One of the major themes of Scripture is the reality of the believer being united to Christ in a spiritual and mysterious way, through faith alone, by the grace of God past, present, and future. This biblical topic is extremely important for us today because the Apostle Paul made it important for us in several places, but especially in this passage: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:20).
In this article the focus will be upon the doctrine of our union with Christ and this great passage of Scripture. Therefore, we must first define our terms with respect to this doctrine. This definition will give us an overarching biblical panorama of the doctrine. Then, we will narrow our focus upon these words of Paul so that you as a reader may be comforted by your union in Christ.
First, we must come to some understanding of this grand, overarching theme, from Genesis to Revelation, from eternity past to the coming glory, this doctrine we call our union in Christ.
John Murray, one of the great teachers from Westminster Theological Seminary, said, “Union with Christ is the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation.1” Murray says this towards the end of his masterful work on the doctrine of salvation. One of the reasons for closing out his book with a look at our union in Christ is due to the fact that reformed theologians, on the whole, have organized the order of salvation (ordo salutis) by explaining all of it in relation to our union with Christ. A distinction is made between our church and others. On the one hand, there are the Lutherans who argue that union in Christ follows our justification and precedes our adoption in Christ.2 Reformed thinkers find a problem with this order because the language “justified by faith in Christ” and “adopted in Christ” speaks of our union in Christ, which has led the Reformed church to understand that all of salvation involves our union in Christ. From election to glorification, what we are considering is our union in Christ.
Consider election. Paul says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1:3-6 NASB, emphasis mine).
Murray points out this passage, detailing for us the reality that the sovereign electing love of God is secured in Jesus Christ. Even the believer’s election is found under the doctrine of their union in Christ.3 Yet we can see more in that passage than just election. Murray is correct, but notice the word adoption, which is the flip side of the coin of justification. Therefore, we also see our atonement, our justification, and our adoption wrapped up in this beautiful doctrine described here by the apostle with these words, “in Christ” or “in Him”.
Many would say, “But what about those who don’t believe yet?” “Does this doctrine take away the individual’s responsibility to repent and believe?” The answer to this question is no, not at all. For even Paul points out the reality that the personal calling; the effectual calling of the individual must be present. You must be born again, regenerated by the Spirit of God. The believer is predestinated unto salvation. You must believe. Paul explains it this way to the Ephesians, “Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” (Ephesians 2:3) and again, “¼remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12). The Ephesians were, at one point in time, separated by their sin, but when they heard the Gospel preached, they showed who they were always meant to be – that is, “in Christ.” This is why Paul says next in verse 13, “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
Murray again points this out, saying, “We do not become actual partakers of Christ until redemption is effectually applied.”4 We must understand this from the point of view of eternity past, where God has called us to salvation and we find out about this calling when we hear the preaching of the gospel, and the Spirit applies this reality to our lives with His regenerating power through the preaching of the gospel. The Spirit makes this union active in our lives by His mighty work. This point actually communicates this doctrine even further, for we must ask and answer this question: Whose Spirit is the Holy Spirit? The apostles give us this answer as they continue to explain our union in Christ, “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him.” (Romans 8:9).5
Summarizing thus far, we have seen the past of our union in Christ explained with the doctrine of election and we have seen the present with the preaching of the Gospel, the Spirit of Christ effectively calling those elected to repent and believers making their election sure today. What about the future?
When one considers the future and the order of salvation, what is left is the resurrection and glorification of the believer. Does the Bible say we will be raised in Christ and glorified with Christ? Yes! First, Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4:14-16 that those who are dead in Christ will likewise be raised in Christ. Then, in Romans 8, Paul points out that the future we will experience in Christ will be in His glory, which transcends our understanding and our current sufferings. Believer, you have something to look forward to apart from this present evil age – you “will be glorified with Him.” (Romans 8:17)
Consequently, from the beginning of time to the end of time, the believer can rest secured in the reality that they are safely united in Christ.
Secondly, we must consider Galatians 2:20 and how this passage relates to our union in Christ. One of my professors in seminary would explain the reality of our union this way, “Consequently, the claim that the whole of Christ’s obedience and satisfaction are imputed to believers follows from several themes in Paul’s writings: the unity of Christ’s obedience, an obedience that took him to death upon the cross (Phil.2.6-11); the union of believers with Christ such that Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are as much theirs as his (Rom.4.25; 6.1-11; Gal. 2.19-20); and the imputation to believers of the righteousness of God in Christ.”6
What we see in our passage is the reality of this union. Those who believe by faith were crucified with Christ. This happened some two thousand years ago, and is applied today by faith in the life of the believer. This death is a completed act, not to be done again today. Yet we live today and not then, which is why Paul says next, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me¼”looking to the ongoing work of the Spirit as He applies the benefits of Christ to the believer this side of Glory and the next. This begins with the calling of the gospel which is made effective by the grace of God in our lives. Then, through the continued believer’s responsibility of repentance and faith, we find the Spirit of Christ working and living in us to bring us to who were always meant to be in Christ. Christ, by His Spirit, has made us alive through the new birth of regeneration, and keeps us alive by His persevering grace. It is not we who keep ourselves alive in faith, but Christ who sustains those who are still alive. Today we live in the flesh but one day we will be glorified, no longer living in this flesh, but having glorified bodies promised to every believer.
What life we do live must be by faith in Christ, for to live any other way is to be apart from Christ. Paul brings up this union in Christ with these words, “I now live in the flesh” which is to be understood as our current situation in life. “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”
Paul looks back to the life of Christ and sees the life and the death he was supposed live. A helpful way to understand what Paul is saying here is to simply understand exactly what Christ has done for us as our Mediator and Redeemer, and then to apply that work.
One must begin where the Gospels do, the incarnation seen with the conception of Jesus Christ. They then turn to the life of Christ, which is Christ’s perfect obedience to the Law of God and perfect love to the Father even while suffering the penalty due for sinners. Christ suffered every day in a sinful world, yet He still came¼and died as our substitute and satisfaction. The Gospels close with the death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. This is the life of Christ. This is what Paul is talking about in Galatians 2:20. Yet, there is more. There is the application of this life to our lives today. To apply this reality we must ask ourselves why Christ came in the first place. Why did Christ suffer the hellish agony of the wrath of God poured completely upon Him on the cross? The answer is two-fold.
First, because we would not. The Heidelberg Catechism is extremely clear when it teaches that we daily increase our guilt as a sinner (Q/A 13) and that we are prone by nature to hate God and hate our neighbor (Q/A 5). We would have much rather held the nails than take the nails ourselves.
Second, because we could not. Again the catechism teaches concerning the only One who could bring redemption for the elect of God, that is, “One who is true and righteous man, and yet more powerful than all creatures, that is, one who is also true God.” (Q/A 15). Paul looked to Christ. The catechism declares we must look to Christ because we could not and would not save ourselves. Only Christ could have lived the life we were supposed to live. He removed us out of the way from even trying and did it all, and now all to Him we owe.
In closing, as we understand Paul’s words in Galatians and elsewhere, the doctrine of the union we have in Christ. Every step Jesus took was for you. Just put your name in the blank here: Christ lived ’s life. The reason Jesus had to take on a human nature was because you are human. The reason why Jesus had to be conceived, born, live, die, and be buried, was because you were conceived in sin— that part of your life is stamped, SAVED, you were born in sin – SAVED; live a life of sin – SAVED; die because of sin – SAVED, and are buried – SAVED. Every aspect of our lives Jesus has taken into consideration and has saved us. There is no square inch left unsaved. This is the full weight of our being united to Christ. The life we now live in this flesh is by faith lived in Christ.
1 John Murray, “Redemption Accomplished and Applied.” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, 1955), page 170.
2 J.V. Fesko, “Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine.” (P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2008), page 273. Consider figure 8 and figure 9 which gives the ordo salutis of the Lutheran and the Reformed.
3 Murray, “Redemption,” page 162.
4 Ibid., page, 165.
5 Reader don’t stop reading Romans 8. Read the entire chapter, for just shortly after verse 9 Paul continues to explain the union the believer has in Christ. The Apostle Peter also calls the Spirit the Spirit of Christ in 1 Peter 1:11.
6 Cornelis P. Venema, “The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ.” (Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh, U.K., 2006), page 248.
Fesko, J.V. Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine. P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, New Jersey, 2008.
Murray, John. Redemption Accomplished and Applied. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1955.
Venema, Cornelis P. The Gospel of Free Acceptance in Christ. Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh, UK, 2006.
Rev. J. P. Mosley Jr.
Hope RCUS, Pierre, SD