Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Union with Christ


A couple of things recently have been prompting me to write something about what it means for us to be united with Christ. For my part, I think it is one of the key doctrines of the New Testament – I'd say an understanding of union with Christ is essential to an understanding of justification; it's fundamental. It also seems to be a poorly understood doctrine. That's not to say I do fully understand it; I don't, of course I don't. But I think that, by God's grace, I am starting to have a faint idea of some of what it means. So I'll try and write about that. I'm writing for Christians, but others are free to read it.

What Does "Union with Christ" Mean?

The best place to start is probably Romans 6:1-13

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.
Romans 6:1-13, ESV

What, according to Paul does it mean for us to be “baptised into Christ” and into his death?

Paul says that our baptism into Christ means that we somehow share in Christ's death – we are crucified with him (v6), we died with him (v5) and are buried with him (v4). Therefore we have been raised in him (v13) and live in him (v11).

Note that Paul doesn't write here that Christ was crucified for us and therefore that we should give our lives for him. Nor does he say that we are compelled not to sin because of what Jesus has done for us, which is what I imagine many of us would say in answer to the question of verse 1. Paul writes that we have been united with Christ in his death and in his resurrection – that because he has died, we have died and because he has been raised, we have been raised, therefore we should be living like it. Christ is not just the pattern for us to follow; he is the template in which we live.

Paul uses the same idea in Colossians 2:20

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations...?
Colossians 2:20, ESV

"In Christ"

We see the same idea especially in Paul's use of the phrase “in Christ”. I used to think that it was just a throwaway phrase Paul used because it sounded nice, but it isn't; it's fundamental to what Paul is saying and in my opinion is the key to most of Paul's theology.

Paul uses “in Christ” as a way of referring to Christians (e.g. Romans 16:7), but far more often in connection with the blessings we have received. For example:

“the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”
Romans 3:24

“no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”
Romans 8:1

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation”
2 Corinthians 5:17

“In him we have redemption through his blood”
Ephesians 1:7

“In him we have obtained an inheritance”
Ephesians 1:11

“In him you.... were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit”
Ephesians 1:17

“God... made us alive together with Christ ... raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
Ephesians 2:4-6

Where do we have to be to receive God's blessings? In Christ. How do we receive God's blessings? In Christ. Where do God's blessings lead? Into Christ.

“speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”
Ephesians 4:15, ESV

Or see 1 Peter 1:8, where the Christians to whom Peter is writing are said to believe into (εις) him.


This brings us back to the idea that our union with Christ is something which is ongoing – it is true in the past, present and future. We have been crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20), therefore we should be dying to ourselves (Colossians 3:5), and we will one day die in Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:16), unless he returns first. We have been raised with Christ (Ephesians 2:5-6), we are being raised in Christ (2 Corinthians 4:10) and we will be raised in Christ (Romans 8:11).

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:

We are ... always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.
2 Corinthians 4:10-11, ESV

This is then wonderful grounds for our assurance. We are in Christ, who lives forever. So when (and if) we finally die, we remain in Christ and so still live. That means that we have a sure and certain hope of the resurrection, because Jesus has been raised and we are in him, as Paul argues in 1 Thessalonians 4:16 “the dead in Christ will rise first.” (cf 1 Corinthians 15:17).

Jesus and Union

But it is not just Paul and Peter. Jesus also speaks about it at length in John 14 and 15, where we see that it is all intertwined with what it means to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit and with the relationship between the members of the Trinity.

“In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”
John 14:20, ESV

At the start of John 15, we also see that being in Jesus is the key to being able to bear fruit, and that those who do not abide in him are ultimately thrown into the fire and burned (John 15:6).

Colossians 3:3 - "Hidden in Christ"

So, to come back to one of the questions that prompted this, what does Colossians 3:3 mean when it says “For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God”?

This whole idea of dying with Jesus and rising with Jesus is a big theme in Colossians 2 (e.g. v12-13). Paul goes on to apply it in 2:20 – that because we have died to the “elemental spirits of this world”, we shouldn't be living worldly lives (in this case submitting to silly rules). Instead (3:1), Paul tells them they have been raised with Christ, and therefore should be setting their mind where Christ is.

That's the context for 3:3, so in context Paul is telling them that their primary identity is in Christ. After all, they have died in him, and have been raised in him. They are only really alive in him. Christ is where they are, so that's where they should be focusing.

The “hidden” refers forwards to v4 - “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Their new, risen, in Christ, selves are not obvious. It will only become clear who we really are when Christ appears, and us with him (cf Romans 8:19). For the time being, what is in Christ is hidden.

1 Corinthians 6 and Sex

Another application of this is in 1 Corinthians 6, where Paul links the idea of our union with Christ with the idea that sex is an expression of and brings about union between man and woman. Paul therefore argues that for someone who is united with Christ to be united with a prostitute is crazy. Of course, the linking of union with Christ and union in sex both point forwards to the perfect consummation of the union between Christ and his bride the Church that awaits us in heaven.


Union with Christ is the means of our salvation – God counts us as righteous because and only because we are in Christ. We are raised from the dead both spiritually and physically only because Christ has been raised from the dead and we are united with him.

Union with Christ is the goal of our salvation. We are growing up corporately into him, and one day we will be perfectly united with him. This means our current union with Christ gives us a sure and certain hope for the future, because we know that what happens to Christ will also happen to us, just as what happened to Christ in his incarnation, rejection, suffering, crucifixion, resurrection and glorification is also happening to us.

Union with Christ gives us our identity - if we are in Christ, we are who we are in Christ, and nothing else.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Bad Language

There's an interesting discussion going on over on about the American Evangelical reaction to bad language and cultural Pharisaism. It's a discussion that needs to be had, and which I think I might need to reference later.

Here is an older item on the same subject and the same site. FWIW, I think I agree with it.

Friday, December 16, 2005


One of the best ways of recognising bodies is by the scars. Scars define and make us who we are.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Saturday, December 10, 2005

NT Wright, Justification, etc

This is triggered by reading this. NT Wright writes about his view of justification here. I've done a bit more reading around than that, but not a huge amount.

My gut reaction is that it's yet another example of poor communication. When people criticise Wright, quite a lot of what they write tends to show they haven't actually understood what he wrote, or if they have understood it, they haven't checked whether what he says is right. On the other hand, I'm not convinced that Wright is helping his cause by some of the language he is using. Historically, my loyalty would be to the people who are criticising him for being too liberal in his views of justification. Currently on this one, I think he gets a bit more of my sympathy though.

For example, Biblically, of course justification is past, present and future. That is the way the word is used. It doesn't tend to be how the word is used in historic evangelical theology though, largely because evangelical theology (as many other types of theology) tends to be defined by what it has fought against. So in the Reformation, Luther et al were fighting against a wrong, process and work-based view of salvation, which included nonsenses like indulegences and so on. As a result of that, their theology adopted a strong emphasis on the initial action of God to save us, and underemphasised the fact that God's saving and justifying action is past, present and future. Because it is God's action, the past guarantees the present and the future. As I understand it, NT Wright is trying to re-emphasise the balance. The problem is that people see him trying to re-balance what Luther stated in an unbalanced way, and think he is agreeing with Luther's opponents.

On the other hand, there are omissions in what Wright says that I don't fully agree with. For example, Wright's article that I link to above doesn't even mention "sin", which is a fairly important concept with relation to justification. He does however say that "'Justification'... is God's declaration that the person is now in the right, which confers on them the status 'righteous'." Wright also validly emphasises God's incorporation of those he has made righteous into his people, though does so without mentioning the key element, which is incorporation into Christ. It is through our incorporation into Christ that we are united as a new people.

That's just a few of my quick thoughts. I'm not meaning to judge or accuse anyone, but I think we could all do with trying to understand other people and where they are coming from before disagreeing with them. Irony duly noted.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

All Hallows, Cheadle

When visited:

Sunday, 5th December, 10:45am


On Councillor Lane, Cheadle


I was with someone who was well known in the church, so I got a few people talking to us. Not at all sure whether people would have spoken to me if I'd been on my own.

First Impressions:

Probably about 50 people there, with a fair range of ages, sitting on nice chairs arranged so that it felt fairly full, but with room for more. It's a 60s building, with quite good natural light. The reputation of the church is solidly evangelical.

Type of Service:

10:45 morning service. It was fairly informal mostly - quite a bit of banter between the leader and congregation, both when the minister was there and when other people were. It started with the fairly new vicar reflecting on his three months in the parish and thanking people for helping him to settle in. Most of the service was then a chap who'd been to India over the summer and worked with the family of the (Indian) parish assistant. He and the PA both then talked about the work the church was doing over there, particularly with some poor villages. This was done in chunks (using powerpoint), interspersed with the normal liturgy. See my thoughts on materialism and social action. Most of it was fairly encouraging and challenging.


Mostly modern (post 1995) hymns with a few golden oldies, sung using either hymnbooks or OHP, with large print copies of the ones on OHP available for those who wanted. Played well and unobtrusively by a band.


None as such - the stuff on India took its place.


yes - fairly basic


This was far from a typical service, so I can't really say a huge amount more than I've already said.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Materialism and Social Action

I was at a church service this morning (blog entry to follow), where someone who had made a recent trip to a poor area of India was talking about it.

Much of what they said was great and encouraging, but two things stuck in my mind as clashing.

One was the continual emphasis on how happy all the children, especially the Christian ones were (in contrast to here). The other was commenting on how depressing the poverty was and how good it would be to change it.

This got me thinking.

A lot of the time we talk as if we want to bring other people up to the same standard of living that we enjoy (or, more often, don't enjoy). But isn't that just us being materialistic and wanting other people to be the same. What if it's better being just above the breadline?

Compare Proverbs 30:8

Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.

Wouldn't a better conclusion from looking at situations like that was that having lots of money doesn't make you happier?