I became a Christian while I was studying jazz saxophone at music school. One thing I had to think through as a new Christian was how I should think about my love of music. Up to that point, it’d been the most important thing in my life. Practice ate up six hours a day. I listened to and studied jazz recordings whenever I could find the time, and I made every major life decision with only my music in mind. I’d steeped every part of my life in jazz. And naturally, my self-confidence and self-worth revolved around how well I played at any given moment.
But as a Christian, it became clear that the amount of time I dedicated to jazz would war with my new commitments to Jesus. The solution wasn’t simple, either. I couldn’t just say, “Jesus is number one, jazz isn’t,” because I’d structured my life’s calendar around jazz. I had to begin the slow process of disentangling my identity, social life, and schedule from music and reshaping it around Jesus. There would always be room in my life for music—but it could no longer shape every part of my identity. Without realizing it, I was wrestling with the reality of my new identity in Jesus, and the more I saw how my relationship with Jesus shaped my entire identity.
Let’s explore what the theological phrase “union with Christ” means and how it shapes our identity (chapter one). We’ll examine how it frees us from the grip of sin and death (chapter two), transfers us into the kingdom of Christ (chapter three), and binds us together with other believers as the body of Christ (chapter four). While union with Christ can at times feel like an abstract topic and may require some extra thought and reflection, the day-to-day application can be life-changing. An understanding of union with Christ will transform the way you think about Jesus and what he did for us. It will affect your relationship with him. It will change the way you live, as well as your motivations for living differently. And union with Christ will fuel your worship of God in a meaningful way.
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Playing jazz saxophone shaped every aspect of my life and dominated my time and mental energy. I ate, drank, and slept jazz, and in turn it gave me meaning; it gave me life-goals; and it gave me a community. But I now understand that being so consumed with music left no room for my relationship with God. Jazz is not Jesus, and wrapping my life around it would not ultimately have been good for me.
That’s the problem with setting up life pursuits as if they were gods—they don’t deliver what they promise. They don’t satisfy us because they simply can’t. Now, don’t misunderstand me: music is a wonderful gift from God that gives expression to our human condition. Through it we can express joy, sadness, discord, harmony, and many other things. It’s a wonderful part of life. But music is not all of life. And music isn’t powerful enough to be a god. Music can’t address our deepest needs or satisfy our greatest longings. Only God can do that. When I began to believe in Jesus, my identity had to shift accordingly.
One of the primary ways Jesus shapes our identity is through the things God gives us through him. God’s gifts can only come from him. It may seem obvious, but it’s key to realizing the need to make him primary in our lives. His gifts change who we are, how we live, and how we think about ourselves. Our identity becomes molded by the blessings of God.
In Ephesians 1:3–14, the apostle Paul offers an extraordinary list of God’s blessings that he has given us “in Christ.” The passage is introduced by the summary sentence in 1:3—“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Notice especially the last phrase—God has blessed us “with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Every blessing that God bestows on us comes “in Christ.” God’s blessings flow through Jesus, and because believers are spiritually connected to him, we receive the benefit of blessing.
Now let’s trace through the rest of Ephesians 1:3–14 and take note of each blessing of God mentioned there, as well as all the instances of “in/through/under Christ.” Believers are chosen “in him” (1:4), predestined for adoption “through Jesus Christ” (1:5), to the praise of God’s grace given “in the One he loves” (1:6). “In him” we have redemption “through his blood” (1:7). God’s purposes are effected “in Christ” (1:9), to bring everything together “under Christ” (1:10). “In him” we were chosen (1:11), so that those who hope “in Christ” (1:12) might praise God. We were included “in Christ” through hearing the gospel and marked “in him” by the Holy Spirit (1:13).
All of these major blessings—such as being chosen, adopted, redeemed, and receiving the Spirit—come to us “in Christ.” As a result, we share in Jesus’s full standing as a child of God. Everything that’s due Jesus as a result of his obedience to his Father is ours as well. We’re chosen and adopted with full rights as if we were also God’s son. It’s a bit difficult to conceptualize, honestly, when we’re in the middle of a struggling job, parenting difficult children, or wishing for a little human contact. But the point of our blessings in Christ comes down to this: God intentionally chose us. Our relationship with him isn’t accidental or coincidental. It’s something that God intended. Like any adopted child, he knew us, chose us, and gave us full standing in his family. At the core of our identity is the confident knowledge that God wanted us. And as those blessings sink in, our identity is shaped by them. We are transformed by God’s blessings “in Christ.”
As much as my personal identity might be shaped by music, or sports, or family, or work—or anything else, really—nothing has the power to shape me as much as my union with Christ. My whole identity is wrapped up in Jesus because of what he has done for me.
Since our identity is transformed “in Christ,” that phrase is a good shorthand description of what a Christian is. The term “Christian” is rarely used in the New Testament (only in ACTS 11:26; 26:28; 1 PETER 4:16). A much more common way to describe a believer is to call them “in Christ” (e.g., ROMANS 16:7; 1 CORINTHIANS 16:24; PHILIPPIANS 1:1). This is because our whole identity is shaped by being “in Christ”—that’s what a Christian is!
But being “in Christ” is not only about how God has shaped our identity through his blessings. It also speaks of our relationship with Jesus. We’re usually comfortable talking about the Holy Spirit being “in” us, or Jesus being “in” us by the Spirit. We mean that the Spirit inhabits our being alongside us, and Jesus indwells us by the power of the Spirit (ROMANS 8:9–10). As a result, we’re connected in the deepest sense to Jesus himself. There’s a closeness—a dance almost—between us and our Savior; so much so that it’s as if we’re in him as much as his Spirit is in us.
Since we are joined to him, we share a union with him. Jesus is not distant from us, like a long-lost relative we never see in person. He is with us, and we are with him. As Paul says later in Ephesians, the church is united to Jesus like a husband and wife (5:31–32). Just as a married couple become one flesh, so Jesus is united to his church. In marriage, two people become deeply connected in life, in purpose, and in spirit—they are as one. Christians are one with Jesus in a similar way. And just as a marriage relationship has its own dynamic, the way we as individuals relate to Jesus will vary from person to person. Through the Spirit we interact with and learn from Jesus in a growing relationship. We learn to recognize his silent direction, his expectations of us in life situations, and his delight in our obedience.
Jesus isn’t some distant friend. He’s present with us through all aspects of life the way a childhood friend is. He knows our good side and our bad. He’s seen our highs and our lows. He’s not surprised when we screw up and he’s not waiting with a tapping foot for us to come grovelling back to him. He’s the ever-present friend who is one hundred percent dedicated to our success in the Christian life.
The key phrase here is in Christ. If you’re a Christian, you are in Christ. In Christ, you have received all of God’s blessings and they profoundly shape your identity. You are connected to Jesus in a relationship of mutual indwelling—he lives in you, and you live in him.
During my time at music school, I had a good conversation with my buddy Dave on a lengthy drive. I really wanted Dave to understand that we are saved by grace through faith, not by our works. After a few hours of chatting, I knew Dave got the point when he said, “Okay, that sounds good. I’ll put my trust in Jesus’s death for my sins.” I was delighted—until he added, “but I want to keep on living the way I want.” I was like, “Ah . . . no, that’s not how it works.” Then Dave said, “But you say it’s not about what I do, it’s about what Jesus has done for me. So, why can’t I live how I want?” The truth is I couldn’t give a good answer. If we are saved by grace, why do we need to turn from our old way of life? At the time, I didn’t really know. And I suspect many Christians do not know how to answer that question.
Years after that conversation with my friend Dave, learning about union with Christ has helped me to understand why our lives our transformed with Jesus. And I realized that, centuries ago, the apostle Paul had already anticipated Dave’s question in Romans 6. Paul argues for five chapters that our right standing before God comes through Jesus, not by our good deeds. Then he asks, “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (ROMANS 6:1). If we’re made right with God through Jesus, not through our own good deeds, why not just continue in the old life of sin? Paul’s short answer to that question is “By no means!” (v. 2). His longer answer takes up the rest of the chapter. Paul explains that believers have died to sin. Since we’ve been united to Jesus, we also joined him in his death (vv. 2–8).
But what does that mean practically? First, we need to understand that when Paul talks about “sin” in this chapter, he is not talking about little, everyday things we do that fail God. Instead, he means the deep corruption that dominates all humanity. We can see this throughout Romans 6 with its language of sin ruling, enslaving (vv. 6, 9, 14), reigning (v. 12), and acting like a slave master over people (vv. 16, 20). The idea is that, on our own, we are captive to the power and rule of sin’s corruption. How can we escape sin’s rule?
They say that once you’re in the mafia, there’s only one way out: death. The same is true if you want to escape the rule of Sin: the only way out is death. Death is both the penalty for sin (ROMANS 6:23) and the path that frees us from it. The point of saying that believers have died with Christ is so that we can escape the dominion of sin’s corruption. If we have “died” already with Christ, then we have died to sin (6:2). And since we have died to sin, we are free from its corrupting power. So, Paul’s answer to the question “Should we continue in sin?” is No—we have died with Christ. We are both able and invited to live differently—free of corruption, free of self-centered obsessions, and free to live like Jesus.
But what is dying with Christ? When we first have faith in Jesus, we are joined to him. But we’re joined with not just his future, but also his past. It’s as if a man who has only a high school diploma automatically gains the degrees his wife earned on the day they say “I do.” We share in Jesus’s death (as in ROMANS 6) and in his resurrection and ascension (EPHESIANS 2:5–6). Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension do not remain distant events of long ago, but are connected to us spiritually because we are connected to him. Theologians call this “participation with Christ,” and it’s very important in Paul’s writings. Without participation with Christ, Paul’s theology would not make much sense. It’s how we receive what Jesus has done for us, by faith.
This chapter began with a car trip. Let’s take another one. Imagine you’re stuck in a dark, depressing town, with no way out. You feel like everyone there hates you and wants to do you harm. You feel like your soul will be destroyed if you stay in that town another minute. Then out of nowhere Jesus pulls up next to you in a fast car. He says, “Let’s get out of here!” You get in the car and speed away with Jesus. It’s not a perfect illustration, but you get the idea. If you go with Jesus, you go where he’s going. Participation with Christ is like that—we go with Jesus through death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. If you want to escape sin, go with Jesus. He gets you out of there. His story—his successes in his first advent—become our story as well.
What difference does “participation with Christ” make to our lives? Well, Paul says that through the cross of Christ, “the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (GALATIANS 6:14). Since Paul shares in Jesus’s death on the cross, the world—with its priorities and values—no longer has a hold on him. The world in rebellion against God is dead to Paul, and Paul is dead to the world. He’s escaped the mafia, as it were. His new reality enables Paul to live free from the world’s captivating power. He is not a slave to its corruption, but is able to live God’s way. The same is true for anyone who shares in the death of Christ—anyone who believes in him. We have died to the world, and the world is dead to us. If we let this truth sink in, it has the power to transform our way of life, our thinking, our loves, and our relationship with God and others.
Have you ever been hurt, offended, or disrespected? Of course you have. What’s your natural reaction when things like that happen to you? If I’ve been disrespected, I feel angry. If I’m offended, I feel hurt. And if I’m hurt, I end up feeling angry. The worldly value of pride often lies underneath our reactions to offense and disrespect. Our impulse is to protect our self-importance. It’s about making sure that others respect us. But if we’ve been crucified with Christ, like Paul, we can let go of pride. Our pride clamors to make us the center of the world—to make sure we get what’s ours. But in Jesus, that’s no longer necessary. Jesus has all of our interests in mind. He’s promised to take responsibility for providing for our needs, our future, and our hope (MATTHEW 6:26; 11:28–30; 1 PETER 5:7).
We’ve also been raised with Christ, which can change our priorities. As Paul says, since we’ve been raised with Christ we ought to set our hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (COLOSSIANS 3:1–2). Being raised with Christ means we cherish the things that God prioritizes. If home is where the heart is, so our hearts ought to reflect where our true home is—the kingdom of God’s dear Son. Cherishing “things above” means we put greater value on the character traits such as love, mercy, and forgiveness than on pride, hate, and selfishness. It means we value Jesus more than celebrities. We care more about compassion and helping others than we do about wealth and our own comfort. It’s a growth process, sure, but we’re able to do it precisely because we’re in Christ.
The key phrase here is with Christ. If you’re a Christian, you died with Christ. You have been made alive with Christ. You have been raised up and seated in the heavens with Christ. We share in what Jesus has done for us. As we will see in the next chapter, dying and rising with Christ also “changes our address,” so that we no longer live under the realm of sin and death, but now live in the kingdom of the Son. That new address changes everything.
I lived overseas for nearly six years. It was a really interesting experience, and I loved it. Apart from many cultural differences, I had to adjust to the fact that I now lived under a different government with a different set of laws. I was confronted a few times with the reality that certain rules and laws I took for granted in my home country did not apply in my new home, and vice-versa. While I could have claimed, “But that’s not how we do it in Australia!” I don’t think that argument would have got me very far. That’s because when you live in a country you are subject to its laws, not the laws of another country.
When someone believes in Jesus, they change their spiritual address. It’s a bit like moving to another country—with a different culture, government, and laws—but even more dramatic than that. In Colossians 1:13–14, Paul says that God “has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” We have been transferred from one dominion or kingdom to another. While we once belonged to the rule of darkness, believers now belong to the realm led by Christ.
This change of spiritual address has been achieved by God’s rescue (COLOSSIANS 1:13), through redemption and forgiveness of sins in Christ (1:14, “in whom”). The previous two chapters showed that being in Christ means that we are joined to him in a close spiritual relationship, and we share in his death, resurrection, and ascension. In him we are redeemed, forgiven, and rescued.
By dying and rising with Christ (see chapter two), God transfers us from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of his Son. When we die with Christ, we are crucified to the world (GALATIANS 6:14), and are no longer under the power of sin (ROMANS 6:2). When we rise with Christ, we are reborn into a new kingdom—the kingdom of God’s Son, a kingdom of light (COLOSSIANS 1:12–13). So we see that our participation with Christ brings about our spiritual address change. We’ve undergone a cultural shift. The priorities of the sin-corrupted world (such as self-centeredness, pride, and wealth) aren’t part of our cultural fabric. Instead, we’ve been plunged into the culture of God’s kingdom, filled with kindness, self-giving, and love.
Some countries do not permit dual citizenship. If you want to be a citizen of Japan, for example, you are not allowed to be a citizen of any other country. I would need to give up my citizenship in order to become a citizen of Japan. That’s a bit like dying and rising with Christ. In order to be “reborn” in Jesus’s kingdom, I have to give up my membership in the domain of darkness. I must “die” in my home country and be “born again” in the new country. When the Bible says that we have died with Christ, it means that we share in his death and escape the old country—the domain of darkness. When we are raised with Christ, we are given citizenship in the new country—the kingdom of God’s Son.
Being a citizen in the new country means that we live in a different culture. The old culture was characterized by darkness, being governed by sin and death. It did not offer any real hope, security, or joy. Though we might not have realized how bad it was while we were in it, the contrast is made clearer once we have new life in the new culture. But the new culture is characterized by light (COLOSSIANS 1:12), since it is governed by Jesus’s love, righteousness, and peace. Real hope is found there, along with true security and genuine joy.
Being a citizen in the new country means living under a different government. The old government of Sin and Death was literally out to get us! The rules were harsh and didn’t operate in our best interest. Sin made false promises that led to disappointment and disillusionment, while Death cast a big, dark shadow over our whole existence. Like the worst totalitarian regime, the old government mistreated its people and showed no mercy. But the new government is led by Jesus—the king who gave his life for us. He leads with mercy and compassion, and genuinely seeks our flourishing and wellbeing. Jesus’s promises are trustworthy and offer hope and fullness of life. This is a government we can love and respect. It’s a comfort and joy to live under its protection and care.
If you live long enough in another country, things begin to change. You start to behave more like the locals. You start to think like them. Your identity begins to shift as your new address becomes more like home. Your loyalty also begins to shift as your new home becomes more important to you than your old home. So it is once you’ve been transferred into the kingdom of Christ. Your new address changes the way you live, your thinking, your identity, and your allegiance. Your home with Jesus shapes who you are.
But sometimes living in another country causes conflict. Imagine watching your favorite event at the Olympics, and your old country is competing against your new country! Who do you hope will win? Even though you have a new home, there’s an emotional attachment to your old home. There’s a sense of loyalty to the place where you were born and grew up. Which place is really home—in your heart?
Every Christian’s allegiance to our new home is challenged every now and then. Maybe an unhealthy pastime from the old home pops up and we’re tempted to go back to it. Maybe the darkness tries to lure us back to secretive and dishonest practices. Maybe the old just seems more fun than the new sometimes. Feeling some emotional attachment to the old home is natural. But if we’ve died and risen with Christ, our allegiance must be to our new home. We’ve died to the old. We’ve been reborn in the new. If there’s a contest of loyalties, we need to remember that Jesus is our king. He’s rescued us from the darkness. Let’s not go back to living as though we’re still in it.
The key phrase here is under Christ. Dying with Christ means we’ve given up our old citizenship, and rising with Christ means we’ve taken up new citizenship. Through dying and rising with Christ, we’ve been rescued from the domain and darkness and brought into the kingdom of God’s Son. This kingdom is governed by Jesus, our loving and faithful King. We live a new life under Christ, characterized by life, love, and light.
I play in a touch football team with my friend, Steelo. Australian touch footy is like rugby, but without the rough and tumble (no broken bones or dislocated shoulders). Our whole team is made up of Steelo’s friends—he’s one of those people who just seem to gather others around him. Though I didn’t know anyone else when I joined the
team, this group of strangers became a unified whole—because of our shared connection to Steelo.
A similar thing happens through union with Christ. People who are complete strangers become connected to one another because of their mutual connection to Jesus. Our union with Christ means we are united with one another. The New Testament uses a powerful image for this union—together, believers form the body of Christ.
Paul uses this image in several places in his writings, but the most detailed use is found in 1 Corinthians 12:12–31. He begins by reflecting on the nature of a human body. It’s one body, but it has many parts. Its many parts do not divide the body, but work together to enhance the functioning of the whole. And, he says, “so it is with Christ” (12:12). Everyone “baptized by one Spirit”—that is, all genuine b