– Union with Christ

Union with Christ by Roger Helland

Have you ever wondered what it really means to live the Christian life? You may reply, "Well yeah, isnt that what we are all trying to do?" I dont mean to live Christianly, to live like a Christian, or to conduct ourselves in a Christian manner. What I mean is to really live a Christian life. There are many methods and systems out there that we could all present to help us pray, worship, study, "have devotions," evangelize, live a holy life, and even walk with God better. However, that would not address my question. Annie Dillard remarked, "How we live our days, of course, is how we live our lives." How do I live my days? To form an answer requires that I take a journey to a deeper, astonishing, and revolutionizing place that will free me from the struggle.

The Struggle
I dont know about you, but I have struggled all my Christian life with knowing how to live the Christian life. For me, the Christian life has been the sum total of all my attitudes and actions that are deemed "Christian." For example, I have believed that when I go to church, read my Bible, pray, serve God according to my spiritual gifts (usually in "church" ministries), think Christianly, and live a good moral life, I am doing Christian things that define what it means to live the Christian life.

I try to be like Jesus but am never certain "what Jesus would do" in areas of my life where I face the most problems. I hear motivational sermons that encourage me to become more radical for Jesus, say no to temptation, be more patient and loving, share the gospel with my neighbors, walk in the Spirit, and then I intently listen to a closing prayer from the preacher believing that it will somehow morph his message from motivation to reality in my life. I have people pray for me to be filled with the Spirit and then I try to enter the "deeper" life by following the methods.

I often feel empty not full and feel shallow not deep. What about you?I return from the mountain top of inspiration and instruction with less than a radiant face only to settle back into the real world of my anger, anxiety, and angst wondering how I can ever really make progress in the Christian life. In spite of his profound impact on Protestant Christianity, Martin Luther did not expect Christians to change much. He was suspicious of claims to growth in holiness and methods to attain union with God. Maybe he looked at the corruption in those around him, as well as his own life, and concluded that Christians can not, do not, or will not change much.

I review my life and notice that I continue to carry embedded dysfunctional junk in my spiritual, emotional, and moral DNA that leaves me wondering if the Holy Spirit is at work or on vacation in my life. Can you relate to me or am I crazy?To make matters worse, my modern evangelicalism does not tend to help me. Why, because there is so much emphasis on productivity, performance, and programs for doing "Gods work."

To "really" join a church means that I will become a "member" who agrees to its statement of faith, tithes my income, regularly attends weekend services, gets involved in some form of church service, and submits to the authority of the leaders. For example, let me show you what my own denomination says I should do to connect with Gods purposes through its called2serve program:

  • Authentically Love Others
  • Be Filled With the Holy Spirit
  • Pursue Holiness
  • Embrace Gods Truth
  • Live a Missional Life
  • Commit to a Body of Believers

Pretty good stuff wouldnt you say? If we all adopted this list, our lives and our churches would likely improve. Nevertheless, I have been trying this list all my Christian life.

Is this what it means to live the Christian life? Is this what it means to walk with God? It is all about doing Christian things. Therefore, what happens is that my identity and significance often become tangled up with doing Christian and church stuff. The whole system can get very tiring! Now, for a contrast, soak in the following words by Jesus that Eugene Peterson paraphrased in The Message, "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and youll recover your life. Ill show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with meCwatch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I wont lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and youll learn to live freely and lightly" (Matt. 11:28-30).

The Solution
I am not against evangelicalism or my denomination. Its just that so much of the theology is based on doing rather than on being. We seem to have a very utilitarian or pragmatic theology of what it means to walk with God. I dont want to offer yet another article that tells you "how to" become a Spirit filled Christian according to methods, systems, or programs.

The Christian life, I believe, is a combination of romance and adventure with Christ. And romance and adventure dont operate according to methods and systems. There is something more foundational (and foundations are hidden underground) that will support the "walk and the work" and to "learn the unforced rhythms of grace." Theologians call it union with Christ.

The foundation of the Christian life is a Person not a program. That underground foundation is the indwelling presence of Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Every Christian is literally in union with Jesus Christ. A union is the bringing together, uniting, or joining together of two or more distinct and separate entities not previously joined that become a new singular entity.

Now think about that for a moment. If you want more in-depth teaching, on the overall notion of "union with Christ" do an internet search on this subject to find the website of James A. Fowler. It contains some of the best teaching and resources that I have ever seen. For example, he writes,The most used New Testament phrase for the Christians union with Christ is the simple phrase, "in Christ," or "in Christ Jesus," or simply "in Him.". . . Whenever we read this "in Christ" phrase, we can legitimately interpret it as "in union with Christ."

For example, by His doing you are in Christ Jesus (in union with Christ Jesus), who became to us wisdom, righteousness, and sanctification and redemption" (1 Cor. 1:30). "If any man is in Christ (in union with Christ), he is a new creature" (2 Cor. 5:17).This theological statement has profound implications for what it means to live the Christian life. Even though we are in Christ, the New Testament clearly tells us that Christ is also in us. He lives and dwells in the Christian. For example, AIt is no longer I who lives, but Christ lives in me (Gal. 2:20). "This is the mystery . . . Christ in you the hope of glory" (Col. 1:27). "If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, He will give life through His Spirit who indwells you" (Rom. 8:11). The Christian is a new creature in Christ (in union with Christ); all things have passed away, and all things have become new (2 Cor. 5:17).

There is a separation and a distinction between us yet a union of us. Just as in the incarnation, Jesus was God in man, so Jesus is God in us. In a sense, Jesus is incarnate now in us by His Spirit. Take a few moments to ponder this biblical truth deeply.It is hard to grasp how profound this truth is for a powerful and fulfilling Christian life. The Trinity (Father, Son, and Spirit) lives in us! The apostle John writes, "God lives in us" (1 John 4:12, 15, 16). Really!? God lives in us? How? By our union with Christ. James Fowler puts it this way, "God the Son, is operating in the Christian as the energizer and expresser of His life. It is no longer I who lives, but Christ lives in me (Gal. 2:20). . . It is not just that Christ resides as an occupant in me, but that Christ lives in me, as the dynamic expression of His life that Paul is proclaiming. . . We are free to be and do whatever Christ wants to be and do in, as, and through us."

Can you see the potential for truly living the Christian life in this theology? In Colossians 2:6 Paul highlights Jesus, "So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him." Furthermore, John writes, "If anyone obeys his word, Gods love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live [abide] in him must walk [live] as Jesus did‘" (1 John 2:5-6). We live in him to the extent that we open ourselves for him to live in us because we are in union with Christ.

The Application
I think you get the theological point. By now you might be asking, "Ok, so how does this apply to me? How do I put this theology of union with Christ to use? How do I live a Christian life?" That is exactly what I have been asking myself for many months now. I am just beginning to understand what it means to actually "live" this theology in such a way that I am different. I dont quite know how to express it except to say that I am trying to practice "theological reflection" on the biblical notion of my being "in Christ." That means that I think about it, consider it, and image it.

Jesus gave us an effective image for theological reflection and how this union should work in application. He said,"Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Fathers glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Fathers commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete" (John 15:4-11). What is his main point?

Look at the key word "remain." It means to "dwell in, continue in, reside in, settle in, to make yourself at home in." Take your home for example. You dwell and reside in it. We base our lives out of our homes. Imagine Jesus Christ comes to your home and asks if he can "live" there! What would that be like? Imagine how your home would be different if Jesus moved in as a tenant who pays for room and board and lives with you. However, the analogy is much deeper than that. Imagine Jesus is your landlord who comes to live with you. He owns your home because He purchased and redeemed it.

Is there biblical support for this idea? Most certainly! Have a close and careful look at 1 Corinthians 6:20, 7:23, and 1 Peter 1:18-19. Jesus owns our homes (our lives). He purchased them with his precious blood on the cross.His new address is the home of our life. He lives there now. He is not just an occupant. This is his new residence! This really is a staggering theological picture. The vine image communicates the same picture in agricultural terms. We remain or live in Jesus and he remains and lives in us through our "union with Christ." We are intimately connected to Jesus who is the vine inasmuch as we are the branches. The lifeblood of the vine feeds and bears fruit through the branches because of an essential organic union.

I understand this image because I live in a luscious valley in British Columbia, which is home to a number of picturesque vineyards that produce some of the best world class wines. The vine, branches, and grapes are in perfect union. The key to this vital union is obedience to Christ and surrender to the very real notion that without Christ we can do absolutely nothing.

That is a very sobering thought.By now you may be asking, "Roger, you are still talking theory and theology. How do I apply it?" Here it is. Think about how to be before you think about how to do. Theologically reflect on your identity "in Christ" before you think about your actions "for Christ." Carefully consider how being flows into doing. This might be academic, but try to grasp this next quote by James Fowler, "The union of being that recognizes the distinction of Christs indwelling the Christian and the union of the Christians identity with Christ must, of necessity, find expression in the union of doing whereby the living Lord Jesus dynamically lives out His life in Christian behavior."

In effect, you and I cannot live the Christian life. Only Christ can live the Christian life through us because he is in us and we are in union with Him. Because we have a union of being, we can live in a union of doing insofar as it is Christ doing or living through us.If we choose to walk with God, we must position ourselves in a posture of response rather than in a posture of action.

Sure, we take the initiative and not sit idly by waiting for God to do something. We dont become quietists who simply abandon ourselves to the point of becoming passive vessels who wait to receive Gods grace like an empty mug waiting to be filled with water by a faucet looking for a place to flow. Rather, we assume an active role whereby we take response-ability for our actions and our attitudes. In other words, we are responsible to obey Christ and thereby remain in Him. When we do, we open the floodgates, which become, in the words of Fowler, "the supplied life" based on a "union of doing." After all, Jesus flatly declared, "Apart from Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).

We must respond to Christ living in us. He gives us the ability to respond by the Spirit because "it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil. 2:13). Our responsibility is to, by faith, remain, dwell, and live in Christ. The result will be that we will Abear much fruit" (John 15:5). Jesus does not say that we will "produce" much fruit. As Paul puts it, we must "walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, pleasing Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work" (Col. 1:10). As you well know, we can also reject Christ living in us. After all, he constantly wants to live an obedient, submitted, and selfless life. He will take the initiative in us but we can choose to respond or reject his will and ways.

The treadmill of Christian performance quickly stops when confronted with a lively theology of the union of being and union of doing in Christ. How do we respond to Jesus who lives in us? It involves "paying absolute unmixed attention" to the voice, leadings, promptings, and guidance of Jesus through the Scripture and the Spirit in our everyday lives. I think he is very practical in our daily affairs when we pay close attention. Like tuning into the wavelength of a radio station, I must tune into the wavelength of Gods voice through Jesus who resides inside me. If I detect his leading, I must want to hear, obey, and respond. That is what response-ability means.

To remain in Jesus requires that I respond to Jesus.Do you remember the disciples on the Emmaus road? They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" (Luke 24:32) There is something about walking and talking with Jesus that ignites a heart that burns within us.

At that time in biblical history, Jesus was still external to the disciples. Yet he caused an internal revival of their hearts. However, Jesus delivered an astonishing and revolutionizing promise recorded in John 14:16-17. He announced, "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you foreverC the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you." Now that Jesus is internal to us by the indwelling Spirit, is it possible that our response and our personal fire should be greater? Is it possible that our responsibility is to live by the Spirit, be led by the Spirit and be controlled by the Spirit who is the flame of love who energizes our union with Christ? Is it possible that Christ would live His Christian life in and through us?