Complete in Christ
For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him
(Colossians 2:9, NRSV)
These words take us to the very heart of the gospel. They remind us, in the words of the King James Version, that we are complete in Christ. In him there is fullness, we share in that fullness, and we are fulfilled in him. In him we have all that we need.
We find that so hard to believe! Christ cannot be enough. Surely we must add something of our own: other mediators, like the Colossians; some special, insider knowledge; some additional rites and ceremonies; careful observance of some taboos; or some special experiences, like a dramatic conversion or an immediate and direct encounter with the Holy Spirit?
In him there is all the fullness of the godhead
This epistle is a protest against all such thinking: ‘You have fullness in Christ!’ and we have it because in him ‘all the fullness of the godhead dwells bodily’. In the abstract, that means that the whole of deity dwells in Christ. The whole divine nature, everything that makes God God, is to be found in him. Dynamically, it means that in Christ it is God himself who comes to save us. In him, God acts and God speaks. In him, God shows us his face. In him, God gives himself on the cross for our sins. The love of Christ is the love of God; the suffering of Christ is the suffering of God; the blood of Christ is the blood of God (Acts 20:28). In him, the infinite comes so close to us that we need no other mediator, whether priest or angel. In him, we meet infinity dwindled to infancy.
Paul adds that this fullness dwells in Christ ‘bodily’. He is not simply God. He is God incarnate, living an earthly human life and able to represent us and take our place because he is one of us. Yet Paul chooses his language carefully. ‘Godhead’ is in Christ ‘bodily’, but it is not confined to his body. When Christ lay in the manger, his presence as the Son of God was not confined to that manager. His bodily presence was, but his divine activity was not. He was still upholding all things by the word of his power. The tabernacle of God was indeed with man, but just as the ‘heaven of heavens’ couldn’t contain him neither could his human body. The person, the Son of God, was omnipresent, and active far beyond the confines of his human body.
We are in him
Then Paul reminds us where exactly we ourselves stand as Christians. We are ‘in him’. That is our new, spiritual address. Paul himself has been described (by the late Professor James S. Stewart) as ‘A Man in Christ’, and it was certainly a key theme of his gospel. It was also a key theme in the theology of John Calvin, who insisted that only in union with Christ do we receive the divine blessing: blessings which God has first of all bestowed on his only-begotten Son, and which we receive only when, by the secret operation of the Holy Spirit, Christ becomes ours and dwells among us. ‘So long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us.’ (Institutes Bk. III, Ch. I) We must change our address. But immediately we change it, every spiritual blessing becomes ours in Christ Jesus (Eph. 1:3)
There is a three-fold union between Christ and his people.
First, there is a natural union. There is no such union between Christ and angels. He didn’t take their nature, but he did take ours: our very flesh and blood (Heb.2:14). This means, of course, that at the purely human level, we can relate to him, understanding, for example, his fears and his temptations. But it also means that he can relate to us, not merely (as he always could) from the standpoint of omniscience, but from the standpoint of experience. He has stood where we stand, and sat where we sit. He has trembled where we tremble. He has been tempted just like us, though never yielding and ever-sinless. He is compassionate, he feels with us and for us, because he has taken our nature and shared fully in our experience.
Many of the old Scottish theologians (especially those of the Secession, like Adam Gib) made this natural union between Christ and men the basis for the free and universal offer of the gospel. Christ was linked by nature to every human being, and every human had a right to him, in a way that no angel had. Of course, not all would come to him, but this did not take away from the fact that he was the race’s Saviour. These old preachers used the analogy of the doctor in the parish. He was the parish doctor, and everyone could go to him. Similarly, Christ is the Saviour of the world, and the great invitation, ‘Come to me!’ is addressed to every human being without exception.
Secondly, there is a covenant or federal union between Christ and his people. Behind Christ’s coming into the world lies a covenant between the persons of the godhead (you can explore the idea more fully in John Owen’s essay, ‘Federal Transactions between the Father and the Son’, prefixed to Volume Two of his Commentary on Hebrews, pp. 77-92). In this covenant, it is agreed between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit that the Son shall become the Redeemer of those whom God has, in love, foreordained to be his children (Eph. 1:4-5); and as our Redeemer, he agrees to become our Representative and our Substitute. He will act for us, and he will suffer in our place. We are given to Christ in this covenant (John 17:24), and when he dies on the cross two great prepositions come into play. He dies for us; and we die in him. Paul can even say, ‘I have been crucified with Christ’. This means that in the very profoundest sense we were there ‘when they crucified my Lord.’ We were there ‘when they hanged him on the tree’. His dying was our dying, and no less truly, his resurrection was our resurrection. God ‘made us alive with Christ’ (Eph. 2:4)
Thirdly, there is a spiritual union. ‘Spiritual’ here does not mean mystical, though the union is indeed mysterious. It means that the Spirit of Christ comes into our hearts, leading to the remarkable situation that Paul describes in Galatians 2:20: ‘I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me.’ To use the language of Henry Scougal, the life of God is in our souls. There is a living, organic union between ourselves and the Saviour, just as there is between the vine and its branches, or between the body and its members. The Spirit of Christ fills us, with the result that he and we have a common life. Nor is this the privilege of a few elite believers or of a few ‘committed’ Christians. It is the foundation on which every single
Christian life rests. Being in Christ, and Christ being in us, is what it means to be a Christian.
We are complete in Christ
It is on the basis of this union that Paul can describe us as ‘complete’; or, as he puts it in Ephesians 1:3, ‘in Christ’ we have every spiritual blessing.
This means, first of all, that in Christ we are fully and completely righteous. This is the hardest thing to believe, and it was here above all that Paul’s opponents in the early church said, ‘No! Being in Christ is not enough. We must also keep the law and observe all that Moses commanded.’ The same mind-set appeared in the church in the centuries before the Reformation. Someone once said that the Reformation was about one word: ‘and’. ‘We must believe in Christ, and ….’ In that case it meant specifically that we must believe in Christ and observe the ‘sacrament’ of Penance, with its three component parts: confession, contrition and satisfaction. This is where poor Martin Luther found himself. How could he satisfy the terrifying righteousness of God? Only when he discovered Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone did he find peace, and the discovery sent shock-waves through the whole of Europe.
But as the years passed, our old human need to contribute something to our own salvation and to walk into heaven with our heads high, reasserted itself, and we began to feel once again that being in Christ wasn’t enough. Not that Protestants wanted to go back to the law, as such, but they found a new legalism: what men called ‘evangelical obedience’. Now our justification depended on the quality of our personal faith and our personal repentance; or, eventually, on our conversion narrative. Could we give a good ‘testimony’?
And the result, so often, was just what happened to Martin Luther: despair! How could our faith, our repentance, our testimony, be good enough? But the whole approach was ridiculous. Faith cannot put its faith in faith. ‘Was faith crucified for you?’ asked ‘Rabbi’ Duncan. Faith’s not our rock. Faith stands on the rock, but the rock is Christ; and standing there, we are complete. In him, we are the very righteousness of God: as righteous as God himself. Can we accept this: that the one thing that decides our relationship with God is what happened on the cross of Calvary over two thousand years ago? Nothing else has any bearing on it.
Secondly, in Christ we are completely renewed. We have been quickened together with him (Eph. 2:5), as we saw a few moments ago. This was the truth that the late Professor John Murray emphasised when he spoke of definitive sanctification. The New Testament doesn’t say that we’ll be saints one day. It says that we are saints now. We have already been washed and sanctified (1 Cor. 6:11), just as surely as we have already been justified. We are already new men and women in Christ.
And we can speak of this renewal as ‘total’, in the same sense as we speak of ‘total depravity’. It affects every aspect of our human being: the way we think, the way we feel, the things we want, the things we are proud of, the things we love, the things we prioritise, the things that upset us, even the things we’re ashamed of.
It is from this platform that the life-work of mortifying sin and growing in holiness begins. Unless, first of all, we are in Christ, and new in Christ, there can be no growth in grace. But we have to note, too, that precisely because of our spiritual union with Christ, justification and sanctification are inseparable. The only place we can be justified is ‘in Christ’; and we cannot be there without also being sanctified. This is why Calvin spoke of a duplex gratia: a double grace. In that union we come to be right with God; and in that union we are transformed. At our new spiritual address every believer experiences both.
Thirdly, in Christ we are completely empowered; and precisely because it is ‘in Christ’ it applies to every Christian, and to all the challenges of our lives. Jesus himself promised it to the apostles on the eve of Pentecost. They were to be his witnesses, in Jerusalem, in Judaea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). It was a daunting task, but he promised, ‘You will receive power’, and the promise was abundantly fulfilled. Even when Paul preached in fear and weakness, he discovered that his words became the saving power of God.
But the empowerment is not limited to apostles or to evangelism. Paul holds out to the believers in Rome the great promise that when confronted by trouble and hardship and persecution they can be not only conquerors, but hyper-conquerors (Rom. 8:37), through the one who loved them. And from his prison-cell in Rome, he sends the same message to the church at Philippi: ‘I can do everything through him who gives me strength’ (literally, ‘in the empowering one’, Phil. 4:13). The remarkable thing here is that the strength is not given in order to do something magnificent and heroic, but to learn how to be content whatever the circumstances: perhaps the toughest challenge of all. God empowers us for whatever life demands of us.
Finally, in Christ we experience fulfilment.We are fulfilled in him. We find rest in him. We find satisfaction for all our needs: intellectual, emotional, relational. Even our physical needs will eventually be met in the glory of the resurrection. We find joy and peace and assurance. And we find scope for every natural talent God has given us and for every spiritual gift with which he has blessed us:
He satisfies your deep desires
From his unending stores of good (Psalm 103:5)
What then? Three things:
- We must, as mere Christians, realise the extraordinary glory of our position. We are ‘in Christ’.
- We must draw on our resources.
- We must live lives worthy of our position and of our resources.