The Mystical Union in Christ

            “We won!” yelled the fan from his couch 1000 miles away from the stadium as he finally watched yesterday’s game that he had recorded. He sat there wearing his team colors, but he had never played in his life. How could he say “We won!”? The same way we enjoy the blessings of Christ. He has represented us and we are are incorporated into his body. This is called the union of Christ with Christians.

            The Christian’s spiritual or mystical union with Christ is an exciting and fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith. “As we shall see below, every aspect of God’s relationship to believers is in some way connected to our relationship with Christ.”[1]This doctrine is demonstrated by the “in Christ”[2] and “united with Christ” phrases.

            Union with Christ is similar to the concept of corporate representation. However, the “realness” of the relationship is ratcheted up a bit when the union with Christ is brought to view. This is more than simply the transference of blessings, this is a true spiritual union. This is certainly not a representation of typical modern individualistic Western thinking, but it is exactly what we would expect to find in the ANE and it is what is revealed in Scripture

            In general, being “in Christ” refers to the way God thinks of Christians. God sees Christians as the “in Christ” people. This is the basis of the God-Christian relationship. It is made possible by people being added to the body of Christ at which point they share in the blessings given to Christ and Christ brings them, his body, into fellowship with the Father through the Spirit. “Christ gives himself to them, not only objectively in redemption, but also imparts himself subjectively in sanctification and unites himself with them in a spiritual and mystical manner.”[3] The Scriptures present the doctrine of this union ins Scriptures such as:

  1. Romans 3:24 Justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
  2. Romans 6:11, So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
  3. Romans 6:23, The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
  4. Romans 8:1-2, There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
  5. Romans 8:39, nothing…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
  6. Romans 12:5, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually members of it.
  7. Romans 16:3, Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus.
  8. Romans 16:7, They were in Christ before me
  9. 1 Corinthians 1:2, sanctified in Christ Jesus
  10. 1 Corinthians 1:4, grace of God given you in Christ
  11. Ephesians 1:3, blessed us in Christ,
  12. Ephesians 1:9, set forth in Christ

Since Christians are united with Christ in this special way, Paul was to say “One has died for all; therefore all have died” (2 Cor. 5:14) and that Christians are raised with Christ (Rom. 6:4) and will be raised with him on the last day (Rom. 6:5).

            Union with Christ brings about the new reality for Christians. Just as husband and wife take on each other’s property when they are married, Christians now share in Christ’s blessings just as Christ bore their sins. Grudem said, “God thought of these blessings as being rightfully ours, just as if we had earned them ourselves. Nevertheless, they were stored up for us in heaven—in God’s mind, actually, and in Christ, our representative—waiting to be applied to us personally (1 Peter 1:3–5; Col. 3:3–4; Eph. 1:3).”[4]

            Bavinck, representing Reformed theologians, noted that it is appropriate to view the “in Christ” relationship as existing from eternity because, in a sense,

The mystical union starts already in the pact of redemption (pactum salutis). The incarnation and satisfaction presuppose that Christ is the head and mediator of the covenant. The covenant is not established after Christ’s coming or after the convicting and regenerative activities of the Holy Spirit, but Christ was himself a member of the covenant, and all the activity of the Spirit as the Spirit of Christ occurs within and in terms of the covenant. There is after all no participation in the benefits of Christ apart from communion with his person.[5]

Lutheran theologians on the other hand maintain that the “in Christ” relationship begins only when faith becomes active. Perhaps it is appropriate for both views to be correct. From God’s point of view, the saved are in Christ. From the human perspective, individuals are added into the body at a particular moment in time.

            This connection of Christ and those who are in Christ is so strong that whatever is done to them is done to Christ and whatever is done to Christ is done to them (Matthew 25:35-45; Acts 9:4-5; 1 Corinthians 8:12; Acts 4:25-29; Romans 6:3-4; 8:17; Galatians 3:27; 1 Corinthians 12:13). Not even death can break this meaningful existence—1 Thessalonians 4:16, “The dead who are in Christ;” “those who have died in Christ;” Philippians 1:23; those who are “with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17; 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:8). In fact, this “in Christ” relationship, is eternal. Bavinck said that the “mystical union between Christ and his church, existed long before believers were personally incorporated into it—or else Christ could not have made satisfaction for them either.”[6]

Summary of The Biblical Evidence of Union with Christ

“In Christ”

            We are “baptized into Christ” (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27). This act is the point at which God adds the person to the body of Christ. From this point forward, the individual is “in Christ.” So that just as Israel was “baptized into Moses” (1 Cor. 10:2), the Christian is represented by Christ and is the body of Christ. All God’s blessings given to his Son are therefore also shared by those who are in Christ. The righteousness of Christ is reckoned to the Christians because they are “in his body.”

            “In Christ” was used to describe God’s elect in Ephesians 1:4, “God chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” So, before the foundation of the world, God viewed you as in Christ and loved you as though you were in Christ. This concept is heightened when it is coupled with the doctrine of immutability and impassibility. God cannot change. God has eternally known his people.

            “In Christ” was used to describe how Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to us. Paul wrote that he would be “found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” It is “in him” that we become “the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

“With Christ”

            Baptism is, again, at the entryway of the discussion. Paul said, “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead (Col. 2:12).

            Since Christians are “in Christ,” we share in Christ’s life and the goodness of his life overshadows our lives. The Christian’s “old man was crucified with him” (Rom. 6:6). The Christian can say “I have been crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20).

The “In Christ” Church

            The church is described as the “eternal purpose of God” (Eph. 3:11). This “eternal purpose” helps us to understand why the church now exists. “Since the church now exists, it must always have existed in the mind of God as an idea or form. Since the church owes its existence to the eternal idea of God, then its origin and perpetuity are guaranteed.”[7] The body of Christ exists in time, yet it is timeless. Timelessness is a necessary attribute of the church “since the body of the Church is made up of the men who have been from the beginning of the world until its end.”[8]

            Augustine explained this union of Christ and Christians saying, “if we were not He, “Forasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of Mine, ye have done it unto Me,” would not be true. If we were not He, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” would not be true. So then we are He, in that we are His members, in that we are His Body, in that He is our Head, in that Whole Christ is both Head and Body.”[9] Another ancient writer said, “And the Books and the Apostles declare that the Church existeth not now for the first time, but hath been from the beginning: for she was spiritual, as our Jesus also was spiritual, but was manifested in the last days that He might save us. Now the Church, being spiritual, was manifested in the flesh of Christ.”[10]

            The Scriptures declared “The church is the body of Christ” (Eph. 1:23). The church, therefore, “cannot be torn away from him and will last as long as even the head itself, which cannot exist without the body.”[11] The church’s relationship with Christ is demonstrated by how he “intimately identifies himself with it (Acts 9:4). The church is the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12–27; Eph 1:23; 4:12; 5:23–32; Col 1:18, 24; 3:15), the dwelling place of his Spirit (Rom 8:9, 11, 16; 1 Cor 3:16–17; 6:11, 15–17; Eph 2:18, 22; 4:4), and the chief instrument for glorifying God in the world.”[12]

            The church is rooted in the eternal person of Christ. Therefore the existence of the church is guaranteed by the existence of Christ himself. The church is guaranteed because it is the bride of Christ (Eph. 4:15, 16; Hos. 2:19). The church has an eternal covenant with the eternal God (Is. 59:21; 61:8; Jer. 31:31). The church enjoys promise that the gates of Hades will not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18) and that Christ will be present with the church to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). The church will continue as long as death continues (1 Cor. 15:25-26). This is why the church is described as the kingdom without end (Dan. 2:44; Lk. 1:33).

Unity, Trinity, and the Church

            The union with and in Christ brings the Christian, and the church collectively, into union with the Father and Spirit as well. Grudem demonstrated this relationship the individual “in Christ” now enjoys: “We are in the Father (John 17:21; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; 1 John 2:24; 4:15–16; 5:20) and in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Tim. 1:14). The Father is in us (John 14:23) and the Holy Spirit is in us (Rom. 8:9, 11). We are like the Father (Matt. 5:44–45, 48; Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:10; 1 Peter 1:15–16) and like the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:4–6; Gal. 5:22–23; John 16:13). We have fellowship with the Father (1 John 1:3; Matt. 6:9; 2 Cor. 6:16–18) and with the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:16; Acts 15:28; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:30).”[13]

            This unity of Christ and his church is important for the church, but it is also important for God and the representation of God in the world. Jesus prayed that his people “would all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, an I in you, that they also may be in us” (Jn. 17:21). This union with Christ brings us into union with the Trinity. Being united with Christ and the Trinity, the Christian should be perpetually overwhelmed with the amazing blessings God has given. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).

            This also helps the Christian to understand how he or she can remain an individual while yet being lost in the corporate union. The Trinity is one God in three persons. The church, composed of individuals, is one body in Christ. However, there is an individuality which remains. This union encompasses all races as they are all made one in Christ.

The Union with Christ and Hermeneutics

            The Bible presupposes Christ’s union with God’s people. D. A. Carson noted that this union of Christ with his people is essential for understanding how the NT writers interpreted and applied the OT. Carson noted two fundamental presuppositions as “There is the apparent assumption of corporate solidarity or representation.[14]” And “In the light of corporate solidarity or representation, Christ as the Messiah is viewed as representing the true Israel of the OT and the true Israel—the church—in the NT.[15]

[1] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 840.

[2] “In Christ” could mean in reference to Christ, through Christ, or in the “realm of Christ.[2]” Often times both concepts are meant.

[3] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 250.

[4] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 842.

[5] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 250.

[6] Herman Bavinck, John Bolt, and John Vriend, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 214.

              [7] Aquinas, Summa Theologica.

              [8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).

              [9] Augustine of Hippo, “Sermons on Selected Lessons of the New Testament,” in Saint Augustin: Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. R. G. MacMullen, vol. 6, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 509.

              [10] Joseph Barber Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer, The Apostolic Fathers (London: Macmillan and Co., 1891), 91.

              [11] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed. James T. Dennison Jr., trans. George Musgrave Giger, vol. 3 (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1992–1997), 42.

              [12] Mark Dever “The Church” in A Theology for the Church. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2014), 603.

              [13] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House, 2004), 847.

              [14] Beale noted “For example, H. W. Robinson, Corporate Personality in Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1964), as qualified by later critics, some of whose sources are included in his bibliography (e.g., see J. R. Porter, “Legal Aspects of Corporate Personality,” Vetus Testamentum 15 [1965], 361–80, and see especially the introduction by Gene M. Tucker in Robinson’s book on 7–13, which surveys the various criticisms of Robinson’s view by various scholars). See also E. E. Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 170–71, who discusses corporate solidarity or representation as an important presupposition in OT and NT studies. He also wrote, “Thus, e.g., Isa. 49:3–6 and the use of 49:6 in Luke 2:32; Acts 13:47; 26:23; note how Christ and the church fulfill what is prophesied of Israel in the OT; see also R. T. France, Jesus and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1971), 50–60, 75; N. T. Wright, “The Paul of History and the Apostle of Faith,” Tyndale Bulletin 29 (1978): 66–71, 87; H. K. LaRondelle, The Israel of God in Prophecy (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1983); G. K. Beale, “The Old Testament Background of Reconciliation in 2 Corinthians 5–7 and Its Bearing on the Literary Problem of 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1,” NTS 35 (1989): 550–81; K. Snodgrass, “Use of the Old Testament in the New,” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G. K. Beale (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 27” G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 96.

            [15] G. K. Beale, Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Exegesis and Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 96.

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