Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. 2 Corinthinans 5:17
I first encountered Albert Schweitzer’s The Mysticism of the Paul the Apostle in 1972. Schweitzer was writing about Paul’s frequent use of the phrase “in Christ,” understanding Paul to be referring to the experience of mystical union with Christ. I was in high school at the time, and thought I had uncovered the key to the universe. After reading a chapter or two of Schweitzer’s book, I promptly marched into my youth minister’s office and proclaimed, “I know what I am. I’m a mystic.” I am not one anymore.
Paul frequently uses the phrase “in Christ.” What does Paul mean? How one interprets the phrase “in Christ” has a significant impact on how one understands the church and its sacraments of baptism and communion, and how one understands Christian life in general.
Someone once said that theology is faith seeking understanding. In the paragraphs that follow, I will briefly describe three broad approaches to being “in Christ.” There are beloved, faithful Christian men and women who understand their faith with language drawn from each of these models.
- Ontological (Transactional)
- Mystical-Experiential (Relational)
- Covenantal-Sacramental (Positional)
My own theology now falls within the realm of what I am describing as “Covenantal-Sacramental” or “Positional.” Covenantal theology shares some characteristics with each of the other two models, but differs from them significantly in other respects.
Billy Graham is a wonderful Christian and his organization has been responsible for countless people coming to Christ. I’ve contributed to the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association over the years, as have my parents and grandparents. I remember seeing Decision magazine on my grandparents’ coffee table when I was growing up.
The magazine’s name captures the essence of the Ontological or Transactional model. In the transactional model, being “in Christ” is an objective state that comes into being when the appropriate transaction occurs. That transaction may be, as the Grahams suggest, a decision to accept Christ which causes one to be born again. It may be, as some with high sacramental views believe, the act of baptism. Some universalists might see the transaction occurring on the cross itself, when Jesus won salvation for all humankind. The transaction – whenever it is thought to occur – is somewhat like a switch that can be turned on but can’t be turned off. It produces an objective change in status that cannot be reversed.
The strength of the transactional model, in my opinion, is its emphasis on the objective nature of our salvation. Its weakness is its single-minded emphasis on a single point of time. Once the transaction has occurred and the new state of being exists, why bother with thinking about it again? One does not build a chair to think about building the chair; one builds a chair to sit upon it. Once the transaction is complete – and the new state of being has come into existence – what’s next? What is the logical equivalent of “sitting on it” for being “born again”?
Being united to Christ is more like kindling a fire than signing a contract or sealing a deal. There is an fundamental connection between the resulting fire and the initial spark; the spark is not just an arbitrary token of something greater.
If you see a fire, you know that someone kindled it. If you see a living human being, you know that someone gave birth to him or her. If you see someone living in Christ, you know that he or she has been born again (or born from above). I don’t remember my physical birth, but I have no doubt that I was born. I’m grateful for my birth not for its own sake, but for what it has allowed me to do and experience over the years. Likewise, perhaps the the ongoing experience of the Christian life is at least as important as the objective moment of salvation. That’s what led me to briefly consider myself a mystic.
Mystical – Experiential – Relational
Mysticism is the belief that one can achieve direct consciousness of the divine and union with God.
In Paul’s frequent use of the phrase “in Christ,” Albert Schweitzer believed that he found evidence of mysticism in the apostle’s writings. Schweitzer thought that Paul adopted some elements of ancient mystery religions (from which mysticism draw its name) and transformed them with specifically Christian theology. According to Schweitzer, Paul’s Christ-mysticism differed in many respects from the mysticism of early Christianity’s pagan contemporaries, but like them offered a path to supernatural experience that was inaccessible to outsiders and the uninitiated. The phrase “in Christ,” According to Schweitzer, captures both the means and the ends of that path.
Classical mysticism has a long a distinguished history within the Christian church, especially within Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. I use the word “classical” to describe these traditions not only because the practice dates to Christian antiquity, but because the philosophy behind this form of mysticism is closely connected with Neo-Platonist thought. In Neo-Platonism, the visible world is separated from the real or ideal world. Ancient writers often thought of there being several intermediate levels between the physical world and the greatest of the spiritual worlds. The mystic is sometimes thought to ascending through stages toward union with God, or to descend through stages into the soul where God is found. The visible world may be illusory, incomplete, deceptive or – perhaps – just a distraction from that which is most important and most real.
Mysticism leads to inward experiences. Mystics sometimes have visions or auditions, but the mystical experience is not sensory per se. The soul, and not the five sense organs, provides the necessary capacity for the mystical experience. The mystic gains a new level of consciousness or experience, but the experience is not –the mystic believes – primarily rational, emotional or psychological. Mystical experience is more than a thought or a feeling, more even than an altered state of awareness or perception. Rather, it is intimate union directly with God in Christ.
God, the mystic believes, has placed in the human spirit the capacity to achieve this direct consciousness of the divine. This ability might be a mostly-untapped facility in every human or it might be a gift of the Holy Spirit to all true believers or it might be a gift that God bestows by sovereign choice on only a few individuals. In any case, those who achieve mystical union with Christ have a direct, conscious experience of God.
Classical Christian mysticism often speaks of three stages of mystical experience: purgative, illuminative and unitive (corresponding to body, mind, spirit). The classical practice of mysticism includes prayer, contemplation, meditation, fasting, self-denial, acts of charity and selfless service. Classical mystics can describe more types of prayer and scripture reading than Eskimos can snow.
One classical practice, for example, is the repetition of the Jesus prayer, or prayer of the heart. In its most simple form, the word “Jesus” is repeated. One historical formulation of the Jesus prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” While the words of the prayer are not irrelevant, this practice moves the prayer beyond the world of reason and logic to the world of inner experience and divine communion. How one stands or sits, breathes and speaks the words are all relevant. An altered state of consciousness often results.
In classical mysticism, then, the experience of union with God develops slowly and takes years (or decades) of practice to reach its goal in the human spirit. Its teachings are complex and somewhat difficult to understand. Mystical writings can be quite esoteric.
For those who prefer an easier path, evangelical Protestantism offers its own form of mysticism, (although it would not know itself by that name). The Easter hymn “He Lives” captures the evangelical version perfectly in its question and answer, “You ask me how I know he lives; he lives within my heart.” The mystical evangelical feels Jesus in his or her heart and has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The evangelical has opened the door of his or her heart and invited Jesus into dine (often quoting Revelation 3:20).
Much contemporary Christian music attempts to create something of a mystical state in the worshiper. Repeatedly singing a simple text to a dreamy melody can create much the same effect as repetition of the Jesus prayer. Admittedly, the monks and nuns aren’t waiving their raised hands while they chant.
The modern, relatively unsophisticated form of evangelical mysticism has much deeper Protestant roots than its appearance suggests. German pietism, Wesleyan Methodism and other Protestant traditions throughout history have emphasized religion of the heart and the affections.
The weakness of the mystical model is that is subject to confusing inner experience with objective reality. Ebenezer Scrooge’s remark to Marley’s ghost is applicable to all experiences of the supernatural:
You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There is more of gravy than of grave about you.
How do we know that our inner experiences come from God, and not from wishful thinking, psychological conditioning, unusual brain chemistry or the physical reaction to “an undigested bit of beef”?
More importantly, if my inner experience suggests a truth different than your inner experience, how shall we decide between them? Are both valid? Do either actually correspond with reality?
Christians need not choose between the transactional model and the relational model. Popular evangelicalism commonly teaches that the inner experience of a personal relationship with Christ follows the all-important decision to accept Christ. Many classical mystics would certainly connect their experiences with an objective event such as Christ’s death. Still there is a logical distinction between the two forms. The transactional model emphasizes the objective state of being that comes into existence at a moment in time, while mystical piety emphasizes the believer’s subjective experience of union with God.
I’ve come to favor what I call the “positional” model of being in Christ. Like the transactional model, it envisions a definite delineation between people who belong to Christ and those who do not. Like the mystical model, it proposes the Christian life as a life-long, ever evolving experience. It does not consist, however, of simply tacking mystical experience on to a decision for Christ. That approach involves an objective change in my state of being followed by a life of subjective experiences. The positional model proposes, on the other hand, that the most important parts of both beginning and continuing in Christ are objective in nature.
Being “in Christ” means being “in” Christ. Being “in Christ” means being connected to him. It means being within the circle of his grace.
If Christ alone is God’s provision for the salvation of humankind and the redemption of creation, being connected to him is the means of participating in that salvation. “I am the true vine,” Jesus said. “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. . . . If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:1-8)
Where you stand makes a difference. If you want to be out of the rain and not get wet, stand under the shelter of an umbrella. According to Jesus, if you want to be a part of God’s kingdom – and not find your life on the trash heap of history – live under the shelter of God’s grace, connected to the source of life. There is an objectively different fate for those who abide “in Christ” from those who do not.
Imagine a circle drawn on the ground, with some standing within the circle and some standing outside. That’s what I mean by “in.” Some may object that Christ didn’t draw boundaries, and that he included outsiders and the outcast in his circle. He certainly did include many people in his circle that some religious leaders of his day would have excluded. Thank God! Jesus, however, did have boundary markers that distinguished those who accepted God’s gracious gift from those who rejected it.
For those whom Jesus called to follow him on the road, obedience to Jesus’ directions for itinerant disciples served as the boundary marker (“Sell everything, give to the poor … and follow me”) (Mark 10:17-22). For those whom Jesus and his disciples encountered along the way, the boundary markers were faith demonstrated in action and hospitality toward Jesus and his itinerant disciples (“I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” – Matthew 8:5-13) (“Whoever gives to these little one even a cup of cold water because he is my disciple …” – Matthew 10:40-42).
The apostolic church offered definite boundary markers to those who asked, “What must I do to be saved?”
Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of the Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:39)
For Luke, the boundary marker of baptism involved more than the application of water. Those who are baptized are “added to their number.”
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)
Christian boundary markers include living in connection with the community of Christian faith. Abiding in Christ is not simply an abstract religious concept. Its concrete expression is found as much in my being-in-the-Church as it is in my personal thoughts and affections. It would not be wrong to say that being in Christ is being in the Church – if one understands being “in the Church” as involving significantly more than having one’s name on a membership roll.
This model of living “in Christ” could also be called “covenantal” or “sacramental.” In covenantal theology, the people of God live by faith under the promises of God. The people of God lived first under God’s covenant with Abraham and then under God’s covenant given through Moses. In Christ, God has adopted or grafted us into a new covenant – a new way of living under the promise and grace of God.
Baptism is the sacrament of beginning in Christ. Holy Communion is the sacrament of continuing in Christ. Baptism is the sign of initiation into the covenant. Holy Communion is the sign of participation in the covenant. At the font, we are baptized “into” the name of Christ. At the table, we participate in the new covenant in his blood.
God is the primary actor at both the font and the table; the church, acting in faith, is his agent. God is the primary actor in both my beginning in Christ and my participating in Christ; I live in Christ by faith in God’s promises in the story of Christ, proclaimed in the scriptures and made real for me in water, wine and bread.
On God’s side of this equation, my salvation is an objective fact from beginning to end. Christ has adopted me into the family, grafted me into the vine and given me his name. I remain in him and abide in him as I live by faith in what God has done and what God will do, and as I live in connection with his family, his body and his Church.
What, then, of the subjective side of the equation? Does not Christ live in our hearts? Do we not have the Holy Spirit and intimacy with God? Do we not commune with God inwardly as well as outwardly? Yes, and at times we may even feel these things. Living in Christ, however, is not confined to my subjective experience of the divine. It involves my whole person – body, reason, affections, will, relationships and actions.
Since our thoughts and emotions can mislead us, our faith is not in them. I can be in Christ even if I don’t feel him near. I can be far from him even if I feel the warm glow of religious feelings. That’s why I’m not a mystic.
Addendum: One more little piece of “positional” theology: In Romans 3:25, Paul says that Jesus is the “hilatsterion” for our sins. The word is often translated “propitiation,” an uncommon English word that needs a good bit of theological unpacking. “Hilasterion” is also the Greek used in the Septuagint for “mercy seat,” the top of the ark of the covenant, the place in the holy-of-holies where the High Priest poured out the blood of the Yom Kippur sacrifice each year. Following this lead, then, Jesus is the place where atonement happens.