We have sharpened our vision of who Jesus is. And we have established the ongoing salutary reality of self-despair and collapsing in penitent faith time and again into the arms of that Jesus. But does this Jesus remain at a distance? How do we actually access him? What is the nature of our relationship with him?

The New Testament gives a resounding answer. Those who collapse into him in repentance and faith are united to him—joined to him—one with him. This, and not the doctrine of justification or reconciliation or adoption or any other important biblical teaching—is the controlling center, according to the New Testament, of what it means to be a Christian. The New Testament refers to our being united to Christ over two hundred times. That averages out to about one reference per page in many Bible layouts. If a book loops back to the same theme on every page, wouldn’t you consider it a major point the author intends to get across?

But what does this have to do with our spiritual growth? Everything. The old writer Jeremiah Burroughs put it this way: “From Christ as from a fountain sanctification flows into the souls of the saints: their sanctification comes not so much from their struggling, and endeavors, and vows, and resolutions, as it comes flowing to them from their union with him.” But don’t take it from the Puritans. The doctrine of union with Christ is where the Bible itself goes when tackling the question of how believers grow. In Romans 6, Paul addresses the objection of why the gospel of grace is not an encouragement to sin all the more by bringing in the reality of a believer’s union with Christ:

Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Rom. 6:1–5)

The logic of the text is this: yes, more sin means more grace, and his grace always outstrips our sinning; but believers do not therefore sin it up all the more, because his grace is not a transaction; rather, his grace comes to us through union. When Jesus went down into the grave to die for our sins, we too went with him down into that grave to die to our sins. What would we say to an adopted orphan wandering out the front door of the mansion of his new family and down to the food stamps line? We’d say: What are you doing? That’s not who you are anymore. We find similar logic in books of the New Testament such as Ephesians and Colossians.

In this chapter we’ll consider exactly what union with Christ is and how this doctrine nurtures spiritual growth.

God in Me

There are basically four different ways Christians understand growth. The first three are more or less common in different parts of the church. The fourth is what the Bible gives us. We’ll call these

1. God then me,

2. God not me,

3. God plus me,

4. God in me.

A “God then me” mindset, first, believes it is God who does everything to save me—he opens my eyes, he regenerates me, he grants me new life—and he gives me a fresh start at life, a blank slate. So then it’s up to me to get busy serving him, showing him how grateful I am for all he has done. Faith alone gets me in, then effort is what moves me along. After all, this way of thinking goes, we’ve been indwelt by the Spirit, so we should be living radically transformed lives. The trouble with this approach is that it does not account for the ongoing presence of sin in the life of the believer. Nor does it allow for the pervasive biblical theme of the ongoing grace and mercy of God in the life of the believer, which we’ll dwell on in a later chapter.

Others, second, understand growth as “God not me.” This is essentially the polar opposite of the first error. The idea here is that God saves me, and then the Christian life is a matter of God, and only God, bringing any growth in my life. It’s a “let go and let God” mindset that treats our human agency as passive, as if we can only wait for God to act upon us. While the previous mindset was too optimistic about what believers are capable of in their own strength, this one is too pessimistic about what they can do in Christ. While the previous error emphasized human responsibility in sanctification to the neglect of divine sovereignty, this one emphasizes divine sovereignty to the neglect of human responsibility. But Scripture speaks of sanctification as a matter of both divine sovereignty and human responsibility.

We’re calling the third approach “God plus me.” This one is getting closer to the truth. The idea here is that Christian growth is a collaborative effort. God does some; I do some. We are partners. Each party contributes something. If we picture each growth approach as a circle, the “God then me” approach has the circle entirely filled up with me, the “God not me” circle is filled entirely with God, and the “God plus me” circle has a squiggly line down the middle, with roughly one half filled with God and the other half filled with me.

But the proper approach would have both God and me entirely filling the circle. The two agents are overlaid. This fourth approach is “God in me.” God does everything to save me, and then by his Holy Spirit (more on that in another chapter) he unites me spiritually to his Son. The result is that in our growth in holiness (as Edwards put it) “we are not merely passive in it, nor yet does God do some and we do the rest, but God does all, and we do all.… We are in different respects wholly passive and wholly active.” This approach, in other words, holds together both human responsibility and divine sovereignty in how we move forward spiritually.

Dane C. Ortlund, Deeper: Real Change for Real Sinners, ed. Michael Reeves, Union (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 16–19.

We have just completed a Bible study to guide your group into meditating on and applying these truths. Deeper is our Bible Study based on Dane Ortlund’s book by the same name. It consists of 7 lessons with ready-to-use questions suitable for groups. It can be purchased on Amazon and is also available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service.