Note: I wrote and submitted the following as a formal paper to a secular university for a course titled, “Religious Thought of Paul.” Although it is intended for an academic audience, ordinary readers may find it useful for three reasons. First, it makes a Scriptural case for the Christ-centeredness of Paul’s spirituality as something unique and impossible to fully comprehend by way of traditional theological inquiry. Second, it describes in great detail the three main applications of Paul’s use of the phrase “in Christ,” which provides some very practical spiritual lessons for all of us. Third, it offers a scholarly argument for Paul’s use of the word “all” (Greek: pas) to really mean “all” in the context of God’s Purpose in Christ, and not (as many suggest) to mean something less than all, each and every.
Scholars note the centrality of Christ in Paul’s writings and his frequent usage of this supporting phraseology. James D. G. Dunn finds that “the most prevalent and consistent” idea within Paul’s writings “was that of participation in Christ” (728). Curiously, in the very next sentence, Dunn admits that “the ‘in Christ,’ ‘with Christ,’ ‘through Christ’ motifs have proved themselves among the most difficult to handle within the ongoing dialogue provoked by Paul’s theology” (728).
Why do scholars find the essential foundation and pillar of Pauline thought, and the vocabulary he consistently uses to communicate that thesis, so difficult to understand?
Progressive Development of Pauline Thought
Scholars and theologians have long searched for a systematic theology of Paul, approaching his writings through the lens of academia, looking for a framework of precision that seems non-existent. Attempts to understand Paul, to organize his thought, or to categorize a formal system of Pauline teaching through the rubric of a systematic theology is so difficult, perhaps, because Paul had no intention of conforming to scholarly analysis or theological investigations. E. P. Sanders, in his attempt to posit a “New Perspective on Paul,” sounds frustrated at the end of his lengthy study when he writes, “Paul presents an essentially different type of religiousness from any found in Palestinian Jewish literature” (543, emphasis in original). Different? Yes; and thus, difficult to decipher – but only because Paul did not set out to write a systematic theology for the convenience of scholars who would pore over his every word. Paul’s letter to the Romans is the closest he comes to a systematic theology, and this is more by accident than by intention.
Paul was not called by God to be an apologist, theologian, or professor of religion. Quite the opposite, in fact; he would suddenly and unexpectedly repudiate his former position and fascination with the Jewish religion and commit himself to a completely different calling. Thus, it makes sense to ask when and where this dramatic shift took place. What happened to Paul?
The direction of Paul’s life was changed in an instant, and we know the exact moment when his destiny was forever changed. Something miraculous and supernatural happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. What he experienced went well beyond the realm of intellectual apprehension, theological inquiry, or even rational thought. What happened to Paul was not the result of calculation, premeditation, or a long period of immersive study in which he eventually came to some new conclusions about God and made a few cosmetic changes to his personal belief system. Paul did not stumble upon an idea, a thought, an argument, or a doctrine on the road to Damascus. Paul did not respond to someone else’s persuasive presentation or emotionally moving message.
So we ask again: what happened to Paul? Simply this: Paul met the God-Man. Paul stumbled upon a Person. And, once Paul met the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus, he adopted a completely new set of values, beliefs, teachings, and practices that radically replaced the old ways of the Jewish religion to which he was long accustomed. In this I depart from Dunn, who posits that Paul “thought of his new faith in Jesus Christ not as a departure from that older faith [of Judaism] but as its fulfilment” (716). That Paul saw Christ as the spiritual fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel is essentially correct; but fully embracing that fulfillment, as Paul did, unavoidably triggered a departure from the old ways and forever separated him from orthodox Judaism. It prompted a foundational upset that drastically altered everything in Paul’s world and invited persecution from his fellow Jews. His acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah sparked a revolutionary shift in his views on Temple, Torah, Jerusalem, Israel, old and new covenants, clean and unclean foods, circumcision, justification by faith and not works of law, and even his concept of what constitutes a “real Jew” as evidenced by his subsequent dissolution of Jewish / Gentile distinctions. It is impossible to view these shifts as anything less than an astounding negation of the old Jewishness. In fact, this God-Man Whom Paul experienced on the way to Damascus so overshadowed his former religiousness that he would consider everything before that meeting with Jesus as “dung” by comparison:
Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ. (Phil. 3:8)
Christ now stood in the center of Paul’s world, and everything else (including Paul himself) would revolve around this God-Man. Thus, any attempt to understand “the religious thought of Paul” must, ironically, begin with his repudiation of his previous religious thought and his embracing of a spiritual and personal (as opposed to religious) relationship with Christ.
As this relationship deepened, Paul’s spiritual apprehension of Christ grew and his thought developed. His phraseology expanded to include the mystical vocabulary that Dunn, Sanders, et al. find so difficult to conceptualize: in Christ. What did Paul mean by this? Was this technical, legal jargon or spiritual, mystical nomenclature? Perhaps all of the above. In one sense, Paul looked upon the invisible “Christ in you” as “the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to his saints.” Yet, Paul was not “mystical” in the sense of experiencing a connection with some ethereal, mysterious, impersonal entity or “force.” Paul speaks of knowing Him in the highly personal sense of fellowship and friendship. He also looks forward to a literal, visible return of Christ to gather His people together in a very real time and place:
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout… Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air; and so shall we ever be with the Lord. (1 Thess. 4:16, 17)
Paul’s first encounter with the risen Lord on the way to Damascus was as much a physical, visible presence (that others around him could at least partially perceive) as it was a personal, mystical, spiritual event: “Those who were with me indeed saw the light and were afraid, but they did not hear the voice of Him who spoke to me.” The brightness of that very real light from a very real Person left Paul physically blind for three days afterwards.
Along with his mystical and spiritual apprehension of Christ came a similar revelation of the Body of Christ, the “church” (ekklesia) as the synthesis of all believers who constitute “a called-out assembly” (Young 166) of people who have been spiritually joined to Christ – and by extension joined to each other – as “one Body in Christ.” Again, the genesis of this revelation is in Paul’s Damascus experience:
…[Saul] fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” (Acts 9:4, 5)
Paul was, in fact, persecuting what he thought were wayward Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. In this surprisingly intimate rebuke (the repetition of “Saul, Saul” is reminiscent of the tone Jesus used when correcting “Simon, Simon,” “Martha, Martha,” and “Jerusalem, Jerusalem”), a seed is planted for a mystical Pauline Ekklesiology. “I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting” is but the extension of the basic truth already conveyed in the Matthean text: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” Here, Paul must have perceived that in some inexplicable way, Christ and His people are one. This marked the beginning of Paul’s view of the spiritual “Body of Christ” comprising all believers – a revelation that would, many years later, culminate in some of the loftiest spiritual language in the New Testament: that God “hath put all things under [Christ’s] feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.
Thus, Paul’s mysticism, and the basis for his en Christo phraseology, is a remarkable encounter with Jesus that comprises both a personal and a corporate sense of spiritual oneness with Christ.
Overview of Pauline Usage
With the Damascus encounter firmly in mind, we may now turn to Paul’s writings. These are meant to convey the depth of a spiritual union he perceived to exist not only between Christ and Paul but between Christ and all believers. Yet these writings are not intended as theological tomes or sophisticated manuals of doctrine. Paul did not publish books; he wrote letters. These letters express something of the revelation of Christ to his brothers and sisters in the Lord, as the Spirit led him to write by way of a sometimes rambling correspondence that is intimate and personal. The only structure is a somewhat standard opening and a somewhat standard closing; everything in the middle seems extemporaneous, winding, and liquid – as the Spirit moves him. As a result, trying to construct a systematic theology from these writings is understandably difficult, yet intriguing. In nearly every case these letters were written in response to a practical situation: a question, dispute, or trouble arising among the ekklesias that he loved, served, and prayed for. The urgency of the situation called for a response, and Paul’s concern for the ekklesias invariably drew a heartfelt, passionate reply from him. In the age before ease of travel and mass communication, a written letter dispatched by courier was the best option. Later, when Paul is a prisoner of the Roman government, a letter is his only option; thus, the letters become increasingly important and more frequent. They represent a vital link between him and the ekklesias who must now make do without his physical presence.
These letters were recognized by the early Christians as “God-breathed” and were preserved and handed down to us as Scripture. The fine spirit and richness of these letters reflect the depth of Paul’s mystical, spiritual and literal representations of Christ and are embedded with the unique phraseology of en Christo and its derivatives. As we examine the Pauline letters for the signal phrase in Christ and its permutations, we find a pervasiveness that reflects the centrality of Christ in Paul’s thought, life, and work. There are many variants of the key phrases, and Dunn regards them as generally occurring under three main headings:
- In Christ / In Him / In Whom. By Dunn’s reckoning, the phrase en Christo occurs 83 times in Paul’s body of letters (396). In addition, by my count and according to Strong, “in Him” occurs 13 times and “in Whom” appears 12 times, depending on how one reads the passages in question; thus, this first heading covers about 108 instances.
- In the Lord / In the Lord Jesus. Dunn puts the phrase en Kyrio, and variations such as “in the Lord Jesus” or “in the Lord Jesus Christ” at 47 instances (397).
- With Christ / Into Christ / Through Christ. This heading also includes variations of with Him, into Him, through Him, etc. that “express the same sense of communality of believers rooted in its dependence on their common experience of participation with Christ” (Dunn, 403). These passages portray believers as sharing in the crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, seating, and ruling with Christ. These and similarly constructed phrases occur about 50 times.
Three Manageable Concepts
As impressive as these occurrences are, it is easy to get lost in the sheer volume of terms and phrases. Another way to grasp their significance is to think of them conceptually, rather than become bogged down in specific syntax. The various applications of the term in Christ and its derivatives do seem to convey three degrees of depth, each somewhat overlapping the other, but all communicating three remarkable (yet manageable) concepts. I will categorize these as: Christ for us, Christ as us, and Christ in us.
1. Christ “for” us (the Mediator). This represents “Christ in the gap,” the One Who bridges the gulf between God and Man: “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” Paul consistently describes God as the primary benefactor, mankind as the primary beneficiary, and Christ as the God-Man through Whom God and mankind are brought together. This primarily has to do with the reconciliation of the world, solving the sin problem, and bestowing spiritual blessings on those who believe. Everything that God wishes to do for mankind is always presented as being done in, by, through, or with Christ – there is never any avenue of grace, salvation, blessing, or path to God outside of or apart from Christ. Oddly, Dunn wanders from the obvious when he states that “Paul never properly explains” why faith had to be in Christ rather than simply in God, and that “[p]resumably he could have envisaged a saving faith which was not focused in Christ as such” (727). Such a bizarre notion is completely foreign from Paul’s writings and his thought.
On the contrary, we find that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses against them” and “when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” Interestingly, this reconciliation in Christ is presented by Paul as having already occurred prior to anyone’s acceptance or belief – indeed, while we were “yet sinners, Christ died for us” – and Christ is said to have already secured peace between God and man: “[God] having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all [Greek: pas] things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.” Christ truly “died for all” but that there yet remains a fuller deliverance for “all” is clear from Paul’s deduction that “as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” – not all at once, but “every man in his own order.” This is positioned as a future event based on an accomplished fact. Does he mean that “all in Christ” will be made alive (in a way that limits vivification only to the saints), or that “all” will believe into Christ and thus “all” will be made alive, without restriction? The words “As in.. so in…” gives weight to the latter interpretation – just as Adam introduced sin and eventually passed spiritual death to all persons without exception, so also Christ has introduced righteousness and will eventually pass spiritual life to all persons without exception.
Towards that end, Paul conveys that in the “fullness of times” God intends to “gather together in one all things in Christ [pas en Christos].” Paul aligns his life and ministry with that ultimate purpose in mind, explaining that his personal mission includes preaching this all-encompassing Christ and “warning every man, and teaching every man, that we may present every man perfect in Christ.” The Greek phrase translated three times here as “every man” is pas anthrōpos (Strong, #3956 and #444), the same phrase translated elsewhere as “all men”– for example, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men [pas anthrōpos]… for this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior; Who will have all men [pas anthrōpos] to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth… Who gave himself a ransom for all [pas].” Thus, Paul sees God working through Christ as “the Savior of all men [pas anthrōpos], especially [but not exclusively] of those that believe.
Notwithstanding, Paul preaches that “God… commandeth all men [pas anthrōpos] everywhere to repent.” He pleads with those enemies whom God has already reconciled to stop being enemies and instead “be ye reconciled to God” in return. His constant preaching, warning, teaching, and praying shows that Paul did not interpret the universality of Christ’s work for pas anthrōpos to mean that sinners could now pray an easy prayer to an easy Jesus for an easy salvation and continue living in sin. Yet, Paul’s Christ is infinitely greater than Adam; Paul exudes unlimited confidence in the efficacy of the cross of Christ to far surpass the sin and failure of Adam, arguing that “as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” and that “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.” It is difficult to imagine how Paul could conceive of a grace through the sacrifice of Christ that abounds “much more” than the sin of Adam if that grace fails to convert and restore all who died in Adam. Paul sees Christ as the Last Adam Who reverses the destruction of the First Adam by abolishing death and eventually defeating death, robbing the grave of its victory and giving those newly liberated from death saving faith and final victory in Christ. After that “cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all [pas] rule and all [pas] authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all [pas] enemies under his feet.” The final “putting down,” the climax of God’s purpose in Christ as described by Paul, is inescapable, universal, and total: “When all [pas] things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all [pas] things under him, that God may be all in all [pas en pas].” We do not have to speculate as to the real intention of “all” here – Paul himself explains the one and only exception to the use of the word “all” as self-evident: “But when he saith all [pas] things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all [pas] things under him.” In other words, God is the obvious exclusion to the “all” who are subdued and saved under Christ; in the end, God will be “all in all” but He will never be under all. Certainly Paul would not specifically argue for an unlimited sense of “all” in this place but would, without explanation, intend a limited sense of the word “all” elsewhere.
To parse Paul’s frequent use of the word “all” in these critical texts as to infer a meaning less than “all” is to unfairly limit the largeness of his vision of Christ and to accuse him of repetitive, disingenuous and fanatical overstatement. On the other hand, if Paul really believed that “all” meant all mankind, every person who has ever lived or died, without exception, then it does help to better understand both the greatness of his comprehension of Christ and his willingness to consider everything apart from Him as “dung” by comparison.
If God is working in Christ to reconcile, make peace and bestow life to “all” then Paul sees Him working all the more to bestow blessings “especially” on those who already believe: “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all [pas], how shall he not with him also freely give us all [pas] things?” For Paul, being in Christ is the beginning of something completely new and represents a total break from the past: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” Within this refreshing newness Paul sees that God “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ.” In every respect, Christ represents a spiritual sufficiency that not only satisfies the righteous requirements of God but satisfies the spiritual need of mankind. And, since “all the fullness of the Godhead bodily dwells in Christ,” it stands to reason that those in Christ lack nothing, but “are complete in Him.”
2. Christ “as” us (the Substitute). This represents “Christ in my place,” the One Who not only stands in the gap between God and mankind to bridge the two, but takes the place of mankind to suffer the penalty of sin and attain a victory on humanity’s behalf. According to Paul, God treats the death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and seating in heavenly places of Christ as if it were our own, placing saints “in Christ” and thus identifying believers with Him at each point. All our sinfulness is attributed to Him and all His righteousness is attributed to us: “[God] hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” And so, “of [God] are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” As with the reconciliation of the world in Christ on the cross, Paul places the beginning of the believer’s mystical substitution in Christ at the cross: “Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him.” From there, Paul situates us squarely in Christ at every step: “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.”And so the togetherness of those who have been crucified with Christ extends from there. Those who were crucified with Christ were also “dead with Christ,” “buried with Him,” and “risen with Him,” both in the sense of being made alive in Christ and in the sense of having ascended with Him to rule in the heavenly sphere: “[God] hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” They key word here is together, which helps us better appreciate Paul’s sense of what it means to be both in Christ and with Him.
It is noteworthy that Paul does not identify believers with either the birth or the sinless earthly life of Jesus; the language of in and with describes a spiritual oneness that joins believers together with Christ at the cross; and from there, they proceeding together with Christ through death, burial, resurrection, and ascension to the throne. It is also important to note that Paul’s mysticism stops short of claiming that believers share in the deity of Christ; Paul nevertheless describes a remarkable spiritual unity that elevates believers to the status of “heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.”
3. Christ “in” us (the Indwelling Presence). This represents “Christ in my heart,” the One Who lives in me as I live in Him. The Johannine portrayal of Christ as “the Vine” and believers as “the branches” characteristically comes to mind as the foremost example of the spiritual union of Christ and His followers – as the branch abides in the Vine and produces fruit, so we are to abide in Him, share in His life and bring forth spiritual fruit. The Pauline portrait supports this concept with language that describes both Jews and Gentiles being “grafted in” by faith in Christ to partake of the “root and fatness” of “the good olive tree” or otherwise being “cut off” if they do not continue in Christ. Beyond merely bridging the gap or simply taking our place, Paul presses further to describe spiritual union as mystery hitherto hidden, but now revealed as “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” He sees Christ not only in the heavenly realm, not only visible in the clouds at His return, but within: “Christ lives in me.” Paul uses two examples to show what he means in the spiritual sense of Christ and the believer: “What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh. But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit.” This “joining” to the Lord is spiritual, and is taken for granted by Paul as having already been accomplished in Christ; in the cross, “the two became one” in spirit.
This represents something very different from the idea of mystical union as understood and practiced by notable mystics such as St. John of the Cross or St. Teresa Avila. Rather than viewing union with God as the end result of spiritual exercises and mortification, Paul sees union with God as the impetus that makes walking with God possible. Believers are already one with God because they are in Christ; they need only stay in Christ and continue in Him: “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him.” Moreover, this spiritual oneness exists not only for the private enjoyment of individual seekers, but extends and applies as well to the relationship between Christ and believers in toto. Paul again resorts to the analogy of marriage within the same “mystery” framework:
For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Eph. 5:30-32)
Summary and Conclusion
We have thus seen that Paul’s mysticism began at Damascus and developed from there into a three-fold apprehension of Christ: Christ for us, Christ as us, and Christ in us. The uniqueness of Paul’s thought can be attributed to a radical Christocentricity that found a practical expression as Paul responded to the emergent spiritual needs of those to whom he ministered. As such, he did not delineate a theological construct or formal doctrinal system; but, if there is such a theology we can draw from Paul, the pervasiveness of the en Christo family of vocabulary shows that Christ is the foundation, the cornerstone, the pillar, the goal, and the center of his thought. Dunn concludes: “For Paul Christianity is Christ. Any restatement of his theology, any theologizing which seeks to sustain a dialogue with Paul will simply have to recognize this” (729).
Along with “knowing Him” and being “found in Him” personally, Paul was daily concerned for the salvation of pas anthrōpos as well as the spiritual growth and maturity of the ekklesias. Therefore, proclaiming and handing down a Christ-centered faith was Paul’s primary motivation, and his letters must be read and interpreted in that light. Towards the end of his life Paul charged Timothy that “the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also.” In the absence of an organized religious structure, it is clear that what Paul wanted to be committed and passed on was not a systematic theology, but an awareness of the Person of Christ as comprised in both a spiritual and a practical expression of Jesus as “Christ who liveth in me… the son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
Dunn, James D. G. The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Eerdmans, 1998.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995.
Sanders, Paul. Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Fortress Press, 1977.
Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. World Bible Publishers, 1989.
Young, Robert. Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible. Hendrickson Publishers, 1984.
 Acts 9ff.
 Col. 1:26, 27.
 Acts 22:9.
 Rom. 12:5.
 Mt. 25:40.
 Eph. 1:22,23.
 I include here all of the epistles traditionally attributed to Paul in the King James Version, including the pastoral epistles, but excluding Hebrews.
 1 Tim. 2:5.
 2 Cor. 5:19.
 Rom. 5:10.
 Rom. 5:8.
 Col. 1:20. Frequently (and inconsistently) the King James Version translates pas as “all things” instead of simply “all.” Presumably the extra word “things” is supplied to make the text more readable; but if we look at certain passages translated as “all [things]” and think of them as “all [people]” it creates an interesting new perspective – one that perhaps the King James translators did not wish to convey.
 2 Cor. 5:15.
 1 Cor. 15:22.
 1 Cor. 15:23.
 Eph. 1:10.
 Col. 1:28.
 1 Tim. 2:4.
 1 Tim. 4:10.
 Acts 17:30
 2 Cor. 5:20.
 Rom. 5:19.
 Rom. 5:20.
 1 Cor. 15:45.
 2 Tim. 1:10.
 1 Cor. 15:26.
 1 Cor. 15:55-57.
 1Cor. 15:24.
 1 Cor. 15:28.
 1 Cor. 15:27.
 Rom. 8:32. I note here that Paul is quite capable of qualifying pas with hēmōn pas, “us all” – or hymin pas, “you all” (Eph. 4:6) – whenever he wishes to convey a less-than-universal sense of “all.” Or, he can simply use tis, “some,” as in: “I am made all [pas] to all [pas] that I might save some [tis]” (1 Cor. 9:22).
 2 Cor. 5:17.
 Eph. 1:3.
 Col. 2:9.
 Col. 2:10.
 2 Cor. 5:21.
 1 Cor. 1:30.
 Rom. 6:6.
 Rom. 6:5.
 Rom. 6:8.
 Rom. 6:4.
 Col. 2:12.
 Eph. 2:6.
 Rom. 8:17.
 Jn. 15:1-8.
 Rom. 11:17-24.
 Col. 1:27.
 Gal. 2:20ff.
 1 Cor. 6:16,17.
 Col. 2:6.
 Phl. 3:10.
 Phl. 3:9.
 2 Cor. 11:28.
 2 Tim. 2:2.
 Gal. 2:20ff.