Christians are inundated with terms related to their salvation: justification, regeneration, sanctification, and adoption are taught with varying emphasis. Lloyd-Jones rightly observes, “We should not expect people to understand these terms; the whole point of preaching is to give them this understanding.” But even informed disciples are overwhelmed by the sense that there’s so much going on in salvation. The gospel is blessing upon blessing, for “the Father has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3).
It is no wonder that we struggle to provide a concise answer to the question, “What is a Christian?” Is a Christian one who is born again? Delivered from the wrath of God? Heir to an inheritance? Yes, yes, and yes. But regardless of our answer, we cannot escape the sense that we have omitted a vital aspect of our salvation.
What is the big idea in God’s redemptive plan? What is the big thing that God does when we are saved?
Every Blessing in Christ
In fact, we have already answered our questions: “the Father has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3). Paul writes, “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). A Christian is, first and foremost, one who is in Christ. Whoever is in Christ is righteous, sanctified, and redeemed, because Christ becomes these things to us. “Union with Christ,” says Rankin Wilbourne, “is the fountainhead from which flows all the blessings of God.”
A Christian is, first and foremost, one who is in Christ.
Union with Christ is the mysterious reality that, through faith, the believer is in Christ and Christ is in the believer. “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 Jn. 4:13). The indwelling Holy Spirit unites us with Jesus so that “he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Cor. 6:17). The great Wesleyan theologian William Burt Pope explains, “we are ONE SPIRIT with Him if we have become members of His mystical body” (emphasis original).
If you’ve read the New Testament, you’ve encountered this literally hundreds of times. Anthony Hoekema says it well: “Once you have your eyes opened to this concept of union with Christ, you will find it almost everywhere in the New Testament.” Pope agrees, “this precious doctrine…pervades the New Testament.” So why do we hear little about it in teaching and preaching? Why are few eyes open?
These questions are especially pressing for those who emphasize holiness. Romans 6 and Colossians 3, cornerstone passages on freedom from sin and putting off the old man, both begin with union with Christ. In fact, Paul looks to union with Christ as the source and impetus for holiness. It is Paul’s first line of defense against a sinning gospel. We cannot teach holiness, let alone salvation, unless we understand this essential doctrine.
Union with Christ is the source and impetus for holiness; it is the first line of defense against a sinning gospel.
Christ is In Us
Evangelicals are not unfamiliar with the idea of the indwelling Christ. “Ask Jesus to come into your heart,” our prevailing mantra, is properly at the center of salvation; the mystery of the gospel, now revealed, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27). But we have an uncanny ability to hear familiar things without ever processing their plain meaning. I heard “Facebook” dozens of times before I realized that it was literally “a book of faces.” It was much later that I recognized “eBay” as an “electronic bay,” like the place where ships come into port to buy and sell goods.
One of Jesus’ strangest sayings rattles us with the mysterious nature of what we confess but do not comprehend: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (Jn. 6:56). David Platt imagines the disciples’ response: “No, not the drink-my-blood speech! We’ll never get on the list of the fastest growing movements if you keep asking them to eat you.”
But that’s exactly what Jesus did. He said, “eat me or you have no spiritual life” (see Jn. 6:53). There is no life or salvation apart from Jesus’ actual being; therefore, we must partake of him by faith through the Spirit.
The spiritual life that we have is not our spiritual life but rather Christ’s life in us
We do not need God to give us something; we need God to give us himself. Jesus, God from God, must be in us in a way that is ontological—transformative of our actual being. The spiritual life that we have is not our spiritual life but rather Christ’s life in us. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Fred Sanders explains that “The gospel is God-sized, because God puts himself into it. The living God binds himself to us and becomes our salvation, the life of God in the soul of man.”
We Are In Christ
“In Christ” is another familiar phrase that we fail to process. When Paul identifies the redeemed as those who are “in Christ,” it is more than shorthand for “in the faith of Christ.” It indicates a real union—an intimate connection, allowing Paul to assert that God “has raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Not, “you shall sit there,” but, “you have been made to sit there now.” Matthew Poole notes that “we in him may be said to sit there too, by reason of our union with him, and being members of him.”
I am sitting in my office, but Paul says I’m already sitting in heaven. That is because my being is inseparable from Christ’s being, so that wherever Christ is, it can be said that I am there too. Where is your life? If you are saved, look for Jesus. When you find him, you’ll find your life, safe and secure. “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3).
Christians are so intimately bound to Jesus that every part of his story becomes part of our story. We confess Christ crucified, dead, buried, risen, ascended, seated in heaven, and coming again; in Christ, we too are:
- Crucified — “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20).
- Dead — “united with him in a death like his” (Ro. 6:5, 8).
- Buried — “buried therefore with him by baptism into death” (Ro. 6:4).
- Risen — “united with him in a resurrection like his” (Ro. 6:5, 7).
- Ascended — “raised with Christ” (Col. 3:1).
- Seated in heaven — “sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6)
- Coming again — “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4).
Union with Christ is one of three supreme mysteries that God has revealed to us (along with the Trinity and the incarnation). Unpacking this mystery is the glorious work of preaching and the delightful object of study. Once your eyes have been opened, you will see it (and look for it) everywhere. Union with Christ changes everything.
Father, give us a deep hunger to experience, walk in, and understand union with your beloved Son. “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined” (1 Cor. 2:9) the glory of the deep things you have prepared for us to discover through your Spirit. Open our eyes to “understand the things freely given us by God” (1 Cor. 2:12).