What does it mean to be “in Christ”?
I recently surveyed a book about Paul’s use of the theme in the New Testament. His regular references to believers as people in Christ help explain what union with Christ represents. The book was meant for an academic audience—tracing complex Greek grammatical issues in the underlying text—yet it was still relatively accessible and insightful.
It was also disappointing. What disappointed me was the author’s lack of attention to the Spirit as context for the topic. The Spirit’s role in accomplishing salvation and subsequent growth among believers is central. Ignoring him is a bit like writing a book on car engine operations without ever commenting on the role fuel plays in making the engine run. In union with Christ the Spirit is the agent of that union: the one who brings Christ’s presence into the soul. Yet the book never made the connection.
Paul, for instance, scolded the Corinthians for their divisions (in 1 Corinthians 1) and, especially, for their misplaced boasting. They were focused on their own performances rather than on Christ who saved them: “And because of him [Christ] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1:30). It offers a classic case of how being “in Christ” brings about salvation.
Then immediately following this Paul spoke of his own ministry as a “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (2:4) so that his experience offers a model for the Corinthians of God’s remarkable self-disclosures offered “through the Spirit”. The Spirit engages believers in a Spirit-to-spirit bond so that the “spiritual person” now has, with Paul, “the mind of Christ” (2:14-16).
Paul continued his instructions to the spiritually inept Corinthians with a warning against building a community based on performance rather than on the foundation Paul gave them from the start, “which is Jesus Christ” (3:11). He expected them to understand how faith is applied: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (3:16).
The importance of the Spirit’s indwelling is that it accounts for union with Christ. Paul says as much later in the same epistle when he rebuked the church for apparently condoning the use by some of cult prostitutes. Listen to how Paul frames the problem as a violation of our marital union with Christ:
“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For as it is written [in Genesis 2:24] ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” And, “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you whom you have from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:15-17; 19).
Here’s the point: our union with Christ is based on his giving us his own Spirit—that is, the Spirit of God—who is in a marital union with the believer’s spirit.
The blind spot in making this connection—a blindness more common to Western theologians than to those in the Greek tradition—is in failing to trace the economic functions or roles of the Godhead in the Bible texts. Jesus too often is made to be a legal solution to the problem of sin as law-breaking—with God as the angry judge ready to pour out his wrath on all such law-breakers. Jesus agrees to stand in our place, if we are among the elect, and he takes our judgment on himself. In this arrangement the Spirit’s role is largely dissolved and the meaning of union with Christ is treated mainly as a legal function.
But not all in the West have such a limited view. The 17th century Puritan, Richard Sibbes, stood among a large cluster of Reformed pastors who elevated the Spirit’s union with a believer’s spirit as the key to our being “in Christ”—as did John Calvin and Martin Luther in earlier days.
So what does it mean to be in Christ? It means that I share his Spirit and, as such, I am as a bride to him and he is as a bridegroom to me and to all who have the Spirit and are, collectively, the body and bride of Christ.
Lot’s to think about here! And lots of reason to worship the Father-Son-Spirit God who loves us.