Union with Christ and the Questions of Life

I'm the sort of person who tends to focus on different aspects of theology, life, and ministry during various seasons of study. At the beginning of last year I decided to delve into the topic of "union with Christ." I had been interested in that area of study for quite some time, stretching back to my seminary days where I listened to Dr. Douglas Kelly's lectures on this subject. More recently, I stumbled upon Dr. Sinclair Ferguson’s fascinating lectures on the Marrow Controversy. As I began studying this subject, I picked up Augustine Campbell’s excellent work, Paul and Union With Christ. I had seen that paragon of reading prowess, Tony Reinke, list it as one of his top books for 2012 and was intrigued. Campbell’s contention, which I agree with, is that there is a good deal more research to be done in examining how Paul and other Bible author’s develop the doctrine of union to Christ. His book is a first start in that direction, throwing a big rock in a big pond and hoping to cause some ripples.

If you’re unfamiliar with the doctrine of the believers union with Christ, here is one simple explanation: God’s work of saving sinners is accomplished by uniting those sinners to Jesus and so causing them in time to become new creatures through the efficacious work of Jesus’s death and resurrection. This union produces a new relationship between the Christian and God. God the Father is now the believer's Father. The believer now knows the indwelling Holy Spirit as his comforter, guide, and strength. He relates to Jesus as Savior, Redeemer, and King. In this life, the believer experiences all the benefits (except glorification) that come with a life lived in a right relationship with God through Christ.

Union With Christ Categorically Explained

But how can we more effectively summarize this doctrine in its practical outworking in everyday life? Campbell reduces his nine aspects of union with Christ down to four constituent parts:

  • Union - This is the Christian’s static and new standing with God in Christ.
  • Participation - This is the Christian’s ongoing participation in the narrative of Jesus as summarized in the Westminster Shorter Catechism as a life of humiliation followed by a glorious exaltation.
  • Identification - This is the recognition that the Christian in Christ has a new allegiance to Jesus as King and a personal identity as a citizen in heaven. 
  • Incorporation - The Christian is also made a part of the body of believers which now composes the communion of saints, united by their common union to Christ. 

Working with Campbell’s four-fold description of union, I've sought to accommodate it to pastoral and homiletical ministry. Since Campbell's categories can sometimes be a little unwieldy, I’ve made a slight reorganization of them into three categories.  

  1. Identity - The Christian in Christ now has a new identity before God and the world.
  2. Story - The Christian in Christ is now a consciously blessed participant in the grand narrative of redemption finally revealed in time through the death and resurrection of Jesus; and, barreling toward a climactic end at the return of Jesus to bring about the final judgment.
  3. Community - The Christian in Christ now has a new foundational community, a family of faith, where folks from every conceivable background are his siblings through their common faith in Jesus as Lord. 

The Practical Implications Of Our Union With Christ 

In explaining the Christian life to Christians struggling to live out the Christian faith in a complex and changing world, the implications of our union with Christ prove to be extremely beneficial. Such implications include our being convinced of the following: 

  • Christian, your identity is firm in Christ’s finished work. One of the bigger questions that everyone asks is, “Who am I?” That is especially true for folks who have grown to believe that their identity is contingent on what they do or what other people think of them. An ill-rooted identity becomes a bondage that even Christians are prone to taking upon themselves and suffering under. The knowledge that we are righteous in Christ produces for us an identity that cannot change. We are sons and daughters of God, beloved and blessed. Our frail works and incomplete spiritual resumés cannot alter what God thinks of us in Christ. Jesus’s finished work and identity becomes our identity.
  • Christian, your story is now Christ’s story. God has decided that all things will work for your good as your life is masterfully guided to produce the most amount of glory possible for God. This answers another big question: “What am I here for?” Through your union with Christ you are here to glorify God, enjoy him forever, and live out the mission of the church until the return of Jesus. 
  • Christian, in Christ you belong to a group that cannot change. You are member of the church. Across the world there are those with whom you sharer a closer connection than the filial bonds of blood. You share with them the bonds of Jesus’s blood, more precious than gold or silver. It’s no shock that many people today flit from social group to social group longing for somewhere they can be accepted and loved. God has solved that frenetic social search by placing his dear ones in an unalterable and triumphant community.

Those base truths of identity, story, and community can be expanded in a multitude of theological and practical directions. Even as we consider engagement with a world that questions Christianity, we find that we have answers in Christ to the three most significant questions that any person could ever ask:

  1. Who am I?
  2. What is my story?
  3. Where do I belong?

It’s my encouragement to you, believer, to think on and pray through these things. As you read the New Testament, especially the Pauline letters, pay close attention to the often technical ways that Paul uses prepositions before “Christ”—in Christ, by Christ, through Christ. The doctrine of the believer's union with Christ is in the pages of Scripture for our encouragement, to answer life’s big questions, to propel us into worship, and to equip us for mission.


Related Resources

The Marrow Controversy Lectures, Sinclair Ferguson

Lectures on Union with Christ, Sinclair Ferguson

Paul and Union With Christ, Constantine Campbell

Union with ChristJ. Todd Billings

Meditation and Communion with God, John Jefferson Davis

Found in Him, Elyse Fitzpatrick

Lectures on Union with Christ, Richard Gaffin

Union with Christ: A Crash Course, blog post by Justin Taylor

Desiring God 2014 Pastor's Conference: The Pastor, the Vine and the Branches (Audio and Video of the Lectures)

Joe Holland