I’ve recently received two books on union with Christ. One Forever by Rory Shiner and Paul and Union with Christ by Con Campbell. I’ve been keen to get into both these books and decided to bring one with me on a plane trip this morning. Rory’s book is 88 pages and Con’s is 479 pages. If I was flying to South Africa with the Brumbies, I’d have taken Con’s book, but given I was only flying from Canberra to Sydney, Rory’s it was. Con said his book would have helped me sleep on the plane! Hopefully, I’ll let you know later if that’s true. This is a great introduction to an often overlooked theme in the Bible. This book shows us how central and significant it is. Union with Christ belongs not only at the heart of theology, but at the heart of Christian experience.
Union with Christ is introduced against the backdrop of creation. We were created to be united with Christ. The picture of the man and woman being united in a one flesh relationship in Genesis 2 finds its ultimate expression in the union between Christ and his bride, the church, in Ephesians 5. We only become the people that God designed us to be as we are united together with Jesus. Fulfilment and completeness for human beings is experienced through entering into a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ.
The incarnation, where God became one of us, shows us God’s true intentions for humanity. Given our rebellion against God, it’s truly remarkable that God would enter into our world as a human being.
God doesn’t enter into humanity like a nuclear scientist holds radioactive material: with a massive suit on, at a distance, for fear of contamination. Rather, he enters into all that we are and is united to all that we are, so that all we can be healed and redeemed. (p28)
The key to understanding the incarnation is the gospel. It reveals that God’s purpose in becoming fully human was to save people who’d turned their backs on him. Jesus, fully human, reveals the extent of God’s commitment to humanity and to restoring sinful people into relationship with God. The exalted post-resurrection Jesus shows us the picture of what God intends for humanity as we are reunited with our creator.
The heart of this book is the chapter on being a new creation in Christ. Very fittingly, given the context of me reading this book, Rory asks us to consider being on a plane! He asks what relationship we need to have with the plane if we are going to get to the destination. Would it help to be under the plane, or inspired by the plane, or following the plane? No, we need to be in it! He argues that the New Testament idea of being in Christ is something like this. In biblical terms, we get to participate in the benefits of salvation and justification because we are united with, or in, Christ in his death and resurrection. This is the plane journey that matters.
He develops the plane illustration further with some important pastoral implications. Contrast a business woman, well accustomed to flying, taking the journey in her stride, with an elderly man, an anxious first-time flyer, who keeps asking whether or not they’re going to make it. The woman clearly has stronger faith. The man is troubled by doubts and fears. But the plane gets both of them there! The heart of the matter is not how much faith you have, but where your faith is. (p41)
Union with Christ isn’t simply one angle to understanding what we have received as Christians. Rather, it’s the means by which we receive every blessing from God. We are justified, declared to be in right standing with God, through being united with Christ. Christ has paid the price of judgment for our sin so that when we are united with him by faith there is no further price to be paid. This is the basis of our assurance of salvation. Understanding the implications of union with Christ enables us to live in humble confidence, that is, a confidence that in Christ everything from God will be ours and nothing can take this away from us. As Paul writes in Romans 8:
38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Rory includes an excellent chapter on dealing with sin in our lives. He describes union with Christ as our defence against the playground bullies of sin and temptation. (p56) He takes us to Romans 6, arguably one of the most important chapters in the Bible for understanding the life implications of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection. Many people, Christians included, believe that guilt is the way to change people. Rory argues instead that guilt, while being a good alarm system that something needs to change, is a lousy agent for change. Guilt lacks power to transform lives. By contrast grace is God’s power to change as we gain a clearer and stronger appreciation of the many privileges we have in Christ. I found this chapter compelling and faithful to the thrust of the New Testament.
One Forever reveals the implications of union with Christ for the church. There are many metaphors for church in the New Testament which reveal the corporate union between Christ and his people. Consider such pictures as the vine and the branches, the temple, the husband and his bride, the body of Christ, and so on. Christians belong to God and to each other. We are created and recreated, in diversity, with different gifts, for the purpose of sharing our profound unity in Christ. Rory asks: So why go to church? Answer: Because church is who you are. Church is the most concrete expression of your union with Christ. (p72) How we treat Christ and how we treat Christ’s people are intimately connected because the church is Christ’s own body.
The final chapter of this book takes us to the big issues of life, death and the climax of all things. Understanding union with Christ gives us clarity about what to expect in our futures. It’s the basis of a real hope beyond death. Christ died and Christ rose. Our union with him in his death guarantees our union with him in his resurrection. We can be freed from the despair of living only to die, to devote ourselves to the things that will last for eternity – the work of the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:58). Our union with Christ will see us through, safe and glorified into the new creation. (p88)
If you’ve never thought much about what it means to be in Christ this book is a great primer. It’ll help you to head back to the New Testament and read it with clearer glasses. Dip back into John 15, or Ephesians 1, or Romans 6, or 1 Corinthians 15, and see how important is this theme. It’s far more than a theological window with which to view our relationship with Christ. It reveals the very essence of what it means to be Christian.