The Bible’s favourite way of describing our relationship with Jesus Christ is one we hardly ever use.
At least, that is what I discovered recently when asked to speak on the topic of union with Christ. I had, of course, noticed the idea many times in Paul’s writing—that we are in Christ, united to him and so on. Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I also recalled it was a big deal for Calvin. If someone had asked me “Do you think union with Christ is important?”, I would have offered an emphatic yes. If they had gone on to say “Why?”, I’m not sure what I would have said. This article is my attempt to understand why union with Christ was so central for Paul, why it’s so marginal for us, and what differences it would make if it were better understood.1
The idea of union with Christ has not invaded our language, our prayers, our songs and our imaginations in the way (for example) the husband-wife or friend-friend relationship has. Why is that?
Firstly, to be fair, it’s just a hard idea to get your head around. I mean, what does it mean exactly to be in Christ, or for that matter, in anyone? If someone tells me I follow Christ, I get that. Under Christ? Yes, I know what it means to be under someone. Saved by Christ? Got it. Inspired by? Check. And so on. They are concepts I understand: Christ as a leader, a lord, a saviour. But ‘in Christ’ almost seems to portray Christ as a place, a sphere, a location. How does that work?
Secondly, the ideas associated with being in Christ are not univocal. Even the simple phrase ‘in Christ’ can have a range of meaning. Sometimes it is a synonym for ‘Christian’ (Phil 1:1), other times a place where you are being transformed (2 Cor 5:17), or yet other times a place in which God does stuff to us (Eph 1:3-10) and much else besides.
They don’t all point to exactly the same thing. However, I do think that, like a multi-circle Venn diagram, they all converge on the same theological space. Some of the related ideas are that we are:
- to be co-crucified with Christ (Rom 6:6)
- co-raised with Christ (Rom 6:5)
- glorified with Christ (Rom 8:17)
- able to reign with Christ (2 Tim 2:12)
- made alive with Christ (Col 2:13)
- hidden with Christ (Col 3:3)
- one flesh with Christ (Eph 5:31-32)
- part of his body (1 Cor 12:27)
- inheritors with Christ (Rom 8:17).
All these break open for us in some way or other what it is to be in Christ, and it seems to me that that what they all share is a locative idea: the idea that Christ is in some sense a place, a location.
It is an unusual way to think about Christ; perhaps an illustration is in order. 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.
I think, at heart, the biblical idea of being in Christ is something like that. According to the New Testament, to be in Christ is to say that, by union with him, whatever is true of him is now true of us. He died, we died. He is raised, we are (and will be) raised. He is vindicated, we are vindicated. He is loved, we are loved. And so on, all because we are in him.
That’s the idea—simple, but with profound implications. Let’s take it on the road.
Union with Christ and conversion
If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. (2 Cor 5:17)
The language we use for conversion is always revealing. Whether we habitually talk about people getting saved, or being born again, or deciding for Christ, or responding appropriately to Jesus, in each case we are saying something about our conversion theology.
Paul describes conversion as being united to Christ. Sometimes the language is used casually, with the full theological freight somewhat submerged from view (as in Romans 16:7 “… they were in Christ before me”).
At several key points, however, the union language is anything but casual. Take for instance 2 Corinthians 5:16-21. The whole passage is painted on a cosmic backdrop. God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself (v. 19). And it is on this universal backdrop that Paul places the Christian’s conversion:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (v. 17)
What is going on here? Why describe conversion in these terms?
In more conversionist traditions (think altar calls and testimonies), people have jumped on the ‘new creation’ language as a vivid description of the subjective changes (moral and spiritual) that accompany conversion. 2 Corinthians 5:17 is cherished because when someone is converted, the personal changes they undergo amount, in effect, to that person being a ‘new creation’.
In more liberal traditions (think existentialism and classical liberalism), people have also jumped on the ‘new creation’ language as a way for those in a modern age to understand the otherwise audacious and possibly unbelievable eschatological claims of the Bible. On the surface, it may look like the Bible is promising a new heaven and a new earth (really?!), but actually, it is in the existential encounter with Christ that we experience something the Bible metaphorically calls ‘new creation’ (ah, that’s better).
In the first tradition, ‘new creation’ means ‘very different’. In the second it means something like ‘very vivid’.
What both views share is a subjective understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:17. The ‘in Christ’ language, however, points precisely away from a subjective experience and to an objective reality. We become a ‘new creation’ because Christ is the site of God’s new creation work. Christ is a place, not an experience. He is the place where God is reconciling the world to himself (v. 19). We become part of the new creation in him, not by how we feel, but because of who Christ is.
Contrary to the existentialist account, God’s purpose is to reconcile the whole material creation to himself. But Christians can participate now in God’s new creation, because in Christ the new creation has invaded the old. There is a ‘place’, called Christ, where the new creation has begun.
Contrary to the conversionist account, God’s purpose is not merely to bring about moral transformation. 2 Corinthians 5:17 is not more true for the drug-dealer turned preacher than it is for the moralist-turned-Christian, or even the been-Christian-my-whole-life Christian. The question (a) “Am I a new creation?” is answered not by my life experience, but by question (b), “Am I in Christ?” If (b), then (a).
It’s like Aslan rising from the stone table in CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe: the final defeat of the White Witch is yet to be completed, but wherever he plants his feet the winter gives way to spring. To be with Aslan at that point (as Lucy and Susan are) is to experience now what all Narnia will become.
Adam, our former location
If we are in Christ now, where were we before? We were somewhere else. We were in Adam.
In Romans 5:12-21 Paul puts up Christ and Adam as the two great heads of the human race, with death coming to all through the one and life to all through the other. The Adam and Christ comparison appears again in 1 Corinthians 15, and with it the ‘in’ language. In verse 22, Paul says “in Adam all die”. In the biblical understanding, when Adam rebelled all of humanity was implicated, because all of humanity was in some sense in him.
The certainty of my death is secured because of my location—I was in Adam. It’s an unusual, but not impossible, way to think. In a sense I was in the body of my grandfather as he travelled as a small boy from Belfast to Perth. I was not there, but I was in him, and my present circumstances (a pasty white-boy in a sun-drenched city) are only fully comprehensible with reference to his decision to board that boat so many years ago. So too were we all in Adam, implicated in his decision. Conversely, the certainty of my resurrection from the dead is secured because of my presence in my other great ancestor, Jesus Christ.
Again, notice the cosmic scope of this language in 1 Corinthians 15. Just as Christ in his resurrection is the firstfruit of the harvest to come (1 Cor 15:20), so too those who are in Christ are in their own way firstfruits of God’s new creation (1 Cor 15:23-24). God’s new creation plans are not exhausted in us, but they are dependent on what he is doing in us. The rest of the creation knows that its liberation is dependent on our liberation (Rom 8:20-21). It’s as if every time someone responds to the gospel, the rest of the creation gasps in anticipation, saying to itself “One more! Our freedom draws closer!”
The process of evangelism does not always make clear its cosmic significance. It all looks rather mundane—a five-week course here, stolen moments of a commute to work there, late night conversations and so on. The moment someone ‘decides for Christ’, it may all look rather fragile. But if, at that moment, they have been included in Christ, the cosmos has moved with them.
Union with Christ and justification
Union with Christ also has implications for the way we think about our justification. Faith is what brings us into union with Christ, but union with Christ is what gives us access to the benefits of Christ. In Galatians 3:26 Paul declares that “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith”.
Think about the implications for getting ‘closer to God’. People endlessly report on being far from God, or getting closer to God, or wanting to get closer to God, or not knowing how to get closer to God.
Now, if your mental image of your relationship to God through Christ is that of a lover-relationship, a friendship, or of following God, then the language of ‘closer’ or ‘far away’ makes sense. But not if you are united to Christ.
Grasping the nature of our union with Christ challenges our very language of ‘getting close to God’. We say, “I want to get closer to God”. And union with Christ says: “Really? How close to God do you want to get? How do you intend to pull that off? To which part of the universe do you plan to move to secure this ‘closer to God’ status?”
If you know yourself to be in Christ, then surely you are now, presently, in all your brokenness, as close to God as it is possible for any person to be—because you are in Christ. And, if you are in Christ, united to Christ, then the answer to the question “How close am I to God?” is subsumed by the larger question “How close is Christ to God?” If Jesus Christ is as close to God as the only Son of the Father, the beloved of God, the object of the affections of the heart of the Father, and if you are in Christ, then the language of getting closer to God needs re-thinking.
I understand that our sense of being close to God fluctuates wildly. I know that the Bible commends us to draw near to God (Heb 10:22). It is right to grow in our subjective experience of closeness to God. But I do fear that, like the Galatians, the language of getting closer to God (understood as something we can do) is a joy-thief (Gal 4:15). Perhaps, if we have grasped the ‘in Christ’ language, we would not say,
“I want to get closer to God”, but “I want to know in my heart more of the reality of how close I am to God in Christ”.
Back to that plane to Melbourne. Imagine two people in the boarding queue. The first is a businesswoman who flies to Melbourne twice a month for board meetings. She stands in line, sending text messages and drinking coffee. On the plane, she pulls out her paper and reads it as the flight attendants vie for her attention with the safety demonstration she has seen a hundred times before.
The second person is an old man whose children insisted on buying him a ticket so he could fulfil a lifelong dream of experiencing the miracle of air travel. In the queue he is nervous and excited. No coffee, no texting. Once on the plane, the flight attendants have no trouble getting his attention as they explain what to do in the case of a non-traditional landing. He is taking diligent notes through the whole presentation. During the flight, he regularly gets the attention of the staff to ask any number of the hundreds of questions that occur to him as he flies: what time do we land? Are the conditions good for flying? Do we have enough fuel? Has the pilot done this before?
First question: did the two people have a different experience of the flight? Of course! One (the woman) had far more faith, which made the experience very different to that of the doubt-wracked man.
Second question: which one got to Melbourne? The woman of great faith, or the old man, so full of doubts?
Getting to Melbourne has very little to do with how much faith you have. It has everything to do with what your faith is in—or, better, what your faith has led you to put yourself in, namely, the plane. In the same way, faith in God (weak or strong) brings us into Christ, so that being close to God is not to do with how much faith you have, but with who you are in.
Union with Christ also means unity with each other. If in Christ we are all one (Gal 3:28), then ethnic, economic and gender relations are radically altered. We receive each other in full fellowship, because if you are in Christ, then you are an heir with us of God. The question is not who you are (Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female), but where you are. If the answer to the where question is in Christ, then we stand together and must receive each other. Union with Christ admits no degrees of union, and it follows that in church life we admit no degrees of fellowship.
Union with Christ and sanctification
If union with Christ can change the way we understand our relationship to God and each other, does it have anything to say about our approach to sin and to sanctification? Union with Christ may seem like a big deal in our personal devotions, but does it, once released into the playground to face the bullies of sin and death, turn out to be a bit of a dweeb?
Actually, for Paul, union with Christ is the only thing big enough to take on those bullies.
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul addresses a situation where some of the Corinthians are visiting prostitutes. Here Paul (rather graphically) exploits the image of sexual union. After all, apart from being in utero, the only situation where a human may be said to be in some literal sense inside another is in the case of sex.
For Paul, the Christian visiting the prostitute is not just a health and moral issue; it is a theological crisis. Why? Because the one who is united to Christ cannot also unite himself to a prostitute, precisely because he is already united to Christ, and that doesn’t change when he unites himself to a prostitute.
Union, far from being something we conjure up, is something we can’t get rid of, even in the brothel. On the contrary (and excuse the graphic imagery, which is Paul’s, not mine), the one who sleeps with the prostitute is taking the members of Christ and uniting them with another.
Subjectively, I suspect the person visiting the prostitute doesn’t feel particularly close, let alone united, to Christ at the moment they are united to the prostitute. But Paul’s point is they still are. Being in Christ raises the scandal of sin in a Christian from being a human reality to a very contradiction of our being, a lie told in the flesh.
Consider Romans 6. Here Paul’s answer to the question “Shall we go on sinning?” is “No way!”, precisely because we are united with Christ. On this bedrock reality we are encouraged to “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11). Or, in the language of Colossians 3, we can put to death whatever belongs to the earthly nature (v. 5) because we have died and our life is with Christ in God (v. 3). We overcome sin through our union with Christ.
It may sound like a distinction without a difference, but consider the actual experience of temptation. Someone calls you with a juicy bit of gossip. Your co-worker encourages you to take a (slightly dishonest) shortcut with the reports for that month. It’s late at night; you’ve finished on Facebook, and it’s time to either log out… or maybe visit one of those ‘other’ sites.
Apart from union with Christ, the temptation is calling us to be who we really are. At heart, I am a rebel against God and, even though I’m a Christian, a rebel is who I really am. Faith in Christ has changed my destiny, but not my identity. Sin is still my mother tongue. So I will try to resist, but to give in would be natural. It would be true to who I am.
When united with Christ, however, I can say to the temptation: no, that is not who I really am. I am in Christ. I belong to him. My life is hidden with him. I will try to resist, because to give in would be unnatural. It would be untrue to who I am. I may still understand the grammar and syntax of sin, but it is not now my mother tongue or my heart language.
Christians sin. Colossians 3, 1 Corinthians 6 and Romans 6 wouldn’t exist if they didn’t. But the knowledge that sin is now, in a profound sense, unnatural to us and alien to our true identity is actually a powerful bulwark for overcoming temptation.
Union with Christ and the church
Just as the body is one and has many members… so it is with Christ. (1 Cor 12:12)
The idea of union with Christ can go bad in one of two ways: privacy (just me and Jesus) or uniformity (Jesus and I become one thing). The first idea is individualistic, the second is monistic (‘mono’ meaning one), and New Testament faith knows nothing of either.
The New Testament sees union with Christ as corporate, not individualistic. And it sees union with Christ as unity-in-diversity, not unity-through-uniformity. How does one explain the difference? Well, occasionally you hit on a metaphor that can do some serious heavy lifting. Paul found one such metaphor that helps us move beyond both individualism and monism. It is that the church is the body of Christ.
As a picture of the church, the body appears in the New Testament more than you might think. Not only is it the subject of sustained meditation in places like 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4, but the idea of the church being one man, one new humanity, is littered throughout Paul’s writing (see, for example, Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 6:15, 11:29; Gal 3:28; Col 3:15). For Paul, understanding the church as a body was clearly a big win.
Now for the heavy lifting: consider the way ‘church as the body’ addresses individualism. If the church is the body of Christ, our union with Christ is less like the union of a raindrop hitting an ocean and more like the union of a hand and an arm, or an eye and an ear. The body’s members are both organically connected and at the same time distinguishable from each other.
The organic nature of the connection means that the church is not simply a voluntary collection of like-minded individuals. It is not something we opt into after becoming a Christian, in the way you might opt into attending a conference or reading a book—something to help you on your (fundamentally solitary) journey. No, when by faith we are united with Christ, the only union on offer is the one that connects you with Christ and with his body, the church.
The ancient dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation) is not a medieval excess but a gospel truism. There is no salvation outside the church because there is no such thing as someone whose union to Christ does not also unite him with Christ’s body.
Just as the foot has no life independent of the body, so too I have no independent identity apart from Christ’s body. Appearances can deceive. Just as (to switch metaphors) an orchid in the middle of a rainforest appears to have a beauty all of its own, Christians may, at times, appear to stand apart from the church. But the person who, besotted by the beauty of the orchid, rips it from the eco-system that was its true life source, will soon discover that its independent life was no reality. In the same way, no Christian stands apart from the church. Discipleship strategies that strive for independence strive for a false goal. Maturity? Yes. Independence? Never.
The church as the body addresses individualism, and it also addresses monism.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of unity: a unity of sameness or a unity of purpose. A unity of sameness is achieved, as you may guess, by things being the same. For example, school uniforms (as the name implies) create a unity of uniformity; we look the same. Monism also strives for a unity of sameness. Whether it is Christian mysticism (Christ and I become the same thing) or non-Christian mysticism (the universe and I become the same thing), sameness—indistinguishableness—is the goal.
Union with Christ, however, is not that sort of union. We do become united, but not by becoming the same thing.2 We see this in the ‘one flesh’ idea: just as in Genesis the union of the man and the woman is a hetero-unity (a unity of difference), so too our ‘one flesh’ union with Christ is a hetero-unity. It is not that we become each other, but that we fit each other.
Robert Jenson talks about the ‘lock and key mechanism’ of our maleness and femaleness, the way in which we discover in the other gender not something that is the same as us, but something that in its difference from us corresponds to us.3 So too, in relationship with Christ, we discover someone who is different from us, but whose very differences correspond to who we are.
The body image makes this union even more three-dimensional. In the church, we are united to a complex organism, with Christ the head and us the body. We are drawn into fellowship with Christ and with each other. In our churches we face the joyful (though often frustrating) task of discovering how God is meeting our needs in the otherness of the people he has drawn us to, just as we correspond to other needs in the body.
With this thinking in place, it seems to me that the church having a face to the world (missional) or a face to itself (edificational, to coin a phrase that has no chance of catching on) is not a choice churches have to make.
In 1 Corinthians 12-14, it is as the church works out how to be the body of Christ (ch. 12) shaped by love (ch. 13) and therefore preferring the gifts that build the community (ch. 14) that the unbeliever comes in and worships God, saying “God is really among you” (1 Cor 14:24-25). The church contributes to the cause of the gospel by being the church and not something else. Put simply, the church serves the world by being itself.4
Our union with Christ is the goal of our conversion, the heart of our justification, the engine room of our sanctification, and the centre of our church life. With Paul, we might long to know it better (Phil 3:10), though, also with Paul, we’re not there yet in our understanding (Phil 3:12). After all, it is a hidden union (Col 3:3), a glory awaiting its full eschatological revelation. Today what we will be has not yet been made known (1 John 3:2), but soon we who have shared in his suffering will also share in his glory (Rom 8:17). I trust that, on that day, the full extent of our blessings through union with Christ will cause us to gasp in wonder, adoration, and praise.
1 It is also important in John, and the concept has important Old Testament roots, but that is for another time.
2 Karl Barth: “There can thus be no question of an identification of the Christian with Christ… Christ does not merge into the Christian nor the Christian into Christ”. Church Dogmatics IV.3.2, tr. GW Bromiley, T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1962, p. 539.
3 Robert W Jenson, ‘Male and Female He Created Them’, I am the Lord your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments, eds. Carl E Braaten and Christopher R Seitz, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2005, pp. 175-188.
4 Donald Robinson’s observations on this issue still bear reflection today. See ‘The Doctrine of Church and its Implications for Evangelism’ Chapter 10 in Donald Robinson: Selected Works, Volume 2: Preaching God’s Word (eds. Peter G Bolt and Mark D Thompson, Australian Church Record/Moore College, Camperdown, 2008).