Key Comments from Part 5
From a believer’s subjective perspective, Union with Christ is an event that begins during their mortal life at the time “the Holy Spirit works faith in them, thereby uniting them to Christ in effectual calling.” Being united to Christ in effectual calling brings believers every benefit of salvation both in this life and the life to come.
The Holy Spirit establishes a bond between believer and Christ, such that “believers are in Christ” and “Christ is in believers.” A golden chain of salvation benefits begins in a believer’s life with effectual call (regeneration) and then proceeds in distinct but not separate steps of justification, adoption, sanctification, and glorification. Paul says in Romans 28 that those justified will be glorified. All steps will be completed.
As we seek to understand “Union with Christ,” we have considered definitions for “nature” and “person,” thought about the nature and persons of the Trinity, and thought about the divine and human natures of the incarnate Christ. Next, consider the variety of powerful metaphors Scripture uses to convey the meaning and significance of “Union with Christ.”
NT Passages on Union with Christ
Union with Christ is emphasized by the Apostles Paul, John, and Peter. In Eph. 1:3-14, Paul repeatedly uses “in Christ,” “in Him,” and once uses “in the Beloved” in reference to benefits of being united to Christ. Likewise, Rom. 6:5; 8:1 and 2 Cor. 5:17.
In these passages, Paul says that “in Christ” believers are chosen, called, regenerated, justified, sanctified, redeemed, assured of the resurrection, and given every spiritual blessing – an impressive list of benefits. Paul uses the simple prepositional phrase “in Christ” or its equivalents more than 160 times.
A believer’s Union with Christ is a “spiritual union.” “Spiritual” as used in Scripture almost always refers to the involvement of the Holy Spirit. In this case, the Holy Spirit is involved as the bond between believer and Christ. All believers are “in Christ” and all believers are connected spiritually to one another through Christ. The spiritual bond is the Holy Spirit.
The indwelling Holy Spirit establishes and mediates a “bond” between each believer and Christ. The point of “connection” is through the believer’s soul (the immaterial part of a human which survives mortal death). Union with Christ has many facets. Because human language is inadequate to fully describe the union, the New Testament authors use a variety of figures of speech, especially metaphors, to supplement and clarify direct description.
Figures of Speech
A figure of speech is a word or phrase used to convey a meaning separate from its literal meaning. There are many types of figures of speech, one of which is metaphors.
The figure of speech called “hyperbole” uses exaggeration to make a dramatic effect. Examples: (1.) “I’ve told you a thousand times not to do that.” (2.) “He’s older than dirt!”
“Personification” is a figure of speech in which human qualities are given to non-human things or ideas. Examples: (1.) The flowers nodded. (2.) Snowflakes danced. (3.) Fog crept in. “Oxymoron” is a figure of speech using two contradictory terms together. Examples: (1.) Peace force. (2.) Kosher ham. (3.) Jumbo shrimp. (4.) Sweet sorrow. (5.) Free market.
Metaphors and similes are figures of speech which use a quality possessed by one thing to give descriptive insight into a different thing. Figures of speech are not literal descriptions but add a richness to description and enable increased understanding. Metaphors and similes are closely related. Each compares two things.
Metaphors and Similes
Metaphors are often used to describe important aspects of a thing by comparing it with something else when direct description is difficult. Metaphors directly compare things that, though fundamentally different, share some properties. Value might be one such shared property. A manuscript’s literary value might be compared to a diamond’s monetary value. “This manuscript is worth as much as a perfect diamond!” A metaphor uses aspects known to be true of the one thing to reveal something about a second thing. Some other examples: (1.) “Time is money!” (2.) “He has a heart of stone!” (2.) “The world is a stage!”
These metaphors convey truth about the value of a specific manuscript, the value of time, tell us that some hearts are hard and difficult to penetrate, and that in some ways the actions of people in the world are like actors on a stage. However, metaphors are not to be interpreted literally. A metaphors truth is limited, a comparison of similarities, ignoring differences.
Similes are related to metaphors. Similes work grammatically by using “like” or “as” to compare the dissimilar things. The concept is that some attributes of the things being compared apply to both things. For example, “I’m as happy as a pig in a mud puddle.” I am not a pig and don’t like mud puddles, but happiness can rightfully apply both to a pig and a person. “The world is a stage” is a metaphor, but “the world is like a stage” is a simile.
Imagination (and a sense of humor) help in understanding metaphors/similes. Metaphorical thought and language are essential. It is the only way to bring before a person’s mind things not directly available to the senses. Things not available to our senses cover a lot of territory.
Most of what everyone understands is metaphorical by necessity. Many things we know something about have never come before our physical senses. Having some knowledge about a new thing “B,” but “B” is not available for evaluation by our senses, we can express what we know about “B” by relating it to a known “A” using a metaphor or simile. Red like an apple. Blue as the sky. Valuable like time.
The imagination enabling us to do this is a wonderful gift from God. As far as we know, only people possess imagination. Our imagination enables us to think about God even though, as Paul says, God is One “whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16b). God is invisible Spirit and cannot be evaluated through our senses. God’s self-revelation is the basis for thought about Him. That revelation is primarily through metaphors and particularly metaphors of humanity (e.g., the right arm of God). We experience God spiritually through our God-given capability to bring before our minds that which we cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. To fully experience Christian life, imagination is necessary. Realities (like angels) cannot be seen, but Scripture insists they are nonetheless real. The Holy Spirit enables understanding through imagination. Imagination is a remarkable gift.
A Key Metaphor from Scripture
The use of light in Scriptural descriptions of God provide a variety of familiar metaphors. Light is a familiar physical reality. God is not physical but pure spirit, invisible to human senses, known to us only through His revelation. “Light metaphors” provide valuable insight.
OT Examples of Light as a Metaphor: Example: (Ps 27:1) “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” In biblical thought God’s self-revelation is described as providing light. Example: (Ps 36:9b) “in your light do we see light.” Light is used metaphorically to indicate purity, wisdom, moral guidance. Light is itself visible. Light makes other things visible. Light is associated with the historical Jesus in the same way as it was with God the Father. Example: Isaiah wrote concerning God’s plan for Messiah in (Is. 49:6), “I will make you as a light for the nations …”
NT Examples of Light as a Metaphor: It is Jesus whose light reveals the world’s darkness and is victorious over it. Example: (Jn 1:4-5) “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”.
Those who follow Christ are said to be “sons of light” (Jn 12:36), or “the light of the world” (Mt 5:14). Jesus refers to John the Baptist as a “burning and shining light” (Jn 5:35). Of God John says, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (1Jn 1:5). This metaphorically means God is completely holy, totally opposed to all that is sinful and false. The Bible associates a strong ethical meaning with the presence of light. One fascinating attribute of light is that it is both visible and makes other things visible. By Christ’s “light” we see the tragedy of sin, and by His light we see the way to salvation.
The Modern Scientific View of Light Adds to Its Value as a Metaphor: Consider a modern perspective on light that enriches the use of light as a metaphor in describing God. The properties of light have been rigorously investigated by scientists. The speed of light in a vacuum is a limiting velocity for all physical things. Nothing physical travels faster.
Light is mysterious in that it exists both as a moving stream of particles (photons) and as waves. Being emitted from a source or received by a detector, light behaves as particles (photons). Particles are like tiny lumps of something. Traveling from a source to a detector, light behaves as a wave. Waves are composed of moving crests and troughs, spatially spread out like waves in the sea.
Light emitted from a source as photons, spreads out and travels as a wave. From the right kind of source, light spreads omnidirectional (the same in every direction). When a light wave arrives at a detector, the particle nature takes over. Whichever portion of a light wave impinges on a detector, the received photons carry the same information.
Think about it. This is like the spiritual truth of our omnipresent God who is nonetheless fully present with each individual believer. God is light! What a powerful metaphor. Dig into it as deep as you can.
Significance of Union with Christ to Believers
Scripture tells us every believer is in Union with Christ. Through Union with Christ, all believers are also in union with one another.All benefits of the Salvation earned by Christ and offered to us come through Union with Christ. All believers are adopted members of God’s family. Every believer is a brother or sister in Christ. The sense in which that is true is infinitely higher than all human relationships. Acceptance and reliance on the truth of “Union with Christ” is the only thing capable of bringing believers permanently together. All other plans for achieving unity among believers ultimately fail.
Metaphors/Similes for Union with Christ
John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace”): “The Union of a believer with Christ is so intimate, so unalterable, so rich in privilege, so powerful in influence, that it cannot be fully represented by any description or similitude taken from earthly things”(www.monergism.com/topics./union-christ)
(1.) Newton’s quote tells us that Union of a believer with Christ is important, intimate, unalterable (endures forever), rich in privilege, and powerful in influence.
(2.) The mystery of Union with Christ is so complex that no set of similes or metaphors based on earthly things can be adequate for full understanding. Like the Holy Trinity, Union with Christ is inherently difficult to comprehend. Scripture’s multiple metaphors help.
Metaphors from Jesus, Paul, John, and Peter
Each metaphor gives a somewhat different perspective. The variety of metaphors tells us Union is not easy to explain and likely not subject to full explanation. All the metaphors are useful and needed but, as John Newton so rightly says, even with them all, they are insufficient to provide full understanding.
Two Metaphors from Jesus: (1.) In John 15:1-17 Jesus describes union with Himself as being like the union of a vine with its branches. This powerful extended metaphor conveys the sense of a vital and necessary union between Christ and believers. By prospering in the vine with the spiritual “sap” of Christ flowing through, believers produce the good fruit God intends. Branches cut from the vine die. This extended metaphor will be covered in detail later.
(2.) Jesus says union with Him is in some sense like the union between Himself and His Father (Jn. 17:20-26), The differences are profound but will be less so when we are glorified. How might this metaphor mislead us?
Metaphors from Paul: Paul gave several metaphors for Union with Christ.
(1.) In a manner similar to Jesus’ metaphor of the vine and branches, Paul compares Union with Christ with the roots and stock of an olive tree diffusing life and fructifying sap through all the branches, both native and grafted (Rm. 11:16-24). The added thought of grafted branches is important.
(2.) Paul also compares Union with Christ to the union between the head and members of the body. Christ, as the head, is the source of vitality and volition, as well as of sense and intelligence; the members are united to the head as if by a common set of nerves and community of feeling, life, and motion (Eph. 4:15-16). This metaphor is very powerful and introduces factors missing in that of the vine and branches.
(3.) In Ephesians, Paul likens Union with Christ to the union between husband and wife. The union between spouses is established as a sacred covenant constituting them one legal person; the husband being the accountable authority. They are to be united by tender affection, complete community of interest and legal obligations. (Eph. 5:31–32). As wonderful as is the bond between husband and wife, it falls short of the bond of union created by the Holy Spirit between believer and Christ. In Eph. 2:18-22 Paul likens union of all believers in Christ as forming a holy temple to God.
Metaphors from Peter: Peter used a metaphor of a union of stones in a structure connected to their foundation and cornerstone. The cornerstone and foundation sustain all the rest. Stones are cemented to the corner stone and to each other, forming one whole. Stones are inanimate. Peter broadens the metaphor by referring to “living stones.” Together, the living stones compose a spiritual temple with the cornerstone being Christ (1 Pet. 2:4–6; 1 Cor. 3:11–16). Metaphors from John: In John’s Gospel his metaphor of Christ as “the light of men” and Christ’s followers as “the sons of light,” are both related to Union With Christ. Two more specific metaphors of union are “I am the bread of life” and “I am the vine.” The entire bread of life discourse provides necessary truth about Union, but union is specific in John 6:56: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”
The “vine and the branches” extended metaphor will be covered in the next 3 parts.
Comments on Union with Christ
Union with Christ is the umbrella under which all benefits of redemption are found. Union with Christ stands in relationship to individual benefits of salvation as a whole does to its parts.
In Paul’s metaphor relating union with Christ to the marriage relationship between a man and a woman, he speaks of “the two becoming one flesh.” He then comments that the marriage relationship is a profound mystery and likewise the relationship between Christ and His church is a “profound mystery.” In Eph. 5:32 his words are, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
Since Paul calls “Union” a mystery (and it truly is), Union between Christ and a believer is at times referred to as the “mystical union.”
The Holy Spirit is the bond between each believer and Christ. Through Christ all believers (past, present, and future) are bonded to one another. The union of all believers is called the “mystical body of Christ.” This union is the true church, invisible, and connecting all believers to Christ by the Holy Spirit.
Taken together, these metaphors are a great help, each conveying a different perspective. Yet, they are insufficient to convey a full representation of the power and influence of the rich, intimate, unalterable Union with Christ. There is always more to learn, more to understand.