Union with Christ: Necessity and Benefits Part 1

Recently, while thinking about possible topics for a new study, I became interested in Rev. 21:3: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Thinking about this verse, it seemed to me that it describes “the ultimate purpose of salvation” – God’s intent to redeem and sanctify a people for Himself. We know God’s amazing grace, through faith, saves us “from” the penalty due our sins. My thought was to stress the no less amazing truth that God saves us “for a purpose” (in addition to rescuing believing sinners from His wrath). There is a tendency to think that, once God saves us from condemnation, our task is to live a moral life according to His commandments. Obedience to God’s moral law is a right goal, but it isn’t all.

Treasures in Heaven

As I thought about being saved for a purpose, here are some of the things that came into my mind. I believe God’s plan for His fallen people during their mortal life includes provision for (1.) Redemption from sins. (2.) Once redeemed, purposeful preparation for eternal life with God. That preparation includes (3.) Laying up treasures in heaven, something Jesus to do (Mt. 6:19-21). While there are many unknowns about eternal life, for our benefit, many things about how to prepare for that life have been revealed.

What Things in Mortal Life Affect Eternal Life

What will eternal life with God be like? We don’t know very much, but my belief is that it will have structure and purpose and be filled with activity. How does mortal life affect future eternal life? Not everything in mortal life will affect heavenly life. The question is, what will have an effect? A complete answer is not possible, but we know examples: Obedience to God; relationship with God; family relationships; relationships with other people; the kind of knowledge we store in our mind; the kind of wisdom we develop; attitude toward God; attitude toward other people; and attitude toward things.

In the here and now, we have opportunities to acquire godly wisdom, knowledge, attitudes, and relationships which will be treasures for us in heaven and pleasures for us in this mortal life. Wealth, power, status, quantities of worldly goods, etc. will have no direct affect on our heavenly status. But, the way we chose to use such things and our attitude toward them, will be either a future disaster or a heavenly treasure.

Why Study Union with Christ

Union with Christ is a doctrine under which all the steps of salvation find a place. When the doctrine was mentioned to me, I had never studied it nor seen a focused account of its role in understanding salvation. It was suggested to me that Union with Christ would be a good basis for what I wanted to accomplish with the new study. The book, Union with Christ, by Rankin Wilbourne (David C. Cook, 2016) was recommended as a starting point. I read the book, was fascinated, and began to read everything on the topic I could find. 

Important Observation by Louis Smedes

“How can a person who lived two thousand years ago radically change a human life here and now: How can Jesus of Nazareth radically affect us, as persons, to the depths of our being” How can He reach out over the great span of time that divides us from Him and change us so profoundly that we can become ‘new creatures’ in Him?          Does the Jesus of the past become, in fact, the Jesus of the present? The Apostle Paul say that He does. And this is the difference between His influence and that of any other influential person. 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.  Union with Christ – this is the sum and substance of the Christian person’s status, the definition of his relationship to Jesus, the large reality in which all the nuances of his new being are embraced.” (All Things Made New: A Theology of Man’s Union with Christ

 Louis Smedes, Eerdmans, 1970, p. 7

Similar Quote from Bill Kynes

Union with Christ is that spiritual reality whereby we as believers are joined to our Lord such that what is true of him becomes true of us. This spiritual union is the means by which space and time are transcended and we share in all the benefits of Jesus’ work in history on our behalf. It is central to our understanding of who we are as Christians” (Union with Christ: The Sum of Our Salvation

C.S. Lewis Institute, KNOWING & DOING, Bill Kynes Winter 2007

WOW! If the doctrine is that important, how could I have been a Christian for so long and have heard so little about it?

What’s New in the Doctrine

No new facts! All the facts are in the Bible. The doctrine’s power lies in the way it holds and organizes all elements of salvation “in Christ.” Clear connections exist between the steps of salvation. Every element of salvation is shown to be “in Christ.

Sources of Information

There is but one original source of information on Union with Christ – Scripture. However, since the early days of Christianity, many people have written on the topic. Prominent examples include Augustine (about 400). All dates are A.D. John Calvin (1539), John Owen (1674), Thomas Boston (about 1700). Charles Hodge (about 1860), A.A. Hodge (about 1870), Abraham Kuyper (about 1900), Benjamin Warfield (about 1910), Arthur Pink (about 1930), Louis Berkhof (about 1932), John Murray (1955), Martin Lloyd-Jones (about 1955), Louis N. Smedes (1970). All are respected theologians. There are good recent books by Smedes, Wilbourne, Letham, Billings, Peterson, Horton, Thate, Campbell, Grudem, and others.

Primary References Used

The goal is to understand (1.) the doctrine, its importance; its Scriptural support. (2.) What it means to believers today; how it should affect our daily life. Every step in salvation (steps are distinct but not separate) finds its proper place in the doctrine. H.R. Mackintosh (19th century British theologian) said: “It is not putting it too strongly to say that union with Christ is a brief name for all that the apostles mean by salvation.” (quoted by Bill Kynes).\

Approach

Union with Christ is a comprehensive doctrine of salvation based Spiritual Union with Christ. This spiritual union is vitally real, nothing ethereal or fuzzy about it. Certain fundamentals are necessary to understand the doctrine including the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation, and the work of the Holy Spirit. God’s plan for salvation “in Christ” began in eternity and reached a pinnacle in the work of the incarnate Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Today, the plan continues to unfold in the application of salvation to individuals by the Holy Spirit. It will reach its culmination at the end of time with believers being glorified and receiving resurrection bodies. This study addresses these topics step-by-step.

General Comments on Union with Christ

There are frequent references in the NT to Spiritual Union with Christ, especially in the writings of Paul, John, and Peter. The most common phrase used to indicate Union with Christ is Paul’s “in Christ,” which he uses over 160 times. Since fallen people are spiritually dead and can do nothing to change their state, God must intervene. In His grace He gives new spiritual life. 

The salvation God provides to sinners has two vital threads: (1.) imputation of righteousness they did not earn, and (2.) transformation to holiness by a process that, though they participate, they can neither initiate the process nor control it. 

Both “imputation” and “transformation” are vital. There is no salvation without both. Imputation of righteousness is called “justification” in which God imputes Christ’s earned righteousness to believers by judicially declaring them “justified.” The only path to justification is by grace through faith, often referred to as “justification by faith alone.” As we will see, faith is actually never “alone,” but it is true that the only path to justification is through faith alone. “Transformation to holiness” will be discussed later. 

Two Categories of Sin Problems

Fallen people have two categories of sin problems: (1.) First, they have willfully disobeyed God’s law. The sin of willful disobedience comes under God’s righteous judgment and carries a death penalty. (2.) Secondly, our first ancestors, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and fell from their original pure state of grace, bringing about a broad disaster. They died spiritually, lost their immortality, and began to die mortally. The Fall changed their relationship with God, that with each other, and even that between their body and soul. The earth and its environment fell under God’s curse. Consequences of the “fall” continue to affect every descendant of Adam. All are born spiritually dead. All have a sin nature inclining them to sin. People can do nothing in their own power to change that situation.  

Two Kinds of Solution for Two Kinds of Sin Problems 

The fundamental sin issue is that our defective (fallen) human nature makes sinning inevitable. Breaking God’s moral law is a universal problem. All have a sin nature, and all have actually sinned. The sin nature and the breaking of God’s moral law are dealt with differently.

Disobeying God’s moral Law is a legal or forensic problem and it receives a legal solution. Since, no human effort can undo the sin nor mitigate the sin penalty, which is death, only God’s intervention can solve the problem. In the incarnation, the perfect life, and substitutionary death of Jesus Christ provided the source of the solution to both the sin nature and the sin of disobedience problems. 

Fallen human nature (possessing a sin nature) is an ontological (related to being) problem. The “fallen being” with its sin nature must be transformed to something equivalent to the original before-the-fall state or better. 

So we see that as fallen people we have both a legal (forensic) and an ontological (being) problem. These are quite different in kind. When God in His grace chose to redeem His fallen humans, He established distinct but related categories of actions to deal with the two kinds of issues. First to satisfy breaking the moral law (satisfying the legal issue) and secondly to transform fallen nature into holy nature (solving the sin nature problem). First, consider how the legal problem is solved and then how the ontological problem is dealt with.

The Legal Issue Resolved

A sinner’s legal problem is a lack of righteousness demonstrated by disobeying God’s moral law. How can that problem be corrected? God’s solution to the legal or forensic part of the sin problem is provided through the vicarious actions of the incarnate Christ. The divine Son took to Himself a human nature, lived for a time on earth. As the federal head of those to be redeemed, He acted as their vicarious (actions done for another) substitute to do for them what they could not do for themselves. Living on earth under the law, He lived the sinless life necessary for righteousness. Though righteous and sinless, He took upon Himself the full punishment (including death and God’s wrath) due our sins, died, was buried, resurrected, and ascended to heaven. God applies the benefit of these vicarious actions to those whom He chose to redeem.

Christ’s perfect substitutionary perfect life under in Law provided a righteousness apart from the Law which could be imputed to believing sinners making them legally righteous before God. Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross paid the penalty due our sins, enabling the Father to declare believing sinners free from the death penalty due sin (pardoned). 

Application of the redemption earned by Christ’s vicarious actions to a believing sinner does not happen as a single simple and indivisible act. There is a sequence of acts and processes some of which are calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, sanctification, glorification. All are distinct but related, each having a purpose within the overall process of solving both the disobedience of God’s moral Law and the presence in the sinner of a sin nature.  

Solving the disobedience problem: The salvation work of Christ satisfied (propitiated) the Father’s wrath against those sins for whom Christ died. On the basis of Christ’s work, the Father pardons (justifies) sinners, who in faith believe in Christ. The Father imputes to each believing sinner Christ’s earned righteousness and Christ’s payment of the death penalty due sins. On this basis and in this way, believing sinners are “justified” by God (pardoned, declared legally righteous) freeing them from the death penalty due their sins and establishing legal righteousness. 

This incredible exchange – Christ’s righteousness for our sin and its due penalty – is all of grace, we did nothing and can do nothing to earn justification. The Holy Spirit works faith enabling the sinner to believe. This is the first part of the salvation equation. A sinner who believes is pardoned and declared “legally righteousness” based on Christ’s work. That takes care of the penalty due for all past, present, and future sin. The legal issue for a believing sinner is settled instantaneously, but the “sin nature” problem remains. 

The Sin Nature Issue Resolved

Paul says that all who are justified will ultimately be made holy (Rm. 8:30). “Making holy” (or sanctification) is a process, grounded in Christ’s salvation work. Dealing with the sin nature problem is a “transformation of being” in which a believer’s sin nature will ultimately be eliminated. This process, called sanctification, is the second part of the salvation equation. Sanctification means “making holy.” Sanctification begins with justification and continues throughout mortal life. Christ and the Father send the Holy Spirit to indwell each justified believer. In the sanctification process the Holy Spirit is instrumental (crucial, necessary). The indwelling Holy Spirit enables, guides, and encourages developing internal holiness to oppose and eventually defeat the sin nature (at glorification). 

Believers should cooperate with the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, doing things that correspond to what the Holy Spirit is doing within them (Phil. 2:13). Acting, thinking, or speaking in ways that grieve (Eph. 4:30) or quench (1 Thess. 5:19) the Holy Spirit are to be avoided. Always strive to keep thoughts, speech, and actions consistent with what the Holy Spirit in His gracious actions is doing in the heart. 

Step-by-step, believing, justified sinners are transformed into an image of Christ. This process (sanctification) begins at justification and ends in glorification. When glorified, the redeemed will be like Christ, righteous and holy, both legally and experientially. The sin nature will be gone. Until then, John, in his letters, reminds us that the sin nature, though diminished, is still present, and we continue to sin from time-to-time. If we say we don’t sin we lie (1 Jn. 1:18).

Both Justification and Transformation Essential

A typical dictionary meaning of the noun “union” is “To be joined together.” A common adjective signifying union is “united.” United means “to be made one.” Our country is a good example. States are united to form one Union functioning as one country. The states continue to exist as distinct but no longer separate entities. A common-sense definition of Union with Christ, then, is “believers are joined together with Christ in such manner that they are, in some sense, made one with Him, remaining distinct, but no longer separate persons.” Paul says, “Christ is in believers” (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 3:17; Col. 1:27; Rm. 8:10) and “believers in Christ” (Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 15:22; 1 Jn. 3:24; Eph. 2:10). Some passages combine the two (Jn. 6:56; Jn. 15:4). The commonsense definition of Union with Christ agrees with Scripture.

Quote: “Union with Christ was once considered to be at the very heart of why the gospel is good news. Nothing is more basic or more central to the Christian life than union with Christ.” (Union with Christ, Rankine Wilbourne, p. 23, David C. Cook, 2016).

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