If someone were to ask you today, “What is the central truth of the Christian faith,” how would you respond? Admittedly, there are a variety of correct answers that we could choose from, depending upon our approach to the question. If I were John Piper, for example, I might say something about the glory of God. Or if I were Tim Keller, I would probably emphasize God’s redemptive work in the creation. Most Evangelicals would likely land on some version of the motto “salvation by grace through faith,” given our rich Protestant heritage. Each of these truths represents an excellent answer to our original question. Recently, however, God has impressed another potential answer upon my heart – the mystery of our Union with Christ.
Although the actual phrase “Union with Christ” is not something we often hear in church or read in the Scriptures, the idea that it represents saturates the pages of the New Testament. Particularly in Paul’s letters, we see this idea explained and emphasized by the phrase “in Christ”. That idea can be summed up as follows: Our entire salvation, from our election before time to our eternal glorification, takes place wholly in relationship with Christ. This glorious truth has several broad components. First, God views you and I as being forever united with Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. While we remain distinct individuals, our righteousness is now inseparably bound to the righteousness of Christ. We are an entirely new creation, seen and judged by God with Christ as a single, blameless entity: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). Second, our Union with Christ is primarily spiritual in nature. It is initiated through the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit, who breathes new life and strength into our inner being: “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies” (Rom. 8:10-11). Third, our Union with Christ empowers us to bear abundant spiritual fruit, advancing God’s kingdom agenda and becoming more like Christ throughout our lives: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). Finally, Union with Christ ensures that death – our final, accursed enemy – no longer has any teeth. If we are inseparably united to Jesus in life through the real, tangible presence of God’s own Spirit, then we will also be united to him in his death, resurrection, and glorification: “So also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22-23).
In light of these different shades of our Union with Christ, “how then shall we live?” The most immediate application of this idea is that it radically changes our relationship with the Lord. We can humbly rejoice in our righteous standing before God, and freely come to him for forgiveness, mercy, wisdom, and love. Although we all still struggle with the present reality of sin, sin no longer has to distance us from God. Personally, this is one of the most difficult biblical truths for me to grasp, and thus I need to be reminded of it daily. Union with Christ also enables unity in his church. Just as we are one with Christ and he with us, we share this union in purpose, fellowship, prayer, and service with one another. Additionally, while the union we experience with Jesus may sometimes be difficult to perceive, it remains present and tangible. We have the very real life, strength, and grace of Christ concretely in us, in order to help us live pleasing lives of faith before the Father. Lastly, we must expect suffering, as we are also united to Christ in the resistance he faced from hostile powers both in the world and beyond it. We must anticipate these same sufferings in our own lives, yet couch them in the hope that we are also united with Christ in his ultimate triumph and reign as king.
As we hear the triumphant message of “Pursuing joy in Christ together” from the book of Philippians over the next nine weeks, I would encourage each of us to listen carefully for Paul’s emphasis on our Union with Christ, and how this deep, wondrous relationship serves as the beating, life-giving heart of our faith.