Article of the Month




The Nature of Union with Christ

by John Murray


Union with Christ is an important part of the application of redemption. We do not become actual partakers of Christ until redemption is effectually applied. Paul in writing to the believers at Ephesus reminded them that they were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, but he also reminded them that there was a time when they were “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12) and that they were “by nature the children of wrath” (Eph 2:3). Although they had been chosen in Christ before times eternal, yet they were Christless until they were called effectually into the fellowship of God’s Son (1Co 1:9)...Only then do they know the fellowship of Christ. What is the nature of this union with Christ that is effected by the call of God? There are several things to be said in answer to this question.

1. It is Spiritual. Few words in the New Testament have been subjected to more distortion than the word spiritual. Frequently it is used to denote what is little more than vague sentimentality. Spiritual in the New Testament refers to that which is of the Holy Spirit. The spiritual man is the person who is indwelt and controlled by the Holy Spirit, and a spiritual state of mind is a state of mind that is produced and maintained by the Holy Spirit. Hence, when we say that union with Christ is spiritual, we mean, first of all, that the bond of this union is the Holy Spirit Himself. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit” (1Co 12:13; cf. 1Co 6:17, 19; Rom 8:9-11; 1Jo 3:24; 4:13). We need to appreciate far more than we have been wont to the close interdependence of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the operations of saving grace. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ; the Spirit is the Spirit of the Lord; and Christ is the Lord of the Spirit (cf. Rom 8:9; 2Co 3:18; 1Pe 1:11). Christ dwells in us if His Spirit dwells in us, and He dwells in us by the Spirit. Union with Christ is a great mystery. That the Holy Spirit is the bond of this union does not diminish the mystery, but this truth does throw a flood of light upon the mystery...

This brings us to note, in the second place, that union with Christ is spiritual because it is a spiritual relationship that is in view. It is not the kind of union that we have in the Trinity—three Persons in one God. It is not the kind of union we have in the Person of Christ—two natures in one Person. It is not the kind of union we have in man—body and soul constituting a human being. It is not simply the union of feeling, affection, understanding, mind, heart, will, and purpose. Here we have union that we are unable to define specifically. But it is union of an intensely spiritual character, consonant with the nature and work of the Holy Spirit so that in a real way, surpassing our power of analysis, Christ dwells in His people and His people dwell in Him.

2. It is Mystical. When we use the word mystical in this connection, it is well to take our starting-point from the word mystery, as it is used in the Scripture. We are liable to use the word to designate something that is completely unintelligible and of which we cannot have any understanding. That is not the sense of Scripture. The Apostle in Romans 16:25-26 sets the points for the understanding of this term. There Paul speaks of “the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began, But now is made manifest, and by the scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the everlasting God, made known to all nations for the obedience of faith.”

There are four things to be observed about this mystery: (1) It was kept secret from times eternal—it was something hid in the mind and counsel of God. (2) It did not continue to be kept hid—it was manifested and made known in accordance with the will and commandment of God. (3) This revelation on God’s part was mediated through and deposited in the Scripture—it was revealed to all nations and is no longer a secret. (4) This revelation is directed to the end that all nations may come to the obedience of faith. A mystery is, therefore, something that eye hath not seen nor ear heard neither hath entered into the heart of man (1Co 2:9), but which God has revealed unto us by His Spirit and which by revelation and faith comes to be known and appropriated by men.

That union with Christ is such a mystery is apparent. In speaking of union with Christ and after comparing it with the union that exists between man and wife, Paul says, “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32). Again Paul speaks of “the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” and describes it as “the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints” (Col 1:26-27). Union with Christ is mystical because it is a mystery. The fact that it is a mystery underlines the preciousness of it and the intimacy of the relation it entails.

The wide range of similitude used in Scripture to illustrate union with Christ is very striking. On the highest level of being, it is compared to the union that exists between the Persons of the Trinity in the Godhead. This is staggering, but it is the case (Joh 14:23; 17:21-23). On the lowest level, it is compared to the relation that exists between the stones of a building and the chief corner stone (Eph 2:19-22; 1Pe 2:4-5). In between these two limits, there is a variety of similitude drawn from different levels of being and relationship. It is compared to the union that existed between Adam and all of posterity (Rom 5:12-19; 1Co 15:19-49). It is compared to the union that exists between man and wife (Eph 5:22-33; cf. Joh 3:29). It is compared to the union that exists between the head and the other members in the human body (Eph 4:15-16). It is compared to the relation of the vine to the branches (Joh 15:1-8). Hence, we have analogy drawn from the various strata of being, ascending from the inanimate realm to the very life of the Persons of the Godhead.

This should teach us a great principle. It is obvious that we must not reduce the nature and the mode of union with Christ to the measure of the kind of union that exists between the chief corner stone and the other stones in the building, nor to the measure of the kind of union that exists between the vine and the branches, nor to that of the head and the other members of the body, nor even to that of husband and wife. The mode, nature, and kind of union differ in the different cases. There is similitude but not identity. But just as we may not reduce the union between Christ and His people to the level of the union that exists on these other strata of being, so we must not raise it to the level of the union that exists within the Godhead. Similitude here again does not mean identity. Union with Christ does not mean that we are incorporated into the life of the Godhead. That is one of the distortions to which this great truth has been subjected. But the process of thought by which such a view has been adopted neglects one of the simplest principles that must always guide our thinking, namely, that analogy does not mean identity. When we make a comparison, we do not make an equation. Of all the kinds of union or unity that exist for creatures, the union of believers with Christ is the highest. The greatest mystery of being is the mystery of the Trinity—three Persons in one God. The great mystery of godliness is the mystery of the incarnation, that the Son of God became man and was manifest in the flesh (1Ti 3:16). But the greatest mystery of creaturely relations is the union of the people of God with Christ. And the mystery of it is attested by nothing more than this: it is compared to the union that exists between the Father and the Son in the unity of the Godhead.

It has been customary to use the word mystical to express the mysticism that enters into the exercise of faith. It is necessary for us to recognize that there is an intelligent mysticism in the life of faith. Believers are called into the fellowship of Christ and fellowship means communion. The life of faith is one of living union and communion with the exalted and ever-present Redeemer. Faith is directed not only to a Redeemer Who has come and completed once for all a work of redemption. It is directed to Him, not merely as the One Who died, but as the One Who rose again and Who ever lives as our great High Priest and Advocate. And because faith is directed to Him as living Savior and Lord, fellowship reaches the zenith of its exercise. There is no communion among men that is comparable to fellowship with Christ—He communes with His people and His people commune with Him in conscious reciprocal love. “Whom having not seen, ye love,” wrote the Apostle Peter, “in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1Pe 1:8).

The life of faith is the life of love, and the life of love is the life of fellowship, of mystic communion with Him Who ever lives to make intercession for His people and Who can be touched with the feeling of our infirmities (Heb 4:15). It is fellowship with Him Who has an inexhaustible reservoir of sympathy with His people’s temptations, afflictions, and infirmities because He was tempted in all points like as they are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15)...

Union with Christ is the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation. All to which the people of God have been predestined in the eternal election of God, all that has been secured and procured for them in the once-for-all accomplishment of redemption, all of which they become the actual partakers in the application of redemption, and all that by God’s grace they will become in the state of consummated bliss is embraced within the compass of union and communion with Christ...It is significant that the election in Christ before the foundation of the world is election unto the adoption of sons. When Paul says that the Father chose a people in Christ before the foundation of the world that they should be holy, he also adds that in love He predestinated them unto adoption through Jesus Christ (Eph 1:4-5). Apparently, election to holiness is parallel to predestination to adoption—these are two ways of expressing the same great truth. They disclose to us the different facets that belong to the Father’s election. Hence, union with Christ and adoption are complementary aspects of this amazing grace. Union with Christ reaches its zenith in adoption and adoption has its orbit in union with Christ. The people of God are “heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ” (Rom 8:17). All things are theirs whether life or death or things present or things to come, all are theirs because they are Christ’s and Christ is God’s (1Co 3:22-23). They are united to Him in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and they are complete in Him Who is the head of all principality and power (Col 2:3, 10).

It is out of the measureless fullness of grace and truth, of wisdom and power, of goodness and love, of righteousness and faithfulness that resides in Him that God’s people draw for all their needs in this life and for the hope of the life to come. There is no truth, therefore, more suited to impart confidence and strength, comfort and joy in the Lord than this one of union with Christ. It also promotes sanctification, not only because all sanctifying grace is derived from Christ as the crucified and exalted Redeemer, but also because the recognition of fellowship with Christ and of the high privilege it entails incites to gratitude, obedience, and devotion. Union means also communion; and communion constrains a humble, reverent, loving walk with Him Who died and rose again that He might be our Lord. “But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him. He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked” (1Jo 2:5-6). “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me” (Joh 15:4).

There is another phase of the subject of union with Christ that must not be omitted. If it were overlooked, there would be a serious defect in our understanding and appreciation of the implications of this union. These are the implications that arise from the relations of Christ to the other Persons of the Trinity and from our relations to the other Persons of the Trinity because of our union with Christ. Jesus Himself said, “I and my Father are one” (Joh 10:30). We should expect, therefore, that union with Christ would bring us into similar relation with the Father. This is exactly what our Lord Himself tells us: “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (Joh 14:23). The thought is overwhelming, but it is unmistakable: the Father, as well as Christ, comes and makes His abode with the believer!

Perhaps even more striking is another word of Jesus: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me” (Joh 17:20-23). And not only is it the Father Who is united with believers and dwells in them; Jesus tells us likewise of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, “And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you” (Joh 14:16-17). It is union, therefore, with the Father and with the Son and with the Holy Spirit that union with Christ draws along with it...Believers enter into the holy of holies of communion with the triune God, and they do so because they have been raised up together and made to sit together in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:6). Their life is hid with Christ in God (Col 3:3). They draw nigh in full assurance of faith having their hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and their bodies washed with pure water because Christ is not entered into holy places made with hands but into heaven itself now to appear in the presence of God for them (Heb 9:24).


John Murray was a graduate of the University of Glasgow (1923) and of Princeton Theological Seminary (1927), and he studied at the University of Edinburgh during 1928 and 1929. In 1929-1930 he served on the faculty of the Princeton Theological Seminary. After that he taught at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia where he served as Professor of Systematic Theology.

He was a frequent contributor to theological journals and is the author of Christian Baptism (1952), Divorce (1953), Redemption Accomplished and Applied (1955), Principles of Conduct (1957), The Imputation of Adam's Sin (1960), Calvin on the Scriptures and Divine Sovereignty (1960), and the commentary, The Epistle to the Romans (1968).


  Please join others who have commented upon this and other topics in our Discussion Group.

      Back to Library 

Return to the Main Highway 

Calvinism and the Reformed Faith Index