Union with Christ: The Basis for Salvation

Today I will continue my discussion of various aspects of salvation by considering the topic of union with Christ. Depending on your confessional background, you may or may not have heard salvation described in this manner. Nevertheless, it is an important scriptural principle. Our union with Christ is the basis for every subsequent part of our salvation. Through this union, the believer enjoys a range of irrevocable benefits, many of which I will discuss in this article.

It is important to understand the concept of union with Christ before proceeding on to the aspects of our salvation traditionally known as justification (the legal declaration of righteousness before God), sanctification (the putting to death of the deeds of the flesh in this life), and glorification (the completion of our renewal at the consummation of the ages). Why? Because it is through being united to Christ that we receive these other things. The New Testament tells us that the person who is “in Christ” is the one who has salvation. Let’s examine what that means.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) In so doing, he made two bold statements: 1) A person can actually be “in Christ”—that is, truly united to God the Son. 2) With this union comes a change so momentous that the individual is actually said to be a “new creature”. I know this language is commonplace for those who have been Christians for many years, but we must take a moment every so often to stand in awe of these truths: not only that God became man, but that we may be united with Him.

Scripture describes this union with the language of death and resurrection. Those who are united to Christ share in His death in two senses. First, by becoming one with Him, they actually participate in His sufferings. Thus, Paul spoke of wanting to know “the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Philippians 3:10b), and said of his own ministry, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” (Colossians 1:24) He understood that when he suffered for the sake of Christ, he was in essence participating in the sufferings of Christ, being a member of His body.

The second and greater sense in which union with Christ brings about death is through the putting to death of the sinful nature, which is symbolically linked to Christ’s crucifixion. However, Paul assures us that even as Christ was raised to life, so we will be spiritually raised. He told the church in Galatia, “I have been crucified with Christ; and 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 up for me.” (Galatians 2:20) A more detailed explanation is found in his letter to the Romans.

Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Romans 6:4-11

I will talk more about the connection with baptism later, but for now we must focus on the fact that union with Christ brings about the death of the old sinful nature and the raising to life of our spirits. This leads directly into other aspects of our union with Christ. One is that we are no longer under the condemnation of the Law, but are able to truly do the deeds of that Law for the first time. “Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.” (Romans 7:4) The “fruit” described there is the righteous deeds (i.e. good works) that we perform with the help of the Spirit. That’s right: those who are united to Christ are indwelt by the Spirit of God. There is an absolute, unbreakable link between union with Christ and union with the Spirit.

However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

Romans 8:9-11

The Spirit actually performs the regenerating work in our hearts, but this occurs as part of our union with Christ. While the actions of these Persons of the Trinity can be distinguished within salvation history, they are equal partners along with the Father in the work of salvation. A few verses later, Paul tells us that those who are united to Christ and indwelt by the Spirit become children of God and have Him as their Father.

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.

Romans 8:14-17

We have not yet received the fullness of our spiritual inheritance, but Paul tells us that those who are in Christ are already heirs alongside Him and children of God. Note that those who are united to Christ and suffer with Him will “also be glorified with Him”. This underscores the fact that our union with Christ is permanent and can never be severed. It carries a promise of more to come. The good work begun in us will be brought to completion. (Philippians 1:6) An overview of this continuum is provided in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

Ephesians 2:4-10

Whether we speak of salvation in the past, present, or future tense, we must know that it is all the necessary result of our union with Christ. That is why Paul says we “have been saved” by grace, while also affirming “that in the ages to come” He will “show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus”. Here he is speaking of the glory that is to come, when we will dwell with Christ for all eternity. (Revelation 21) Paul calls this “the mystery which has been hidden from past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints…which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:26-27)

Further on in the same letter, Paul wrote, “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.” (Colossians 3:3-4) The Apostle Peter made the same point. “After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10)

Moreover, those who are united with Christ may be assured that they have God’s love, not only in the present tense, but also in the future tense. The love that began in eternity past will continue into eternity future. The reason we know that God will always love us is that the Son of God is our mediator. He sits at the right hand of God, where He is our faithful advocate. Having received His righteousness, we will never be separated from that love.

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written,

“For Your sake we are being put to death all day long;

We were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:31-39

That unfailing, electing love of God is not given to every human being. If we allow ourselves to believe that it is, then we will suspect His love of failing when men reject Him. No, the love of God is such that it creates that which pleases it, even as Martin Luther famously stated in his theses for the Heidelberg Disputation. It is because we are united to Christ that we will not fail and may always be assured of God’s love.

The Apostle Paul helped to explain this when he said that even as Adam imputed unrighteousness to his descendants, Christ imputes righteousness to all who are united with Him. “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:17) He also wrote to the Corinthians, “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22) Therefore, the bond a believer shares with Christ is even stronger than the bond of flesh that he or she shares with Adam. It may not be written on our DNA, but it is written on our heart. (Jeremiah 31:33, Romans 2:15)

Our union with Christ allows us to be credited with Christ’s righteousness because He took our sins upon Himself. Peter wrote that “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). Paul pointed to this forgiveness that we receive in Christ as the reason we should forgive one another. “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” (Ephesians 4:32) Note the two words that form the basis for that forgiveness: “in Christ”.

We have seen how Paul used the concept of our union with Christ to pivot from our relationship with God to our relationship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is because the two are inextricably linked. When we are united to Christ, our bond with Him becomes so firm that we are actually said to be members of His body, and in the same manner, we becomes members of the allegorical Body of Christ, which is the Church. This corporeal language is used to emphasize that our bond with both Christ and His Church is as strong as our union with our own bodies. Let’s first examine how Paul based an argument for sexual morality on our union with Christ and His Spirit.

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, “The two shall become one flesh.” But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

1 Corinthians 6:15-20

This passage is useful for its teachings about personal morality, but it is also valuable because it emphasizes that our very bodies are members of Christ. That is the degree of union that we have with Him. Even so, Paul tells us that individuals in the Church are members of one another. “For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” (Romans 12:4-5) To be united to Christ is to be united to His Body. Even as you would never see a foot walking around on its own without a body attached to it, scripture does not conceive of a Christian who is not attached to the Church of Jesus Christ.

This leads us to another key point. When Paul was speaking to the church in Corinth about the Lord’s Supper, he said, “Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16) The implied answer to both of these questions is yes. In the Lord’s Supper, all who are united to Christ share in His body and blood. This is not to say that they were not previously covered by Christ’s blood and redeemed by the sacrifice of His body, but there is a reason that this sacrament/ordinance is often called communion. In the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of our union with Christ and with each other, which allows us to have communion. We receive a real benefit as Christ’s body and blood are administered to us spiritually.

I believe that our experience of the sacraments is directly connected to our union with Christ, by which I mean that we receive no spiritual benefit from them if we are not united with Him. Paul wrote of sharing in Christ’s body and blood. Who can claim that except those who are members of Christ’s body? Thus, the saving power of union with Christ leads directly into something that contributes to our sanctification: the sacraments. Please note that the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper do not have saving power in and of themselves. You do not receive salvation simply by going through these outward motions. Only when you already possess the inward reality of union with Christ do you receive any sanctifying benefit from the sacraments as the Spirit uses these external signs to assure us of internal realities.

Even as Paul seems to connect the Lord’s Supper with union with Christ, he does so even more explicitly with regard to baptism. He wrote, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Galatians 3:26-27) Some might conclude from these verses that we are united to Christ in baptism (that is, that the spiritual reality is given to us as a necessary result of the physical action), but look a bit more carefully. Paul says we are sons of God “through faith in Christ Jesus”. He says that those who were baptized into Christ “have clothed yourselves with Christ”. I believe he means that those who have been united to Christ through faith are the ones who are truly baptized into Him. They are the ones who receive the spiritual benefit. Some may find this interpretation to be a stretch, and I admit that the verse is somewhat ambiguous in this respect. However, there is another passage that also makes a link between our union with Christ and baptism.

For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

Colossians 2:9-14

Notice the number of times Paul uses the phrases “in Him” and “with Him”. This entire passage is a celebration of our union with Christ. Through this union, we receive the circumcision of the heart, in which we die to the flesh and live by the Spirit. This is how we are able to perform the deeds of the Law. Paul repeats that we were “buried with Him in baptism” and raised up through faith. Again, I do not believe that Paul means that the physical act of baptism literally washes away sins from an unrepentant person. Rather, he emphasizes the role of faith and states that it is through this union that we are regenerated by the Spirit. Baptism serves as a reminder to us that our sins have been forgiven in Christ, as we have come to share in His death and resurrection. Thus, the remainder of the passage explains that when we were dead in transgressions and had uncircumcised hearts, God made us alive with Christ, forgiving us and cancelling out our debt, which was nailed to the cross.

Perhaps my favorite phrase in that passage is “in Him you have been made complete”. This points to the all-encompassing nature of our union with Christ and the certainty it provides. Those who are joined to the Son of God will receive all the benefits of that union. While we may not possess them all yet, we have in effect received a down payment. We are heirs alongside Him now and will receive our full inheritance in the life to come. Therefore, it is correct to say that we are already saved, even as it is correct to say that we will be saved in the future. It is because we are united to Christ that we have assurance of these things. What a marvelous blessing that is!

All scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

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