This article was written to accompany the ‘Union With Christ‘ hangout.
- Theologically speaking, who would you see as the most important two humans to have ever lived? Why?
There is no dispute amongst Christians that Jesus is the most influential person to have ever lived. He is the one for whom, by whom, and through whom the world was made (see Colossians 1:16). He is the eternal word become flesh (see John 1:14) who perfectly reveals God to humanity (see John 1:18) and who died to bring humanity to God. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he may bring us to God. (1 Peter 1:18)
A strong case could be made that the second most significant life in history is that of Adam, the first man.
Adam and Jesus had much in common. Neither had a biological father, but rather were the result of the direct action of God. Both came into the world without a sinful nature, and both endured testing and temptation. Both were given authority by God to rule and both had a mission to complete.
If the similarities between Adam and Jesus appear stark, the differences are even starker. Adam yielded to the temptation, whereas Jesus overcame it. Adam decided to disobey God in the Garden of Eden, whereas Jesus resolved to obey in the Garden of Gethsemane. Adam went to the tree to sin. Jesus bore sin on the tree.
Though their performances were different and the outcomes were polar opposites, Adam and Jesus were the most significant men to ever live because they both occupied the same role – head of humanity.
In this role, Adam served as a representative for the entire human race. His actions were performed on behalf of us all. This idea is sometimes described as being ‘in Adam’, and it is analogous to being a part of a team with a captain. The decisions made by that captain are applied to the whole team by nature of his role. Robert Letham puts it this way,
“Adam was head or captain of a team of which we were all members. His sin plunged the whole team into sin, ruin, death and condemnation.” (Robert Letham)
This is explained by Paul in Romans. “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned… because of one man’s trespass death reigned through that man.” (Romans 5:12,17)
To illustrate this same idea we could look to Hebrews 7, where the writer is trying to show that the priestly order of Melchizedek is greater than that of Levi by referring to an incident where Abraham paid a tithe of his spoils of war to Melchizedek. “One might even say that Levi himself, who receives tithes, paid tithes through Abraham, for he was still in the loins of his ancestor when Melchizedek met him.” (Hebrews 7:9-10)
Though Levi was not yet born, he could be considered as paying the tithe as at the time he was ‘in Abraham’. Similarly, though we were not born at the time of Adam’s sin, we were ‘in Adam’ and he brought sin and death into the world as a representative of humanity.
This idea is often known as original sin. Adam brought sin to us all and as children of Adam we are born in his image and likeness (see Genesis 5:1), and have inherited his sinful nature and disposition to do wrong. It has been remarked that humans are sinners ‘by nature and choice’, and this description is true. We do inherit a sinful nature from Adam, and we do have ‘futile ways handed down to us by our forefathers’; nevertheless, we are without excuse as each of us has willingly chosen to embrace and live out that sin after the example of our ancestor Adam.
THINK IT THROUGH
- Is it ‘fair’ that Adam’s sin represents us all? Why/why not?
The Incarnation of Jesus
Just as Adam acted representatively as the head of humanity, so Jesus is the head of a new humanity, and when a person is ‘born again’ they become united to Jesus. He is now their representative, and they are no longer thought of as ‘in Adam’ but ‘in Christ’.
Since Adam was the head of humanity and passed down a sinful nature to his offspring, it was important that Jesus did not inherit this nature. He was to be the head of a new humanity rather than a sinner in Adam. It was also important that Jesus was a descendant of Eve in order to fulfil the promise that her seed would crush the head of the serpent (see Genesis 3:15). Jesus needed to be born of humanity, but,
“If he were born by the identical procedure as the rest of the race, he would inherit Adam’s guilt and the corrupt nature conveyed by natural generation.” (Robert Letham).
So Jesus was born of Mary the virgin, conceived by the Holy Spirit: a new start, a new captain, a new head of a new humanity.
In Jesus’ incarnation he united himself to his people. The eternal God became human. God entered the world and became one of us. “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Philippians 2:5-6). In uniting himself to his people, Jesus stood where we stand. He came to the earth and lived a human life. He experienced childhood and work and hunger and grief and temptation, and he lined up in a river with sinners to be baptised.
THINK IT THROUGH
- Why do you think Jesus needed to be baptised?
When Jesus first presented himself to John the Baptist as a candidate for baptism, John objected. John felt that it would be more appropriate for Jesus to baptise him than the other way around, but Jesus insisted. “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” (Matthew 3:15)
Jesus knew that his baptism was a necessary part of his mission. To bear sin on the cross, he needed to stand as a representative of a people, and so he had to identify himself with and unite himself to that people. He did this in many ways, not least his baptism. “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery… therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a faithful and merciful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:14-17)
It is because Jesus first stood with us as a brother that we can be united to him as our representative head. Letham explains,
“The incarnation is the indispensable basis for union with Christ. Since Christ has united himself to us in the incarnation, we can be united to him by the Holy Spirit through faith.”
This union with Jesus is fundamental for our salvation, as is highlighted in a number of Bible verses.
Romans 5 made clear the effect of Adam’s sin on all that he represented, and it goes on to show the effect of Jesus’ obedience on those who are in Christ. “If many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many… as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Romans 5:15,18-19) This idea is developed in the following chapter as Paul explains that our union with Christ means that we share in his death and his resurrection. “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.” (Romans 6:5)
In 1 Corinthians it is said that, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Corinthians 15:22). Colossians 2:12 talks about how we were buried with him and raised with him, and in the long description of our salvation in Ephesians 1, we are told that God “blessed us in Christ… chose us in him… blessed us in the beloved… in him we have redemption… in him we have obtained an inheritance.” (Ephesians 1:3-10)
It is no wonder that Marcus Peter Johnson said,
“To put it plainly, to be saved is to be united to the saviour.” (Marcus Peter Johnson)
Many of the images that Jesus uses to describe salvation in John’s gospel contain the same idea. “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” (John 6:56) and “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 15:5). In his first letter, John also mentions our union with Christ. “And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 5:20)
Just as through Adam’s sin, those who were ‘in Adam’ were ruined by sin and death, so through Jesus’ perfect obedience, death, and resurrection, those who are ‘in Christ’ are justified and given new life. Once again Robert Letham summarises it well,
“What Christ did for us was also done as the head of a team of which we are part. He did it on our behalf, for us – and God reckons it to our account as a result of our being united, through faith, with him as the head of the team. Our justification is therefore grounded on union with Christ.” (Robert Letham)
In his book ‘Christ Our Life’, Mike Reeves draws attention to the language of first fruits used in 1 Corinthians 15, “But Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23) Reeves observes the link to similar language about firstfruits in the Genesis account of creation (noting the parallel between the resurrection ‘on the third day’ and the third day of creation). “And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.’ And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind.” (Genesis 1:11-12) Understanding the relationship between a fruit and the seed that is in that fruit is key to understanding the relationship between Adam or Jesus as firstfruits, and those of us that are ‘in Adam’ or ‘in Christ’.
“There on the third day of Genesis 1 we see the first fruits of creation (as Christ, raised on the third day, would be the first fruits of the new creation, of resurrection from the dead). These first fruits each reproduce ‘according to their kinds’ because they have seed – the next generation – within them. Thus what happens to the fruit happens to the seed. So it is, says Paul, with Adam and Christ. They are the firstfruits of two very different crops: one of death, the other of life. All others are but seed in one of those fruits… Adam and Christ are the two men: the heads, the firstfruits of the old and the new human race. Each one of us is merely a seed in one of those fruits, a member of one of their bodies, dependant for our fate, not on ourselves, but on the fruit in which we belong.” (Mike Reeves, emphasis mine)
What are some of the implications of our status as seeds in Christ for the following?
- The security of our salvation
- Our ongoing growth in Christ-likeness
- Our future resurrection
A New Perspective?
A few years ago a debate emerged amongst leading evangelicals about the idea of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to believers. The debate centred on the so-called ‘New Perspective on Paul’, advocated by N.T. Wright and others. Whilst Wright does not deny that there is validity to the idea of imputed righteousness, he feels that it is not the best way to communicate the truth behind the idea.
“This is the truth which has been expressed with the Reformed tradition in terms of ‘imputed righteousness’, often stated in terms of Jesus Christ having accumulated a ‘righteous’ status which can be shared with all his people. As with some other theological problems, I regard this as saying a substantially right thing in a substantially wrong way.” (N.T. Wright)
THINK IT THROUGH
- How do you respond to this quote from Wright?
- If you agree with him, what would be a better way to express this ‘substantially right thing’?
- If you disagree with him, explain where you think he is wrong.
When Wright publically advocated this view, a number of others responded with their counter-arguments. Of these, the most prominent was perhaps John Piper, and Wright and Piper engaged in a prolonged debate, each writing books on the issue. Piper would suggest that speaking of imputed righteousness would be to say a substantially right thing in a substantially right way.
“The charge against us in God’s Law-Court is that we do not have this righteousness. ‘None is righteous, no, not one… no-one seeks for God’ (Rom. 3:10-11). We are all guilty of ‘ungodliness and unrighteousness… and have exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.’ (Rom. 1:18, 23; cf. 3:23). Nevertheless, God ‘justifies the ungodly’ (Rom. 4:5) – the omniscient judge does not merely show clemency or forgiveness or assign us a status of ‘righteous’; he finds in our favour precisely because he counts us as having the moral righteousness that we in fact do not have in ourselves.” (John Piper)
Though these two points of view seem some distance apart, a thorough understanding of union with Christ brings them much closer together. It is in Christ that we are counted as righteous. He is declared righteous by the Father, and as we are in him, we too share this righteousness. As Piper is keen to affirm, Christ’s righteousness is really counted to us, and as Wright would insist, this righteousness is not a commodity that is transferred mechanically from Christ to believers, but a part of what it means to be in Him.
Marcus Peter Johnson makes this point by quoting a few other notable theologians:
“We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us, but we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body – in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him.” (John Calvin)
“God declares [believers] to be righteous, because he reckons them to be righteous; and he reckons righteousness to them, not because he accounts them to have kept the law personally (which would be a false judgment), but because he accounts them to be united to the one who kept it representatively (and that is a true judgment). For Paul, union with Christ is not fancy but fact – the basic fact indeed of Christianity.” (J.I Packer)
“Being in Christ is the horizon of understanding within which the various ‘problems’ associated with justification by grace through faith alone become simply questions that receive intelligible answers.” (Anthony Thiselton)
- Do you agree with Thiselton?
- What ‘problems’ that might be raised with justification by grace through faith alone does union with Christ transform into ‘simply questions that receive intelligible answers.’?
It is not just Johnson, Calvin and Packer who see union with Christ as the basis of imputed righteousness, but both Piper and Wright would together affirm this.
“Our union with Jesus by faith is how the objective accomplishments of his life, death and resurrection two millennia ago come to be subjectively applied to other humans, whether Peter, Paul, Mary, Augustine, Luther, Spurgeon, or those of us who believe in the 21st century.” (John Piper)
“The Messiah died to sin; we are in the Messiah through baptism and faith; therefore we have died to sin. The Messiah rose again and is now ‘alive to God’; we are in the Messiah through baptism and faith; therefore we have risen again and are now ‘alive to God’. This is what Paul means in Galatians 3 when he says that as many as have been baptised in the Messiah have put on the Messiah, and that if we thus belong to the Messiah we are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. There is indeed a status which is reckoned to all God’s people, all those in Christ; and this status is that of dikaiosune, ‘righteousness’, ‘covenant membership’… If this is what you are trying to get at by the phrase ‘imputed righteousness’, then I not only have no quarrel with the substance of it but rather insist on it as a central and vital part of Paul’s theology.” (N.T. Wright)
Though differences do remain between Wright, Piper and others on the issue, what is clear to all parties is the centrality of union with Christ in our salvation.
If we are not in Christ, we have nothing. If we are in Christ we have everything.
- Elyse Fitzpatrick suggests that “[Most Christians] are unaware of the importance of our oneness with Christ (commonly called ‘union’).” To what extent do you agree with her, and how big an issue do you think this is?
- How does somebody come to be ‘in Christ’?
- In some verses, the focus is on Christ as our substitute, whereas in other verses the focus is on Christ as our representative. In what ways do these ideas differ, and why are they both vital for understanding our salvation?