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.