The Believer's Union with Christ



It is strange that a doctrine which Dr. J. W. Alexander called " the central truth of all theology and of all religion " should receive so little of formal recognition either in dogmatic treatises or in ordinary religious experience. In Dr. A. A. Hodge's Outlines of Theology a brief chapter is devoted to it, to which I am greatly indebted, and to which I refer the reader. The majority of printed systems of doctrine, however, contain no chapter or section with the title of the present article at its head ; and the majority of Christians much more frequently think of Christ as a Savior outside of them, than as a Savior who dwells within. There can be little doubt that the comparative neglect with which this truth of the believer's union with his Lord is visited, is a reaction from the exaggerations of a false mysticism. It is no less true that there is crying need of rescuing the doctrine from neglect. I attempt the present brief and fragmentary treatment of a vast and sublime theme, from no conceit of my ability to compass it, but from a profound conviction that, ignored though it so commonly is, it is the most important of topics, not only for these times, but for all times.

Doctrines which reason can neither discover nor prove, need large support from the Bible. It is a mark of divine wisdom that the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, is so interwoven with the whole fabric of the New Testament, that the rejection of the former is the virtual rejection of the latter. The doctrine of Uniou with Christ, in like manner, is taught so variously and abundantly, that to deny it is to deny inspiration itself. There is figurative teaching, and there are direct statements. The union of the believer with his Savior is illustrated from the union of a building and its foundation,— each living stone in the Christian temple is kept in proper relation to every other, and made to do its part in furnishing a habitation for God, only by being built upon and permanently connected with Christ, the chief corner-stone. It is illustrated by the indissoluble bond that connects husband and wife, and makes them legally and organically one. The vine and its branches are used to convey some proper idea of it,— as God's natural life is in the vine, that it may give life to its natural branches, so God's spiritual life is in the vine Christ, that he may give life to his spiritual branches. The members of the human body are united to the head, as the source of their activity and the power that controls their movements,— so all believers are members of an invisible body, whose animating and directing head is Christ. The whole race is one with the first man Adam, in whom it fell and from whom it has derived a corrupted and guilty nature,— so the whole race of

* Printed in the Examiner, June 12, 1879.

believers constitute a new and restored humanity whose justified and purified nature is derived from Christ, the second Adam, the atoning Savior.

But lest we should regard these striking analogies as mere orientalisms of speech, to be interpreted only as high-flown metaphors, the New Testament asserts in the most direct and prosaic manner the fact of this union. The believer is said to be "in Christ," as the element or atmosphere which surrounds him with its perpetual presence, and which constitutes his vital breath; in fact, the phrase "in Christ," always meaning "in union with Christ," is the very key to Paul's Epistles and to the whole Scripture of the new dispensation. Christ is also said to be in the believer, and so to live his life within the believer, that the latter can point to this as the dominating fact of his experience,— it is not so much he that lives, as it is Christ that lives in him. The Father and the Sou dwell in the believer, for where the Sou is, there always the Father must be also. The believer has life by partaking of Christ, in a way that may not inappropriately be compared with Christ's having life by partaking of the Father. All believers are one in Christ, to whom they are severally and collectively united, as Christ himself is one with God. So close and complete is this union, that by it the believer is made partaker of the divine nature, and becomes one spirit with the Lord. And yet these are but a few of the statements of this great fact, with which the New Testament abounds.

It should not surprise us, if we find it far more difficult to give a scientific definition of this union, than to determine the fact of its existence. It is a fact of life with which we have to deal; and the secret of life, even in its lowest forms, no philospher has ever yet discovered. The tiniest crocus that lifts its head in the spring-time witnesses to two facts: first, that of its relative independence as an individual organism; and secondly, that of its ultimate dependence upon a life and power higher than its own. So every human soul has its proper powers of intellect, affection and will,— yet it lives, moves and has its being in God. Starting out from the truth of the divine omnipresence, it might seem as if God's indwelling in the granite boulder was the last limit of his union with the finite. But we see the divine intelligence and goodness drawing nearer to us by successive stages in vegetable life, in the animal creation, and in the moral nature of man. And yet there are two stages beyond all these: first, in Christ's union with the believer, and secondly, in God's union with Christ. If this union of Christ with the believer be only one of several approximations of God to his finite creation, the fact that it is, equally with the others, not wholly comprehensible to reason, should not blind us either to its truth or to its importance.

Facts with regard to life, we must often define by negatives. And so it is here. We guard the truth from misconception, and cut off the claims of eiTorists of many schools, when we declare that this union with Christ of which the Scriptures speak, is not a merely natural union, like that of God with all human spirits, as is generally maintained by rationalists; nor a merely moral union, as Socinians and Arminians declare; nor a union which destroys the distinct personality and subsistence of either Christ or the human spirit, as many of the Mystics have believed; nor a union mediated and conditioned by the sacraments of the church — as is held by Romanists, Lutherans, and High Church Episcopalians. But we do not deal in negatives alone. We may put our doctrine into positive statement also. The Scripture teaches that, by faith, there is constituted a union of the soul with Christ different in kind from God's natural and providential concurrence with all spirits, as well as from all unions of mere association or sympathy, moral likeness or moral influence — a union of life, in which the human spirit, while then most truly possessing its own individuality and personal distinctness, is interpenetrated and energized by the Spirit of Christ, is made inscrutably and indissolubly one with him, and so becomes a member and partaker of that new, regenerated, believing, aud justified humanity of which he is the head.

Still a few words of explanation are possible and requisite. The union is an organic one. By it we are constituted members of Christ's spiritual body, partakers of his purified and glorified human nature. As every portion of a true organism is reciprocally means and end, so, while Christ the head lives for the members, the members also live for Christ the head. It is a vital union, in distinction from any union of mere juxtaposition or of external influence. Christ does not work upon us from without, as one separated from us, but from within, as the very heart from which the life-blood of our spirits flows. He is the source, not simply of motives and of moral suasion, but of vital energy and spiritual strength. Such a union, not of natural but of spiritual life, cannot be mediated by sacraments, since sacraments presuppose it as already existing. Only faith receives and retains Christ; aud faith is the act of the soul grasping what is purely invisible and supersensible, not the act of the body submitting to baptism or partaking of the Supper. Once formed, the union is indissoluble. Since there is now an unchangeable and divine element in us, our salvation depends no longer upon our unstable wills, but upon Him, who has said that none shall pluck us out of his hand. By temporary declension from duty or by our causeless unbelief, we may banish Christ to the barest and most remote room of the soul's house, but he does not suffer us wholly to exclude him, and when we are willing to unbar the doors, he is still there, ready to fill the whole mansion with his light and love. This union is inscrutable, indeed, but it is not mystical, in the sense of being unintelligible to the Christian or beyond the reach of his experience. If we call it mystical at all, it should be only because, in the intimacy of its communion and the transforming power of its influence, it surpasses any other union of souls that we know, and so cannot be fully described or understood by earthly analogies.

Such is the nature of union with Christ,—such, I mean, is the nature of every believer's union with Christ. For, whether he knows it or not, every Christian has entered into just such a partnership as this. It is this and this only which constitutes him a Christian, and which makes possible a Christian church. We may, indeed, be thus united to Christ, without being fully conscious of the real nature of our relation to him. We may actually possess the kernel while as yet we have paid regard only to the shell,— we may seem to ourselves to be united to Christ only by an external bond, while after all it is an inward and spiritual bond that makes us his. God often reveals to the Christian the mystery of the gospel, which is Christ in him the hope of glory, at the very time that he is seeking only some nearer access to a Redeemer outside of him. Trying to find a union of cooperation or of sympathy, he is amazed to learn that there is already established a union with Christ more glorious and blessed, namely, a union of life; ami so, like the miners of the Rocky Mountains, while he is looking only for silver, he finds gold. Christ and the believer have the same life. They are not separate persons linked together by some temporary bond of friendship — they are united by a tie as close and indissoluble as if the same blood ran in their veins. Yet the Christian may never have suspected how intimate a union he has with his Savior, and the first understanding of this truth may be the gateway through which he passes into a holier and happier stage of the Christian life.

Theology finds its focus in this truth of union with Christ; and from it, as from a central mount of observation, the true meaning and relations of all other doctrines may be best discerned. The nature of our relation to Adam, in whom the old humanity as an organic unit fell, can be understood only in the light of our relation to Christ, in whom the new humanity, in its principle and germ, atoned for sin and wrought out a perfect righteousness. The atonement itself, in the aspect of it which is most difficult to reason, the just suffering for others of one who was personally innocent, has more light reflected upon it from this doctrine of our union with Christ than from any other. There is a race-responsibility which belongs to every descendant of Adam, and this race-responsibility is distinguishable from personal responsibility. Christ's corporate union with humanity involved him in that race-responsibility, and so, though he was personally pure, law could lay her penalties upon the head of our Redeemer. Christ took our guilt when he took our nature; he has delivered us from the curse of the law by being made a curse for us.

But atonement is not enough. The atonement makes full satisfaction to divine justice and removes all external obstacles to man's return to God. But an internal obstacle still remains — the evil affections and will, and the consequent guilt, of the individual soul. This last obstacle Christ removes, in the case of all his people, by uniting himself to them in a closer and more perfect manner than that in which he is united to humanity at large. As Christ's union with the race secures the objective reconciliation of the race to God, so Christ's union with believers secures the subjective reconciliation of believers to God. As Christ's union with us involves atonement, so our union with Christ involves justification. The believer is entitled to take for his own all that Christ is and all that Christ has done, and this because he has within him that new life of humanity which suffered in Christ's death and rose from the grave in Christ's resurrection,— in other words, because he is virtually one person with his Redeemer. And so Luther declares: "By faith thou art so glued to Christ that of thee and him there becomes as itwere one person, so that with confidence thou canst say: 'I am Christ — that is, Christ's righteousness, victory, etc., are mine ;' and Christ in turn can say: 'lam that sinner — that is, his sins, his death, etc., are mine, because he clings to me and I to him, for we have been joined together through faith into one flesh and bone.'"

It will be perceived at once that this connection of atonement and of justification with the doctrine under consideration, relieves both of them from the charge of being mechanical and arbitrary procedures. To say that my sin is imputed to Christ while yet there is no tie of life uniting Christ to me, or to say that Christ's righteousness is imputed to me while yet there is no actual union between my soul and Christ, is as absurd and unscriptural as to say that Adam's sin is imputed to me while yet there is no natural connection between me and Adam. The Bible gives us a more intelligible theology; it not only declares that in Adam, that is, in union with Adam, all die, but it declares that all who are justified are justified in Christ Jesus, that is, in union with him. As Adam's sin is imputed to us, not because Adam is in us, but because we were in Adam, so Christ's righteousness is imputed to us, not because Christ is in us, but because we are in Christ, that is, joined by faith to one whose righteousness and life are infinitely greater than our power to appropriate or contain. In this sense we may indeed say that we are justified through a Christ outside of us, as we are sanctified through a Christ within us. In the words of Jonathan Edwards: "The justification of the believer is no other than his being admitted to communion in, or participation of, this head and surety of all believers." And so we see what true religion is. It is not a moral life; it is not a determination to be religious ; it is not faith, if by faith we mean an external trust that somehow Christ will save us; it is nothing less than the life of the soul in God through Christ his Son. Regeneration is the act by which God brings the dead soul into union with Christ. And faith is the soul's laying hold of this Christ as the only source of life, and so, its only source of pardon and salvation.

But it is in the realm of practical life that we seek the ultimate fruit of this doctrine, and by this fruit also we must test it. It will stand the test. No truth of the Christian scheme has in it more of power to cheer or to purify. Such union as this involves the most sacred fellowship,— not only the Redeemer's fellowship with us, so that he is touched by our infirmities and afflicted in onr affliction, but our fellowship with the Redeemer in his whole experience on earth, and in all that was gained by it for mankind. Only upon this principle of union with Christ, can we explain how the Christian instinctively applies to himself the prophecies and promises which were uttered originally and primarily with reference to Christ: "Thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption." The Christian seems to himself to be reproducing Christ's life in miniature and living it over again. He knows the power of Christ's resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable to his death. And with this fellowship there is something better still — the transforming, assimilating power of Christ's life; first, for the soul, giving to it the self-sacrificing mind of the Redeemer here, and perfect likeness to his purity hereafter; and secondly, for the body, sanctifying it, in the present, to be the temple and dwelling of the Lord, and in the future, raising it up in the likeness of the body of Christ's glory. This is the work of Christ, now that he has ascended and taken to himself his power, namely, to give his life more and more fully to the church, until it shall grow up in all things into him, the head, and shall fitly express his glory to the world.

To those who know that they are united to Christ there must be assurance of salvation, for in virtue of their union with him, they know that his power, righteousness and love are engaged on their behalf. There must be courage to .do or suffer for the Redeemer's sake,— with Paul they may say: "I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me." With this consciousness of our relation to our Lord, we shall be delivered not only from indolence and fear, but also from that half-fanatical and impatient earnestness, that false fervor and restless activity, which are sometimes mistaken for true zeal. There will be patience, when wo once know Christ, and rest ourselves and our desires in those unwearied hands that move on silently but surely the wheels of victory and progress throughout the world. And what better argument and encouragement has believing prayer than this, that we aro one with him whose kingdom and reign on earth are the very aim and goal of history, and the intercession of whose Spirit within our souls is the unfailing sign and accompaniment of a prevailing intercession before God's throne on high? And so the loftiest and most fruitful religious experience will be that which most perfectly realizes the oneness of our life with the life of the almighty and omnipresent Savior; which, without any pantheistic confounding of our personality with his, and without any self-deceiving notion of our sinless perfection, has yet the blessed assurance of the constant inward presence of Jesus and of his unchangeable love; which in all humility acknowledges itself so helpless and so dependent on him, that severed from him it can do absolutely nothing and must utterly perish, and which in that conviction gives up every effort of its own, opening the heart to receive Christ's life, and striving to make every act and word and desire the expression of that life within. To such an experience every Christian may aspire — for it he should pray. Let him thus lose himself, and he shall find his true self renewed and restored by the indwelling might of Christ's Spirit; he shall not only trust, but know, that he abides in Christ, and Christ in him. So shall his religion be one not of outward compulsion but of inward power. So shall life lose its harshness, its anxiety, its fear, since for him to live will be Christ, and to die will be gain.

A single word remains to be said with regard to the wider effects upon the world which may be expected to follow the full recognition of this doctrine by the church. All sin consists in the sundering of man's life from God, and most systems of falsehood in religion are attempts to save man without merging his life in God's life once more. Sacramental and external Christianity conceives of man as a mere tangent to the circle of the divine nature, touching it and touched by it only at a single point. The only religion that can save mankind is the religion that fills the whole heart and the whole life with God ; and that aims to interpenetrate universal humanity with that same living Christ who has already made himself one with the believer. Humanity is a dead and shattered vine, plucked up from its roots in God, and fit only for the fires. But in Christ, God has planted a new vine, a vine full of his own divine life, a vine into which it is his purpose one by one to graft these dead and withered branches, so that they may onee more have the life of God flowing through them and may bear the fruits of heaven. It is a supernatural, not a natural, process. But the things that are impossible with men are possible with God, and the process shall not cease until he has gathered together in one all things in Christ, and in him has perfectly redeemed and glorified the humanity for which and to which Christ has given his life.