Union and Communion with Christ
In John 15 the Lord Jesus Christ explains to us that Christians are united to him in a spiritual union. Our Lord uses the illustration of a vine and its branches. The Lord supplies to all believers the grace of his Holy Spirit. This, like the sap, is the source of all the ‘fruit’ which is in the believer’s life. By ‘fruit’ our Lord refers to godliness, love and profitable service in the church and in the promotion of the gospel. As the vine cannot produce fruit without the sap, so we who profess to be Christians cannot do anything spiritually profitable without Christ’s Spirit.
Just as the expert gardener prunes the vine so as to increase its fruitfulness, so God the Father prunes and cuts back the unfruitful branches in the believer’s life.This will be painful but also profitable. It is a procedure which involves us in being chastened and afflicted, yet enlarged in our usefulness so as to bring forth ‘more fruit’ (v.2).
The branches which bear no fruit are removed and burned in the ‘fire’ (v.6).These ominous words warn us all that an unholy Christian is a Christian in name only. Judas Iscariot, and all who are merely nominal Christians, will be removed sooner or later from the church and cast into hell. It is a most needful reminder to us in our own day that godliness, love and humble devotion to Christ are the genuine evidences of our being real Christians. The history of all churches shows that many who profess to be Christ’s people are sadly deceived.
Christ’s claim to be ‘the true vine’ (v.l) shows, as all his great ‘I ams’ in John’s Gospel, that he is truly God. As Head of the church he alone can supply grace to every believer and to every congregation. He alone is able to enlighten us, feed our souls, shepherd our lives, teach us his truths and, at the last, raise up our bodies to resurrection glory.
Christ’s ‘I ams’ in John are encyclopaedic in their scope and vitally essential in their importance to our life as believers. To be ingrafted therefore into Christ is to enjoy the supply of the Spirit of life which he provides to every true believer. A man may have knowledge, gifts and church-office; but he is no more than a dead stick if he be not spiritually united to Jesus Christ.
We refer to the union which believers have with Christ as the ‘Mystical Union’. Christ and his church are mystically united (Eph. 5:30-32). The Bible speaks of other wonderful unions. Especially, it informs us of the union of the three Persons in the Godhead. Also, the Bible reveals to us the union of the two natures in Christ. We refer to this wonderful truth as the ‘Hypostatic Union’. (The word Hypostasis in Greek means a person).
Each of these unions is very precious to the believer. We honour all three Persons of the Godhead as equal in power and glory. We confess that our Lord Jesus Christ is both God and Man. As to his Godhood he has no mother; as to his Manhood he has no father. The sweet truth of the ‘Mystical Union’ is that every believer, who is a true believer, can say: ‘Christ is in me, the hope of glory.’
There is a difference between our union with Christ as believers and our communion with him. Union is permanent and unchangeable. It begins as soon as we are united to him in the new birth. It will have no end. In this life we are spiritually united to Christ whom we have not yet seen. In heaven we shall see him and we shall be united to him in love, adoration and glory throughout all the ages of eternity. The church is, very wonderfully, described as ‘the fulness of him that filleth all in all’ (Eph. 1:23). Hence heaven will be, for every believer, a world of love – Christ’s love for us as those for whom he shed his precious blood.
However, while our union with Christ is eternally unchangeable, our communion with him in this life is liable to fluctuation. In other words, our ‘felt sense’ of Christ’s love to us now in this life waxes and wanes. This is largely owing to our carelessness as believers. We may lose the sweetness of Christ’s presence through carelessness, prayerlessness or disobedience. So, when David had sinned, he cried to God, ‘Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation’ (Psa. 51:12). Similarly, Peter, after his denials of Christ, needed to have the question put to him three times: ‘Lovest thou me?’ (John 2l:l5-l7).
The Song of Solomon beautifully shows us that, when we have forfeited a sense of Christ’s love through carelessness on our part, our Lord’s love may be enjoyed afresh when we rise up off the bed of sloth and seek him with all our heart (Song of Sol. 3:1-3). Indeed, this lovely book, the Song of Solomon, is a description of how the believer enjoys Christ’s love, sometimes loses a sense of it, seeks him again, and enters afresh into a felt enjoyment of his love.
Hence, we say that our communion with Christ in this life is liable to fluctuation. In heaven, however, it will fluctuate no more. In glory, all believers will be forever filled with the sense of Christ’s love in all its ‘breadth, and length, and depth and height’ (Eph. 3:l8).
Our present duty is to seek to have much of it now in this life. We can never enjoy Christ’s love too much. It is our great loss when we learn, as Christians, to live with only small awareness of the love of Christ. Churches decline visibly when their members labour and work, yet are unaware that they have lost their ‘first love’ for Jesus (Rev. 2:4).
In the light of the above truths, we must as Christians not make a god of earthly happiness or peace. The greatest Christians have sometimes lived in times of affliction, trial and suffering. This would be true of the apostles of Christ, of the Reformers, of the Puritans and of the Covenanters. Sanctified afflictions drive us closer to Christ. Our depraved and fallen natures need to be sanctified. But sanctification often involves painful pruning at the hand of God. No wonder therefore Samuel Rutherford could say, ‘Our pride needs winter weather to rot it’. Again, Rutherford could write: ‘We must have a devil to hold the saints waking’. Or again, Rutherford states: ‘O what owe I to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus!’ Great saints, much like Daniel’s three friends, have to walk with Jesus in the furnace and in the fiery flame.
The pruning hand of God will remove dead leaves and dry sticks from the life of the true believer. God loves us too much to leave us to go to sleep in the lap of worldly pleasures. Those whom he leaves alone in their carnal hypocrisy are not his true children. Those whom he leaves alone in their false profession of church membership are – O fearful thought! – no better than ecclesiastical firewood, fit for nothing better than the eternal fire at last. If we have no fruit of holiness and love we are not in union with Christ.
Blessings of union
Christ makes it clear that if we abide in him we shall enjoy rich blessings in this life. Of greatest importance among the blessings of abiding fruitfully in Christ is this: ‘Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit’ (v.8). So, what matters supremely is that we, as Christians, should study holiness. This emphasis can be easily lost in the thinking of Christians and churches. But we dare not risk losing this as our priority. Churches decline when godliness loses its place. And godliness comes only as we study to maintain our union and communion with Christ.
Another blessing promised is that our prayers will be answered: ‘Ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you’ (v.7). How sweet the truth here! The more we make fellowship with God in Christ our great objective, the more our prayers will be heard. We see this illustrated in the prayers of the saints in history. Abraham delivered Lot from Sodom; Joshua made the sun to stand still; Daniel shut the lions’ mouths; the early church turned the world upside down; Luther smote Antichrist a deadly blow; Knox lifted Scotland up as a nation of truth. Again, our Lord makes it clear that if we study to obey God’s Word and keep up our fellowship with him we shall abide in his love (v.10).J C Ryle puts it well: ‘The man who makes conscience of diligently observing Christ’s precepts, is the man who shall continually enjoy a sense of Christ’s love in his soul’.
Since then Christ is the true vine and we the branches are members of his church, let us by all means seek to promote this wonderful relationship which we have in him of union and communion. Those who do so will not live in vain but will be at the last honoured and rewarded by God. It is always better to suffer than to sin. It is always better to obey God than to obey men. It is always best to aim at that which glorifies God – namely, our own growth in grace and in the experimental enjoyment of the love of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.
Taken with permission from the Free Church Witness, October 2011.
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