Union with Christ: An Introduction

Many readers no doubt are aware that union with Christ is a major concern for the apostle Paul. When you look at such passages as Ephesians 2:1-22 and Colossians 2:6-15 and 3:1-17 it becomes clear that to be "in Christ" or "in him" or for Christ to be "in you" is the sum and substance of our glorious redemption in Jesus. As a seminary professor friend of mine likes to put it, union with Christ is the "central soteric blessing." What my friend means is that union with Christ is the overarching way Paul understands what are often called the blessings or benefits of redemption. Nothing that Christians gain from our Lord comes to us outside of our being joined to him. We are justified, adopted, definitively and progressively sanctified, and eventually glorified because we are united to our risen and reigning Lord Jesus.

This concern with our union with Christ, however, was learned from our Lord and was shared with other apostles such as Peter. Let's consider being joined to Jesus in these other places in Scripture and so discover this oft-times buried jewel. Let's start with Peter's comments in 1st Peter 2:1-10. We may miss the connection between this section of Scripture and our union with Christ because word pictures building on biblical themes are used for the idea and not the language of union per se (this reality is true for our Lord's discussion as well). In our text Peter calls upon the recipients of his letter, who are pilgrims and exiles in a foreign land, to be holy as the Lord is holy (1st Peter 1:13-16). Peter extends his thought by reminding his readers that they are "living stones" being built up into a "spiritual house" (ie, the temple) of which Jesus Christ is the capstone. Jesus is the stone which the builders rejected but was chosen by God. There is the closest relation between the rejected Lord and his troubled people.

In biblical scholarship this idea is sometimes referred to as the "house-building" theme which also ties this passage in 1st Peter to 1st Samuel 7 where God promises to build a house (dynasty) for David in response to his desire to build God a temple. Of course the temple (and the tabernacle before it) was indwelt by the Holy Spirit and so the church as a spiritual house is also indwelt by the Spirit as Paul notes in 1st Corinthians 3:9-17 and 6:14-20 (temple imagery is strong in these passages too). Both Paul and Peter learned to find satisfaction in their union with Christ directly from the Lord. Jesus in John 2:13-22 tells the religious authorities at the Jerusalem temple after having cleared it of money lenders and merchants that he would be able to rebuild the fallen temple in three days thereby signaling that he was the new temple and was making reference to his forthcoming resurrection. Jesus is the new temple where a holy God and a sinful people may come together for communion. And the church is by extension through union with Christ also the temple. This picture for union with Christ reaches its climax in the perfectly cubical temple city of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22.

Jesus did not limit his concern with our saving union with him to building or temple metaphors. As intriguing as architectural metaphors may be, our Lord also considered being joined to him under a biological metaphor: the vine and branches of John 15:1-17. The apostle John reports our Lord's words to his disciples that they must abide "in him" and bear much fruit pleasing to the Father. The secret to and long and blessed Christian life is that we should remain attached to our Lord, as a branch receives life nourishing sap from a vine. To "abide in" is another way of thinking about our union with Christ. But to truly appreciate this picture we need to remember that Jesus was drawing on an Old Testament theme. Israel was pictured as a vine planted in a howling wilderness. Tracing this word picture will take you from Exodus 15:17, through Psalms 44:2 and 80:8-19, Isaiah 5:1-7, and Jeremiah 2:21, to Ezekiel 15:1-8. In these texts, Israel is viewed as a vine or a vineyard that God planted that had gone to seed (think how this background might enrich our understanding of Jesus' parable of the vineyard tenants in Matthew 21:33-46). Jesus is therefore telling us that when he is the true vine he is also true Israel. We are therefore saved from the wrath of God by Holy Spirit created faith in Jesus Christ which unites us to the true vine who is also the true Israel who is also the chief cornerstone who is indeed the Lord of all glory.

Clearly there is more to union with Christ than an abstract theological idea. In fact, it captures the heart and soul of our graciously saving relationship with Christ.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.

Jeffrey Waddington