Nick Batzig has a useful post on union with Christ that I believe illustrates what some people find confusing about the doctrine — at least I do. I interact with this post not to single out or pick on Nick, who is a friend and whose ministry I respect, but because it is an example of the assertions that follow from union with Christ — assertions that do not necessarily follow as a form of argument but may work more as a kind of inspiration. If readers can help me understand better, or fill in the holes of a necessarily short essay, I’d be grateful. Unionists may plausibly consider me a hostile reader. But since I am also some kind of Vossian and generally agree with the unionists on a variety of other matters, such as worship and polity, they may actually consider the questions raised here as a useful prod to the kind of clarity and explanation that would greatly advance their cause and aid the churches they admirably wish to serve.
I’ll paste below the full text of Nick’s post — to let him have his due — and supply a running commentary at the bottom.
One of the most beneficial things I learned from my professors during my seminary days was that ministers must continually preach the message of the cross to the people of God for their growth in grace. One professor in particular constantly exhorted us to preach Christ “for pardon and power.” The longer I have been a Christian, the more I see the wisdom of this counsel. The message of the cross meets our deepest need for pardon, but it also meets our need for power as we seek to overcome indwelling sin.
Few things trouble the soul of the child of God so much as the presence of indwelling sin, and the sober realization of the inability of the flesh to overcome it. True believers often come to an end of themselves and cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” (Rom. 7:24)? Christians grieve over sin and spiritual weakness. They long for victory over it. The Scriptures command us to be diligent in examining ourselves (1 Cor. 11:28; 2 Cor. 13:5), taking heed to ourselves (1 Cor. 10:12), and asking the Lord to “search us…and see if there be any grievous way in us” (Psalm 139:23-24); but they do not stop there. God’s word reveals that the work of Christ is the source of pardon for sin—as well as the source of power to overcome it. Believers possess this power by virtue of their union with Christ in His death and resurrection. In order to grow in Christ-likeness, the believer must remember that sin’s dominion was broken when Christ died in their place and rose again. This is the apostle’s chief concern in Romans 6:1-14—a passage to which we must regularly return.
All of this seems so clear that I marvel at how quickly we forget it, and how seldom it is mentioned in pulpits and Christian literature (a grand exception being Walter Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification!). The deficiency is apparent in many seeker-sensitive churches where pragmatism abounds; but sadly, it is also prevalent in many of our more traditional Protestant churches. I often fear that those who are most skillful at diagnosing the complexity and atrocity of sin in themselves—and in pointing it out in others—are the least skillful in pointing themselves and others to the Savior. It is far easier to fixate on the problem than to focus on the solution. It is actually quite easy to focus on sin and quite difficult to keep our eyes steadfastly fixed on Jesus (Heb. 12:1-2). Consequently, it often seems expedient to offer pragmatic—dare I say it, even biblical—advice that does not actually give the power to overcome sin (Col. 2:20-23). In order to progress in Christian living, we must remember that sin’s dominion was broken when Christ died for us at the cross.
Paul began to address the issue of sanctification in Romans (Rom. 6:1-14), by reminding believers of the freedom they have from sin’s dominion by virtue of their union with Christ: “We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom. 6:6). Sin’s power was broken in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christ came not only to cancel sin’s debt; He came to break its power. Therefore, the apostle exhorted: “You also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom.6:11). When we forget that sin’s power over us was broken in the death of Christ, we will inevitably fail to walk in the newness of life that we have in union with Him. If we neglect this crucial aspect of Christ’s work we will inevitably end up living in bondage, discouragement, fear, doubt, and anxiety—or else we will become self-righteous, judgmental and proud.
Union with Christ truly is one of the most precious doctrines for Christian living. It is mentioned nearly 150 times in the New Testament by use of the phrase “in Christ,” “in Him,” “in Jesus,” or “in Jesus Christ.” The apostles relentlessly remind believers of their position in Christ. By faith, we are united to Him, in whom we receive all the spiritual blessings of God (1 Cor. 1:31).
We do not come to Christ by faith for justification and then depart from Him for sanctification. In Christ our sins are pardoned, and in Him the reign of sin is overthrown. The same Christ who justified us, also sanctifies us; therefore, the same faith that justifies us also sanctifies us (cf. John 15:1-5). John Owen captured this truth magnificently when he wrote: “While by faith we contemplate the glory of Christ as revealed in the Gospel, all grace will thrive and flourish in us towards a perfect conformity unto Him.” By union with Christ, believers have power to put indwelling sin to death (Col. 2:20-3:17). With the apostle we answer the question, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?,” with the joyful exclamation, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
So, we begin with the message of the cross and the power of the cross in addressing the sinner’s need for pardon and power to overcome sin. So far, no union. It’s the cross. Lots of hymns support that theme.
In the second graph we have more on the problem of indwelling sin and the power of the cross to overcome this dominion. So far, still no union. It’s the cross. But at the end of the graph we have mention of the resurrection. And for most union advocates, following Richard Gaffin, it is the resurrection that brings the power to overcome sin’s dominion (did someone say “dominionism”?). For that reason, I was a little confused by Nick’s start with the cross. Now that he turns to the resurrection I’m feeling on more familiar ground.
Then in the fourth graph we arrive at union with Christ, having moved from the power of the cross first and then the power of the resurrection. But this is an odd argument at this point because we have freedom from the power of sin by virtue of union, but then we can fail somehow to possess the power, possibly by a failure of memory. Granted, believers who forget the doctrine of union fail to find comfort from it. But the problem that Nick addresses from the outset is a person who has sinned. The sinner hasn’t merely forgotten union but is actually struggling with the betweenness of belonging to Christ and doing something that looks like he belongs to the devil. Obviously, remembering union won’t solve the problem of having just sinned and trying to account for its presence in the believer’s life.
This is why I find talk about the wonders of the doctrine of union frustrating. It is apparently the cure for what ails the saint battling sin. But union is apparently a reality even when a saint sins, just as justification is. A saint united to Christ has power over indwelling sin even while he has sins in his life which testify to the power of indwelling sin. Which would suggest that the doctrine of union faces the same dilemma as justification — just as the saint is simultaneously justified and a sinner, so the one united to Christ is both united and a sinner. Either way, sin is still there and the believer is wondering, with Paul, how will I escape this body of death? I don’t see how union is so much more comforting than justification.
Then in the last two graphs we see fulsome praise for the doctrine of union, how it combines both justification and sanctification. Nick writes, “By union with Christ, believers have power to put indwelling sin to death.” But again, didn’t this post begin with the presence of sin in the Christian life, and evidence that indwelling sin has not died? Wasn’t the believer who sinned united to Christ? So how does union fix this problem?
To summarize: again, I am not picking on Nick. His piece is a perfect example of the kind of pro-union statements I regularly see and hear. And despite how often I hear the doctrine, I am still left confused by its explanation and power of inspiration. For one thing, its articulation seems often to merge thoughts about the power of Christ’s death and his resurrection, running all too quickly between the two. I guess this is an objection about the lack of precision. The other source of confusion is the alleged solution that union seems to provide to believers who struggle with sin and doubt. Union is supposed to point to the power over indwelling sin that believers possess by virtue of union at precisely the time in their life when they are most aware of indwelling sin’s ongoing power. Since I sin, I have tested the capacity of union to ease my burdened soul. But I find much more comfort in the face of guilt to know that I no longer face condemnation.
Postscript: And while I’m at it — I know a certain lay person (not all about me) who wonders how union with Christ is different from union with God. Since Christ is God, an ordinary believer may think that all of the talk about union with Christ leads to a view of being united with God that is at odds with what Christians also believe about the categorical distinction between the creator and the creature. If anyone who wants to help me out with this lay person’s confusion, I’d be grateful.