Author: Ray Shelton

Date: 11 January 1990
Copyright 1990, Ray Shelton


  1. INTRODUCTION: The Place of the Phrase in Paul's Theology.
  2. The Meaning of the Phrase "in Christ":
    1. Comparison with other Phrases:
      1. "in Jesus".
      2. "in the Lord".
    2. Adjectival Meaning.
    3. Instrumental Meaning.
    4. Local, Spatial Meaning.
    5. Mystical meaning:
      The difference between Biblical Theology and Hellenistic Mysticism:
      1. God and Man.
      2. Salvation.
      3. Eschatology.
    6. Representative Meaning.
      1. Biblical Doctrine of the Representative Man.
      2. Similarity and Difference between Adam and Christ.
      3. Representative Work of Christ as a Participation.
  3. CONCLUSION: Our Participation in Christ.
    End Notes.
    Appendix A: Occurences of the Phrase "in Christ" and Related Phrases in the Epistles of Paul.
    Appendix B: Note concerning the Interpretation of Romans 5:12.
    Appendix C: Note concerning the misinterpretation of Romans 5:12.
    Appendix D: Note concerning the misinterpretation of the death of Christ.
    Appendix E: Note concerning the misinterpretation of salvation.
    Appendix F: Note concerning the misinterpretation of the Christian life.
    Appendix G: Note concerning the misinterpretation of holiness and sanctification.
    Appendix H: Note concerning the misinterpretation of the baptism of the Spirit.

  1. INTRODUCTION: The Place of the Phrase in Paul's Theology.
    Every man who writes or speaks a lot has some favorite phrase he uses very frequently. The Apostle Paul had such a phrase, and it is "in Christ" (en christo). This phrase in this or related forms occurs 165 times in the 13 letters of Paul. [1] In only one of the extant writings of the Apostle is the phrase "in Christ" or its related forms absent, the letter to Titus. The phrase in one or another of its forms occurs most frequently in the epistle to the Ephesians (36 times), and in this epistle it occurs in more variant forms (10 forms). There are five different major groups of the 15 different forms of this phrase: "in Christ" (other variant forms are "in the Christ," "in Christ Jesus," "in the Christ Jesus," "in Christ Jesus our Lord"); "in Lord" ("in Lord Jesus," "in the Lord Jesus," "in Lord Jesus Christ"); "in God" ("in the God"); "in him" ("in whom"); "in Jesus" and "in the Beloved." The phrase "in Christ" and its related variants occurs the most times (80 times) with the phrase "in the Lord" and its variants occuring the next most times (50 times). The most used form is "in Christ Jesus," occurring 45 times in 10 of the 13 epistles of Paul. No doubt as the years passed the meaning of this phrase [in Christ, etc.] enriched and intensified for Paul, but it is clear from this pattern of occurences that it was no late and sudden development in the thought of Paul. From the beginning to the end of his Christian life the phrase expresses the center of his theology and the deepest meaning of his Christian experience.

  2. The Meaning of the Phrase "in Christ":
    1. Comparison with other Phrases.
      Paul not only uses the phrase to describe his own religious experience but that of every Christian man and woman. It does not describe a religious experience unique and peculiar to himself, something he alone enjoyed because he was in a specially privileged position or because he had risen to a devotional height which ordinary people could never hope to attain. The phrase describes something to be known and experienced by all Christians. The phrase "in Christ" describes the essence of the Christian life of every Christian and not just the Christian life in general.

      Furthermore, the phrase "in Christ" as Paul uses it has to do uniquely and specifically with the risen Christ. Only once does Paul use the phrase "in Jesus" (Eph. 4:21). The name "Jesus" has to do with the human, historical person by that name who lived and taught at a certain place and time. The phrase "in Jesus" describes and expresses a physical relationship which is dependent on space and time and physical contact, a relationship that can be made or broken as physical presence and absence alternate. [2] The phrases "in Christ" and "in the Lord", on the other hand, describe a spiritual relationship to a person not limited by time and space, a relationship to the everliving Christ and the everywhere present risen Lord. The truth which is "in Jesus" is the truth lived and taught by Jesus on earth before his resurrection and exaltation; and to be taught "in Him", that is, "in Christ", is for the believer to learn from the risen Christ and to hear the voice of the living Christ in his heart (Eph. 4:20-21). [3]

      Furthermore, the phrase "in the Lord" must be distinguished from the phrase "in Christ." The phrase "in the Lord" usually occurs in greetings, blessings, exhortations (often with imperatives), and formulations of Pauline plans and activities (Rom. 16:12-13, 22; I Cor. 16:19; Eph. 6:1,10; Phil. 3:1; 4:1, 2, 4, 10; 2:24; II Thess. 3:4, 12).

      "The title Kyrios denotes, then, the influence of the Risen Jesus in practical and ethical areas of Christian conduct. En Kyrio is hardly ever used of Jesus' historical, earthly activity or of his coming eschatological function. It implies, rather, his present, sovereign intervention and dominion in the life of the Christian. Paul tells the Christain to be 'in the Lord' what he really is 'in Christ.'" [4]

    2. Adjectival Meaning.
      Sometimes the phrase "in Christ" and "in the Lord" simply mean "Christian" in the real and deepest sense of that term. "These phrases fill the place of an adjective or adverb which the linguistic process had not yet developed: 'Christian' or 'as a Christian,' 'in a Christian manner.'" [5] Paul uses the phrase to characterize all sorts of conduct and attitudes as Christian: speech (II Cor. 2:17; 12:19) and exhortation (Phil. 2:1), boldness (Phlm. 8), brotherly love (I Cor. 16:24). In some contexts it may simply be equivalent to "Christian" (Rom. 16:7 "and they were Christians [en christo] before me;" Phlm. 16 "as a man [en sarki] and as a Christian [en kurio]." However, to translate these phrases "Christian" would lose the depth of meaning of the phrase "in Christ" and would be a colorless and inadequate translation.

    3. Instrumental Meaning.
      In the attempt to determine the meaning of these phrases it has been suggested that the Greek preposition en should be taken with an instrumental sense. It is true that in the later Greek of New Testament times en is very often used of the instrumental or agent of an action and has the meaning by means of, or through the agency of. Linguistically the phrase en christo may be very close to dia christou, "through Christ," especially where it refers to the historical, earthly activity of Jesus (Rom. 3:24; II Cor. 5:19; Gal. 2:17; Col. 1:14; Eph. 2:10; etc.). This gives a perfectly intelligible meaning in many places, but in many passages it must be acknowledged that en christo means far more than this, such as II Cor. 5:17 "If any man is in Christ, he is a new creature," I Cor. 15:22 "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive," Gal. 3:26 "for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith," Gal. 3:28 "for you are all one in Christ Jesus" and Eph. 2:6 "and raised us up with him, and made us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus."

    4. Local, Spatial Meaning.
      Since the studies of Adolf Deissman of Berlin in 1892, the preposition en has often been taken in a local, spatial sense. Thus he suggested that the phrase en christo can be interpreted on the analogy of the way we live in the air.
      "Just as all men live in the air, and cannot live without air, so the Christian lives in Christ... To be in Christ is to live a life in which Christ is the atmosphere which we breathe." [6]
      Thus the Christian is united to the exalted, glorified Christ in some mystical union; this doctrine of the mystical union with Christ is referred to as the Pauline mysticism. [7] Deissman's thesis has been vigorously attacked. Some scholars have denied absolutely that the phrase "in Christ" has any mystical content; they deny that the doctrine of the mystical union with Christ is to be found in Paul's thought or writings at all. [8] Much of the discussion is merely semantical; it is a disagreement over the meaning of the words "mysticism" and "mystical." Because of the indefiniteness and ambiguity of the concept, the term should not be employed in describing the believer's relationship to the risen and exalted Christ.

    5. Mystical meaning.
      There is a great difference between Paul's teachings and pagan mysticism. Paul's theology differs from Oriental-Hellenistic mysticism in at least three essentials.

      1. God and Man.
        Paul derived from the Old Testament a stricly monotheistic concept of God. According to this concept, God is a personal spiritual Being who exists independent of the world and is its Creator. He is the sovereign Creator of all things, the world and man; all things are His free creation. There exists a fundamental ontological distinction between the Creator and the Creation. This God has manifested Himself in Jesus Christ and reveals Himself by the Holy Spirit. The personal God who reveals Himself in this way eternally exists as three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

        Man was created by God and in contrast to the rest of creation he was created in the image of God, who is Jesus Christ, the God-man (Col. 1:13-15; compare II Cor. 4:4). Man as such is a personal being, a unity of spirit [person] and body (see Gen. 2:7), having dominion over creation and fellowship with another equal being (woman). Man's existence as a person is also to be found, not in his reason, but in his limited free will and decision. And since decisions involve a reference to an ultimate criterion beyond the self, a god, the Biblical view of man is that he is a religious animal, a being who must have a god.

        The first man Adam and his wife Eve used their freedom to disobey God and choose a false god, wisdom and knowledge; that is, Reason. The basic sin is turning from the true God and to faith in a false god of some kind; it is idolatry. Sin is any choice contrary to ultimate allegiance or faith in the true God. The consequence of Adam's sin was death: both spiritual death (the separation of their spirits from God) and physical death (the separation of their spirits from their bodies). In other words, they lost their fellowship with God and with each other and dominion over creation. But even though they have fallen from the image of God, they still are persons and have the freedom of choice.

        The descendants of Adam are born not in the image of God but in the image of Adam, the man of dust, the old man, and as such are subject to death, physical and spiritual. Death has been inherited by all men. And since they have been born into the world spiritually dead, alienated from God, not knowing God, and since they must have a god, an ultimate criterion of decision, they choose a false god and thereby sin. The creation, man himself, contains a knowledge about the true God which leaves man without excuse for his sin of idolatry. But this knowledge is about God and not a personal knowledge of God which comes from fellowship with God.

        Hellenistic mysticism, on the other hand, was pantheistic, or at least had pantheistic tendencies. Accordingly God is an impersonal principle and not personal or a person. The world is an emanation of God; all things have come out of God and will return there again. This is seen particularly with regard to man. The better part of man, the "essential man," the soul, is a portion of the God itself. It has descended from the higher realm into the lower world at birth and is now imprisoned in the body and subject to the domination of fate.

      2. Salvation.
        In Paul's theology, salvation is the restoration of fellowship and communion with God through the historical death, bodily resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit. God in His love for man has sent His Son into the world to become a man -- Jesus Christ. He is the image of God, the perfect man. But He came not just to be what man should have been or to give man a perfect example but to give them life and restore them to the image of God. He did this by entering into their condition of spiritual and physical death on the cross. So that as Christ was raised from the dead, they might be made alive with Him in His resurrection. That is, Christ's death was their death and His resurrection is their resurrection. Also, Jesus was exalted to the right hand of God as Lord to become their Lord and their God. God has sent the Holy Spirit to reveal Jesus Christ personally to them in the preaching of the gospel, which is the good news of what God has done for man in Jesus Christ's death and resurrection. When a man responds to this revelation by turning from his false gods (repentance) and turning to the true God, acknowledging Jesus as his Lord (faith), he is saved from sin. And since in this decision of faith he receives the living Christ as his life and identifies himself with the death and resurrection of Christ, a man is also saved from spiritual death, being made spiritually alive to God in Christ. Thus man is now being restored to the image of God.

        In Hellenistic mysticism, salvation is the release from the body and the domination of fate and ascent to God. This release from the body takes place at death. But the return into the Godhead, becoming entirely one with it, may take place before death in an ecstatic experience. In this experience man becomes absorbed into the Godhead as a drop of water is absorbed in wine. In this ecstasy man is reborn and becomes another; he becomes God, the All in All. He is raised above time and space and the fundamental distinction between the divine and human is erased. Personal identity is lost in this mystical union with an impersonal God. [9]

      3. Eschatology.
        There is a clearly defined eschatology in Paul's theology as there was in the Old Testament. Jesus Christ will personally, bodily return to earth to subject all to Himself and reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. At the second coming of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:9) the believers' bodies will be resurrected if they die before He comes (I Thess. 4:14-17), or will be transformed into bodies like His resurrected body if they are alive at His coming (I Cor. 15:51-52; Phil. 3:20-21; I John 3:2). Thus physical death will be replaced with physical life just as spiritual death was replaced with spiritual life when they first believed. What was begun at conversion will be brought to completion (Phil. 1:6) at Christ's coming. Spiritual life will become eternal life -- eternal fellowship with the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit (heaven) (Rev. 21:3). Thus will man be restored to the image of God. And their salvation from death (both spiritual and physical) unto life, from sin (idolatry -- trust in false gods) unto righteousness (trust in the true God), will be completed. Those who have rejected Christ will be judged and eternally separated from God.

        There is no such eschatology at all in Hellenistic mysticism.[10] It had no doctrine of a divine intervention in human history with an eschatological consummation as its goal. There is no resurrection of the body, neither a new heavens and earth where God dwells with His people and they with Him. Hellenistic mysticism taught only an immortality of the soul because of the complete and final union with the Godhead after death. The divine powers which constituted man's essence then can return to the Godhead from which it descended. In this union the personal identity of the individual man is lost; he becomes and is the one God. A non-personal immortality and divinization after death, and not the resurrection of the body nor a continuing personal existence in fellowship with Christ and God, is the teaching Hellenistic mysticism. [11]

        "Gnosticism and the mysteries have no interest in a resurrection of the body, for such an idea would be incompatible with Orphic and Platonic doctrine that the body is the tomb of the soul (soma sema)." [12]

        To describe the Christian's relationship to Christ as a mystical union is to confuse these differences between the Biblical and the Hellenistic views of God and man. The Biblical view of the Christian's relationship to Christ is highly personal in which the personal identity of both God and man are retained and the fundamental ontological distinction between the Creator and the created is never blurred or lost sight of. In this personal relationship God reveals Himself as the Sovereign Lord who in love seeks to enter into fellowship with man, and man in his freedom can choose to acknowledge the dominion and Lordship of the Creator and respond to His love in obedient faith and trust. [13] To describe this relationship as a mystical union is to misunderstand the Biblical view, and to interpret this phrase "in Christ" as describing such a union is to fail to understand this relationship.

    6. Representative Meaning
      1. Biblical Doctrine of the Representative Man.
        The key to the understanding of the phrase "in Christ" in the writings of the Apostle Paul is the Biblical doctrine of the representative man. [14] Behind the occurences of this phrase in Paul's writings lies the idea of Christ as the representative man. This is the doctrine that Christ acted not for Himself alone but also for all men whom He represents. His death was not just the death of a man but was the death for all men. He died on their behalf (huper).
        "For the love of Christ constraineth us; because we thus judge,
        that one died for [on the behalf of, huper] all,
        therefore all died" (II Cor. 5:14),
        that is, in Christ who represents us all. Similarly His resurrection is for us, on our behalf. His resurrection is our resurrection.
        "And he died for [huper] all,
        that those who live might live no longer for [huper] themselves
        but for him who for their sakes [huper] died and was raised."
        (II Cor. 5:15)
        Paul sets this conception of Christ as the representative man in contrast to Adam as the representative man. Christ, Paul teaches, is "the last Adam" (I Cor. 15:45) and that Adam is "a type of one who is to come" ( Rom. 5:14).

      2. Similarity and Difference between Adam and Christ.
        In Romans 5:12-21, the Apostle Paul fully develops this doctrine of the two representative men pointing out the similarity and differences between them. Christ is similar to Adam in that as through Adam death reigns over many, so also through Christ many shall reign in life (Rom. 5:17). They both acted representatively on the behalf of all men. It is in connection with this similarity of Adam and Christ as the representative men that Paul uses the phrase "in Christ." In I Cor. 15:21-22 Paul says,
        "For as by a man came death,
        by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.
        For as in Adam all die,
        so also in Christ shall all be made alive."
        (I Cor. 15:21-22)
        Note that the similarity of both men acting as representatives is brought out by the use of the similar phrase "in Adam" and "in Christ."

        But it should also be noted that it is impossible to speak of the similarity between Adam and Christ without at the same time speaking of their differennces. Through Adam -- death; through Christ -- life. Paul is not here speaking of just physical death and physical life, but also of spiritual death and spiritual life. Through Adam, men not only are going to die physically but are in a state of spiritual death -- separation from God. Men do not die physically and spiritually because of their own sins but because of Adam's sin; Adam (and Eve) is the only one of the human race who died because of their own sin. Adam's descendants die and are born into a state of spiritual death because of Adam's sin, not because of their own sins. (See Rom. 5:13-14; I believe that the last clause of Rom. 5:12 [eph ho pantes hemarton] is incorrectly translated in our English versions ["because all sinned" RSV, NAS, NIV]; it makes it appear that each man dies because of his own sin which is just the opposite of what Paul says in the next verses. [See Appendix B for my interpretation and translation of this clause.]) So similarly, through Christ, not only will men be made alive physically in the future resurrection but also are now being made alive spiritually in the new birth. Men are not made alive spiritually and physically because of their own righteousness but because of Christ's act of righteousness and obedience (Rom. 5:18-19).

        And so we cannot speak of the difference between Adam and Christ without speaking of their similarity. Christ acting representatively brings life to all men as Adam acting representatively brought death to all men. All men die because of another, so also they are made alive because of another.

        But there is another difference between the representative work of Christ and that of Adam; Christ's representative act is a participation but Adam's representative act is not a participation. All men died in Adam but did not sin in Adam; they did not participate in Adam's act of sin. Nowhere in the Scriptures does it say that "all men sinned in Adam." The words "in Adam" have been added to the last phrase of Romans 5:12 by those commentators who believe this doctrine that death passed unto all men, because all sinned in Adam. Nowhere in the Scriptures does it teach that all men sinned in Adam. On the contrary, this interpretation appears to contradict what Paul says in verse 14:

        "13 sin indeed was in the world before the law was given,
        but sin is not counted where there is no law.
        14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses,
        even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam,
        who was a type of the one who was to come." (Rom. 5:13-14 RSV)
        If all men sinned when Adam sinned, then they all would have sinned after the likeness of Adam's transgression. But those from Adam to Moses did not sin after the likeness of Adam's transgression because there was no law from Adam to Moses. So all did not sin in Adam. Thus this Reformed doctrine of original sin is unscriptural. (See my discussion of this doctrine in Appendix C).

      3. Representative Work of Christ as a Participation.
        But the representative work of Christ is a participation. But it should not be understood as a vicarious act done instead of and in the place of another. As a participation, it is a sharing in the act of another. Thus there are two sides to Christ's representative work: Christ took part or shared our situation and thereby we come to take part or share in His situation. As Irenaeus said: "He became like us that we might become like Him." [15] Concretely, The Son of God entered not only into our existence as a man, but also into our condition of physical and spiritual death. On the cross, He died not only physically but spiritually. For only this once during His whole life was He separated from the Father. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt. 26:46) He was forsaken for us; He died for us. He entered into and shared in our spiritual and physical death. He tasted death for every man (Heb. 2:9).
        "Forasmuch then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood,
        he also himself likewise took part of the same;
        that through death he might destroy him
        that had the power of death, that is, the devil;
        and deliver them who through fear of death
        were all their lifetime subject to bondage." (Heb. 2:14-15)
        But God raised Him from the dead. He entered into our death in order that as He was raised from the dead we might be made alive with Him (Eph. 2:5). Hence Christ's death was our death, and His resurrection is our resurrection. He particpated in our death that we might participate in His resurrection and have life, spiritual and physical.

  3. CONCLUSION: Our Participation in Christ.
    Because of this representative act of Christ on our behalf, by faith we can identify ourselves with Him in His death and resurrection. In faith we can say "I have died with Christ and I have been raised with Christ. His death is my death; His resurrection is mine." We can say with Paul,
    "I have been crucified with Christ:
    and it is no longer I who live,
    but Christ lives in me;
    and life which I now live in the flesh
    I live by faith in the Son of God,
    who loved me and gave Himself for me."
    (Gal. 2:20 ERS; see also Rom. 6:5-11; Eph. 2:4-6; Col. 3:1-4)
    This is not a mystical experience for only those who have attained a higher level of spiritual devotion and holiness, but this is true of everyone who by faith will believe it and reckon it to be so (Rom. 6:11). Faith rests in the fact of what Christ did He did on our behalf.

    To be in Christ is to be a participant in the representative work of Christ on our behalf. To be in Christ is to be dead with Christ. To be in Christ is to be raised with Christ from the dead and to be alive to God in Him (Rom. 6:8-11). Having passed from death to life with Christ, all believers are in Christ. To be a Christian is to be in Christ. Though many, we are all one body in Christ (Rom. 12:5). But since Christ has also been exalted to God's right hand, we also have been raised up with Him and made to sit with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:6). Those who were subject to death and in bondage to sin are now reigning as kings in life (Rom. 5:17), bringing forth fruit in true righteousness and holiness. The slaves have becomes kings reigning with Christ. Praise be to God for His love toward us in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:39).

End Notes

[1] See Appendix A for number of occurences.

[2] Barclay, The Mind of St. Paul, p. 122.

[3] Foulkes,
Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians, p. 129.

[4] Fitzmyer, Joseph,
Pauline Theology, p. 69.

[5] Bultmann,
Theology of the New Testament, p. 329.

[6] Barclay, op. cit., p. 130.

[7] Wikenhauser,
Pauline Mysticism, pp. 104-105.

[8] ibid., p. 22.

[9] ibid., pp. 183-190.

[10] ibid., p. 166.

[11] ibid., p. 199f.

[12] ibid., p. 193.

[13] Brunner, Truth as Encounter, pp. 93-99.

[14] Richardson,
An Introduction to the Theology of the N.T., p. 251.

[15] Against Heresies, preface.


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Bouttier, Michel. Christianity According to Paul
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much enlarged, of The Divine-Human Encounter
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Bultmann, Rudolf Karl. Theology of the New Testament
Translated by Kendrick Grobel.
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An Introduction and Commentary
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An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament
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The Last Adam, A study in Pauline Anthropology
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Pauline Mysticism, Christ in the Mystical Teaching of St. Paul
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