Have you ever noticed how just a few words fitly spoken can have a powerful impact? It just takes a few. Can you think of some phrases that would fit that principle? For me, the first words that come to mind are “I love you.” You can probably list the people who have said that to you over the years and really meant it. Just three short words comprised of eight simple letters, and yet it can have an incredible impact.
The same is true when it comes to the Word of God. There are many examples in Scripture where just a short phrase makes all the difference in the world. Here’s the one that is especially important–it’s the phrase “in Christ.” It’s really amazing how frequently that short little phrase is used in the Word of God, and the incredibly powerful promises contained in it.
Defining the Terms
What it means to be “in Christ” is so simple…yet so complex. Thank the Lord He allows us a lifetime of grace to understand this truth, while we seek to live our lives with Christ as the center. With some help from Anthony Hoekema’s valuable resource, Saved by Grace, I’d like to review the basic Scriptural teaching of being united with Christ, and then offer some practical applications that I trust will encourage you.
The believer’s union with Christ can be defined as that intimate, vital, and spiritual union between Christ and His people. The wonderful union with Christ is the foundation by which a Christian gains His is source of life, strength and blessedness of salvation. The New Testament uses two interchangeable expressions to describe union with Christ:
- Believers are in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; John 15:4, 5, 7; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 12:2; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 1:4, 2:10; Phil. 3:9; 1 Thess. 4:16; 1 John 4:13).
- Christ is in believers (Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27; Rom. 8:10; 2 Cor. 13:5; Eph. 3:17).
There are a number of pictures/illustrations throughout the Bible that reveal believers are joined to Christ: Jesus is the vine and we are the branches (John 15:5); Jesus is the head and we are His body (1 Cor. 6:15–19); Christ is the foundation and we are living stones joined to the foundation (1 Peter 2:4–5); and marriage between a husband and wife ultimately points to the union between Christ and believers (Eph. 5:25–31).
The Timeline of the Union
True Christians are chosen by the Father before the creation of the universe and before anything existed. Our union with Christ has its roots in divine election (Ephesians 1:3-4). Our union with Christ is based on his redemptive work, with the actual union taking place at the new birth by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). Throughout our lives, we live out our union with Christ through faith. That is, we exercise/seize/live out our new life in Christ, through faith (Galatians 2:20).
Our justification (where God declares us “not guilty,” forgiving all our sins) is inseparable from our union with Christ. As we are spiritually moved by the Holy Spirit out from under the kingdom of darkness and the reign of sin, and brought into Christ, several things happen: Our nature (ontologically) is changed from being under Adam to being under Christ (1 Corinthians 15:22). At that time we start sharing in Christ’s obedience and righteousness. In other words, God sees us now through our new nature. Christ defines us. We are freed from the dominion of sin and driven by grace to live a new life (Romans 8:1; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Ephesians 1:7; Philippians 3:9).
Ultimately, Christians persevere in the faith because of their union with Christ. Through power of the Holy Spirit we endure, persist, and remain steadfast in our devotion. We remain because if we are in him, we cannot come out of him (Romans 8:38-39). The ultimate and glorious result of our union with Christ is that we will spend eternity worshiping Him for who He is and what He has done (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
A Few Implications for the Believer
Prayer: Think about what that means regarding your ability to go to the throne of God and ask for help in times of need. You’re not simply a beggar who does not belong, but you are in Christ. A new corporation has been formed at salvation–Jesus bought you out. You now have access to God’s help!
His Indwelling Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit of the living God living inside of us changes everything. In Christ, we partake in His life, which means the Holy Spirit dwells within us and we will fundamentally change as people (1 Corinthians 5:17). Our struggle with sin will not be over until Christ comes again, but we have the Spirit as a guarantee of what is to come–Christ-likeness and the total defeat of sin and death! God works in us through the Spirit to will and work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). This means that we can submit to the Spirit’s work in us, trust Him to lead us, and believe in His truth above all other lifeless versions the world has to offer us.
The words “I can’t change” should never be part of a believer’s way of thinking. The phrase “well you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” should be banished from the heart, mind and lips of every believer. Why? God planned for each of His children to be united with His Son, and that means we should learn the discipline every day of submitting ourselves to Him. Consider yourselves to be dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6). Self-righteousness cannot produce that. Moralism cannot produce that but your union with the crucified, risen Savior can. Because you are in Christ, you can make different choices about your body, mind, friendships, entertainment, reading habits, hobbies, etc.
Live and Act by Faith: When it comes to making plans as one serves God, don’t select wimpy initiatives. Don’t select initiatives that you could do even if Jesus wasn’t alive. Make ambitious goals for God’s kingdom rooted in a deep-seated conviction of your union with Christ.
- Anthony Hoekema, Saved By Grace (Eerdman’s, 1994), 55-64.