What Does It Mean to be “In Christ”?

One of the most popular ways for the Apostle Paul to describe the Christian life is to say that we are “in Christ.”  For instance, in Romans 6:11, Paul wrote: “So you almost must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ.”  Or, “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,” (Galatians 3:28). Or one of my favorite verses since I was a kid: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come,” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Over and over again, the Apostle Paul describes believers as being in Christ, but what exactly does that mean and why should it matter to us?

If you’re old enough, think back to September 11, 2001. Where were you when you heard about the terrorist attacks? I was in my Dodge Dakota. Were you in your home? In your office? In your vehicle? Do you remember the names Rachel Scott or Cassie Burnall? Perhaps they sound familiar, but you can’t seemed to remember why. They were two of the 15 teenagers killed in Columbine High School. Do you remember where President Lincoln gave his address that started with “Four-score and seven years ago”? It was in Gettysburg, PA. Why do I bring these questions up? Because each of the answers all have the same concept in mind: we identify people and events with their locations. To be in an object (whether building, vehicle, or city) is to identify oneself with that location.

That being said…Jesus is where we are located. Thus it is with Jesus that we identify. Let’s take a closer look at those passages that were quoted above. In Romans 6, Paul is referring specifically to us as believers finding identity with Christ. “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his,” (Romans 6:5). That unity is identity. Currently I am on vacation in Georgia. If I am speaking to an American, they would most likely identify Georgia as one of the 50 states in the United States of America and they’d be correct. Thus to be united with Christ is to be identified with Christ or to be in Christ. In fact, if there was any doubt as to which Georgia I was referring, I would say “Georgia, in the United States.” Unity is identity. By the time one gets to Romans 6:10, he/she would read: “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God,” which is why Paul wrote, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ,” (v. 11). What Christ has done, we must consider ourselves to have done, since we identify ourselves in Christ.

Going to Galatians 3:28, it is pretty clear in the one verse where our identity ought to lie.  But let’s take the context into consideration for a moment. In Galatians 3:23, Paul wrote that until Jesus came (and faith in Jesus) we were in prison–the law’s prison (and sin’s if you read verse 22). “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” The fact that the people were under the law, in law’s prison, was the very point of Paul’s letter. That was where they had been, but they were set free from the law’s prison. Thus they no longer needed to be circumcised according to the law’s demands. Circumcision was the main part of the Jewish identity. That’s why “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,” (Galatians 3:28). Every believer has his/her identity in Christ–not in someone else or in themselves, but in Christ. This is why Paul told the Galatians a few verses earlier: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” (Galatians 2:20). Clearly, Paul no longer saw who he was as a person contingent upon anything or anyone other than Christ.

Which leads us to 2 Corinthians 5:17 now. The Apostle Paul has known what it is to have people dislike him, but he doesn’t seem concerned about it, at least not personally. He only seems to care when their opinion of him hurts the spread of the gospel of Jesus. “We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not what is in the heart,” (2 Corinthians 5:12). Others seem to care about their outward looks and how they come across to others. They aren’t so much concerned about how Jesus comes across (who is in the heart). Paul cares about how Jesus comes across and for that reason alone cares about how he comes across because, “we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us,” (2 Corinthians 5:20). As ambassadors, they represent how Christ comes across to others. Therefore, “the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died,” (2 Corinthians 5:14). Do you see that? Paul has concluded that since Jesus died, everyone who identifies with Jesus also has died. The difference is that Jesus died for us and we die to us. “And he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised,” (2 Corinthians 5:15). We don’t live for ourselves, but rather for Jesus because our identity is in Christ. His love controls us; we represent him (not ourselves); and He gives us a newness that we’ve never known before. Before Jesus, we were enslaved since birth. In Jesus, we have freedom. Before Jesus we were dead in sin and dead to God. In Jesus, we are dead to sin and alive to God. Hence Paul warned everyone to stop seeing people as if they were still who they were, but to see them as who they are. No longer look at their old identity, but rather their new identity in Christ. If they did, they’d be doing the same thing to their fellow-believers that the Sanhedrin did to Jesus. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer,” (2 Corinthians 5:16).  We regard no one by our lowly human standards because our standards are ungodly. Instead we are to regard them according to their identity in Christ. I believe this is the main reason Paul never referred to his readers (believers) or himself as sinners. He always called them brothers, sisters, or saints, but never sinners. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come,” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Why is this important? Because we tend to find our identity in other things or people or even circumstances. We tend to identify as the spouse of someone (or like me in high school, I was “Sheila’s brother”). We identify with a nation. Some will identify with a tragedy, either as a survivor or as a victim. Some of these identities may be harmless, but when these identities define us, a world of hurt will come upon us. People with whom we find our identity will die. Nations that define who we are will change or crumble. And being a victim to some tragedy can lead a person down a path if it is allowed to define them. Beauty will fade; knowledge will fail; strength will flounder. But in Christ, there is newness. Allowing Christ to define who we are is always a wonder. We are alive, children of God, new creations, and if you continue to read the “in Christ” verses, you will find even more ways to view yourself if you are a believer. Remember to be “in Christ” describes where we can be located and identified. We will forever remember where we were during 9/11 because we have our location and identity for that moment in that place. We are forever in Christ and so can always find who we are by where we are.

As always, I would love to hear your responses. If you have questions, I’d love to answer anything I can. If you like the article, feel free to share it on social media.

All verses were from the ESV by Crossway; all emphases were mine.

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