February 1, 2024 | by: Tony Sanelli | 0 comments
In his book, The Hole in Our Holiness, author Kevin DeYoung says that “Union with Christ may be the most important doctrine you’ve never heard of.”
My experience as a pastor for these 34 years makes me think he is right. Many people in Evangelical churches have never heard of their relationship with Christ summed up as the doctrine of “union with Christ.” This was confirmed nearly every time I taught this doctrine in our discipleship course only to see inquisitive looks on the faces of those participating. The same also frequently occurs in my seminary course on the Christian life to this day.
Thankfully, more contemporary books on the subject have been written in recent years. For those interested in exploring the subject further, I suggest the very digestible Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God by Rankin Wilbourne.
One of the reasons Union with Christ isn’t taught in many churches is that it can be a difficult doctrine to sum up and wrap our heads around. The doctrine has tendrils touching upon all the better-known components of salvation such as election, justification, sanctification, adoption, and glorification. Nevertheless, for the sake of brevity, we may define Union with Christ as the reality that by grace through faith the Spirit makes a believer “one” with Christ. Hence, all that belongs to Christ belongs to the believer. Union confers upon every believer all of the benefits of the work Jesus accomplished on our behalf as our mediator.
This has far-reaching implications. Perhaps none greater than the fact that when a person is in Christ, the Father looks at him or her and doesn’t see his or her wickedness, rather he sees the beauty of His Son, Jesus. What a glorious comfort!
We recently touched upon Union with Christ in our expositional study of the book of Galatians. Time kept me from developing a cross-reference from Ephesians 5. There, Paul describes the union between husband and wife as a God designed visible reflection of the greater union between Christ and the church.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound,
and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
That marriage is a mystery means that since its very inception (Genesis 2) there has been a hidden meaning in it and that up until the death and resurrection of Christ this meaning has been hidden. The surprise revelation is that marriage has been designed to be a portrait of something else, something greater—the “one flesh” permanent union between Christ and the church. God intended human marriage to provide visible language to explain Christ’s relation to the church. In other words, human marriage is the copy and union with Christ is the original.
I find that reflecting upon Union with Christ as a marriage has many practical benefits for Christian living. No one developed this better than the Puritan, Thomas Watson. I offer you a few brief excerpts from his work, Mystical Union Between Christ and Saints which I have reorganized under a few headings.
(1) No husband loves like Christ. The Lord says to the people, “I have loved you”, and they say, “Wherein hast thou loved us?” (Malachi 1:2). But we cannot say to Christ, “Wherein hast thou loved us?” Christ has given real demonstrations of his love to his spouse. He has sent her his Word, which is a love-letter, and he has given her his Spirit, which is a love-token. Christ loves more than any other husband.
(2) Christ puts a richer robe on his bride: “He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). In this robe, God looks on us as if we had not sinned. This robe is as truly ours to justify us, as it is Christ’s to bestow on us. This robe not only covers but adorns.
(3) Christ gives his bride not only his golden garments but his image. He loves her into his own likeness. A husband may have a dear affection for his wife, but he cannot stamp his own image on her. If she is deformed, he may give her a veil to hide it, but he cannot put his beauty on her. But Christ imparts “the beauty of holiness” to his spouse… Christ never thinks he has loved his spouse enough till he can see his own face in her.
(4) Christ discharges those debts which no other husband can. Our sins are the worst debts we owe. If all the angels should contribute money, they could not pay one of these debts, but Christ frees us from these. He is both a Husband and a Surety.
(5) Christ has suffered more for his spouse than ever any husband did for a wife. He suffered poverty and ignominy. He who crowned the heavens with stars was himself crowned with thorns.
(1) He transacts all our affairs, he attends to our business as his own. Indeed, he himself is concerned in it. He brings fresh supplies to his spouse. If she wanders out of the way, he guides her. If she stumbles, he holds her by the hand. If she falls, he raises her. If she is dull, he quickens her by his Spirit. If she is perverse, he draws her with cords of love. If she is sad, he comforts her with promises.
(2) In the case of weakness of grace. The believer cannot lay hold on Christ, except with a trembling hand. There is a “spirit of infirmity” on him, but oh, weak Christian, here is strong consolation: there is a conjugal union. You are the spouse of Christ, and he will bear with you as the weaker vessel.
(3) In the case of the disrespect and unkindness of the world: “in wrath they hate me” (Psalm 55:3). But though we live in an unkind world, we have a kind Husband: “As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you” (John 15:9).
(4) In the case of the saints’ suffering. The church of God is exposed in this life to many injuries, but she has a Husband in heaven who is mindful of her and will “turn water into wine” for her. Now it is a time of mourning with the spouse because the Bridegroom is absent (Matthew 9:15). But shortly she shall put off her mourning. Christ will wipe the tears of blood off the cheeks of his spouse: “the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces” (Isaiah 25:8).
(1) See the dignity of all true believers. They are joined in marriage with Christ. There is not only assimilation but union; they are not only like Christ but one with Christ. All the saints have this honor.
(2) See how fearful a sin it is to abuse the saints. It is an injury done to Christ, for believers are mystically one with him: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4).
(3) See the reason why the saints so rejoice in the Word and sacrament, because here they meet with their Husband, Christ. The wife desires to be in the presence of her husband. The ordinances are the chariot in which Christ rides, the lattice through which he looks forth and shows his smiling face. Here Christ displays the banner of love (Song 2:4). The Lord’s Supper is nothing other than a pledge and earnest of that eternal communion which the saints shall have with Christ in heaven. Then he will take the spouse into his bosom.
(1) This union with Christ never ceases. “Thrice happy they whom an unbroken bond unites” (Horace). Other marriages are soon at an end. Death cuts asunder the marriage knot, but this conjugal union is eternal. You who are once Christ’s spouse shall never again be a widow: “I will betroth thee unto me forever” (Hosea 2:19). To speak properly, our marriage with Christ begins where other marriages end, at death.
(2) In the case of passing sentence at the day of judgement. There is a marriage union and, oh Christian, your Husband shall be your judge. A wife would not fear appearing at the bar if her husband was sitting as judge. What though the devil should bring in many indictments against you? Christ will expunge your sins in his blood. He will say, “Shall I condemn my spouse?” Oh, what a comfort this is! The Husband is judge.
The doctrine of Union with Christ is profound and far-reaching and reflecting upon its meaning and implications is essential and very fortifying for the believer. However, there remains one temptation I do not want to overlook. Often, when meditating upon this doctrine, I find it very easy to find myself focusing on the benefits of this union with Christ rather than upon Christ himself. This difference can be a very subtle, but it really is putting the cart before the horse. As the saying goes, this is “focusing on the gifts rather than the giver.”
Truly, the greatest benefit comes from knowing and loving the Giver. We should be seeking fellowship with Him and trust the realization of the benefits of this union will be experienced in His timing. As Michael Horton aptly stated, “The supreme gift in this union is Christ himself… he brings his gifts with him.”
Tony Sanelli is a Pastor/Teacher at Grace Bible Church
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