WHAT ARE THE PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS OF OUR IDENTITY “IN CHRIST”?
Numerous practical implications flow from our having been united with Christ by the Spirit. Our redemption is not yet complete. We were born in Adam “by nature deserving of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). But now, only because of God’s grace, we are “raised up with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (v. 6). Clearly “seated with him in the heavenly realms” is not our present experience. As I write this, it is August in Dallas, where temperatures hover around one hundred degrees Fahrenheit and plants, pets, and people struggle to find relief from the heat. I love this city and am grateful to live here, but it is not heaven; it is not the new creation. I’ve recently lost two long-term colleagues and friends, watched a close friend’s marriage dissolve, and prayed fervently for a sick infant—who died just days after birth. We live in a fallen world, and we see constant and graphic reminders of its brokenness, in small and big ways. We do not live in the heavenly realms or in the new creation. Yet. In this text in Ephesians, Paul is not describing our location, but our inheritance. Because we are “in Christ” we can be assured that where he is we will be also, in the age to come (John 14:1–3). We are citizens of heaven, and we are waiting for our Savior to come back to earth for us. Then he, “by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21).
To be “in Christ” does not mean that we no longer sin. As fallen creatures who struggle with the temptations and patterns of behavior and thinking that characterize life in a fallen world, we continue to sin. The fact that we are dying and one day will die is the ultimate proof that we are still sinners. The apostle Paul’s testimony is ours as well: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Tim. 1:15–16). We are all sinners, being saved by grace through faith, waiting for the day of resurrection and the new creation. The new creation has come, through the indwelling Spirit (2 Cor. 5:17), but is not yet here in its fullness.
“Union with Christ” is a comprehensive descriptor; it is not merely one of our identities. But to be a Christian also does not deny all the other aspects of our identity. I remain a White, heterosexual male who is a son, father, and grandfather. None of those identities disappeared when I became a Christian, nor does the fact that I am a Christian mean that I am no longer broken and fallen. All of my desires are corrupted. All of my inclinations are self-centered, self-protective, and self-promoting. All of my decisions are rooted in my selfish- ness. And all the aspects of my identity need to be redeemed.
The aspects of our identity are not hierarchical. In short, we are a complex unity of all of our attributes and characteristics. All of them are broken, tainted by sin, and in need of redemption. To admit I am a sinner is not to deny Christ’s work of redemption; it is simply to confess that sinfulness is part of who I currently am, and not who I will be in the new creation. It is not negative or pessimistic to acknowledge my sinfulness. Rather, such honesty of brokenness and the need of redemption enhances hope in the resurrection, in the world to come, when all will be made new.
And God is at work in those who are in Christ, redeeming the whole person, not just the parts. When the work of redemption is complete, the whole person will be made new. Then we will love God completely (Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). Until then, our hearts are not fully devoted to him, our desires are motivated by selfishness, and our wills tend to be bent in other directions than following Christ.
And as I mentioned earlier, our identity “in Christ” is not primarily individual. It is corporate. We are each members of the body of Christ, one body made up of many members (1 Cor. 12). Sanctification—or growth in holiness—is not ultimately about me, but focused on helping the body grow to maturity. In the biblical metaphors, each Christian is part of a body (1 Cor. 12), participating in an agricultural enterprise (3:5–9), and on the jobsite of a building project (vv. 10–14). And in each of these, the focus cannot be terminated on the individual. Rather, Paul explains, by “speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is Christ” (Eph. 4:15). Our goal must be the edification, the building up, of the body. That said, the individual is still important. After all, the health of the body is dependent on the health of each part. But the parts of the body have a more holistic goal, the health of the whole.
Being “in Christ” does not mean we have received our inheritance—yet. That God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (1:3) does not mean that we have already received those blessings. They are promised, and the promise is sure. But the blessings are in heaven. Those blessings are Christ himself. We have received the Holy Spirit who is not the blessing, Jesus is. The Spirit is a deposit or down payment on the inheritance (1:13–14; cf. 2 Cor. 1:22). The Holy Spirit is the firstfruit of the harvest, not the complete harvest (Rom. 8:22–25). Our inheritance “can never perish, spoil or fade. [It] is kept in heaven” (1 Peter 1:4). Because God will complete what he has started (Phil. 1:6), we have confidence to wait in hope. And yet, as Cole explains, “The Spirit brings something of the future that God has in store for his people into our lives in the here and now.” The present experience of the Spirit intensifies our longing for what is to come and is a foretaste of that inheritance.
Through faith in Jesus we have hope. In fact, he himself is the content of our hope. We are “in him” now, but our present experience is not the end; we look forward to the completion of the work of redemption. Our Savior has been here, and he is coming back. When we see him, we will be like him (1 John 3:2). The dead will be resurrected, and the living, glorified (1 Thess. 4:14–17). We have received the Spirit as a foretaste of that living hope; the Spirit is not the hope.
Our identity is in Christ. Our hope is in Christ. Our destiny is in Christ. Our past, present, and future is in Christ. One day, all will be made new, in Christ. Until that day, we walk by faith in hope empowered by the love of our Savior because “we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved” (Rom. 8:22–24).
 Graham A. Cole, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 238–39.
 I believe this is the way to understand 2 Cor. 5:17. We have not yet been made new creations, but the future has invaded the present in the work of the Spirit.
This post is an excerpt from Sanctified Sexuality: Valuing Sex in an Oversexed World, edited by Sandra Glahn & C. Gary Barnes; adapted from the chapter, “The Two ‘Adams’ and Spiritual Identity,” written by contributor Glenn R. Kreider. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.
God created humans as sexual beings before pronouncing his creation very good. And while we continue to witness many cultural changes relating to sex and gender, one thing that remains unchanged and timeless is the foundation for sexual intimacy—God’s beautiful design for the flourishing of those created in his image. Editors Sandra L. Glahn and C. Gary Barnes bring together twenty-two expert contributors in the fields of biblical studies, theology, and psychology to address the most important and controversial areas of sexuality that Christians face today. From a scriptural perspective, the contributors address issues such as:
- Male and female in the Genesis creation accounts
- Sexuality in marriage
- Divorce and remarriage
- Same-sex attraction
- Gender dysphoria
- The theology of the human body
Sandra L. Glahn, Th.M., PhD, is a professor in Media Arts/Worship and pastoral ministries at Dallas Theological Seminary. Glahn is a journalist and the author or coauthor of twenty books. For more, check out her blog at aspire2.com.