To be completely honest, the answer is both. The Bible is clear that when we trust in Christ, he comes to live in us. In John 14:23, Jesus tells the disciples, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” in Colossians 1:27, Paul says this is mystery for all the ages that is now revealed: Christ is in you! There are passages all over the NT that tell us Christ is in us.
But this isn’t the most common way the Bible talks about our relationship with Christ. While Christ in us is far more popular in our churches, the fact that we are in Christ is much more common in the Bible. It's more popular to think about asking Jesus into our hearts, but it's probably more biblical to think about Jesus asking us into his.
You’re probably familiar with the pushback on the phrase, “ask Jesus into your heart.” While it’s true this phrase does not appear in the New Testament, the concept is not entirely wrong. The problem is this phrase has developed a dangerous cultural attitude about what happens at conversion, it makes us think that conversion is all about us. Sometimes we think that coming to Christ means Jesus joins us on our adventures in the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Putting your trust in Christ means you give up all of your hopes and dreams to join him in what he wants to do in the world.
We need a course correction. Being in Christ should be our go-to understanding of what it means to trust in Christ. In Christ is one of Paul’s favorite phrases; he uses it 83 times in his letters. This phrase is so powerful because it gives us a visual picture of what happens to us when we become a part of the body of Christ.
The idea of kingdom transfer was central to Paul’s thinking. He wrote in Colossians 1:13–14, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” It’s only in Christ that these things have been given to us. It’s important to remember that there is nothing about us that deserves to be forgiven, saved, or used by God, but all of these things are ours because we are in Jesus Christ. The things that happen to him happen to us because we are in him.
Here are a few of the things the Bible says about being in Christ:
We are in him in the resurrection.
In Romans 6:4-11, Paul explains the ways we have been united with Christ. Here’s an important principle to remember, if you are a Christian, the things that happened to Christ will happen to you. Christ died for sin, and we also died to sin. Christ was buried and through baptism so were we. Christ was raised from the dead, and when the trumpet sounds so will we. Christ lives and has conquered sin, by his death, we also live, no longer slaves to sin. Christ is seated at the right hand of the father, and in eternity we will reign with him forever. All of this is true because we have been united with him; we are in Christ.
We are in him as we go before God.
Luther described this as the great exchange; Christ takes our sin, and we get Christ’s righteousness. Now, when we go before God, he sees his perfect son and treats us as if we had lived that sinless life. Because we are in Christ, we have the confidence to go before God as his children, not as his enemies.
We are in him as God’s chosen people.
One of the most controversial doctrines in the church is predestination. It’s hard to get away from election if you’re taking the text seriously. Arminians and Calvinists both agree that one aspect of God’s predestination takes place in Christ. Ephesians 1:4, says, “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” Because Christ is the one who was chosen before the foundation of the world, and we are in him, we can be confident that we have been chosen by God.
We are in him in the life of the church.
Paul describes the church as the body of Christ. As members of his body, we don’t get to decide whether or not we serve or use our gifts. We are Christ’s hands and feet. We are the church. When we realize that we are in Christ, we are reminded of the fact that God has given us work to do in the world. As members of Christ we bear responsibility for one another; “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).
The reality of being in Christ confronts our sense of earning. Sometimes we feel like since we have Christ in us, we must really be something. But the balance comes from understanding that nothing we have is due to our own merit. It all comes from being hidden in Christ, one with him in death and life, and face to face with him for eternity.
It’s true that Christ is in us, but it’s helpful to remind ourselves that we are also in him. I’ve always loved the third verse of “Before the Throne,” because it puts this truth so beautifully:
“One with Himself, I cannot die;
My soul is purchased by His blood;
My life is hid with Christ on high,
With Christ, my Savior and my God.”
Cole Feix is the founder of So We Speak and a regular writer. Follow him on Twitter, @cfeix7.