His life is your life. The second part of the definition is that Christ is in you. How is this possible? In John 14 Jesus tells his disciples that he is about to leave, but that he will not leave them as orphans but he will come to them. How does Jesus both leave and come to them? He says, “In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” How is this possible? This is all possible because the Holy Spirit, the advocate, and helper will dwell in his disciples. Jesus leaves his disciples, physically, but remains with and is one with his disciples, through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit, the Son and Father come to dwell in the hearts of his disciples. (see John 14:23). As Wilbourne says, “To be united to Christ is to have the Spirit of Christ within you. The Spirit is the real, living bond between Jesus and us.” (51).
This is the basic doctrine of Union with Christ, but how does this relate to our lives? Gordon T. Smith summarizes it this way:
“Christ himself, his very self, becomes our true home even as we ourselves, our embodied selves, are the home of Christ. Therefore we do not merely follow Jesus, though we certainly follow. We do not merely obey Jesus, though we certainly live as those who do his will. And we Do not merely imitate Jesus, though, without doubt, we follow his example. Rather, we participate in the life of Jesus – literally, not metaphorically.” (41).
So Union with Christ is a literal reality, not something we just conjure up or imagine. But how does Union with Christ happen? Well, we’ve already seen that the Holy Spirit dwells in us, drawing us into Christ and Christ into us. God also uses the means of Grace, Word and Sacrament (baptism and Eucharist) to strengthen and ground us further in our union with Christ. (Smith, 41).
At this point, you might be wondering where the classic words of Justification and Sanctification have gone? Nowhere. Justification is the beginning of our union with Christ. When God in Christ justifies us objectively, we are forgiven and liberated from sin. This leads to sanctification: where Christ’s whole life is poured into our lives uniting us to his life through the Holy Spirit (see Smith, 49-50). To see this at work in Scripture, read closely Ephesians 2:1-10.
Union with Christ then is the central reality of salvation; it is the reality that moves every part of the Christian life. To see this, let us consider how Union with Christ benefits our daily walk with him. Following Wilbourne, Union with Christ gives us a new identity and purpose.
In a world obsessed with self-definition and glorification, Union with Christ is good news. Wilbourne says it this way, “If you are in Christ, your life and your story become enfolded by another story, Another’s story. You don’t have to discover or craft, create or achieve, invent or reinvent your identity. Your identity is found not deep within you but outside yourself.” Your identity is Christ himself, you are the beloved Child of God in Christ. This takes time to believe and sink in, that is why we need to continually be reminded of our identity through Worship, Word, and Sacrament, but it is the truth. God has adopted you to be his very own. Paul in Ephesians 2 Says that you’ve been made alive together in Christ, you’ve been created in Christ. Your life is his life. This means that we don’t have to strive or work for our sense of identity and belonging: it is already given to us in Jesus.
Union with Christ also gives us a new purpose. Out of our identity in Christ, we don’t need to fear or prove ourselves anymore because we are beloved Children of God. This means that some of the harder verses in scripture can begin to take on a new light, especially the verses that challenge us to grow in Christ-likeness, in holiness. Ephesians 2 10 says “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” We are created in Jesus Christ, saved by grace through faith as a pure gift (see Ephesians 2:8-9), with a purpose: for good works. However, this is not some sort of exchange: we are saved so now we have to do good works. How is that possible? Union with Christ.
“In the Bible holiness is both what we already are and what we are called to become” (Wilbourne, 180). Wilbourne uses two images that help communicate this: union with Christ is our anchor and our engine for growth in sanctification and good works. On the one hand, Christ is your anchor, your complete salvation and sanctification. You are in Christ, totally sanctified and completed in Him. So when we struggle with doubt, failure, or the desire to prove ourselves, we Look to Christ who has completed his work of sanctification in us already. To return to Ephesians 2, we are already created in Jesus Christ, everything is accomplished. We don’t have to make ourselves holy; it is a gift.
Further, we are called to be holy, to be transformed, grow in holiness, and do the good works prepared for us (Lev. 11:44; Eph 4:15, Rom 12:2). These verses point us to the reality that we are holy in Jesus objectively, and yet, we are called to grow in holiness as we journey to our final home. Jesus “Not only declares us holy, but he also empowers us to be holy. Union with Christ means Christ is in you. The presence and power of Jesus now dwell within you by his Spirit…. And Just as Christ lived a completely holy life and was able to overcome every temptation, so now, because he is within you, he gives you a new disposition to live for him” (Wilbourne, 181).
The combination of these two images: anchor and engine, gives us both assurance that when we struggle we are not lost – you are in Christ – and courage and confidence to continue to pursue holiness – Christ is in you.
Union with Christ is the heart of the Christian life. Because Christ is in us and we are in Christ we can talk about how to grow in holiness without worrying about trying to earn our salvation. Because of Union with Christ, the gap between our beliefs and our actions can slowly close because Christ is with us and in us making us like him. So, in summary, we have learned that: Union with Christ is the doctrine that believers, through the Holy Spirit, are united to Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension with the result that we are literally in Christ and Christ is in us, giving believers a new identity and purpose.
The two books I used for this short lesson are one of many books on the topic of Union with Christ. I liked Wilbourne’s book because of its accessibility. Smith’s book casts a vision of Christian Maturity with Union with Christ as the starting and ending point.
Smith, Gordan T. Called to be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. Downers Grove: IVS
Wilbourne, Rankin. Union with Christ. Colorado Springs: David Cook, 2016.
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