When I was a first-year student at Calvin Theological Seminary one of the required courses was New Testament Introduction. In that course, taught by Dr. William Hendriksen, we were introduced to the Book of Ephesians. One of the first things that Dr. Hendriksen said was that the “in Christ” relationship was central in Paul’s epistles. He also stated that Dr. C. R. Erdman of Princeton regarded the “in Christ” relationship as the most important phrase in the epistle. In Dr. Erdman’s own comments on the phrase (Eph. 1:1), he writes:
Furthermore, the phrase “in Christ Jesus,” is to be understood as usually employed by Paul. It denotes a vital union and fellowship with Christ. Possibly it is the most significant and characteristic of all phrases used by the apostle. He conceives the whole Christian life as being lived “in Christ.” So here the spiritual constancy and fidelity of these readers is regarded as due to their relationship to their Lord. They not only believe in him and are faithful to him, but they are in him. He is the very sphere of their existence; he forms the sum and substance of their being. For them “to live is Christ.” (Commentary of Paul to the Ephesians [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1931], 24–25)
A little study of the use of this phrase in Scripture will indicate that these professors were correct in their assessment of its importance. It is quite evident from Ephesians 1:3 that every spiritual blessing has its origin “in the heavenly realms.” And that, of course, is where the ascended Christ lives and from which He reigns. Therefore, believers receive every spiritual blessing from Him. As Dr. Hendriksen notes in his commentary on Ephesians 1:1, “Those addressed are ‘in Christ Jesus.’ That is, they are what they are by virtue of union with him” (Ephesians, New Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967], 70). Furthermore, he adds: “Had it not been for their connection with Christ, a connection infinitely close, these people would not now be saints and believers. Moreover, their present life of faith has its center in him. For them ‘to live is Christ’ (Phil. 1:21). They now love him because he first loved them” (ibid., 71).
In complete agreement with the assessment of both of these New Testament scholars, Dr. J. R. W. Stott has written:
The commonest description in the Scriptures of a follower of Jesus is that he or she is a person ‘in Christ.’ The expressions ‘in Christ,’ ‘in the Lord,’ and ‘in him’ occur 164 times in the letters of Paul alone, and are indispensable to an understanding of the New Testament. To be ‘in Christ’ does not mean to be inside Christ, as tools are in a box or our clothes in a closet, but to be organically united to Christ, as a limb in the body or a branch in a tree. It is this personal relationship with Christ that is the distinctive mark of his authentic followers. (“In Christ”: The Meaning and Implications of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, address, 1983, published in Knowing and Doing: A Teaching Quarterly for Discipleship of Heart and Mind, C. S. Lewis Institute, http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/In_Christ_FullArticle)
The abundant use of this phrase by the apostle Paul indicates how central it was to his thinking. Consequently, when Paul writes that believers are “blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3), we must realize that this is a comprehensive statement. It, therefore, implies that every aspect of our salvation is connected to Christ. Let’s consider for a moment some important aspects of our salvation which are involved.
First, to be “in Christ” involves God’s work of election. He has chosen these believers to be in Christ. From eternity God determined that they would hear the gospel and should believe in Jesus Christ unto salvation. The very foundation and certainty of their salvation is rooted and grounded in God’s electing grace. As Paul reminds the Ephesian believers: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—not of works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8–9). Their salvation is secure because the “good shepherd laid down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Moreover, they were “predestined to be adopted as his [God’s] sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph. 1:5). In the words of an old song we can gratefully sing:
’Twas sovereign mercy called me And taught my opening mind;
The world had else enthralled me, To heavenly glories blind.
My heart owns none before Thee, For Thy rich grace I thirst;
This knowing, if I love Thee, Thou must have loved me first.
Josiah Conder, 1836 (Cent. Ps. Hymnal, 385:2)
Another benefit of being “in Christ” is referred to as “redemption through his blood” (Eph. 1:7). That is, the atoning blood that was required to cover sins was given by Christ Jesus. Scripture informs us that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb. 9:22). Jesus came into the world to save sinners; therefore, He shed His blood for forgiveness of our sins, “so that he was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people” (Heb. 9:28). Thus, when one is in Christ “we have our redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7–8).
Furthermore, because believers are “in Christ” they are sealed with the Holy Spirit, “who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance unto the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:14). Thus, in vital relationship with Christ, Paul could write to the Philippian believers, “to live is Christ” (Phil. 1:21). By the Holy Spirit’s working in them, believers can say with the apostle Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20–21).
Moreover, since believers are united to Christ as members of a body to the head, they also become members of each other by virtue of their union with Christ. Thus, the whole idea of the unity of the church as one body is related to the connection to Christ. And believers being “in Christ” bring joy to others as they live in Him. Besides, while “to live is Christ,” they also have hope for the eternal future because when they die they are going to be “present with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8). Besides, since Christ is “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20), believers who are in Christ also die in the hope that they “will be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22) at the resurrection of the dead in the Last Day.
No wonder then that the phrase “in Christ” may be considered perhaps the most significant in the New Testament. In short, to be in Christ is the status of all believers in Him. If one is not in Christ, he or she is among the rest of the multitude of the human race who “remain under the wrath of God” (John 3:36). Therefore, we can say that unbelievers are not in Christ and consequently lack the comfort of union with Christ in the present life. They also lack any hope of a resurrection to life in the Last Day. These blessings are reserved for God’s chosen ones who profess to believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
There are some who would question whether the Scripture teaches that only believers are “in Christ” since the apostle Paul writes to Timothy about having “our hope in the living God who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe” (1 Tim. 4:10). Surely, however, the apostle cannot be teaching in this text that all are saved. He definitely makes a distinction between those of whom God is “the Savior of all men” and those of whom God is the Savior of “especially those who believe.” The simplest and plainest way to understand what Paul is saying here is to acknowledge that there is a sense in which God is the Savior of all. As Jesus taught: “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:35–36). God by His providential care and benevolence is the Savior, or Deliverer, Benefactor of all people, believers and unbelievers alike. The apostle Paul makes a similar affirmation regarding the activity of Christ when he writes: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). That is all true in a general sense regarding all people. However, in the spiritual, redemptive sense, God is the Savior “especially of those who believe.” Those who believe are the ones who are in Christ. They are the ones whom God “in love predestined to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Eph. 1:5). Thus, believers in Christ are the objects of God’s electing grace, redemption, and forgiveness of sins, and of the Holy Spirit’s seal of their inheritance. Believers alone are the ones of whom it can be said “to live is Christ” and who, therefore, live with confidence of an eternal future in His presence.
This not to say, though, that among the unsaved there may not be some who claim to be “in Christ” without it actually being so. After all, many throughout the centuries have made profession of being the Lord’s people but in the judgment are rejected. As Jesus Himself teaches us: “Many will say to me on that day [of judgment], ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evil doers’” (Matt. 7:22).
The apostle of our Lord also foresaw the appearance of such false professors and even contended against them. The apostle John, for example, wrote of those who once professed faith in Christ but then forsook His body, the church. In his first epistle he indicates that such apostasy is indicative of the presence of antichrists. Of such people he writes: “They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us” (1 John 2:19). In a similar way, there are many nominal Christians today who profess to believe in Jesus but want nothing to do with His church. This dichotomy between professing Christ and ignoring His church surely will be exposed in the Last Day when the Lord says, “I never knew you.” One cannot love Jesus and reject His body, yet still have a well-founded hope for the future! Rather, we believe with the Belgic Confession, regarding the obligation of church members, that all people are obliged to join and unite with it, “keeping the unity of the church by submitting to its instruction and discipline, by bending their necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ, and by serving to build up one another, according to the gifts God has given them as members of each other in the same body” (Article 28, par. 2).
It is obvious, therefore, that if one is “in Christ” he will profess Jesus as Savior and Lord not only, but also unite with the Lord’s body, the church. To be in relation to Christ is to experience union with His body as well. That the church will have to contend continually with false professors is evident from the apostle Paul’s warning to Timothy: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times, some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). We must understand here that those who “will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits” are those who once professed to believe in Christ and gathered in worship with His church. In other words, they were presumed to be in Christ. But in forsaking the faith, they reveal their true identity as being outside of Christ. Truly, their judgment will be severe!
Inasmuch as being “in Christ” is the source of one’s salvation and of every spiritual blessing, we must ask the question: How then does a person get to be united to Christ?
The Scripture is very clear in teaching that the union between Christ and a believer is consummated by faith. We know, of course, that the elect are “in Christ” from eternity, and their salvation is, therefore, secure. However, from the temporal and experiential point of view, the following is also true, as Dr. Charles Hodge states it:
They [believers in Christ] are “by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:3). They remain in this state of condemnation until they believe. Their union is consummated by faith. To be in Christ, and to believe in Christ, are, therefore, convertible forms of expression. They mean substantially the same thing and, therefore, the same effects are attributed to faith as are attributed to union with Christ. (Systematic Theology, 3:104)
Hearing the gospel and responding to it in penitence and faith is so essential to one’s salvation that the Reformed churches confess the saving power of the gospel in these words: “What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law can do, God accomplishes by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the Word or the ministry of reconciliation. This is the gospel about the Messiah, through which it has pleased God to save believers, in both the Old and New Testament” (Canons of Dordt, III–IV, Art. 6).
The church must take seriously, therefore, the command of the Lord to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18). This is so because the gospel is the means of calling “sinners to repentance and faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21). Only sinners who respond to the gospel in penitence and faith can experience being “in Christ.” Where such response to the gospel occurs we can be sure that the Holy Spirit has been active and has wrought regeneration and saving faith in the believer. Thus, God alone receives the credit, praise, and glory even when one comes to believe unto salvation. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). As believers are those who are in Christ, our relationship to Him is like a branch in a vine, as Jesus Himself declared to His apostles: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
We conclude, finally, that since the source of all spiritual blessing is “in Christ” which we experience by faith, we should be motivated to seek to know Christ better. Our heart’s desire should be to be fruit-bearing branches in the vine, Christ Jesus, which will attest to our vital union with Christ Himself. Then we should be able to say with the apostle Paul that we want “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10–11). Those who are in Christ will gratefully sing forever the words of John Newton’s hymn:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
Dr. Harry Arnold is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church and lives in Portage, MI. He is a member of Grace Christian Reformed Church in Kalamazoo, MI.