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Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV)

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.

1 Corinthians 15:22 (ESV)

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:1 (ESV)

8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits[a] of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,

Colossians 2:9 (ESV)

What does the phrase 'ἐν Χριστῷ' in the Pauline corpus mean?

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Common Misconception of a Purely Technical Usage

It is commonly believed that Paul's usage of "in Christ" refers to a particular concept in all cases. That is, that it is a technical phrase "meaning" a specific thing every place it is used. However, this is not a demonstrable idea.

Paul does regularly use the phrase to refer to the concept of essentially being a believer/follower of Christ, a Christian, one who is placed into the body/family of Christ (so a locative of sphere), just as another answer here adequately points out.

But Paul does not exclusively use it that way. He also uses the phrase at least in temporal and instrumental associations, as Reginald Fuller notes in his article "Aspects of Pauline Christology."1 That means, as with most interpreting, the context needs to determine Paul's usage.

Fuller sees four types of usages (all on page 11 of the article; any emphasis is his):

  1. Christologically

In two passages “in Christ” or “in Christ Jesus” are used christologically of God’s acting in Christ, namely Romans 3:24 and 2 Corinthians 5:19. These passages identify the earthly life of Jesus as the point in time at which God’s saving act was accomplished. En, therefore, has here a temporal rather than a spatial significance. And it also approaches an instrumental sense. It was by means of the Jesus event that God accomplished the redemption (Rom. 3:24) and reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19).

  1. Soteriologically

there are numerous passages which speak soteriologically of the believers’ being in Christ, e.g., Romans 6:11 and 8:1. ... To be in Christ means to be drawn into the saving event, to have acquired contemporaneity with it. It does not mean to be located spatially in the pneumatic Christ, whether conceived as etherial being or as a corporate personality.

  1. Ecclesiological

Another use of “in Christ” may be designated ecclesiological. Examples are: Galatians 3:27 (“you are all one in Christ Jesus”) and Romans 12:5 (“one body in Christ”). The ecclesiological usage is an extension of the soteriological. It is their common conditioning by and contemporaneity with the saving event that makes the believers one.

  1. Ministerial

A fourth usage may be categorized as “ministerial,” for it refers to the labors of the apostle and his colleagues. Examples of this usage occur in 1 Corinthians 4:15 and 2 Corinthians 12:19. Like the ecclesiological usage, the ministerial is an extension of the soteriological. It is through the apostolic ministry that believers are brought into relation with the saving event and become conditioned by it.

A survey I found even more helpful was Brenda Colijn's, “Paul’s Use of the ‘In Christ’ Formula."2

  1. Synonym for Christian

Sometimes the expression is synonymous for “Christian” or “in a Christian manner" (10).

  1. Sphere of activity

Paul also uses the phrase to denote the sphere or context in which something takes place. In Romans 16:3, 9, 12, he describes people as his fellow workers in Christ (10).

  1. Instrumental

Paul uses “in Christ” in an instrumental or causal sense (i.e., through Christ, because of what he has done). In Philippians 4:13, for example, he states, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (The Greek has en, not dia.) Other uses describe God’s actions in (through) Christ: God shows “the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ” (Eph. 2:7); Christians should forgive one another, “just as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph. 4:32); the atonement occurred “in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles” (Gal. 3:14).

  1. Location of Benefits

Related to this instrumental usage are passages that describe Christ as the source or locus of the benefits believers have. Believers receive certain things in him because of what he has done. For example, Paul declares in Ephesians 1 that believers have adoption, grace, redemption, forgiveness, inheritance, hope, and sealing in Christ. He tells the Corinthians that they have been “enriched in Him” (1 Cor. 1:5); he tells the Romans that the locus of God’s love is in Christ (Rom. 8:39).

  1. Participatory

But Paul also uses the “in Christ” formula in a more participatory sense. ... Christ as a location, lordship and ownership language, parallels between Adam and Christ, mutual indwelling of Christ and believers, spiritual union between Christ and believers (including images of head and body), identification between Christ and believers, election in Christ, and Christ’s cosmic inclusiveness.

It is this last, with the listing given, that is the focus of her particular article.

Conclusion

Scholars will disagree on certain passages as to what particular role it may fill, but this is true of most any prepositional phrasing, since prepositions have such a wide range of uses. It is no different here—context helps determine the range of meaning the phrase may have, and then one's theology or other preunderstandings of things will influence which of the likely meanings one believes any particular usage to be indicating. As even the quotes above show, there can be a sense of more than one concept carried in a verse. One can be located in Christ spiritually, while also participating within that sphere in various ways, instrumentally working because of that location in other ways, etc. So not all the concepts are mutually exclusive.

The Pauline Corpus, then evidences a variety of ways it is used, and no single "meaning" attached to the phrasing.


NOTES

1 Reginald Fuller, “Aspects of Pauline Christology,” Review and Expositor 71, no. 1 (1974): 5-17.

2 Brenda B. Colijn, “Paul’s Use of the ‘In Christ’ Formula,” Ashland Theological Journal 23 (1991): 9–26.

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"The dead in Christ" (οἱ νεκροὶ ἐν Χριστῷ; 1 The. 4:16), and likewise "those asleep in Christ" (οἱ κοιμηθέντες ἐν Χριστῷ; 1 Cor. 15:18) are dead Christians. The "babes in Christ" (νηπίοις ἐν Χριστῷ; 1 Cor. 3:1) are new Christian converts. When the apostle Paul writes, "...if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature" (2 Cor. 5:17), he means the Christian is a new creature. Likewise, when he writes that he "knew a man in Christ" (2 Cor. 12:2), he means he knew a Christian. "The assemblies ("churches") of Judea which were in Christ" (ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις τῆς Ἰουδαίας ταῖς ἐν Χριστῷ; Gal. 1:22) refer to the Christian assemblies of Judea. "The faithful in Christ Jesus" (οἱ πιστοὶ ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ; Eph. 1:1) refer to faithful Christians. When the apostle Paul writes that Andronicus and Junia "were in Christ before me" (πρὸ ἐμοῦ γέγονασιν ἐν Χριστῷ; Rom. 16:7), he means they were Christians before him.

The basis for the idea of being "in Christ" is Yahveh's promise to Abraham concerning his seed.

In Gen. 22:18, it is written,

And all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in your seed, because you have obeyed My voice.

Of course, this "seed" is the Lord Jesus Christ; therefore, "in your seed" means "in Christ."

As non-Christians are not in Christ, and Christians are in Christ, it's evident how one becomes "in Christ." That is by the Holy Spirit which one receives by believing/having faith in Christ.

In 1 John 4:13, it is written,

Hereby we know that we dwell in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ μένομεν καὶ αὐτὸς ἐν ἡμῖν, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος αὑτοῦ δέδωκεν ἡμῖν (TR, 1550)

He who has the Holy Spirit dwells in Christ, and Christ in him, and he is also joined to the Lord Jesus Christ as bride to husband.

In 1 Cor. 6:17, it is written,

But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit.

ὁ δὲ κολλώμενος τῷ κυρίῳ ἓν πνεῦμά ἐστιν (TR, 1550)

Indeed, all Christians are joined to one another and comprise the mystical body of Christ, being body parts of Christ's own body (Rom. 12:5), Christ being the head of the body, the Church (Col. 1:18).

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There is an excellent answer already which essentially equates "In Christ" to refer to Christians generally. Another fine answer explains that the phrase other times does not equate to "Christian", but to other similar usages, such as God accomplishing salvation "In Christ" (Fuller's Christologically category).

I would go a step deeper and therein tie all these different usages together.

First, Strong's definition of "en":

En, 1722
a primary preposition denoting (fixed) position (in place, time or state), and (by implication) instrumentality (medially or constructively), i.e. a relation of rest (intermediate between (1519) and (1537))

Paul explains in Romans 6 that Christians have been baptized into Christ, and thus have both died with him, and now are "alive to God in Christ Jesus". This denotes a "rest" in Christ, or being positionally placed in Christ, in at least a spiritual sense.

[ESV] Romans 6:3-11
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Apologies for the long quote, but I believe it is the crux of what leads Paul to use the phrase "in Christ" (positional, temporal, resting in) so extensively. Paul states here that the very essence of being a Christian is a mystical/spiritual joining with Christ (Brenda Colijn's 5th Participatory category), stating that physical baptism is a symbol or type of this spiritual connection, through which Christians both die to sin (through Christ's substitutionary death on the cross) and live the Christian faith out to God (through being joined with him in his new life, post-resurrection).

This parallels Jesus teaching about him being in the Father, and the Father in him, and both of them living in a Christian.

[ESV] John 14:10-11
10 Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

[ESV] John 14:23
23 Jesus answered him, "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.

The scriptures make clear that Jesus is an example to all believers, who are also called disciples of Christ, and Jesus states clearly that he has no identity separate from the Father. In a similar fashion, therefore, Christians have no identity as Christians separate from being "in Christ" and, like Jesus, in the Father as well. This "in Christ" role of a Christian is further clarified in the same passage, with a discussion of Christ as the vine and Christians as the branches, where Jesus describe the relationship as one of "abiding".

[ESV] John 15:4-7
4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

Looking at the body of Paul's work, while there are different direct usages of "in Christ", they all come back to this joining with, or being enveloped by Christ's power/grace, the reliance believers have on Christ's atoning death to be their death, and Christ's new resurrection life to be their new spiritual life. It is through this connection of a believer in baptism into Christ that spiritually melds them with Christ - as Lord - and makes them a part of him.

Literally Paul describes the church (assembly of believers), as the body of Christ, with Christ as the head of that body.

[ESV] Ephesians 5
23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.

Thus Paul describes the life of a Christian as being bound up in Christ - a Christian's salvation as well as his power to live for God is bound up in the fact that he has given himself over to Christ's Lordship. Christ's essence becomes his essence. Christ's power becomes his power. If a Christian is not "in Christ", dead to his old self, and living a new life to God, then he is not really a Christian.

This is why Paul identifies a Christians by the reference to being "in Christ", and uses the phrase additionally in other similar contexts (i.e. God's work done for believer, benefits of Christians, etc.).

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