I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst (John 6:35)
We are all sinners separated from God. Because of this we are faced with a hopeless situation apart from the intervention of God. Thankfully, he has intervened. In mercy and love he has provided a Savior to deliver us from sin and its consequences and to restore us to a relationship with himself that he might fulfil in us the purpose for which we were created. The person and work of Jesus Christ is Gods answer to the problem of mans sin. It is through Christ alone that we find deliverance. Jesus emphasized this when he stated: I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me (Jn. 14:6). The apostle Peter reiterated it with these words: And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12). But while it is necessary to know and embrace the historical and biblical facts about the person and work of Jesus Christ, the facts alone are not enough to save. We have been called to a personal relationship with the person of Christ. It is this aspect of salvation that I want to focus on here. Gods means of saving lost men and women is through a personal relationship with his Son. The biblical description of this relationship is union with Christ. Understanding this is foundational to a biblical understanding of salvation and it is key to understanding the gospel preached by the Reformers.
Union With Christ
All the benefits of our salvation are communicated to us through union with Christ. Outside of this union there is no salvation. Pauls favorite phrase to describe salvation is in Christ. Salvation is a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. And an individual is saved when he comes into a right relation with Christ as a person. If a man is in Christ he will experience salvation: justification, sanctification, adoption, regeneration, reconciliation, redemption, forgiveness, conversion and glorification. Scripture emphasizes the necessity of this union with Christ in order to partake of the benefits of salvation in the following verses:
But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus who became to us wisdom from God and righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30).
But God being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:4-5).
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses (Eph. 1:7).
Therefore my brethren you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ that you might be joined to another to Him who was raised from the dead that you might bear fruit for God (Rom. 7:4).
The Reformers and Reformed theologians who have followed them all speak with one accord regarding the necessity for union with Christ for salvation:
John Calvin: Christ was given to us by Gods generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christs blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christs spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life.11...That thus engrafted into him (cf. Rom. 11:19) we are already, in a manner, partakers of eternal life, having entered in the Kingdom of God through hope12...I confess that we are deprived of this utterly incomparable good until Christ is made ours. Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our heartsin short, that mystical unionare accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are grafted into his bodyin short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Found in The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), Volume XIX, Book III, Ch. XI.10, pp. 736-737).
Heinrich Bullinger (Swiss Reformer): First of all the evangelical and apostolic doctrine teaches us that Christ is joined to us by his Spirit, and that we are tied to him in mind or spirit by faith, that he may live in us and we in him. For the Lord cries out in the Gospel saying: If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink. He that believeth in me (as the scripture saith) shall have streams of living water flowing out of his body...Christ our Lord is joined unto us in spirit, and we are tied to him in mind and faith, as the body to the head. Therefore those who lack this knot and bond, that is, who have not the Spirit of Christ, nor true faith in Christ, are not true and lively members of Christ...(Heinrich Bullinger, Of the Holy Catholic Church. Cited by The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), Volume XXIV, p. 305).
Martin Luther: The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh (Eph. 5:31-32). And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage...it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own...(Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian. Found in Martin Luthers Basic Theological Writings, Timothy Lull, Ed., (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), p. 603).
John Owen: Whatever is wrought in believers by the Spirit of Christ, it is their union to the person of Christ, and by virtue thereof...By him we are united unto Christthat is, his person, and not a light within us, as some think; nor the doctrine of the gospel, as others with an equal folly seem to imagine. It is by the doctrine and grace of the gospel that we are united, but it is the person of Christ whereunto we are united (John Owen, The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner, 1965), Volume 3, p. 516).
Louis Berkhof: Since the believer is a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17), or is justified (Acts 13:39) only in Christ, union with Him logically precedes both regeneration and justification by faith, while yet, chronologically, the moment when we are united with Christ is also the moment of our regeneration and justification (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p. 450).
R.L. Dabney: It is through this union to Christ that the whole application of redemption is effectuated on the sinners soul. Although all the fulness of the Godhead dwelleth bodily in Him since His glorification, yet until the union with Christ is effected, the believer partakes of none of its completeness. When made one with His Redeeming Head, then all the communicable graces of that Head begin to transfer themselves to him. Thus we find that each kind of benefit which makes up redemption is, in different parts of Scripture, deduced from this union as their source; justification, spiritual strength, life, resurrection of the body, good works, prayer and praise, sanctification, perseverance, &c. (R.L. Dabney, Lectures In Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), Lecture LI, pp. 612-613).
Scripture is unequivocal:
the person of Christ alone is the source of salvation and union
with him is Gods means of applying that salvation to men.
Many wrongly believe that the application of salvation is a result
of faith, but this is not what scripture teaches. The word of
God teaches that faith unites one to Christ and as a result of
that union the individual experiences salvation. The all important
truth that scripture teaches is that salvation comes from a
relationship with Christ. This means that salvation is not
only justification. When an individual is justified he is automatically
and invariably sanctified because both benefits flow from union
with Christ. We cannot, therefore, separate justification from
sanctification. But such an affirmation does not mean that we
are equating sanctification with justification. The two are completely
different concepts which need to be carefully distinguished. Sanctification
is not the basis upon which an individual is justified. Nonetheless
it is a scriptural truth that God justifies no one whom he does
not at the same time sanctify. It is important that we clearly
understand a number of principles as they relate to union with
Christ and salvation. First of all, we must understand that God
is able to justify an individual from sin through union with Christ
because Christ has accomplished a work of salvation. So we must
thoroughly understand that work. Secondly, we must understand
the biblical requirements for entering into a saving relationship
with Christ. We will begin by looking in detail at justification
and the work of Christ, and then at repentance and faith.