Resurrection: Union with Christ

Puritan pastor Walter Marshall concludes his magisterial work on a believer’s sanctification, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, with the simple but profound dictum that “Sanctification in Christ is glorification begun as glorification is sanctification perfected.”[1]  What makes this statement work so well is, in fact, those two little words “in Christ.” Marshall understood that any benefit a believer has, he has because of union with Christ. And insofar as someone has Christ, he therefore has everything involved with the person of Christ – his life, his sanctification, his death, resurrection, and glorification. Hence Marshall’s insistence that when someone believes in(to) Christ, it is there that the process of glorification has begun to take place.

Underlining this truth is the idea that God’s grace toward believers is not some thing, some substance, given apart from Christ but rather that God’s grace is Jesus Christ. Many Christians often confuse grace as some impersonalized stream of blessings which God dispenses to us after we believe in Jesus - as if, once we believed in Jesus, then there’s this unlocked treasure chest behind our Lord which, full of God’s grace and blessings, we now have access to. No! Grace is Jesus Christ and all the benefits of who he is in himself for us. I’ve heard Iain Hamilton memorably express the truth this way, that “the Gospel is not a string of blessings that God gives to us. The Gospel is Jesus Christ given to us with all the blessings we need for life and godliness contained in Him!”

Thus, we can say that our glorification is really only our participation in Christ’s glorification. Paul, writing to the Philippians says that in the resurrection, our lowly, earthly bodies, will be transformed and conformed to Christ’s glorious resurrection body (Phil. 3:20-21). What began with Jesus in 30 A.D. now reverberates down through history and happens “again and again” with everyone united to Jesus. Thus Paul, in Romans 8:11, can say that “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 through his Spirit who dwells in you.”

We should see, then, Christ’s resurrection as the resurrection event; one event, located in one person but cosmic in scope, with multiple ripples through history, changing the very nature of every person united to Christ and his resurrection. As Paul puts it in Colossians 1:18, “He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” What Christ began in his resurrection, will bear resurrection-fruit in our being united to him. So, we see that his resurrection is the basis of our regeneration (1 Peter 1:3). It is the basis of a believer’s justification (Rom. 4:25, 8:33-34; 1 Tim. 3:16). It is the resurrection of Christ which undergirds our sanctification and growth (Col. 3:1-2; Eph. 1:15-20). Because of Christ’s resurrection, believers can have a good conscience (1 Pet. 3:21)! Indeed, the resurrection of “Christ [is] the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor. 15:23).

In borrowing a bit from C.S. Lewis, imagine mankind sunk down deep in the foggy and mucky bottom of an ice-cold ocean, an ocean of sin, guilt, and death. There is no light and there is no life. But from the heights of glory the Son of God descends incarnate in a swan-like dive piercing into the cold waters and descending deeper and deeper into the dark depths of this ocean until he, like the rest of mankind, lies lifeless, buried underneath the muddy decay of this ocean floor. There he lay with all the weight of an ocean of sin and guilt bearing down upon him. But three days later he bursts forth in a brilliant resurrection, filled with all the vitality and color and life of glory. And as he reemerges up through the waters, ascending higher and higher back toward the light and up again into warm air of glory he brings with him a train of people – all formerly dead but now alive as Christ grips them within his life-giving hands and secures for them a future life of unending glory, all accomplished through the resurrection.

It is the resurrection of our Savior which gives meaning to every aspect of our lives as Christians. Without the resurrection, says Paul, then our preaching is in vain, our faith is in vain, in fact, our faith is futile, and we are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:14, 17)!  “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19). For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is of first-level importance (1 Cor. 15:3-4; Rom. 10:9).

Union is an unavoidable reality for mankind. We are all either in union with Adam in whom we incur all the guilt and condemnation due to his sin. Or we are in union with Christ, becoming unworthy partakers of his righteousness and life. This first union is, in fact, expressly seen in our own sin. When we sin – and we all do, don’t we – we show our union with and likeness to our first father, Adam. The fruit we bear is produced from the same sap and it all ends in death. “In Adam all die” (1 Cor. 15:22a). But if we have repented (and continue to repent!) and put our faith in Jesus Christ, and in so doing we’ve become united to Christ, then we have been united to his life and resurrection. “So also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22b).

Consider these stirring remarks from Geerhardus Vos, preached during an Easter sermon at Princeton Theological Seminary in 1905. “It is just as impossible that any one for whom Christ rose from the dead should fail to receive the righteousness of God as it is that God should undo the resurrection of Christ itself. Consequently, knowing ourselves one with Christ, we find in the resurrection the strongest possible assurance of pardon and peace. When Christ rose on Easter morning he left behind him in the depths of the grave every one of our sins; there they remain buried from the sight of God so completely that even in the day of judgment they will not be able to rise up against us any more… In the living Saviour, Paul would have us by faith grasp our justification.”[2]

Praise God for the resurrection of Jesus and, by God’s grace, our being “in Christ”!

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.



[1] Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification (Reformation Heritage Books, MI. 1999), p. 227.

[2] Geerhardus Vos, Grace And Glory (Banner of Truth, 2020), p.172

 

Stephen Unthank