The Crucial Role of Union with Christ, Part 2

Last week I discussed the importance of our union with Christ in the “justification of justification,” that is, the legal and moral grounds for God’s declaration of us as righteous. In short, we “own” the righteousness of Christ because we are really are truly united to him; his righteousness is truly “in” us, as opposed to merely fictitiously attributed to us. The converse of that is also true: our sin is really and truly owned by Christ because we are really and truly united to him. That is one reason why he had to be “like” us, sharing our blood.  In this second part, I look at the Old Testament evidence of union, which underlies the whole concept of sacrifice in the New Testament, and finish with pastoral advice on how this works out in the lives of Christians.

Old Testament evidence

Perhaps the most important evidence for the importance of union with Christ in the New Testament is the constant reference to Christ’s death as a sacrifice of the type described in the Old Testament. Paul, in Romans 3:35, starts out his presentation of the Gospel, which we have been tracing backward, by referring to Christ’s death as a “propitiation”, a direct reference to the temple sacrifice (cf. Hebrews 9:5, where this word is also used).

The sacrifices of the Old Testament are full of the imagery of union. In every case, the mode of offering is for the priest to lay his hand on the head of the animal to be sacrificed (Leviticus 1:4, 3:2, 3:8, 3:13, 4:4, 4:24, 4:29, 4:33) including the laying of both hands on the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:21).  The essential symbolism of this laying on of hands is that of union. When the hand is laid on the animal, the two are united, and sin flows from the man to  the innocent animal, which then bears the guilt and pays for it in death. This is why an animal sacrifice is essential. The animal does not function as an expensive payment to God: if that were all that was happening, grain and/or jewels might work.  The payment view of sacrifice is explicitly rejected by God in Psalm 50:10-13. Rather, an animal is needed because it can, in some sense, be united to a person, by sharing the attribute of blood.

The picture of union is further given in the role of the priest. The priest makes atonement for the people by virtue of being united to the people. As the letter to the Hebrews put it:

“For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers…. 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.  For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.  Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:11-17)

This passage clearly teaches that for Christ’s sacrifice to be justly imputed to us, he had to share our nature, that is, be united to us as a brother. The priest and the people must be “one” in some real sense for the transfer of guilt from people to priest (and from priest to animal, in the Old Covenant system) to take place.

This transfer of guilt by union is also seen in the well-known passages in Isaiah which speak of the Messiah. Isaiah 53:4-6 says that he has “born our griefs” and “carried our sorrows,” and that he was “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities;” further, “upon him was the chastisement that brought us healing” and “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all;” Isaiah 53:12 says he “bore the sin of many.” The idea of transfer of guilt is clearly evident here, with the same picture as that of the scapegoat bearing the sin of people.

An earlier passage in Isaiah points further to the union of the Messiah with the people. In 49 we read a lengthy passage about the Servant, who has the role of bringing Israel back to God (49:5-6) and redeeming Israel (49:7), and even further, calling the nations as well (49:6). This Messiah is given by God to be a covenant for the people (49:8). Yet in 49:3, we read that this servant is called “Israel.” Some, in particular Jewish scholars, have argued from this that the Servant in Isaiah 49 (and 53) is the nation of Israel itself, suffering for its own sins. Yet this makes these passages incoherent: the nation of Israel becomes a covenant to redeem Israel? A more natural reading is that the Servant takes on the name of Israel by virtue of the mystical union: his death is the death of his people, and his righteousness their righteousness.

King David was a living symbol of the Messiah in the Old Testament, and Christ is the “son of David” (Matthew 1:1). Unlike Christ, David sinned, but we see the pattern of imputation through union with the Messiah in David’s sin. When David sinfully called for a census, God sent a curse on all the people (2 Samuel 24:11-17). Again, with modern eyes, we may reject this as an injustice, but the lesson is consistent: by virtue of union, the acts of the head (whether Adam or Christ for people of all nations, or David for the nation of Israel) are imputed to all the people who are connected to them.

Finally, the concept of covenant, which undergirds the entire Bible, is itself a concept of union. As Meredith Kline pointed out[1], in the unilateral covenant God made with Abraham, the father of the faithful, in Genesis 15, Abraham and his seed and God are united together in covenant, and God symbolically foreshadows the punishment of the guilt of Abraham falling on God himself. The historical notion of a covenant, still maintained in treaties today, is that two parties become one, and therefore an attack on one is an attack on all—the problem of one becomes the problem of all. The concept of covenant is sadly misunderstood by many evangelicals today and is presented simply as an “agreement,” like a modern “contract.” There can be, in some covenants, a mutual agreement, but that is not the essence of a covenant.  A covenant is a deep union; it is perhaps best translated as a “blood bond”. Think of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer becoming “blood brothers,” sealing their compact in their own blood, and you will approach the idea.

The positive side of this credit through alliance is seen in some of the Old Testament stories which seem the strangest to us today. In Genesis 12 and 20, Abraham sinfully passes off his wife as his sister as a way of protecting himself in the presence of powerful men. Instead of Abraham being cursed, those taking Sarah into their houses are cursed, and Abraham is sent out blessed, with gifts. Similar events happen when Jacob and David deceive others. The implication of these passages, in context, is that those who touch the apple of God’s eye are cursed, and those who support them are blessed, in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:3). The reason is not because of the virtue of these people, but because they are united to God, and therefore they are blessed by virtue of their connection to God. Often, these stories are presented as stories of God’s forgiveness of sinners, which they are, but there is something more: they are not just forgiven of sin, but are blessed wherever they go, by virtue of connection with God.

Both in the Old Covenant and in the New Covenant, the covenant union which saves is the one which involves real spiritual union of the heart to God. As circumcision of the flesh depicted the covenant union with God outwardly, the heart change which unites us to Christ by faith is called the “circumcision of the heart”  (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4; cf. Romans 2:28-29, Philippians 3:3, Colossions 2:11). The sacrificial law of Moses teaches that a person whose heart is far from the Lord, who is unrepentant and sins “with a high hand,” has no claim on the efficacy of atonement (Numbers 15:27-30); sacrifice is for repentant people (see also 1 Samuel 15:22, Psalms 19:13-14, 50:9-23, 51:17, Isaiah 1:11-18, 66:3, Jeremiah 6:19-20, Mark 12:33, and Hebrews 10:26). The image of circumcision of the heart teaches us that faith unites us to God as in a covenant, and therefore his blessings flow to us.

Our covenant with Christ saves us by making it just for his credit and name to be attributed to us, and our sin to be carried by him. This also explains why faith is so important. Faith is not just some arbitrary work that God selected to take the place of other words by which we can please God. As Paul says, our faith itself is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9). The reason why faith is important is because faith unites us to Christ. This formulation of “united by faith” to the body of Christ is used explicitly in Hebrews 4:2, and as discussed in Part 1, is everywhere assumed in the formulation that people “believed into” Christ. It is the “circumcision of the heart.”

The picture of faith as a union can be seen in the stories of faithful servants of the middle ages who followed them into battle or through other travails. One great picture of this is the movie “The Remains of the Day” in which Anthony Hopkins plays a faithful servant whose entire self image is based on his faithfulness to his master, for whom he sacrifices everything, including love. When his master falls from grace, Anthony Hopkins falls as well, by imputation of his connection with the master. Faith is only as valuable as the one we have faith in; it has no merit by itself.

Pastoral implications

Over the years I have met many Christian people who have struggled with self image. Their thinking goes something along these lines: God forgives my sins, and will not punish me, but he still thinks of me as a bad person–in fact, I doubt that God likes me. In such people’s minds, when the Bible says that God “justifies” us, it is some legalese fiction; God does not really think of us as good.

The implication of our union with Christ is that if Christ is in us, then when God looks at us, he sees Jesus—not as a cardboard cutout placed in front of us, but Christ in us. If is true that “I have been crucified with Christ”—not merely as a mental intent to be like him, but truly, by virtue of my union with Christ—then I can say truthfully that I have atoned for my sins.

The pastoral question then becomes, for the person with low self esteem, “Is Christ truly in you? Are you united to him?” If so, then God can look at you and justly say that you are good, because Christ’s goodness is your goodness and Christ’s death is your atonement. This has enormous counseling implications. The subsequent consequence, that our union with Christ also leads us to a changed heart that desires to do good in the process of our sanctification, is secondary. From the moment we are united to Christ, God can declare us righteous truthfully, not merely as some legal fiction. He therefore “likes” us.

The doctrine of justification by the atonement of Christ and the doctrine of the necessity of being born again are both taught frequently in our churches, but often the connection between them is not clear.  One way the connection is sometimes given is that we need to be born again in order to have faith, and that faith leads us to trust in the atonement of Christ. This approach says nothing of the justice of the Cross. Another way of presenting the connection is to say that we first have faith, which leads to justification, and then as a result we obtain the Spirit, and this gift of the Spirit is a necessary evidence of our faith. This approach also does not deal with the justice issue of why faith is so crucial for atonement. It is only when we realize that faith joins us to Christ, as we receive him in us and are attached to him, that the atonement makes sense as an act of both mercy and justice. It is somewhat like the mercy in C.S. Lewis’s marriage to a dying woman who needed citizenship; he was under no obligation to marry her, and she had little to offer him at the time, but once they were married, her legal status was justly accounted for.

How different from the attempts, often in Christian circles, to build people’s self esteem by telling them to attempt various accomplishments, by positive reinforcement and affirmation, etc.! People know better, that they are miserable sinners. Yet in Christ we are not merely “proclaimed” good, as a fiction; we are justly accounted as good because we are truly, in reality, bound and united to one who is good. Many of us have grasped the power of the Gospel to give us a sense of freedom, but have not understood yet its power to change our entire image of ourselves. If we account ourselves as good in truth, we have no need to put on an image, to be defensive (to defend our image from perceived attacks), to pursue endless good works as a way of thinking well of ourselves, or to run to pleasures and distractions out of a fear of looking too closely at ourselves. And I can call myself good if Christ lives in me, because he is good, and all that is his belongs to me.


I cannot stress enough the importance of seeing the justice in God’s imputing the righteousness of Christ to us, and our sin to Christ, by virtue of our union with Christ. God does not set aside justice in favor of mercy in the forgiveness of the Gospel; rather, he brings about justice by the mercy of being willing to attach himself personally to us. Anyone who would reject the justice of this, it would seem, would also have to reject the idea of being held accountable for paying off joint credit card debt accumulated by a spouse, to reject the justice of letting all the members of a team celebrate its victories, and to reject any sense of sharing in the accomplishments and failures of family members. The message of the Bible is clearly otherwise: union brings imputation.

[1] M.G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Wipf and Stock, 2009); The Structure of Biblical Authority (Wipf and Stock, 1997).

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