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How the Concept of Union with Christ Impacts Christian Identity

Info: 7346 words (29 pages) Dissertation
Published: 14th Jul 2021

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Tagged: ReligionTheology


The doctrine of Union with Christ is so central to the Christian’s Identity that, it provides an excellent framework for the pastoral ministry. The purpose of this paper is to examine how the concept of union with Christ impacts our Christian identity and informs a pastor’s role especially in preaching and teaching the Word of God.


The core of Christianity is about getting a new identity in the Lord Christ Jesus; it is to die to our old self and to be reborn as a new person (Jn.3:3).[1] The apostle Paul said that “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor. 5:17). And he explains that this rebirth takes place because we “have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer [us] who live, but Christ lives in [us]” (Gal. 2:20). Those whose life is in Christ no longer live the old life that died, but has given a new life. And yet this simple truth is one of the greatest struggles in our Christian life: to see ourselves as a completely new person, and to live out a new life in Christ Jesus. Theoretically we understand this, but experientially we don’t see much difference from the moment we accepted Christ as our Lord and Saviour. There is a gap between what the gospel says to be true of us (forgiven, accepted, and secure) and how we often view ourselves (weak, struggling, doubtful). There is a chasm between the factual information that we know and the reality that we experience in life. As a result, we feel confused and discouraged in our faith which can often lead to doubting either the truth of the scripture or the genuineness of our confession.

So how do we connect the grand promises in the Scripture and the daily grind of our lives? It’s easy to feel uplifted on a Sunday morning being led by a band and a chorus of other believers and as we listen to God’s promises through the preaching of his word, but it’s as easy to lose it all by Wednesday afternoon. This is where the doctrine of our union with Christ bridges that gap. Having a proper understanding of our union with Christ can help us to reinterpret everything about our new faith and life. It’s like putting on a pair of well needed pair of glasses which helps us to see everything the way they truly are. Andrew Purves rightfully said, “Jesus Christ and our union with him through the Holy Spirit determine Christian faith to such an extent that union with Christ is the proper framework within which to understand the meaning of Christian faith in all regards.”[2] It is through our union with Christ that we are affirmed that we are truly forgiven by God (justification) and truly realised that we are being transformed into maturity like Christ (sanctification). The doctrine of union with Christ can often sound a vague and unimportant part of the Christian teaching. We often glance over passages that speaks of our union with Christ. But I believe it is the central, coordinating feature of all Christian faith and life. It influences every other aspect of our faith that shapes our Christian living. Therefore, we need to be woken up to our union with Christ and reignite our imagination and see ourselves, the church and the world differently.

But there is a great difficulty of comprehending or appreciating the significance and impact of being united in Christ because the notion itself is hard to imagine. For most it’s an abstract and merely sentimental idea. Wilbourne is right when he stated that “union with Christ is an enchanted reality. And we live in a disenchanted world.” It’s already difficult for us to fathom Christ’s incarnation of how he can be fully God and fully human let alone trying to understand that he is now ruling in the heavenly realms and yet residing in our individual lives. As pastors, we have the task of helping God’s people to turn this abstract information to everyday reality. Individual Christians are accountable to ensure that they grow into maturity, but the Church, as a corporate body of Christ, are also accountable to help each other mature. Pastors, especially, are given the special task of overseeing this process of helping individual and the corporate body to grow in Christ. And whether in a private personal study, in a corporate weekly meeting, or through God’s appointed pastor’s ministry the primary means of growing into Christ-like maturity is through the Word of God.

In this essay I want to share my reflection of how a pastor can approach his preaching and teaching ministry in light of the doctrine of the union with Christ. In the course of my MA studies I have learnt a great deal on a number of New Testament letters, but it is only when I took on the subject ‘Personal Identity and the Bible’ that I was able to realise how central and significant the understanding of a believer’s union with Christ. This is not to say that the union with Christ is the most important doctrine in the Christian faith. However, I believe it is the key to understanding the Christian life and the blessings that is being poured out by God. In my own ministry I have learnt to understand God’s work and my role in his plan a lot better through my understanding of our union with Christ. Our purpose here will be to examine the different facets of the doctrine of union with Christ in the New Testaments and then I want to provide some suggestions on how this doctrine can help a pastor in his main task of preaching and teaching the Word of God. And I want to argue that since a Christian’s union with Christ is an objective certainty that is graced by God, the primary task of the pastor is to remind his congregation how to apply it through their subjective reality.

A Pastor’s Identity

Before we discuss how union with Christ inform a pastor’s vocation, it’s important to look at how union with Christ shapes a pastor’s own identity, for how he/she sees him/herself greatly shapes his/her[3] own ministry. There is a plethora of books detailing a pastor’s many responsibilities, and congregation members are also quick to inform pastors the things that needs to be accomplished – from producing a good sermon, conducting a funeral, counselling a couple whose marriage is in trouble, to finding ways to increase Sunday attendance – and these pressures can often be taxing and discouraging to a lot of pastors. It is important, therefore, for a pastor to remember that his identity is in Christ for a pastor’s ministry is the overflow of Jesus’ living presence in them.

The pastor is first and foremost a Christian. In all of his work as a pastor, he must first be one who is united to Christ through faith and he needs to keep this union at the forefront of his identity and ministry. The priority, therefore, of every pastor is to nurture one’s own relationship with Jesus. We not only represent him, but we live for him and he lives through us. Our ministry, therefore, must be deeply rooted and nurtured in our own union with Christ, in order for our vocation to be a being a true spiritual representative of the living God.

Secondly, it’s important for pastors to remember that it is Christ who appointed the work to the pastor and the source of his ability to accomplish that work. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians he wrote, “To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me” (Col. 1:29). The very power that Paul uses to work hard is the power of Christ in him. Paul even sees his own weakness and inability as the means for the power of Christ to be displayed in his ministry (2 Cor. 12:9-10). The pastor should likewise trust that the power of Christ is working in them. The pastor can continue, and press on through every difficulty, knowing that in his weakness the strength of Christ will be displayed all the more brightly.

Thirdly, the pastor is to keep in mind the goal of his work is for the maturity of people in Christ. Paul wrote in Colossians 1:28, “He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present every one fully mature in Christ.” Similarly, in Ephesians 4 Paul wrote that Christ gave apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to the church in order to “equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:12-13). The point is that the pastor’s work is focused on nurturing the faith of those under his care so that there will be unity, greater knowledge of Christ and maturity, and so that ultimately the church will grow up more and more into Christ.

These simple truth helps a pastor’s own Christian identity for it reminds him that the measure of his success is not dependent on the size of his church or the quality of their morality. The pastor does not save people nor even transform them in maturity for only God can do that. He is only meant to faithfully do the work that God has called him to. Paul expressed this when he said, “For I am confident of this very thing, that [God] who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:16). Paul placed his confidence not on his own skills but on the faithfulness and power of God. Paul gave himself with diligence and passion, yet his assurance is on Christ. He knows that Christ will be ultimately victorious in the end, and in Christ the pastor has a part to play in that victory. Paul wrote, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:57), and “who always leads us in triumph in Christ…” (2 Cor. 2:14). Thus, the pastor who struggles faithfully for years with only one convert or with a fading number of people, and the pastor who has thousands under his care and spiritually flourishing, are equally successful. Though they have been given different size of responsibility, both are able to do the work that God planned for them in building of his kingdom and both are deemed victorious in Christ. It’s easy to fall into temptation in comparing our ministry to another pastor, or look over our shoulders for approval. The only remedy for these subtle idols of ministry is to return to the gospel of God’s grace because it reminds us that we are already justified, accepted, loved, and satisfied by God in Christ. True ministry success comes not from our increasing, but from Christ’s (John 3:30). This is why it’s important to remember our identity in Christ—because we are “not anything.” Only God is. Therefore, it’s important that we pastor ourselves in before we are able to pastor others into that reality.

Pastor’s Calling in light of Christian Identity

Our essential calling as a pastor flows naturally from our previous points. We must view pastoral ministry as the natural outflow of Christ’s presence in our own life. This is especially true in relation to hearing from God. As I learn to hear Jesus’ voice and discern his will in my own life then I am to speak his word and his will to those given in my care. And being able to speak God’s Word is the pastor’s main way of accomplishing his calling. Our primary role is to the allow the people of God to focus on God, hearing him, responding to him, and obeying. And the primary way pastors can do this is by preaching and teaching the Word of God.

Preaching the Word of God is the means God uses to bring us to new birth and adoption to His family (1 Pt 1:23-25), but also the means to help us grow into maturity (Col 1:28-29). Preaching therefore is necessary for people to come to Christ and be conformed like Christ. It is for this reason that Paul strongly exhorts Timothy to preach the Word: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instructions” (2 Tim. 4:2). Some theologians have argued that since human language is always in some sense “imperfect,” any message that God addresses to us in human language must also be limited in its authority or truthfulness. But faithful biblical preaching are not mere human words and thoughts but conveys God’s truth and carries God’s power and authority. A preacher, therefore, should also have this awareness of authority because, although he is not infallible, what he is proclaiming is the Word of God. The preacher’s role is to preach faithfully the Word despite opposition or rejection (2 Tim 4:2). The hearer’s role is to recognize the preached message as the Word of God and respond to it with faith and obedience, and the hearer will be the one accountable to God if the faithfully preached Word of God is not accepted. The Holy Spirit’s role is to illuminate the hearer so that the message might be recognized as God’s wisdom and truth; without the work of the Spirit, the hearer will perceive the message to be foolishness (1 Cor 1:18; 2:14). We can even argue that in true preaching it is Jesus himself who is doing the preaching. A sermon is God speaking to his people with divine authority. The sermon becomes a present form of the incarnation, or in the words of Purves, “an enfleshment [sic] in speech today of the one historical and always eternal and living one Word of God.”[4] This argument comes across in Ephesians 2:17 where Paul writes, “[Jesus] came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.” Jesus has never been to Ephesus but through the apostolic preaching it was as if He was there and was He Himself doing the preaching. He was not only with the preacher as he had promised but He had become the preacher. But ultimately preaching accomplishes its spiritual purposes not because of the skills of the preacher, but because of the power of the Scripture proclaimed. Preachers will minister with greater zeal, confidence, and freedom when they realize God is the one working through them, in them and for them.

Preaching is the primary way the voice of God can be heard, the promises of God be acknowledged, and the will of God can be obeyed. The pastor’s primary role, therefore, is to teach and preach the Word of God in order to “keep the community attentive to God.”[5] Whatever else that other people requires him to do is subordinate and subsidiary to that task.

Union with Christ is to be “in Christ”

To be united with Christ is to be united in all that he has achieved for us. “We are incorporated into Christ’s own life.”[6] It means that, through faith, a believer’s life is so interconnected with Christ’s that what he has done in his humanity we have also done in and through him. We see this repeatedly as Paul explains a Christian’s identity: “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3), “you were dead in your transgressions and sins… [God] made us alive with Christ… and raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:4, 5-6). But more so, every accomplishments of Christ’s life also affects us. It means we share in his righteousness and glory. His perfect obedience of the Father is credited to us and we please the Father eyes. All of his victory becomes ours. To put it in an illustration: If we are likened to a convicted felon, Jesus did not just free us from prison by taking our punishment, but he gave us his Victorian Cross medal or given us the Australian of the Year award; that as we get out of prison we also become an applauded virtuous citizen. And this is all possible through two important events. Firstly, Jesus Christ took on our full humanity. He needed to be fully human to redeem our human nature. He entered our fallen world and assumed our flesh. He was exposed to the same temptation and daily struggles and yet triumphed over it all. And through his bodily resurrection has conquered death for us. Our union with Christ is rooted and grounded in Christ’s union with us in the incarnation. And secondly, we are united in him. Our identity is defined by his identity and our life by his life. Paul expresses this radical change in himself Galatians 2:20 by saying, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.” F.F. Bruce explains: “this new life in Christ is nothing less than the risen Christ living his life in the believer. The risen Christ is the operative power in the new order, as sin was in the old.”[7] When a person believes in Christ they are untied in Christ and Christ becomes the very power and centre of their being. But this leads us to a problem raised earlier, why does our Christian life often do not reflect this reality?

Objective to Subjective

Objectively most Christians know their identity in Christ never change or waiver, but out of these objective truths flow the Christian’s subjective experience. The subjective experiences of the Christian identity in Christ vary and change depending, in part, to the response of the individual to the objective truth in the Word of God. This contrast can be likened to the experience of marriage; a couple is objectively married through the public vows that they have made, but yet the experience of making the marriage joyous and lasting is dependent on the commitment and active participation of each individual. Similarly, though the Christians are saved, secured and sustained in Christ, their experience of the joy and security of their salvation will hinge on their active participation in their faith.

Therefore, one of the main roles of a pastor is to keep pressing Christians these objective truths about their new life and identity in Christ in order to help them experience it through their various subjective situations and feelings. Jeffrey Arthurs suggests that pastors are to be “the Lord’s remembrancers.”[8]  They are to be the primary reminders of God’s spoken promises, to retell what Christians already know. In their ministerial role pastors do nothing more than fanning the flame that Christ has graced them with through preaching and teaching. “In the Spirit’s power, the preacher awakens believers who then remember their identity: they are children of God, joint heirs with Christ, a royal priesthood, and redeemed with a price.”[9] Pastors are to find ways on how to communicate these objective truth of a Christian’s in Christ in a way that encourages the Christian to reorient their mindset in Christ’s work. In doing so they are also encouraging Christians to go deeper in their commitment to Jesus and obedience to his Word. In other words, the objective truths should be preached in such a way that it presents a clearer and richer in order to encourage deeper joy, assurance and commitment in the faith. The following sections will discuss, what I believe are, important elements of what it means for a Christian to be ‘in Christ’ and along the way we will suggest what a pastor ought to teach and remind his congregations with regarding these truths.

Communion with God in Christ

Becoming a Christian is not just about being saved from the pains of hell and going into a wonderful heavenly dwelling. During Jesus’ ministry, the gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus appointed disciples “so that they might be with him” (Mk. 3:14). This suggests that being with Jesus precedes anything and everything that the disciples would ever accomplish in the name of Jesus. And in the gospel of John, Jesus teaches, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn. 17:3, emphasis mine). The word to “know” used is more than just having information about God, but it means to have a deep relationship with him. This means that we are saved for deep communion with God. We are made for joyful relationship with our maker. This is exactly why Christ became incarnate and died a gruesome death on the cross, “that he might bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). J.I. Packer puts it wonderfully in his classic Knowing God: “What will make heaven to be heaven is the presence of Jesus, and of a reconciled divine Father who loves us for Jesus’ sake no less than He loves Jesus Himself. To see, and know, and love, and be loved by, the Father and the Son, in company with the rest of God’s vast family, is the whole essence of the Christian hope.”[10] This what makes heaven such a glorious place – because we get to be in the glorious presence of God.

This is the ultimate blessing of our salvation and our union with Christ – that we are re-united with God. Our union with Christ doesn’t just gives us access to heaven when we die and go to heaven; but it begins now. We are united with him now. Though we are not in heaven yet, we are citizens of heaven already (Phil. 3:20). We are God’s children now (1 John 3:2). If the joy and glory of heaven is tied up to the presence of the God head in Christ then we have the beginning of that reality immediately when we become Christians through a believer’s union with Christ. Eternal life begins in this life when Christ joins his life to ours. In Christ we share in the filial life of love between the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. This is declared in 1 John 1:3: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

I believe it is even safe to claim that the Bible’s metanarrative is about how God restored humanity’s communion with himself. From the very beginning in the book of Genesis mankind was created for the sole purpose of “glorifying God by enjoying him forever.”[11] All of creation lives in perfect harmony with God until Adam and Eve sought to break their dependence on God’s grace and provision by disobeying his command. Adam’s sin has corrupted all of creation and has brought judgment to all. And from then on God has taken it on himself to redeem mankind in order to restore the relationship that we had.

Pastors, therefore, need to ensure that they place the emphasis of their gospel preaching on having a restored relationship with God. They should offer more than being saved from the torments of hell, or having a heavenly destination, but they should offer what God through Christs offers – himself. We need to preach how glorious God is in order that we would want more of God – to know him and to hunger for him. The greatest treasure of the gospel, greater than any other benefit the gospel brings, is the gift of God himself. We need to preach Christ and the joy of receiving him. We are to present the giver more than his gifts, or we need to preach that the greatest gift is the giver himself.

Adopted in Christ

And since our union with Christ allows us to have fellowship with God it also means that in Christ we are welcomed into the family of God. In Romans 8:9-17, Paul tells us that since the believer is indwelt by the Spirit (v.11) they are “sons of God” (v.14) and “children of God” (v.16). Paul adds that we are not given the “spirit of slavery leading to fear again,” but a “spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out ‘Abba Father’” (v.15). Through union with Christ, the Christian is drawn by the indwelling Holy Spirit into the Trinitarian circle. We can partake in the glorious Trinitarian relationship that has around before the beginning of time. Furthermore, Paul points out that not only are all those in Christ sons of God, but “if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…” (v.17). All Christians become part of the family of God that they are able to be an inheritor with Christ. Therefore, no matter how mundane or difficult life may be a Christian can rejoice now in their adoption and can look forward to the day when they receive their full inheritance in Christ. Paul also uses the language of citizenship. “[God] rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son…” Christians has become citizens of the Kingdom of God even though we still inhabit a world full of sin and rebellion. Our citizenship is in a kingdom that has not yet come, but is now forming.

Pastors should remind believers of their change of citizenship into God’s Kingdom, and more so, into God’s family. They will be inhabitants of the new creation that God will bring into existence. In regards to their adoption, pastors should often remind the Christian in their care that they are children of God and God loves them as a father for they may find times when they wants to go back to the old ways, the old self-driven identity. Knowing the Christian life always involves struggle with remaining sin habits, Paul encouraged his readers to obey not out of fear and duty like slaves often do, but as children wanting to please their father. Pastors are to ensure that calling people to obedience shouldn’t be driven to get approval or avoid punishment; for God already looks at them the way he looks at his eternal begotten Son.

Filled by the Spirit in Christ

Christ’s union with a believer was made possible through the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote in Romans 8:11, “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” It is through the Holy Spirit that we receive “every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). And more than so, we “were marked in [Christ] with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (v.14). So not only are all the blessings of God in Christ given to the believer through the Holy Spirit, but it is through the Spirit that we are sealed to Christ. This means to have Christ is to have the Spirit, because Christ indwells in us through the Spirit. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit, therefore, is the most significant bridge between objective truth and subjective reality. That Spirit brings spiritual life, making the believer a new creature, giving him a new identity. Pastors can encourage Christians that their salvation is guaranteed and secured because they have the Holy Spirit working in them. But the work of the Spirit is not limited in guaranteeing our justification, but it also warrants our transformation in Christ. It is the fruits of the Spirit that is produced in our lives (Gal. 5:22) if we “live by” and “keep in step with the Spirit” (v.25). The indwelling of the Spirit also leads us to produce good works. In 1 Corinthians 12: 7 Paul said, “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Through union with Christ, each Christian manifests the Holy Spirit through unique spiritual gifts that helps build up the church. In Christ the believer’s identity is impacted by the Holy Spirit at work in him, forming him to be a vessel in producing fruits that is beneficial for the building of God’s kingdom. The Holy Spirit, therefore, is the agent through which the spiritual changes take place. Pastors therefore shouldn’t ignore the work of the Spirit in a believer’s life. They should regularly remind believers that they are never alone in their Christian walk, for the Spirit is always at work in their life.

Justified in Christ

Through faith a Christian is deemed innocent before God. Paul declared clearly in Romans 8:1, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Yet, although Paul knew he was united with Christ objectively, in his subjective experience he still struggled with remaining sin (Rom. 7:14-25). This struggle was so frustrating to Paul that he desperately cried out “wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Rom. 7:24). The reality of sin continued to impact Paul’s experience, though he hated it and fought against it with varying degrees of success. This experience is similar for most, if not every, Christian. Though objectively they are justified before God, experientially they struggle to reflect a justified life. In 1 Corinthian 6 Paul reminds the church of their old sinful life, but now they are “washed… sanctified… justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (v.11). When the believer is united he is forgiven, set apart and proclaimed righteous before God. It is a way for Paul to remind the Corinthians of their new identity in Christ. Likewise, the pastor can comfort the struggling Christian with this reminder, that whoever he was, whatever he did, and whatever remaining sins, habits, weaknesses and struggles still plague him, in Christ he has been washed. He has been made holy and he is right before God. He is no longer defined by that sin. In addition to being forgiven, the Christian is given the righteousness of God. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul wrote, “He made him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” A Christian is not only forgiven, thereby becoming morally neutral, but he actually stands before God as righteous because of the work of Christ. For the struggling Christian, this truth can be empowering and freeing. The Christian can be encouraged to keep striving, keep repenting, keep believing, because he is no longer condemned before God.

Sanctified in Christ

Furthermore, the work of Christ for us cannot be separated from Christ’s continual work in us and through us. Our union with Christ results both in our justification and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). John Calvin calls this blessing “double grace” for we receive the full benefit of his sacrificial work, and we also have the full access to his power that enables us to live our life in obedience to his word. We are not left to ourselves in living a godly life. Instead, the merciful, obedient, powerful Jesus dwells within in us. We can overcome anything that the world throws against us, for the one who lives in us is greater than the world’s power (1 John 4:4). Paul taught that through union with Christ, Christians are being made more and more like Jesus. This is distinct from the imputed righteousness of Christ to a believer which makes them acceptable to a Holy God. A Christian grows in righteousness as Christ works in him through the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote, “We are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Every aspect of the Christian is to grow up into Christ. As Christ is perfectly righteous, so the Christian becomes more righteous the more he grows up into Christ. Paul described this poetically in 2 Corinthians, where he wrote, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). It is only because we are united with Christ, and therefore with the Spirit, that we can become more and more like Christ. In Philippians 1:9-11, Paul recorded the content of his prayer for the Philippian church which illustrates the scope and source of this transformation. Here Paul prayed for the Philippian believers to be impacted and changed by their union with Christ. Paul wanted their emotions to be changed— “that your love may abound;” their minds to be changed—“in knowledge and depth of insight,” and their actions to be changed—“ may be pure and blameless.” And Paul acknowledges that this transformation only comes through Christ as he is “filled with the fruit of righteousness.” And this transformation is only possible because it “comes through Jesus Christ.”

Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, produces the fruit of righteousness and holiness in the believer, making him more Christ-like, but the Christian is not passive. The Christian need to actively responds to Christ in obedience in order to bear fruit of righteousness. Objectively, Christ is working in every Christian to produce good works, but subjectively, that is accomplished by motivating and encouraging each believer to be more Christ-like. The pastor should take up Paul’s heart and prayers for his church. He must believe Christ is sanctifying each Christian, however slowly the progress might seem. He needs to persistently urge them to a deeper relationship with Christ. The pastor should remind believers under his care of the reality that Christ is at work in them, and that Christ is changing them. The motivation for pursuing holiness is not guilt or a misplaced sense of duty, rather it is a joyful freedom. It is not enough to convict and command people to “do more” or “try harder.” Duty is real and sometimes needs to be emphasized, but the primary motivator for the weary Christian to obey, is the reality that he is not alone in the struggle.

Strengthened in Christ

Philippians 4:13, a passage often quoted, Paul said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Paul wrote this in the context of learning to be content in every circumstance, “whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (vs. 12). Paul was able to be content in those circumstances, to not grumble or steal when hungry and not become complacent when in plenty, because it is Christ who strengthens him. It’s interesting to note that Paul was not writing about being exemplary in attitude or righteousness, but simply being content in life. But even in this simple virtue of contentment Paul acknowledges that it was only possible through Christ’s strength.

Christians are not called to obedience and holiness from the wellspring of their own moral fortitude, they are called into union with Christ who displays his strength in every area of morality. Pastors are to remind Christians the spiritual strength that Christ gives. They are to encourage downtrodden Christians to be prayerfully dependent on Christ as the source of their strength. But at the same time Christians needs to be admonished to obey, for though in Christ’s strength the Christian is able to obey, they must still exert effort and will to obey. He must use the strength that Christ fully provides to make progress in righteousness. When the Christian is focused on Christ’s strength in him, he is free to work hard to be obedient. Every act of obedience and every victory over sin becomes, then, an opportunity to boasts of what Christ has done and to glorify him for his strength.

Union with other Believers

Paul taught that as individuals are united with Christ they are brought into fellowship with other believers in a shared union. Paul wrote, “So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:5). The life of the Christian is a life lived in community, a spiritual family of believers working together for the benefit of each other’s maturity. Just as the individual’s identity is dominated by his union with Christ, so the church should corporately have a self-identity of being the body of Christ, a body which exists only because it is united to Christ. In 1 Peter 2 the apostle Peter used the imagery of a building to speak of God’s people being built together into a spiritual house (vv.4-5) with Christ as their cornerstone. Implied in this metaphor is a picture of unity. Each unique block is added to complete the one building. In a similar context in Ephesians 2, Paul was explaining the great mystery that the Gentiles had become “partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus” (vs. 6), are being added together with Jewish believers to become the temple of God. Even more explicit in Galatians 3:28, Paul pronounced that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The primary and defining characteristic of all the different types of Christians is that they are one in Christ. All other distinctions are pushed into the background. This does not take away individuality. In fact, Paul himself emphasized some of these differences in other letters (1 Cor. 14:34, I Tim. 2: 9-15). However, this primary distinction of being in Christ supersedes all the differences. From the vast diversity of all nations, individuals are being brought into Christ as equals before God and united into one church body.

Corporate unity is therefore important as part of a pastor’s constant reminder. Pastors are to encourage church unity based on mutual union with Christ. He must foster a culture of acceptance and openness in the church. As a spiritual leader, he must assess his own heart of any bigotry in order to be an example to the flock. And this is accomplished through Christ-like humility. Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambitions… rather, in humility value others above yourself” (Phil. 2:3). There is nothing more appealing to see than to see unity amidst diversity. This is the truest expression of how God draws people from every tribe and tongue, uniting them in a common Saviour. When people of different ages, races, backgrounds and cultures worship God together, it is a great testimony of God’s coming kingdom and his work of reconciling people to himself and to each other.

Therefore, for unity to exist the love of Christ in the church must overpower the sinful prejudices that often divides churches. Paul, recognizing this reality, emphasized the role of love in the church. He admonished the Colossian church, “And over all these virtues put o love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:14). We also find this in one of the most quoted passages in the bible found in 1 Corinthians 13 when Paul explained how the virtue of love is applied in a community of believers. In a similar way, pastors should make sure that they are to teach the virtue of love, not only its implication to individuals but it’s application corporately especially within the body of Christ. And a wonderful way to express this humility and love is by the application of the diverse gift in the body of Christ. Paul wrote in Romans 12:4-5, “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, through many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Each member is distinct and different. Each member has a different function to perform in the body. Each member’s role is vital. Using the same image of a body in 1 Corinthians 12, Paul added that “to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (vs. 7). The Spirit of God is specifically working in each member of the body specifically for the good of the whole. The pastor has a responsibility not only to nurture the individual’s union with Christ but also to promote the corporate union with Christ. The pastor should often emphasize the corporate identity of togetherness in Christ. He must value every member of his church and support the gifting of individuals that God has given to the church. Through his teaching and Christ-like example he will be able to promote a culture of Christ-like love that is more interested in serving others rather than being served. The more the church finds its identity in Christ, in his love and in his sacrifice, the more the church will grow in usefulness, using all its gifts for the good of the whole.


A Christian must find his identity in these objective truths about who he is in Christ in order to efficaciously live out a life in Christ. A Christian who forgets their new identity will often return to the spirit of slavery and “live in fear again” (Rom. 8:15), seeking to justify himself by his own righteousness. But by remembering who he is in Christ, he will find freedom, peace and strength, knowing that he is justified, sanctified in Christ and freeing him to obey God not out of duty but delight. The pastor’s work is to persistently remind those Christians in his care of the objective truths of their identity in Christ; who they are in Christ and the great work in which they have the privilege to play a part. In everything that a pastor is called to do and be, and everything the Christians in his care are called to do and be, is bound up in their identity in Christ. Because they are united with Christ they are able to do all that God has called them to do.


Austin, Michael W., The Doctrine of Theosis: A Transformational Union with Christ, Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, (2015, Vol. 8, No. 2), 172-186.

Billings, Todd J., Union with Christ, Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Grand Rapids, Baker), 2011.

Capill, Murray, The Heart is the Target, Preaching Practical Application from Every Text (Phillipsburg, P&R), 2014.

Peterson, A., Robert, Union with Christ in the Gospel of John, Presbyterion 39/1 (Spring 2013): 9-29.

Prime, Derek J. & Begg, Alistair, On Being a Pastor, Understanding our Calling and Work (Chicago, Moody) 2004.

Purves, Andrew, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, A Christological Foundation (London, Westminster John Knox), 2004.

Rosner, Brian, Known by God, A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity (Grand Rapids, Zondervan) 2014.

Wilbourne, Rankin, Union with Christ, The Way to Know and Enjoy God (Colorado Springs, David Cook), 2017.

[1] All Scripture are taken from the New International Version 2011 ver. (NIV).

[2] Andrew Purves, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, A Christological Foundation (London: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 79.

[3] From here on I will limit the gender pronoun reference to a pastor to masculine (he), hopefully that it won’t be taken as imposing my own view on the current debate in egalitarian and complementarian within the pastoral and eldership of the church.

[4] Purves, Reconstructing, 157.

[5] Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles, The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 2.

[6] Billings, Todd J., Union with Christ, Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2011),31.

[7] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. NICGT (Grand Rapids: W:B. Eerdmans, 1982), 144.

[8] Jeffrey Arthurs, Preaching as Reminding, Stirring Memory in an Age of Forgetfulness (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 2017), 3.

[9] Ibid. 48.

[10] J.I. Packer, Knowing God, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 218.

[11] John Piper, Desiring God, Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, (Leicester: Intervarsity, 2003), 17, coined this phrase from The Westminster Shorter Catechism.

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