Kevin DeYoung offers a revealing, sad, and humorous comment: “Union with Christ may be the most important doctrine you’ve never heard of.” As a local church pastor, I understand what DeYoung means. Union with Christ is packed everywhere in theology and church history, and Paul references it more times than most Christians realize. But the doctrine of union with Christ needs more attention since many Christians cannot articulate what it means. So what is this especially important doctrine that you’ve never heard of?
Union with Christ: A Definition for Ordinary Christians
Although the literal expression “union with Christ” is not found in Scripture, it’s implied everywhere in Paul’s writings. Giving a technical understanding of what union with Christ means is beyond the scope of this article. My aim, instead, is for lay Christians who are remotely familiar with the doctrine but don’t know how to define it. So let me provide a simple definition. In his fine book, Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God, Rankin Wilbourne defines union with Christ as follows: “. . . union with Christ means that you are in Christ and Christ is in you” (p. 43).
That’s it. That’s union with Christ — You live in Jesus and Jesus lives in you.
That takes the “my personal relationship with Jesus” mantra to a whole new level!
Colossians and Christ
In Colossians, and in two other places in Scripture, Paul uses the phrase “raised with Christ” (Col 3:1). It means “to be co-resurrected.” It’s a passive verb, which points to God’s work in the lives of the original recipients of the letter but has present consequences. In response to the false teachers at Colossae who overemphasized personal effort as a means to access God and who undermined the full divinity of Jesus, the Apostle repeatedly defends the doctrine of Christ’s divinity and how his life and ours are entangled in a mystical union.
In four verses (Colossians 3:1-4), Paul hints at union with Christ four times:
- raised with Christ
- For you have died
- your life is hidden with Christ in God
- Christ who is your life
Wait a minute. How can I be raised with Christ if I’m still on Earth? How can Paul say “for you have died” when Paul expects the church at Colossae to read the letter when they receive it? My life is not hidden anywhere; it’s out in the open. I have my own life, but Christ is my life. Wait, what?
The theme of Union with Christ is not just in these four verses in Colossians but is everywhere found in Scripture. Paul speaks of being crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20), seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6), and even buried with him (Romans 6:4). Crucified, seated, buried. Such is the mystery of union with Christ. Metaphors are required for understanding.
Paul never uses the word “Christian” in all his letters. The word Christian is only found three times in the New Testament. But “in Christ” or “in him” are found over 160 times in the Apostle Paul’s writings. The next time you read Paul’s letters, pay attention to expressions such as “in Christ” “in whom” or other references with the word “in” or “with” and then Jesus — that’s union with Christ, and it applies to you.
As a theologically credentialed pastor, I get a little nervous when Christians get too occupied with angels, demons, the second coming of Christ, and some of the more mysterious aspects of Christian doctrine. And yet, as Christians, when we look into the Scriptures, we must confess that there are aspects of the Christian faith that are mystical, mysterious, and spiritual and we must never try to replace it or ignore it or deliver these doctrines in a neat, cookie-cutter package. Union with Christ is one of those doctrines. You are in Christ and Christ is in you.
Union with Christ can be understood truly, but not fully. Any Christian can know a lot about it, but no Christian knows it perfectly, since there is a mysterious aspect to it, and the secret things belong to the Lord (Deut. 29:29). Stated differently, there is a mystery about it that human language cannot fully articulate, and our finite minds cannot fully grasp. It requires faith.
Rankin Wilbourne says understanding union with Christ requires imagination. He’s right. Our Lord’s teaching ministry did not exclusively consist of explicit data. He told about a man in a certain town, a farmer with some seeds, and a judge and a widow. Stories require imagination. So we need faith and our imagination to grasp this precious doctrine.
Union with Christ: Let’s Go Deeper
Union with Christ means Jesus represents you. What happened to him, happened to you. When he died, you died. When he rose, you rose. When he ascended, you ascended. When he sat down in heaven, so did you. His life and yours are so entangled that what he did you did. He did the work, but you get some of the benefits.
The Bible uses many metaphors to describe union with Christ. Probably my favorite one is that of marriage. Paul elaborates on this in Ephesians 5. In marriage, two become one. Once you get married, you get good and bad from the other person. If your marriage partner has debt, you get the debt. If the person you marry has work benefits and makes a lot of money, now you have access to that money and benefits. Two become one: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31-32).
It’s the same with union with Christ – only that with Christ, there are no blemishes or corruption and only glory and beauty and perfection. When you put your faith in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are now forever united to him and receive all of the benefits of salvation as a free gift. It’s not less than a personal relationship, but it’s more. It’s a mystical, spiritual, mysterious union.
You are in Christ and Christ is in You
Wilbourne tells the story of a girl who landed a job as Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. Growing up as a girl, if she was good, she felt accepted. If bad, rejected. She learned to wear a mask. Deep down she believed she was not worthy, accepted, or loved, so she tried to get positive responses from people. When she wore the costume, in some ways, she was in Mickey and vice versa. While wearing the costume, you can imagine how good she felt — who doesn’t like Mickey Mouse? When she was in that costume she experienced the attention and affirmation she was looking for. Because of her experience as Mickey, she’s able to appreciate what it means to be in Christ (p. 47).
Such is true with our union with Christ. We are in Jesus, and this should lead to feeling good: happy, joyful, satisfied, and content. We are hidden, covered. No longer is our world small, and no longer is it about us. Our lives are about Jesus because Jesus is our life. A deep understanding of being in Jesus will lead to spiritual flourishing.
If the doctrine of union with Christ penetrates the deep recesses of your soul, it will change the way you view yourself and how you interact with others. You’ll be secure, yet tender; humble, yet confident; ambitious, yet content. You will have much more joy and strike the right balance between wanting to add value to the lives of others, and being okay with being in the background.
Union with Christ is glorious, mysterious, and mystical. We need more proclamation of it from the pulpit, which means if you are a pastor, and your sermon text even remotely mentions it, I encourage you to walk your people through this teaching slowly. And if you want to learn more about it, consider Wilbourne’s book. Or a different book on the subject. And best of all, open up the Good Book and feast on what God says about you.
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