For a long time, whenever I heard phrases like “union with Christ,” I inwardly rolled my eyes. I thought it referred to a mystical concept with little relationship to the Bible and no practical importance for the Christian life. I was so wrong.
I know other people also find “union with Christ” to be a vague idea, one difficult to explain. Thankfully, Wendel Sun has published a game-changing book on the subject. It is called A New People in Christ: Adam, Israel, and Union with Christ in Romans.
This first post introduces the Sun’s book, particularly his basic explanation of “union with Christ.” In the next post, we’ll further dig into the heart of his argument concerning Paul’s use of the doctrine within Romans.
Sun shows us Scripture
In recent years, a few noteworthy books have been published, such as Campbell’s Paul and Union with Christ and Grant Macaskill’s Union with Christ in the New Testament. While these works certainly contribute to one’s understanding of the doctrine, Sun’s work does something others do not. Several writers are overly broad and systematic; consequently, they insufficiently develop this doctrine exegetically.
By contrast, Sun narrows his focus. He takes us to Paul’s most famous letter to see how Paul actually uses this doctrine in communicating his theology. As a result, readers gain eyes to see how “union with Christ” language pervades the New Testament. Rather than do a mere word study or a systematic survey across countless texts, Sun’s new book clarifies Paul’s stream of thought as well as the Old Testament background from which he draws.
What is “union with Christ”?
A common but sad phenomenon is this. Authors spend 200 pages on an idea but hardly attempt to define it. Sun does not make this mistake. He first helps us identify “union with Christ” language. For instance, a few key phrases include: “with Christ”, “in Christ”, “through Christ” (and related expressions, e.g., “in him”).
So, what is “union with Christ”? Sun offers the best definition and concise description of “union with Christ” that I’ve read. Though lengthy, not a word is wasted. Sun writes,
Union with Christ is a covenantal bond on the basis of faith that results in the spiritual joining of believers to Christ and one another via the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It involves the participation of believers in the story of Christ, whose story completes the stories of Adam and Israel, and thereby results in justification, the restoration of the shared glory of God, and the creation of the true people of God in Christ. (p. 235)
This summary statement could well serve as an outline for Sun’s entire book. As he surveys Romans, Sun explores each aspect included within the above definition.
Why does union with Christ matter?
In Sun’s view, union with Christ is entwined with nearly every major doctrine one can think of. He states,
Union with Christ is no ad hoc, contrived notion to serve Paul’s circumstantial needs. Rather, it is the culmination of God’s creational and covenantal purposes. (p. 147)
Union with Christ is both the goal of redemption and the manifestation of God’s righteousness because in creating a new people in Christ, God is (1) bringing his original intentions for humanity into reality and (2) fulfilling his promise to Abraham to rescue the world through his seed and to create a worldwide family. (p. 144)
Accordingly, when people underestimate its theological significance, they also overlook the doctrine’s practical significance.
Union with Christ is the primary marker of the new covenant people of God (along with the gift of the Spirit — Rom 8) and therefore this union profoundly affects the lifestyle of Christians. The identification with Christ in his death and resurrection serves to put an end to old relationships (in Adam) and to enter into new, covenantal relationships with Christ and his people. (p. 168)
Worth a second look
If Sun is correct, then too many of us have not given sufficient attention to this teaching. It would be worth taking another look at how Paul uses “union with Christ” to explain and apply his message.
Before going further, we should consider our own background and understanding.
- What are your impressions of “union with Christ”? How would you explain it?
- How should union with Christ shape believers’ lives?
- How might it impact our vision for ministry?