Mystical Union: Understanding Works

We are often fond of saying that justification is a gift, and sanctification is a lot of work, which is true in one way.  But what we often mean by it is that we do nothing in justification, and then sanctification is quid pro quo all the way.  That needs a rethink.

In Ephesians 2:8-9, Paul says that salvation — by which he means being made alive with Christ, raised with Christ, and seated with Christ in the heavenly places — is not of works, lest anyone should boast.  Boasting is excluded by God’s grace.

Thing is, this is also true of sanctification, is it not?  We don’t buy our way into spiritual blessing in this life any more than we buy our way into the family to start with.  Everything we have  — everything — is given by God.  “What do you have, that you did not receive?  And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not?”

Why, indeed.

God blesses us in sanctification, to be sure, but it’s not a quid pro quo type of transaction, any more than justification is.  Sanctification is hard — very hard, at times.  But it’s hard because we’re sinners, and it runs counter to our nature to cooperate with God instead of rebelling against Him.  God is seeking to give us His blessings, to pour out far more than we can imagine, but there are certain relational blessings He simply can’t give us without our cooperation. You can give a rebellious 2-year-old a hug whether he wants it or not, but you can’t give him the experience of a good hug unless he’s willing to receive it.  If he fights you, you may succeed in getting your arms around him and squeezing, but relationally speaking, it’s hardly the same experience, is it?

Sanctification is, above all, a relationship with the living God.  Like all good relationships, it requires that we be willing to receive the other person.

But is this so different from justification?  As long as a person insists on working, on taking his destiny into his own hands, on keeping Jesus out of the picture, then he cannot be born again.  “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to be called sons of God….”

The difference is in scope more than in kind.  But we ought to expect nothing else: “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?”


7 Responses to Mystical Union: Understanding Works

  1. Zoe says:

    I can see where you are coming from here and I hear ya. Relationship is not just key, it is entirety. I do find, however, that there is a fine line between this and the laisez faire attitude of “I’ll just listen to my favourite pastor teach and as long as I confess my sins, everything I do will be spiritual work and therefore growth”. I know they are worlds apart, but I find it hard to describe the difference to someone who sees them as the same thing. Any thoughts…?
    Thank you again for a great post!

  2. Tim Nichols says:


    As always, thank you for your kind words. The group of people you’re describing were much on my mind when I chose the “mystical union” language as a way of describing real relationship with a personal God as over against some sort of thought experiment with theological principles. The hair-trigger reaction to the word “mystical” among such folks keeps them from automatically assuming that they’re already doing whatever it is I’m talking about.

    This is, of course, a matter of personal style. I’d rather dig myself out of the hole that “mystical” puts me into than have them assume up front that we’re talking about the same thing, and then have to dig us both out of that hole. The associated cost is that there’s a certain percentage of uber-conservative folks who are so pissed off at me using the word “mystical” that they simply can’t get past it. But to be honest, I’ve had enough dealings with such folk to last me a lifetime, and if they’d rather just move on down the road, I’m happy to let ’em go. I’ve got enough to do with folks that are willing; mostly I don’t need to break my head trying to get through to the willfully blind.

  3. Charity says:

    For what it is worth, I have enjoyed your mystical union series very much. I do think the term “mystical” accurately describes what is happening. I guess, I take mystical to mean “something beyond our understanding” and by definition then, it keeps us from boiling God down to a formula. Let God out of our box can be really scary! We are all in search of the redemption that will fill the Jesus-shaped hole in our souls. Yes, what we need to be redeemed from can be collectively called “sin”, but it really does manifest itself in very different and personal ways for each of us. So the redemptive process is equally personal.

    I am sorry that this has been such a battle for you, but for some of us, you have helped us to hone our theology by your use of common illustrations and ideas. Rays of light will always be my favorite, though:)

  4. Tim Nichols says:


    Thank you for your encouraging words, and I’m really glad you liked rays of light. That remains one of my favorite illustrations.

    As you say, the personal element really introduces a wild card — there’s something about it that resists being nailed down to a definite process or series of steps. And in this case, we’re talking about a relationship, so there’s a Person (or three Persons, if you like) on one end, and another person on the other — lots of wild cards in the mix.

    I am not particularly sorry it has been a battle — obviously the battle needed to be fought, long since. I must confess I haven’t gotten over being baffled by the whole thing, though. I am only insisting that the Christian life is a real relationship with a real God who really shows up, and not just a thought experiment with some really cool principles. You wouldn’t think it would be that controversial. Revealing, though, isn’t it?

  5. Josiah says:

    Good thoughts Tim. I believe you are describing a concept similar to the thrust of Romans 6-8.
    Just as we are justified by faith, we also walk by faith in Christ (and his accomplishment on the cross) in order to bring about sanctification.
    Some tend to get the cart (works) before the horse (Jesus).
    Did I just call Jesus a horse? haha!

  6. Tim Nichols says:


    Yes! The whole point I’ve been pushing under the heading “Mystical Union” is straight out of Rom. 8:9-17, among other passages.

    Trying to get the works first is what Rom. 3-4 is all about.

  7. Charity says:


    I love your synopsis of the message of Jesus: “real relationship with a real God who really shows up”. That pretty much covers it from Genesis to Revelation. Our pastor is teaching through Hebrews and he had a good one on Sunday I thought you would appreciate. He was teaching on Hebrews 11 about Noah and stated that faith is “hearing what God said and believing it”. I thought that was gem, but as you know I am not a theologian, probably more of a simpleton:)

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