I don’t know how many times my Old Testament professor turned our attention in class to the theme of union with Christ, but it was often enough to leave a significant impression on my mind and heart. He often made the point that while it is important to live in obedience to Christ, it is equally and arguably more important to understand by faith what I am in Jesus Christ. Understanding my union with Christ is the key, in fact, to living in obedience to Christ. In his words, “Right thinking about the gospel produces right living in the gospel” (Michael Barrett, Complete in Him, 3, emphasis original). He writes in application, “It is the responsibility of preachers to proclaim the essential truths of the gospel and point their people to the proper implications and applications of those truths to daily life. It is likewise the responsibility of each individual believer to appropriate by faith the unchangeable truths of the gospel and to live consciously in the reality of those truths” (ibid., 3).
One of those “unchangeable truths of the gospel” concerns the desperate (indeed hopeless) condition of the sinner before Christ. The apostle Paul frequently reminded his disciples of what they were before Christ. He tells the Ephesians, for instance, that they were dead in trespasses and sins, under the dominion of Satan, following their own lusts, and under God’s wrath (Eph 2:1-3). Later in the same passage he directs them to remember the time when they had no hope and were without God in the world (Eph 2:12). He likewise calls the Colossians to remember that before they were reconciled that they were “alienated and hostile in mind and engaged in evil deeds” (Col 1:21, NAU). Titus heard similar words in Paul’s letter to him: “For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another” (Titus 3:3). In Paul’s own testimony he includes a description of himself as a “blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man” (NKJ) as well as the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:13, 15). More passages could be put forth on this same theme of what we were when Christ found us (e.g., Romans 5), but these few serve to illustrate that it is important to reflect upon what I was before Christ in addition to what I am in Christ. In fact, it is precisely the backdrop of our desperate condition—slaving to sin and under condemnation—that our present and eternal union with Jesus Christ becomes even more glorious before our eyes.
A practical way to remember what we were before Christ is to take a passage of Scripture and put it often before our eyes. Paul himself chose to write about his former condition in letters to his closest companions in ministry (Timothy, Titus) as well as to the churches. John Newton followed that apostolic example in his own personal letters, and he also wrote hymns of testimony like “Amazing Grace” and “Father, Forgive, The Savior Said,” which instruct others to do the same. I find it significant as well that Newton had the following portion of Deuteronomy 15:15 painted above his fireplace in his study at his home: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you.” For Newton, the allusion to slavery surely reminded him of his life as an unconverted man. In the context of Deuteronomy, however, God gave that command to the people of Israel to motivate them to send their newly released slaves away with plenty of good provisions for a new life. In other words, God intended that the remembrance of their former condition as slaves motivate them to demonstrate love by graciously and generously giving to the slave. May we as believers in Jesus Christ always remember our wretched condition apart from Christ, and may it motivate us to reach out in love to those who have no hope and are without God in this world.