Embraced  by  Truth . . .
                                    reflections on theology and life

Theology > Salvation > Work of Salvation > Union with Christ


The believer is in Christ and Christ is in the believer, that is, the life of the believer is the life of Christ. Through the Spirit’s work which effects a mystical identification the lives of the believer and Christ are one. Jesus speaks words that are difficult to process: “At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (Jo. 14:20; see 17:20-23); He teaches that something of the intimacy between the Father and the Son is true of Christ and the believer. Understanding of this relationship is beyond rational comprehension.

Union with Christ means that the believer is identified with Christ; in the words of Paul, the believer is “in Christ”; the Scriptures constantly use this terminology:

Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 6:11);

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1; see vs. 9-11);

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation . . . that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (II Cor. 5:17, 21);

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Gal. 2:20);

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:3-4).

Union with Christ is a broad concept that can be viewed as including all the aspects of salvation; such is the meaning of the following: “There is a connection of every aspect of salvation with Christ’s life; all Christian salvation is ‘in Him’” (Culver, ST, 654). Or union can be viewed as the inevitable result of justification and possibly even as the means for our justification, meaning that justification comes with and through our union with Christ; perhaps the best wording is that because we are justified we have union with Christ. But then again, should these concepts be understood in sequential development?

Union with Christ is by the Spirit; it is the Spirit who brings the life of Christ to the believer; it is not the literal Christ who indwells the believer but the Spirit who brings the fullness of Christ into the believer’s life; Christ indwells the believer through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; so the presence of Christ is mediated to the believer by the Spirit.

Union with Christ is not to be understood so much as an event that is accomplished, but as the best description of the believer’s ongoing relationship with Christ: united with Christ in the mind of God before the beginning of time, identified with Christ in His life and death, and through the Spirit from Christ receiving the gifts of calling, regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification.

Union with Christ brings to the believer all the blessings of Christ. The union is a mystical union (unio mystica), mystical because an understanding of it in its initiation, its maintenance, and its fruit is impossible. Comprehension is not attainable. How can it be created; how is it initiated? How does the unseen continue? How are the fruits produced? Union with Christ is mystical, that is, it is Supernatural—it is related to the enigmatic. Paul speaks of “this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27; “this mystery”—it cannot be comprehended by man).

A. A. Hodge speaks of the union as mystical “because it so far transcends all the analogies of earthly relationships, in the intimacy of its communion, in the transforming power of its influence, and in the excellence of its consequences” (Outlines of Theology, 483).

It is said to be mystical because it is a union between the Infinite and the finite; but the union is not mystical in the sense that the individuality is lost through some sort of incorporations or return to the essence of God; is not an absorption of the individual by the One or into the One. For it to be considered mystical does not mean that it is pantheistic; any description or discussion that proceeds along this line of thought is inadequate and erroneous.

Union with Christ is communion with God through the Spirit; it is not participation in the essence of God—it is a fellowship not a fusion of essences. The Biblical model, in contrast to the Neo-Platonic model, is not the pursuit of the soul after the experience of God which is finally an absorption into the One; rather, it is the koinōnia of persons. The believer does not partake of the essence of God but enjoys the presence of God. The believer is not striving but resting.

Perhaps better terminology than mystical would be that the union is spiritual union—a union that cannot be understood because it is begun, maintained, and completed by the work of the Spirit. It is a union resulting in life, life created by the Spirit; the life, therefore, is spiritual, a union that is spiritual, because it is of the Spirit. Paul states: “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Him” (Rom. 8:9; in this v. ref. is also made to “the Spirit of God”; they are One and the Same). The union is initiated and controlled by the Spirit; it is not of the physical or natural. Whether spoken of in terms of mystical or spiritual, it is inscrutable.

Union with Christ is not to be viewed as an event that is a part of the process of salvation, but as a comprehensive description of the state of the individual who has gone from being lost to being saved, from being in Adam to being in Christ. To be in Christ is to be the recipient of all the blessings that accrue in salvation, both those that are instantaneous as well as those which are progressive. Every application of salvation comes from being in Christ.

Before the foundation of the world we were chosen “in Him” (Eph. 1:4), so union with Christ was determined before time; eternally I have been on the mind of God, and in that thought I am identified with Christ. There has never been a time when the elect have not been viewed in their relationship to Christ. Union with Christ cannot be initiated by man, maintained by man, or completed by man; the entire process is the work of God for man (see: God is Sovereign and Sovereignty in Salvation). From all eternity the believer has been identified in every way with the person and work of Christ:

We were crucified with Him (Rom. 6:6; Gal. 2:20);
We died with Him (Col. 2:20);
We were buried with Him (Rom. 6:4-5);
We were made alive with Him (Eph. 2:5); We were raised up with Him (Eph. 2:5, 6);
We are seated with Him in the heavenly places (Eph. 2:6);
We are created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10);
We have been brought near in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:13);
We are being built together in Him into a dwelling place for God (Eph. 2:22);
We are complete in Him (Col. 2:10);
We were given God’s purpose and grace in Christ Jesus (II Tim. 1:9);
We will be glorified with Him (Rom. 8:17).

In Him we have redemption (Eph. 1:6-7);
In Him we have been enriched (I Cor. 1:5);
In Him we will be made alive (I Cor. 15:22).

The dead in Christ will rise first (I Thess. 4:14, 16).

Union with Christ is “with Christ”; it is not with a system of doctrine or a specific institutional church; it is not a union with sacraments—it is with the living Lord. Paul speaks of Christ being “formed in you” (Gal. 4:14), and Peter affirms that believers become “partakers of the divine nature” (II Pet. 1:4). Believers do not partake of the essence nor do believers become deity, little gods; the meaning is that believers receive the Spirit of God, by which they experience God, becoming part of the family of God. The union is a fellowship.

The Greek Fathers spoke of this union as “deification” (theosis), with the deification understood in terms of man’s experience of the energies, not with his participation in the essence.

The essence of God, or inner being, is hidden and incomprehensible—it cannot be known; but His energies, acts of power or operations, can be known, and through them God is revealed. A proper distinction between the essence and energies of God must be maintained: we cannot know the essence; we know God through His energies, His works—an understanding that is indicative of the Eastern Orthodox thinking. The believer is not to be occupied with the essence but with the energies; spirituality is not a vision of the essence but a participation in the workings or operations of God; therefore, the goal of spirituality is to experience the life, the workings or energies of God.

He is outside all things according to his essence, but he is in all things through his acts of power (Athanasius, On the Incarnation).

But in each of these terms [attributes] we find a peculiar sense, fit to be understood or asserted of the Divine nature, yet not expressing that which that nature is in its essence (Gregory of Nyssa, On Not Three Gods).

We know the essence through the energy. No one has ever seen the essence of God, but we believe in the essence because we experience the energy (Basil of Caesarea).

The energies are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His energies, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His energies come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach (Basil of Caesarea, Epistle 234).

It is by His energies that we say we know our God; we do not assert that we can come near to the essence itself, for His energies descend to us, but His essence remains unapproachable (Basil of Caesarea).

The Godhead is simple and indivisible, and has no parts. The essence signifies the whole God as he is in himself; the energies signify the whole God as he is in action. God in his entirety is completely present in each of his divine energies. Thus the essence-energies distinction is a way of stating simultaneously that the whole God is inaccessible, and that the whole God in his outgoing love has rendered himself accessible to man (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 22).

Implications: Is God the sum of His attributes, or is God the sum of all that His attributes reveal? Is God the composite of all of His attributes, or is God’s essence identical to His attributes?

God is simple and is absolutely self-consistent; in every act God is the same, and in every act God is the sum of all that He is; God has always been what He will always be.

Illustration: the sun and its rays—God’s essence and God’s energies; the rays of the sun are not the sun itself but the rays flow from the sun and manifest the sun; God is experienced by the effect of the energies on the believer not by the communication of the essence to the believer.

The union with Christ results in the Christian life,
which is the life of union with Christ,
and all of the manifestations or fruits of that life
flow from the reality of the union.

The union is judicial (Rom. 8:1); initially man is condemned in Adam but experiences new creation in Christ:

Man is either identified with Adam or identified with Christ.

With Adam there is: identification with him in his sin; a sinful state; alienation from God; shame and guilt; condemnation; death, spiritual death in the present and physical death in the near future; eternal separation from God.

With Christ there is: identification with Him in His death and resurrection; a new creation; acceptance before God; confidence and a clear conscious; no condemnation; life, spiritual life in the present and glorification in the near future; eternally in the presence of God.

The crucial issue is whether justification or union with Christ is to be viewed as the main motif of Paul’s writing. The Reformation emphasis on the priority of justification, with its forensic quality, is considered by many to be the crux of New Testament teaching; while others give prominence to the union of the believer with Christ, with all of the graces of salvation flowing to the believer through that union. The latter understanding argues that it magnifies the relational, whereas the former is legal and somewhat impersonal; to the contrary those who give emphasis to justification understand it to be crucial for there to be a union, for the union is grounded in the justification.

Is this a vital issue, or is it much to do about nothing? Is the truth that justification and union are so closely related and integrated that you cannot have one without the other? Where you have one you also have the other: where there is justification there is union, and where there is union there is justification. Discussion of the issue may facilitate understanding, but the truth of the matter is that both are so vital that neither one should be emphasized at the expense of the other. There are only two states: “in Adam” or “in Christ”.

Metaphors of the union:

vine and branches (Jo. 15:1-10);

husband and wife (Rom. 7:4; II Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:22-23, 31-32);

head and body (I Cor. 6:15-19; 12:2, 12-13; Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-16);

stones and a building (Eph. 2:20-22; I Pet. 2:4-5).

Questions: When is the union established, since we know that it is in principle from eternity? When does it become reality in time: at the point of an effectual call, at the time of regeneration, or at the moment of repentance and faith?

Return to: Work of Salvation; Next Article: Regeneration

For overview of THEOLOGY, see: Site Map - Theology
Copyright © Embraced by Truth
All rights reserved.
Materials may be freely copied for personal and academic use;
appropriate reference must be made to this site.
Links are invited.