The phrase ‘in Christ’ in the writings of Paul

  • Question from PW, United Kingdom:

    What does Paul mean when he says we are ‘in Christ’?

    Paul uses the words ‘in Christ’ in a number of different ways. One of the most common uses is to mean ‘Christian’, so in 2 Corinthians verse 17, Paul says “If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation” in much the same way we would say ‘If anyone is a Christian…” However, the corollary of this phrase is that being ‘in Christ’ impacts on the believer by affecting their salvation, continuing earthly life and mystically uniting them with Christ and fellow believers.

    Salvation comes through Christ’s representation of humanity, but also through the believer’s participation ‘in Christ’. As a result they share in the benefits won by Christ through his obedient death on the cross, including having their sins forgiven. This participatory action is described by E.P. Sanders: “The prime significance which the death of Christ has for Paul is not that it provides atonement for past transgressions, but that, by sharing in Christ’s death, one dies to the power of sin… with the result that one belongs to God.” [Quoted in Alister McGrath, Christian Theology, p351]

    This sense of participation ‘in Christ’ means that Christians have i) died and risen with Christ, ii) have new life in Christ, iii) perform subsequent actions in Christ, and iv) are united as ‘one body’ in Christ. Dying and rising again is acted out through the symbolic act of baptism (Romans 6 vv4 & 11) and occurs through the action of the Holy Spirit at the time we become Christians. “We become so unresponsive to the pressures, demands and attractions of our previous, sinful way of life, that Paul can say that we are “dead” to these influences, because we have died with Christ. On the other hand we find ourselves wanting to serve God so much more… with greater power and success…[so] Paul says we are “alive” to God because we have been raised up with Christ.” [Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p 842]

    The Christian’s new life ‘in Christ’ is the continuing process of becoming more Christ-like. At the beginning of 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses the epistle “to those sanctified and called to be holy” (chapter 1, verse 2). The acceptance of Christ as Lord is the beginning of new life (cf Romans 6 v4), a new creative act that allows the believer to have fullness of life, namely the divine life lived out in their own lives (Colossians ch2, vs9-10). The result is that “our lives are inseparably connected to Christ himself, the Holy Spirit gives us all the blessings that Christ has earned” [Grudem, op cit p843], including the capacity to live holy lives.

    The things we do in life are therefore done ‘in Christ’. Paul ‘speaks the truth’, ‘rejoices’, ‘commands’, and ‘hopes’ – all in Christ. To the Philippians he says that he can do all the things that have been asked of him by God “in him who strengthens me [i.e. Christ]” (ch4 v13). The recipients of his epistles are also reminded to ‘labour in the Lord’ (1 Corinthians ch15 v58) and the many actions he asks those believers to carry out are all to be done ‘in Christ’. To Paul, Christ was the sole reason for undertaking any action and those things done to advance the Kingdom were not done out of human ambition – he boasts ‘in Christ’, not in any of his achievements as if they were really his. He sees it as vitally important that those who have accepted Jesus persevere in their faith (“Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him” – Colossians ch2 vv6-7).

    Paul’s most interesting comments about being ‘in Christ’ concern the community of believers. Through union with Christ, the head of the Church, believers become united with each other as Christ’s body. This is why racial and class divisions (should) no longer feature in an authentic community of believers (Galatians ch3 v28) and why Paul rails against divisions in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians ch1 vv10-16). The church as Christ’s body becomes Christ’s physical presence on Earth, just as Spirit-filled believers physically carry that resurrection power in their individual lives and continue the work of the Incarnate Son when he countered the physical effects of a fallen world during his Earthly ministry.

    I hope this goes some way towards answering your question, PW. Pauline theology is a huge topic – and this aspect of it has only been briefly answered here.

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