By Rev. Lance Filio
Last night, I had a very unusual dream. I dreamed that I was studying for a sermon and the topic was Union with Christ. It was not unusual for me to dream every night. Although, when I dream I usually forget them right away in the morning. But having a dream about a particular theological topic was indeed a very weird experience. Well, I am not any more keen to believe any mysterious dreams or premonitions. So I am not convinced that this was a voice from heaven calling me to study the topic. But considering that this is a worthwhile topic, I decided to search an online copy of Louis Berkhof’s book on Systematic Theology. I started to read again the part about the Mystical Union with Christ and I have written this sermon to examine its contents. I pray that in doing so we may all be encouraged by the spiritual realities that God has provided for his people.
The Nature of the Mystical Union
Berkhof started his topic on the Mystical Union with Christ by stressing its importance within the overall structure of covenant. He reminded his readers of the federal relationship between Adam and his posterity in contrast with Christ and his church. He explained that in Adam, all in the world was plunged into the curse of sin and death while in Christ, the church received all the blessings of forgiveness and life.
Hence, the church is all the believers who are elect in Him. And every elect receives the flow of every spiritual blessing in their personal union with Christ. This kind of union that Christ has with every elect is considered supernatural and mysterious. Berkhof reminded us that this was the reason it was called “mystical” union.
Now, the doctrine of the mystical union developed over time. It used to be explained and understood anthropologically. For example, the Lutherans, according to Berkhof, emphasized the natural aspect of this union in relation to subjective faith and have lost the richer meaning of this term that goes beyond human activity. Therefore, He proposed to view the subject of mystical union in a much broader sense to include its eternal and objective basis. He wants his readers to consider union theologically which covers the federal aspect of such union where Christ acts as the representative of the elect; the ideal union as established in the covenant of redemption where Christ and his church were already spiritually tied to each other; and finally, the objective union where the God the Son in his incarnation, death, and resurrection accomplished the salvation of his people.
I saw a pastor on Facebook preaching about being “In Christ”. While it was good to hear this doctrine going mainstream, the emphasis that I heard from him was the natural aspect of the union. The speaker asked his “audience” when did this union with Christ happened, the crowd was murmuring, then he finally answered: “in the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. Yes, our union with Christ was, in reality, accomplished in history when our Savior died and resurrected. However, this relationship had fruition two thousand years ago and Scripture informs us that this was rooted in our eternal relationship with Him in eternity before the creation of the world.
“…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” ~ Ephesians 1:4
It helps that we think of our union with Christ in terms of such wider perspective inclusive of our election in Him because it also widens our understanding of its benefits. We are secured in knowing that what happened at the cross and the sepulcher was not an accident but the working out of God’s purposes in redemptive history. We are encouraged by the fact that God is indeed faithful to his promises and the work of the Son indeed accomplished everything we need to be saved.
Aspects of the Union
The federal, ideal and objective aspects of union with Christ are very important logical distinctions which have to be made whenever they are grouped together with the subjective aspect of this union. Why? Because it clearly sets out the eternal legal basis of the elect’s justification in priority to the relational aspects of the union experienced by the believer. Berkhof made this clear when he wrote:
“This imputation of the righteousness of Christ to His people in the counsel of redemption is sometimes represented as a justification from eternity. It is certainly the eternal basis of our justification by faith and is the ground on which we receive all spiritual blessings and the gift of life eternal. And this being so, it is basic to the whole of soteriology, and even to the first stages in the application of the work of redemption, such as regeneration and internal calling”
Berkhof explained that in eternity past, the persons of the Trinity made a covenant to redeem his people. God Father gave God the Son the elect whom he was to voluntarily give up his life to redeem them from their sin and grant them eternal life. The perfect righteousness of God the Son was to be imputed to his people while the sins of the elect were to be imputed to the Son incurring the wrath of the Father. Acting as a substitute, the Son who was their representative was to procure the rewards for his people because of his passive and active obedience. And in him, all the elect was to receive all spiritual blessings. More importantly, this includes the benefit of justification. Berkhof stressed this part and insisted that the fundamental ground of the elect’s justification was to rest, not on the actual or subjective application, but on the federal union of all the elect in Christ. He even emphatically stated that our regeneration and calling was preceded by this union.
Now as explained by Berkhof, the federal union of Christ and his church was to form a spiritual organism where ideally can be said was organically united with Him since eternity past. In as much as how Adam was organically related with all his posterity by virtue of their natural ties, we who are in Christ are spiritually tied to him from eternity. We all derive our spiritual life from Him. This was the kind of relationship we have in Christ, the spiritual first then the natural. The church, Christ’s body, was united with Christ ideally from eternity past but was objectively united with him in his incarnation.
“Ideally this body, which is the Church, was already formed in the covenant of redemption, and formed in union with Christ, and this union made it possible that all the blessings merited by Christ could be passed on to those whom He represented in an organic way. “
This paved way for the natural kinship the believer has with the eternal Son of God and it happened when Christ was incarnated. When the divine Son was born in the flesh, he shared our humanity, our nature to become the objective basis of our union with him.
“The whole Church was included in Him as her Head. In an objective sense, she was crucified with Christ, she died with Him, she arose in Him from the dead and was made to sit with Him in the heavenly places. All the blessings of saving grace lie ready for the Church in Christ;”
Only until these prior aspects of the union properly understood, the subjective part of the union can be properly applied. The union can now be individually experienced by every believer, who was since eternity past, was united to Christ legally and has objectively received the benefits Christ has procured for all of God’s elect.
“We should not conceive of the subjective realization of the mystical union in the Church atomistically, as if it were affected by bringing now this and then that individual sinner to Christ. It should be seen from the point of view of Christ. Objectively, the whole Church is in Him and is born out of Him as the Head. It is not a mechanism, in which the parts precede the whole, but an organism, in which the whole is prior to the parts.”
The Reality of our Union with Him
Having understood properly he distinction between these aspects of our union with Christ, we can fully ascertain the reality of our personal and subjective union with Him. Scripture is replete with references describing in natural terms the spiritual reality it points to:
- We are the branches and Jesus is the vine (John 15:5);
- Jesus is the head and we are His body (1 Cor. 6:15–19);
- Christ is the foundation and we are living stones joined to the foundation (1 Peter 2:4–5); and
- Marriage between a husband and wife ultimately points to the union between Christ and believers (Eph. 5:25–31).
Scriptures portray our intimate, vital, and spiritual union in metaphorical language but we have to see them as the spiritual reality that a believer experiences in their life with Christ. These are not conceptual or even theoretical realities but actual and real. It may not be physical as one who is unspiritual might what in to be in order fully understand but it is spiritual which goes beyond everything we can see, hear and touch. It is supernatural and can only be received by those whom that Holy Spirit regenerates.
We all grew up in churches which put a premium on making spiritual realities concrete either by fleeting emotional experiences. Every camp, retreat, and conference that I’ve attended were designed to solicit such response from me to either break down in tears or elevated in praise. But soon such strong emotions were bound to fade and eventually I was back again with ordinary experience of hearing the Word of God every Sunday. I feel closer to God in every “encounter night but I even further away from Him the next morning when I was sitting under the preaching of His Word. I perceived my union with Christ as this flexible rubber between me and God stretched back and forth in time. Emotional highs and lows were an unstable basis on our relationship with God.
Our union with God will stand, not by any subjective experience, but concretely in the promises of that comes from the Word of God. Let us hear what God has to say in his Word:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him, we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. ~ Romans 5:1-2
We are exhorted by Paul to rejoice in hope of the glory of God knowing that we can stand firmly before God because we have a relationship with him by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We can be assured of the fact that God is for us and nothing can be against us (Rom 8:31). Are we experiencing any difficulty lately? Are we plagued constantly by temptations? Was it a bad week in office? Are things not working well at home? Are we discouraged by the fact that we seem to be repeating the same sins over and over again? Do we feel we are not making a progress in our sanctification? Therapeutic pseudos-spiritual experiences may provide an immediate sense of satisfying elated feeling but it is not sustainable in the long run. And Christians, we are here for a marathon and not a sprint. What we need is not a short-term relief but a long-term solution and the cure for our wander hearts is to ground them deeply in the word of God.
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. ~ Colossians 2:6-7
Indeed, God has provided his people with all spiritual blessings in Christ. Our union with Christ secures the righteousness and holiness that every believer would ever need in order to be saved. This union with Christ was ideally and objectively procured from eternity and in redemptive history so that all of God’s elect will find salvation in the sovereign work of God alone. I was glad to have dreamed about this topic. I learned that our right standing and relationship with God is not a dream but a reality because of our union with Christ. It greatly encouraged me and hopefully, it also encourages you as well. May his people be enriched by all the treasures of our union with Christ now until eternity. Amen.