Henry Scougal, professor of divinity at King’s College, Aberdeen, Scotland, who died in 1678 at the early age of twenty-eight, wrote an influential little book called The Life of God in the Soul of Man. In it he laments that few people of his time seem to understand what true religion means. Some think, he writes, that its essence is “in orthodox notions and opinions,” others “in external duties,” while still others “put all religion in the affections, in rapturous hearts and ecstatic devotion.” Yet religion’s essence is neither intellectual, nor external, nor emotional, but “quite another thing.” What is this? “True religion is an union of the soul to God, a real participation of the divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul, or in the Apostle’s words, it is Christ formed within us.” Any outward duties (i.e., good works) without the divine life no more make a Christian “than a puppet can be called a man”; they constitute “a forced and artificial religion,” like a forced marriage without love.
Union with Christ is indispensable to our Christian identity. The New Testament definition of a Christian is a person “in Christ”; it is central to the gospel. According to New Testament statisticians who like to feed concordances into computers, the expressions “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” and “in him” occur 164 times in the letters of Paul. The question is, what are the blessings this relationship, this union with Christ bring? There are three:
I. THE BLESSING OF A NEW STATUS
“Status” is an important word in contemporary society. Our self image seems to be bound up with our social status. So we tend to be status-seekers. We enjoy titles and honors, big houses and fast cars, badges and uniforms, and friendships with influential people.
But the Bible offers us another status—spiritual rather than social, godly rather than worldly. What is it? It is the status of being a child of God, loved, adopted, and accepted by the Lord Himself. Could there be a greater “status”? As the apostle John exclaims, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1, ESV). His is our high status if we are in Christ. Once we are united to Jesus Christ, God the Father no longer sees us in our sins, for He sees us in Christ. Indeed, He loves us, His adopted children, as He loves Christ His eternal Son. Think of the joys and privileges of being in Christ: in Christ we are justified, or accepted by God; in Christ we are God’s children and Abraham’s spiritual posterity; in Christ there is no condemnation to fear, for nothing can separate us from God’s love “in Christ Jesus our Lord” (see Rom 8:1, 39).
II. THE BLESSING OF A NEW LIFE
To be in Christ means much more than receiving a new status; it also means receiving a new life. Justification by faith does not offer a change of status without change of life or character, or a free acceptance by God with no ethical consequences. In Paul’s day there were those who spread the false rumor that encouraged people to "continue in sin, that grace may abound.” But Paul, indignantly repudiating this slander, cried “God forbid”! (Read Rom 6:1–15)
It is quite impossible to be justified by God without being united to Christ. In Christ we are also a new people, living a new life. Paul’s strenuous repudiation of works as the basis of justification did not inhibit him from insisting on good works of love as the necessary fruit and evidence of justification. Thus, we must always keep together the “new status” and the “new life” that God gives us. To put it differently, we could emphasize the importance of keeping together the two prepositional phrases “through Christ” and “in Christ,” mediation through Him and union with Him. Justification is not a legal fiction that leaves the justified sinner unchanged. It is clear, then, that when we are “in Christ,” God both redeems us through His Son and regenerates us through His Spirit.
Supposing a vagrant comes to us in dire need, down and out, in rags and tatters, and sick—even starving. It would be good to give him a bath and a change of clothing, but that is not enough. For he is ill, and under-nourished. So, in addition, he needs food and hospital treatment. Similarly, we come to Christ down and out, in the rags and tatters of sin, spiritually sick and starving. In Christ we are at once made welcome and accepted. God sees us as righteous in Christ. This is our new status. But it is only the beginning. The Good Physician puts His Spirit within us to give us new life and health, and He feeds us with His Word until we are strong and vigorous. There are no half measures with Him.
III. THE BLESSINGS OF A NEW COMMUNITY
While union with Christ is a personal experience with personal blessings, it equally has a corporate dimension. Note Paul’s exposition: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15:22, ESV). Here Paul is contrasting two distinct communities. On the one hand, there is fallen humanity, which by union with Adam, its founder, shares in his death. On the other hand, there is redeemed humanity, which by union with Christ, its founder, shares in His life. All of us belong to the old, fallen human race, for all of us are “in Adam” by birth. In order to belong to the new, redeemed human race, however, we have to be “in Christ,” and this necessitates a new birth. But once we are united to Christ by faith and new birth, we find ourselves ipso facto members of the new humanity or new community that God is creating.
In this new community, Paul declares, the barriers that usually divide human beings from one another have been broken down. Christ abolished this “dividing wall of hostility” by His death. In consequence, Jews and Gentiles are fellow members of God’s family and the body of Christ (Eph 2:13–3:6). But that is not all: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28, ESV). Now, in Christ, we are absolutely equal before God, irrespective of our race, rank, or sex. The racial, social, and sexual distinctives remain, but now that we see ourselves and each other as equally sinful and equally guilty, we are reduced to the same level and are equally dependent on His grace. So we welcome one another without the distinction or discrimination, for in Christ, by virtue of our union with Him, we are brothers and sisters in the same family.
All divisive barriers among Christian people—racial, social, or ecclesiastical—are displeasing to God the one Father, contrary to the purposes of Christ’s death and resurrection, hurtful to the Holy Spirit of unity, ruinous to the credibility of the church, and a grave hindrance to its mission in the world. So, to be in Christ lays upon us the solemn responsibility of demonstrating the reality of the new community.
When we are in Christ, personally and organically united to Him, God blesses us with enormous blessings: a new status (we are put right with Him), a new life (we are renewed by the Holy Spirit), and a new community (we are members of God’s family).
Let us then be relentless in our pursuit of Christ and in the spirit of Jacob, who cried to the Lord who was wrestling with him, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Gen 32:26, ESV). Then we will be united to Him, enjoying His presence, and drawing on His life and power.