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In Christ. This tiny two-word phrase contains all the comfort, security, peace, and hope that a Christian could ever need. It is the key that unlocks the New Testament’s teaching on the blessings and benefits of salvation. Once you start looking for it, you will find it all over the place—“in Christ” (or its variations, such as “in him” and “in the Lord”) occurs more than 150 times in the New Testament. It is the Apostle Paul’s favorite way of describing our redeemed status, and if you’ll allow it to, it’s a phrase that will shape your identity.

By “identity” I mean the way that you see yourself and how you live in light of it. Of course, the most important thing isn’t how we see ourselves but how God sees us. In fact, the Christian’s aim is to conform his perspective to God’s. We want to share God’s view in all things, including what He has to say about our personal identity. In an individualistic age such as our own, this is becoming increasingly difficult. In recent decades, the world is suggesting subjective and plastic answers to those big questions in life, such as “Who am I?” and “What am I here for?” But in response to the modern and muddled “I identify as” way of thinking, we must assert a definitive “my identity is” mindset informed by the Scriptures.

Here is where our two-word phrase comes into play. The Scriptures attest, over and over, that God views or considers the believer as being “in Christ.” When we understand, believe, and live out what God says is true of us in Christ, we will find objective, unshakable answers to those big questions in life. We will find a true, pure, and satisfying identity—one that isn’t found in us at all, actually, but is found in the person of Christ Jesus.

union with christ

Before we unpack exactly what it is that is true of us in Christ, we should ask how it is true of us. How can God view us through the lens of the person and work of Christ? How can Christ’s accomplishments be credited to us? The answer is found in our union with Christ, a mysterious work of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:32). As the Apostle John writes, “By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit” (1 John 4:13). The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains that the Holy Spirit applies “to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling” (Q&A 30, emphasis added). It’s a profound reality: through Spirit-wrought faith, all that is true of Christ—even Christ Himself—comes to us. We are so united to Christ that there is actually a mutual indwelling: He in us and we in Him.

John Calvin, in his comments on Ephesians 3:17 (“that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith”), made this jubilant observation:

What a remarkable commendation is here bestowed on faith, that, by means of it, the Son of God becomes our own, and “makes his abode with us!” By faith we not only acknowledge that Christ suffered and rose from the dead on our account, but accepting the offers which he makes of himself, we possess and enjoy him as our Savior!

The Christian actually possesses Christ and all His benefits. To be united to Christ, therefore, is the sum and substance of our salvation.

Union with Christ makes us hold our heads high. Why should I live in shame? The worst things about me were crucified on the cross with Christ.

Although this union is mysterious, we should stress that it is not speculative or merely intellectual and cognitive. It is actual and vital. Believers live in Christ the way a fish lives in water or a bird in the air—we have no life apart from being in Christ (Col. 3:4). Admittedly, our union might not feel as natural as that. At times, the Christ in whom we live and move and have our being feels distant. Our objective union in Him is not met with an equally fervent communion with Him. When that happens, we search for meaning and build identities on things other than Christ: career, fame, sexual expression, our children—all things that will leave us empty if we try to find ultimate meaning in them. To quote Calvin again: “Our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else.”

an “in christ” identity

This means that for a lasting identity, we need to return to the sufficiency of our Savior, basking in the truth that all He is He is for His people. There is nothing that I need that I don’t have in Christ. The “in Christ” declaration preaches that truth. It teaches that Jesus is not just a figure whom I read about in history but a person in whom I actually participate. Or put another way, in telling me what Jesus did for me, the gospel also tells me who I am in Him. It gives me my identity.

So what sort of identity does a Christian have? How does being in Christ answer those big questions of life, such as “Who am I?” Neither space nor skill permits me to write all that should be said at this point, but in the remainder of this piece let me simply highlight four glorious truths about the believer’s identity in Christ.

in christ i am loved

Many people spend their entire lives searching for love, but the script is flipped for Christians: love searches for us. Paul writes in the breathtaking introduction to Ephesians that “[God] chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us” (1:4–5). The Scriptures portray God as making a choice motivated by love. He chose a particular people. What made them worthy of such an honor? Nothing. Indeed, the elect are as fallen as the reprobate. There is nothing inherent in any one of us that would catch God’s eye or draw Him to us. Long ago, Israel learned the same lesson: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you” (Deut. 7:7–8). It is love that moves God to enter into a special relationship with His people.

But notice that Paul says that God made this loving choice “in him”—that is, in Christ. Even as God contemplated us in eternity, He did so in Christ. God was thinking of us not in and of ourselves, and certainly not in and of our sin, but truly in and of His Son. We are in His Son in the sense that we were the people whom the Son promised to come and save. Even before the world was made, the plan was set that the Son would come to earth to represent us, to die for us, to redeem us. God loves us because of all that His Son is for us. In Christ, we are loved by God with an everlasting, never-failing love, because everything worthy of love in Christ is everlasting and never-failing. The thing that many people seek and never find has found us: true love, “with which [God] has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6).

in christ i am forgiven

Our “in Christ” identity is also formed by this declaration: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). Without this reality, life is but an extended stint on death row before the inevitable judgment. It’s being in Christ that alone frees us from the prison of sin, death, and hell. When Christ stepped out of the grave, He took us with Him. Our sins are forgiven, our debt is paid, and our guilt is removed.

What would we do without this freedom? Guilt is soul-crushing. People search for ways to numb themselves to it, sometimes turning to drastic measures. Guilt often comes with fear of others’ discovering past sins: the unconfessed and unforgiven sinner spends much of his life looking over his shoulder, stricken with anxiety that he will be found out. In contrast, union with Christ makes us hold our heads high. Why should I live in shame? The worst things about me were crucified on the cross with Christ (Gal. 2:20). The wrath and curse of God have come upon Christ in my place. I do not need to fear; I am forgiven. Do you see how the gospel informs our identity as believers? The grace received in Christ makes the Christian humble and thankful. We are at peace, since we know that our sins have been cast into the depths of the sea. Satan can’t dredge them back up, though he may try. Paul reminds us: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (Rom. 8:33). Our pardon is part of who we are, and so we live in the robust freedom of being fully forgiven in Christ Jesus.

in christ i am a child of god

The Bible teaches us that we are adopted by God (Gal. 3:26; 4:5; Eph. 1:5). This adoption flows from our union to Christ: to be in the “beloved Son” makes us beloved sons as well (Matt. 17:5). In an isolated and lonely age such as our own, the Christian has something that others are desperate for: a place to belong. We have access to the Father’s house and are brought into the family of faith. Isaac Watts, in a versification of Psalm 23, captured the blessing well. Speaking of our home in heaven, he wrote:

There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger or a guest,
But like a child at home.

In our identity as children of God are nestled innumerable privileges: we have access to God; a place to belong; an inheritance that is imperishable and undefiled, kept in heaven for us; and only good things from the hand of our heavenly Father (Matt. 7:11).

in christ i am made new

Finally, the Christian’s true identity is one that belongs to a world that is yet to come. Paul writes: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). The Holy Spirit does a work in our lives of putting to death the old ways of sin and bringing to life the newness of righteousness (Eph. 4:22–24). The sin that remains does not get the final say. It is passing away along with the rest of this world. An “in Christ” identity, therefore, keeps us from both despairing over persistent sin and indulging in it. We are new creations awaiting the new heavens and new earth, and our job is to live in the holiness and joy that will mark the coming world.

Our great aim in life must be to have our value, satisfaction, and sense of self “found in” Christ (Phil. 3:9–10). We must pursue a deeper fellowship with Christ, one that fortifies us in the identity He gives us in the gospel. Sin makes that hard to do, and even lifelong Christians need the reminder that since God sees us in Christ, it’s how we should see ourselves, too. Finding our identity in Christ is a lifelong process, but one well worth attaining—motivated best by the reality that Christ is not ashamed to identify with us: “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil. 3:12).

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