While you may never have heard of the phrase “union with Christ,” you have certainly read of it if you have ever skimmed through the New Testament. While we never come across that particular phrase in Scripture, we do encounter phrases like “in Him,” “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” and so on. In fact, once you start looking for it, you will be amazed by just how often the phrase “in Him” or one of its variations appears in the New Testament. You won’t be able to miss it! According to one trusted scholar, there are no less than 160 mentions of believers being in Christ.
One of the reasons this doctrine is so important is that it is teaching us something fundamental about our own identity and self-conception. For the Christian, our identity is not something we find inside of ourselves, it is something that is intrinsically outside of ourselves in the person of Jesus Christ. He becomes our identity. Put another way, everything that we have and everything that we are is found in the person of Jesus Christ. According to Scripture, who we are really isn’t about us, it’s about Jesus. This might offend our sensibilities. To be in Christ could sound like who I am and what I do does not matter. In a world that prizes individual expression, is this doctrine saying Jesus takes that all away? Here are a few important questions to consider that will help you understand what this doctrine is and appreciate who you are in Christ.
1. Do I Become God?
To be clear, union with Christ does not mean we become Christ. To say we are “in Him” is not advocating some form of deification where we slowly turn into gods or become one with the divine essence. This is mysticism, not the Christian religion. Nor are we literally or physically united to Him, as though we become conjoined twins attached at the hip. Union with Christ ultimately comes down to this: it’s a Spiritual union, a work done through the power of the Holy Spirit.
After all, Jesus is now ascended and sitting at the right hand of the Father in heaven. We are not in heaven, so how could it be said that we are united to Him? It must be through a mysterious working of the Spirit. By faith, the Holy Spirit brings us into a union with Jesus that is personal, real, vital (life-giving), and unbreakable—a union that can span even the distance between heaven and earth. Puritan theologian John Owen explains how the whole of union hangs upon the work of the Spirit of Christ when he says, “Two men cannot be one, because they have two souls; no more could we be one with Christ were it not the same Spirit in him and us.” It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to be one with Christ.
2. Does My Personality Still Matter?
It should also be noted that our union with Christ doesn’t erase our individuality. Take John and Paul (the Apostles, not the musicians.) These were two men who both understood the importance of union with Christ—and who were both united to Christ—and yet they each had different callings, personalities, and styles of writing. Even when teaching about this doctrine John preferred the poetic imagery of “abiding” in Christ, like a branch that grows and produces fruit from a vine (John 15), whereas Paul by and large stuck with the punchy, staccato “in Him” language. Union with Christ does not make us boringly homogeneous and the same. What union with Christ does is take us each individually—each with our own interests, hobbies, senses of humor, quirks and all—and bring us into a saving relationship with the one Christ.
3. What about Identity?
Furthermore, the doctrine of union with Christ does not make those things we often identify ourselves by—family, career, gender, sexuality—unimportant or meaningless. Far from it. Rather, our identity in Christ is a fundamental identity that claims every other identity that we could possibly have. Put another way, our identity in Christ is the lens through which every other identity becomes accountable. Hence, our identity in Christ will inform the way we express things like our gender or sexuality, ensuring that they are in virtuous conformity to His will. Union with Christ does not mean our work is meaningless, but rather prevents those things from becoming an idol we worship and define ourselves by. Similarly, while parenthood is a wonderful blessing and calling, an understanding of what it means to be in Christ will remind us that “mom” or “dad” is never meant to be who we are in an ultimate sense.
The Christian’s Fundamental Identity
To have an identity that is rooted in Christ will claim, cleanse, and control all other aspects of who we are. An identity in Christ will give renewed meaning, invigorating purpose, and God-glorifying direction to everything else we do in life. So what this beautiful doctrine unashamedly teaches us is that Christ is truly all (Ephesians 1:23). And when we are in Him, we have “all things” as well (Romans 8:32). Apart from Jesus, we are nothing and we have nothing. But in Christ we are filled with the very fullness of God (Colossians 2:9)—God “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). Apart from Christ, and in the final analysis, our identity can be nothing more than our sins and shortcomings—but “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). We no longer have to be defined by our failures, as we are now seen dressed and clothed in the righteousness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).
This doctrine ought to magnify our love for Christ, our desire for Christ and our adoration and praise for Christ. This doctrine ought to move us to say with the Apostle Paul that we have no greater desire than to know Christ and be “found in Him” (Philippians 3:7-11).
This article is adapted from The Christian's True Identity: What It Means to Be in Christ (RHB, 2019) by Jonathan Landry Cruse.