What is meant by St Paul’s phrase “in Christ”? It is a common enough phrase in his corpus, whether in the form already listed or in some other configuration (“in Christ Jesus,” etc.); however, as with many things in Paul, the amount of occurrence tends to be inversely proportional to its explanation by teachers and preachers. As far as I’ve been concerned, the phrase has worked as shorthand for “one saved” or “one exercising faith.” Aren’t we, after all, “saved by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8)? And isn’t it true that “if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9)? What do we make, then, of Paul’s passages about the centrality of baptism? Is it necessary? Isn’t it a “work”? (A related question, one that I cannot dive into just here, is: what about infants/children?) It is here that the phrase “in Christ” as “one with faith” becomes problematic.
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ…” (Gal. 3:27)
“Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Rom. 6:3)
“In Christ” seems to be shorthand in Paul for having been baptized. However, this goes further: “For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:12-13). “In Christ” is shorthand for baptism, which itself means we are part of the ekklesia, the body of Christ, which Paul accounts as Christ Himself in this passage. To be “in Christ” is to be a baptized member of the Church. What that means, at least for the present passage and for Galatians 3:28, is that the old modes of life (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female) no longer hold. Why? Because they have died with Christ. “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism unto death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4), which holds the eschatological promise of resurrection/sonship.
Here an interesting corollary becomes apparent: if we die in baptism and are raised to “newness of life,” this could metaphorically be understood as a “new birth.” The old has gone, the new has come. This ties Paul’s theology very closely to that of St John, as he explicates the mystery of baptism in John 3. The reality of baptism is a change, then, from the mode of existence characterized by death (“in Adam”) to that of one characterized by life (“in Christ”), which is to say an ecclesial existence (to use the terminology of Metr. John Zizioulas).
What role does faith play in this? I have not time, nor energy, to go into the debate over whether pistis Christou means “the faith of Christ” or “faith in Christ” (I incline to the former). Instead, I think ancient liturgical practice informs the relationship between faith and baptism. In the catechumenate, the candidate would confess faith in Christ (using some form of what would become the Apostles’ or Nicene creeds) and then receive the sacrament: in other words, faith and baptism were the same event. “Faith” was not merely an inward disposition of assent, but a (semi-)public affirmation and declaration of allegiance to the Christ which was then followed immediately by the new birth, baptism. This is why Paul is so insistent that one must “confess with your mouth” in Romans 10. This sacrament, which secured deliverance from the principalities and powers/stoicheia, then, was the moment of justification, of the declaration that one was innocent before God, as sins/bondage had been put to death in the font and the baptizant was raised to newness of life, foreshadowing their full sonship in the eschaton (which was “predestined” – see my earlier posts on this concept). One was justified by their faith, their profession of allegiance to Christ, in the rite of baptism: there is no conflict between the two, rather they are an integrated whole. This goes a long way to explaining why some of the “quirks” of the earliest church exist, such as why catechumens were considered “saved” if they died in martyrdom before baptism: it isn’t that baptism became a proto-Pelagian “work,” but rather that it was considered the moment of saving faith through the work of the Spirit. One can also see why “validity of baptism” is such a contentious issue to this day: salvation in Christ is necessarily through His Body, the Church.
A benefit of this reading is that the tension between Paul in Romans and Galatians (where he is supposed to be “anti-works”) and the Pastoral epistles (where he is viewed as “too Catholic” and therefore probably not the author) evaporates: St Paul is, very early, a liturgical and ecclesiastical Christian.