Q & R: Is Christ IN all people or only IN Christians? Brad Jersak
Is Christ in all people or is Christ only in Christians or only in some Christians?
Full disclosure: my response comes with a two-fold agenda.
- To say that we can find a good number of verses that make “in-ness” exclusive (e.g. believers are in Christ), but those passages do not negate the truth of the inclusion texts (i.e. humanity is in Christ). Both Scripture sets are true. They are simply referring to different truths.
- To say that neither inclusion-focused believers (“Trinitarians” for example) nor exclusion-focused believers (Evangelicals for example) need to force all the Bible’s in/out language into their own theological system. Let the authors say what they say and don’t force them to say what they didn’t intend. Some Scriptures define our Being (all are in Christ through the Incarnation) and others describe our Relationship (not all relate to Christ by faith).
This question has been floating around for a while now in a few different conversations. For example, people who minister at the margins frequently speak about seeing Christ in the poor and the outcast and in everyone, as you see in Mother Theresa’s meditations. For example, she famously said,
“I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus.”Mother Theresa
She based this on her experience and rooted that experience in Gospel texts such as Matthew 25 where Christ says,
‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Master, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 3When did we see you sick or in prison and come to see you?”Matthew 25:37-40
‘Then the king will answer them, “I’m telling you the truth: when you did it to one of the least significant of my brothers and sisters here, you did it to me.”
That passage may be variously interpreted, but in Kissing the Leper: Seeing Jesus in the Least of These, I wrote,
“You do not see Christ in unbelievers because they become Christians. You see Christ in them and in everyone because he became human with a capital H.”Brad Jersak, Kissing the Leper
This segues to a theological discussion among the Trinitarian crowd harking back to the early church Fathers, such as Athanasius of Alexandria. They believed that in the Incarnation, Christ did not just take on a human nature (his own individual humanity) but assumed human nature collectively, uniting himself to all humanity and the whole of the human condition.
The question then becomes, if Christ united himself to all humanity, is he IN ALL, or is Christ only IN SOME: those who reciprocate by uniting themselves to him through faith? Asked another way, are ALL ‘saved’ but just don’t know it yet? Or are we only ‘saved’ when we respond to Christ? And there the debate rages (sometimes with actual rage!). As far as I can tell, both ‘sides’ agree that what Christ did, he did for all and that a response to what Christ has accomplished is nevertheless necessary in order to experience what he has accomplished. And yet we’ve come to an impasse on the “IN-ness” of Christ.
I believe the impasse boils down to our age-old propensity for literalizing metaphors, then stumbling over them. It reminds me of the ‘80s obsession with whether a demon could be INa Christian or not. It was a useless argument because we kept imagining spirits as personal entities and human bodies or souls as containers. I recall people panicking about whether there was a demon IN them and looking for a religious method to getting it OUT. The solution de jourwas to distinguish between obsession, oppression and possession. I won’t even go there now—it’s just an illustration of how we think that “in” and “out” are literal locations because they are spacial.
It’s a METAPHOR, my friends! Or rather, a whole set of metaphors used in various ways in the Bible—and notuniformly! It appears to me that having “Christ in you” or being “in Christ” may mean different things in different contexts. Thus, you could have Christ IN ALL in one passage and Christ IN Christians in another.
Expanding on that would take more space than I have, but I can at least create some categories and leave you to explore each type of “IN-ness” and discern which Scriptures match best.
UNION / INCLUSION:
This refers to the union of the Triune God to the human race in the Person of Jesus Christ. Passages such as Romans 5, 1 Corinthians 15 and Colossians 1 overtly describe how the Incarnation of Christ includes all humanity in his work of forgiveness and reconciliation (esp.). “As in Adam ALL die, so in Christ, ALL are made alive.” These Scriptures describe how Christ’s universal saving act effects the human race, overcoming and exceeding the curse of Adam. “IN” in these cases speaks to being within the intentions and effects of God’s saving love—so high, wide, long and deep that it encompasses all. This needs special renewed attention today.
That said, alongside the all-inclusive embrace of Christ’s cosmic union, we have many other categories of “in-ness” in the New Testament. While Christ is in all by virtue of Christ’s saving work, we have at least four other related senses of the spatial “IN/OUT” metaphor that are contingent on us and thus narrower in scope than universal inclusion. Remember, friends, these are metaphors!
IDENTIFICATION / FELLOWSHIP:
Just as Christ’s identification with us takes us “intohim” (that is, an open door to relationship), so our identification with Christ welcomes him “intous” (into our lives, our mess, our business). Identification treats “IN”not as a ‘place’ such as my ‘heart’ (another metaphor) but as a description of howwe relate to Christ.
Example: Paul, addressing Christians, says:“I pray that out of his glorious riches Abbamay strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell IN your hearts through faith.”Ephesians 3:16-17
What? Isn’t Christ in every heart? Yes, by the Incarnation. Or at least every believer’s heart? Yes. By identification. But Paul is suggesting a more specific type of indwelling… something requiring the Grace of the Holy Spirit through a greater revelation of Abba’s great love.
To what is Paul referring? I am guessing the focus on Love and the Trinity in Ephesians 3 describes a kind of “indwelling” of ever-deepening fellowship. We come to experience the presence of Abba’sconstant habitation rather than perceiving him as a fleeting Visitor. The revelation of God’s love in Christ by the Spirit changes our perspective—that God is not “out there” but “in here”—in us.
AFFECTION / INTIMACY:
“Asking Jesus into my heart” has become an increasingly scorned phrase. If Christ is in us, asking him in is redundant. But hang on—it’s also a very biblical phrase describing our affections. Just as you don’t want an opponent to “get into your head,” you definitely want to allow loved ones “into your heart.” I.e. into your affections through intimacy. Paul assures the Philippians that even in chains, he has them in his heart. That is, he remembers them with affection.
The same can hold true of Christ. We invite Christ INfor intimate fellowship (as above). Remember, Rev. 3:20, addressed to a church! “If anyone invites me IN, I will come IN, and dine with them and they with me.” IN here has to do with our experience of active intimacy with the One who’s already IN us.
ATTENTION / PRAYER & WORSHIP:
Similarly, we carry someone INour hearts by remembering them and in the case of Christ, beholding Christ on the throne of our hearts. There, we come to the throne of Grace IN us to prayto him or worshiphim.
News flash: there isn’t an actual throne in your actual heart. It’s a metaphorfor eternal life as the ‘internal life.’The throne is not a literal chair upon which Christ sits. It represents Christ’s reign INus and our internal loving gaze on him.
FULLNESS / MATURITY:
Being filledis a related spatial / container metaphor. You have talk in Paul of being “filled with the Spirit” or attaining the fullness of Christ.
Paul describes the goal of the church’s 5-fold ministry:
“…to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.Ephesians 4:12-13
Here, fullness of Christ’s indwelling presence is not measured with a dipstick or expressed in terms of quantity. It’s a spatial metaphor for maturity and completeness—where we are recognizable as the children of Abba by the image of his Son manifest INour lives.
All that to say, let’s not get so hung up on spatial metaphors such as “in vs. out” or “far vs. near” as if God is not omnipresent (in all places), the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.” But also, let’s not miss the truth of these metphors:
- As Creator, God is Father of us all and in us all.
- As Savior, Christ has included ALL in his saving work.
- Let us ALL therefore come to recognize Abba’s love, that we might ALL receive Christ’s salvation and ALL be filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit.
In a follow-up article next week, I’ll explore a parallel question: are all people God’s children, or are only Christians God’s children?