Whenever we talk about the Christian life as presented in the New Testament, certain terms are used to describe it. With regards to the beginning of the Christian life, we discover one is regenerated or born again - thus marking the official moment of entry into the Christian life. In this moment of entry, a whole host of graces are experienced simultaneously: regeneration (John 3:3-5); justification or God's legal declaration and accrediting of Christ's righteousness to the sinner (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:23-24); adoption into God's family (Romans 8:14-16; Galatians 4:4-6); sealing or preserving of one's faith (Ephesians 1:11-14) and of course the beginning of one's sanctification or growth in Christ (Philippians 1:6).
The second way the New Testament describes the Christian life is by the broad term of sanctification. In conversion (which includes justification, adoption and all the beginning graces of salvation), one is declared positionally right with God in Jesus Christ. In sanctification, one is being made in experience and practice what God declared them to be in position and circumstance at salvation. In conversion, God is the one doing the work of calling, regenerating and justifying the sinner. The faith expressed by the sinner in salvation is a response to the call and facilitating work of the Spirit - apart from whose working there would be no faith to express (see John 16:8-16; Ephesians 2:8-9). Sanctification, or post-conversion Christian living, entails a cooperative effort between the Holy Spirit and the Christian (see Philippians 2:12-13). We can graphically illustrate what we're talking about below:
point & time work of God(.) Progressive cooperative effort
between us and God
Both ways of the describing the Christian life are distinct and yet related to one another. Conversion or justification by faith is a point and time event (symbolized by the "dot" (.)). Sanctification is, on the other hand, an "onward & upward" progression, signified by an onward and upward series of "ups" and "downs" which gradually and progressively increase one's experience of God. It must be noted that the course of one's sanctification may not be a consistent onward and upward upon close inspection, however, the overall course of the Christian life ought to be characterized by arriving at a closer walk with God and greater Christ-likeness.
The question is: how is one's conversion connected to their post-conversion or sanctification? This question is important, since many Christians live practically as if their sanctification is totally up to their will-power. Other Christians will go to the other extreme and say: "let go, and let God". The first extreme, called "activism", envisions the Christian doing all the work in sanctification. The second extreme, called "quietism", pictures God doing all the work. Both extremes are in error due to missing one key vital truth that connects God's work of conversion/justification to the cooperative work He and the believer have in sanctification: namely union with Christ.
One Sweet Powerful Union: Union with Christ
The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology defines "union with Christ" as having to do with identification with Christ. It notes on page 588:
"...the theological concept of identification with Christ relates a Christian to the person and work of Christ by Divine reckoning, by the human experience of faith, and by the spiritual union of the believer with Christ effected by the baptism of the Holy Spirit."
Theologian Michael Horton on page 587 of his volume:"The Christian Faith" describes this union of the believer and Jesus Christ in both salvation and sanctification as follows:
"Nevertheless, our subjective inclusion in Christ occurs when the Spirit calls us effectually to Christ and gives us the faith to cling to him for all of his riches."
To understand this union more concretely, Jesus compares union with Him as a branch to a vine and the vine to the branches (John 15:1-7). In Ephesians 5:22-33, the union of Christ and His people is likened unto the union shared between a husband and the wife. This idea of "union with Christ" is vital, since Christ connects not only our justification and sanctification together, but also connects His Person and current work to us by the ministry of the Holy Spirit that both initially and progressively continue such a connection (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-13).
As we have briefly considered the importance and meaning of "union with Christ", I want to leave the reader with a quote from a recent book on sanctification, with particular reference to the topic at hand. Dr. Sinclair Ferguson declares the sweetness of this union on page 59 of his book: "Devoted to God - Blueprints For Sanctification":
"Thus, through the Spirit's uniting us to Christ we have been connected to the source of our salvation. His justification-God's declaration that He was righteous-is our justification; his sanctification-since He sanctified Himself for our sakes-is also ours. Thus, everything Christ did He did for me in obedience to His Father. All that He has done is therefore mine as a gift. He gave Himself for me, in His love to me; and now through the Spirit all that He did is mine."
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