The normal, run-of-the-mill Christian life is a spectacular miracle, something literally impossible without real and daily divine intervention. That miracle is a genuine, lived-out, heart-level, life-in-life union with Jesus Christ himself.
Those who attempt to follow Christ without experiencing union with him inevitably run off the road in one of two ways. We either embrace a cheap-grace, obedience-optional faith that feels distant and lukewarm over time, or we enslave ourselves to external commands, leaving us exhausted, ashamed, and even further from God. Rankin Wilbourne writes,
Union with Christ is the song we need to recover and hear today as the heart of the gospel. The song of grace without union with Christ becomes impersonal, a cold calculus that can leave you cynical. The song of discipleship without union with Christ becomes joyless duty, a never-ending hill that can leave you exhausted. (Union with Christ, 78)
Union with Christ is the warm melody between detached cynicism and crushing legalism. We will not survive, much less enjoy, what God calls us to do unless we learn what it means to live in Christ — and to have him live in us.
Perils of ‘Grace’
Where grace truly rules — in a human heart, in a family, in a church — sin flees and righteousness blossoms. Unfortunately, some of us try to make grace king but without giving it any real authority in our lives. We want the forgiveness, the freedom, the approval, the clean conscience, but we fear any strings that might be attached — any conditions or commands that don’t smell or feel effortless.
The apostle Paul, however, says that grace came not just to forgive, but to reign (Romans 5:21). He then asks, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). If grace reigns in my life, I’m already forgiven, right? Why stress and sweat over what the Bible says to be and do? Why let guilt have any quarter in our hearts?
Paul answers his own question with a severe warning: “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey?” (Romans 6:15–16). The moment we think that “grace” means we need not worry about sin anymore, we have made ourselves twice the slave of sin. We are obeying, but we’re obeying the cruel and oppressive master within us (Romans 6:12).
And those who borrow on grace while submitting to sin eventually grow cold toward God. He’s merely the Judge who has to acquit us again, the Butler who waits on our needs, the Banker who has to hide our debt. Cynicism springs up because God has to forgive us, accept us, love us. He doesn’t really care for us, want us, delight in us. If grace becomes god, God will seem dull, detached, and aloof, and joy will feel more removed and elusive.
Perils of ‘Obedience’
But rogue obedience is every bit as dangerous as cheap grace. While some are just looking to escape guilt and shame, others of us are quietly looking for any excuse for self-confidence and pride. And the Bible (in the wrong hands) can give us plenty of fodder for self-exaltation. Even just knowing what the Bible says can make a man proud (1 Corinthians 8:1).
The same Paul who warned about the pitfalls of grace says, “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Galatians 3:10). Over-reliance on forgiveness will leave us enslaved to sin, and so will over-reliance on self. If we subtly begin to think God should be impressed with our righteousness, that the cross might have been overkill in our case, that our obedience ought to woo the heart of heaven, then Satan has simply snuck in the backdoor. If he can’t entice us with more obvious sins, he’ll disguise his lure with a more shrewd, more flattering, more religious temptation.
And while the initial thrills of pride may feel gratifying for a time — the warm feeling of self-confidence and accomplishment, the approving gaze of others, the waning sense of neediness — the proud are eventually confronted with what we cannot do. With the people we still are after the dust of all our effort settles. So, we wear out, and our joy runs out. We not only have to grapple with how painfully short we fell, but also with how little of God we tasted despite all our work.
Whether we are drawn to misuse grace or feed our pride (or both at different times in our lives), God himself has paved a path between lukewarm licentiousness and worn-out legalism. But we have to be willing to resign from being the center. Wilbourne writes,
Union with Christ displaces us from the center of our own lives. It tells us we can discover who God created us to be only through living in vital union with his Son. It tells us the work of Christ for us cannot be separated from the person of Christ in us. . . . Every life is better with Christ at its center, but that means Christ must become, more and more, the animating center of all you do and say — that’s union with Christ. (72)
Those who use grace to justify sin and those who obey to justify themselves have one great problem in common: self, not Christ, is at the center. Everything — grace and law, faith, work, and church, Christ and everyone else — revolves around me. But if Christ becomes the blazing sun, the irresistible center of gravity, then grace will truly reign in us and bear the fruit of real righteousness. As Tim Keller says, “Jesus is the only Lord who, if you receive him, will fulfill you completely, and, if you fail him, will forgive you eternally” (Reason for God, 179).
So, how does union with Christ keep us from abusing grace and trusting in self? The apostle John, in his first letter, shows the purifying power of union in both directions.
Christ in You
First, how does union with Christ keep us from abusing grace? John writes to those who might presume on grace, and continue in sin, “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth” (1 John 1:6). Walking in sin betrays that we do not really know Jesus, and that he does not really live in us. Persistence in sin pulls away the masks, and exposes us as strangers, even enemies, of grace.
“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). This is a stunning remedy for grace-abusers. Walking in the light, delighting to increasingly obey all that Christ commands, reveals just how deeply we know Jesus and his grace. Notice, obedience doesn’t cleanse us from all sin. Only the blood of the sinless Son could pay our debt and set us free. But the evidence of that freedom is walking in the light, not lingering in the darkness. Obedience parades the reign of grace.
Grace that only forgives is not as great as grace that also transforms. When you draw near to the throne of God with your sin, expect grace to be bigger than all our cheap expectations. Expect grace to not only cancel the wrath of God against you but to create the holiness of God within you. Expect Christ to live, really live, in you (Galatians 2:20).
You in Christ
But lest “walking in the light” becomes a show for our own strength, wisdom, and resolve, John also confronts self-righteousness (and in his very next words). “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). If Christianity quietly becomes a confirmation of our righteousness apart from Christ, it is not Christianity. Those who think we somehow earn the love of God by slaving away at obedience lie about God, about grace, and even about obedience. And most tragic of all, we lie to ourselves.
But “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We have to confess to be clean. We have to recognize, admit, and repent of our remaining sin if we want to walk in the light. We don’t have to carry the weight of all our sin or climb some grueling mountain to righteousness, because we live in Christ. Through faith, he has become the wisdom we could not learn, the righteousness we could not earn, the sanctification we could not produce, and the redemption we could not achieve (1 Corinthians 1:30). We don’t need to prove ourselves anymore. We only need to prove his grace.
John lights this narrow path again a few verses later, in 1 John 2:1: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (beware of abusing grace). “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (beware of self-righteousness). This is the path to freedom and joy: holiness and humility, conviction and confession, effort and dependence, all of it filled and fueled with grace, all of it evidence we are united to him.