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Part I: Introduction to the "In Christ" Motif

My Personal History with the Doctrine My introduction to the “Union with Christ” motif was during a brief conversation with my Pastor during my first summer as a pastoral intern in regards to gospel proclamation. The topic was very underdeveloped but, nevertheless, the “in Christ” concept still intrigued me.

Though in everyday Bible reading, the prepositional phrase “in Christ” constantly arises within the Pauline corpus, yet nothing of its value stood out to me until I was studying the Abrahamic covenant and its implications to New Testament theology.

So that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. Gal 3.14

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise. Gal 3.27–29

It is through our union with Christ that we receive the blessings of Abraham (Gal 3.14), more specifically the blessing of the nations because of Abraham (Gal 3.7, 25-29), and receiving the Holy Spirit (Gal 3.14).

Furthermore, it was through the conversations of the other authors of this blog that re-kindled a desire to pursue this concept further.

The Beginning Problem of Systematic Categories

This observation of Galatians 3 and the “in Christ” motif poses the very problem and difficulty of identifying its systematic category. Though systematic theology is a very necessary discipline within biblical studies, the “in Christ” theme may serve as one example of the inability to crystallize the motif with one theological category. As observed in the Galatians passages above, “in Christ” serves as a means to understand soteriology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology or eschatology categories (depending upon one’s presuppositions of the Biblical Covenants).

Therefore, the initial question is, “what systematic category does ‘in Christ’ fit within?” Thomas Schreiner (New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, 314) places the ‘in Christ’ motif under the category of Pauline Christology.

One of the most significant elements of Paul’s Christology is his teaching about being ‘in Christ’

With my initial observations, I would have concluded this to be too simplistic. Though Christ is implied and a primary topic in every “in Christ” reference, there seemed to be overlap with other doctrines.

Upon further examination of the New Testament, Schreiner’s categorization may be possible with a few nuances. Yes it falls under the category of Christology, but the “in Christ” theme has an integral function in other systematized doctrines. That is “in Christ”, as a Christological theme, affects our concepts of justification, sanctification, ecclesiology, eschatology, etc. Moreover, it may be helpful to note, under this framework, that a conceptual understanding of “Union with Christ” is a sub-set to the “in Christ” motif. That is, not every mention of “in Christ” denotes “Union with Christ” as a primary element. As Schreiner states [314–15],

…the phrase ‘in Christ’ is used in a variety of ways and does not invariably denote union with Christ, though in many instances it does focus on participation in Christ.

Concept of “Union” apart from Christ

An aside comment regarding “union with Christ” is attempting to note how we are “united” to the trinity. Other Pauline literature explains how the Spirit of God dwells in us and actions performed “in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 8:9-11; 14:17; 1 Cor 6:19). The Johannine literature portrays a “union with Christ/God” concept. The logic of the vine imagery (John 15) consists of Jesus serving as a mediator to God. If you abide in Jesus, since God abides in Jesus, then you abide in God. If we claim to have the love of God perfected in us, then we ought to express our union with God by walking in the same manner he walked (1 John 2:6). The means of confidence when God appears is given if we “abide” in God (1 John 2:26). There are other examples as well, please make note of: 1 John 1:6; 2:5–6, 27–28; 3:6, 24; 4:13, 15–16.

“In Christ” and Functional Categories

Prior to providing the biblical evidence, it may be helpful to consider some functional categories to work within. Because the “in Christ” motif is dependant upon the function of the preposition, the following are some categorical examples to delineate its variety. The list is not limited to these; it rather demonstrates flexibility in its meaning or application of the preposition “in”. Moreover, there will be times the “Union with Christ” motif will be expressed through other means than the “in” preposition, e.g. baptism (Rom 6).

1.     Spatially found in the person of Christ

An example of this is Romans 6:1–11. What Christ has done in His body, we are found in His body, having performed all the actions Christ performed. That is, however Christ acted, by our being infused in Him, we participate in the exact actions through Him.

2.     In association with Christ

This is different than the “spatial” function because it carries the idea of an activity done alongside of Christ. A prime example is Ephesians 2:5–6. We are raised to life from deadness to sin alongside Christ.

3.     Christ has ownership of those with Him

This is similar to the “association with Christ,” the difference is the emphasis of ownership Christ has over us. The end of Galatians 3 discusses our baptism into Jesus through faith. In v. 29, Paul asks a question, “If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring.” This ownership is in direct association to the baptism into Christ.

4.     Actions are done because of Christ—Cause

5.     Actions are done by Christ—Instrumental

This instrumental use is seen in the high Christology Paul portrays in Colossians 1:15—20. It is by Christ that all things were created and existed, etc.

This five-fold categorization even expresses problems in categorizing the “in Christ” motif. The grandiose theme of “in Christ” falls under Christology but I want to propose it serving as a linking theological element to other doctrines. That is, the “in Christ” motif is not strictly Christological, but is predominately involved with a second theological category. Moreover, a prima facie observation of “in Christ” serving solely our understanding of “Union with Christ” will distort the study. Therefore, a further two-fold distinction will help the study.

  1. “In Christ” associated with animate objects
  2. “In Christ” associated with non-animate objects

As observed through the small amount verses given thus far, the “in Christ” theme extends beyond its association with people but reaches into cosmological areas.

Series Outline

With this introduction, the subsequent posts will attempt to broaden our comprehension of the “in Christ” motif. Therefore, in the coming weeks, posts will discuss the following:

  1. “In Christ” and Soteriology
  2. “In Christ” and Sanctification
  3. “In Christ” and Christology
  4. “In Christ” and Ecclesiology
  5. “In Christ” and Eschatology
  6. “In Christ” with Vague Functions
  7. Pastoral implications of “In Christ”

Part IIa: "In Christ" and Soteriology