During the last week of November, we were blessed to have renowned Reformed theologian and teacher Dr. Sinclair Ferguson with us. Under the sponsorship of China Reformed Theological Seminary, Dr. Ferguson led a week-long lecture series on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and delivered the message at our Sunday service.
His Sunday message, based on the Old Testament story of Joseph, was a powerful reminder of the glory of God’s sovereignty and its immense value to us in coping with human adversity in our lives. To paraphrase Genesis 50:20, what someone may intend as evil against us, God may be using for good--though not necessarily our own personal good, as Dr. Ferguson reminded us. Joseph’s survival of domestic abuse, involuntary slavery, and unjust incarceration was not all orchestrated by God simply for Joseph’s own spiritual growth (though it certainly contributed to that). It was also, perhaps even primarily, to enable Joseph to become a savior of thousands of people during a great famine in the ancient world.
Dr. Ferguson’s lecture series on the Holy Spirit was on a scale too large to effectively summarize here. But one of his many insights concerned the work of the Spirit in uniting believers with Christ. The most succinct exposition of this work, known as the doctrine of the Union with Christ, is found in 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For, as in Adam all die, so all will be made alive in Christ.” All humanity is “in,” that is, spiritually united with, either Adam or Christ. Because Adam sinned, death entered the world (1 Cor. 5:21), and so all who remain “in” Adam will eventually die. But all who put their faith in Christ and turn away from sin are “in” Christ, and will live eternally and abundantly. They have been spiritually united with Christ by the Spirit.
Dr. Ferguson identified four dimensions to the Union with Christ. First, there is an eternal dimension. We see this in Ephesians 1:3-4, where the Apostle Paul writes that God has “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world…”. This assures us of the profound strength and trustworthiness of our union with Christ.
Second, there is an incarnational dimension. This involves Christ’s fully human nature that existed alongside his fully divine nature. As Hebrews 2:17-18 teaches us, Christ “had to be made like [human beings], fully human in every way, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” On a personal level, our union with Christ is not a union with some distant, incomprehensible deity, but with a human being who shared our needs, fears, and temptations.
Third, there is a federal dimension. This is the basic idea of 1 Cor. 15:21-22 (as well as Romans 5:18-19), in which the one stands in for the many. This is perhaps the most essential (and sometimes vexing) aspect of our union with Christ. The action of one being is imputed to many others. Adam was our representative. So, because he sinned, we, his descendants, have sin imputed to us. From a certain angle, this can seem unfair. Yet consider the freedoms we enjoy because others fought in a war for us. We didn’t risk our own lives in combat, yet we enjoy the fruits of the victory won by those who did. Our soldiers are our representatives on the battlefield. The good news is that it works both ways. As much as we are condemned in Adam, we are equally saved in Christ. Because Christ lived the perfect, sinless life that God requires us to live, if we, then, are “in” Christ, God considers us also to have lived that perfect sinless life.
Finally, there is a spiritual dimension to our union with Christ. Everything that happens to our “representative,” whether Adam or Christ, also happens to us, on a spiritual level. What has happened to us? The Bible teaches that we, as sinful humans in Adam, have been condemned (for sin) and are due the punishment of death (Romans 6:23). But it also teaches that in Christ we have been raised from the dead (Rom. 6:4) and adopted as sons (and daughters) by our heavenly Father (Rom. 8:14-17). Accordingly, the same things have happened to Christ himself. On the cross, Christ’s human nature, although without sin, was made by God to be sin (2 Cor. 5:21), and was rightly condemned and punished for it, just as we would have been. Yet Christ was subsequently raised from the dead and “declared to be the Son of God” (Rom. 1:4)—that is, adopted by the Father, just as we are.
(Note--we may look at the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, where a voice from heaven proclaimed that Jesus was “my beloved Son” (Mark 1:9-11) and reasonably wonder if Christ’s adoption therefore took place before his resurrection. But Romans 1:4 makes clear that Christ’s human nature was “declared to be the Son of God…by his resurrection from the dead” (italics added). Thus, the heavenly declaration of Sonship at Jesus’ baptism is more of a picture than an actual event—just as baptism itself is a picture of the Christian’s conversion event, rather than the thing itself. Appropriately, in Jesus’ baptism, the heavenly declaration of Sonship comes after the baptismal act. Baptism is a symbol for the believer’s death and resurrection in Christ (Romans 6:4-5), from which heavenly adoption follows.)
Dr. Ferguson’s exposition of these four dimensions of our union with Christ enable us to grow in our understanding of, and our joy in, the glorious work of the Holy Spirit.