God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 6:17 The Mystic Union
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, January 23, 2023
17 But one who unites himself with the Lord is one in spirit with him.
With this sentence, Paul means to encourage us. Our union with the Lord is in some ways similar to the union of marriage (Hosea 2:19-20), but it is not temporary; it is eternal. Theologically, we call this union between the Lord and believers the Mystic Union. In this union, the Triune God takes up his habitation in the hearts of believers and he dwells within us. This is more than the general presence of God in all things (his omnipresence). It is effected, brought to be, by the Holy Spirit through the gospel in God’s Word and in the sacraments (the means of grace). Jesus said: “If anyone loves me, he will hold onto my word. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).
The Mystic Union gives us strength to do good works that please God. “Christ lives in me,” Paul says. “The life I am now living in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself to me” (Galatians 2:20). And Jesus said: “I am the Vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him is the one who bears much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” (John 15:4).
I’m sure I cannot do justice to this Scriptural teaching in a few brief lines here, but this verse offers a marvelous insight into one of the greatest blessings of this union: God, dwelling within us, gives us strength, empowering us to turn from sin and temptation on account of our love for God, and therefore to act in a way that is impossible for an unbeliever. An unbeliever who says no to a temptation (in this context, deciding not to join with a prostitute) does not do so out of faith. He might do it because he doesn’t want to displease his wife, or that he fears being caught and embarrassed, or for some other system of values that may seem moral or good to him but which nevertheless do not please God. This act of the unbeliever is the same as a goat sacrificed on the altar of a false god. Yet a believer who struggles with a temptation and refuses a sin, even though it was far more difficult for him, performs a work that pleases God, for it was done from faith.
Let us make some other observations about the Mystic Union.
1, God dwells in the believer (John 14:23). But this should not be confused with the union of the two natures of Christ (God and man), the sacramental union of the elements in the Lord’s Supper (the real presence) nor the often wild speculations of pantheism or modern spiritualism.
2, It is brought about by the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace, “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Ephesians 3:17).
3, The moment of this union “is altogether the same as the moment of regeneration, justification, and renewal… Nevertheless, according to our way of thinking of order, regeneration and justification are prior to the mystical union” (Quenstedt).
4, This spiritual union is a source of great comfort and strength. “God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day” (Psalm 46:5). “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26). And Luther says in his great hymn: “He’s by our side upon the plain / with his good gifts and Spirit” (A Mighty Fortress, v. 4).
5, This spiritual union is the source of many of the most comforting things God says to us. “It will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:20); “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8:11).
6, This spiritual union brings strength to do good works. “Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” (2 Peter 1:4). This is where this passage in 1 Corinthians fits.
7, This spiritual union represents a sort of reciprocity between Christ and the believer. Or, more simply, mankind benefits from this union on account of God’s presence: “Whoever touches you touches the apple of his eye” (Zechariah 2:8). Also, the Lord’s warning to Saul shows that the enemies of the church are the enemies of Christ: “He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied” (Acts 9:4-5).
8, The goal of this marvelous union is the same as all other actions of God upon us: It is for our eternal good. However, in this union, salvation attains its highest point here on earth, for in this union God pours out the fullness of his gracious gifts on believers, so that they lack no comfort, peace, or joy. “For you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:9). We will be like him: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2), and our joy will be complete (1 John 1:4).
Here is also where churches like the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) sorely and greatly err, for by claiming as they do that there is more than one way to eternal life apart from Christ, they claim that there is in human beings already (merely through creation) a natural tendency toward a union with God, which for them (that is, they claim, all non-Christians) is also their righteousness. To this the objection is properly made: Christ himself says, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And again: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood” (that is, whoever puts their faith in Christ personally) “has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:54).
This verse (1 Corinthians 6:17) is placed in the middle of a proclamation of the law, uncovering in the reader the most serious of sins. But it is in itself a proclamation of the gospel, the glorious, mysterious and comforting doctrine of the union of Christ with the Christian. Lutheran theologian Balthasar Mentzer (1565-1627) said about this mystery:
“What then? I cannot express but firmly believe that indwelling of Christ in us, by which we are made one body with him, so bound and connected and joined to his substance that nothing in this life can exist or be imagined which is sweeter, more pleasant, or more filled with comfort than this.”
“The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him.”
Pastor Timothy Smith