UNION WITH CHRIST: JOHN 15:1-11
The Need for Proper Doctrine
During the 1990’s the Seeker Friendly Movement became popular among churches in the U.S. By the next decade tens of thousands of Christian churches had adopted the movement and a new way of “doing church” that was relevant to current times was now the model to be followed. Two mega-churches led the way in training thousands of pastors and church leaders in this movement, Saddleback Church in California and Willow Creek Church in Chicago. The Seeker Friendly Model is the premise that the solution to declining church membership is to become more relevant by adapting the church to the views of the current culture. The goal was to make the church more inviting to new members and seekers. The method was to move away from gospel and doctrine based sermons, to a more entertainment based venue. Church services soon became filled with concert like music, dramatic skits, and large screen monitors displaying video presentations. Sermons were now based on meeting the needs and desires of unbelievers. Preaching about sin, death, hell, atonement, justification and other fundamental doctrines was banished. Popular church sermons were now more culturally sensitive and entertaining. The pastor transitioned from bible preacher, to part motivational speaker and part stand-up comic.
A little more than a decade later the effects of the Seeker Friendly Movement soon became apparent as church leaders noticed that their pews were now filled with immature Christians who were not producing any spiritual fruit. It was evident that these churches had gone from being strongholds of Christian values and teachings to being shallow institutions echoing modern societal views. In 2004, the leaders of Willow Creek Church conducted surveys of their congregation and the results were disappointing. The conclusion was that the church had focused primarily on growth and new membership, resulting in the entire congregation not growing in the faith. Another issue was that the mature members of the church had been neglected and had stalled in their spiritual growth. They had been abandoned and become dissatisfied with the church. Many in this group either left the church or considered leaving.
The lessons learned from this movement were that the Church is not to conform to the beliefs of the current culture; it is culture that is to conform to the beliefs of the Church. The Church transforms the culture through the teachings of God. People are not to conform to the pattern of this world, they are to be transformed towards holiness by conforming to God’s will. Paul teaches this concept in the book of Romans.
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”Rom. 12:2
The Church is the community of believers who come together to worship God, and to become disciples who go out to teach and preach the Gospel to others. It is not a marketplace that is primarily focused on reaching new customers. Disciples cannot be trained without the full teaching of Scripture. Seekers can only be brought to salvation by the power of the Gospel. Too many churches today preach shallow messages that merely entertain and make people feel good about themselves; instead of preaching the Full Council of God, (c-my blog on Being Fed A Sugary Gospel of Junk Food). The Gospel matters, doctrine matters; and nothing is more relevant yesterday, today, and tomorrow for mankind than–teaching and preaching the Gospel of Christ.
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”Romans 1:16-17
The Doctrine: Union with Christ
A brief definition of the Doctrine of Union with Christ is: “that intimate, vital, and spiritual union between Christ and His people, in virtue of which He is the source of their life and strength, of their blessedness and salvation. The transforming union in which believers are changed into the image of Christ under the influence of the Holy Spirit. It is the relationship of believers with God on the basis of the salvation they receive through Jesus Christ.”
The Seeker Friendly Movement is a testament as to how Christians do not grow and progress in their sanctification without the wisdom and knowledge of the Gospel of Christ, and without the doctrines which define and organize the teachings of the Gospel. The doctrine of the Union with Christ is such a vital teaching for the Christian life that the Christian’s growth is hindered without it. Inversely, the doctrine adds an entirely new dimension to the spiritual life of the believer. At the time of the conversion of the new believer; when he is justified by his faith in Christ, many things occur that he may not be aware of. He receives salvation because his sins have been forgiven by the death of Christ, and he receives the righteousness of Christ by which he becomes righteous. As the believer is rescued from the Kingdom of Darkness and is now a member of the Kingdom of God, he becomes united to Christ. He is in Christ and Christ is in him. These are the words of Jesus as He speaks them in the Gospel of John:
“After a little while the world will no longer see Me, but you will see Me; because I live, you will live also.John 14:19-20
“In that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.”
The Apostle John repeats this theme in his first epistle, emphasizing the marvel of believers dwelling in Christ, and Christ dwelling in believers through their faith in Him as God. (John in many of his passages uses the term “abide” which some may not be familiar with, especially those readers from other countries. John uses the Greek word “menō,” which is translated as remain, stay, or reside. The sense of the word “abide” as used in these passages, is to remain in God, or to reside(dwell) in God).
“ Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.”1 John 3:24
“By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God”1John 4:13-15
In these two verses, John identifies two conditions that are necessary for the union of Christ. The first is that the believer must keep God’s commandments; and the second is that he must have faith in Jesus as the Son of God. Another point he makes is that it is the Holy Spirit that is the power that makes the union possible. We know that the Spirit is sent by the Son; and it is the Spirit who indwells believers. He is the change agent that causes believers to be conformed to the image of Christ during their sanctification. The Spirit continually points the believer towards Christ and His work. The transformation of the believer is not a passive event. Remember John’s two conditions, faith and obedience. This is the path that guides the spiritual life of the Christian. Being in union with Christ means that he is led by the Holy Spirit to be conformed to the image of Christ.
The Epistles of Paul
Did you catch that last sentence in Hoekma’s quote? The Christian’s faith is maintained and powered by the indwelling of Christ, and he lives daily in blissful joy knowing that Christ lives in him or her. The knowledge of the doctrine of the Union with Christ is why Paul was able to endure persecution, beatings, and imprisonment. He learned to be content in any circumstance no matter how severe it may have been because he knew that Christ dwelled in him. He writes in Phil. 4:12-13, “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul had reached a level in his spiritual life where he could overcome all obstacles by drawing on the power of the indwelling Christ. This is the goal for the spiritual life of all believers; to understand and depend on the union between them and the indwelling Christ. The believer is also being led by the Spirit to become conformed to the image of Christ as he grows spiritually. He progresses in his sanctification from being a new babe in the faith, to becoming a mature Christian. It is important that the believer understand how he is connected to Christ and the Holy Spirit so that he can work through his sanctification. “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure,” (Phil. 2:12-13).
This is why doctrine is important. If Christians are not taught these teachings or learn them on their own, they will miss the essential benefits that Christ provides through His union with those who belong to Him. This doctrine informs them of the transformation that is taking place as a result of this union. Christ becomes the guiding principle of their life and leads them progressively in a Godward direction. Through this union believers are changed into the image of Christ through the direction of the Spirit, and in conjunction with the exercise of their faith. This is the process of spiritual growth and formation. The Christian submits to the leading of the Spirit, while living his life continually in the knowledge and awareness that he is in union with Christ . By abiding in Christ, the believer is able to draw from the fountain of Christ to replenish his/her faith and nourish his/her spirit. The path of spiritual growth in sanctification is related to the ability of the believer to embrace the indwelling Christ and to draw on Him. This leads him to reach the level of spiritual maturity as that of the Apostle Paul, where the believer is able to be content in any circumstance.
John 15: The Vine and The Branches
“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.
“Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.
“You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.
“I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
“If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.
“If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.
“Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.
“If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.
“These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.”John 15:1-11
The metaphor of The Vine and the Branches is the teaching of Jesus where He illustrates to His disciples their relationship to Him. It is also a beautiful illustration of the relationship of believers with Christ in their union. The imagery of the grapevine was popular in Jewish culture and rooted in Old Testament passages. In this metaphor, Jesus identifies Himself as the True Vine and His followers(believers) are the branches. All of the branches originate from the True Vine. The branches are dependent on the True Vine for their nourishment and their existence. Apart from the True Vine the branches will wither and die. This teaching of Jesus demonstrates the concept of the union with Christ for Christians. They are reminded of the importance of abiding in Him for their existence. Their spiritual growth is dependent on their connection to Him. They receive spiritual nourishment necessary for their growth, from this union. The deeper the union, the greater the fruit that is produced. Pruning of the branch is necessary in order to produce more fruit. The pruning of the believer occurs as he is led by the Spirit to being conformed more and more to the image of Christ. Just as Jesus produced much fruit in His earthly ministry, Christians imitate His work in producing their own fruit. The greater they grow in conforming to His image, the greater their spiritual transformation will be.
The Christian life cannot function apart from this union with Christ. It is dependent on Christ, His teachings, and the leading of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Union of Christ has been formulated and organized by the Church from the teachings of the authors of Scripture as they were taught by Jesus and by the inspiration of the Spirit. This doctrine, and the other essential doctrines of the faith are for the instruction, guidance, and encouragement of Christians throughout the ages. To neglect these teachings is irresponsible, especially for the pastors and church leaders who are tasked with shepherding their individual flocks. For those readers who are not being properly fed the full Gospel of Christ, I suggest finding a faithful minister of God. I also advise growing and nurturing your own union with Christ. Remember His words:
“These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.”