Union With Christ

He Ascended into Heaven

The ascension of Christ is easily one of the most neglected doctrines of the Christian faith. (And that is saying something!) Michael Horton writes,

Given the place of the ascension in the New Testament (especially in the Epistles), it is surprising that it plays a relatively minor role in the faith and practice of the church. Though affirmed, it does not seem to occupy the same status as Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.” (The Christian Faith, p.533)

Horton is in no way overstating the case. We as believers should esteem the ascension of our Lord Jesus much more highly than we commonly do – even as highly as His incarnation, death, and resurrection. His ascension plays every bit as much a part in Christ’s accomplishment of our salvation as His incarnation, death, and resurrection.

Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed include Christ’s ascension as an essential truth of the Christian faith:

  • “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
  • “and [He] ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father;” (The Nicene Creed)

Not only is the historical fact of His ascension recorded for us in the Gospels (Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24:50-53) and in the book of Acts (Acts 1:1-11), but references to it are found throughout the rest of the New Testament as well.

A simple search of passages in the New Testament that speak of Christ being exalted to ‘the right hand of God’ comes up with nearly two dozen instances, a number of which include quotes from Psalm 110:1 (i.e. “The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” ESV)

The book of Acts refers to Christ’s ascension repeatedly. (It cannot be understood properly apart from it!) The book of Hebrews does the same. One of the major themes of the book of Revelation is that Christ is reigning over all things for His church and will return in glory to judge the living & the dead.

The Apostle Paul refers to Christ’s ascension repeatedly in his letters. For example, in the book of Ephesians, he points us to it no less than three (3) times. In Ephesians 1:15-23 he writes,

15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (ESV)

In the very next chapter Paul goes on to apply this great reality and doctrine in the lives of believers. In Ephesians 2:4-7 he writes,

4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (ESV)

So God not only made us alive together with Christ and saved us by grace (v.5), but He also “raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ! By virtue of our union with Christ (which in some ways was the grand theme or at least recurring sub-theme of Ephesians 1:3-14), believers died with Christ, were raised with Christ, and have even been seated with Him in the heavenly places!

But Paul isn’t done yet! In Ephesians chapter 4 he goes into some detail about the results of Christ’s enthronement in heaven.  In Ephesians 4:7-13 Paul (quoting Psalm 68:18), says that Christ giving Spiritual gifts to His church was the result of His ascension:

7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says,

          “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
            and he gave gifts to men.”

9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, (ESV)

Does the New Testament’s emphasis on the ascension of Christ surprise you? It probably shouldn’t. Christ’s work as our Mediator – His present & ongoing work for our salvation as our great Prophet, Priest, and King, all involve His ascension to the right hand of God the Father. (Again, see the book of Hebrews.)

May God grant us understanding into these things (even as Paul prayed in Ephesians 1:15-23, above), and move our hearts by His Holy Spirit, that we might be more inclined to live, worship, witness, and work in light of the truth that our faithful Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, is even now seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, reigning over all things for the sake of His church!

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Sinclair Ferguson on Union with Christ

devoted7a-810x1280__82818.1478970628.315.315In his book, Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson makes an “staggering” observation about how often the Apostle Paul used language in his epistles denoting the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ. He writes,

“Contrast Paul’s frequent use of the specific expression ‘in Christ’ (over eighty times), and ‘in the Lord’ (over forty times), not to mention the variations of it such as ‘in him.’ The statistic is staggering. It is the basic way Christians in the Pauline churches were taught to think about themselves. They were ‘in Christ’, united to Christ, and therefore sharing ‘with Christ’ in all that he had accomplished for them. After all, as we have seen, they had been ‘baptized into Christ Jesus.’ (p.114)

Think about that for a moment. By Ferguson’s count, not even including Paul’s frequent use of phrases like “in him” (e.g. Ephesians 1:4, 7, 11), that adds up to no less than 120 times that the Apostle Paul used language related to the believer’s union with Christ!

No wonder John Murray once wrote that, “Union with Christ is really the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation not only in its application but also in its once-for-all accomplishment in the finished work of Christ” (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p.161). Do we think about our union with Christ in such terms, as being central to the whole doctrine of salvation?  Or do we read through the epistles of Paul and simply pass right over such phrases, either not noticing them in the first place, or not giving them much thought at all?

The next time that you are reading through one of the epistles of Paul, take some time to note (highlight?) the numerous times that you come across such phrases as “in Christ”, “in Him”, and the like. You may be surprised to see that the doctrine of union with Christ, as central as it is to the biblical doctrine of salvation, has been hiding under your nose in plain sight all this time!

Book Review: Union With Christ (by Robert Letham)

union__lethamIn the opening sentences of the Introduction to his book, Robert Letham writes,

“Union with Christ is right at the center of the Christian doctrine of salvation. The whole of our relationship with God can be summed up in such terms” (p.1).

All of that is certainly true, and yet when was the last time that you recall reading a book or hearing a sermon on this core doctrine of the Christian faith? In his book, The Hole in Our Holiness (reviewed here), Kevin DeYoung goes so far as to say,

“Union with Christ may be the most important doctrine you’ve never heard of.” (p.94)

Sadly, for far too many Christians those words ring true. But even for those who have heard of it and are at least somewhat familiar with this vitally important doctrine of the Christian faith, there are just not that many books and other resources on the subject that are both readily available and accessible to help us grow in our understanding of it.

Robert Letham’s book, Union With Christ, is a welcome exception. It is a very helpful, but not overwhelming volume (totaling a mere 141 pages!). It’s brevity adds to its helpfulness. It is a scholarly work, but not so academic as to be inaccessible to the lay person without an advanced theological degree. As the subtitle of the book makes clear, he makes his case plainly from Scripture, history (citing various ecumenical councils and controversies in the early church), and theology (citing a multitude of Reformed theologians from John Calvin to Charles Hodge).

The layout of the book is simple and easy to follow. Letham opens with a chapter showing how the basis of our union with Christ can be found in the opening chapters of the book of Genesis and its account of creation. Man was created in the image of God in order to be compatible with God. He then moves on in the second chapter to show that “[T]he basis of our union with Christ is Christ’s union with us in the incarnation” (p.21). In chapter three he discusses Pentecost and the Holy Spirit’s role in effecting or applying our union with Christ by grace through faith. Letham very helpfully and succinctly sums up the first three (3) chapters at the end of chapter 3 before moving on to the next section of the book.

In the final three (3) chapters of the book, Letham demonstrates the vital relationship that union with Christ has upon our standing before God with regard to our justification (representation – chapter 4), our sanctification (transformation – chapter 5), and, finally, our glorification at Christ’s return (resurrection – chapter 6).  As he states on p.137, “Union with Christ is realized in its fullness at the resurrection itself, when we will be like Christ (1 John 3:1-2).”

If there is a weakness in the book, it may be in the somewhat parenthetical section on the doctrine of “theosis” (on p.91-102). Theosis (also known as deification) is a central tenet of the Eastern church’s doctrine of salvation, but is largely unheard of in the Western church. The terminology used can sometimes sound (especially to Western ears) as if the Creator-creature distinction were being blurred. I found Letham’s treatment of this subject here to be a bit confusing, even distracting. If you are reading through this book, and find this section to be too difficult, you could (in my humble opinion) easily skip over these pages and not miss a beat. It is interesting enough, but not in any way essential to his argument.

And on the very last page of the book, he makes a wonderful evangelistic appeal to the reader, lest anyone read this book and yet still not be united to Christ by faith. As Letham states there, this wonderful doctrine is much “more than an academic question. It is greater than life and death” (p.141).

This book covers a topic that is as important as it is neglected, and (Lord willing) many in our day may find it to be a helpful remedy for that neglect.