To Be “in Christ”
To be “in Christ” is a curious thing. It’s a distinctly Pauline idea. He seems to use it of anyone who is a believer in the gospel, as in anyone who has been saved by grace through faith in the death burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ to save them from the penalty of their sins. Galatians 2 gives, I think, the clearest explanation of what he means by the phrase.
“Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”
What’s he saying? He’s saying that having faith in Jesus to save you from the penalty of sin puts you in the camp of “in Christ.” He’s also saying that if you think you can work your way to perfection, you’re not in the camp of “in Christ.” Being “in Christ” means living by faith in the son of God, not by the works of the law. The law reveals sin, grace deals with it.
That’s what it means to be “in Christ.” It means giving up your protest against God by giving up your sins and choosing to live in faith as opposed to sin. Christ died in our place, so God is judicially free to bestow gifts of grace upon us, even though we don’t deserve them. (That’s the point of grace, by the way. We don’t deserve it.) If we then say that we do deserve it in any way, we nullify the grace of God. If we deserved it, it wasn’t grace. Being “in Christ” means living a life that knows God will save you, simply because he said he would.
I have faith that God will save me from the penalty of my sins, spare me from His own wrath, because he said that he would in his word. (And when I say the penalty of my sins, I don’t just mean eternal torment in hell. I also mean the temporal penalties that my sin gives me on earth when I continue to sin. Faith in Christ’s death on the cross allows me to be being saved as well as to be saved in the end. More on this idea later.) More than just his word, his actions back that up. The assurance of His promise to save us from His own wrath is the death and resurrection of Christ. I can look to the cross to be reminded of the promise that God’s wrath will not be poured out on me, because it was already poured out on Him. That knowledge should be my defining characteristic, and the defining Characteristic of anyone who is “in Christ.”
The Outworking of Being “in Christ”
Note the words “should be” in the previous sentence. Living in a constant recognition and deference to the cross is the ultimate goal, but this goal is never seen perfectly in the Christian prior to his resurrection, that is part of the sin nature. Every Christian who has been brought to that point of deference, by the grace of God, has fought against and continues to fight against that grace every step of the way. Every Christian continues to resist relinquishing control to God. Instead, he often runs back to his sin and clings to it. He knows that God’s grace is sufficient to save him from that sin and yet, on a certain level, he doesn’t want to be saved from it. He still likes sin, and yet hates it at the same time. Such is the case of fallen humanity. Paul says as much in Romans 7.
“For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”
I myself cling to sin daily and serve the law of sin with my flesh. I must instead remember that “in Christ” I am free from sin. I am free to live to God instead of living in sin or under the law. Christ has set me free and any enslavement I endure to sin is of my own making.
I still look to other wells from which to draw living water, finding only sewage. My heart wrenches in my chest when I honestly look at my wants and see a strong desire to avoid confrontation with truth. I have a strong desire to, through sin, escape the reality God has made instead of living in it as one he has re-made.
These wells all have one thing in common, they distract. They distract me from the truth of who God is, serving the ultimate purpose of allowing me to avoid the mortification of the very sins I use to stifle my pursuit of knowing God. Ironic, isn’t it? The very things I need to kill are the things I use to avoid killing them. How clever a sinner I am.
I feel like Luther in knowing I’m a sinful man and being told to go and love God and yet I cannot love God fully for my flesh will not allow it. I know that I cannot love God because I still love sin. And yet my sin does not provide true relief from stress, loneliness, or conviction. It provides momentary forgetfulness, temporary euphoria. The only times of true relief I have ever experienced are when I really believe the Gospel. It is in the times when I really, truly, actually, remember that God gives grace to wretched, pitiful, destitute sinners like me that peace comes. “The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at [my] heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with [my] blood.”
It is when I truly fear God, and love Him at the same time that I come to grips with my sin and make any progress toward the perfect example set by His son. This is the process of sanctification. I daily am being saved by my faith, even though I’m already “saved” from the final torment. It is during these times of clear awareness and deference to God as ruler that I am sure of my status as “in Christ.” This is what it means to be “in Christ.” It’s not some fancy phrase or pithy cliché. Being “in Christ” is responding to the knowledge that God’s wrath was poured out on Him so that it might not be poured out on us and to live daily like we know what the hell that means, for without it, hell is exactly what it means, both now on earth and for all eternity.