My grandparents remember exactly what they were doing when they received news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My parents have similarly sharp memories concerning the assassination of JFK. I still clearly remember where I was and what I was doing when I saw the footage of the Twin Towers collapsing. Our complex and beautiful brains have a way of remembering both the shocking and the deeply significant moments that shape our lives.
Likewise, I will never forget the day that the theological concept of union with Christ trickled that long eighteen inches from my head to my heart.
I remember the exact table at the coffee shop at which I was sitting. I remember the old, tattered book that God used to cement the concept in my soul. I remember that moment because it colored the way I experienced every moment after it!
Having come to Christ from an unchurched background, I threw myself headfirst into the Christian life. My husband and I had been in full-time vocational ministry for many years and were in the early years of parenting two under two. On the surface, things were going well, but my soul hit a wall. I was tired and my faith, once vibrant, felt anemic. I was doing all the same things, but my heart felt simultaneously weary and restless. What was I missing?
Sitting at a local coffee shop, I prayed that the Lord would restore unto me the joy of my salvation and grant me a willing heart to sustain me (Psalm 51:12). Then God used a little-known book, Bone of His Bone by F.J. Huegel, to open my eyes to the freedom and wonder of union with Christ.
What Union with Christ Is
Paul describes the mysterious wonder that is union with Christ when writing to the church at Colossae using the phrase, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). In his letter to the Galatian Church, he speaks further on this incredible reality.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose (Galatians 2:20-21).
While Paul powerfully explains union with Christ, Jesus beautifully depicts it in the imagery of the vine and the branches. John remembers some of the last words Christ shared with his disciples before his death:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me, you can do nothing (John 15:4-5).
Union with Christ assures us that our identity, security, and purpose are hidden with Christ in God. Rather than stressing imitation of Christ, it stresses participation with Christ. Rather than beginning with the imperative commands, it begins with the indicative realities of the finished work of Christ on the Cross. It bids us first to remember what He has done and then to move on in active Spirit-empowered participation to do.
However, union with Christ does not mean cheap grace. The reality that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ have secured our standing and our security frees us to run in active obedience through His power.
Every believer is united with Christ. This is a fact, an unchanging reality; however, it takes effort to begin to apply and experience this reality in our everyday lives this side of glory. In The Great Omission, Dallas Willard powerfully reminds us, “Grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning.” Though the command to abide and remain hidden in Christ sounds passive, abiding and remaining require focused intentionality.
What Union with Christ Looks Like
On the surface, days when I am living out of my union with Christ do not appear radically different than days when I am not; however, at the soul level, there is a marked difference.
When I begin my day running to Christ and hiding in Him, my soul is less harried and restless, more intentional and purposed. Even if my day is chaotic and noisy— as it is almost always true as the mother of three loud boys— my soul can be still and at peace.
I am working from my identity in Him rather than working for my identity in him. When I know my security and peace do not depend on my performance but are based on His perfected work, I am free to step out into clumsy obedience and risk failure. When I am less preoccupied trying to polish my identity, I am free to point others to their deepest identity in Christ.
On days when I am actively fighting to remember that my life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), I sit more loosely in my performance. Dinner may be a disaster and the 401-K may be dropping, but Christ remains my steady security. If I am wrestling to remind myself that Christ’s death is my death, guilt and shame have less power in my daily life. Knowing Christ paid for my sin and rendered me dead to sin and alive to righteousness offers far more fuel to fight for holiness than sheer will power or morality (Romans 6:5-11).
While I can remember the morning when the reality of union with Christ began to sink into my soul, it has taken more than a mere moment to explore this treasury. We will still be unpacking the glories of union with Christ even as we live in the presence of Christ in the New Heavens and the New Earth!
About the Author:
Aimee Joseph directed Women’s Ministries at Redeemer Church in Encinitas, CA for three years. She also works alongside her husband, G’Joe, who directs Campus Outreach San Diego. They love watching college students brought from lost to leaders through Christ in the church for the world. Parenting three growing boys keeps her busy; writing on her blog and studying the Word keep her sane. She has a passion to see women trained to love God and his Word.