Finally, the grace of God in the gospel and the demanding call of discipleship find their unity in the essential foundation of Christian identity—our union with Christ. All the benefits that accrue to us from Christ’s work are ours only as we are united to Christ’s Person. To be separate from Christ is to be “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12). But to be “in Christ” is to share in all his riches (Eph. 1:3).
The Holy Spirit joins us personally to Jesus who died and rose again so that we now share in all that he is. This mysterious union is pictured in various ways in the New Testament, but the horticultural metaphor used by Jesus may be most to the point here: “I am the vine, and 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” (John 15:5). In this faith-union with Christ we share in who he is—we are graciously clothed with his righteousness and share in his sonship. But from that life-giving union we also draw the nourishment and strength to live as Christ’s disciples, bearing fruit to his glory. Here is subsumed both the privilege and the responsibility, the grace and the duty, of the Christian life.
The famous words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28–30 illustrate well the two sides of grace and discipleship grounded in union with Christ: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
This is surely a call to discipleship, for we are to come to Jesus and learn from him (cf. Matt. 4:19; 28:19–20). Yet this call is graciously addressed to those “who are weary and burdened.” “Taking the yoke of Jesus” means submitting to his authority in an unqualified dependence (cf. Matt. 10:37–39). But how could such a thing be considered “easy” and “light” since its demands are more weighty and its content more strict than the law as interpreted by the Pharisees (cf. Matt. 5:17–48)?
This is a gracious offer only because of the new relationship with God which Jesus’ yoke (and discipleship itself) makes possible. The yoke we bear is the yoke of the Son who alone makes the Father known (Matt. 11:27). As we commit ourselves to him, we are joined to Jesus the Son such that we, too, become sons of God and so enter into the “rest” which Jesus comes to bring. Grace and discipleship, forgiveness and holiness, are not antithetical but in perfect harmony, for they flow out of and lead into the same reality—our union with Christ.
Christianity is not a self-help religion, but a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that brings new life by the Spirit that will ultimately result in the restoration of the divine image in us. Faith is our personal response to the Person of Christ, and by the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit we are joined with him. In our union with Christ, we are forgiven and in that union we are regenerated. We now participate in Christ—he is in us by the Spirit, and, in Martin Luther’s words, Christ himself is “the basis, the cause, the source of all our own actual righteousness.” Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs speaks of the connection between growth in personal holiness and the believer’s union with Christ: “from [Christ] as from a fountain, sanctification flows into the souls of the Saints: there sanctification comes not so much from their struggling, and endeavors, and vows, and resolutions, as it comes flowing to them from their closing with Christ and their union with him.” As we entrust ourselves to Christ and depend upon him, we are like branches that draw on the vitality of the vine to produce good fruit. Discipleship is simply the working out of this new life in Christ. We become in ourselves what we are in Christ. The righteousness of Christ imputed to us by faith is imparted to us as we follow him—and it is all by God’s grace.
Bill Kynes studied philosophy at the University of Florida, where he also played quarterback and was inducted into the university’s Athletic Hall of Fame. He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, receiving an M.A. in theology. He has an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and a Ph.D. in New Testament from Cambridge University. Bill has served as senior pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Annandale, Virginia, since 1986. He and his wife Susan have four boys: Will, Matthew, Cameron, and Cason.
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