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James S. Stewart wrote that “union with Christ, rather than justification or election or eschatology, or indeed any of the other great apostolic themes, is the real clue to an understanding of Paul’s thought and experience” (A Man in Christ [Harper & Bros., 1955], vii).

John Calvin said that union with Christ has “the highest degree of importance” if we are to understand justification correctly (Institutes 1:737).

John Murray wrote that “union with Christ is . . . the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation. . . . It is not simply a phase of the application of redemption; it underlies every aspect of redemption” (Redemption—Accomplished and Applied [Eerdmans, 1955], pp. 201, 205).

Lewis Smedes said that it was “at once the center and circumference of authentic human existence” (Union with Christ [Eerdmans, 1983], xii).

Anthony Hoekema wrote that “Once you have your eyes opened to this concept of union with Christ, you will find it almost everywhere in the New Testament” (Saved by Grace [Eerdmans, 1989], 64.

If you want an introduction to the doctrine of union with Christ, John Murray’s chapter in Redemption—Accomplished and Applied is helpeful, as is Anthony Hoekema’s chapter in Saved by Grace. Below are a few notes on the latter:

The New Testament uses two interchangeable expressions to describe union with Christ:

  1. We are in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; John 15:4, 5, 7; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 12:2; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 1:4, 2:10; Phil. 3:9; 1 Thess. 4:16; 1 John 4:13).
  2. Christ is in us (Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27; Rom. 8:10; 2 Cor. 13:5; Eph. 3:17).

Three passages (John 6:56; John 15:4; 1 John 4:13) explicitly combine both concepts.

Hoekema says that we should see union with Christ “extending all the way from eternity to eternity.” He outlines his material in this way:

  1. The roots of union with Christ are in divine election (Eph. 1:3-4).
  2. The basis of union with Christ is the redemptive work of Christ.
  3. The actual union with Christ is established with God’s people in time.

Under the third point, he shows eight ways that salvation, from beginning to end, is in Christ:

  1. We are initially united with Christ in regeneration (Eph. 2:4-5, 10)
  2. We appropriate and continue to live out of this union through faith (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 3:16-17).
  3. We are justified in union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:8-9).
  4. We are sanctified through union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:30; John 15:4-5; Eph. 4:16; 2 Cor. 5:17).
  5. We persevere in the life of faith in union with Christ (John 10:27-28; Rom. 8:38-39).
  6. We are even said to die in Christ (Rom. 14:8; 1 Thess. 4:16; Rev. 14:13).
  7. We shall be raised with Christ (Col. 3:1; 1 Cor. 15:22).
  8. We shall be eternally glorified with Christ (Col. 3:4; 1 Thess. 4:16-17).

And here’s a helpful quote from Sinclair Ferguson (in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification [IVP, 1989], 58), explaining in a nutshell why union with Christ is the foundation for sanctification:

If we are united to Christ, then we are united to him at all points of his activity on our behalf.

We share

  • in his death (we were baptized into his death),
  • in his resurrection (we are resurrected with Christ),
  • in his ascension (we have been raised with him),
  • in his heavenly session (we sit with him in heavenly places, so that our life is hidden with Christ in God), and we will share
  • in his promised return (when Christ, who is our life, appears, we also will appear with him in glory) (Rom. 6:14; Col. 2:11-12; 3:1-3).

This, then, is the foundation of sanctification in Reformed theology.

It is rooted, not in humanity and their achievement of holiness or sanctification, but in what God has done in Christ, and for us in union with him. Rather than view Christians first and foremost in the microcosmic context of their own progress, the Reformed doctrine first of all sets them in the macrocosm of God’s activity in redemptive history. It is seeing oneself in this context that enables the individual Christian to grow in true holiness.

For more resources on this vital doctrine, see:

  • Phil Gons’s bibliography
  • Richard Gaffin’s lectures on “The Mystery of Union with Christ” (see some notes here by Tony Reinke on one of the lectures)
  • Sinclair Ferguson’s two talks on union with Christ

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48 thoughts on “Union with Christ: A Crash Course”

  1. Freddy says:

    Thanks for this post! Probably my favorite doctrine. Much needed teaching on this in our churches.

  2. Chris says:

    Great stuff here.

    Reading this makes me think of Packer’s comments in Knowing God that our adoption is central to our self-understanding and should inform our worship, life, etc.

    For a moment I wondered if the “union” view and the “adoption” view might be in competition for top spot, but then it occurred to me– the two belong together, don’t they? Christ is the true Son of God, and through faith in him, the Son is in us and we are in him. And because of his work and our resulting union with him through faith, when the Father looks at us he sees Christ and his righteousness, meaning the Father sees us as related to him in just the right way, as Christ is. It makes sense to me, then, that this union is the true foundation of our adoption. We become sons and daughters because we’ve become one with the only begotten Son.

    Am I missing something here? Maybe this is a case of pointing out the obvious, but this is pretty exciting for me.

    To the praise of his glorious grace!
    Eph. 1.6

  3. Tony says:

    Thanks for these resources Justin. What a precious theme. Horton includes a fine summary of union in his new systematic pp. 587-619. Its worth reading if for no other reason than to see how vital union is to a proper understanding of sanctification. Thanks again for these quotes!

    PS In my quote database I have one from Lloyd-Jones on union: “If you have got hold of this idea you will have discovered the most glorious truth you will ever know in your life.” But I cannot locate the original source.

    1. Bruce Winter says:

      Tony, I’m not sure about that exact quote, but Lloyd-Jones has a lot to say about union with Christ in Chapter 3 of his exposition of Romans 6…”it is one of the most glorious aspects of the Christian truth, one of the most profound, one of the most stimulating, one of the most comforting – indeed I rather like to use the word exhilarating. There is nothing, perhaps, in the whole range and realm of doctrine which, if properly grasped and understood, gives greater assurance, greater comfort, and greater hope than this doctrine of our union with Christ.” (p.31, The New Man)

  4. Josiah says:

    This is brilliant. Thank you very much for posting it.

    I wonder if you (or others) could discuss more your view of baptism in terms of union with Christ? Baptism is crucial as a sign and seal of union with Christ (Rom. 6:1-4). Probably most of the Reformed theologians above mention this. Packer has a brief discussion in the article linked below.

    http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/packer/baptism.html

  5. mark mcculley says:

    What does it mean to be in Christ, and how is this different from Christ indwelling us? This is the kind of question we need to begin asking. Does this indwelling in Christ have anything to do with “sacrament”? Certainly Calvin thought so.

    We need to read Calvin on this, to see what he did and did not believe. Calvin, for example, only believed in an union with the humanity of Christ, and did not teach an union with God defined as creatures indwelling the Creator, even though that is left an open possibility in undefined ecumenical discussion.

    Calvin’s anti-rational streak, which cannot explain and refuses to explain, becomes very mystical when it comes to “sacrament”. (See Bruce McCormack and Michael Horton essays in Tributes to Calvin).

    Does the Bible teach that God effects “union with Christ” by means of water? NO. My opinion is that we baptists will never get away from that sacramental assumption until we get away from the idea that “union with Christ” is only about regeneration.

  6. John Thomson says:

    Justin

    Thanks for resources and helpful summary. I agree with all you have written, however, I suspect (I may be wrong) that you may include an aspect of union you have not mentioned… union with Christ in his incarnation.

    You write,

    ‘If we are united to Christ, then we are united to him at all points of his activity on our behalf.’

    Perhaps this implies ‘union in incarnation’.

    If so, it would be the point with which I would take issue. I do not think we find ourselves in union until his death and in resurrection. My first reason for saying so is quite simply because we are never said to be united to him until this point.

    There are others but I don’t wish to make this comment too long.

  7. Dane says:

    Outstanding JT.

  8. Matthew Burt says:

    Also Maurice Roberts “Union and Communion with Christ” Reformation Heritage Books

  9. Scott C says:

    I believe the doctrine of our union with Christ is one of the strongest arguments for limited atonement/ particular redemption. Only the believer is said to have been joined to Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. How strange it would seem for the scripture to say that ALL people have been joined to Christ in this way. Furthermore, Eph. 1:4 says that we were “in Him” before the foundation of the world. As far as I know nobody makes this connection in their discussion of the topic.

    1. rnieman says:

      Hey scott notice the word “us” in Ephesians 1:4, it’s plural and the fact that the context is the “church of Ephesus”, which is the “chosen” in Him before the foundation of the world. In other words, the ” us and chosen” are a group of people, not an individual, how do you read individual into a plural context? Following the thought through, Romans 9:6 ” But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel;” So not everyone that is Israel is in union to Christ, just like not everyone that goes to our churches is in union to Christ. God chosen, elected, predestined a group called the church, but one(individual) must be in union to Christ in order to receive the benefits, justification, sanctification, glorification, etc… Thats the condition. Russ

  10. Jared says:

    Thank you thank you thank you thank you. I have been waiting, or possibly missing, something coming from TGC on clarifying the centrality of union with Christ to the gospel, emphasizing how justification, sanctification and adoption are benefits that manifest from the union with the *person* of Christ. Gaffin’s “Resurrection and Redemption” is so key in this. Thank you!

  11. Justin,

    Thank you for posting this! I have found Gaffin’s three-fold distinction of “union with Christ” extremely helpful. The Scriptures speak of:

    1) Decreetal Union (Ephesians 1:4) – Union with Christ in election
    2) Redemptive-Historical Union (Romans 6:1-11) – Union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. This establishes our salvation in the work of Christ, outside of us, in the Historia Salutis.
    3) Existential Union (Romans 16:7) – Union with Christ, by faith, in time.

  12. John Thomson says:

    Scott

    Actually Eph 1;4 says we were CHOSEN in him from before the foundation of the world. That is God’s plan of redemption was conceived in its detail but it was not enacted. We were not at that point ‘really’ in Christ although our destiny to be so was ‘assured’.

    There are undoubtedly complications in this issue of union. We were certainly not ‘in him’ in reality until conversion. Prior to conversion we were ‘children of wrath’ even as others.

    1. Scott C says:

      I have oversimplified the matter, but I have to disagree with you. I think there is both a temporal and a transcendent aspect to our union. Paul has coined unique phrases to describe our union with Christ using the prepositional prefix “sun” and conjoining it with words like “buried”; “raised up”; “made alive” and “crucified.” Thus, we read of being “crucified-with Christ”; “buried-with Christ”; “made alive-with Christ” and “raised up-with Christ.” I believe it has been demonstrated in the scholarly literature that the sun-compound verbs Paul uses have a locative sense to them. What does that mean? It means in the strange and transcendent power and providence of God that we were actually present “in/ with Christ” at His death and resurrection such that in a real sense our actual sins were nailed to His person (Col. 2:14) long before we committed them and even before we existed in the temporal sphere. The temporal application of our union only comes via regeneration when the Holy Spirit immerses us into the person of Christ, whereby he now also lives within us. How we were present “in/ with Christ” in these redemptive events remains a mystery. Perhaps only in the mind of God. In either case, I don’t believe we can dismiss the locative sense of the sun-compound verbs or the unique Pauline phrases “in Christ”/ “in Him”, etc. as they stand in Scripture.

      1. John Thomson says:

        Scott

        I deliberately limited my comment to eternal purposes, partly because I am unsure about how best to describe the redemptive-historical aspect of death/burial/resurrection.

        I do take your point. I was aware of it and must think about it more thoroughly. Other complications too intrigue me because I see union in Scripture as always accomplished by the Spirit. But I’d appreciate any thoughts or links that you or others may have.

        1. Garrett says:

          John,

          You might find John Murray’s chapter on definitive sanctification in volume 2 (I think?) of his collected writings to be stimulating. He deals with union with Christ in there, adding some things that aren’t in Redemption Accomplished and Applied. He specifically wrestles with the whole “timing” issue.

          gh

          1. John Thomson says:

            Garrett

            Thanks for suggestion. I will read Murray again. Propblem is it is about twenty years or so since I read his collected writings or redemption accomplished and applied – both of which were heavily influential on me though neither of which I would totally concure with today. But I will have a reread. Beauty of Murray is that he tries to grapple with the tensions the broad brush – good as it is – can’t tackle.

      2. John Thomson says:

        Scott

        Another reflection. The fact that we were ‘in Adam’ before we were actually ‘in Adam’ (that is, before we were born) has some bearing on the redemptive-historical aspect of ‘in Christ’.

        How we were ‘in Adam’ is difficult to be sure about. At one time I would have confidently said this was a federal union. No longer sure whether it is (or fully what that means). The one clue in Scripture (loins of Abraham) tends towards seminal/organic union.

        ‘In Christ’ redemptive-historically presumably has something of this about it.

        The problem is normally the images of ‘in Christ’ suggest what I shall call here ‘really’ in Christ, by this I mean actual experienced relationship (Gaffin’s ‘actual’ union); the images of head/body or ‘one flesh’ marriage or building/stones/temple.

        1. Scott C says:

          John,
          The chapter Garret mentioned by Murray was helpful to me as well as Gaffin’s book, “Resurrection and Redemption.”

          There are definitely a number of difficult conundrums to work out in understanding of all this including wrestling with the Federal views of representation and so forth. I also lean in the seminal direction. It has intersting implications for the Virgin Birth.

  13. John Thomson says:

    Mark

    I take it to be ‘in Christ’ is first of all status and standing. It is to be united to him in his death, resurrection, and present glory. ‘Christ in us’ is experience and living. One is more to do with union and the other its expression in communion.

  14. Mike says:

    Given the topic, here’s a plug for my good friend, Dr. Mark Garcia, a student of Richard Gaffin who went on to write his dissertation on union with Christ in Calvin’s theology.

    http://www.amazon.com/Life-Christ-Twofold-Theology-Christian/dp/1842275720

  15. David Dorr says:

    Justin, what a great summary thanks

  16. mark mcculley says:

    Garcia and Gaffin always come back to one quotation from Calvin (3:11:10): “I confess that we are deprived of justification until Christ is made ours. Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed.. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that His righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into His body—in short because he deigns to make us one with Him.”

    Some academics (the Torrances for example, as Bruce McCormack points out) write every essay so that they can get to this quotation. As long as Christ is outside us, the idea is, His righteousness is not yet imputed to us, therefore “union with Christ” comes before justification. But it turns out that this “union” is not by election. This “union” is implicitly defined as that regeneration which results in both justification and sanctification.

    Of course the “shelf doctrine” agrees that there is an eternal election, but there’s hardly any need to ever talk about that, because the important thing evangelicals all have in common with Arminians who don’t believe in unconditional election is that they all agree that faith is the condition of union with Christ.

  17. mark mcculley says:

    I Corinthians 1:28-30, “God chose even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no flesh can boast in the presence of God. God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” It is not faith that makes God the source of life.

    It is not the Holy Spirit who makes God a source of life. It is not the Holy Spirit who makes the atonement effective. God not only chose the elect in Christ; in time God also judicially declares these elect individuals to have life in Christ.

    “Consider your calling,” begins I Corinthians 1:26. It does not begin with the Holy Spirit changing the elect or causing them to believe. It begins with the Father calling. It begins with justification. If the elect could have life and Christ before justification, it would be too late for justification, and there would be no need for justification or for the atonement.

  18. Kenneth Clayton says:

    The current issue of Chapel Library’s Free Grace Broadcaster was a very helpful introduction for me on this doctrine. http://www.chapellibrary.org/pdf-english/uwchfg.pdf

  19. Wonderful! Thank you for such a treasure trove.

  20. mark mcculley says:

    Is it helpful to say that exercising faith joins us to Jesus, if we make it clear that this faith which connects is a gift from God to the elect?

    I say NO: even if Calvinists talk about faith being given to the chosen in their evangelism, they still tend to leave out the fact that only the sins of the elect were imputed to Christ at the cross. They also tend to omit the fact that the elect are baptized into Christ’s death by God’s imputation and not by the sinner’s faith.

    I am NOT saying that the elect are already justified before the elect believe. I am saying that the elect are already elect before they believe. I am saying that Christ already died only for the elect before the elect believe.

    I am saying that God imputes, and not the sinner. God puts the elect in Christ and Christ in the elect, and believing the gospel is the immediate effect of this legal union.

    It does no good to describe union as an “experience”, if all we can say about this is that “Christ in us” is experienced. The elect transition from wrath to favor, from being in Adam to being in Christ, by legal union.

    Often those who condition union on faith also define faith in complicated contradictory ways. Often believing gets so identified with working that there is no contrast between life-long believing and life-long working. How can there be contrast between the faith which supposedly gets us united and the faith which continues after justification?

  21. mark mcculley says:

    The proof-text(in parenthesis in the first post in this discussion)
    is Eph 2:4-5,10. The assumption is that the “made alive” is regeneration, and thus that union is by regeneration. Richard Gaffin has made it clear, however, that the intersection of redemptive history with the order of salvation for an individual cannot be reduced to “regeneration”.

    Gaffin does not want to exclude the idea of new birth from Ephesians 2 but want us to see legal federal representaton in the the “made alive” and “new man”. Same also in Romans 6 and Col 2.

    The elect become legal sharers in what happened to Christ at the cross and resurrection, and this is by imputation. See Gaffin’s By Faith, Not By Sight, for his defense of imputation. (Of course Gaffin does not identify union and imputation in the way I do.)

    Col 2:13 says “made alive together” and verse 14 explains that by saying “canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands”.

  22. mark mcculley says:

    The next time you hear apreacher with that same old Calvin quotation (as long as outside us, 3:11:10), please read to them L Berkhof:(from his systematic, p452)

    “It is sometimes said that the merits of Christ cannot be imputed to us as long as we are not in Christ, since it is only on the basis of our oneness with Him that such an imputation could be reasonable. But this view fails to distinguish between our legal unity with Christ and our spiritual oneness with Him, and is a falsification of the fundamental element in the doctrine of redemption, namely, of the doctrine of justification. “

    “Justification is always a declaration of God, not on the basis of an existing (or future) condition, but on that of a gracious imputation–a declaration which is not in harmony with the existing condition of the sinner. The judicial ground for all the grace which we receive lies in the fact that the righteousness of Christ is freely imputed to us.”

    1. Jared says:

      Berkhof is just dead wrong there. There is no scriptural support whatsoever of God declaring us justified when we aren’t justified (in Christ). This is where regeneration, imputation, justification, sanctification, and adoption need to be handled with biblical theological white gloves, not just proof texts from church figures.

  23. John Thomson says:

    ‘legal unity with Christ and our spiritual oneness with Him’

    Mmmm. Trying to grapple with this. Have been for some time. If by ‘legal union’ you mean what is accomplished redemptive-historically in thedeath/resurrection/ascension of Christ I see some merit in it. Something was definitely accomplished there by One that not only was ‘for’ the many but ‘involved’ the many; we died there too.

    Yet I sympathize greatly with Jared. I want to insist that before conversion we were ‘children of wrath’ even as others. We were not ‘actually’ justified until we believed in Christ. Similarly, as I have noted in an above comment, union relationships are normally described in terms that imply union in the Spirit and are organic and not merely ‘legal’.

    As Jared says, ‘white gloves’. The distinctions are easier to say with a headlines as Justin very helpfully does than to understand them in fine print.

    I don’t want fine print beyond Scripture but I’d like to go as far as Scripture does.

  24. Freddy Taul says:

    Can anyone offer a little assistance? I have Henry Beveridge’s translation of the Institutes (Hendrickson, 2008). It seems the citations are different from the edition JT uses. Where is it in the Beveridge translation? Or, am I just a bit slow? Ha. Thanks to whoever can help!

  25. Jon says:

    Dr. Tipton, Professor of Systematics and one of Dr. Gaffin’s former PhD students, weighs in on the discussion. http://www.youtube.com/user/WestminsterOnline#p/u/13/zEFal5YTn64

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  27. mark mcculley says:

    To the two fellows who don’t like the Berkhof quotation, I was responding to the over-use of one quotation from Calvin. Gaffin and Garcia use that quotation to push their agenda of an union which is not legal and which is also not regeneration, and which is left undefined.

    I have no problem with the making of distinctions or the use of gloves. I do object to any patronizing idea that the Torrances, or Gaffin, or Ferguson, or Shepherd or any of the anti-federal “federal visionists” have arrived closer to the truth, and that we must now catch up with them. Indeed, I think this is the point of John Fesko, who uses the Berkhof quotation in his great book on justification. It is also the point of Bruce McCormack, who questions the priority of eucharistic feeding/ regeneration categories in Calvin. (This concern of McCormack has been taken up by Mike Horton in his covenant union book).

    I am glad to talk about the intersection of redemptive history with the order of salvation for an individual. But you fellows need to respond to what I wrote, not to some hyper (no distinctions) caricature. I very much believe that the elect are born under the wrath of God. I very much believe that there is a difference between the righteousness of Christ and the imputation of that righteousness.

    Justin started writing about a definition of the union. I am trying to continue that conversation. I say that union is by election and then by legal imputation. What do you fellows say “in Christ” means? Does it mean regeneration? Does it mean something so big and general that you find yourselves unable to define it?

    1. John Thomson says:

      Mark

      How we undwerstand the redemptive-historical aspect of being ‘in Christ’, that is the being ‘in Christ’ without being actually/experientially in Christ, I am unsure.

      I value any efforts to make this clear. I simply find difficulties with a sense that I am ‘legally’ in Christ before my conversion yet ‘actually’ a child of wrath.

      I am not saying you are wrong, I am simply saying I am yet unsure how to word this.

  28. mark mcculley says:

    By Faith Not By Sight (Oakhill School of Theology Series) (
    Gaffin: “Typically in the Reformation tradition the hope of salvation is expressed in terms of Christ’s righteousness, especially as imputed to the believer…however, I have to wonder if ‘Christ in you’ is not more prominent as an expression of evangelical hope…” p110

    Of course Gaffin wants to say both things are our hope. Part of his hope is “sanctification” defined as something different than justification from sin, defined as power over against sin despite our “incomplete progress, flawed by our continued sinning”.

    Gaffin says many good and right things about imputation. For example, on p51, he lists three options for the ground of justification. A. Christ’s own righteousness, complete and finished in his obedience…B. the union itself, the fact of the relationship with Christ…c. the obedience being produced by the transforming Spirit in those in union. Gaffin rightly concludes that “the current readiness to dispense with imputation” results from taking the last two options as the ground of justification.

  29. MarieP says:

    Do you know when it was that “justification precedes union” appeared in Reformed theology? I was under the impression that this was pretty much a basic tenant of Reformed theology until reading Murray, Calvin, and Packer on the matter.

    I’m reminded of a quote posted on this blog last year:

    “[God] reckons righteousness to them, not because he accounts them to have kept his law personally (which would be a false judgment), but because he accounts them to be united to one who kept it representatively (and that is a true judgment)”

    —J. I. Packer, “Justification,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984], p. 596.

    Christ Himself is my Righteousness, and every blessing, including justification, is in Him.

    “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” Ephesians 1:3

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Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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