In our studies on this topic we have first considered the question: What is union with Christ? In our last instalment we considered the question: How is this union with Christ established in the life of a sinner? We saw that union with Christ is established in the way of faith by the work of the Holy Spirit. It may be edifying to consider this question somewhat further: How does union with Christ take place? We wish to listen briefly to Thomas Boston and Horatius Bonar who both in different, yet similar ways, explain how the sinner is led to lose all hope in himself and to cast himself at the feet of Christ. It is in this way that the sinner is united to Christ.
Thomas Boston (1676-1732) explains how union with Christ takes place and calls it: "how the branches are cut off from the natural stock, the first Adam, and grafted into the true vine, the Lord Jesus Christ." He gives an extensive sequence of steps showing how the sinner is led into union with Christ. Boston states that he does not want people to consider these series of steps to be the only way by which God breaks sinners off from their old life in Adam (Works, volume 8, p.199). The issue is that in whatever way it may happen, the sinner must be drawn away from his own works and led to rely only upon the Lord Jesus Christ. This is essential to salvation.
Boston's intention is to impress his readers with the necessity of man's obligation to deny himself completely and to trust in Christ alone. Boston describes in minute detail how the sinner is led to do this. He portrays the struggles that people experience before they are brought to this full and unconditional resignation unto the Lord and His free grace. Boston writes:When the Spirit of the Lord comes to deal with a person, to bring him to Christ, he finds him in Laodicea's case, in a sound sleep of security, dreaming of heaven and the favour of God, though full of sin against the Holy One of Israel. Therefore the Spirit darts in some beams of light into the dark soul, and lets the man see that he is a lost man... Hereupon the man forsakes his former profane courses, his lying, swearing, Sabbath-breaking, stealing, and such like practices, though they be dear to him, he will rather quit them than ruin his soul... Now he begins to bless himself in his heart, and looks joyfully on his evidences for heaven; thinking himself a better servant to God than many others. Luke 18:11...Upon this he turns to a positively holy course of life. He not only is not profane, but he performs religious duties: he prays, seeks the knowledge of the principles of religion, strictly observes the Lord's Day and like Herod does many things and hears sermons gladly. In one word there is a great conformity, in his outward conversation, to the letter of both tables of the law. He makes a good impression upon his neighbours and their good opinion of him confirms his good opinion of himself. This step in religion is fatal to many, who never get beyond it... But here the Lord gives the elect branch a farther stroke. Conscience flies in the man's face, for some wrong steps in his conversation, the neglect of some duty and then the flaming sword of the law appears again over his head and the curse rings in his ears, for that he `continueth not in all things written in the law, to do them.'...The Spirit of the Lord gives yet a deeper stroke to the branch which is to be cut off, shewing him, that as yet, he is but an outside saint, and discovering to him the filthy lusts lodged in his heart, which he took no notice of before, Rom. 7:9. Then he sees his heart to be full of sinful lusts, covetousness, pride, malice, filthiness and the like. His outside religion is blown up as insufficient... Upon this he goes even further to inside religion. He sets to work more vigorously than ever, mourns over the evils of his heart, and strives to bear down the weeds which he finds growing in that neglected garden. He labours to curb his pride and passion and to banish speculative impurities; prays more fervently, hears attentively, and strives to get his heart affected in every religious duty he performs. In this way he comes to think himself, not only an outside but an inside Christian...Then another deeper stroke is given. The Lord discovers to him, in the glass of the law, how he sinneth in all he does, even when he does the best he can and therefore the dreadful sound returns to his ears: `Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things,'... In this way he becomes so far broken that he sees he is not able to satisfy the demands of the law...Now the time is come, when the man, between hope and despair, resolves to go to Christ as he is; and therefore, like a dying man, stretching himself just before his breath goes out, he rallies the broken forces of his soul, tries to believe and in some sort lays hold on Jesus Christ... That voice powerfully strikes through his soul, "How can ye believe?" John 5:44. Thou canst no more believe, than thou canst reach up thine hand to heaven, and bring Christ down from thence. Thus at length he sees that he can neither help himself by working, nor by believing; and having no more to hang by on the old stock, he therefore falls off. While he is distressed thus, seeing himself likely to be swept away with the flood of God's wrath and yet unable so much as to stretch forth a hand to lay hold of a twig of the tree of life, growing on the bank of the river, he is taken up, and ingrafted in the true vine, the Lord Jesus Christ giving him the Spirit of faith...The Gospel is the silver cord let down from heaven, to draw perishing sinners to land. And though the preaching of the law prepares the way of the Lord; yet it is in the Word of the Gospel that Christ and a sinner meet...The man gets a ravishing sight of Christ's excellence in the glass of the gospel: he sees him a full, suitable, and willing Saviour; and gets a heart to take him for and instead of all. The Spirit of faith furnishes him feet to come to Christ, and hands to receive him. What by nature he could not do, by grace he can, the Holy Spirit working in him the work of faith with power...The soul that before tried many ways of escape, but all in vain, now looks with the eye of faith, which proves the healing look. There is actual believing on Jesus Christ, whereby this union is completed.
We also wish to consider Horatius Bonar (1808-1889). In his book: God's Way of Peace, he explains in somewhat similar terms as Thomas Boston, how the sinner is brought into union with Christ. The sinner is led to resign fully unto the Lord Jesus Christ. Bonar addresses especially awakened sinners and warns that they easily substitute earnestness for faith. The preaching goes out with the divine command: Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. The awakened sinner tries to believe, but realizes that he cannot believe and then considers his earnestness as a good substitute for faith. Bonar shows that basically the sinner is then still trying to receive salvation by means of his works while the Bible comes to all with the call to immediate faith and repentance. Sinners are commanded to believe "just as Jesus commanded the man with the withered hand to stretch it out."
Bonar explains how man tries to bridge the gulf of his own inability to believe by performing various kinds of good and pious works, such as reading, praying, listening to sermons etc. But this is "man's plan for helping God to save him; men's self made ladder for climbing up a little way out of the horrible pit, in the hope that God will so commiserate his earnest struggles as to do all the rest that is needed."
Bonar is even sharper when he writes further on: "For we are saved by faith, not by efforts to induce Ôan unwilling GodÕ to give us faith... We are not to try to persuade God to be gracious with our prayers or earnestness, to extort salvation from the hand of a grudging and austere giver." Bonar continues to expound the sin of the unbeliever, also of the self righteous unbeliever: "God commands you to believe; and as long as you do not believe, you are making Him a liar, you are rejecting the truth, you are believing a lie, ... your not believing is your worst sin.."
Bonar then fully repudiates the idea that man has the ability to help himself. This vain notion of man's ability to work his own salvation is in sharp contrast to faith. In fact, faith is not a work at all. It is "to drop in the arms of Jesus." Bonar elucidates:"So long as you think you have some strength, you will be trying to use that strength in doing something--and specially in performing, to your own and Satan's satisfaction, that great act or exercise of soul, called Ôfaith.Õ But when you find out that you have no strength left you will, in despair, cease to work--and (before you are aware)--believe! ... Now, when the conviction of having no strength at all is forced upon you, you drop into the arms of Jesus. But this you will never do as long as you fancy that you have strength to believe."
The contention of Bonar is to explain at least to some detail, what it means in practice to believe. Therein he corresponds with Boston, for both consider faith as resting in Jesus. The sinner has to be led to that point in his personal experience where he does not seek to bring any merit of his own for his salvation, but is brought to totally surrender to Christ. The great moment for Boston and Bonar is the moment of unconditional resignation to Christ.
Union with Christ is worked by God's Holy Spirit in the way of leading the sinner to despair of his own works and achievements and give up attempts to merit his salvation. All emphasis is placed upon the indispensability of faith. The sinner is thrust completely upon the Lord Jesus Christ. The Reformation principles of Sola Fide as well as Sola Gratia are accented and combined with the principle of Solus Christus.
The way to union with Christ is a work of God's Spirit in the heart of man whereby man is led to own his guilt, confess his inability to work any righteousness before God and is led to submit to Christ in the way of faith. The basis for this submission to Christ is found in the promise of the Gospel.
1. Thomas Boston, Works, Volume 8, page 189. See page 189-200 for his exposition on the appropriation of grace.
2. Horatius Bonar, God's Way of Peace, Durham, England, 1989. See pages 61-86.
3. H. Bonar, o.c. page 70.
4. Ibid, page 72.
5. Ibid, page 81.