“in Christ”?

What does it mean to be “in Christ”?  How do I know if I am?   The Apostle John tells us this:

1 John 5:20 (ESV)

[20] And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.

To John, the condition of believing in God and His Son, the Christ, was synonymous with being “in him”.

We can see this from other New Testament writers, too, when they addressed believers in Christ – the Church.

Paul, for whom the appellation was a favorite, assumed his Churches were “in Christ” (Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1).  This state was assumed by him to be the normative state of all who professed belief in Christ.  If someone believed that Christ was his risen Lord, their state was “in Christ”.  Perhaps this reflected the reality.  Perhaps it represented a kind of juridical conclusion about those who had been indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  Based on some of the tongue-lashing he unleashed on, say, the Corinthians, it’s possible that he realized that there were some shades of grey as regards this term.  (It is interesting that Paul does not address the Corinthians as being “in Christ”, as he does Philippi and Ephesus).  I think that what we have to conclude is that it was assumed to be the normative state of the regenerate believer in Christ who now was indwelt by the Spirit of God (i.e. what should be), but perhaps not the average state.

Many modern authors try to delicately dismiss this conclusion as just not practical, if not impossible.  “The Bible couldn’t possibly be teaching that everyone who says they “believe” in Jesus Christ, and so expect to go to Heaven when they die, should follow a pattern of living so violently different than the norm, could it?”  Well, yes, it could.  There is quite a difference between being forgiven, and living as if you are, in the pattern of the One who forgave you.

Christian thinkers over the centuries have considered these questions of what it is, and how one knows if he is, in fact, living it.  What the Bible hasn’t done a particularly good job of articulating is the larger and more practical question: “How does one go about living ‘in Christ’?”  To try to address this question we will consult many of these thinkers and saints for insight in answering this ill-treated question.

The Bible’s viewpoint is mostly one of explaining to us (and the 1st century Christians who were also trying to figure it out) why or that it was that its believing readers were now considered to be “in Christ”.  It is quite sparse (though there are some profound insights) in explaining how these believers should expect to experience life in Christ.  Unfortunately, most of what it has to say is about what you should not experience – a laundry list of sins – and this “freedom from sin” [1] has come to form most of the doctrine of “life in the Spirit”.

If you think about it for a moment, this is perhaps to be expected, in particular from the New Testament.  After all, who were the people addressed by the letters of the New Testament?  They were those either hearing that gospel for the first time in history, or those who, having heard it, were trying to figure out from their leaders (Paul, James, John, Peter) how to live their newfound faith.  These were not people deep in that faith, with perhaps a couple of decades of life experience under their belts.  They were “newbies”, largely (though with some exceptions) being fed “milk” rather than the “solid food” appropriate for those more mature in the faith[2].

For this exercise I’m going to try to lay out the principle characteristics of a life “in Christ” based on key Biblical passages, and the personal experience of some notable saints, and then see if what the Bible has to say about this way of living is consistent with these characteristics.

Most authors have tried to frame this subject the other way around: to first examine what the Bible says about the outcomes of such a life, as far as it goes, and then offer aids and suggestions to help you try to achieve the life they conclude you should experience.  In my opinion, this approach doesn’t lead to much insight.  There’s very little “should” here; and there are no pat rules to follow (as modern authors, in particular, are fond of proposing).  For example, Paul tells the Galatians (in 2:20):

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

One could say “OK, Paul.  But how is it exactly that Christ lives in you? How is it that you feel differently and are different than before?”

The Bible says “By their fruits you shall know them”, by which it means “You’ll know that a person is living ‘in Christ’ when they demonstrate Christ in their lives.”  But it is not prescriptive about how such a thing is developed, probably on purpose, though it does offer a number of traits that we should expect to experience.  Our interest is in examining how best to develop and build up those traits.

While there’s no set of rules to follow like one would in a competition for a prize, as in achieving any goal, effort is required.  And the goal is certainly not to simply modify our behavior, perhaps to emulate some well-known saint (though we can learn immensely from their lives and their writings, and emulating saints certainly was, in fact, an early tool used by followers of the apostles[3]).

In short, it’s not about changing your behavior to purposefully, perhaps with gritted teeth, go about doing “Jesus things”.  It is about ceding possession of yourself to Christ, aided every step of the way by the enabling Grace of the Spirit of God.  This is the great calling of every person professing belief in Jesus Christ.  Sadly, at least in Western Christendom, fewer and fewer are responding to this call (“Take up your cross, and follow Me”) through relentlessly seeking to live the life their faith has made available to them.

The great secret is this: In God’s eyes there is absolutely nothing for you to achieve, other than what He has already given you.  But there is everything for you to give up.

It seems every journey into Christ is uniquely personal; no one’s journey is quite like another’s.  So yours, too, will be, or has been, no doubt unique.

Total Repentance

The foundation stone of a new life built up in you by Christ is complete and unequivocal repentance of your life previous to, and apart from Him[4].  One repents when one rejects and repudiates everything he has done and expected and believed and aspired to apart from Christ.  Perhaps understandably, most modern Christians fail here.  They seem to believe that “repentance” is just an admission only of their failure to recognize Christ as Lord of their lives, not that that failure means that the totality of their manner of living before this recognition was something to be systematically rejected.

As a result, they proceed by holding onto their fondest pet desires for themselves, be it: more money; a better marriage (or marriage partner); a bigger house in a better location; more recognition at home or school or work or church or among friends; protecting one’s relationship with a loved one they revere; or just maintaining a firm grasp on some personal habits best left behind.

Holding onto (i.e. maintaining mental possession of) anything is an impediment to the Holy Spirit’s working of transformation in your life.  It is not that that thing, per se, defeats the process of sanctification.  It is that the mindset that wants continued possession of the thing does.  Anything you desire to preserve in your mind as “mine” belies a defect – a weak spot; an area not yet relinquished — in your abandonment to Christ.

The Bible contains countless admonitions to “repent”.  But what it means by this term and what we moderns read into it (e.g. be “sorry” about, feel some “guilt” about) are quite different.

A.W. Tozer presents a piercing analysis of the desire for possession in his book “The Pursuit of God” in his description of Abraham’s heart-wrenching challenge.  The issue, Tozer points out, is “possession” – claiming things as “mine”, and in doing so specifically refusing to acknowledge that everything is God’s.

For Abraham, his fondest possession was his promised son Isaac.  Isaac was the pinnacle of Abraham’s many possessions, and the object of his most fervent love.  He had been promised to him by God; through him God had promised to “bless many nations”; and, despite all odds, he had been born to his wife Sarah well beyond her childbearing years, just as God had said.  He was not just special.  In him was the entirety of the future promised by God.

God then directs Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice “in the land of Moriah”.  Abraham, reluctantly and in great anguish and misery, proceeds to obey.  But, as he raised his knife to consummate the command, God redeems both he and Isaac by issuing a reprieve.  Abraham, however, had been changed.  As Tozer puts it:

Now he (Abraham) was a man wholly surrendered, a man utterly obedient, a man who possessed nothing.

In that moment, Abraham had relinquished possession of Isaac to God.  His dearest possession, the love of his life, he had abandoned to God’s will.

This, indeed, is the meaning of repentance – turning away from; abandoning.

Modern Christians have seemingly a decidedly different view.  They seem to think repentance is the act of saying – literally mouthing the words – “I’m sorry for my sins.  Please forgive me.”, as if any verbal confession represents true renunciation of one’s attachments to this world and its ways.

Tozer, with more than a bit of drama, but with clarity of point, says this:

We must in our hearts live through Abraham’s harsh and bitter experiences if we would know the blessedness which follows them.  The ancient curse will not go out painlessly; the tough, old miser within us will not lie down and die obedient to our command.  He must be torn out of your heart like a plant from the soil; he must be extracted in agony and blood like a tooth from the jaw.  He must be expelled from our soul by violence as Christ expelled the moneychangers from the temple.  And we shall need to steel ourselves against his piteous begging, and to recognize it as springing out of self-pity, one of the most reprehensible sins of the human heart.

Corrie Ten Boom also understood this, as she counseled us:

“Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.”

This is the heart of the matter.  For the Christ follower, repentance is not a single act; it is a 24/7 vocation, a commitment of both heart and mind, until you have nothing left for yourself but Christ.

Total Dependency

A natural outcome of total repentance is total dependence on God for provision for your life.  You have consciously, and likely forcibly, purposed to persistently abandon your claims on yourself, your future, and your abilities to sustain yourself, your family and others.  And, in place of these you have ceded control to Christ, in whose hands you place your future, and the future of those dependent on you.  This is a step not taken casually, or without serious prayer and reflection, and typically without some degree of anxiety.

And this anxiety is not just born of doubt regarding the effective power of Christ to sustain you, but also of the many warnings in the Bible announcing that trials will accompany all attempts to live as Christ commanded. For example, In Philippians 1:29-30 Paul tells us:

[29] For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, [30] engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Peter, in 1 Peter 1:6-7, provides the insight that these trials are intended to test and, as a result, strengthen us in our faith – our trust:

[6] In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, [7] so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

Then later, in 4:19 he refocuses our minds on the goal:

[19] Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

“Entrust their souls”. The King James Versions says “commit the keeping of their souls to Him”.  I’ve often wondered if our modern translations of the Greek word πίστις (pistis) “belief”, or its cognate πιστεύω, pisteuō, “believes” or “is believing”, are adequate to the task of capturing the idea of entrusting.  Total dependence on Christ requires placing absolute trust in Him for the outcomes in your life.  Most professed Christians miss this.

I have used the analogy of being wheeled into the operating room for risky, but potentially life-saving (or life-ending) surgery.  At that moment you have placed your complete, unreserved trust in your surgeon.  Yes, you “believe” he knows how to heal you – otherwise you wouldn’t have submitted to his knife.  But there’s no half-way here.  There’s no fallback position that you can construct to save yourself in case of his failure.  You are completely dependent on his knowledge and skills for your life, and so your “belief” is at a much deeper level than the intellectual conclusion that he offers you the best chance to live.

It is at this deeper level that the Bible calls us to Christ.  John’s “whoever is believing in Him may not perish but have eternal life” is perhaps the most well-known use of this deeper “believe”.  Dallas Willard, in addressing audiences, used to tell them that believing, in this sense, was living as if what they believed was true.  He would point out that they obviously “believed” that the chairs they were seated in would support them.  They were living as if that proposition was true – that the chairs wouldn’t suddenly collapse and throw them in a heap on the floor.  When you trust that something is true, you live as if it is true.

Christ also used the vine/branch metaphor to emphasize this dependence.  He says in John 15:5:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. [6] If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

Now a branch doesn’t have many options.  It is completely dependent on the vine to which it is attached for its life.  In Christ’s metaphor, however, the branch does apparently have one option: bear fruit or not.  Lack of the production of fruit indicates to Him that the branch is defective – perhaps resisting the very life of the vine that it is dependent on, or possibly being partially detached.  Impediments like these seem to equal the opposite of “abides in Me” from Jesus’ point of view.

Total dependence, then, requires living as if Christ will see to all of your needs – those you know about, and even those only He knows.  Living in dependence on God is expecting God to act.  We have His word that He will, as recorded by Matthew in his 6th chapter:

[28] And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, [29] yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. [30] But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? [31] Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ [32] For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. [33] But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

This dependence will be challenged (remember the promised trials).  Dependence on Christ so violates the rules of the world’s game that trials will emerge at every corner – your spouse, your friends, your boss, Satan.  None of them wishes you to rely on the Savior of the World.  It is intensely personal, and no one can do it for you except you.

Humility

Humility is one of those character traits that has been most aggressively attacked by our modern culture.  In this culture, humility is fatal.  The Roman culture that surrounded the new Church disdained the humble.  Nevertheless, the Christ follower, then and now, is emphatically called to it:

James 4:6,10 (ESV)

[6] But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”     [10] Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

1 Peter 5:6 (ESV)

[6] Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,

Humility in the Biblical sense is abdication of one’s rights, to God – an extension of Dependency and Repentance.  It is not, however, an abdication of our call to His righteousness.  We are still to stand our/His ground on issues that He disapproves of, e.g. abortion, unjust treatment of the poor, selling children into sexual slavery, and the like.  These and similar atrocities are to be met with boldness and the resolve to resist.

Humility in the Bible specifically refers to our reaction to offenses against us.  It is a recognition that we are not our own; that we have been bought by Christ and are therefore in His service.  We, for ourselves have therefore nothing to defend.  Paul tells the Philippians (2:3):

[3] Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. [4] Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

The Apostles weren’t making this up, based exclusively on their revelation of Christ.  Michah in Ch 6 verse 8 had said this:

[8] He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the LORD require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

We are to walk humbly “with” our God.

What does it mean to walk humbly with God?  It means, first, that we are “with” God in this walk, not taking our own path, perhaps emboldened by our own piety or pride.  He leads, and we follow.  Where He goes, we go.

Second, it means that we forsake what we have understood to be our “rights” in deference to His will.  Therefore we reject defense of our “position” to the extent that it will create disunity within His body (the Church), and to the extent that it will handicap His testimony and Gospel message to the world.

Dallas Willard[5] relates this lucid insight:

We are delivered from pretending, being presumptuous about ourselves, and from pushing as if the outcome depended on us. We persist without frustration, and we practice calm and joyful non-compliance with evil of any kind.

In thinking about putting on a character of humility, it is valuable, I believe, to consider who we are and who God is.  Given the stark contrast between God’s Omniscience and Omnipotence, and our fallibility, weakness, limited knowledge and ability to understand, and proclivity to make mistakes, it is quite plain that we have lots to be humble about.  But the humility we’re called to is not limited to our attitude before the Creator.

We are to be humble in our dealings with our fellows, be they brothers in Christ or not.  The reason for this, I believe, is also quite plain.  How is it that one can extend good-seeking love to another from a felt position of superiority?  We can imagine, perhaps, a kind of condescension.  But condescension is hardly agape love.  As Willard says, presumption about ourselves is out, and with it our own agenda, particularly the one set on “fixing” our friends – setting them on the straight and narrow as we see it.  We are simply to be humble light committed to the truth, but resting in Christ to convict souls.

What it certainly does not mean is that we are to just lay down and simply let those who would disparage and blaspheme the Lord and His will to proceed without correction.  Humility is not impotence.

If people advocate an ungodly activity such as slaughtering unborn infants for convenience, we are to stand and speak truth in an effort to correct their faulty understanding.  If people promote the abandonment of the covenant of marriage, we are to stand and speak truth in an effort to correct their faulty understanding.  But we are not to stand and speak in any capacity other than as spokesmen for God, as we can damage the message of the Kingdom. (Hint: God doesn’t have a lot to say about, for example, gun rights.)

When in doubt, pray, and you will be given the way forward.

Jesus introduces the image of the one in Christ being His servant in John 12:26:

If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.

There is an interesting mixture of metaphors used in the Bible to characterize the Christ-follower including servant (slave) and son (co-heir), among others.  While both speak to obedience, servant is particularly powerful because it emphasizes both dependence and humility.

God-Conscious Living

Jesus tells us – no, commands us – in Mark 12:30

And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

Here He’s not just making up some new command: God had issued this command to His people Israel, through Moses, in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 – the Shema:

[4] “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. [5] You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

How does one come to love God?  Remember, we’re trying to understand the path to life “in Christ”; that is, to being organically a participant in and faithful member of the Lord.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that obedience to His “first and greatest” command must become a priority.

How does one come to love anybody?  Firstly, it seems to go without saying that we have to be in a position to spend time with that person.   While we may admire or esteem a person from a distance, I think we’d be hard-pressed to call that admiration “love”, in the absence of truly knowing him/her.  Love requires closeness.  You need to know somebody well in order to love them.  Until you have spent sufficient time interacting with a person on a very personal level, it is quite impossible to love them.

Once, however, they have shared themselves with you and you with them — your innermost fears and aspirations; their vision and hopes – then, and only then can there be the level of trust and understanding required for love.  Then, and only then can there be the necessary insight into the essence of the other that leads to love.  This closeness or intimacy of relation with God (and vice versa) is often referred to in the Bible as “knowing”[6],[7].  Brother Lawrence 10 observed:

We must know before we can love. In order to know God, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall then also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure.

So, it seems, closeness to God is a requirement for knowing Him, and knowing Him is a requirement for establishing authentic love for Him – for falling in love with Him.  How do we get close and know?  And, perhaps more importantly, how do we stay persistently close to Him to continue to know Him more?

First, of course, there is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us, who is God and God’s gift to His children[8].  He is the conduit through whom we can gain knowledge of him.  But one has to seek this knowledge – it isn’t just zapped into you.

The obvious method God has left for us to develop this intimacy with and knowledge of Him is the study of His scriptures.  The modern evangelical church prescribes “spending time in the Word” as a foundation of the Christian life.  And so it is.  But many understand it, however, as one would understand an admonition to work out regularly, or wear sunscreen when outdoors.  In other words, they perceive that if they simply allocate their 10 or 15 minutes a day to this activity that they have met the stated requirement.

Studying the scriptures is not something one can do casually and expect to acquire the knowledge – the knowing — that is the goal of the activity.  Bible study, properly undertaken, is an intensive, life-long vocation of reading, researching (e.g. through use of cross references, selected study aids and literature about the Bible), and meditation upon that which one has studied, during which time knowledge of God is imparted to the student – the disciple of Christ, the one seeking “first the Kingdom of God”.

Yet another simple but effective device is simply to plug yourself into Godly media – songs, teaching podcasts, (some) Christian radio, etc.  You need to be selective – not everything called “Christian” really is.  But there are many, many fine, Godly sources of teaching and worship out there for you to learn from and be edified by.  (There simply aren’t enough Sunday mornings and their sermons in one’s life to build the believer up into a full and confident knowledge of either God’s word or His person.)  Our goal, of course, is to live continuously in His presence, aware that His grace is just a whispered or felt cry away.

And here it is important to stop and draw a clear distinction.  Filling our minds with the things of God – scripture, worship music, teaching, etc., is distinctly not being with God – having Him before our mind in a communion between Himself and us, a Koi onia.  The two are different in kind.  Trying to understand a difficult passage in the Bible is not having God before you mind, unless you’re consciously asking Him to explain it to you; listening to worship music isn’t worshipping Him, unless He is your undivided focus; listening to a teaching about God’s word isn’t living in Him.  One doesn’t preclude the other, but it is very difficult to have anything else before your mind and expect to be able to experience intimate communion with God.

Nothing compares with the experience of God (about which more, below).  However, the experience of filling our minds with the things of God is very beneficial in both building up our understanding of those things, and in forcing out what we otherwise might divert ourselves with in the world.  You can think of it both as an edifying practice, but also a defensive one.

As we grow in our knowledge of God, things change.  First we become far more comfortable with the scripture as, over time, it begins to sound very familiar – like the voice of a life-long friend with whom you are long past social pleasantries and small talk.  When you hear that voice, you know exactly what your friend is communicating to you.

Second, we become not just comfortable with God’s words, but with God Himself.  If you’re anything like me, after I have studied some passage, I want to talk to Him about it.  So, whether you call it prayer (which in some part it most certainly is) or just conversation, the presence of God becomes for His disciple a need which grows into a requirement.  His presence becomes that by which we are sustained, by which we enter into His peace, and where we want to go to “come home”[9],[10].

This need overflows, then, into all other aspects of our lives.  Of course, modern life imposes on us certain required activities that in and of themselves require concentration and focus on the task at hand; our jobs, our schooling and homework, our child or senior care duties.  All of these present, at least initially, a challenge to remaining in a constant state of awareness of God’s presence – to perceive Him in our activities with us, ready to lead and sustain us by His grace.

It is this aspect of our daily living that requires some training.  The idea is to direct your mind with ever increasing frequency to thoughts of God even while in the midst of these otherwise distracting activities.  Initially you may find yourself going perhaps a few hours or even most of a day without acknowledging God next to you.  But, as you persist, you will soon find this interval decreasing, to the point that you may go only a couple of minutes or even just a few seconds without perceiving His presence.  All this takes is persistent practice, and some have applied themselves to it as the focus of their lives.

Brother Lawrence was a 17th century monk in France.  He wrote of his experiences in pursuing God’s continuous presence in his life in his journal.  These journal writings, fortunately, have been preserved and made available in a wonderful book entitled “Practicing His Presence”[11], from which comes the following, which serves as a kind of summary of what we’ve covered so far:

Nothing But Him

I have read many accounts in different books on how to go to God and how to practice the spiritual life.  It seems these methods serve more to puzzle me than to help, for what I sought after was simply how to become wholly God’s.  So I resolved to give all for ALL.  Then I gave myself wholly to God; I renounced everything that was not His.  I did this to deal with my sins, and because of my love for Him.  I began to live as if there were nothing, absolutely nothing but Him.  So upon this earth I began to seek to live as though there were only the Lord and me in the world.

Sometimes I would simply consider myself before Him:  He the judge, I the criminal.  But at other times I beheld Him as being in my heart – as my Father, as my God.  I worshipped Him as often as I could.  I kept my mind in His holy presence.  I recalled His presence as often as I found my mind wandering from Him.  I found this to be a very difficult exercise!  Yet I continued despite the difficulties I encountered.  I did not allow myself to become upset when my mind wandered.

I made it my business to be in the Lord’s presence just as much throughout the day as I did when I came to my appointed time of prayer.  I drove anything from my mind that was capable of interrupting my thought of God.  I did this all the time, every hour, every minute, even in the height of my daily business.

I have been making this my common practice ever since I entered monastic life.  Certainly I have done this imperfectly, yet I have found a great advantage in this pursuit.  Because of my failures I know all glory must be imparted solely to the mercy and goodness of God.  We can do nothing without Him…and I can do still less than anyone else.  Nonetheless, when we are faithful to keep ourselves in His holy presence and to set His face always before us, there is a good result.  We are kept from offending Him and from willfully doing those things which displease Him.  But even more, such an exercise begets in us a holy freedom and a familiarity with God.  We ask, and ask successfully, for the grace we stand in need of.  In short, by often repeating these acts they become habit.  The presence of God becomes natural to us. (Emphasis mine)

Give Him thanks, if you please, with me, for His great goodness toward me.  I can never sufficiently marvel at the many favors He has done for so miserable a sinner as I am.

May all things praise Him.

Amen

In the 1930’s Frank Laubach was a solitary missionary in the Philippines.  He wrote a series of letters and journal entries from his mission field that were later assembled into a beautiful little book – “Letters by a Modern Mystic[12].  Apparently as a result of his solitude and the depressing challenges of his work, he turned his mind deliberately and intently toward God.  In fact he set out, as an experiment, to see if he, as a representative of the human race, could through Grace and the discipline he imposed on himself, keep God in his mind and perception throughout all of his waking hours.  The following entry from his journal describes his effort and results in maintaining his nearly-constant communion with God:

September 28, 1931

When one has struck some wonderful blessing that all mankind has a right to know about, no custom or false modesty should prevent him from telling it, even though it may mean the unbarring of his soul to the public gaze.

I have found such a way of life.  I ask nobody else to live it, or even to try it.  I only witness that it is wonderful, it is indeed heaven on earth.  And it is very simple, so simple that any child could practice it.

This simple practice requires only a gentle pressure of the will, not more than a person can exert easily.

Yet it transforms life into heaven.  Everybody takes on a new richness, and all the world seems tinted with glory.  I do not, of course, know what others think of me, but the joy which I have within cannot be described.  If there never were any other reward than that, it would more than justify the practice to me.

In another of these, Laubach reflects on his experience of being in Christ’s presence in all activities of his day.  Here is his description of his experience “When Thinking”:

“If you look back and think about some problems deeply, how can you remember God?  You can do it by forming a new habit.  All thought employs silent words and is really conversation with your inner self.  Instead of talking to yourself, you will now form the habit of talking to Christ.  Many of us who have tried this have found that we think so much better that we never want to try to think without Him again.  We are helped if we imagine Him sitting in a chair beside us, talking with us.  We say with our tongue what we think Christ might say in reply to our questions.  Thus we consult Christ about everything.”

The point of this is only to say there are any number of devices and practices one can employ to help build the habit of continuous awareness of God’s presence with you – a picture on the wall at work, a Bible lying on the kitchen counter, a book mark containing a cross in plain view while at class or studying, or deep focused communion.  It is, however, a habit that will require persistent effort, as both Brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach attest, to establish.  Once it is in place, once every detail of your life is a shared experience with God, you will only want more of it, naturally, and your need to rely on imposed disciplines or devices will gradually diminish.  The habit of living in God’s presence will be normal.  One will find himself joyfully in love with God just as, but indeed far more so, than he is with his best, lifelong friend.

There is another significant aspect of the love for God that requires a bit more exploration, and that is the joy it elicits.  While Loving God is a command, our mental implementation of it cannot be as of a duty, despite the Bible’s emphasis on “obedience” to God that is at its core.

John tells us in 1 John 5:3: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.”  Now “not burdensome” doesn’t sound exactly like “joyful”.  But he also shares Christ’s words on the subject in a couple of places.

John 14:31 (ESV)

[31] but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here.

Later, the writer of Hebrews offers this:

Hebrews 12:1-2 (ESV) Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, [2] looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

And then Jesus tells us:

John 15:10-11 (ESV)

[10] If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. [11] These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

Jesus loved the Father.  As a result, here we glimpse Jesus’ joy at the prospect of doing that which His Father had prescribed for Him – physical mutilation and agonizing death as the path required to return to His Glory, and, in His own words, His promise that in obeying Him, we too will experience this joy, and it will be “full”.  Can we say what it means to have a joy that is “full”?

The definition of the Greek word translated “full” is: “abundantly supplied; complete”.  I think the key to understanding this idea is to see that the sole object of Christ’s life was faithfulness to His Father.  What he’s promising, I believe, is that if our sole object is faithfulness and obedience to His Father, we too will experience His joy, and it will be “full” in the sense that it will be complete.  The filling of a cup is complete when all it can do is overflow.  We will not have the slightest misgiving about any other priority or want of ours being left behind[13].  This seems to be confirmed in at least the case of Frank Laubach (above).  His joy was complete and completely satisfying and, well, joyous.  What a far cry this is from the typical modern, dour, dutiful but unloving Christian’s approach to his faith.

Assurance

This characteristic of the one in Christ comes upon the believer after he has lived in dependence on the provision of God and found, in many cases to his utter amazement, that God is, indeed, faithful (Hebrews 13:5…I will never leave you nor forsake you).  The dependent believer finds that he no longer has to carry the cares of his world, anguishing about providing for his and his family’s well-being or about succeeding in the eyes of the world.  He has God superintending his life – the same life that He gave him in the first place.

As humans are naturally skeptical of anyone else when it comes to our own, personal well-being, assurance of this type is only built up over time.  As the Christ-follower relaxes his grip on the details of his life and finds that not only is there no calamity, but that in fact things actually go better with him than before, his confidence in God’s faithfulness grows rapidly.

Of course, we’re talking about Christ-followers here; those seeking the love and glory of Christ above all else.  The same cannot be said of one who is only casually interested in a life in Christ, the one for whom it is a kind of part-time hobby and not the cry of his heart.  For the casual, Sunday-only Christian, it is probably best not to count on God standing in the breech for him.  The New Covenant is no more for the half-hearted than the Old Covenant of Moses was. God might step in and help him, but He has not given His word that He will.  If one is not whole-heartedly pursuing life in Christ, God’s promises become less applicable.

Now assurance leads to peace of mind and stillness of heart[14].  As it builds, it instills a quiet confidence in the Lord that, predictably, leads to a boldness in the Lord that makes it very difficult for the Christ-follower to keep quiet about his experience and the faithfulness, majesty and mercy of his Lord.  You can instantly tell who those in your sphere are that have achieved this assurance.  In them, there is absolutely no pretense, no guile, no game-playing. They are so anchored in their confidence that nothing can shake them, even the inevitable trials that come to test their love and faith.

Desire for Being In/With God

Psalm 84:1-2

1How lovely is your dwelling place,
O Lord of hosts!
2My soul longs, yes, faints
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy
to the living God.

There is a work of the Holy Spirit that occurs within those who have turned away from their pre-Christ lives and believed the good news that transforms their very desires.  When once our focus and intent was on conquering the job ladder or acquiring the material trappings that would signify our success, those things now fade.  While once we were close to obsessed with the rituals of daily gratification, be it through food or relationships or TV or social media or work or hobbies or whatever else, now these things seem, well, unimportant.

This is no accident.  This is Grace.  The Holy Spirit is helping you to focus on the things of God and God Himself[15], as it did the Psalmist, David.  It is safe to say that without His help, you would likely never have begun this separation from the things important to you in the past.  The Holy Spirit in you is the enabler of you to be obedient to the instructions in the Bible directed at those in Christ, such as Colossians 3:1-11

[1] If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. [2] Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. [3] For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. [4] When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory[16].

[5] Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. [6] On account of these the wrath of God is coming. [7] In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. [8] But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. [9] Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices [10] and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. [11] Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.

This is, indeed, what it is to be “born again”.  The old has passed away – has been sublimated, if not totally killed off, and the new is life in Christ.  You aren’t the same person you were, nor do you want to be.  What you want are God and the things of God.

Now it’s perhaps important to stop here for a moment and explain that these are real feelings in the transformed believer.  For you it is reality.  These are not things for you to profess about yourself, hoping for them to someday become true.  They are already real in you.  And they are exclusively the working of the Holy Spirit.  There are those who go through life in a kind of limbo state of partial repentance, maintaining their grip on some aspects of their worldly lives, who feel the need, when in the company of other believers, to pretend — to feign the transformation of a life in God.  These people need your help.  You can help them by aiding them gently and lovingly in confronting their ongoing rejection of Christ in the unrepented aspects of their lives.

When Christ admonished us in Matthew 10:37-38:

[37] Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. [38] And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

He was not just using hyperbola, nor was He placing some outlandish burden on us, but simply saying that for those who have been transformed by the working of the Holy Spirit – born again, this is what you will naturally feel.  God and the things of God naturally take precedence in your life.  It’s what you want for yourself and, increasingly, what you want for those around you – your neighbors.

The desire for God and the things of God – His righteousness and kindness and mercy and peace – is the natural state of the one who has been transformed through the working and power of the Holy Spirit.  So you should expect it, and welcome it and give God praise when you find yourself in its power.  And you will recognize that it is completely a work of God since it is so radically different from your priorities and aspirations before your transformation.  Just to underscore its source, John reminds us in 1 John 4:19

We love him because he first loved us.

If you haven’t yet experienced the desire for this transformation of your life, it is likely due to incomplete repentance.  That is, there are some pieces of your life that you have perhaps semi-consciously retained the control of for yourself.  This might be driven by your concern for your material well-being, a relationship that you prize above all else, or any one of a thousand other things that you just are not ready to cede the control of to your Creator.  Just know, it’ll be OK when you do.  He will do far better with it than you ever could, and you will not be disappointed.  On this we have the testimony of countless saints over the ages who have firsthand experience.  Again, Brother Lawrence:

Let all your employment be to know God.  The more you actually know him the more you will desire to know Him.  Since knowledge is a measurement of love, the deeper and more intimate you are with Him, the greater will be your love for Him.  And if our love for the Lord is great, we will love Him as much during grief as in joy.

We can hold no allegiance in this world if it keeps us from God.

The Bible’s Description of Being In Christ

Having identified these elements of character one experiences “in Christ”, we now turn to the Bible to determine if these elements of character accurately reflect what is being described/promised when the Biblical writers’ exhort their audiences.  This list is obviously not complete, but is representative of the characteristics and experiences portrayed in the Biblical text.

Like Christ Himself

Certainly the goal of the Christ follower to live a life “in Him” is to think as He would think, do as He would do, and love as He would love.  So perhaps the best way of assessing what this life “in Christ” really looks and feels like is to see what Jesus’ life was like.

In 1 Peter 2 we’re presented the example of Christ being sinless and uncomplaining in the face of his persecution, which Peter reminds us we will face if in Him:

[20] For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. [21] For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. [22] He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. [23] When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

Here we see several of our characteristics.  First, there is absolute submission to the Father and total dependence on His justness.  As a result of that dependence, there is an assurance that all will be well so that there is no hint of anger or retribution.  Christ didn’t try to talk Himself out of it; He didn’t threaten or intimidate.  He knew God was in control and would achieve His purposes.

There is perhaps no better example given us of humility than the Savior of the World washing his friends’ feet in John 13:3-5:

[3] Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, [4] rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. [5] Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

Paul implores us in Philippians 2:5-8 to emulate the humility of Christ in foregoing the glory of His position with the Father by not only becoming human, but of suffering and dying on the cross:

 [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [6] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Should you expect anything less from yourself in Christ than the humbleness demonstrated by Christ Himself?  Though we can’t rationally understand the Creator of the Universe electing to forego His power and perfection to endure human birth, the humiliation and disrespect of His countrymen, and the agony of mutilation and subsequent physical death, we can honor that sacrifice by ourselves electing to remain humble and dependent on Him.

The other dimension of this humility is recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:30-31, and that is, to the extent that you are left anything of which to boast, it is simply Christ.

 [30] And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, [31] so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

If we contain anything good, it is from Him.  If we have any love, it is His love.  If we have any righteousness, it is from Him.  These things, Paul says, we can boast about.

Paul also tells us in 2 Corinthians 5:17-19 that those in Christ are a “new creation”:

[17] Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. [18] All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; [19] that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

How can anyone who has experienced the changes effected by the Holy Spirit in him not see that he is different – that he is a new person, a new creation?  Where once there was a drive for possession, our hands are willingly empty and free to serve Him.  Where once we took offense and harbored resentments, there is now peace and the ability to forgive.  Where once we sought gratification in all that the world could offer, these things have now become unimportant.  The one in Christ has contentment with or without the things of the world (2 Cor 6:4-10).  The one in Christ finds gratification only in the presence of the Lord.

We read that Jesus also:

Extended mercy to those who sought it (John 8:4-7, Matthew 5:7, and of course Luke 23:34)

Talked persistently with His Father (Luke 5:16, Luke 3:21,  Luke 11:2-4, John 17, etc.)

        Sought not His but His Father’s will (John 5:19-30, John 6:38)

Showed the ultimate in love (John 3:16)

To show mercy to others we need both humility and an understanding of our dependence on God for His provision. Humility is key because care extended without it is nothing but self-gratification.  And mercy, like divine Grace, is not judgmental.  There’s no presumption of position.  There’s only a humble attempt to meet a human need.

Obviously Jesus not only sought His Father’s presence, He lived in it.  Talking with His Father was not to Him second nature, but His first nature.  Certainly there was reverence and respect, but never any pretense or presumption.  Christ’s relationship with His Father in “practicing His presence” is our model for doing the same, as we know we are His brothers and sisters, sharing in the one Father.

Perhaps Jesus’ greatest gift to us, aside from His sacrifice, was His model of selflessness.  We could do much worse than keeping “Nevertheless, not as I will but as you will” continuously running through our minds.  And certainly the love He expressed in His sacrifice was incomparable.  A love approaching this in His follower can only be approached from a steadfast assurance of His ability to sustain us, and a constant perception of His incomparable love for us.  When one senses the overflowing of God’s love on him, he is energized to give it away to others.

In The Spirit

In Galatians 5:22-24 Paul provides one of the classic descriptions of life “in the Spirit”, or in Christ.

[22] But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, [23] gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. [24] And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

What Paul’s talking about here are the outward manifestations of the indwelt Spirit of God in the Christ-follower – the one “in Christ”.  We haven’t said anything so far about patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness or self-control, and only a little about love and joy.  We did explore the development of a love for God.  But here Paul is talking about the personal expressions of a Christ-follower to those around him.  John says 1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”  John is saying that if you don’t experience a reservoir of love to give away, you don’t have His Spirit in you, and all that that implies.

What is required to love and express kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control in interaction with those around us?  We could say first that it requires a confident assurance that you, personally, are taken care of.  In our case, this is God’s job.  For most of us, before we are able to give gifts of ourselves away, we seem to have to have some confidence that we, ourselves, will be OK.  So assurance of well-being, and foundational dependence on God are prerequisites.

After achieving these, however, the Holy Spirit must take charge.  This is because other than for our children or other close family members, it is not our natural tendency to extend our love or kindness or patience or goodness to others.  Thankfully, for the Spirit of God, these things are natural; they’re what He exists to do, and they are the inheritance of the Christ-follower, as Paul is teaching here.

What about patience?  We are not normally endowed with a lot of patience.  Just take a drive on a local freeway and see if you see a lot of patience being displayed.  Well, we know that patience is, like love and kindness and goodness and the rest, far easier for the one who has an assured confidence, and for the one who conceives of himself as exclusively dependent on God.  Such a person will be far more willing to wait for God to intercede and resolve a situation than the one operating for and by himself.  But, once again, as Paul infers here, the Spirit of God is necessary in order to manifest this trait on a consistent basis.

Self-control is closely related to patience.  Those who are in control of themselves, as we would term it, don’t have to respond to every insult or inconvenience or affront of some kind.  They are calm in the Lord.  Their assurance and dependence on Him preclude hasty judgements of others, especially where harm could be done to the other by a too-hasty action or response[17].

Finally, peace is a byproduct of dependence on God and the assurance that He is in total control for our best.  Paul asserts this in Philippians 4:7

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Summary

What I have attempted to show here is that possession of five key traits, that can be cultivated, speak to a life that is well-lived “in Christ”.  This “cultivation” is our part in what the Bible has described as being “transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord the Spirit”.

Now I realize that there are many Christians who will object that growing into Christ is literally “none of our doing, or business.  It is God’s business.”  I would only offer that if that were exclusively true, there would be a vastly different 21st century laid out before us than we see today.  Try to imagine how differently the world would look if all of those who profess to believe in Christ actually “took up their crosses” and “lived their lives as Christ would live them, if He were they”[18].

Though aided by the Holy Spirit and the grace of God, He expects people to respond to His calling.  God seeks followers, not sitters.  He seeks disciples as workers in His Kingdom, not sojourners – people just passing by on the outskirts.  God provides us gifts of His Spirit; but these need to be exercised by their recipients to be realized and have His intended effects in building up His Kingdom.  If one refuses to exercise these gifts, or cultivate the mindset that leads to joyful servanthood to the Lord, then that person fails to honor God and calls into question his very position in God.

How one serves God emanates from one’s heart.  The natural heart is not humble, it is not assured, it is not dependent on anyone other than himself, is barely conscious of his creator, and is not in the least bit repentant about any of it.  The heart of the one in Christ is the opposite, through the gift to him of the Holy Spirit.  It is up to us to respond to God’s offer of Grace as His faithful servants, or children, or brides, or whatever metaphor you feel most comfortable with, and commit ourselves to the pursuit of His purposes, through the “renewing of our minds”.

David seems to capture the essence of this longing to live with God in Psalm 143:8

[8] Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love,

for in you I trust.

Make me know the way I should go,

for to you I lift up my soul.

[1] Galatians 5:16 (ESV) But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.

[2] Hebrews 6:1-3 (ESV) Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, [2] and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. [3] And this we will do if God permits.

[3] E.g. Philippians 3:17

[4] Mark 1:14-15 (ESV) [14] Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, [15] and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

[5] Living in the Vision of God

[6] Jeremiah 31:34 (ESV) And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

[7] Hosea 2:20 (ESV) I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the LORD.

[8] Acts 2:38 (ESV) And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

[9] Psalms 145:18 (ESV) The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.

[10] Psalms 42:1 (ESV) As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.

[11] Practicing His Presence, The Library of Spiritual Classics – Volume I, The Seedsowers, Jacksonville, FL. (This volume also contains Frank Laubach’s letters.)

[12] Please pick up a copy of this little book (Letters from a Modern Mystic, Purposeful Design Publications #6326, 2007) for yourself.  It is a treasure trove of spiritual insights from a man wholly devoted to, and completely taken up in Christ.

[13] One’s total abandonment to God is spoken of by Paul in 2 Corinthians 7 in a totally different context – that of regret at having sinned against God: “[10] For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. “  “Salvation without regret” seems to be kindred to foregoing all our other priorities in order to experience joy that is full.

[14] Philippians 4:7 (ESV) And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

[15] I could give my own experiential testimony on this topic, but I’ve already gone too long, and we’re not nearly done.

[16] There is a wonderful comment from Dallas Willard that the reason that the life of one “in Christ” is “hidden with Christ in God” is because if we were to be shown the glory that surrounds us, we simply couldn’t stand it, just as Moses was not allowed to see God face-to-face.  It is His unapproachable glory, and He is God.  And, the Bible says, it is this same glory that is now ours. 2 Corinthians 3:18

[17] James 1:19 (ESV)  [19] Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; [20] for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

[18] Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart, NavPress, 2012, pp 241

 

2 thoughts on ““in Christ”?

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