I must confess that I am not a fan of 3-D movies. To this Scotsman at least, it feels like a gimmick designed mainly to part me from my money. Invariably, I leave with a headache. Sometimes I find the effect singularly unconvincing. But my children are less cynical. They find the experience captivating. The sense of entering the world on screen lends depth and dimension to the whole experience. As we explore the doctrine of union with Christ, it is important that we see the three dimensions in which the New Testament describes it. Seeing this doctrine in 3-D will bring color and depth to every other aspect of our Christian lives.
The first dimension to be explored, albeit very briefly here, is our union with Christ in the eternal plan of God, that is, union with Christ in election. Ephesians 1:3–6 reminds us that God “chose us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” In a beautiful passage, John Calvin explains Paul’s meaning:
When Paul teaches that we were chosen in Christ “before the creation of the world” [Eph. 1:4a], he takes away all consideration of real worth on our part, for it is just as if he said: since among all the offspring of Adam, the Heavenly Father found nothing worthy of his election, he turned his eyes upon his Anointed, to choose from that body as members those whom he was to take into the fellowship of life. Let this reasoning then prevail among believers: we were adopted in Christ into the eternal inheritance because in ourselves we were not capable of such great excellence. (Institutes, 3.22.1)
The Father elects damnable sinners in Christ. It is not that God saw that we would obey or believe of our own free will and then chose us because of our foreseen faith. Rather, it is that God saw—indeed, ordained—that Christ would obey, bleed, die, and rise again for us. God chose sinners for salvation based on the merit and atonement of Christ, His promised sacrifice. We are in Christ in eternity.
But there is a second dimension to our union with Christ. We are in Christ, we might say, redemptive-historically (i.e., in what God actually did for us in time in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ). Paul always describes a Christian as having died with Christ, having been buried with Him, and having been raised with Him. It is by virtue of His obedience that we are counted righteous (Rom. 5:19). It is by virtue of our union with Him in His death and resurrection that we are spiritually alive to God (Eph. 2:4–6). It is “in him” that we have “redemption through his blood” (1:7). When Christ acted during the days of His earthly ministry, He acted for His people as our representative and our substitute. Thus, when Satan tempted Him in the wilderness, it was not merely to provide an example for us of how to deal with temptation. He was obeying God in the face of temptation, as His only begotten Son, in the wilderness of a fallen creation. Adam, the son of God (Luke 3:38), failed to obey in the garden of an unfallen creation. Israel, God’s son (Ex. 4:23), failed to obey in the wilderness of Sinai. But Christ obeyed. This obedience He accomplished not only for Himself but for all whom He represented, for all who were “in him” according to the electing purpose of God.
Then there is a third dimension to our union with Christ, which rests firmly on the first two. It finds its source in the eternal covenant and plan of God, electing sinners in union with Christ. It is founded on the obedient life and death of Christ as the representative of His people in history. But it erupts into the hearts and lives of Christians in their present experience through the work of the Holy Spirit. We might call this experiential or existential union with Christ. It takes all that Christ accomplished in history on our behalf and makes it ours presently, vitally, really. It brings to fulfillment the eternal counsel of the covenant of redemption, purposed before the stars were hung in their places. Ephesians 2:4–10 is a classic statement of this very point. Though were dead in our sin,
God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, 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 coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not 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, that we should walk in them.
We are given new life in Christ by the gracious gift of God, which includes the faith in the gospel that He grants to us. We become new creatures in Christ. The bond of our union with the risen Christ is the Spirit of Christ. As Jesus taught His disciples in John 14:16–18: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” The way Christ comes to us is by the Spirit of truth, whom Jesus styles “another Helper,” or, more literally, “another Helper like the One they now have” in Jesus. The Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of sonship, communicates to us not only the benefits of our redemption but Christ Himself. He comes to us. We are in Him and know Him and commune with Him. His righteousness is ours. Our life is resurrection life. Our sanctification makes us resemble Him. Our adoption is sonship in the Son. Our glorification is entry into His glorious presence, reflecting His radiance and delighting in His reward. All this we have in union with Jesus. Our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3).
May God help us to see our Christian lives in 3-D, united to Christ in eternity, in history, and in experience. When we see our Christian lives that way, it’s like discovering a new landscape full of wonder and beauty where we find security and rest forever, where we are satisfied.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on union with Christ Previous post. Next post.