Sarah Lebhar Hall, an adjunct professor of biblical studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, has written a fine article on why union with Christ – more than imitation of Christ – takes the pressure off the experience of life now. She says if I am united with Christ, (1) “my focus can be on staying connected to Jesus”; (2) “my life will take on not only the direction of Jesus’ life, but its quality”; (3) “I get to enjoy his victory”; (4) “my life – even my pain – is sweetened by fellowship with the Trinity”; (5) “suffering is not a deviation or a dead end”; and (6) “I am freed from my fears.” The whole article is worth reading, but here is a salient excerpt:
The good news from the Scriptures is this: No follower of Jesus is an isolated entity, living out a solitary, potentially tragic plot line. The life story of a disciple is inextricably linked with the life story of Jesus. Each of us is connected to Jesus as a branch is connected to the vine, a body part is connected to the head, or a wife is connected to her husband (John 15; Eph. 4:15-16; Eph. 5:31-32). In fact, the truth gets even more shocking: As the Father is in Jesus, and he is in the Father, so are we “in” Christ, and he in us (John 17:20-26). In other words, in the same way that the Father and the Son are connected to one another, so we are connected with the Son by the work of his Spirit. We are “joined to the Lord” (1 Cor. 6:17, ESV).
The possibility is staggering: that I, a creature, might have my life linked—actually, organically, eternally linked—to the Son of God himself. Like a freight car coupled with an engine, where Jesus goes, I go. What happens to him, happens to me. I follow him and share his life, his character, his suffering, his future, his inheritance, even his reign with the Father.
While this reality, known as the doctrine of “union with Christ,” has received a lot of attention throughout Christian history, it is often ignored in the modern church. But it is incredibly good news for those of us who wrestle with the uncertainty and disappointment of life on earth. Because we are “in Christ,” because his life is ours, our fundamental life story has already been written.
As one who has “put on” Christ in baptism (Gal. 3:27, ESV), my life has a predictable trajectory. I will live, like Jesus, through suffering and sacrifice, rejoicing and rejection, obedience and fellowship, service and sadness, death and resurrection. And my life will end, like his, in glory. This is how Jesus experienced our fallen world. This is how I will experience it too. My life “path” has already been mapped out by Jesus, who calls himself the “way” (John 14:6). This road goes through suffering and death to life and glory. The script is already written.
In fact, the New Testament often speaks about the details of my life in Christ in the past tense. It is a done deal. I (that is, my old self) was crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:3-6). God raised me up with him and seated me with him in heaven (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). Because of these realities, I can be just as sure of what will happen in my future. The reality of Christ in me is my “hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Because Jesus is my life, I know how my life will end. “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4, emphasis added).
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If I am united with Christ, my focus can be on staying connected to Jesus. I don’t have to obsess about the particulars of the decisions before me. Do I take this job? Move to this city? Marry this person? Have another child? Yes, I will discern these things best in relationship with Jesus. And yes, God, as a loving Father, certainly cares about them. But these are not ultimately the defining questions of my life. Think about Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches. Look at an individual branch. What matters most? Which direction it grows? Whether it twines to the left or the right? Of course not. What matters most to its health and well-being is simply whether it is still connected to the vine, and whether the vine is alive and thriving (which Jesus is). As far as life direction goes, the most important questions sound more like this: Am I feeding myself on Jesus? Am I hearing his words and putting them into practice? Am I loving him with all my heart? Am I living in his body, the church? These questions are usually easier to consider, and should be less angst-ridden.
If I am united with Christ, then my life will take on not only the direction of Jesus’ life, but its quality. We spend a lot of time thinking about the “plot” of our lives. God is apparently much more interested in character development. The reality of my union with Jesus speaks to both. Because Jesus is living in me by his Spirit, my character gradually conforms to his character (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19; Col. 3:10). In other words, holiness happens from the inside out. It’s not about me, struggling away out here in my world, trying to be more like Jesus. Instead, it’s Jesus, living in my heart (Eph. 3:17), making his home in me (John 14:23), who is remodeling his own house. This was, in fact, the primary point of Jesus’ incarnation for our redemption. As Martin Luther put it, “The Logos [Jesus, the Word] puts on our form and pattern, our image and likeness, so that it may clothe us with its image, its pattern, and its likeness.” It is freeing to take our eyes off the unknowable variables of our future, and focus instead on cooperating with the Spirit of God as he works to transform our hearts into the image of Jesus. That transformation is one thing we can be certain God has in store for our lives.
– “The Key to a Purposeful Life” (Christianity Today)