Union with Christ: Back to the Future

Sermon by Gabe Fluhrer on September 3, 2017

Ephesians 1:3-6

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As you’re being seated, if you would take a Bible and turn with me to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, you’ll find it on page 976 if you’re using a pew Bible; 976. We’re beginning a series this evening for the next few weeks here in our evening services on the glorious doctrine of union with Christ. And I’ll say a few more words about that in a minute, but we’ll be going through different passages in the New Testament, beginning this evening with Ephesians chapter 1, verses 3 through 6. Before we hear God’s Word, let’s pray together.


Our Father, we are humbled by what we are about to read and we recognize at once our frailty, the very smallness of our existence as we come to this threshold of eternity stretching in both directions. Open our eyes to behold wondrous things from Your Law. Open our eyes to behold Jesus and our union with Him. We pray in His mighty name, amen.


Ephesians chapter 1, beginning at verse 3. This is God’s Word:


“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who 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, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”


The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the Word of the living God shall stand forever and ever. Amen.


Well as a child of the 1980s – it’s been a while since we’ve had an 80s reference, so que is up! As a child of the 1980s, the big movie when I was growing up was Back to the Future starring Michael J. Fox and he played the Marty McFly character. So if you’ve ever seen the movie, Marty McFly is the cool guy. His dad is kind of a loser. He’s in high school. He gets this time machine, gets to travel back in time, and meet his dad in high school and sees his dad getting picked on and bullied. So his job is to get his dad to get cool somehow. And the plan succeeds. And what happens is this – the whole movie’s premise is because of Marty’s actions in the past, his future was changed forever. Because of what he did for his dad, his future was changed forever. The movie ends, he wakes up, he comes back from being back in time, his dad is now super successful because of what he did.


Well, we're going to do some time travel this evening with the apostle Paul. And we're not just going back in time a little bit; we're going back before the foundation of the world. And we learn here in this passage that the actions of the Father in eternity change our future forever. As I mentioned, we're studying this doctrine of union with Christ over the next several weeks. John Murray, who was a professor at my alma mater, Westminster Theological Seminary, if you know anything about John Murray if you've ever read him, you know he's not a guy who is given to overstatement. He is a guy who is very, very precise in his wording. Here's what he said about this doctrine. He said, "It's the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation." Union with Christ is "the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation." When John Murray says that, sit up and pay attention! That means it's something huge.


So what do we mean by union with Christ? Here’s a working definition. Union with Christ means that by faith alone we are united to the resurrected Son of God so that everything that is true of Him is true of us. Union with Christ means that by faith alone we are united to the resurrected Son of God so that everything that is true of Him is true of us. Here’s how another theologian, Sinclair Ferguson, defines it. He says, “To be in Christ means that all He has done for me representatively becomes mine actually.” Everything that Christ has done for me as my representative becomes mine actually. So let’s sum up this doctrine in two words – representation and participation. Representation and participation. He represents us and we participate with Him in His benefits.


The centrality of this doctrine is maybe nowhere better illustrated by the fact that this phrase, “in Christ,” is used some 160 times in the New Testament. The word “Christian” only appears once. And I’m not downplaying that term, but if you were to ask an apostle, if you were to ask a 1st-century follower of Jesus, "What are you?" they would have said something like, "an in Christ person." That is how they describe what it means to be a follower of Jesus. It means to be in Christ, to be united to Him.


Now we come to the letter of Ephesians tonight and we’ve studied this before. This book is, in a pinch, the book where you get almost every Biblical doctrine you can think of. Simple working outline – Ephesians 1 through 3, what God has done. Ephesians 4 through 6, what we are to do about it. So we’re in the “what God has done” section. And in these verses before us tonight, these 3 through 6 are part of 3 through 14, which in the original, are one long sentence. So all the seminary students who have just done summer Greek or started doing their Greek courses, Paul is breaking every rule you are being taught over at RTS. Broke them all because he’s overcome with the joy of the grace of God. And we are here right at the outset at Paul begins to teach us about union with Christ.


And here’s the main point of our verses this evening. We learn that spiritual blessings, election and adoption, are ours by the Father’s design and the Spirit’s power in union with Christ. We learn that spiritual blessings, election and adoption, are ours by the Spirit’s power and the Father’s design in union with Christ. And we’ll look at these verses under three headings. First of all, spiritual blessings in union with Christ, verse 3. Spiritual blessings in union with Christ. Then we’ll look at election in union with Christ, verse 4. And then verses 5 through 6, adoption in union with Christ. So spiritual blessings in union with Christ, election in union with Christ, and adoption in union with Christ.

Spiritual Blessings in Union with Christ

Look with me there again at verse 3. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places." And what Paul does here at the outset is he takes us back, back before time began, to the mysterious inter-Trinitarian counsel that theologians call "the covenant of redemption." And that is a covenant between the persons of the Trinity. And it is again, mysterious. There are only a few mentions of it in the entirety of the Bible, but it's here so foundational for Paul that this covenant between the persons of the Trinity is the very shape of our salvation. It's the very basis, the ground for it, before the world even begins. How do we know that that's what Paul is talking about? Did you see that language? He blesses "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ." There's an order of work among the persons of the Trinity. Not an order of rank. The Father is not more God than the Son is God or the Spirit is God, but each of them have different, as it were, assignments in this covenant and its execution. The Father is the one who has the plan here that is executed by the Son and given to us by the Spirit.


And the point is this. You can’t get very far in salvation without bumping up to the Trinity. It’s a doctrine we don’t talk about much, and at the outset, Paul takes us to the very heart, not just of the Trinity, but of what He does for our salvation. And Paul says that all of the blessings that we experience, that the Father has designed for us, that the Spirit works in us, come to us – how? He says it right there – “in Christ.”


And he says he has blessed us with these “spiritual blessings in the heavenly places.” Now for most of Paul’s writing, when you encounter this word, “spiritual,” you should capitalize the “S.” There may be one exception in all of Paul’s writings. When you read this word, “Spiritual,” it means, “Spirit wrought.” It’s blessings that come from the Holy Spirit. He’s the one who mediates the blessings for us. And what are these Spiritual blessings? Things like justification – being declared righteous in God’s sight. Sanctification – the progressive, ongoing, becoming more holy. Adoption, as we’ll talk about in a minute. And glorification – that time when the election that Paul talks about here finds its fruition when we are resurrected and with Jesus in glory forever. All of these blessings come to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, so they’re capital “S” Spiritual blessings.


But they’re “in the heavenly places.” And that reminds us that, for Paul, when you become a Christian, the blessings we receive are primarily not in this life. This is the death of the health and wealth gospel, friends. These blessings are Spiritual, capital “S” Spiritual blessings “in the heavenly places.” We receive them by faith, not by sight. You may not be blessed very much at all in this life time materially, but Paul says the moment you’re in Christ you have all the riches of heaven at your disposal. And these blessings are future, but they have an influence on our life now. We begin to enjoy them now. We enjoy them in their fullness when Jesus returns but the blessings begin now. How? In union with Christ. That’s Paul’s point. Therefore, since Christ is in heaven now, these heavenly blessings are ours by faith. We walk by faith, not by sight. So if someone has ever told you that becoming a Christian would instantly make your life better, if that becoming a Christian would mean that you would have all of these marvelous experiences all the time and your experiences don’t match up with that, and it’s been hard to be a Christian, Paul at the outset here reminds us that these blessings are primarily future. And yet we enjoy them now, by faith.


Election in Union with Christ

And then Paul turns our attention, in the second place, to election in union with Christ. Look at verse 4. “Even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him." And Paul goes back again before time, back to that inter-Trinitarian covenant, and he says something astonishing. He chose us "in Him." Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth is not just the carpenter from Nazareth. He's always been there. He's been there. The Father, the Son, and the Spirit loving one another mutually for all time. And the fullest expression of that love in time is to choose a people to save. And if you've ever stumbled over the doctrine of election – I was reading a quote by John Wesley earlier this week and he called it "the terrible blasphemy." That's what he called the doctrine of election. I have so much respect for John Wesley. He hated this doctrine and he said it's a monstrous, blasphemous doctrine that teaches that God loved a few men and left the rest of mankind to be consigned to damnation forever. Well, that's not what Paul is saying at all. And far be it for me to disagree with somebody like John Wesley, but I will do so.


In Love

What Paul is saying here could not be clearer. He says He “chose us.” Who is the “us”? A multitude no man can number! And how does he frame election? Is Paul the kind of cold, doctrinal, really cranky debating type? Is that how Paul talks about election? Is he trying to start a fight with those who oppose this doctrine? No. No. The word he uses here for “chose” is a choice that flows out of a good will. He’s going to say that just here in a moment. It’s a choice that is not this cold, calculating, “This one, not that one.” This arbitrary choice; it’s not that at all. It’s a choice, rather, of love founded and grounded in love.


In Christ

And He chose us how? “In Him.” In Christ. Everything comes back to this union with Christ. Before the world was even created – I want you to think about that. Salvation has nothing to do with us in this very important sense. You can’t work your way up to it. You did nothing to initiate it. That’s what Paul’s doing here right? He’s removing all of the boasting we could have in our salvation. He says, “You weren’t even born! Not only did you not choose to become saved, you weren’t even born when God designed this plan! The world wasn’t here. There was no such thing as dirt. There was no such thing as brains and molecules and quarks or any of that before God knew your name in Christ!” That’s how secure your salvation is. Time and sin can’t affect it, because neither existed before He chose you.


For Holiness

And why? Why did He do this? Why did He choose us? He tells us right there – “that we should be holy and blameless before him.” And this is where we come back to those two words – representation and participation. That’s where these become so fundamental. If I were to pull you aside after this service and say, “Have you been holy and blameless this week?” please don’t say, “Yes!” because then I’d have to get mean with you! All of us can look at each other very honestly and say, “I’m the furthest thing from being holy or blameless. I’ve sinned so many times today. I’m sinning right now as I listen to you!” And then how can Paul say then if God has chosen us unto this and we’re not there yet, this is where it comes back to Christ being our representative. He was holy and blameless. And now as our representative, we begin to participate in that in Him. And so what Paul is saying is, what you see in principle – holy and blameless in Christ – is so far from what we usually see in practice. Isn’t it?


And so the entirety of Paul’s teaching on obedience in the Christian life is right here before us. Do you struggle with obedience like I do? I still see – here’s the thing I’m learning. I have not been a Christian that long; about fifteen years. And here’s the thing that is becoming more painfully aware to me every single day that I follow Jesus. When Paul talks about in Romans 7 that the law comes and it killed him and he would not have known what it meant to covet if the law had not said, “Thou shalt not covet.” But as it was, when the law spoke to him, all kinds of coveting rose up in him. That’s how I feel. I feel like the more I see of His Word, the more I see how much I run from that apart from His grace.


And yet, the obedience that God calls us to is grounded and is never apart from this union with Christ. So Paul says already in principle, because you are represented by Jesus before the Father, already in principle all of us who are in Christ are holy and blameless. But you’re not yet there in practice. And Paul says that’s why you have Jesus. Paul’s teaching in one sentence of what it means to follow Jesus is this – become what you are. Become what you are! That frees us up to obey in ways that were never possible before. We’re already secure in Him. Our election is before the foundation of the world. We’ve been in Him before then. And so now when we follow Him, when we sin, when we fail, we’re already there but we’re not yet there in practice. That’s hope for when you struggle. That’s a foundation for your faith that can’t be shaken.


Adoption in Union with Christ

And the final thing Paul teaches us here in verses 5 and 6 is adoption in union with Christ. Look at verse 5. “He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” So earlier, just a moment ago, we spoke about how the Father chooses us in Christ. This is not an arbitrary choice. He’s not a tyrant. There’s a multitude no man can number. And to underline the nature of how the Father chose us, he uses these two beautiful words right here, “in love he predestined us.” Let’s just all say together tonight we’re not going to talk about predestination without those other two words in front of it. “In love he predestined us.”


And how? How did this happen? What is the one thing Paul chooses to describe our election in Christ? This is extraordinary. Adoption. I think I’m right in saying it’s only used five times in the New Testament. As best we can tell, Paul is borrowing the imagery from a Roman court of law, and it goes deeper than that of course. But here’s his point very simply. We are orphaned by sin. Orphaned. Alone. Without hope. Without Christ in the world, as he’ll tell us in chapter 2. No parents. No friends. No family. That’s what sin did to us. But Paul says before any of that happened, God had a plan – to adopt us into His family. That’s why the author of Hebrews is going to call Jesus our Elder Brother; our Elder brother.


If we get to know each other real well, it’s not going to be too long before I’m just going to talk to you about my brothers. I love my brothers. We’re very, very close. I’ve got two older brothers who have been the best kind of older brothers my whole life. And when I read that in the Bible for the first time, it came home to me. I have an identity with a last name and my brothers have that and we stick with one another and we have this shared story. And now the Bible tells us that’s true for all of us in Jesus. His story is now our story. His life becomes ours, as it were, representatively, because of what the Father has done and we are now in His family. Adopted; no longer orphans.


Because He Loves Us

Why? "According to the purpose of his will." Or, "the good pleasure of his will." Do you see what he's shouting at us in these verses? God wanted to do this. The Father did not need to be persuaded to love a people for Himself. He did not need to be won over to love loveless people like us. He wanted to! And let's just pause here real quick. If you're a skeptic tonight, there's all kinds of good arguments for the truth of the Bible, the existence of God. There are lots of books filled with them. If you need some help sleeping, I'll give you a reading list! But let's just pause here and say that none of us would make this up! Nobody here would make this up. Humankind has never invented a God who does things like this who loves a people, who chooses them, who adopts them into His family We don't ever make stuff like that up! It's too good to be true but it's absolutely true. According to His good pleasure in His will. His will. This is the end of the "Why?" questions, beloved. All of us are going to have those "Why?" questions. "Why this? Why did He do it this way? Why did He save us?" When you get to the end of all those "Why?" questions, "Why did God do this? Why are we in Christ? Why would He do it this way?" – because He loved us. Because He loved us. That's it! The love of God is the governing principle, as it were, of the entirety of our salvation in union with Christ. That's the end question. Why? Here's the answer – love! Love of God for you in Jesus. That's the answer. Amazing.


And why – another “Why?” question – “What’s the purpose of this?” “To the praise of his glorious grace with which he has blessed us in the beloved.” Paul ends where he begins. The Beloved is Jesus. God did it this way so that we would not just praise His grace but His glorious grace. We just sang, “Amazing Grace.” Why did John Newton write “Amazing Grace”? Because he had ferried human beings in shackles, stacked on top of each other so that feces would fall on babies as slaves would come over here. And he watched that happen and he approved of that and it was disgusting and it was awful. And when he got converted, he realized what kind of sin he’d been involved in, in the slave trade, and when it hit him, how awful he had been, and yet he was just as accepted in Christ as the person who had never done that, he could write, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!”


And this is why I think Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit, calls this “the glorious grace of God.” Because he was a whole lot more like John Newton than a lot of us. He killed Christians. He stood by and held the cloaks as Stephen had stone after stone, dent and crush his skull and finally kill him. Paul watched that. Stoning is not an easy way to die. And he stood there with approval and then he met Jesus and that’s why he breaks all the grammar rules because you don’t care about being precise when you realize what’s been done for you in Jesus. You don’t care about grammar rules, you don’t care what anybody thinks. All you can do is just say, “When grace comes home, just praise Him with me!” That’s what Paul is saying. “Just praise God for His glorious grace with me and be gripped by this reality!” That’s what he’s telling us.


That’s the secret to happiness, by the way. There it is. No best-sellers needed. No spiritual gurus. Here’s the secret to happiness. Here’s what Paul tells us is the secret to a life of happiness and joy. Here it is. A constant wonder and praise of the glorious grace of God in union with Christ.

Plan B?

Two things to say as we finish up. What this means for tomorrow. First of all, union with Christ before the foundation of the world means there is no Plan B for your life. There is no Plan B for your life. There’s no way that you have gotten so far out of the “center of God’s will” that He had to get out a red pencil and say, “Oh, you messed that up. Let Me redraw the whole thing.” We need to be careful here. We sin, I sin, willfully, knowingly. I choose to do that. God doesn’t make me do that. Yet, the Bible is so clear friends, from start to finish, that the comprehensive, loving, electing, predestining plan of God takes into account even our sin! He chose us in Him! He chose you in Him, He chose me in Him knowing about that sin, knowing it would happen, knowing you would fail. And so if you’ve ever wondered, “How did I get here?” Have you ever just woke up in the mornings and said that to yourself? “How did I get here?” If the regret word is what describes your life more than rejoicing, like Paul is talking about, then this doctrine is for you. There is no Plan B. There’s only Plan A, and Plan A is God’s plan, His perfect plan. You can’t out-sin it or out-live it. His plan will come to pass because it’s been there before the foundation of the world. And His plan for Christians is union with Jesus forever, including all the sin, all the failure, all the shame, which He will further magnify His glorious grace by taking it all away.


When you get to heaven, friends, when we get to heaven, we are never going to say, ever, we’re never going to fall down at God’s feet and sing to Him, “Oh great God, thank You for all that I did to be here!” All we’re going to say is, “Amazing grace! That’s the only reason we’re here!” And God gets the glory for His grace in taking all of these things out of our lives and forgiving us for these sins. So who you are in Christ is forever redefined – not by your failure and sin, but by Who represents you and in Whose life you participate. This is where you’ve got to come back when regret instead of rejoicing marks out your life.


Plan A

Second thing. What is Plan A? Plan A is an ever-growing, ever-renewing delight in our union with Christ. An ever-growing, ever-renewing delight in our union with Christ. How do we do that? Patience and practice. As if I did not need some more source of frustration in my life, after a twenty-year high, I decided to take golf back up this summer. I used to be halfway decent. I’ve learned if you take a twenty-year break you are no longer not even halfway decent; you are not decent at all! You have to relearn to do just about everything. And as I was hitting some range balls with a friend, he was watching my swings – an excellent golfer – he said, “Gabe, the thing is, you just need to get out here and hit a lot of balls and just remember the motions and everything. And here’s the thing, though, Gabe.” He said, “You’re never going to master this, right? You know that? You remember that? You can shoot great one day.” And I just saw Rory McIloy miss the cut by four strokes at the tournament this weekend. Okay?


And that is such a great illustration of union with Christ and what it means to walk in daily fellowship with God. Because there are times when we will feel so close to Him; we’ll feel like we are walking with Jesus. There will be other times where we feel so distant from Him. And patience and practice win the day.


And the other thing is this. Rankin Wilbourne, who’s written probably the best introductory book I’ve ever read on this subject, simply called Union with Christ. He talks about the importance of starting your day well. So when you wake up and the voice starts, here’s what he says. “I must start each day with my union with Christ. I must breathe in faith, ‘I am in Christ and Christ is in me. God is good. God is in charge. And God loves me.’” That’s how we begin our day. With that.


Everyone here, all of us – me, you – looking for an identity tonight, looking for the right story to tell ourselves. Everybody walked into this room and surveyed it and started telling yourself a story. And what union with Christ gives us is the only true story that matters. And it’s well illustrated by what I heard Ravi Zacharias say once. He gave this illustration about two of his friends who had an orphanage in one of the poorest countries in the world. And in this orphanage they took in the hardest of the hard cases – children with special needs. And at one point, they got a special needs child who had a severe and rare brain disease, leaving this poor little boy almost be unable to functionally at all speak or do much of anything. He could connect sentences every now and then but with great difficulty. And so as the years went by, he began as a little baby and he grew and didn’t develop like other kids, at the years went by, child after child after child got adopted from this orphanage except this little boy. And at age nine, he began to be despondent. He recognized that he wasn’t like the other children and he didn’t have a whole lot of hope that he’d be adopted.


Well, a couple from Texas who had adopted from this orphanage before, said, “We’ll take him. We’ll take him into our family.” And so the day came for this little boy to go home with this couple from Texas, back to the Lonestar State. And he was so excited because when he got there, he saw one of his old orphanage roommates that this couple had adopted and so he immediately had a friend. But what made him most proud was when he got home, his parents really couldn’t pronounce his name. He had a very difficult, foreign name. So they said, “We’ll call you AJ.” And so for the rest of the time, from those initial months onwards, he would say to everybody, “My name’s AJ. You can call me AJ” to anybody who would listen. With pride he’d say, “My name is AJ.” He had a new identity. And despite all of the malfunctions in his brain, he connected his redemption and his identity.


And what union with Christ before all eternity does for all of us here tonight, friends, what the Father choosing us in the Son before the foundation of the world and uniting us to the Son by the Spirit does for us, is it gives us a name connected to our redemption so that your identity is no longer who you know, what you do, where you live, where you vacation, how much you have, who you’re married to, who you’re not married to, what your children do, what your grandchildren do, what they do, what they don’t do – none of that. Your identity is now someone who can say, “Who are you?” and you can say, “I’m an in Christ person. Call me in Christ.”


Let’s pray.


Father now, as we've trodden on these mysteries and tried to walk with You into the depths of eternity, return us to the light of Your glorious grace which shown even when we were in the deepest mysteries we can fathom. And bring us into a lifetime of grace from our study tonight, to the praise of Your glorious grace. Let us sing with love and wonder now for that grace. We pray in Jesus' name, amen.

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