Our Physical Union with Christ
Our Physical Union with Christ
In our community groups at Crossway we are currently reading Kevin DeYoung’s book The Hole in Our Holiness. I would gladly and wholeheartedly recommend the book to all. So far, the book has been lucid and helpful, both theologically and pastorally, as DeYoung pushes believers toward a holiness that is both vital and possible in Christ.
It is that last phrase, “in Christ,” that was the capstone for the chapter 7, focusing in on our union with Christ. DeYoung helpfully reminded us that while union with Christ is perhaps underplayed within the church’s preaching and theology, it is a vital concept in our striving for holiness. It is under-emphasized, DeYoung suggests, in part because it is difficult to comprehend. There is no doubt that DeYoung is right in this – the doctrine is just flat out difficult to get our heads around. For many, union with Christ is probably a lot like music is to me; it is important, and I enjoy its benefits, but I don’t really know how it works. I don’t know an A# from a D, or even what the # symbol is doing back there. Off the top of my head I’d say it means flat (which I believe is the key my wife tells me I always sing in), because you pound things flat, right? And it uses the pound sign? Anyway, I don’t get music, but I can enjoy it all the same.
So, here’s some good news: you can enjoy union with Christ without understanding it all the way. Like music, you don’t need to know precisely how it works to know that it works.
That being said, it is better to know how it works, if for no other reason because Paul (among others) tells us! And for his part, although he does not provide a full treatment, DeYoung’s examination of the doctrine is helpful. It falls in accordance with much of what I’ve been preaching on throughout Colossians, save one small but important bit. DeYoung writes:
After all, what exactly does it mean that we are joined to Christ or that he is in us and we are in him? Thinking spatially does not work. Christ isn’t stapled to our side. He doesn’t shrink-ray himself so that he can live like a microscopic organism in our left ventricle. The union isn’t physical, but theological.1
While DeYoung’s treatment is helpful, I’m not so sure that our union with Christ is not physical in some sense, even if that is incorporated into a theological framework. As I preached on Col 2:9-15, our union with Christ is a union with his body – the church. The union that we have with Christ, and the benefits that accrue from that union, are only found fully within the body of Christ as the church.
Some examples might be helpful, of which no doubt more can be given. The best way in which to see this played out are through the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as they tell us most clearly of our union with Christ.
It is interesting to me that baptism is often used not only to speak of our union with Christ, but also with one another. See 1 Cor 1:13-17; 12:12-20; Eph 4:1-6. All of these speak of the incongruity of being baptized into Christ and not having union with one another within the Church. 1 Cor 12:12-20 is especially important on this front. Paul is urging the Corinthians to understand their equality and unity in Christ, even if each has been given various gifts. To demonstrate this unity, he provides the analogy of a body, which he specifically identifies as Christ (v. 12). It is this Christ, this body, the Corinthians have been baptized into (v. 13), which Paul then specifically identifies with the church, filled with various functions and gifts. Paul seems to be saying “How can you be divided? You were all baptized by one Spirit, into Christ, into his body, into his church.” If our union with Christ is not a union with one another, then Paul’s argument is hobbled, if not destroyed.
Further, it seems that Paul judges our understanding of these rites, and being “in Christ,” not by a subjective understanding of participatory theology (do you feel close to Christ?), but rather by our union with one another. This is why, in 1 Cor 1:13-16, Paul openly complains about the Corinthians’ practice of baptism; their divisions demonstrate they don’t understand what they are doing, and thus affect their union with Christ. That these divisions affect their unity with Christ is likely because the sacraments are pointed at one joint reality: to be unified to Christ is to be unified to one another.
The Lord’s Supper can be viewed in the same manner.2 While we often try to figure out if we are worthy to take the Lord’s Supper based on the same qualifications that put us on Santa’s naughty/nice list, being worthy in this passage has much more to do with unity with one another (see 1 Cor 11:17-34).
Further, this unity is clearly of a physical variety. Again, 1 Corinthians is helpful. Church unity is not just a theological or creedal unity. While Paul is clearly upset about the lack of theological understanding among the Corinthians, it is also the physical demonstration of that disunity, especially in their misappropriation of the Lord’s supper. His final instructions in the matter deal with the Corinthians’ physical presence with each other:
Therefore, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you gather together you will not come under judgment (1 Cor 11:33-34, HCSB).
The answer to the Corinthians’ division is not just theological adjustment, although there is a good deal of that which must happen. But it is also how they physically interact with one another. To mishandle our physical union with one another is to “be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord… for whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body (that is, without physically recognizing the unity that is the body by taking the Supper) eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:29).
The ripping apart of Christ’s church, his body, is a ripping apart of our union with Christ, and therefore we take on judgment. In other words, our separation from the body is separation from Christ; or, to put it positively, our union with Christ is a physical union with the church. The church is, for all its foibles and warts, one of the most prominent ways the NT tells us that we have union with Christ. It is not just a theological union, but a physical one.
I have gigabytes worth of music on file. I typically don’t do chores without listening to music. It is a means of grace that helps me get through boring and difficult tasks (I’m looking at you, dishes). But having music available is not the same thing as listening to it. The rhythms and melodies must actually impact my ear, physically, for me to enjoy music’s benefits. Sure, I can rely upon my memory, like Andy Dufresne remembering Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro in the hole at Shawshank, but that is almost without doubt a cheap imitation. There is no substitute for the physical presence to provide the rich truth and beauty of music. Likewise, we have storehouses of peace and comfort in Christ, not just in the potentiality of theology, but in the kinetics of the church. Our union with Christ has brought with it all the blessings of heaven in our salvation (Ephesians 1), which includes no less then unifying dead humans to God (Ephesians 2), unifying broken humanity together (Ephesians 3), with these two realities meeting fully in our union in Christ’s body, the church (Ephesians 4). Our union with Christ is best realized not through mental theology alone, but through our physical presence with his body. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
1Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2014), 96.
2Later in chapter 9, DeYoung will reference the Lord’s Supper as a matter of communion rather than that of union with Christ. This distinction is certainly true, in a manner of speaking. However, John 6:52-59 sounds much more like a case for union with Christ than communion with Christ:
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (ESV)
The language here, dealing with (eternal) life, resurrection, abiding, lends itself to see the passage as a whole as part of union with Christ, and thus redemption, rather that just communion with Christ. While certainly communion with Christ is part of communion (duh!) the Lord’s Supper is not just an invitation to fellowship with Christ, but a reminder of our evergreen need of him. It is the stuff of salvation in union, not fellowship alone.