Friday, April 4, 2008

The In-Christ Motif: Objective and Subjective Dimensions

by Clinton Baldwin

Some New Testament scholars claim that the in-Christ motif is the center of Paul’s theology.[1] Paul used the term en Christo, (Greek), in Christ, and other related terms such as, “in the Lord,” “in Him,” “with Christ,” “through Christ,” dozens of times throughout his writings.[2] Paul’s use of these words so far outnumbers other New Testament writers that these concepts could practically be labeled a distinctive Pauline formula.[3]

His employment of this theme can be seen against the background that throughout the New Testament, the Christ event, that is, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is the definitive lens through which all of God’s communication with humanity is filtered (John 5:39-40; Heb 1:1-3). Not only does all of God’s communication with humanity now refract through the Christ event, but all of humanity’s actions with God are now defined and empowered through this reality. Whereas in Judaism a person’s relationship to God and society was measured by his faith relation to the Torah, with the advent of Christ, all of a person’s vertical (God-ward) and horizontal (person-to-person) dealings are measured and defined by his relationship to Christ.[4] As the writer of Hebrews articulates, “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son”(Heb 1:1-2, NIV).

Thus, the in-Christ experience could be summarized in part as, “The Christian’s new environment. It is analogous to the air. As we are in the air and the air is in us, so we are in Christ and Christ is in us.”[5] This in-Christ experience can also be described as a mystical union between Christ and the believer, which is a concrete reality. Two principal dimensions to this reality that can be derived from the New Testament are the objective and the subjective dimensions.

The Objective Dimension

An objective reality is one that exists irrespective of our knowledge of, appreciation for, or contribution to that reality. Gravity, the sun, and the air are some common objective realities. In many places, Paul presents the Christ event as a unilateral action of God. That is, a doing of God that is not dependent on our participation in those actions. Those actions are commonly referred to as, “what God did for us,” or “what He has, or is doing outside of us.” (The corollary of course, is what He is doing in us—the subjective reality.)

Justification and redemption have been accomplished in Christ (Rom 3:24). We have been foreordained and chosen in Christ before the foundations of the world (Eph 1:4, 7). The totality of salvation is in Christ (2 Tim 2:10). The ideal mind to imitate is in Christ (Phil 2.5). There is a love of Christ[6] from which we cannot be separated (Rom 8:35). In most of the above passages, the objective dimension of the in-Christ motif has to do with salvation.

A key passage that probably could be seen as a comprehensive summary of the objective in Christ formula, particularly where salvation is concerned, is 2 Cor 5:18, 19. “Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself and not counting their trespasses against them” (ASV).[7]

This passage teaches that the reconciliation was an act accomplished unilaterally by God through the instrumentality of the person of Christ.[8] Commenting on the subject of reconciliation Raoul Dederen stated it most succinctly:

Primarily, reconciliation is not a change in man’s attitude towards God. Rather reconciliation is first of all an event, an objective event, accomplished by God for the salvation of sinners. God’s love manifested in reconciliation is not focused on the moment when the individual sinner believes in Christ and finds his attitude towards God changed from enmity to love. God’s love manifested in reconciliation took place long before, “while we were enemies,” of God, in the objective historical event of Christ’s death. Love towards God evoked in the hearts of sinners by the revelation of God’s wondrous love towards us on the cross does not constitute, but is the acceptance of the reconciliation already effected by the cross before sinners heard of it and responded to it.[9]

Put another way, before God saved us in ourselves, He first saved us objectively in the person of Jesus. Jesus relived all of humanity’s history and in the process fulfilled all the terms of the covenant.[10] He was humanity in one package, and what happened to Him through the biblical principle of co-operate personality also happened to us (Rom 5). To use Richard Davidson’s words: “We were there,”[11]—two thousand years ago in the historic event of the Christ person. Therefore, when He lived right, we lived right (Rom 5:18, 19); when He died, we all died (2 Cor 5:14); when He was resurrected, we also experienced a resurrection (Eph 2:6; Col 3:1).[12] As certainly as God came to be with man in Christ, so certainly has man gone to be with God in Christ.

Thus, in another affirmation of what God has accomplished in Christ, Paul states that the believer sits with Jesus in heavenly places (Eph 2:6). In Col 3:3, Paul asserts that “you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” In other words, Jesus is not just the one who gives us salvation, but He is our salvation. He is not just the one who gives us redemption or justification, but His person is our redemption and justification. He is not just the one who gives us bread, water, light, or shows us the way, but His person is our bread, water, light, and way. All that He seeks to give us, His physical person is firstly, that reality for us.[13]

Again, all this reflects what God accomplished for us without our asking, repenting, confessing or even accepting. Simply put, when we think of our salvation, our first thoughts should not be about what God is accomplishing in us through our faith relationship with Him; but what He has accomplished outside of us, through the faithfulness of Jesus (Rom 3:21-25).[14] Without doubt, Jesus’ faithfulness to God existed, and continues to exist, whether or not we accept or acknowledge it. There is indeed a dimension of the gospel which is a finished, completed reality that no effort of ours can add to or diminish.

However, in order for this objective reality to become effective in our lives, it requires our acceptance. Thus, the New Testament also speaks subjectively regarding the in-Christ reality. Please note that our acceptance of the objective reality does not cause it to exist in the first place, no more than our sitting in the sunlight causes the sun to exist. Receiving should never be confused with achieving.

The Subjective Reality

The subjective dimension of the in-Christ motif describes our response to, acceptance of, and participation in what God has accomplished for us in Christ. Thus, the peace of God guards the hearts and minds of those who are in Christ (Phil 2:1). Encouragement resides in Christ (Phil 2:1). The churches of Judea are in Christ (Gal 1:22). Believers are one in Christ (Gal 3:28). Believers are regenerated, renewed, and justified by the Spirit of Christ (Titus 2:5-7). By uniting together, believers are one body in Christ. Urbanus is “our fellow worker in Christ” (Rom 16:9). In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

The subjective response also bespeaks the fact that there is a mystical union between Christ and the believer that translates into Christ-like actions. This we often refer to as what God is doing in us. In this union the believer’s actions are motivated, empowered, and defined by the indwelling Christ (2 Cor 5:14; Gal 2:20). No longer is the law just a code, but, more importantly, it is now a person.[15] In Christ, the Christian does not have a road map; he has a personal guide. This guide not only directs according to the principles enunciated in the Bible, but whereas no rule book can prescribe every twist and turn in life, Jesus is also present through His other self, that is, the Holy Spirit, to instruct in the myriads of life’s details not explicitly outlined in the Bible.[16] Christ is not only the gift of God (grace), He is the demand of God (law). Thus the grace of God teaches us to obey (Titus 2:11, 12). Again, the in-Christ motif encapsulates the “Christian’s new environment.”[17] We indeed live and move and have our being in Him (Acts 17:28).

Without the subjective experience of being in Christ, God would be obligated to save everyone irrespective of his or her attitude towards Him. However, this is not the case, as wherever there is a gift, there must be acceptance, lest strictly speaking, the gift becomes irrelevant. However, the problem with us as humans is that we tend to focus more on our acceptance of the gift, namely, our faith response, and tend to invest it with meritorial value, where salvation is concerned. Needless to say, the meritorial cause of salvation is not what God is doing in us, but what He has done for us objectively in Christ.

Unless this important distinction is made, we will be left with a Christ-centered legalism—a salvation that is partially dependent on what God has done for us, and partially on what we do in response; namely, acceptance, faith, confession, good works, etc. Paul reminds that we are not only justified by the faithfulness of Jesus, but by the faithfulness of Jesus apart from works of law (Gal 2:16; Rom 3: 20-25). Works here includes even those works that are accomplished through the Holy Spirit.[18] Simply put, we are not saved by our acceptance of Jesus. Our acceptance of Jesus is our acceptance of that which causes us to be saved. We can only but accept our acceptance in Christ.

This registers a solid assurance of salvation. As long as we are in this sinful body, it means that God’s doing in us, is incomplete, imperfect, and mingled with our human frailties. However, because of this objective in-Christ formula, we can also have a perfect assurance of salvation, as, objectively in Christ, we are always complete. God’s action in Christ is complete, perfect, and meets all the conditions for salvation. In this assurance we stand firm in Christ.

[1] One of the most articulate proponents of this position was Albert Schweitzer, who, using the metaphor of a volcano, described Paul’s in-Christ motif as the main crater and justification by faith as a subsidiary crater, formed within the rim of the main crater. Albert Schweitzer, Mysticism of Paul the Apostle, trans. William Montgomery (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1953), 224, 225. For a brief survey of other leading scholars who expose this position, see James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 390-393.

[2] For example, he used the phrase “en Christo,” approximately 84 times.

[3] For example, 1 Peter 3:16; 5:10, 14 is the only other place in the New Testament that the phrase en Christo is used.

[4] See Deut 1-5; John 3:16-18; 16:9; Col 3:1-3; Matt 5-7; Rom 14:23.

[5] A. Deissmann, St Paul, A Study in Social and Religious History, trans. Lionel Strachan (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1912), 140, 142, as referenced in George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 523.

[6] Although this phrase is not in Christ, the Greek tou Christou “of Christ” certainly describes the objective love of Jesus.

[7] See also Rom 5:8-12.

[8] Another passage that communicates this reality most forcefully (although without the explicit use of the term in Christ) especially as seen from the Greek is Romans 5:8-10.

[9] Raoul Dederen, “Atoning Aspect In Christ’s Death,” in The Sanctuary and The Atonement: Biblical, Historical and Theological Studies, ed. Arnold V. Wallenkampf and W. Richard Lesher (Washington: Review and Herald, 1981), 302. Emphasis his.

[10] For an elaboration on this see my, Justification by Faith: More Than a Concept, a Person (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Dikaioma Publishers, 2002), 57-64; 79-119.

[11] Richard M. Davidson, “You are There,” New England Pastor, Jan/Feb (2008): 9.

[12] Baldwin, Justification, 85-86.

[13] See Luke 1:69; 2:30; Jer 23:6; 1 Cor 1:30, 31; John 6:35; 7: 37; 8:12.

[14] The genitive term translated “faith in Jesus” can also be translated as “faith of Jesus.” The former signifies our faith response to Jesus; the latter signifies Jesus’ faithfulness to God independent of our faith response to Him. While the exact translation of some of these passages is debated, most scholars hold that theologically, we are justified/saved/reconciled, etc., not by our faith in Jesus (our subjective experience), but by the faithfulness of Jesus, the independent and objective reality accomplished by God through the atonement of Jesus.

[15] Baldwin, Justification by Faith, 182-192.

[16] Understood from another angle, this is the fulfillment of the new covenant promise to have the law written on the heart (Heb 8: 7-13).

[17] Ladd, A Theology, 523, 524.

[18] Paul’s epistles were written to Christians—people who believed in works empowered by the Holy Spirit.

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