The apostle Paul often labours to explain and apply the consequences of a Christian’s identification with Christ in his death and resurrection.
In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul makes clear that he no longer thinks of Christ as the world does, but as he is in truth: glorified, exalted, triumphant, reigning, saving with power.
It makes a difference also to the way that we view those who are in Christ. So, says Paul, ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). As one who has himself looked to Christ and been saved, Paul presses home a Christian’s identity in Christ.
‘If anyone is in Christ…’ You will notice the breadth of this statement. It applies to any and all who can legitimately be described as ‘in Christ’.
There is no difference or distinction with regard to physical age or spiritual maturity, gender, previous religious affiliation, history of transgression, depth or extent of true religious knowledge, or anything else by which we tend to judge and rank one another.
All those who have looked to Christ Jesus and been saved are on the same level with one another. With regard to what follows, all believers — all those ‘in Christ’ — are as one.
This is often a battle for believers: the problem may be not so much that others judge us to be somehow in the second rank, as that we are slow to believe what is spoken concerning us. But there are no Christians who need exclude themselves from this.
Sometimes our enemy is confusion. We might have been told that there are some believers who attain to a higher plane of spiritual reality. Perhaps we fight pride, often in the form of inverted or perverted humility, as if we are somehow the exception to a general rule, the only saint in the history of the world who might not be able to say this of himself. But we must not exclude or isolate ourselves.
There are no exceptions to this Christian rule and, if we make ourselves that exception or allow ourselves to be excepted, then we might end up deliberately or unintentionally denying our blessings or avoiding our duties.
For some immature or confused Christians, a denial of basic spiritual realities can become an excuse not to pursue those standards established for us in the Word of God. ‘After all’, we might ask, ‘if I am not this, how can I be expected to pursue that?’ So we cut the nerve of godliness and allow ourselves to live at a low ebb, because we have told ourselves that we have no basis on which to expect anything different.
Equally, we can cut ourselves off from the blessings and privileges to which we are genuinely entitled by our status in Christ Jesus, feeling ourselves unworthy of them (which we are!) and concluding that we are therefore excluded from them (which we are not!).
Again, the effect is to deaden us, leaving us at a felt distance from God in Christ and despairing of any progress in godliness, because of the mistaken assumption that we are somehow not in possession of the relationships or realities upon which that progress is grounded. However, Paul is speaking here of every true Christian. None, thank God, are exempt!
There are three possible relationships that a person might sustain to the Lord Christ. First, someone might be without Christ. This is our state by nature. It is how we came into this world before we looked to Christ, perhaps before we even knew that there was a Christ to look to.
A person might have been born into the greatest nation and richest city, gifted with a high grade brain, beautiful face and naturally attractive body — even into a home with Christian parents — but is born without Christ.
No number of earthly privileges can change that fact. We can be subjects of monarchs with religious roles and titles, citizens of nations with a grand heritage healthily tinged with Christian morality; and can attend the most orthodox church and hear intelligent and impassioned preaching week by week; and still be without Christ.
To lack food is terrible; to lack money is distressing; to lack health is miserable; to lack friends is tragic; but to lack Christ is to lack the greatest and most necessary good. It is the most awful situation imaginable. If we had Christ, all else could be borne. But to live and die without Christ makes any number of other blessings little better than dust and ashes in our mouths.
Second, someone might be with Christ. If to be without Christ is the height of woe, then to be with Christ is the pinnacle of bliss, for this is the very joy and blessing of glory. To be ‘present with the Lord’ (2 Corinthians 5:8) is the heaven of heaven.
There is no greater joy, no happier prospect, no sweeter moment than to have the eye actually rest upon the Lord Christ, the glorified Saviour of sinners.
This is the anticipation of the dying saint, the prospect for the resurrection that makes every other hint of the glory to come shine with golden light. However, if we are to be with Christ when we die or taken to be with him when he returns, we need to bear in mind that no one will ever be with Christ unless they are first in Christ.
And that is our third category, the one that Paul addresses here: in Christ. It is the very opposite of being ‘in Adam’ (Romans 5:12–21), which we are by nature. It is very different from being ‘in the world’, which we are by sinful inclination.
It is not the same as being ‘in church’. There are many people who imagine that being in a church building from time to time, in regular attendance at church services, or even a member of some church, even one where the truth is preached, will somehow of itself guarantee their salvation. But you can be in church and without Christ.
To be ‘in Christ’ is to be savingly united to the Lord Jesus Christ by faith. It is a saving connection to the Lord, God’s gracious gift to otherwise hopeless sinners, granted in sovereign mercy.
To be in Christ is to know the certainty of being ‘accepted in the Beloved’ (Ephesians 1:6), readily received and embraced by the Father, on account of the Son in all his perfections. It is to be secure, and nourished and assured of the life which is to come.
In the body
A Christian is in Christ in the same way that a hand or foot is in the body. God ‘gave [Christ] to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’ (Ephesians 1:22–23).
This is the sure result of looking to him and being saved, the certain consequence of entrusting your soul to him. We get to be in Christ by faith and with love: by faith when we depend utterly upon him alone to make us acceptable in the sight of the holy God, and with love when we adore him above all and any others as the true joy of our hearts.
Where faith is sincere, love will readily follow. We are in Christ in the same way that Noah was in the ark: in a place of safety, peace, and rest, shut in by the very hand of God himself and made secure against all the terrors of law and judgement.
To be ‘in Christ’ is to be the inheritor of all that Jesus accomplished by his atoning death and glorious resurrection. By the time Paul died, he had spent long, faithful, fruitful years ‘in Christ’. When the penitent thief on the cross died, he had spent a few agonising, helpless hours ‘in Christ’.
But neither Paul nor the thief was more or less in Christ; neither was more or less righteous in God’s eyes; neither was more or less beloved of God for Christ’s sake. It is being ‘in Christ’ that makes all the difference to any man or woman and paves the way to be with Christ when he returns or takes us home.
It is true of every Christian that the old has gone for good; the new has come and keeps on coming. That ought to make us cry ‘Behold! Look at this!’ with joy and wonder. All such saved sinners are trophies of divine grace, and reasons to praise our God for his so great salvation.
The author is pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, West Sussex.
This article is an edited extract from his recent book, Life in Christ: becoming and being a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ (Reformation Heritage Books; 176 pages, £8.75; ISBN 978-1601782748)