This article was written to accompany the ‘Union With Christ’ hangout.
- If you had to describe who you are in Christ in five words, which words would you choose?
Like Father, Like Son
It is impossible to understand what it means for a Christian to be ‘in Christ’ without first understanding the Trinity. When these truths are discussed in the Bible, there is frequently a link drawn between the relationship that Christ has with a believer and the relation that the Father has with the Son.
“But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ… and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11:3)
“The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me.” (John 17:22-23)
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:10)
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” (John 13:20)
Our union with Christ is modelled after his union with the Father. Just as the Son is in the Father and the Father is in the Son, so Christ is in us and we are in him (this same relationship also provides the model for relationships in the church and in marriage).
THINK IT THROUGH
What are some of the practical implications of the relationship between God the Father and God the Son serving as a model for the following?
- Our union with Christ
- Relationships in the Church
- Marriage relationships
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, his relationship with the Father was not merely something that the he asserted, but something that he demonstrated in all that he did and all that he said. “The works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.” (John 5:36)
When Jesus encountered people who did not understand his identity or believe that he had the relationship with the Father that he claimed, he was perplexed, as he considered the works that he had done in the Father’s name an unequivocal demonstration of his union with the Father. “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me… If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (John 10:25, 37-38) and “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.” (John 14:10-11)
Jesus’ union with his Father had an outward effect. There were works that he did that were the direct result of that relationship, and the works are evidence of the intimacy.
Like Christ, Like Christian
In a similar way, when a person is in Christ there is also an outward effect. A person in Christ will do works that flow from that relationship with him.
The passage quoted above about the works Jesus does that demonstrate his relationship with the Father continues like this, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:11-12)
It is by what we do that we will demonstrate our union with Christ. “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35) and, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:8)
In Christ, we are new creations (see 2 Corinthians 5:7), who are dead to sin (see Romans 6:2) and are now living a new life by faith in the son of God. “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.” (Galatians 2:20)
Anyone who is in Christ is changed. The Bible often uses the metaphor of bearing fruit to describe this growth in character and good deeds that occurs in those who are in Christ.
“Not only did Christ die and rise again for them, but they died and rose with him. Union with Christ is the foundational basis for sanctification and the dynamic force that empowers it.” (Robert Letham)
The theme of our union with Christ and the fruit that is produced from it in our lives is explored in detail in John 15. This chapter forms part of an extended set of teachings where Jesus instructed his disciples on his last evening with them before his crucifixion, and in this section he urged them to keep abiding in him and to bear much fruit.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 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. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:1-11)
There are a number of important points to draw from this passage about our union with Christ.
Firstly the passage highlights that the true people of God are those who are found in Christ. The image of a vine is one that is used frequently in the Old Testament to describe God’s people. For example, “You have brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove it out of the nations and planted it.” (Psalm 80:4 – other examples can be found in Isaiah 5 and 27). Some of these passages promise future days of prosperity for the vine, whereas other are focussed on the past and present, and in these cases the vine is criticised for failing to produce the expected fruit. In contrast, Jesus asserts that he is the true vine. Whereas Israel didn’t live up to its role as the vine of God’s people, Christ does. It is in him that God’s people are found and it is in him that God’s people bear fruit.
Secondly, bearing fruit is the normal condition for branches of the vine. Jesus says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” (John 15:5) The idea of being in Christ but being fruitless is impossible, as Jesus addresses in verse 2 by showing that such a scenario will not persist. As the life and the fruit and the growth comes not from the branch but the vine, if somebody is truly in Christ then his life will be manifest through them and fruit will be produced.
Thirdly, no growth happens outside of Christ. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Though it is possible, in a limited sense, to externally imitate some works of righteousness, it is impossible to bear true fruit from the heart without life-giving union with Jesus.
Fourthly, pruning is a vital part of fruit-bearing. “Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:2) Difficult times and challenges do not mean that we are outside of Christ, but just the opposite. All who are in Christ will undergo seasons of pruning to ensure that we emerge from them even more fruitful. A similar point is made by the author of Hebrews. “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11)
Fifthly, part of what it means to continue abiding in Christ is to keep his commandments. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” (John 15:10) Obedience is a theme that is not spoken of as much as it once was, but it is an important part of Biblical teaching. It should by no means be thought that it is by obedience that one is brought into Christ, but once united to him bearing fruit in accordance with his commandments is part of what it means to remain in Christ, just as part of Christ’s union with his Father is that he obeys his Father’s commands.
Sixthly, we should not think of this fruit as something produced by our own efforts, but rather by the work of God in us. Our obedience is fruit that comes from being part of the vine. This is part of what it means that apart from Christ we can do nothing, and the idea is reiterated elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
THINK IT THROUGH
- Which of these six observations do you find most striking? Why?
Read Galatians 5:16-26.
- What sort of fruit does this passage suggest those in Christ will bear?
- Reflect on the ways you see this fruit in your own life?
- According to these verses, how is it that we grow in this fruit?
Bearing fruit is God’s work in us and through us. We have a part to play, but it is not primarily by our efforts that we see the fruit of the Spirit in our lives but by God’s transformative power. This is explained as Paul writes, “But I say walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16) This is not two instructions, but one instruction and the consequence of it. As we walk by the Spirit we will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
A New Relationship With Sin
THINK IT THROUGH
- What does the Bible teach about a Christian’s relationship with sin?
- Do you feel it is appropriate for a Christian to refer to themselves as a sinner? Why/why not?
Part of what abiding in Christ means for a Christian is that they have a new identity. As Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18). Our old self has been crucified with Christ and we are now alive with him. This means that our relationship with sin is not what it used to be. Whilst once we were slaves of sin, this is no longer true. In Christ we are dead to sin and alive to God. This is explained in Romans. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. … So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:8-11)
Many people, even many Christians, consider themselves to be alive to sin. They would even take the name of ‘sinner’ as an identity and badge of honour. There are many names that God gives to those in Christ – beloved, sons, daughters, friends, saints – but sinner is not one of them. This is not an appropriate way to respond to those who God has set free from sin.
Terry Virgo puts it this way,
“In Romans 6, Paul celebrates the truth that, whereas we used to be slaves of sin, God has made us ‘slaves of righteousness’ (Romans 6:18). I deplored the fact that I had seen a poster when in the USA saying that a Christian is one sinner telling another sinner where to find bread. It saddens me not only to see Christians failing to accept the new identity that the gospel provides, but even fighting to defend their ‘right’ to be called ‘sinners’ when God has called those who are in Christ Jesus ‘saints’.”
It is in the light of this new relationship we have with sin that we can begin to understand how fruit is borne in our lives and how transformation occurs.
This new identity does not mean that Christians do not sin, but it does mean that this sin does not shape their identity, nor that the struggle against sin is a perpetually losing battle.
Sometimes Christians can talk of battling with sin in a way that describes going round in circles, making very little progress in holiness and indulging in the same sins over and over again. This is a pessimistic outlook that denies the transformative power of the Gospel. Some even quote Romans 7 in an attempt to normalise this state of being trapped in sin. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:19-20)
Such an interpretation misses the point of Romans 7.
THINK IT THROUGH
Read Romans 7:7-24.
- In one colour, highlight every occurence of the following words: ‘faith, ‘grace’, ‘Jesus’, ‘Christ’, ‘Spirit’.
- In a different colour, highlight every occurence of these words: ‘law’, ‘sin’, ‘death’, ‘flesh’.
In Romans 7, the key themes of the letter are conspicuous in their absence. This passage makes no mention of Jesus, of living in his grace, of faith or of the Spirit who dwells within us.
Instead, the themes of the chapter are the flesh and trying to live according to the law, leading to sin and death. The chapter describes the experience of somebody who wishes to do good but who is unable to do so because they are forced against their will by sin. In short, it is describing the experience of somebody ‘enslaved to sin’, exactly what Romans 6:14 explicitly states is not the Christian experience. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:14)
Romans 7 is written about somebody under law. It describes the futility of such a way of life and its inability to bear fruit, and it reaches a crescendo in verse 24, as Paul bluntly asks the question, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) This question is answered in the next verse with the first mention of Jesus in a long while, Paul affirms that delivery from this way of life under the law is possible. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)
In the following chapter, Paul goes on to unpack just what this deliverance looks like. “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:2-4, 13)
Though by the law we would be perpetually struggling and constantly failing under the dominion of sin, we are now in Christ. God has condemned sin in his flesh and empowered us by the Spirit to put to death the works of sin. This is summed up powerfully by John Bunyan in this rhyme:
“’Run John, Run!’ the law commands,
But gives me neither feet nor hands.
Better news the Gospel brings,
It bids me fly and gives me wings!” (John Bunyan)
- How optimistic do you tend to be about your battle with sin? What impact does your union with Christ have on this outlook?
- In what ways can a ‘law’ mentality sneak into our pursuit of righteousness? Would it lead to more or less holy lives if we didn’t think this way?
- In John 6:56, Jesus talks about how we abide in him. He says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” What do you think he is getting at, and what would doing so look like for us?