Posted On December 27, 2020

The Doctrine of Union with Christ

by | Dec 27, 2020 | Union with Christ

The Doctrine of Union with Christ 1

Though “nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ” according to John Murray, it is equally true “this mystery of Christ’s union with the devout is by nature incomprehensible”.1 It is so much so that God “shows its figure and image in visible signs best adapted to our small capacity”, according to Calvin.2 The importance of this union is clear in plain statements by Jesus such as, “I am in you and you in me” and “apart from me you can do nothing”. Eating and drinking the emblems of our Lord’s body and blood in the recurring ordinance of the Lord’s Supper brings home the importance of this union to those who observe the ordinance “with the understanding also”.

It is not quite correct to describe the union of the believer with Christ as an experience. It is rather a truth to be made known and by faith embraced. As stated by the learned preacher-missionary, L. L. Legters:

“When a person begins to apprehend what it means to be united to the Son of God and what he has through this union, he will at once realize that his spiritual growth depends upon a clear understanding of truth rather than an experience.”3

That Bernard of Clairvaux preached and wrote of the benefits of this union is cited by Calvin.4 Calvin was only one of many Protestant leaders to see the necessity of first knowing this truth, then of reflecting upon it and feeling in our hearts the comfort and power to be drawn from it. (Calvin discusses this union in over fifty paragraphs throughout the Institutes as well as in the Commentaries.)

For these reasons, wise theology and fruitful response to the revelation of this “mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) do not treat it as an “intellectual puzzle” to be explained. Like the mystery of the incarnation (1st Timothy 3:16), and of the Church as the Body of Christ (Ephesians 5:32), we must humbly seek to master as much as scripture makes known about it and apply the same to our lives individually as individual believers (1st Corinthians 6:17–20) and corporately (1st Corinthians 3:16, 17) as members of His Body, the Church.

False Notions of the Union

Some utterly false notions about the presence of the divine—whether person or essence—in every person are abroad and imbedded deeply in some religious movements. “New Age”-isms bid their hapless seekers to find God within themselves. The same appears in the romantic and nature English poets in greater and lesser degree. William Wordsworth (1770–1850, Poet Laureate), for example, could hold in tension the notion that human mind could be spelled with a capital M, as a name for God’s presence in man, but also “nature’s self, which is the breath of God”, also of human “powers, forever to be hallowed” along with orthodox faith in God’s “pure Word by miracle revealed”.5

“Union with Christ” in salvation must also be distinguished from the logos doctrine of universal presence of Christ in several theologies ancient and modern; also from the true doctrine of the immanence of God in all His creation. Scripture does say God is immanent in all creation (e.g. Psalm 139:1–10) and “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). There is a divine efficiency that interpenetrates everything in all creation for God “works all things in all” (1st Corinthians 12:6, NASB) and Christ is said to “fill all in all” (Ephesians 1:23). But the scriptural doctrine that God’s elect are “in Christ” and He in them must be understood as different and special. This is rightly said to be:

“A union of life, in which the human spirit, while then most truly possessing its own individuality and personal distinctness is interpenetrated and energized by the Spirit of Christ, is made inscrutably but indissolubly one with him and so becomes a member and partaker of that regenerated, believing, and justified humanity of which he [Christ] is the head.”6

Identification with Christ or Forensic Union in God’s Counsel and in Redemption—to Be Distinguished from Vital, Spiritual Union

We have already noted that every aspect of the application of redemption is by grace and is “in Christ”. From the standpoint of the eternal counsels of God and appointment of the Father, God “chose us in him [emphasis added] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). Before Jesus came we were already “in Christ” for His name was to be called Jesus because He would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). From this heavenly point of view, that union is as ancient as eternity past, presently prevails, and—according to Romans 8:11; 18–25—will never end. Yet, as the last quotation above indicates, the union is actually effected together with regeneration and faith. It is in this sense that union with Christ (“The Mystical Union”, as some tradition calls it) has a place in ordo salutis.

We may, therefore, correctly affirm that—in the broad sense—salvation has its origin in union with Christ in the mind of God. We were not elected one by one in isolation, either from one another or from the Son of God. Rather, “he chose us in him [emphasis added] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). This union is previous to all else in the “order of salvation”, even to election. Not literally, of course, but in God’s reckoning, in the history of procurement of salvation we were present “with Christ” in His death, burial, resurrection, ascension, exaltation, and seated at the right hand of power (Romans 6:1–11; Ephesians 1:7; 2:1–6; Colossians 3:3, 4).

As John Walvoord suggests, perhaps this relationship is better designated as “identification with Christ” rather than union with Him. “Hence,” says John Murray, “We may never think of the work of redemption wrought once for all by Christ apart from the union with his people which was effected in the election of the Father before the foundation of the world…we may never think of redemption in abstraction from the mysterious arrangements of God’s love in wisdom and grace by which Christ was united to his people and his people were united to him when he died upon the accursed tree and rose again from the dead.”7

As elect believers in Christ we have been identified with Him at every stage of His redemptive work. We are said to be crucified with Him (Galatians 2:20), we died with Him (Colossians 2:20), we were buried with Him (Romans 6:4), made alive and raised up with Him (Ephesians 2:5, 6). Presently we are positionally seated with Him in the heavenlies (Ephesians 2:6).

We are ideally and de jure complete in Him, as it is written, “And ye are complete in him” (Colossians 2:10, KJV), defective and immature as de facto we are just now. As I look at myself and those I love with our syndromes of mental and physical defects—especially as for ten years I daily watched a precious wife deteriorate before my eyes, yet beholding her wavering, but unfailing, trust in God, I tried each day to see her as God presently beholds and shall bring to pass when we behold one another in the resurrection of the last day and the Marriage Supper of the Lamb for which the Bride shall have made herself ready.

The Effected Union of Believers with Christ

Now as to inception of the relationship, the actual union with Christ occurs in the history of each believer. Exactly when is known to God but not necessarily in each case to us. The hymn writers have it right. There is a moment, however, when “silently how silently the wondrous gift is given, when God imparts to human hearts” the gift of life “in Christ”. “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” Believers are reminded that even though “he chose us in him [emphasis added] before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), as Paul wrote, the same people were once “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). “But God…even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ [emphasis added] (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:4, 5; KJV). This happened in God’s time. In another epistle, Paul points out that “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship [emphasis added] of his Son” (1st Corinthians 1:9). This call is more than an invitation; rather it is a summons, like the Lord’s “cry of command”, the archangel’s “voice” and “the trumpet of God” on the day of our future resurrection (1st Thessalonians 4:16). It brings the one “dead in the trespasses and sins” to life. Jesus spoke of this spiritual call and resurrection in John 5:24-25, connecting this event with hearing the Word, believing it, and passing from death to life.

From our human point of view—another point of view also to be found in Scripture—the call of God is an invitation like the one in Revelation 22:17, “let the one who desires take the water of life without price” or Isaiah 55:1, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…without money”, etc.

John the “Revelator’s” version of the invitation appears to paraphrase Isaiah’s. Many of us are familiar with the “invitation hymn” and moments for “decision” at the end of church services and evangelistic meetings. Many “come to Jesus” in such a setting. Yet, in whatever setting one comes, upon reflection guided by Scripture, one must know he or she was brought to Jesus, even though the mind moved the legs to respond to the call to “come forward” or perhaps to apply for Christian baptism.

How is the Union Effected?

The union is effected wholly by the Holy Spirit—One who is also called “the Spirit of Christ” (Romans 8:9). Similarly, “Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son” (2nd John 9; cf. John 10:38). Therefore, though in some mysterious sense the members of the Godhead cannot be separated, in another sense they must be distinguished as to peculiar office. Throughout the Gospels and the first chapter of Acts the “coming” of the Spirit is a promise. John 7:37–39 brings this into clear focus: “Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified”. That complete glorification was future still when the risen Jesus last appeared to the disciples. They were promised, however, it would not be “many days from now” (Acts 1:5). During His last evening before crucifixion, Jesus spoke at length of this future event.

Let us not confuse the clear teaching by supposing some single covenant of which Old Testament and New Testament are only two administrations. He plainly said that as believers, before the closing events of His life on earth, the Spirit had already been “with [emphasis added] you” but when He should come the Spirit “shall be in [emphasis added] you” (John 14:17).8 Further, it was necessary for Jesus to leave as to His personally incarnate self, otherwise the Old Testament stage of revelation and salvation history would remain in effect.

He who had always been with His people and already “dwells with you” (John 14:17) by the special coming of the Holy Spirit would not come in this way until the incarnate Son should depart for heaven. Here are Jesus’ words: “I will come to you” (John 14:18). But it would be a “spiritual coming” for He had just said: “Nevertheless…it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). The event of Pentecost was a scheduled, epochal, “dispensational” event. The relation of believers then living and of all future believers was changed and improved. Together with the events of the previous fifty days it was and remains the hinge of salvation history.

The gift of the Spirit to the redeemed was quite as essential to the plan of redemption as the gift of the Son, as N. B. Harrison said:

“[T]he two gifts are likened to the unfolding of the Father’s plan. Of the Son it is said, ‘When the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son … to redeem … that we might have the adoption of sons’ (Gal. 4:4, 5). And when He had accomplished redemption, and men could be brought as sons into his family, then [and only then, not before] ‘God sent forth the Spirit of his Son’ (Gal. 4:6) to make this an experimental reality.”9

Near the end of that momentous day, Peter publicly explained the amazing event by tracing it to the fact that Jesus, of whose death they were the cause and whose resurrection was well known had been “by the right hand of God exalted” (Acts 2:33, KJV), had just now that very day “poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33).

The Nature of the Individual Believer’s Union with Christ

There is nothing spectacular about initiation of this union. There is no shaking of the house or mighty wind. Though sometimes there is great inward commotion, more often there is an immense tranquility, both of mind and body. This leads us to consider what Scripture has to say about the nature of the union. In what does it consist and with what consequences?

It is a Spiritual Union

Spiritual (a) in the Pauline sense, constituted and controlled by the Holy Spirit; (b) as opposed to physical or natural; (c) as opposed to a moral union of love or sympathy; (d) as opposed to union of essence; or (e) as opposed to sacramental union as held by Roman Catholic dogma and some Lutherans. Let us consider each of these points briefly.

Firstly, we’ll consider (a) the Pauline sense. Paul said, “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you” and “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9). Also, in Ephesians 3:16 Paul affirms that we receive strength “with power through his Spirit in your inner being” and in verse 17, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith”. So as the “spiritual body” of the resurrection is a body of flesh and bone empowered and directed by God’s Spirit, a “spiritual” person is one so directed and controlled by the Spirit (1st Corinthians 2:13, 15, 16; see also 1st Corinthians 12:13; 1st John 3:24; 4:13). A spiritual union is a union of the believer’s spirit with Christ in virtue of the indwelling Spirit of Christ.

Next, let us consider (b), it is not that natural creaturely connection every human being has with the Creator by virtue of each being God’s creation and object of preservation and providence. People everywhere are vaguely aware of this concursus inasmuch as Paul spoke of this as already known to the pagan Greeks at Athens—“In him we live and move and have our being as even some of your own poets have said” (Acts 17:28, 29), “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).

And to the next point: (c) it is not a natural union such as various philosophers propose. In the view of G. W. Hegel (1770–1831): “Spirit…signifies not a metaphysical ghost, but that totality which is realized in each individual thing.”10 In several varieties of personalism from the logos philosophy of Heraclitus (480–410 B.C.), Anaxagoras (500–430 B.C.) and Protagoras (480–410 B.C.) the “reason” or logos in each of us is a fragment of the divine logos (reason, word, logic, mind) which permeates every man—on to Rudolph Lotze (1808–1881) for whom the universe is a connected whole, by individual miracles, with the Monad.

Which brings us to point (d), it is not a union of mere sympathy, common love or loyalty, such a unity as the first believers of Jerusalem are said to have had: “[T]he company of those who believed were of one heart and soul…they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32). Nor is it like the union of soldiers who go through a long series of battles together, a nation that unites against some common enemy, such as the British displayed in World War II. The unity of believers in Christ in the Upper Room discourse is of a far deeper sort, illustrated (not identical with) by the inter-participation of the Father and the Son: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me…that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21, KJV).

And finally, we consider point (e): nor is it a union of essence or substance. There is a streak of this false doctrine in Eastern Orthodoxy whereby the mystical tendency in oriental (i.e. Eastern) thought grasps the phrase “partakers of the divine nature” (2nd Peter 1:4) and develops out of it an ascetic, mystical theology. Salvation reaches climax, it is said, in enosis (union) with God or theosis (deification).

In the context of 2nd Peter 1:4, the ascent of the soul is not mystical, but practical and ethical, from root in faith developing through virtue, knowledge, temperance, endurance, godliness and brotherly kindness to love (1st Peter 1:5–7). The “partaking of the divine nature” issues from “God’s precious and very great promises” (2nd Peter 1:4). The purpose of the promises, says Peter, is for us to have “escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2nd Peter 1:4). The “promise” relates not to a “beatific vision” as climax to a life of moral and spiritual effort or self-denial but to the experience of the new birth: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2nd Corinthians 5:17); “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:10). Though there is a “mystical union” and some speak correctly of “identification with Christ” in His death, burial, resurrection, etc., meaning a forensic union, yet as L. Berkhof warns, it is a “dangerous error” to assert it is “a union of essence, in which the personality of the one is simply merged into that of the other”.11 The union Jesus described in John 14:23, “we [the Son and the Father] will come to him and make our home with him”, is entirely beyond our ability to explain—like all supernatural events.

The ascent is not to the solitary beatific vision of asceticism but to love of both man and God as a climax to growth in the company of other people. Nor is it a sacramental union, wherein by an ecclesiastical ceremony such as baptism or by consuming the emblems of our Lord’s body and blood, faithful believers receive direct spiritual nourishment from the real presence of Christ’s body and blood, whether in or with the elements (some Lutheran doctrine) or their real presence by mystic transformation of the elements (as in Roman Catholic doctrine). Both theories lack the support of Scripture and contradict the fact that the physical body of Christ is in heaven, where His local physical presence shall remain, as Peter said, “until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets” (Acts 3:21).

It is a Supernatural or Mystical Union—If Properly Defined12

We relate the idea of mystical to the word mystery in the New Testament, not to mysticism. “Mystical” is shorthand for something which “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined…revealed to us through the Spirit” (1st Corinthians 2:9, 10). The specific scriptural basis usually cited is Colossians 1:24–29. Parallel texts in two of Paul’s other letters (Ephesians 3:1–10 and Romans 16:25–26) should be read with the text of Colossians. The mystery in each of the three passages has to do with something unknown in former ages—that sometime in the future (the present age) Jews and Gentiles would be undifferentiated as members of one Body and that therefore a mission was mounted to let all the peoples of the whole world know about it.

Hence “Christ in you” (Jews and Gentiles individually as saved persons and collectively as the Church or Body of Christ) is the mysterious (till now) union.13 L. Berkhof modifies this explanation: “Subjectively the union between Christ and believers is effected by the Holy Spirit in a mysterious and supernatural way, and for that reason is generally designated as the unio mystica or mystical union.”14

H. Strong prefers to call it “an inscrutable union”, cautioning, “If we call it mystical at all it should be only because, in the intimacy of its communion and in the transforming power of its influence, it surpasses any other union of souls we know, and so cannot be fully described or understood by earthly analogies.”15

The mystery of this union of the believer individually and of the Church collectively—both the living and the dead—has some of the same indescribable mystery about it as the union of Father and Son in the Trinitarian relationship. I well remember my own puzzlement when I first heard the doctrine preached as a young adult. The preacher was no less than L.L. Legters, one of the founders of what became Wycliffe Translators and the related enterprises now putting the Bible in dozens of languages around the world. He dragged a large leafy grapevine to the pulpit, tried to tear it apart and could not, explaining the unique intertwining of branches with the main stock. Then turning to John 17 (the union of Father and Son) and John 15 (the Parable of the Vine and Branches) he drew the lesson: “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Yet, neither Legters nor any other theologian can explain this union16 In addition to these two analogies Scripture also compares the union to that of the holy temple of God. Believers are the stones of which it is built; Jesus Himself is “the chief corner stone”; “apostles and prophets” were its foundation; and God Himself its resident (Ephesians 2:20–22; 1st Peter 2:4, 5). The union is like the connection of a body of many members with its head (1st Corinthians 12:2) and like that of husband and wife who are “one flesh” (Romans 7:4; Ephesians 5:22–33).

Yet, as must be acknowledged by all, we only know by biblical revelation that the union exists; it is true for me only as I believe. Yet like all truth partaking of heaven and God, “though now we see him not, yet believing, we rejoice with joy unspeakable”. James Montgomery Boice commented on these illustrations as follows:

In each of these cases the central idea is the same: permanence. Because Jesus is the foundation and is without change, all that is built upon him will be permanent also. Those who are Christ’s will not perish but will endure to the end.17

Because of the danger of being understood in the context of ascetic mysticism, the term “mystical union” should not be used, I think, unless with careful explanation. I have introduced the “mystical” only to inform the reader how, when the term is met in discourse, one should understand the term. For us it has none of the connotation found in asceticism and mysticism as an approach to salvation.

It is a Vital Union

That is another way of saying it is an organic union. One member of such a living body has organic—that is, reciprocal—relation to every other member-organ as well as to the whole. “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life” (1st John 5:11, 12). In Christ’s Body one is not a replaceable part but of the essence, not merely juxtaposed to one another with Christ the chief engineer and architect. Christ works “on” us from within, as the lifeblood, so to speak, of each of our spirits. We have “come to fullness of life in him” (Colossians 2:10, RSV).

It is a Complete Union

This union is a complete union of the believer’s whole being, body and soul, with his Lord. When the Spirit of God indwells me He dwells in all of me. This truth is the basis of one of Paul’s most earnest exhortations. Many of the Corinthian believers had each harmed himself (not the Church, per se)—as in our time, the loose mores of the ambient heathenism had found answer in the lusts of the flesh with the result of fornication (sexual immorality) in more than one Corinthian Christian. Paul addressed forty-eight verses in the heart of the first epistle to this problem and brought forth this: “Every other sin that a man can commit is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a shrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is God’s gift to you? You do not belong to yourselves; you were bought with a price. Then honour God in your body” (1st Corinthians 6:18–20, NEB). Earlier it is said, “Your bodies are limbs and organs of Christ” (1st Corinthians 6:15, NEB). Theft or murder or covetousness, etc., as the text says, of course, are pollutions of the spirit of man, but have no debilitating effect or pollution of the body, but one can be a virgin only once. Unlawful sexual intercourse takes away unsullied purity of another sort forever—forgivable, but not restorable from the human side. David became an adulterer and then a forgiven one, and history has never forgotten the fact. Therefore the union of Christ with all of me or of you is a strong restraint against fornicating. The text of 1st Corinthians 6 provides much more of both comfort and threat for our age of the Church.

The Union is Permanent

It remains to be said that the union is permanent. The union of the Corinthian fornicator with a temple prostitute did not end his union with Christ any more than Peter’s thrice denial of Christ ended his ties to the Lord. He showed up at the Upper Room on Easter evening with the other Ten. Judas had no spiritual connection and ended up in the city dump and incinerator. There is, by the Spirit of Christ, a permanent connection with the One who “lives and reigns” above, whose life is both with us and in us.

As a result, Paul argues, “If, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled [He holds nothing against us] shall we be saved by his life” (en tē dzōē autou) (Romans 5:10, ASV). The argument is from the greater to the less: before we came to Christ—long before—He died for us. It stands to reason, therefore, that now alive and able, He will rescue us again and again from our sins and backslidings. For “if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1st John 2:1).

Let this article end with a singular benefit of the believer’s union with Christ. All self-effort toward transformation of character is futile. The vile pictures hung upon the walls of memory by indulgence in illicit imaginations, in obscenity, in habits of profligacy; the remorse that lingers from animosities, jealousies, ugly self-seekings—how have men sought in vain to purge their souls of these! How many suicides tell the tale of hopeless effort to be free from their relentless lashings. No, it is only the Holy Spirit of God who, coming into the life, can impart purity of mind and holiness of heart, where sin had wrought its havoc. To set sin’s captives free—this He has power to do; this He delights to do.18

References:

1 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publ., 1955), p. 161.

2 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion iv, ed. J. T. McNeil, trans. and ed. by F. L. Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), art. 17.1

3 L. L. Legters, one of the founders of the Wycliffe Translation Mission, Union with Christ (Philadelphia, PA: Pioneer Mission Agency—forerunner of Wycliffe Translators, 1933).

4 Calvin, Institutes iii, 2.25.

Institutes John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 volumes

5 Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book v. line 45; lines 17, 221, 222.

6 A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1907), p. 795.

7 John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 162, 163.

8 There is some textual evidence that ‘shall be’ (estai) should be ‘is’ (esti). Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on The Greek New Testament (New York: United Bible Societies, 1975), p. 295, states: ‘A majority of the Committee interpreted the sense of the passage as requiring the future estai, which is adequately supported …’ Authorities still are not in full agreement.

9 Norman B. Harrison, His Indwelling Presence (Chicago: Moody Press, 1928), page number lost.

10 ‘Philosophy of Hegelianism’, in Twentieth Century Philosophy, ed. D. D. Runes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1943), p. 168.

11 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology 2nd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publ., 1938, 1979), p. 401.

12 There is a long history of the notion of mystical union with God or Christ supposed to be superior to the union with Christ which all believers have. For a start, read D. D. Martins short article ‘Unio Mystica’ in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. W. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1984, 1991), p. 1126.

13 The above explanation of appropriation of the term ‘mystical’ in this connection agrees with John Murray’s thoughts (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 166 ff.).

14 Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 447.

15 Strong, Systematic Theology, p. 801.

16 Legters, Union With Christ, chap. v. ‘Scriptural Illustrations of Our Union’.

17 James M. Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1986), p. 395, commenting on ‘The Mystery of the Union’.

18 Harrison, Indwelling Presence, p. 22.

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