Set Apart: Our Union with Christ

The classic passage of Scripture on the representative union of Christ and His people is Romans 5:12–21. Though Paul’s presentation is somewhat difficult to follow, it can be summed up in what he said in 1 Corinthians 15:22: “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

Even this Scripture can be misunderstood unless we realize that the two “alls” in the verse are not equal in meaning. Evangelical Bible commentators agree that the two “alls” mean, respectively, all who are in Adam, and all who are in Christ, in both cases by virtue of this representative or federal union. This union may be depicted by two circles representing, respectively, Adam and Christ as seen in the following illustration.

Every human being (except Christ) was born into the circle of Adam. Every person who trusts in Jesus Christ as Savior is born into the circle of Christ. Note that the circle representing Christ is smaller than the one representing Adam, because only those who trust in Christ are in Him.

What Paul taught in Romans 5:12–21 is first, that all human beings (except Jesus) sinned in Adam as their federal representative. As a result, all of us experience death, which is the consequence of sin (verse 12). Because of Adam’s representative capacity, his sin was as truly our sin as if it had been committed by each one of us. It is only in this way that all of us could be involved in its consequences. This concept is called the federal headship of Adam.

This federal headship or representative capacity is somewhat illustrated by the concept of power of attorney. A friend of mine wanted to refinance the mortgage on his house to take advantage of lower interest rates. When the date for the closing was finally set, he realized he and his wife would be out of the country at that time. He asked if I would represent them at the closing, and I agreed, so he and his wife executed a power of attorney authorizing me to act on their behalf.

I went to the closing and, as my friends’ legal representative, signed all kinds of papers. When I signed those documents it was just as if they had signed them. When I signed the promissory note to pay a certain amount each month, that act was as legally binding on them as if they had signed the note, because I was acting as their legal representative. In like manner, Adam was our legal representative in the garden, and when he sinned, his action was as binding on us as if we had sinned personally.
We may object that we did not appoint Adam as our representative in the garden. To do so is futile, however, for in our objection we are actually complaining against God. It should be enough for us to know that God, the Sovereign Creator of the universe and the One in whom we live, and move, and have our being, appointed him.

The really good news, however, and the main point Paul was driving home is that just as Adam was our federal representative in his sin, so Jesus Christ was our federal representative in His sinless life and atoning death. Therefore, just as Adam’s sin brought condemnation and death to all his race, that is, all human beings except Christ, so our Lord’s act of righteousness brought justification and life to all His race, that is, all who trust in Him (verses 18–19).

Because of this representative union between Christ and His people, all of our responsibilities before God rest upon Him, and all of His merit accrues to us. Jesus, as our representative, assumed all the obligations in which Adam failed, and fulfilled them on our behalf. So, just as Adam’s sin was as truly our sin as if we had committed it, so Christ’s perfect obedience to God’s law and His death to pay the penalty of a broken law are just as much our obedience and death as if we had perfectly obeyed God’s law and died on that cross.

As George Smeaton so helpfully wrote, “We have but one public representative, corporate act performed by the Son of God, in which we share as truly as if we had accomplished that atonement ourselves.” So, as Dr. Smeaton again wrote, “Thus we may either say, Christ died for us; or say, we died in Him. We may equally affirm He was crucified for us, or we were co-crucified with Him.”5 The latter expression is in fact what Paul essentially said when he wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20).

All this discussion of Christ’s federal representation on behalf of His people may seem like needless theological fine print to some people, but in reality it is one of the most exciting teachings of Scripture. I have been asserting from the very beginning of this book that our day-to-day standing before God, as well as our eternal destiny, is based not on our performance but upon our Lord’s performance. The only truth that makes that argument valid is that Jesus “performed” as our legal representative.
Therefore when our consciences condemn us for our sins or our failures to fulfill the disciplines of the Christian life, we must go back to the fact that Jesus is our legal representative and that in that capacity He perfectly obeyed the will of His Father. He could rightfully say, “I always do what pleases him” (John 8:29), and when He pleased the Father, we pleased the Father. Our entire confidence in our acceptance before God is based solely upon the fact that Jesus was our legal representative in His sinless life and obedient death.

When I think deeply on this truth and its implications on my relationship with a Holy God, I get very excited. On several occasions when Paul had written on some profound truth, he spontaneously broke out into a doxology of praise to God. Words flowed from his heart, such as,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (Romans 11:33)

Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. (1 Timothy 1:17)

That is the way I feel in my heart right now as I write about the wonderful truth that through our union with Him, Jesus represented us before God in His life and death.

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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