Q: You have studied union with Christ extensively. Why is this an important topic for the church to learn about?
A: I think it is difficult in our cultural moment to sort out what the Church should be about—Worship or evangelism? Social problems, or strong families? Doctrine, or therapy? Cultural renewal, or experience? People struggle with the Christian life, “If God loves me unconditionally, do I really have to do anything for him?” “If I work at holiness, have I given in to a ‘performance mentality?’” “How can I live with myself when I see how mixed my motives are?” “What’s important, believing the gospel, or obeying God’s laws?” The church has not always given clear answers about how the different aspects of life and salvation relate to each other. But Christ himself holds everything together. If we think about the message of Scripture, we can see that Jesus Christ himself, once crucified, now resurrected, is the answer to our most perplexing questions. Union with Christ helps us see how this is so. In his Institutes, John Calvin puts union at the center of the gospel:
How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only-begotten Son — not for Christ's own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that 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 for us.
All that he did, he did for us. All that we have, we have in him.
Q: What are some of the key points for Christians to understand about the doctrine of union with Christ?
A: Union with Christ is vitally important for the church to understand, because it is the heart of the gospel, the heart of the Christian life, and the heart of our life together. The phrase “in Christ” (and slight variants) occurs more than 150 times in the New Testament. We (believers) were chosen in him, redeemed by him, and made one with him by Spirit-worked faith.
: God declares the ungodly to be righteous in Christ, with a righteousness not their own, but a righteousness that comes by faith (Philippians 3:9). This is from God, in whose plan, Christ was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). Praise God, we are also sanctified in Christ! God has freed us from sin’s power, because, with him, we died to sin and were raised to newness of life, once for all (Romans 6:1-11). We are no longer slaves, but beloved sons, in the Beloved Son (Ephesians 1:4-6). All this is for the Father’s worship, the praise of his grace!
The Christian life
: As God’s Son and our High Priest in heaven, Christ continues to pray for us and to forgive our sins, in order to bring all the sons to glory. He is not ashamed to call us brothers (Hebrews 2:10-11). Christ lives in us by his Spirit (Ephesians 3:16-17), and we live by faith in the Son of God (Galatians 2:20). The Father is pleased with our good works as “a sweet smelling sacrifice” because we are in him (Ephesians 5:1-2). In the present time, until Christ returns, we suffer, not alone, but together with Christ. This suffering is the power of his resurrection now, and it will lead to being glorified together with him (Romans 8:17). We persevere in him, and die through him (1 Thessalonians 4:14). No event, no opposition (even our own), absolutely nothing and no-one, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39). On the last day, our bodies will be raised from the dead in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22). We will inherit the earth with him (Matthew 5:5).
Our life together
: Christ is Lord! The church, despite its weaknesses, is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23). Paul calls the church “his body,” because believers are united to him. His death also reconciled believers to each other. Whatever our differences, we are all one with the same Christ (Ephesians 4:4-6). We are to forgive each other as God, in Christ, has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:32). We will only grow to know the fullness of Christ together, as each member of his body serves and loves the rest (Ephesians 4:13-16). We offer gifts of grace to others, gifts that Christ bestows (Romans 12:3-13). Because we are already accepted in the Beloved, we have been freed to be “servant of all”—no need to vie for attention or acceptance. Our natural families too, are in the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-4). Slaves, free, men, women, are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). In his Son, and in the church, God is doing “exceedingly abundantly beyond” all that we ask or think (Ephesians 3:20-21): across the ages, and from generation to generation, that he might receive all glory!
All this is the plan of the Holy Trinity
. The Father chose us in Christ before the world began (Ephesians 1:4-5). He contemplated us as one with our representative head, in his death for our sins, and his resurrection on the third day (fulfilling the Scriptures, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). The Spirit brings us into living union with the resurrected Christ by faith (Ephesians 2:5-8). As Herman Bavinck put it, “God has reconciled his good but fallen world to himself through the death of his Son, and he renews it into a Kingdom of God by his Spirit.”
Q: What bible passages would you point someone to, if they are interested in learning more about union with Christ?
A: Ephesians 1:3-13 (count the number of times Paul writes “in him”), Philippians 3:8-11 and Romans 5:12-21.
Q: What would you say to a non-believer about this topic?
A: The good news of God is simple and beautiful. God has reconciled the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. He made Christ to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Entrust yourself to Jesus Christ, God’s Son, and his righteousness will be yours and his Spirit will live within you. Be reconciled to this loving God!
Q: If someone wanted to read more about union with Christ, what’s a good book to read?
A: Here are two: Richard B. Gaffin Jr., By Faith, Not By Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation Second Edition (Philipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2013) and John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Eerdmans, 1955 ), Chapter 9.