The Big Thing in Salvation: Opening Our Eyes to Union with Christ

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Christians are inundated with terms related to their salvation: justification, regeneration, sanctification, and adoption are taught with varying emphasis. It’s easy to be 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 declared righteous? Set right? Born again? Sealed by the Spirit? Heir to an inheritance? Yes, yes, and yes. But what’s the big idea in God’s application of redemption? What is the big thing that God does to save a person?

Every Blessing in Christ

The answer to these major questions lies packed in two little but explosive words: in Christ. “The Father has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3). Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:30 are enlightening: “because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Divine wisdom, right standing with God, holiness, freedom from sin, and all other spiritual blessings result from union with the Son.

Right standing with God, holiness, freedom from sin, and all other spiritual blessings result from union with the Son.

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.” John Murray was right when he wrote, “Nothing is more central or basic than union and communion with Christ…. Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.”

Union with Christ is the mysterious reality that the believer is in Christ and Christ is in the believer. “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us,” says John, “because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 Jn. 4:13, cf. Jn. 15:4; 6:56). The indwelling Spirit unites us with Jesus so that “he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (1 Cor. 6:17). Union with Christ is a relationship of mutual indwelling; Christ is in us and we are in Christ. All who are united to Christ are thus united to one another as his body. The great Methodist theologian William Burt Pope explains, “we are one Spirit with Him if we have become members of His mystical body.”

If you’ve read the New Testament, you’ve encountered this doctrine 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 so little about it in teaching and preaching? Why are few eyes open?

These questions are especially pressing for those who prioritize holiness of heart and life. Romans 6 and Colossians 3, cornerstone passages on freedom from sin and putting off the old life, 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 religion. Christians are called to conform to who they already are in Christ. We cannot teach holiness—let alone justification—unless we understand something of this essential truth.

Christ is In Us

Union with Christ is properly at the center of our salvation message since the mystery of the gospel now revealed is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27). Evangelicals are not unfamiliar with the idea of the indwelling Christ. We tell children, “Ask Jesus to come into your heart.” Of course, we have an uncanny ability to hear familiar things without processing their plain meaning.

One of Jesus’s strangest sayings rattles us with the mysterious nature of what we confess but can never fully comprehend: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (Jn. 6:56). Why Does Jesus say, in essence, “eat me or you have no spiritual life”? Because there is no life or salvation apart from Jesus himself. Jesus is life; he is “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). We must spiritually partake of him through the Spirit.

We do not just need something from God; we need God.

We do not just need something from God; we need God. Wesleyan Christians share Calvin’s emphasis that “we expect salvation from him, not because he stands aloof from us, but because ingrafting us into his body, he not only makes us partakers of all his benefits, but also of himself.”

The spiritual life that we have is not our own; it is Christ’s life in us. Paul’s testimony is the testimony of all true believers: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Wesleyan theologian 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

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, “We in him may be said to sit there too, by reason of our union with him, and being members of him.”

My life is wrapped up in Christ’s life, 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 we share in his 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)

This union is symbolized in our baptism: we die and are buried with Christ in a watery grave, then rise above the surface in resurrection life. In the sacramental theology of much of the Great Tradition, the union which is sealed in baptism is then nourished through the Lord’s Supper. In the Supper, we spiritually partake of Christ’s body and blood as “our spiritual food,” to quote Wesley.

Union with Christ is Paul’s first line of defense against a sinning religion. We cannot teach holiness—let alone justification—unless we understand something of this essential truth.

As we abide in Christ, we are conformed into his image from one degree of glory to another. We grow in holiness and bear fruit because we are united to Christ the vine: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:4–5).

Union with Christ is one of the supreme mysteries that God has revealed to us in the gospel, along with the Trinity and the incarnation. Unpacking this mystery is the glorious task 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.

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Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.