o more profound and theologically rich description of what it means to be a Christian can be found than this: by faith we have been united with Jesus Christ. This spiritual union is the means by which space and time are transcended and we share in all the benefits of Jesus’ work on our behalf. The nineteenth-century British theologian H.R. Mackintosh, in his famous work on the person of Christ, says this: “It is not putting it too strongly to say that union with Christ is a brief name for all that the apostles mean by salvation.”1 Through our union with Christ, what is true of him becomes true of us. By the work of the Spirit, Christ lives in us and we in him, and we partake of all his riches.
A Christian is “a new creature in Christ” (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17), yet for most believers this new status too often remains an unclaimed treasure. They know they are united with Christ, but that union has no effect on their lives. As with a long-distance, arranged marriage, their faith in Christ has resulted in a new legal condition and a new name, but it has not resulted in a real relationship of love. What’s gone wrong? Our union with Christ must be experienced—we must abide in Christ.
Jesus expressed the need for engagement in this union in John 15. The fact of our union with him is clear: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (v. 5). But this union requires a continuing action: “Abide in me as I abide in you” (v. 4). Our objective state calls for a subjective experience. We move from the indicative (what is true of us) to the imperative (what we must do), with the former providing the essential basis for the latter.
Living out our new status in Christ is a fundamental feature of New Testament teaching. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, describes how we have been baptized into Christ, having been joined with him in his death and resurrection. The Apostle then moves to the application: “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness “ (Rm. 6:12-13).
That same pattern appears in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3).
The Puritans emphasized this distinction between our status and our experience by speaking of union and communion. We are united to Christ by faith through the gracious work of God’s Spirit. Now we must seek to live out that union in a relationship of communion with God.2 Our union precedes our communion and provides the sure and certain basis for it, grounded entirely in the saving work of God. Our experience of communion can fluctuate with the inconsistencies of our efforts to engage in those activities which foster that relationship. But God’s love cannot fluctuate, for we have a union with Christ that nothing can separate.
The Divine Model of the Father and the Son in John’s Gospel
What does this abiding relationship look like? John’s Gospel uses the phrase “to abide in” (Greek: minein en) with a personal object to express the relationship of Jesus to the Father and of both to believers. The clear priority, however, must be given to Jesus’ mutual indwelling with the Father: “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I speak to you are not from myself, but the Father who abides in me does his work” (14:10). This is a dynamic relationship which energizes the ministry of Jesus and is inexplicable without it. Out of this personal union come his words and his works, which manifest the character of God. “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may learn and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (10:37, 38).
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