It is the beauty of the Christian religion that Christ is not only transcendent, highly exalted above every power and person, but that He is also very close to His people. He even dwells within His people. Because of this intimate bond with Christ, the believer receives love, faith, hope and strength and all the graces of the Holy Spirit. We can agree with L. Berkhof when he defines this union with Christ as follows: "That intimate, vital and spiritual union between Christ and His people, in virtue of which He is the Source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation."
This union with Christ has essential significance for man. Without this union with Christ being established in one's life, one cannot enter the kingdom of God. One can only be saved in the way of being united to Christ by faith through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In a short series of articles we shall try to consider some aspects of this union with Christ. In this first article we shall focus on the question: What is union with Christ?
When we read Scripture carefully we notice that there are three important and vital unions revealed to us:
1. The union of the three divine persons of the trinity. There is one eternal God Who exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Yet we do not have three Gods or merely three modes of existence of the One God. We confess one God and three divine persons.
2. The union of the divine and the human nature in the person of Christ. The essential Godhead and true humanity of Christ are so joined as to constitute one person and yet there is no mixture of these two natures.
3. The union between Christ and believers. They are united together in a vital and everlasting relationship.
These three vital unions are the source, the channel and the realization of man's salvation. We wish to consider in more detail the third union, the union between Christ and believers. The older English writers referred often to the believers union with Christ. Maybe that was emphasized more than it is in our day. Edward Polhil, a theologian of the seventeenth century, who is now virtually unknown, but who in his day wrote quite a number of books and treatises, also wrote on the topic of the union with Christ. Polhil emphasizes that the three aforementioned unions must be viewed in conjunction to one another and that they are indispensable to the salvation of man.
The first two unions are conducive to the third union. That is to say, the union within the trinity and the union within the person of Christ are necessary for the union between Christ and His people. There is Scriptural evidence to say that the union with Christ is dependent upon the two other forms of union: John 6:57, "As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me;" John 17:21, "That they all may be one; as thou, Father, [art] in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me;Ó John 14:20, "At that day ye shall know that I [am] in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you."
The union within the person of Christ is an example of the union between Christ and His people. Richard Sibbes emphasizes the grace aspect as the most important point of comparison. He argues that God displayed grace in uniting the divine nature to the human nature in the one person of Christ. It is an indescribable grace that God unites the Lord Jesus to a sinful human being. Sibbes writes: "If we respect eternal salvation, or grace, or office, Christ was chosen in respect of his manhood; for as it is well observed by divines, Christ is the head of all that are predestinate; and the human nature could not merit its incarnation, it could not merit union with the Godhead, it was merely from grace? Therefore the knitting of the human nature of Christ to His divine, it is called the grace of union. The choosing of the human nature of Christ to be so gracious and glorious, it was of grace."
E. Polhil notes in Christ a threefold grace and compares this to a threefold grace in God's people:
We see that the pattern of the union with Christ is set in the Godhead itself. We also realize that the trinity or the two natures within the person of Christ cannot be understood or fathomed by human intelligence. We must conclude two matters:
1. The union with Christ is a matter which cannot be fully comprehended by human reasoning.
2. The union with Christ must be studied in close reference to the Scriptures, as the final and decisive authority.
Scripture is very comprehensive in explaining this vital union between Christ and the believers. The expression "union with Christ" as such is not mentioned in Scripture. The issue, however, occurs many times in God's Word. The term "union with Christ" is the theological expression of those many portions of Scripture in which we find the term "in Christ." We can refer to many quotations from the apostle Paul and some from the apostle Peter. Well-known is 2 Corinthians 5:17: "Therefore if any man [be] in Christ, [he is] a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new."
Besides that we also read of the concept "with Christ." For example, we read in Galatians 2:20: "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." We must also consider the passages in which reference is made to the expression: "Christ in you." Colossians 1:27: "To whom God would make known what [is] the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.Ó The terms 'with Christ' or 'in Christ' or 'Christ in you' give further expression to the notion of "Union with Christ."
Mention should also be made of three passages in the writings of the apostle John which combine the concepts of "we in Christ" and "Christ in us:" John 6:56, "He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him;" John 15:4, "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me;" 1 John 4:13, "Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit."
These quotations illustrate that the scope of the New Testament notion of "union with Christ" is indeed broad. We must keep in mind that the New Testament is the proclamation of God's salvation unto man. Without that salvation appropriated personally in the lives and hearts of sinners, those sinners remain destitute of the salvation of Christ. A.A. Hoekema writes: "We are not saved until we have been made one with Christ, and we remain saved only as we remain in union with Christ."
1. L. Berkhof,
2. Polhil, a seventeenth century English Calvinist writes: ÒThere are three admirable Unions noted by Divines; the essential Union of the Three persons in the Sacred Trinity; the Hypostatical Union of the divine and human natures in the Person of Christ: and the Mystical Union which is between Christ and Believers. In the first we have salvation in the primary fountain of it; in the second we have it in the channel or excellent medium of it; in the third we have it in the application or actual possession of it.Ó Edward Polhil, Christus in Corde: or the mystical union between Christ and believers considered in its Resemblances, Bonds, Seals, Privileges and Marks, London, 1680, page A2.
3. Richard Sibbes, Works, Volume 1, Edinburgh, 1979, page 10.
4. E. Polhil o.c. page 14.
5. See for instance: Romans 8:1; 9:1; 12:5; 16:3,7,9,10; 1 Corinthians 1:2,30; 3:1; 4:10,15,17; 15:18,19,22,31; 16:24; 2 Corinthians 1:21: 2:14,17; 5:17; 12:2,19; Galatians 1:22; 2:4; 3:26,28; 6:15; Ephesians 1:1,3,10; 2:6,10,13; Philippians 1:1,13; 2:1; 3:3,14; 4:21; Colossians 1:2,4,28; 2:5; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 4:16; 5:18; 1 Timothy 2:7, 3:13; 2 Timothy 1:9,13; 3:12; Philemon 6,8,23; 1 Peter 3:16; 5:14.
6. See for instance: Romans 6:6; 8:7; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:5; Philippians 1:23; Colossians 2:20; 3:1,3; Revelation 20:4.
7. See for instance: John 14:17,20; 15:4,7,11; Romans 8:9,10,11; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 9:14; 13:3,5; Galatians 4:19; Ephesians 4:6; Colossians 1:27; 3:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:12; Hebrews 13:21; 1 John 2:14,24.
8. For the expression: ÔWith ChristÕ we can refer to Romans 6:8; 8:7; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:5; Philippians 1:23; Colossians 2:20; 3:1,3. For the expression: Ôin youÕ we can mention John 14:17,20; 15:4,7,11; Romans 8:9-11; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19; 2 Corinthians 9:14; 13:3,5; Galatians 4:19; Ephesians 4:6; Colossians 1:27; 3:16; 2 Thessalonians 1:12; Hebrews 13:21; 1 John 2:14,24.
9. A.A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace, Grand Rapids, 1989, page 54.