What does it mean to be ‘in Christ’?

The latest Grove Biblical booklet is a fascinating study by the well-known American scholar Michael Gorman on Participation: Paul’s Vision of Life in Christ. Within it, Michael offers 13 theses about Paul’s understanding of the goal of the Christian life, building in his previous ideas published in Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross and Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission, but also moving them on. He begins with the importance of the idea of ‘participation’ both in everyday life but particularly within recent scholarship on Paul.

Human existence is full of participation—in families, workplaces, groups of friends, society as a whole and more. The search for God—or, rather, God’s search for us—is also ultimately about participation.

Participation is back in the (theological) news. The energy and, indeed, excitement about participation is palpable at conferences, in publications, and even occasionally from the pulpit. An account of this development would take at least its own booklet, but a few introductory remarks about the phenomenon, with special emphasis on its place in the study of Paul, are appropriate before launching into the focus of this book: a look at Paul’s theology and spirituality (lived experience) of participating in Christ.

Paul often uses the language of being ‘in Christ,’ as well as related phrases like being ‘with Christ.’ ‘In Christ’ seems, in fact, like a basic description of what we would simply call being a Christian. (See, for example, its many occurrences in Romans 16.) Many Christians therefore know that one of the great images of Christian existence is captured by the phrase ‘in Christ.’ Some may have heard about, or even read, A Man in Christ, a classic by James S Stewart, a Church of Scotland minister and University of Edinburgh professor. But what exactly does this spatial word-picture actually mean? Does it imply a view of salvation by works? Does it imply a mysticism in which we lose our identity and/or ignore doctrine in favour of experience?

After confirming the central importance of the cross in our understanding of Jesus, Gorman highlights its importance for the church, not only as the means of salvation, but as the shape of Christian living:

The cross is not only the source but also the shape of our salvation, and cross-shaped living (cruciformity) means that all Christian virtues and practices are cruciform: faith/faithfulness; love; power; hope; justice and so on.

Most Christians believe that the cross of Christ is the source of their salvation. To be sure, good theology does not limit the source of salvation to the cross, for it involves also Christ’s incarnation (as we have already noted), earthly ministry, resurrection, ascension and parousia (coming). Moreover, some Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, would especially put equal weight on the incarnation. But no one should deny the role of Jesus’ death in salvation…

Whatever one’s preferred model of the atonement, what is often lacking in the models is any application of the model to actual life. For Paul, however, the cross is more than the source of salvation; it is also its shape. Paul cannot talk for long, if at all, about the cross without connecting it to life in Christ, and he cannot speak of life in Christ for long, if at all, without linking it to Christ crucified…

Cruciformity is also theoformity, or theosis; that is, cross-shaped existence is God-shaped existence, and this existence is for both individuals and communities inthe Messiah.

If Paul’s spirituality is a narrative spirituality of conformity to the crucified Messiah, and if the story of the crucified Messiah is also the story of God, then the logical conclusion to draw is that cruciformity is also theoformity. To become Christlike is to become Godlike, for Christ is the image of God, the one in whom God’s fullness lives, the one in whom God has acted. If ‘in Christ’ is the heart of Paul’s theology as well as his spirituality, then when human beings are incorporated into Christ to take on his identity and be transformed into his image, they are also being incorporated into God the Father (1 Thess 1.1; 2 Thess 1.1) to be transformed into the image of God—to have their original Godlikeness restored. If the cross is a theophany as well as a Christophany, then cruciform existence is theoform, or God-shaped, existence.

Commenting on 2 Cor 5.21, Richard Hays comments:

[Paul] does not say ‘that we might know about the righteousness of God,’ nor ‘that we might believe in the righteousness of God,’ nor even ‘that we might receive the righteousness of God.’ Instead, the church is tobecome the righteousness of God: where the church embodies in its life together the world-reconciling love of Jesus Christ, the new creation is manifest. The church incarnates the righteousness of God.

All of this has serious implications for how we understand ‘justification by faith’ and its relation to the practice of baptism:

We enter the Messiah by means of faith/baptism; justification by faith is a participatory event of dying and rising with the Messiah, meaning that justification is resurrection to new life by means of co-crucifixion with the Messiah.

The doctrine of justification is often claimed to be at the centre of Paul’s theology. Whether or not that is precisely the case, it is certainly true that justification has been both central and controversial in discussions of Paul, and of his significance for Christian theology.

A strong case can be made that Paul’s understanding of justification is muchmore participatory and transformative than is often thought, especially by Protestant interpreters. Recent work on Luther, Calvin and Paul himself suggests that we cannot understand justification appropriately apart from union with Christ—that is, apart from participation and transformation.

A careful study of two critical passages in Paul’s theology and spirituality—Gal 2.15–21 and Romans 6—reveals that Paul has a basic soteriology of dying and rising with Christ that he associates with both justi cation byfaith/faithfulness (Gal 2.15–21) and baptism (Romans 6). In each passage, Paul speaks of co-crucifixion with the Messiah Jesus:

For I myself, through the Law, died in relation to the Law so that I could live in relation to God. I have been crucified with the Messiah. (Gal 2.19)

We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body defined by sin would be destroyed, and we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (Rom 6.6)

In fact, there are multiple parallels between Galatians 2 and Romans 6, suggesting that justification and baptism are two sides of the same coin—the coin of initial participation. Of these additional similarities, two are most important. First, co-crucifixion with Christ is followed (implicitly or explicitly) by co-resurrection with Christ, resurrection to new life in covenant relation to God.

After exploring these issues in some detail, Gorman concludes by relating the notion of participation in Christ to mission:

The church is called not merely to believe the gospel but also to become the gospel and thereby to advance the gospel; the church is a living exegesis of the gospel.

We have already seen that the church for Paul has a fundamental narrative quality: it participates in, and thereby tells, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection, the story of his self-giving, life-giving love. Paul summons people not merely to believe in Christ or even just to believe into him, but to become part of a community, the body of Christ, that re-incarnates the Messiah in the world. His story becomes our story, and when that happens, we bear witness—in word and deed—to the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Messiah…

Paul is suggesting that the Christlike church is an obedient church, even to the point of suffering with and like Christ, faithfully displaying the word of life—the life-giving gospel—in both word and deed. If exegesis is the careful interpretation of a biblical text, a commentary on Scripture, then Paul is calling on the church to be a living exegesis of the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord.

We may refer to this embodiment of the gospel as becoming the gospel. Of course, this does not mean in any sense that the church replaces the gospel of Christ and becomes the object of attention and devotion. ‘May it never be!’ to quote Paul! What it does mean, however, is that the church’s vocation is to represent the gospel faithfully in its public witness, such that the watching world can see, even if it does not always understand, something of the counter-intuitive power of God displayed in the faithful and loving death of his Son. And this will mean that the church has certain practices, not merely beliefs, that are essential to its identity. Corporately, we become good news to the world.

This is a fascinating study, well written and accessible, but also stimulating and stretching. After reading it, I just felt I wanted to go back to Paul and read him again with new eyes. Gorman’s approach has three particular virtues. First, it takes the narrative shape of Paul’s thinking seriously, rather than twisting his letters into some form of doctrine textbook. Secondly, it cuts through some of the (at times unhelpful) impasses in the debate about what ‘justification’ means. Thirdly, it actually offers some practical application of Paul’s theology—as surely he must have intended, since his letters are all prompted by practical and pastoral concerns.

You can order the booklet, post-free in the UK or as a PDF e-book, for £3.95 from the Grove website. You won’t regret it!

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20 thoughts on “What does it mean to be ‘in Christ’?”

  1. Thanks for this Ian (and Michael). This is incredibly important in cross cultural mission. I have had a new believer from a Muslim background explain his new faith as “I am in Christ. I’m joined with him. So, joined with him, I am dying and have been raised”. That is the gospel that resonates with believers in Christ from a Muslim background. Its their natural language and place of resonance. In gathering their stories, none of them used language of court room (judge, crime, punishment, payment for cost, wages of sin paid, etc.). They all majored on language of participation. I learnt that my presentation of the gospel, and my outliving of the gospel (being the gospel) had to have that focus for people to be able to hear it in South Asia.

    The concept is also linked to concepts of self in that an individual is not the smallest unit or being, rather some element of group is (usually family). “I not a finger, I’m part of a hand,” which links with the African concept of Unbuntu (“We are, therefore I am” or “You are, therefore I am”) and relationality.

    This is massively important because, in that setting, shame is the dominant referrent of sin (not guilt). The bible uses concepts of shame much more than sin. And so the atonement has to address (and heal, reverse, and generally fix) shame. Exchange concepts of atonement don’t speak to shame well. But that the shameful in me dies and I am raised a new creation, with a new status, a new being, with no condemnation, with a new purity, and a new power, speaks loudly. Romans 6 to 8, is this story write large. Participation in Christ makes me a new creation, one that no longer stands in shame, but in honour and glory in Him.

      • Thansk for this Peter. Yes, its something that’s well worth developing.
        I spent 17 years in South Asia working in a Muslim context. One of the questions that went with me from bible college was “what does it mean to be ‘in Christ’?”.
        One day I was talking to a Sufi Muslim, who follows a saint (a pir, or shaykh). We were talking about salvation and he was saying that because his pir was sinless that on the day of judgement Allah would call his pir out as not needing judgement. My friend then said “and because I am in him [his pir] I will be saved”. I realised I was in setting where people naturally thought in those terms. I had to learn to live out and present the gospel in those terms rather than what I was used to.

    • How far does ‘shame’ in the Muslim world denote loss of reputation and acceptance by one’s social group? Of course guilt is a much deeper concept – my standing before God – and I wonder if we have here a clue to the paradox of a lot of a Muslim religiosity which to Christian eyes can look like hypocrisy or superficiality.

      • Brian, you imploy that Shame is merely equivalent to a loss of reputation and acceptance by one’s social group. This is one aspect of shame, but its not the full story. Note the shame language in Genesis 3. They hid, they felt naked, the blamed others, and they were treated by covering. All that is shame language.
        To say guilt is a much deeper concept is to misunderstand the ontological nature of shame. Shame is about who I am, guilt is about what I have done. Shame incorporates loss of position, low position, pollution, corruption, and exposure.
        You’re right that a superficial response to shame is markedly hypocritical. But that’s an attempt at denial. Similar to the 2 year old saying “It wasn’t me” whilst covered in marker pen that matches that on the wall.
        Its worth noting that the bible uses much more language of shame than of guilt. If I remember rightly its about a 4 to 1 ratio. Shame, when fully understood, is an ontological issue that is a direct effect of sin. Its the pollution of self and our atonement understandings have to address this.

        • I think you misunderstand me. I didn’t use the word ‘merely’ as I recognise that shame is a very powerful emotion – and I think it’s one of the reasons the Muslim world is so screwed up. An obsession with one’s social standing rather than an interiorised sense of being in right relation with the God who justifies and sanctifies sinners can lead to a primary desire to be accepted by that group by one’s words and actions. This is what I meant by superficiality and hypocrisy- the very things Jesus condemned in the Pharisees. Honour/shame societies are conformist by nature, and more inclined to wish to “restore honour” by vengeance. The Cross troubles Muslims because of the shame it entails.

          • Brian, there is much that I agree with in what you say, but it seems to me that the sum of that parts of how you see shame is less than the sum of the whole. Yes, shame entails an aspect of it being an emotion (cf, I can be guilty and feel guilty). It is also about status and standing in front of the group I see as mine. It is also, in part, related to loss of honour. However, it is all those thing and much, much more. Its a very, very broad concept, but one that the bible uses as a concommitant to sin and sinfulness. A full theology of shame needs to be unpacked at an ontological level as well as that of affect and of social relations. Romans 6 and 7 unpacks shame, and that shame ends in wretchedness and death. However Romans 8 is the glorious resurrection where there is no condemnation (shame language reversed) for those “in Christ”, there is a new status (shame reversed) as child of God, we share in his Glory (shame reversed), liberated from the bondage to decay (shame reversed).
            The second aspect your posts is looking at Muslim dominated cultures (remember 8o% of these are not Arab), and again I suspect you miss the depth of understanding of shame there. My experience is that that whilst there is hypocrisy, superficiality and vengeance, there is also a experiential knowledge of crippling shame, pollution and poor standing before a holy God. There is a deep desire to have these addressed, but the message we form the West have tended to take is one of guilt and punishment, rather than shame, death and resurrection in Christ to a purity and sanctity in Christ. If we can embody that, then that is something our Muslim brothers and sisters can resonate with.

  2. Sounds great.

    My understanding is that there are two basic aspects of redemption in Christ described in scripture: Christ provides a sin offering (his death is a sacrifice of atonement) and he provides power for transformation (which is freedom from the power of sin). These correspond to two fundamental dimensions of sin: its offence (located in the past) and its power (located in the present/future). Christ’s redemption frees and delivers human beings from both these dimensions of sin.

    The past offence of sin incurs justified wrath and punishment, which needs to be propitiated (taken away). This requires an acceptable sin offering or sacrifice of atonement, which is provided in Christ’s death (Romans 3:25). The present power of sin holds us captive and its power needs to be broken. This requires a new humanity freed from the power of sin, which is provided by Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection. In particular, by his death which annuls the power of sin by ending the life ‘of the flesh’ (Romans 6:6).

    A full account of redemption and salvation has to hold these two dimensions together. We share in the benefits of both by being included in Christ, united with him and hence with his efficacious death and resurrection – sharing in both his sufferings and glory.

  3. Indeed, it does sound great.
    I’m wary of making other recommendations which may seem to be an alternative or cut across your post, but from the time it was first published the popular level publication by Mike Reeves: “Our Life in Christ” on a central theme of our Union with Christ has been marvellously spiritually and intellectually edifying ans satisfying. If I remember correctly in his teaching , in talks, he says that our Union with Christ resolves diputes such as between John Piper and NT Wright over justification and it is something NT Wright doesn’t really address – not that I know and I don’t want to be of a simplistic disservice to any of those theologians.
    Of others who may major on Union with Christ, one is Scottish Presbyterian, Sinclair Ferguson.

  4. I found Psephizo comparatively recently and value it greatly, but I am always profoundly depressed by the spread of the number of comments. Sexuality will gather north of 300 comments, with much “having the last word” going on, but other topics receive far fewer. Do the commenters who have so much to say on matters of sexuality have nothing to say about being “In Christ”?

    • To be fair, Peter, the comments amass around contentious issues when readers may profoundly disagree either with Ian’s post or with ensuing comments. But on a topic on which we all tend to agree, there will be less sparring.

    • One of the key issues in ‘sexuality’ (the key issue?) is how one reads scripture. In that sense it’s much more fundamental than the lead-in issue. Combine that with the deep personal implications for some people and you have the reason for the large number of postings.

      I wish it were otherwise but it’s not minor, rather more primary I’m afraid.

  5. Thanks for this post, Ian.
    As you say, the be ‘en Christo’ is to be always in the shadow of the cross.

    This is why, in Catholic/Orthodox spirituality, taking upon one’s self the sign of the Cross is so important. It is tantamount to committing one’s self to live life – at all times – in the shadow of, and under the influence of, the Cross of Christ. This should not be an automatic response but rather, a heartfelt gesture of remembrance (anamnesis) of being ‘In Christ’ – replicating the sign made upon the brow at Baptism.

  6. “then Paul is calling on the church to be a living exegesis of the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord.”

    I’m currently reading through 1 Cor and have just traversed chapter 4 with its ‘imitate me’.

    Gordon Fee in his commentary writes; “Perhaps the greater difficulty for most people in ministry is with the words “imitate me”. These words surely heighten the responsibility that Christians have towards new converts universally. Perhaps our ability to put “the Book” in their hands has been partly responsible for our unfortunately too frequent apology that they should do as we say, not as we do. When the basic way of learning ethical instruction is by example, the obedience factor on the part of the “instructor” is bound to increase! MaybGod give his people grace and courage so to do.”

    Paul’s being “in Christ'” in the thorough and immersive way described above makes this a much more living thing. With apologies to Ron (though knowing what he means) it’s not so much living in the shadow of the cross but within the life of the risen, sin and death conquering Jesus.

  7. To be in Christ is to be in the “new man” (Eph 2:15)—the antithesis of the “old man” [????????]—there being no basis for the consensus “old self” translation of Rom 6:6 cited above. The “body of sin” in that verse is that ‘old man’—those that belong to Sin (Satan), as opposed to the “body of Christ”—those that belong to Christ. Rom 7:1-4 explains how we, by Christ’s death, are released from the “law of marriage” (v. 2. see Deut 24:1-4) that bound us to Satan so we could “marry another” (KJV, v. 4). Thus, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col 1:13). And so it is that, “through the law I died to the [Deut 24 marriage] law, so that I might live to God”—freed from the “body of death” (Rom 7:24)—that is the “body of Sin,” the “old man”—the new relationship being defined by the marital affinity union of Gen 2:24—thus Eph 5:31-32.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this, and resonated greatly with it!

    As well as the phenomenal miracle of being in Christ, I’d love to hear your views on the parallel, and equally essential, reality of Christ in me. The only way I can embody Him to the world is as I participate by faith in His death, and the new life I am resurrected to is nothing other than the phenomenal miracle of Christ living in me by His Spirit.


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