We all know what ‘in Christ’ means. The phrase is used so frequently that we must. We mostly take it to mean that we each have a relationship with Christ, and in this relationship we are given wonderfully beautiful things. We comprehend the gospel, yield to Christ in faith and are given the Holy Spirit as a seal of our inclusion in Christ and guarantee of our inheritance. The scriptures say that in Christ we have redemption through His blood1 – the mess of my history is cleaned up. In Christ we are given every spiritual blessing2 – the temporary that I am now compelled to grasp at will be replaces with eternal realities. We have been created in Christ Jesus for the good works that He prepared beforehand 3. Utterly complete and glorified identity renewal is ours in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and our hearts should resound with praise. None-the-less, it would be both common sense and good scholarship to let the author who coined this phrase “in Christ” tell us what he actually meant by the use of the term. It’s interesting that we don’t even think of this phrase as having an origin in someone’s mind, it simply seems that it always existed – but it didn’t!
The Apostle Paul is the author in question, who used this phrase and slight variations no less than 150 times within His 13 canonised letters. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that his use of this phrase is so prolific and centralised within his texts that this two word phrase is probably the clearest picture of the foundational idea undergirding all Pauline literature. Paul’s letters are all about trying to get his recipients to understand their position in Christ and to remain and grow in Christ.
Most of the time he uses this phrase it is used in terms of describing the blessings of the position – In Christ we have awesome promises such as those above. The purpose of this paper is not to address these indisputable facts – they are all given, but rather to surface a simple but crucial discrepancy in the primary activity that evangelical Christianity would suggest is taking place in Christ, and the activity which is described by the Apostle Paul in his usage of the phrase. This discrepancy is evident in the few passages where the Apostle clearly defines the actual position itself, rather than the blessings of that position.
In the Evangelical usage the primary relationship in Christ is between each believer and their Lord and the primary activities taking place in Christ are each believers interactions directly with their Lord. Paul’s usage of the phrase is not so. In his usage of the phrase in Christ, he actually emphasises the relationship that we have between believers because Christ has become our Lord. Take note of these phrases and their significant locations within the whole letters in which they recorded.
4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Rom 12.4-54
...26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Gal 3.26-285
19 ... you are ... members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. Eph 2.19-226
The location of the Romans 12 quote above puts this at the heart of our response to the gospel message. In Christ there are many members who are serving one another. In Christ there are many nationalities required to come together as one. In Christ, Christ is building us together. Paul emphasises that in Christ, we are interacting with one-another.
Paul’s usage of the phrase In Christ does not have its foundation within our western individualistic framework. Rather it has its foundation within the Jewish family heritage framework. Just as all the Jews were In the family of Israel [“in Israel” – as in Jacob’s family], so also all the believers in the Lord Jesus are found to be in the family of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ – actually Paul says it’s even closer than family and primarily emphasises Christ’s body or the dwelling place of His Spirit in his use of this phrase. Throughout Paul’s literature, our identity in Christ is intrinsically, inextricably –completely inseparably linked to the churches – the family of the Living God. Through loving God’s family I am known to be a disciple of Christ, and a lover of God.7 Christ builds me into Christ – into His family; His body.
This is how my identity is shaped by the churches. I am in the family of Christ along with you; my brothers and sisters whom I care for deeply and whose identity is also shaped by a distinctively loving family of Our Lord - The One Loving God and Father of us all.
None-the-less, it would be both common sense and good scholarship to let the author who coined this phrase “in Christ” tell us what he actually meant by the use of the term.
Paul uses the phrase ‘in Christ’ to emphasise the relationships we have between believers because Christ is our Lord.
1 Eph 1.7
2 Eph 1.3
3 Eph 2.10
4 Note the usage of the word “Body” in 12.1. ...offer your bodies [plural] as a [singular] living sacrifice... Vv 4-8 are the broader explanation. Note also the twin passage of 1 Cor 12 which gives a much greater treatment of the ideas found in Rom 12.1-8.
5 Twin passage Col 3.11
6 See also parallel ideas in Eph 4.11-16, 1 Pet 2.4-5, Col 2.19 and 3.10-11 which in context causes us to grapple with a new understanding of what God is building.