My dad regularly meets with the high schoolers of his church for a “Ron on the Spot” night, at which the high schoolers are free to ask him any question they might have. He answers each question without prejudice and to the best of his ability right there, “on the spot.” It’s proved to be an excellent place for high schoolers to ask what’s on their heart as well as a great encouragement to my dad to see the maturity and growth of the high schoolers. You can tell a lot about a group by the questions they ask.
In that spirit, I recently asked my dad what the New Testament writers mean when they write about being “in Christ.” Here is his answer, Ron on the Spot style, which means casual, brief, and pastoral. I’m sure he could write a book on such a topic and still not exhaust it, or preach a year’s worth of sermons.
What does it mean to be “in Christ”?
The answer has two parts: one aspect is the sacramental, one aspect is the spiritual. Or, one part of the answer to be “in Christ” is the visible part, the second part is the vital.
What does it mean to be “in Christ” in a sacramental or visible aspect? To speak of being “in Christ” in the most elementary way is to say one is a member of His kingdom, a part of His body, the Church. One is separated from the world by baptism and in this most basic and visible way is identified as belonging to the Triune God. We are baptized into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19, 20). We are baptized into Christ and made part of the Church for whom He died (Acts 20:28). We are joined into the household of faith, the Israel of God (Eph. 3:6).
The Westminster Confession refers to this when it says, outside of the visible, professing Church there is “no ordinary possibility of salvation” (25:2). The Bible only speaks of Christ’s sheep who belong to his fold under the care of his under-shepherds: ministers and elders. If one is not part of Israel, the visible church, they are separate from God and without hope in the world (Eph 2:12, 19).
Secondly, to be “in Christ” has a spiritual sense: the vital, living union. When the New Testament speaks of being in Christ, this is the usual meaning. It is not sufficient to only be “in Christ” in a sacramental way. Old Testament Israel fell into this error, thinking their circumcision was sufficient to be right with God. But the Bible is clear in Romans 2:28, 29 that to be right with God there must be the outward sign of union with Christ as well as the reality in the heart. Paul writes, “For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”
Yes, to be “in Christ” is sacramental, but it must also be vital, alive, and it must be a true spiritual reality. To be “in Christ” in a spiritual sense is that God views His elect people as belonging to Christ as one group. Christ and His believing, truly justified people are one entity; there is an inseparable oneness (1 Cor 6:17). So the Father treats Christ and believers together, as an aggregate whole. Christ is the head of these people, they are His living body (Eph 1:22, 23; 5:30).
Whatever Christ does, we believers also experience. We are joined to Christ always. So when Christ accomplished our salvation, since we belong to Him, our salvation is accomplished. When Christ rose from the dead, we in Christ are also raised and guaranteed to be raised (Eph 2:6). As Christ is accepted by the Father, so we are. Christ is righteous; we have his righteousness. Christ fully obeyed the Law, and that obedience is considered to be our obedience. As a husband and wife become one entity and one flesh, and the public treats them legally and socially as one, in a far greater way Christ and His people, His bride, are created into one entity (Eph 5:31, 32).
The Westminster Larger Catechism Question 66 asks, “What is that union which the elect have with Christ?” Answer: “The union which the elect have with Christ is the work of God’s grace, whereby they are spiritually and mystically, yet really and inseparably, joined to Christ as their head and husband; which is done in their effectual calling.”
So Christ is not ashamed to be known as our brother (Heb 2:11). We are the same family. We are told Christ is the vine and we are the branches, abiding in Him. He is our life, and without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5ff).
To understand this spiritual “union with Christ” brings great assurance of salvation. The heart sings when we realize the Father loves a believer the same way He loves Christ. Each believer is not on probation, having to prove to God they are lovable, or that they merit forgiveness. Their relationship with God is never in jeopardy, because Christ is never in jeopardy. Christ has done it all, and we are united to Christ. So there is no fear in love (1 John 4:18). Christ has done it all, and all who believe in Him are “velcroed” to Christ. They are now and forever inseparable from Christ (Romans 8:38-39). The Father treats them as He treats Christ, for we are together with Him. We are in Christ.
And so too, anyone who is truly in Christ, wants to be like Christ. If anyone loves Christ, they will do what He commands (John 14:23, 24). If one is “in the family” one will want to display a family identity; a true believer will “look and act” like he is in Christ, if indeed he really is.
For further study, here are some recommended resources:
Union with Christ and the Life of the Christian lecture series
Online notes from Richard Gaffin’s lecture on union with Christ
Robert Letham’s The Work of Christ, namely the chapter “Union with Christ,” pp. 75ff
Burk Parsons’ John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, pp. 191ff
John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied, chapter “Union with Christ,”, pp. 161ff
Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, chapter “Union with Christ,” pp. 840ff
Mike Horton’s Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ