We must be saved from what’s going on inside. And so far as I know, no other candidate for soter ever said, “Abide in me.”

Caesar never said that.

Alexander the Great never said that.

Jesus said that.

Union with Christ—to abide with him—means that he is present in our minds and can communicate thoughts to us at any moment. Human beings are, more than anything else, minds—a ceaseless flow of awareness. Our minds are crucial because it is through our minds that we contact reality. When you hit your thumb with a hammer, you are mindful of it. Our greatest freedom is the freedom to direct what we think of. To be constantly mindful of God is salvation from worry, fear, and regret.

Union with Christ means he is present to my will, and I can surrender to him all day long. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul says (Galatians 2:20). It is a key mark of the will that surrender is the one act of the will that never exhausts but always refreshes us. The will was made to surrender to God because we were made for union with God.

Rankin Wilbourne writes, “Christ dwelling in us by his Spirit is a guarantee that we can and will change.”[6] John Calvin wrote that the possibility of union with Christ is why a mere belief in the atonement is not enough: “As long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us.”[7]

In order to understand what union is, it’s helpful to know what it is not. Union does not mean the extinguishing of the self, and it does not mean the gratification of the self.

Union with God is not the loss of self; it does not mean that your self ceases to exist. In Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions, he notes that an observation of the Buddha that often startles people is that there is no such thing as soul, that the “self” is an illusion.[8] The “union” of the self with the infinite in such traditions is sometimes described using the analogy of a glass of water being poured into the ocean; it has not ceased to exist but has totally merged with something vastly larger.

The problem with this image is that the drops in a glass of water were there coincidentally; they had no identity and no character. No one names their glass of water. In the Christian tradition, however, a person is a unique and indivisible center of consciousness with a will and an identity. I have three children, and I want them to be close to each other, but if I had them fused into a single splendid being, I would be in great trouble with my wife. It is the separateness of my self that allows me to offer myself in continual service and love to God.

Union with God does not mean passivity, or having no desires, or effortless bliss. On the other hand, our destiny is not the gratification of the self. Writer Ayn Rand spoke of the “triumph of the will”; she celebrated the courageous individualist who above all else imposed her or his will on every situation. Far from wanting to merge with others, in this view, our calling is the “will to power” without sentiment or weakness. (My daughter once wrote a satirical article featuring Ayn Rand reviewing children’s movies. Her faux review of Old Yeller: “A farm animal ceases to be useful and is disposed of humanely. A valuable lesson for children.—Four stars.”[9])

Our problem when we seek union with someone else and seek to gratify our own self is, whose will is going to win? A couple gets married and the minister says, “The two shall become one”—but which one? I want it to be me. Union with God does not mean that I will get whatever I want. It does not mean the world will bend to my will. It is not the same as being in a constantly good mood.

Ortberg, John. 2018. Eternity Is Now in Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught about Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum.

Check out the new Bible Study, Eternity is Now in Session. It is available on Amazon, as well as part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. (Like Netflix for Bible lessons.)