1When you describe your faith to someone, you would probably describe yourself as a “Christian.” After all most people in the world understand the term even if it is in a limited sense.
But you might be interested to know that when Paul writes to believers in various churches he never calls them, “Christians.” The word itself only occurs 3 times in the Bible and it seems that it was used as a kind of put down for them.
When the Apostle addresses his letters, he does not call the recipients of the various cities as “Christians,” but he writes to those “in Christ.”2 This expression, in one form or another, occurs well over one hundred times in Paul’s thirteen letters.
Why does he do this? Because being “in Christ” lies at the very heart of the Christian life. From the beginning to the end of the believer’s life we are Christ centered. This implies that we constantly look to him for our identity and all the spiritual provision we need. We are saved in him, we are upheld in him, every blessing we receive is in him, and finally we will be glorified in him.
What does it mean to be “in Christ”?
Romans 5 teaches that the essence of being a human being is that we are “in Adam.”When Adam sinned, therefore, we all sinned. When Adam fell from his glorious state with God in the Garden of Eden, the whole human race fell with him.
The believer, however, has been taken out of Adam and placed into Christ. Our most defining characteristic was that we were in Adam. Now, our most definitive characteristic, the most important thing about us, is that we are in Christ. This, our union with Christ, is so fundamental that in Colossians 3:4 we read that Christ is “our life”. Without him we are dead.
This means that when Jesus Christ in his death died to sin, we died to sin. When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we were raised from the dead.
We can look at it in another way: when we believe in Jesus Christ we come to be in Christ. This means that all that is his is mine. My sin, my shame, my guilt, and my punishment, all of this falls on him; I have been “baptized into” the Saviour (Rom 6:3).
Suddenly all that is his: his perfect life, his perfect obedience, his love, and his perfect standing before the Father is all mine; it all falls onto me. What is his is mine and what was mine becomes his, all because I have been brought “into Christ Jesus”.
We all love the story of little shepherd boy David taking on and defeating the mighty, trained-from-youth warrior, Goliath. When, by the power of God, David’s stone brought down Goliath, who experienced a great victory that day? Not merely David. The whole Israelite army was victorious! As David defeated Goliath, his victory was their victory.
For the believer therefore, Christ as our representative does his work of salvation for his children so that which happened to him, happened to us. If we are united to Christ, we share in his life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension and will also share in his return.
So what does this all mean for the believer?
Christ is everything
We need to see that Christ is everything! I know this is obvious, but it strikes me again and again how quickly I turn from Christ to what I do and receive.
So easily we turn the Christian life into a list of what I need to do and what I should not do. It is true that we are to live according to God’s commandments, but what we do is not the apex, high point, or main focus of the Christian life. What is central in the Christian life is Jesus himself! When we are in him, he becomes our chief focus of study and delight.
It also means that what we receive is not the highlight of the Christian life. It is true, there are numerous benefits and joys that being “in Christ” brings but they are exactly that – benefits and implications. They are not the goal and the high point; Jesus is! Being “in Christ” makes Christ himself the chief joy of the believer.
The more we see who Christ is, the more we will join Paul in counting “everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8, my emphasis).
In saying this, the benefits of being in Christ are wonderful. Let us look at some of the benefits that flow out of being “in Christ”.
Our sin is dealt with
At the risk of sounding trite and obvious, the first implication is that as Christ died on the cross for the sin of his people,hence, our old self has died. Our sin has been dealt with because he was nailed on that tree. The punishment he bore on the cross was actually the punishment meant for us. But since we are “in him” he has taken it.
Sometimes when we look at our lives, we are burdened down by sin and failure. Guilt and shame overwhelm us, but, because we are “in Christ,” sin does not define us; Christ does! We are united to Christ, so we are children of God. This encourages us and strengthens us in the fight against sin.
We live a cruciformed life
When we are “in Christ,” we share in Christ as the crucified and risen Lord. After all, Jesus himself said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it in his little book, The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Being in Christ means we belong to and are intimately connected to the crucified Saviour. We share in his death, meaning we die with him to ourselves and this world. Paul says in Gal 6:14 that we have been crucified to the world. Paul himself shared in the sufferings of Christ (Phil 3:10).
In our western society, we recoil at any sufferings (I include myself here). We don’t like it, because we are conditioned to have our own way, and the comforts of life have made us soft. Paul, however, was not dejected by his sufferings. He accepted them joyfully because he knew this was part and parcel of being in Christ.
The resurrection life
Being “in Christ” also guarantees our eternal life. We are united to the Christ who victoriously rose from the dead and has now ascended into glory. His resurrection is the guarantee that after our death, our bodies will also be resurrected to a new life into all eternity. Yes, we suffer with him, but we will also be raised with him (Phil 3:11).
Being “in Christ” also equips us in our fight against temptation. In speaking about sexual immorality, (one of the great temptations of believers since time began) God, through Paul, reminds us that we are in Christ. If we are in Christ and we indulge in sexual sin, we are dragging Christ into our sin with us (1 Cor 6: 15-20).
Equipping us for the battle
Our union with Christ strengthens us for the battle. In the daily fight against our sworn enemies, we are called to be strong “in the Lord: and in the strength of his might. Our armour is not so much what we need to put on (although it is that as well, as Eph 6:10ff lays out) but when we realize we are men and women united to Christ, we have in our possession the most important truth about ourselves – we are not alone. We are not sent out of the barracks, given some armour, and sent into the battle on our own. No, we never leave without being “in Christ.” He equips, strengthens, and fights for us. We are “in Christ” and so never alone in the battle.
Finally, our union with Christ equips us to pray. In John 15, Jesus tells us he is the vine and we are the branches. When we abide “in him,” his word abides in us. When we pray his words in us are heard by the Father. We pray in the name of Jesus and the Father hears us. We have access to the great and sovereign Creator of the universe, because we are united to his Son. We come to the Father with the greatest confidence laying our petitions at his feet.
What a rich tapestry of truth in these two little words: “in Christ.” What beautiful truths for all those who believe in him and are united to him. It affects our whole life, from the beginning of our rebirth to the end in eternal glory.
1 Not much of what is written in this article is original with me. Outside of scripture, I have been shaped immensely by Sinclair Ferguson’s wonderful focus on “union with Christ” in his various writings and sermons. If you hear repeated in his publications what you read here, you will know it came from him first. The reader will do well to pick up and read or listen to anything that Ferguson says on this subject.
2 Or some form of this expression like, “in him”, “in Jesus”, “in Christ Jesus”, “in Jesus Christ”, etc.
Mr Erik Stolte is the minister of the Reformed Church in Dunedin.