The glorious riches of our salvation have been summed up most comprehensively with the phrase “union with Christ” (Eph 1:3-19; Eph 2:1-10, 12-19; Rom 6:4-5; 8:1; 2 Cor 5:17; Col 3:1-4). All the blessings of the gracious work of salvation planned, accomplished, and applied to us by the triune God flow from that union. Kevin Vanhoozer has written that, “Communion with God through union with Christ is the heart of the gospel: the substance of faith, the prime covenant blessing, the key to union with God, and humanity’s ultimate hope in life.”1
As we look at what our union with Christ entails, we quickly discover there are many terms, phrases, and images used in Scripture describe this incredible reality. I’m sure a case could be made for a better way to categorize and prioritize these benefits than what is laid out here, and I’ll be happy to “argue” about it throughout eternity. But for now, we will consider just six aspects of our union with Christ briefly, in no particular order. 2
Looking at our salvation in terms of justification, we stand before God as guilty and he makes us righteous. A beautiful picture of this is given in Zechariah’s famous fourth night vision (Zech 3:1-5). In this vision, he sees the Joshua the high priest standing before God, clothed in filthy garments, and Satan standing there ready to accuse. The response from the Lord is profound: “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments” (Zech 3:4). Commenting on this passage, Meredith Kline’s points out that, “In vision four we see ourselves—for we are Joshua—as in ourselves sinners in the hands of an angry God but, as God’s chosen in Christ, sinners in the pierced hands of the suffering Servant-Savior.”2
This is the Great Exchange! Our sin and guilt imputed to Christ, Christ’s perfect righteousness imputed to us. Not only does God look at me “just-as-if-I’d” never sinned, but “just-as-if-I’d” always obeyed. J.I. Packer’s definition of justifcation is rather helpful: “God’s act of remitting the sins of guilty men, and accounting them righteous, freely, by his grace, through faith in Christ, on the ground, not of their own works, but of the representative law-keeping and redemptive blood-shedding of the Lord Jesus Christ on their behalf.”3
Scripture: Is. 45:8, cf. vv. 19–25; 46:13; 51:3–6; Ps. 98:2; Rom 3:23–26; 4:5–8, 18; 5:18f.; 8:30; 10:3–10; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9-14; Gal 2:15-21; Tit 3:4-7
In redemption we stand before God as slaves and he makes us free. Jesus Christ came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45; 1 Tim 2:6 cf. Tit 2:14; 1 Peter 1:18-19). In laying down his life as a substitutionary, wrath-satisfying sacrifice, Christ does what only God can do (Ps 49:15). Paul writes that “we are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (Rom 3:24-25).
Redemption deals with the root of our sin, the helpless estate we all find ourselves in Adam. We have been set free from sin through the blood of Christ and are now, paradoxically, slaves to righteousness (Rom 6:15-19). The book of Hebrews is all about the redemption that we have through Jesus, who is the true, better, and final sacrifice. We may receive the promised eternal inheritance because Christ has redeemed us (Heb 9:15). In Christ, we are now free to live lives of loving service to others that are pleasing to our God and Father.
Scripture: John 8:34; Rom 6; Rom 3:24; Eph 1:7; 1 Cor 6:19-20; Gal 3:13; Heb 9:11-22; 1 Pet 1:18-19; Rev 5:9
In the wonderful aspect of forgiveness, we stand before God as debtors and he pays the debt. While redemption deals with the root of our sin, forgiveness deals with the fruit of our being slaves to sin. Not only have we been pardoned and our punishment removed, but we have been cleansed and the debt has been forgotten(Isa 43:25; Heb 10:14-18)! Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:13-14).
Speaking to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus summarizes the entire content of Scripture by saying, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). This is what characterized the message of the early church (Acts 2:38; 5:31), and what must characterize the church’s message today.
Scripture: Ex 34:6ff.; Dan 9:9; Ps 103:12; Jer 31:34; Acts 2:38; 5:31; Col 3:13; 1 John 1:9
In reconciliation, we stand before God as enemies and he makes us friends at peace with him. This aspect of our salvation deals with our condition before God. The Apostle Paul explains that, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1). We have been reconciled to God and have peace with him through the atoning death of Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and man.
Not only have we been forgiven and reconciled, but we have been given the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:19). Paul describes our task of evangelism as “God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20). This all assumes, of course, that mankind needs to be reconciled to God
Scripture: Rom. 5:1, 10-18; 2 Cor. 5:16-21.; Eph. 2:11-19.; Col. 1:19-23.
In adoption, we stand before God as strangers and he makes us sons. While reconciliation deals with our condition, adoption deals with our position. Fred Sanders rightly suggests that “adoption is a central biblical description of how God saves…In explicitly Trinitarian terms, this means that God brings us into the relationship of sonship that has always been part of his divine life. When we become sons of God, we are joined to the sonship of the incarnate Son.”4
God could have reconciled us, forgiven us, and left us outside of fellowship with Himself. He was under no obligation to adopt us and invite us into his triune life. This is why Sanders, as well as others, have concluded that adoption is arguably the mightiest aspect of our salvation. He concludes, “the good news of salvation is that God, who in himself is eternally the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, has become for us the adoptive Father, the incarnate Son, and the outpoured Holy Spirit.”5 Michael Allen concurs, writing that “the effect of the Son’s work, then, brings not only neutrality and reconciliation but also inheritance and glory.”6 Now that really is the greatest news.
Scripture: Gal 4:1-5; Eph 1:3-14; Rom 8:14-38; 1 John 3:1-2
Considering our salvation in terms of sanctification, we stand before God as unclean and he makes us holy. According to Paul, sanctification is the expected and progressive outcome of one who has truly been born again and brought into a right relationship with God (Rom 6:22). Brower writes that it is “essentially a relational reality, completed in Christ’s death on the cross, experienced through the indwelling Holy Spirit and brought to its final goal when we see God (Heb. 12:14; 1 Jn. 3:2–3)”7
In his excellent book on sanctification, Michael Allen writes: “The gospel is the glorious news that the God who is himself holy freely shares that holiness in covenant with us, and, when we refuse that holiness in sin, graciously gives us holiness yet again in Christ. While justification is the ground of this participation in God, sanctifying fellowship is the goal of the gospel.”8
Scripture: Gal. 3:2–5; 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 1:13–14; Tit. 3:4–7; 2 Thess 2:13; Heb 2:11; 5:8-10; 7:23-25; 10:14; 13:12
So Great a Salvation
This brief look at some of the riches found in our union with Christ barely scratches the surface of what will take us all of eternity to grasp and rejoice in. Let us give unending praise to our great and gracious God who planned, accomplished, and applies so great a salvation.
For Further study:
- Union with Christ: the Way to Know and Enjoy God, Rankin Wilbourne
- Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, J. Todd Billings
- One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation, Marcus Peter Johnson
- Paul and Union with Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study, Constanstine Campbell
- Kevin Vanhoozer, Remythologizing Theology: Divine Action, Passion, and Authorship, 283.
- Some of the benefits that are noticeably missing from this list include our election, regeneration, and our glorification.
- Meredith Kline, Glory in Our Midst: A Biblical-theological Reading of Zechariah’s Night Visions, 96.
- J.I. Packer in The New Bible Dictionary, 3rd Edition, 637.
- Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything, 157.
- Ibid., 167.
- Michael Allen, Sanctification, 129
- K. E. Brower in The New Bible Dictionary, 3rd Edition, 1059.
- Michael Allen, Sanctification, 34.