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The following is an outline with comments of a sermon by Thomas Boston on the doctrine of union with Christ. The sermon can be found in volume 2 of collected works. Boston discussion of union with Christ and the order salvation — particularly his mention of passive and active reception sets out an area of explanation and investigation which could be a fruitful ground for more fully understanding the doctrine)

 union with christ the only way to sanctification

1 Cor. 1:30.—But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who is made unto us—sanctification.


The world in its greatest darkness was not insensible that man’s nature was corrupted, that they needed something wherewith they might please God, attain to happiness, and repair the wound which they understood their nature had got. And although that Jews and Gentiles had different devices whereby they thought this might be obtained, yet all agreed in that it behoved them to go into themselves for it, and to draw something out of the ruins of their natural powers wherewith to help themselves, thereby discovering they did not sufficiently understand the depth of the corruption of human nature. And this principle is so agreeable to corrupt reason, that God’s device to bring about man’s salvation from sin and misery in and by another, to wit, Christ, was to ‘the Jews a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks foolishness,’ ver 23. And if we sound to the bottom, it is the same at this day to the unregenerate part of the Christian world.

Here, he sets out the problem and the solution:  Our helplessness, which is twofold:  Primarily, we do not rightly understand our circumstance.  The second flows from the first: Sin has so greatly corrupted our understanding that we do not realize the true depth of our trouble.

A con requires both an initial deception. However, the deception must remain in place until the scheme concludes. Sin functions in that manner.

Boston will demonstrate that the failure caused by sin admits of only a personal remedy –  the solution to ignorance and death is a person, Jesus Christ.

I  In the text we have the sum of God’s device for the salvation of sinners, and it centres in Jesus Christ who was crucified.

A.That the whole of man’s salvation shall be from Christ. God has made or constituted him the fountain of all salvation, from whom it must be conveyed to all that shall partake of it.

(1.) Man is ignorant naturally of the way to true happiness: he has lost God, and knows not how to find him again.

At this point, Boston makes a fascinating observation: The knowledge possessed by the human race is limited to the knowledge possessed by Adam: do this and live; there is a God, but he is absent. Boston does not suggest some sort of oral tradition (which would be both absurd and uninteresting), but rather a limitation in the structure of creation – there simply isn’t something more which can be had on this side of Adam.

Having noted the trouble, Boston notes the solution (he uses this pattern repeatedly: State a proposition, illustrate and elaborate; demonstrate the solution)

For remedy of this, Christ is made ‘wisdom.’ The treasures of wisdom and knowledge were lodged in him, Col. 2:3 and he is constituted the grand Teacher of all that seek for eternal happiness.

(2.) Man is unrighteous, and cannot stand before a righteous God.

For remedy of this, Christ is made righteousness. He, by his obedience to the law’s commands and suffering the wrath it threatened, hath brought in everlasting righteousness, which is a large garment, able to cover all that betake themselves to it,

… And the vilest of men coming to him, shall find a righteousness in him to be communicated to them; so that they that are far from righteousness shall be wrapt up in a perfect righteousness, if they will take Christ to them as God has made him.

(3.) Man is unholy, unfit for communion with a holy God here or hereafter. His soul is dead in sin, his lusts live and are vigorous in him; so that he is no more meet for heaven than a sow for a palace…but there is as much difference betwixt true holiness and their attainment, as between a living body and an embalmed corpse. … for our natural abilities will serve us no more for sanctification, than the cripple’s legs will serve him to walk.

But for remedy in this, Christ is made sanctification. … And the most polluted sinner, whose lusts are most raging, may confidently try this grand method of sanctification, which can no more fail him than God’s device can fail to reach the end he designed for it.

(4.) Man by the fall is become mortal, liable to many bodily infirmities and miseries, and at length must go to the grave, the house appointed for all living. Nature could find no remedy for this. The learned Athenians mocked at the resurrection of the dead,

But man’s salvation cannot be complete without a remedy for this; therefore Christ is made ‘redemption,’ who will give in due time deliverance to his people from misery and death,

Boston lays out the troubles we face – and then notes that all our solution lies in the person of Jesus. It is not a bare knowledge about, but a communion and union with Jesus which transforms one’s life.

B. That all who partake of this salvation, must partake of it in him, by virtue of union with him: …

This then is the grand device of salvation, that Christ shall be all to sinners, and that they must partake of all in him; which is quite opposite to our natural imaginations, and exalts the free grace of God, depressing nature. (1.) They do not help themselves, their help is in another: He is made wisdom, &c. (2.) They do not so much as help themselves to their helper; for it is of God, by the power of his grace, that they are brought to be in him. It is not the branch itself, but the husbandman that ingrafts it.

Boston having thus provided a brief exegesis sets out the doctrine:

Doct. ‘God’s device for the sanctification of an unholy world is, that sinners unite with Christ, and derive holiness from him, whom the Father has constituted the head of sanctifying influences. Union with Christ is the only way to sanctification.’

I) What is holiness?  As to holiness, it is that disposition of heart and course of life which is conformable to God’s holy law, and pleases him. In this life it is imperfect, but in the life to come it will be perfected. …

A. True holiness is universal in respect of the commands of God, Psal. 119:6. Tit. 2:12. Gal. 5:19. &c.

B. True holiness is not only in external duties, but necessarily includes internal obedience of the soul to the will of God, Psal. 24:3. …. And though not without weeds of corruption, it is the holy man’s constant work to be labouring to root them up.

C. In true holiness there is a bent, inclination, and propensity of heart, to the acts of obedience to God. The spirit, that is, the new nature, has its lustings, as well as the flesh, Gal. 5:17. By Adam’s fall the hearts of men got a wrong set, a bent and propensity to evil, Rom. 8:7. Hos. 11:7. Now, in sanctification it is bent the other way, towards God and godliness, 2 Thess. 3:5

D. As the love of God is the great comprehensive duty of holiness, love is the fulfilling of the law; so love runs through all the duties of religion, to give them the tincture of holiness, Heb. 6:10. And without this, should a man give all his goods to the poor, it profiteth nothing. Where self-love is the domineering principle, their duties are in God’s account serving themselves, and not him. Holy duties are the obedience of a child who loves his father, and therefore serves him; not the obedience of a servant, who loves himself, and therefore serves for his wages.

E. True holiness is influenced by the command of God. The will of God is not only the rule, but the reason, of a holy life, John 5:30., Psal. 119:115.

F. True holiness has for its chief end the glory of God, 1 Cor. 10:31. …The want of this mars a man’s life and actions, so far as they are not holy, but selfish, Zech. 7:6.

G. Lastly, True holiness is universal. Sanctifying grace seeks through the whole man, and the whole of his course.

1. Mortification is universal, Gal. 5:24. …It is no true mortification where one lust is spared.

2. Vivification is universal, 2 Cor. 5:17. As when the body of Christ was raised, there was life put into every member; so when the soul is raised to live the life of holiness, the image of God is repaired in all its parts, and the soul embraces the whole yoke of Christ, so far as it knows the same.

Thus, holiness is a completely different life.

II. I shall shew how this holiness is derived from Christ, according to the grand device of infinite wisdom for the sanctifying of an unholy world.

A. God made the first Adam holy, and all mankind was so in him, Eccl. 7:29.

B. Adam, sinning lost the image of God, that holiness in which he was created, and turned altogether corrupt and averse to good.

C. Man’s sanctification by himself thus being hopeless, for his nature being corrupted wholly, he could never sanctify his own heart or life, seeing no effect can exceed the virtue of its cause; it pleased God to constitute a Mediator, his own Son, to be the head of sanctifying influences to all that should partake of them. And again, he set up the human nature holy, harmless, and undefiled, which was united to the divine nature in the person of the Son. So Christ, God-man, was filled with the Spirit of holiness, and received a holy nature, to be conveyed from him to those that are his by spiritual generation, Eph. 2:10. And the Mediator being God as well as man, and the fulness of the Godhead dwelling in him bodily, there can never be wanting sanctifying influences in him who is a full fountain.

The human nature taken up the God in the incarnation was holy – that is without defilement. Then, just as Adam conveyed original sin those who followed him; so Jesus will convey holiness to those who are spiritually born of him.

D. Jesus Christ took on him the guilt of all the elect’s sins, and the curse due unto them; and these sins of theirs did hang about him till they brought him to the dust of death. … For the guilt of sin and the curse being taken away, sanctification follows of course; that being removed which prevented sanctifying influences, and a communication opened betwixt heaven and the soul again, upon its reconciliation with God.

Jesus sets up a possibility of communion (whether ground or space or cause, Boston does not neatly distinguish).

E. Though by the death and resurrection of Christ, the sanctification of his people is infallibly insured, as the corruption of all mankind was by the fall of Adam; yet we cannot actually partake of Christ’s holiness till we have a spiritual being in him, even as we partake not of Adam’s corruption till we have a natural being from him. And for the effecting of this union with Christ, he in the time of love sends his quickening Spirit into the soul, whereby he apprehends us; and thus there is a passive reception of Christ. And the soul being quickened, believes, and so apprehends Christ. Thus that union with Christ is made up by the Spirit on Christ’s part, and faith on ours. So the soul being united to him, lives by the same spirit of holiness which is in him, and takes of his, and gives to his members for their sanctification.

This description of the nature of union with Christ and its relationship to the order of salvation is the one of the most detailed I have yet seen. Note that the initial relationship caused by the Spirit is “a passive reception of Christ”. Thereafter, faith “apprehends Christ”; thus leading to an active reception.

This two-fold reception of Christ seems to provide a basis for understanding the nature of union in the believer. There is a manner which the union is indissoluble (the passive union); and yet another manner in which faith lays upon Christ (the active union). The active union would thus be capable of development; while the passive union could not be lost.

F. Lastly, As Jesus Christ is the prime receptacle of the Spirit of holiness, as the head of all the saints; so the continual supplies of that Spirit are to be derived from him for the saints’ progress in holiness, till they come to perfection. And faith is the great mean of communication betwixt Christ and us, Acts 15:9. And thus it does, as it empties the soul of all confidence in itself for sanctification, and relies upon him for it according to his word: putting on the saints to use the means of sanctification appointed by him, yet taking their confidence off the means, and setting it on himself, Phil. 3:3. And for the ground of this confidence it has his word, so that his honour and faithfulness are engaged for the supply of the Spirit of sanctification this way, being the way in which he has commanded us to look for it.

Use I. Of information.

A. The absolute necessity of holiness. … There is more evil in sin than suffering, more in man’s sin than the wrath of God. Nay, suppose a man saved from wrath, but not from sin, he is a miserable man; because of his unlikeness to God; for as happiness lies in assimilation to God, it must needs be a miserable case to be so unlike him as sin makes us.

B. In vain do men attempt sanctification without coming to Christ for it. Those that know not Christ may attain to a shadow of holiness, but can never be truly sanctified.

C. Unholiness ought not to stop a sinner from coming to Christ, more than a disease ought to hinder a man to take the physician’s help, or cold from taking the benefit of the fire. And they that will have men to attain to holiness before they believe, are as absurd as one who would have the cripple to walk before he use the cure for his lameness.

D. True faith is the soul’s coming to Christ for sanctification as well as justification. For faith must receive Christ as God offers him, and he offers him with all his salvation. Now, he is made sanctification: Wherefore the soul, being willing to take Christ with all his salvation, to be sanctified, comes to him for it.

Use II. Of Exhortation. Come then to Christ for sanctification.

To press this, I offer the following motives.

Mot. 1. If ye be not holy, ye will never see heaven.—Heaven’s door is bolted on the unholy, Heb. 12:14.—There is another place provided for the unholy impure goats.

Mot. 2. Ye will never attain holiness, if ye come not to Christ for it. How can ye think to thrive following another device than God’s for your end? Ye may do what ye can to reform, ye may bind yourselves with vows to be holy, watch against sin, and press your hearts with the most affecting considerations of heaven, hell, &c. but ye shall as soon bring water out of the flinty rock, as holiness out of all these, till ye believe and unite with Christ. Consider,

1. While ye are out of Christ, ye are under the curse; and is it possible for the cursed tree to bring forth the fruit of holiness?

2. Can ye be holy without sanctifying influences, or can ye expect that these shall be conveyed to you otherwise than through a Mediator, by his Spirit?

3. Ye have nothing wherewith to produce holiness. The most skilful musician cannot play unless his instrument be in tune. The lame man, if he were ever so willing, cannot run till he be cured. Ye are under an utter impotency, by reason of the corruption of your nature.

Lastly, If ye will come to Christ, ye shall be made holy. There is a fulness of merit and spirit in him for sanctification. Come then to the fountain of holiness. The worst of sinners may be sanctified this way, 1 Cor. 6:11.

Wherefore be persuaded of your utter inability to sanctify yourselves, and receive Christ for sanctification, as he is offered to you; and thus alone shall you attain to holiness both in heart and life.