When you hear the word “unity,” is your local church the first picture that pops into your mind? The Bible suggests that it should be. Towards that end, we are exploring the Bible’s vision for living in communion with the saints.
In the previous articles in this series, we examined two main points. First, we emphasized the importance of unity and concluded that the children of God will be both interested and concerned about this topic. Second, we gave several illustrations of what unity is not. We learned that there must be no inappropriate unity. That is, it must be enjoyed with believers. We also learned that Christian unity must not be superficial or merely formal or sentimental. Unity must certainly not be hypocritical. Having explained what Christian unity is not, what it is becomes much clearer. Christian unity is the state of deep and genuine harmony between believers.
As we look again to Ephesians 4:1–6 we see Paul’s emphasis on oneness:
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all and in you all.
Seven times in these verses Paul uses the word “one.” Believers are to be united as one. As Christian marriage makes the two into one, in a similar way, membership in the family of Christ makes many one.
The question we hope to answer is, “How is this possible?” If unity is difficult in a marriage, how is it possible for the entire church body to be one? How is it that people with such diverse backgrounds, personalities, and different levels of maturity can be one? Experience demonstrates that unity does not come naturally. The principle of entropy applies to our relational lives as well as to the physical universe. For any true human unity to exist, there will have to be a powerful unifying force greater than our ethnic heritage, our skin color, our media interests, or our age.
The answer to these questions will always elude the world and those who seek a humanistic peace. True unity is only possible by virtue of the mutual union of individual believers to the triune God. Christian unity is the state of harmony between believers by virtue of their mutual union to the triune God; it is the only way.
Suppose you were asked how you are related to your siblings. You would inevitably mention someone else, namely a parent. You might say, “I am his brother because we have the same father. You cannot begin to talk about how you are related to your siblings without mentioning your parents. The point is this: the basis of brotherhood is not a horizontal relationship. It is first and foremost a shared vertical relationship. In the Scripture passage above, Paul showcases each person of the Trinity and how a relationship with each person serves as the basis for unity with other believers.
Unity with the Holy Spirit
Paul urges us to “keep the unity of the Spirit.” He reminds us that there is “one Spirit” (Eph. 4:3, 4). The basic point that Paul is making here is that there is one Spirit and that he is the Spirit of unity.
The Spirit of God is a unifying Spirit because he dwells within every child of God. Before his death, Christ spoke of the coming of the Holy Spirit. He told the disciples, in John 14:16, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another counselor to be with you forever.” The “you” is plural. John 16:7, 13 also speaks of the Spirit coming to and guiding you in the plural. The Holy Spirit is a unifying Spirit precisely because He, the Spirit of God, lives within every child of God. The Bible, on this point, militates against the Pentecostal teaching on the second blessing of the Spirit. This error teaches that the Spirit is not given in the same way to all believers. According to that system he is not a Spirit of unity but of division. The truth is that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is one reality all Christians have in common.
Through the Spirit Christians become “kindred spirits.” We mean by using this phrase, that two people have a similar nature or character, a similar animating principle within them. They think with the same mind and are guided by the same inclinations. Perhaps you have wondered if you have a kindred spirit. If you are in Christ, you do. In fact, you have millions of kindred spirits!
Do you communicate this reality by the way you live with other Christians? There are likely Christian people in your life about whom you have said, “I don’t get him. We don’t click. We are not kindred spirits.” This is wrong. If the two of you are in Christ, then you are kindred spirits. On the surface you might not be able to tell. Still, you are unified to that person in the Spirit.
Ephesians 4 speaks of the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The word “bond” refers to a cord that binds a pile of wood or the ligament connecting bones to other bones. There is no tighter bond than the unity of the Spirit. There is no tighter unity than that which exists between believers by virtue of their unity to the Holy Spirit. You have heard the phrase, “blood is thicker than water.” What people usually mean by that is that family relations are stronger than any others. And as nice as that sounds, it is not true. The bond of peace that unifies believers is much stronger than the bond that unites blood relatives. How can this be true? Let just one witness speak: death. Death permanently severs the bond between a believing daughter and her unbelieving sibling. Death permanently severs the bond between a believing son and his unbelieving father. But nothing can sever the bond of peace though which believers are united in the Spirit. If you want to be truly unified to your family members, pray to God that he would send them the one Spirit of unity.
Unity with the Son
Speaking of the Lord Jesus Christ, Paul says, “There is . . . one Lord” (Eph. 4:5). The Bible teaches that Christians are brothers because they each have Jesus Christ as their brother. When Jesus was told that his brothers and sisters were looking for him, He motioned to his disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:49, 50). What an amazing comfort it is to be able to say, “Jesus is my brother.” But do not miss the corresponding reality: His other brothers are also my brothers.”
Consider Hebrews 2:11, 12. “For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: ‘I will declare Your name to My brethren.’” I am related to my brothers because I share with them a common brother. Christ says, “I am not ashamed to call them brethren.”
In this connection, we should reevaluate the phrase “blood is thicker than water.” Earlier, we said that this phrase was not necessarily true. Consider, however, the form of ancient Near Eastern covenant making. A covenant was made by two people cutting an animal in two and then walking in the blood between the two pieces. During this ceremony, the two would take this oath: “May this be done to me if I do not keep this covenant.” These covenant makers would become blood brothers. In that case, the blood is thicker than the water of a mother’s womb.
In Genesis 15 God told Abraham to take a heifer, a goat, and a ram and cut them in half and place the pieces opposite each other. The words, or terms of the covenant were then spoken. God said, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Custom required that the two parties entering the covenant were to walk through the blood. We read in Genesis 15, however, that Abraham fell asleep. God went through with the ceremony anyway. In the form of a smoking firepot and blazing torch, God passed between the pieces. In so doing He took upon himself both sides of the covenant; blessing and obedience. He took also the oath saying in effect, “May this be done to Me if either side of this covenant is broken.”
Apply this to the Lord’s Supper. In his death, Christ took upon himself the curse of this Abrahamic covenant. His body was broken. His blood was shed. Certainly God had not violated the covenant! Abraham and his seed did. As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper we are reminded again that we are blood brothers. The same blood that washed away your sins washed away my sins. True unity is sealed in the blood of Christ. Christ said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” When you drink the cup, be reminded not only of your union with God through the shed blood of Christ but also of your union with each other through that same blood.
Unity with the Father
Scripture explains how we are related to God by using two primary metaphors. First, there is the metaphor of the new birth. Christians are united together in relation to their heavenly Father as children are related to their earthly father. Of course, God has only one natural Son, the Lord Jesus. Still, God gives birth, as it were, to all of his children; not a natural birth but a spiritual birth. We have been given a “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). This is why we are brothers! The word “brother” comes from a compound word meaning “from the womb.” Sinclair Ferguson explains that “the ‘womb’ which has given us new life is the empty tomb of Jesus.”1 As Christ sprang from that tomb, all of the elect were with him. This “new birth” is experienced when the Lord regenerates us.
Second, there is the metaphor of adoption. Here God takes orphaned and rebellious children and makes them his sons and daughters. In adoption we become his real children, receiving all of the benefits of sonship.
We need to remember that fellow Christians have been chosen by God just as we have. That Christian man who gets on your nerves because he loves to talk about himself—is your brother. That teenage girl who gives the impression that she is better than everyone else—is your sister. Some may feel like second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. There’s no such thing. God chose each and every believer to give new life to them and adopt them into his family.
True Christian unity is a powerful reality because it is undergirded by the saving work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.
Why Does this Unity Matter?
In the next article we hope to get more specific and applicatory. But let me suggest a few preliminary applications.
To Those Outside of the Family
If you are not a born-again Christian, please realize that in your present state you can never enjoy true unity. If you are honest, you would admit that you know this to be true in your relationships with others. But please also know that you are foundationally alienated from the triune God as well. This is your greatest need: to be reconciled with God.
To Christian Family Members
If you are a Christian, you are related to God. This also makes you part of a family. With this relationship come numerous blessings and responsibilities.
First, Christians must love their family. Our Reformed liturgy speaks of this family love in connection with the Lord’s Supper.2 After having explained that the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ, the form goes on to say,
By this same Spirit we are also united as members of one body in true brotherly love, as the holy apostle says: Seeing that we, who are many, are one bread, one body: for we all partake of the one bread. For as out of many grains one meal is ground and one bread baked, and out of many berries, pressed together, one wine flows and is mixed together, so shall we all who by true faith are incorporated in Christ be all together one body, through brotherly love, for Christ our dear Savior’s sake, who before has so exceedingly loved us, and show this towards one another, not only in words but also in deeds.
Do you have a true love for my brothers and sisters? “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love,” wrote Paul (Rom. 12:10). This is not “I love you, but I don’t like you.” This is the love that is patient and kind. It is love that will keep unity from becoming formal or hypocritical.
The reality of Christian unity also requires us to love our “family” members when they fail. Sinclair Ferguson explains that, “only when we realize that the church is a family, that we are brothers and sisters in that family, will we have a right perspective from which to view those who fail badly, and a right motive to see them disciplined faithfully, and welcomed back with many reaffirmations of our love.”3
Second, Christians must defend their family. A few years ago, in the high school from which I graduated, two freshmen girls assaulted a fourteen-year-old fellow student. The surveillance video showed what appeared to be a premeditated ambush on the targeted victim, who was pulled to the floor by her hair before being beaten. During the assault, a group of around twenty-five students watched, but did not intervene. What if that was your sister who was being beaten? Would have you intervened? Of course! Yet, we often fail to lovingly intervene when members of our own spiritual family are attacked and left hurting.
Third, Christians must nurture their family members. Christian unity has three goals: the glory of God, the reputation of the church in the world, and the building up of the body. In Ephesians 4 unity is described as building up of the body of Christ—the entire body. The goal of church unity is not to have a few upper-class spiritual people, a bunch of middle-classers and some spiritual poor folk. The goal of unity is the maturity of every person. We are to work for that. If someone in this church remains immature, that is a problem of unity. Each one of us is responsible for the well-being of the others. Are you contributing to the unity of the body of Christ, namely to its building up? 1. Sinclair Ferguson, “Children of the Living God.” p. 54.
2. CRC “Form for Lord’s Supper” (1957).
3. Ferguson p. 62.
Rev. William D. Boekestein is the pastor of the Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, Pennsylvania.