The New Testament phrase “in Christ” (Greek, en christo) has been the topic of much debate throughout its history. Ever since Paul (or Peter, depending on who wrote his epistle first) coined the phrase in the first century AD, the meaning of the phrase has been greatly contested.
I am not necessarily interested in the larger debate, nor am I interested in discussing the nuanced-Adventist debate about whether all were “in Christ” at the cross, etc. That is a discussion for another day. What has piqued my interest is borne out of personal study that I was doing this morning in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians.
In 1 Corinthians 1:4, Paul writes, “I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to you by Christ Jesus.” This is how the New King James Version renders it, at least. The phrase “by Christ” is a translation of the Greek en christo, however, which has caused most other major translations to render it “in Christ Jesus.”
The difference may seem nuanced and minor but the theological distinction is interesting – however subtle it may seem. What Paul is thankful for is that the Corinthians have been given the “grace of God.” But how has that grace been given? One way renders it “by,” the other “in.”
Is there a difference?
Does it make a difference?
The first way, “by,” seems to imply agency or means. In other words, God gave the Corinthians grace, and the instrument by which He gave that grace was through Jesus. Thus, Jesus simply becomes a vehicle by which God gives us something. God “uses” Jesus, in some ways, to accomplish an end. Subsequently, the Corinthians also “use” Jesus to receive that which God wants to give them.
This almost makes Jesus an impersonal instrument. He is simply a go-between, a middle Man.
While there may be some truth to the overall concept, it seems to betray our attitudes more than Paul’s intent. We seem to use Jesus more as a means to an end rather than as an end itself. Jesus went to the cross to die for our sins, we essentially think, so that God could give us grace, be happy with us, and we can live forever. Then we go to Jesus so we can receive something from God through Him.
And Jesus is only good insofar as He provides something for us.
But I don’t think this is what Paul meant when he used the phrase en christo. I think many versions are correct when they translate the phrase “in Christ,” which is its most natural rendering. When Paul says that the Corinthians were given the “grace of God . . . in Christ,” I believe that Paul was saying that Christ, Himself, was the grace. Though I am probably not on strong syntactical grounds, the Greek construct that is used (a dative) perhaps could be that of content or material. Thus, we do not go to Jesus to receive grace; we go to Jesus because He essentially consists of grace.
So instead of going to Jesus to receive grace, we go to Jesus Himself because He is grace. When God gave grace, He gave us Jesus – not as an instrument to deliver that grace to us, but as the grace itself.
Let us, therefore, not go to Jesus to receive something, but to receive someone – namely, Christ Himself.