You are on page 1of 8

Union with Christ Jack O’Grady

Union with Christ in mainstream Evangelicalism

I think it is fair to say that in mainstream evangelicalism, the doctrine of ‘Union with
Christ’ is little known and is even less understood. In conversations with believers in
conservative circles I have noticed that ‘Union with Christ’ is often taken to mean the
imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer. In more charismatic spheres it is
often assumed to be a more experiential unity in which the believer is connected to
the presence of Christ by the Holy Spirit. That said, the majority of Christians won’t
speak in terms of ‘Union with Christ’ at all, the closest category they will be familiar
with is that of a ‘relationship’ with Christ; the latter phrase being true and well-
intended but vague and open to variegated interpretation.

These definitions are not necessarily wrong but they are not themselves the essence of
our unity with Christ. Believers are indeed counted as being righteous in Christ, but
detaching this from other truths leaves a theology of salvation that smacks of a cold
legal procedure. That said, what sort of connection with the presence of Christ
through the Holy Spirit can one have which is not preceded by the justification of the
person through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness? How do these and other
expressions of the unity of Christ and his church connect?

In thinking of a way to describe where Union with Christ fits in the broader scheme of
Christian theology, the term ‘centrepiece’ seems apt. However, on further reflection
this presents the doctrine as being central but independent from others. Perhaps a
better image would be that of a picture rail on which each aspect of the work of Christ
is hung. It is the framework that connects the dots. More than this, it is a living reality
which spans the whole of history and is the very essence of God’s plan to rescue the
world.

Union with Christ in the Bible

One of the most striking passages in the New Testament regarding the relationship
between Christ and the Church is in Acts 9:4 when Saul, who has been brutally
persecuting the church, is confronted by the risen Christ who asks him ‘Saul, Saul,
why are you persecuting me’. At this point Christ had risen from the dead and
ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. Yet Christ takes the
persecution of Christian believers to be a persecution of himself personally. It is the
same Saul here who later became Paul and wrote some of the clearest statements in
the Bible regarding the unity of Christ and his church.

The four Gospels do not explicitly use the language of union with Christ, however the
person and work of Christ which they describe draws one to an understanding of
God’s purposes which parallels and complements the more propositional theological
statements in the New Testament epistles. In fact it must be said that many systematic
formulations of Union with Christ have been somewhat deficient because of their lack
of reference to the four Gospels. This is tragic, because it is in the Gospels where we
meet most clearly the Christ with whom the church is united.
Whilst not having enough time, space or expertise to ‘fill up what is lacking’, I will
present an example of how one of the central truths of the Gospels corresponds to our
union with Christ. One of the major themes in the synoptic Gospels is the Kingdom of
God. When Jesus breaks on to the scene in Mark’s Gospel he announces ‘the
Kingdom of God is at hand’ (Mark 1:15). The beginning of the ministry of Jesus
marks the in-breaking of God’s kingdom into a fallen world. In Luke 17:21, in
addressing the Pharisees Jesus refers to himself in telling them ‘the Kingdom of God
is in the midst of you’. The kingdom of God is seen to be evidently present in the
miracles of exorcism which Jesus performs ‘If it is by the finger of God that I cast out
demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Luke 11:20). There are many,
many more references which point to the fact that as Christ is present and active, so is
the Kingdom. In his earthly ministry he embodies the presence of the Kingdom of
God and at his return he will bring it in its fullness. How then do we partake of and
enter into the Kingdom? Through partaking of and entering into Christ, who embodies
the kingdom.

The above may seem like a slightly unnecessary diversion from an overview of the
Bible’s teaching on union with Christ, but hopefully it will provide an example of
how a theology of union with Christ should not focus on the nature of the union
whilst overlooking the one to whom we are united or how it fits into other major
themes in the Bible. A more explicit saying of Jesus regarding union with him can be
found John 15:1-10 ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I
in him, he it is that bears much fruit’ (v5).

Union with Christ is implicit in Paul’s argument in Romans 5:12-21 where he


contrasts Adam with Christ and shows how they similarly act as representatives for
the human race as ‘Federal Heads’ to use the language of reformed theology. The
whole of humanity is considered as having sinned in Adam’s sin (v14) and receives
the penalty of death as a result (v14). Unlike Adam’s actions, which brought
condemnation, Christ’s bring justification (v16). Just as all humanity were made
sinners through Adams sin being counted against them, many will be made righteous
through Christ’s obedience credited to them (v19 cf Romans 4:1-12). Here we see
how justification through the imputation of the righteousness of Christ hangs upon
our union with him. We are either united to Adam in his disobedience, or united to
Christ in his obedience and righteousness. Similarly forensic statements about our
union with Christ can be found in 2 Corinthians 5:21 ‘he made him to be sin who
knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ and
Philippians 3:9 ‘..that I might be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own
that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ’.

For fitting together both the objective and subjective results of our union with Christ
it is worth noting how Paul’s argument progresses from 5:12-6:14. In 5:12-21 he
deals with the judicial/forensic aspects of our union with Christ, then immediately
progresses to deal with the present ethical implications of this union. Here he shows
how Baptism as a symbol of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection (v4a)
carries with it the assumption that those who are truly united to Christ and visually
display that through baptism, should also visually display a dying to sin and rising to
a new life. Verses 5-11 of chapter 6 are hard to understand in their description of what
has objectively taken place through our being united to Christ in his death and
resurrection; we are told that our ‘old self’ was ‘crucified with him…so that we would
no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin’ (v6-7),
and that because Christ died to sin once for all and now ‘lives to God’, we must
‘consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus’ (v11).

The application of these truths comes in verse 12-14 ‘Let not sin therefore reign in
your mortal body, to make you obey its passions’. Because of what has objectively
taken place through Christ’s death and resurrection (our old nature being crucified
with him and our receiving a new ‘resurrected’ nature, as visually pictured in baptism)
we should consider these realities and act accordingly. The interconnectivity between
theology and ethics is very palpable in Paul’s description of union with Christ.

There is another great example of this connection in Paul’s first letter to the
Corinthians, chapter 6 verse 12-20. Here he is confronting a problem or attitude which
the church has regarding sexual immorality and the basis for his call to sexually pure
living is found in verses 15 and 17 ‘Do you not know that your bodies are members of
Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a
prostitute? Never! …He who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him’.
Believers are united to Christ in such a way that when they sin they are in a sense
causing parts of Christ’s body to sin.

As much as union with Christ shapes our soteriology and ethics, it shapes also our
ecclesiology. Paul uses this same image of Christians being ‘members’ of Christ’s
body as the central theme in his discussion use of spiritual gifts and plea for love and
unity in 1 Corinthians 12. As a body the church is one, even as individual members
are distinct and reliant upon one another. This ecclesiological paradigm of the church
as one body of which Christ is the head forms the backdrop for marital ethics in
Ephesians 5:22-33; here the relationship between a husband and wife is to mirror that
of Christ and the church, the husband is to consider his wife as his own flesh in the
same way Christ considers the church to be his body. We also see the unity which
believers have by virtue of union with Christ being used as an argument for unity
across ethnic, social and gender divides in the church (Galatians 3:28-29).

Union with Christ is the thought behind many of the ‘in him’ statements that are
found in Paul’s writing (see Colossians 2:11-13, Ephesians 1:3-14). It is also there in
Colossians 3:3 in a wonderful but somewhat mysterious saying of Paul’s ‘you have
died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.’ In the Ephesians passage, each aspect
of salvation, from predestination to redemption through Christ’s blood, adoption and
new creation occurs through our being ‘in him’.

The New Testament does not only describe believers as being ‘in Christ’ but also
describes Christ as being in them. Jesus promised this would happen through the spirit
(John 14:17-18). Paul tells the church in Galatia ‘It is no longer I who live, but Christ
who lives in me’ (Galatians 2:20) and to the Colossians ‘to them God chose to make
known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery,
which is Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Colossians 1:27). These passages describe
our union with Christ as being a reality in our present experience in which Christ is
present within the believer.

Here I have only made reference to the texts of the New Testament which most
explicitly refer to union with Christ. It would be a worthwhile study to compare
certain dynamics within the religious life of the covenant community in the Old
Testament with the New Testament’s teaching on Union with Christ. For example, the
relationship between Israel and her King as their representative head, or God as the
one ‘in whom’ believers are safe (Psalm 18:2), or the solidarity between the messiah
and the messianic people (Jeremiah 30:21).

Union with Christ in Protestant/Reformed systematics

The role of systematic theology is to present what the whole Bible teaches about a
particular topic. Wayne Grudem describes it as “any study which answers the
question “What does the whole Bible teach us today?” about any given topic”. I
haven’t read anywhere near as much as would be necessary for a serious overview of
every treatment of Union with Christ within Reformed systematics; anyone familiar
with the discipline will notice an absence of Luther, Hodge, Berkhof, Bavinck and
many more (cf Hebrews 11:32!). However, I hope that a brief look at some major
theologians will prove helpful in our understanding of this doctrine.

John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion

Union with Christ is central to Calvin’s whole understanding of salvation and


underpins much of what he writes. One of the most well known passages comes at the
very beginning of book three of the institutes:

“As long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he
has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no
value to us”

Benjamin Warfield called Calvin ‘The theologian of the Holy Spirit’. For Calvin, it is
our relationship with the Holy Spirit that brings our union with Christ into existence.
One theologian summarised Calvin’s thought on this in these words “The spirit is the
living bond between him and us. He takes what is Christ and brings it down to us”.
The Holy Spirit is seen here as the bearer of Christ, he is Jesus Christ at work in our
history, identified as such in function but not in being.

John Murray Redemption Accomplished and Applied

John Murray’s magnificent book Redemption Accomplished and Applied contains one
of the most important chapters on the doctrine of Union with Christ. Murray sees
Union with Christ as being absolutely central to redemption; in his words it ‘underlies
every step’. Salvation has its origin and ending in union with Christ.

In what I think is one of the most insightful remarks on Union with Christ in all of my
reading, Murray comments on 1 Thessalonians 4:14,16 “Could anything illustrate the
indissolubility of union with Christ more plainly than the fact that this union is not
severed even in death”

Murray not only presents the doctrine but shows us how it helps us in four ways.
Firstly it binds past, present and future in the life of faith and hope of glory, second it
means we can entertain thoughts of God’s determinate council with joy, thirdly we
can have patience in present perplexities and adversities and fourth we have confident
hope and assurance of the future.

It is explained that union with Christ is ‘spiritual’ (‘of the Holy Spirit’) and ‘mystical’
in that is was kept secret from times eternal, revealed, deposited in scripture and
finally ‘directed to the end that all nations may come to the obedience of faith’. It is a
warm doctrine, “The life of true faith cannot be that of cold metallic assent. It must
have the passion and warmth of love and communion because communion with God
is the crown and apex of true religion”.

Summarising his whole thought, Murray writes ‘Apart from union with Christ we
cannot view past, present or future with anything but dismay and Christless dread. By
union with Christ the whole complexion of time and eternity is changed and the
people of God may rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory’.

Millard J. Erickson Christian Theology

Erickson’s treatment is unique in that he helpfully presents some inadequate models


of union with Christ. These include a metaphysical union with a pantheistic Christ, a
mystical union which is so deep and absorbing that we lose our personality, a ‘full
salvation’ union in which Christ controls us absolutely, a sacramental union and a
union of influence comparable to the influence of a friend or a teacher.

Erickson proceeds to present three characteristics of a biblical doctrine of union with


Christ: it is judicial/forensic, spiritual (effected by the Holy Spirit) and vital (life
giving). The implications of these are that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, we
live in Christ’s strength, we suffer as Christ’s body and reign with Christ in a tension
of present and future.

Wayne Grudem Systematic Theology

Grudem describes union with Christ as ‘A phrase used to summarise several different
relationships between believers and Christ, through which Christians receive every
benefit of salvation. These relationships include the facts that we are in Christ, Christ
is in us, we are like Christ and we are with Christ’. He then uses these four ‘facts’ as
the structure of his systematic presentation of the doctrine.

Bruce Milne Know the Truth

Milne deals with Union with Christ in his chapter on ‘The spirit and Christian
beginnings’. He describes it as the essence of the spirit’s work. ‘The heart of Christian
experience of the Holy Spirit lies in his bringing us into a living relationship to Jesus
Christ so that we can share in his redemption and all its blessings’.

Lewis B. Smedes Union with Christ

There is far too much to cover in Smede’s book for an adequate summary, so I will try
to pick up on what I think is the essence of his treatment and what is most helpful for
this study.
Smedes forcefully describes the centrality of union with Christ not only in theology
but in the whole of life in this way “Union with Christ is at once the centre and the
circumference of authentic human existence. The Christian faith has no genuine
reality and the church no unique mission in the world if people cannot share the life
and destiny of Jesus Christ’.

Union with Christ is the way in which the Jesus of the past is also the Jesus of the
present ‘He touches us here and now not merely by the ripples of the historical
currents he once set in motion, but by entering into union with us personally’.

Smedes looks at some more mystical treatments of the doctrine, reflecting critically
yet recognising some helpful correctives. He points out that Paul was neither a mystic
nor a systematic theologian, but that his understanding of Union with Christ
‘enters by way of a liturgical hymn here, a stern exhortation there and an intense
argument in another place’.

Union with Christ in Reformation Confessions

In the confessional statements of the Reformation, union with Christ is often an


ecclesiological doctrine. The Westminster Confession of Faith deals with it under
‘XXVI Of the communion of Saints’ where it says ‘All saints, that are united to Jesus
Christ their head, by His spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with Him in His grace,
sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory; and, being united to one another in love,
they have communion in one another’s gifts and graces’. The confession then clarifies
this by saying ‘this communion which the saints have with Christ doth not make them
in any wise partakers of the substance of His Godhead; or to be equal with Christ in
any respect: either of which to affirm is impious and blasphemous. Nor doth their
communion one with another, as saints, take away, or infringe the title or propriety
which each man hath in his goods and possessions’. When you hold these two
statements together, it is seen that our union with Christ is real and objective, yet it
does not mean that we are in any sense swallowed up in Christ, losing any distinction
between ourselves and him.

In question 66 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, our union with Christ is


described as spiritual, mystical yet real and inseparable. Question 32 of the
Heidelberg catechism gives union with Christ as the answer to the question ‘But why
art thou called a Christian?’. Question 55 of this same confession gives the same
answer again, only this time to the question ‘What do you understand by “the
communion of saints”?” “First, that all and every one who believes, being members of
Christ, are in common, partakers of Him, and of all His riches and gifts”.

Eastern Orthodoxy and ‘Theosis’ or ‘Deification’

Recently I was very interested to see that in an article on ‘The Bible in Christianity’ in
the popular ESV study bible, one of four ‘Positive elements of [Eastern] Orthodoxy
that Evangelicals can learn from’ is their understanding of union with Christ. What is
being referred to here is ‘deification’ or ‘theosis’ which ‘sounds alarming to many
evangelicals [however,] the difference is largely one of emphasis’.
Orthodox believers will often quote Athanasius of Alexandria’s on the Incarnation to
support this doctrine “God became man so that man might become god’. To western
ears this sounds like outright heresy, although Orthodox theologians would be quick
to affirm that God is one and in becoming ‘gods’ believers do not share God’s
ontological nature (his being) but become ‘partakers of the divine nature’. St
Maximus the confessor wrote “Let us become the image of the one whole God,
bearing nothing earthly in ourselves, so that we may consort with God and become
gods, receiving from God our existence as Gods. For it is clear that He who became
man without sin will divinize human nature without changing it into the divine
nature”. Gregory Palamas affirmed the possibility of humanity’s union with God in
his ‘energies’, whilst affirming that because of God’s otherness it is impossible for
any person or other creature to know or to be united with God’s ‘essence’.

My own take on this doctrine is that it is unhelpful at best and damnable at worst to
ever speak of human beings becoming ‘gods’, even if what is intended by such
language is less that what we assume at first. Part three of XXVI On the Communion
of Saints in the Westminster confession appears to helpfully counter this idea. Also,
the distinction made between God’s energies and his essence is not found it the New
Testament and is more akin to Platonic and Aristotelian categories.

However, the emphasis on the present and ongoing living activity of God in the
church and the individual believer is surely there in the New Testament (as noted
above) and finds its place within Protestant theology (Erickson’s description of Union
with Christ as ‘Vital’, Question 55 of the Heidelberg Catechism). The church is the
body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, in whom God is truly and actively
present and seen as his power and love are demonstrated through its worship,
proclamation and good works.

Conclusions

At the beginning of this article I described the doctrine of union with Christ as a
picture rail – somewhere on which all the individual aspects of redemption hang. I
hope that it will have become especially clear to us how union with Christ brings
together the objective judicial aspects of salvation and the ongoing work of Christ
through the renewed nature in his people.

I am especially concerned that myself and others within the Reformed/Conservative


Evangelical tradition would be aware of this. At times we have been caricatured as
antinomians who take justification to be an excuse for moral laxity, see for example
Tom Wright’s book ‘Virtue Reborn’ where he writes "Basically, the whole idea of
virtue has been radically out of fashion in much of Western Christianity ever since the
sixteenth-century Reformation." He goes on to caricature Reformed Christianity as
saying ‘why bother with all this morality?’ Surely this is crude and exaggerated
somewhat, but a warning not to detach our receiving the righteousness of Christ
through being united with him, from our receiving of a new nature by the same.

Similarly, at times we may so pursue the line of ‘facts over feelings’ that we relegate
any present experience of the risen Christ to the domain of charismatic and
Pentecostal Christianity. It would be within our interests to remember the energizing
power of Christ who is ‘in us’, in whom we partake ‘of all his riches and gifts’ (Q55
HC) and say with Paul ‘For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he
powerfully works within me’.

That said, it is essential that we do not forsake the objective judicial sense in which
we are declared ‘righteous’ as we are united to Christ and his righteousness becomes
ours. The doctrine of ‘imputed righteousness’ has come under attack recently through
the various ‘New Perspectives on Paul’ and we must find a way to hold onto it,
without overreacting and neglecting the fullness of every aspect of Union with Christ.