Union with Christ: some mixed metaphors

For a while I’ve been aware of a strand of Evangelical thought regarding union with Christ, sometimes also referred to as “union and communion,” which on the surface sounds very healthily traditional and biblical but has left me feeling like there’s something missing to it. We so quickly fall into our self-centered ways, even in the Church and our relationship with the Body and with God… something isn’t adding up here.

It finally occurred to me that the common evangelical “union with Christ” concept is closely linked with the concept of self-offering: “O Lord, I bring an offering to you;” “I give myself away, so you can use me;” “I give you my heart;” “I’ll take this life and lay it down, I’m letting go.”  But this is a mixed metaphor.  Union with Christ and Self-Offering are two different images in the Bible used for different purposes, and too many people are blurring them together – losing the clarity of both.

Oblation / Self-Offering

Let’s start with the Self-Offering theme (more formally called an “oblation”).  In the Bible, an oblation, or offering, or sacrifice is something that is given away from a human (or from humanity) to God.  In its spiritual sense it does denote an abandonment of self in God.  What a lot of the songs that use these themes often leave out is that sacrifices to God end up in one or two ways: burned or eaten.

That’s right, when you sing “I give myself away, so you can use me,” a key part of that biblical imagery is actually “I give myself away, so you can kill me.”  It makes for a much creepier lyric, but it’s just as biblical if not moreso: we are called to die to self daily and take up the Cross of Christ.  When we offer ourselves to God as “living sacrifices” we are handing ourselves over to him to glorify him by being transformed (by him) into something holier.  This is sanctification, which is related to union with Christ, but is not the exact same thing.

Spousal Union with Christ

One of the primary images in the Bible for our union with Christ (even in the Old Testament as well as the New) is that of a husband and wife.  Jesus is the husband and we are the wife.  That means Jesus is the initiator/giver and we are the receiver.

Now the contradiction with the “self-offering” image should become clear.  In union with Christ, God is the giver, author, the beginning, not us.  To describe union with Christ as something we initiate by offering ourselves to him is inconsistent with our bridal identity. To make ourselves the giver and initiator is a sort of spiritual sexual confusion!

To put it bluntly, consider the sperm and the egg.  The egg is (relatively) stationary; it is the sperm that comes to the egg.  We do not and can not swap roles; we are the feminine to God’s masculine.

Untangling the Images

Now, I did say that these are related images.  Both speak to different aspects of our salvation.  The spousal image of union with Christ is God’s calling and invitation to us to receive him.  As we receive him, and begin to be unified with him, he starts to fill us with his holiness.  Only then, with the holiness (and righteousness) of Christ in us, can we offer ourselves to God.  Without Christ in us, we’re useless and insultingly sinful offerings, so God’s self-offering to us must initiate our union with him.  Our offering is a response to his, and is enabled by his.

So by all means, keep singing “I give myself away” if you’re into that song.  Just remember that in so doing you are not initiating union with Christ, but responding to the union that he began in you himself.

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About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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