There have been various encouragements over the past week. It has been great to visit various people, including briefly catching up with a Christian friend I haven’t seen for about 15 years. Things like that are always good- a reminder of the Lord’s ability to keep hold of us.
One of the highlights of the week, though, was completing Marcus Johnson’s book One with Christ. This is not a light read but I was grateful to be reminded of the wonder of this central doctrine. Indeed Johnson’s argument is that our view of the Gospel and the Christian life would be enhanced if this was recognised as the central New Testament theme. At the heart of the New Testaments are not blessings such as forgiveness and salvation in and of themselves. No- the key point about being a Christian is that we have Christ, the one in whom are found all spiritual blessings. As Johnson writes- “To be saved is to be united to the Saviour.”
I’ve written and spoken on this theme quite a lot over the past few years. However, Johnson’s book (indirectly- these aren’t the precise points he makes) reminded me of four pastoral benefits of teaching the centrality of the believer’s real union with the Lord Jesus.
1. A Clarity about Salvation
Some evangelists use a simple illustration to indicate what Christ achieved on the cross. He holds out his left hand and puts a video tape (remember those?) on it, indicating the sinful life of the person. His right hand is also upturned, without video tape on it. This indicates Christ who has no sin. The evangelist then moves the video tape from one hand to the other to indicate that Christ took our sin at the cross. In teaching 2 Cor 5:21 I think I added to that illustration and moved a white tissue from the Jesus side to our side indicating that whilst He took our sin, we received His righteousness. All of that is true but I realise there is a problem with the illustration and indeed much of our emphasis on the “swap” of our sin for His righteousness. In the illustration Jesus and me are kept apart. We are two different hands. The problem then is that salvation becomes a sort of legal fiction. Jesus hasn’t sinned but somehow sin is transferred to Him. I am not righteous but somehow a record of righteousness is transferred to me. In reality, the doctrine makes sense only if I am united with Christ. As Paul says in 2 Cor 5:21 it is in Christ (in union with Him) that I become the righteousness of God. I experience salvation because as I trust in Christ by faith the two hands are brought together. My sin becomes His (and praise God, He has paid for it at the cross) and His righteousness becomes mine because we are united. The best illustration of this is probably marriage: it is what Martin Luther talks about in The Freedom of the Christian. A poor slave girl is suddenly rich if she is married to a great prince. All the righteousness of Christ’s is ours in our marriage relationship with Him.
Calvin puts it like this- “We do not contemplate Christ outside ourselves from afar in order that His righteousness be imputed to us. Rather we put on Christ and are engrafted into His body- in short, because He deigns to make us one with Him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with Him.”
This means that in proclaiming the Gospel, we are not announcing a formula or technique. We are proclaiming Christ. “Come and be united to Him; come and join the One who is wisdom and purity and love.” To experience salvation is to be united to Jesus.
2. A More Hopeful Christian Life
If we have taught salvation with Jesus and me being two separate people then that will make the Christian life much harder. It will revolve around me desperately trying to live for Him who is now in heaven. But that’s never the pattern for the Christian life. I am not living for One who is distant; I am living out my union with One who is very near. That’s the Christian life- living out my union with Christ.
Consider a passage like Philippians 2 where, in some sense, Christ’s incarnation is seen as an exemplary pattern of humility for us. Is the message “Jesus was like this so you must be like this”? Not on its own. The whole context of the beginning of the passage is the believer’s union with Christ. Because the mind of Christ is in us it is natural and possible to live in His way of humility.
Thinking in this way completely changes our approach to the Christian life. When we forget our union with Christ, we end up feeling defeated. When we recall that Christ is in us, somehow it becomes possible for us to live more like Him.
There is a problem, though, for some- an issue that a friend raised with me this week. Most of us are very aware of our sin and so we wonder whether this is real- am I truly united with Jesus? I want to say yes for two reasons. The very awareness of sin is indicative of the presence of Jesus in our hearts- isn’t that how people like Peter responded to the presence of Jesus when on earth? Furthermore, whilst many of us know our sin we are unaware of the real changes that Christ is making in our lives. I see so many Christians who, without being very conscious of it, are quietly living for the glory of God and the good of others. Why are they doing it? Because the Lord Jesus is in their hearts and is changing them. It is a wonderful thing and reminds us that it is possible to live as a Christian for each day is about what Jesus and I will do together.
3. A Confidence in our Standing with God
The sermon I have most enjoyed preaching this year came from the start of our Building Family series. Essentially it was on the theme of our adoption as children of a Heavenly Father. However, it is worth stressing that this adoption is certain because if our union with Christ. Just as Jesus prayed “Abba Father” (Mark 14:36) so can we (Romans 8:15). His Father is now our Father (John 20:17). Astonishingly, the love with which the Father loves the Son is now the same as that which He loves us for we are united to the Son.
Over the last year or so at Woody Road we have been singing the old hymn A Mind at Perfect Peace with God to the tune of Amazing Grace (adding in the Tomlin chorus for good measure!). I am not sure there is a better description of union with Christ than these two verses:
So near, so very near to God,
I could not nearer be;
For in the person of His Son
I am as near as He.
So dear, so very dear to God,
More dear I could not be;
The love with which He loves the Son,
Such is His love to me.
There is such security here. We are His children and the Father will never un-adopt us.
4. A Greater Appreciation of the Church
It would be wrong to see all this purely in individual terms. It is the church that is the body of Christ. Again it is a picture of union- for we are joined to Christ as our Head. Likewise the church is the bride of Christ, a picture of the marriage union. Christ and the church are not to be apart but together. What a joy permanent union will be. Listen to Jonathan Edwards- “The wedding feast is eternal; and the love and joys, the songs, entertainments and the glories of the wedding will never be ended. It will be an everlasting wedding day.”
In connection with this it is worth noting that both baptism and the Lord’s Supper are pictures of union with Christ. Baptism speaks of union with Christ in death, burial and resurrection- see Romans 6. Again, the Lord’s Supper is not simply a remembrance of One who is apart from us. It is a participation in the body of Christ. The very nature of eating and drinking is to take Christ’s body and blood into us. We are united with Him.
A Call to Think Differently
The temptation is to see union with Christ as part of the Christian life or one of the blessings of being a Christian, alongside being forgiven and having eternal life. That is wrong. It is the whole thing. Every blessing comes only through being united with Christ. We are forgiven because we are united to Christ who paid for our sin. Eternal life is not life that goes on forever, it is life knowing Christ and being children of the Father forever. Everything is transformed by this great reality. I am not on my own anymore. I am joined to Him- and all my faults are His and all His blessings are mine.