What is Union with Christ?

Connection to Christ is a favored biblical expression for explaining our bond with Jesus.

But it’s a pretty tough idea to wrap our heads around (the same is true for a lot of doctrine), especially when we consider the phrase “union with Christ” isn’t really seen explicitly in scripture. So where do we see it in the Bible? And what exactly is it?

Union with Christ in the Bible

As mentioned, we don’t necessarily see Paul give a breakdown of this doctrine, but we certainly see him hint at it all throughout his writings:

  • We’ve been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:10)
  • We’ve been made alive in Christ (Colossians 2:13)
  • We’ve been hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:3)
  • We’ve been made one in Christ (Ephesians 5:31-32)
  • We’re a part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27)
  • We will be brought to life in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22)
  • We’ve been raised with Christ (Romans 6:5)
  • We will be glorified with Christ (Romans 8:17)

The list goes on. These instances describe for us what it means to be in Christ or with Christ. There are somewhere between 80-90 instances of “in Christ” in the New Testament – and this is where the definition of union with Christ becomes most clear to us.

What Does it Mean to Be “In Christ”

For those of us who have proclaimed faith in Jesus, we are “in Christ.” But what exactly does that mean? It certainly seems to have more than one clear meaning, as we see it used to describe a lot of different truths throughout the New Testament. In the list above we see that being “in Christ” means a lot of different things for us, but what exactly does it mean to be in Him, or Him in us?

John Piper defines union with Christ this way, “It is the reality of all the ways that the Bible pictures our human connectedness to Christ, in which he is indispensable for every good that we enjoy.”

Richard Gaffin defines union with Christ as, “…the believer’s solidarity or association with Christ, by the Holy Spirit and through faith, by virtue of which believers partake of his saving benefits.”

But my favorite definition isn’t a definition itself, but an illustration. It doesn’t work perfectly, but it’s been a huge help in my understanding of my relationship with Jesus, and all its benefits.

Rory Shiner describes it like this:

Imagine yourself at the airport, about to board a plane. The plane is on its way to sunny Melbourne, and Melbourne is where you want to be. What relationship do you need to have with the plane at this point?

Would it help to be under the plane, to submit yourself to the plane’s eminent authority in the whole flying-to-Melbourne thing? Or would it help to be inspired by the plane? To watch it fly off and whisper “One day, I hope to do that too”. What about following the plane? You know the plane is going to Melbourne, and so it stands to reason that if you take note of the direction it goes and pursue it then you too will end up there.

Of course, the key relationship you need with the plane is not to be under it, behind it, or inspired by it. You need to be in it. Why? Because, by being in the plane, what happens to the plane will also happen to you. The question “Did you get to Melbourne?” will be part of a larger question: “Did the plane get to Melbourne?” If the answer to the second question is yes, and if you were in the plane, then what happened to the plane will also have happened to you.

Rory Shiner

A simple idea with profound implications. Let’s look at a few:

New Life in Christ

2 Corinthians 5:17 illustrates a beautiful picture of new life in Jesus: “If anyone is in Christ, He is a new creation.”

Because Jesus died for us, we can be united with Christ. When we’re united, we experience new life. Not just different life, not a more moral life, and not a more spiritual life – but a new one. And it’s Jesus who ushers us into this.

If we’ve said yes to Jesus, this is true – despite what our circumstances and experiences might sway us to think.

When we look at this passage in light of the narrative arc of the entire Bible, it fits in nicely with the return to Eden. God is at work reconciling the entire earth to Himself. This work will culminate when He returns, bringing Heaven to Earth, solidifying His new creation. He was born into this world at the fullness of time, that we might be born into new life with Him. The place of His birth says a lot about what life in Christ looks like.

Wherever Jesus is, new creation has begun. If He’s in us, new creation has taken place in us. And as we go about our lives, through Christ in us, we can usher in new creation, too.

Justified with Christ

“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.”

Romans 8:3-4 (ESV)

One of the most beautiful places we see the benefits of our union with Christ is in justification. He has called us by name, chosen us, justified us, and sealed us by nothing we have done, but by what Christ has done. As verse 4 states, God condemned sin in the flesh of sinless Jesus, so that we might be seen as having accomplished the same thing. The law is fulfilled in us because Jesus fulfilled it and dwells in us.

Because He didn’t receive a fair trial, we don’t receive fairly either. What we deserve is His death, but we are made right instead.

We can only stand righteous and blameless before God because of our union with Jesus.

Union with Christ and Sanctification

“How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Romans 6:1-11 (ESV)

All Christians sin. If we didn’t, passages like this wouldn’t exist in the Bible. But, “Shall we continue to sin?” Paul asks. “By no means!” Why? Because we’ve been united with Christ. Paul says we’ve died with Him and been raised to life in Him.

Because of our union with Christ, sin has no power over us. We are no longer slaves to it. And if we’re no longer slaves, we can choose Holy living. Before being united to Him, my leaning when temptation came was to give into its power. But now that Christ lives in me, I have the power and freedom to say no to sin. This is at the heart of discipleship.

Union with Christ not only objectively makes me free from the power of sin, it’s my foundation for fighting it.

How Can I Be United with Christ?

“…having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith.”

Colossians 2:12

Our union with Christ comes only by the sovereignty of God, through faith. “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption…” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

Because of Him, we are united with Christ. We are justified by faith and faith alone, therefore we’re united to Christ by faith and faith alone. Union comes along with salvation, bought and effected by the blood of Christ. Thank you, God.

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