In his book, Introducing Paul, Dr. Michael Bird writes, “Be what we are, be what we are becoming, and be what we will be on the final day of Christ Jesus.” As a Christian our spiritual formation is grounded “in Christ.” This “in Christ” motif, especially in the Pauline letters, sets the spiritual trajectory for proper Christian growth. Yet, it might be the most overlooked aspect of our spiritual growth.

Confused Holiness

I confess: I am a recovering legalist. When I became a Christian at the age of 17, I was immediately introduced to the world of legalistic holiness. My desire for growing in holiness was grounded in my own ability to manufacture that holiness by what I did and didn’t do. I set up rules and regulations that dictated my life. As I stripped away my “worldly desires,” I began to realize that I wasn’t growing spiritually.

I was confused about holiness. My desire to be holy, as holy as that desire may have been, was rooted in my own ability to fulfill that desire and not to rest in being “in Christ.” But as you look through the pages of the New Testament, you begin to see this remarkable theme: be what you are in Christ.

In Christ

Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Being in Christ results in being a new creation. This marvelous truth of existing as a new creation is conditioned upon being in Christ. But what does this mean?

  • In Christ you have died (Galatians 2:20)

The process of conformity to Christ is just that – a process. It does not happen instantaneously at conversion. Rather, it is a progression of becoming what we already are in Christ, a new creation. This conformity – or in the words of Michael Gorman, cruciformity – is the way a Christian is shaped by the cross. As we surrender are hearts, minds, and wills to the cross, we participate in the gospel narrative. The union we have with Christ allows us not only to be redeemed at the moment of conversion but it motivates us to live a life of cruciformity until we are finally united with Christ. Dying to our sin and ourselves allows us to live freely as our lives are shaped by the cross of Christ.

  • In Christ you are raised (Colossians 3:1)

We as believers share in the resurrection of Jesus already. Although we will be raised physically from the dead, we now share in the benefits of the resurrection spiritually. We were once dead in our sins but now we are raised to new life through the power of the resurrection of Jesus. This resurrection power allows us to participate in the new creation.

  • In Christ you are seated in Heaven (Ephesians 2:6)

In Christ we are currently seated with him in the heavenly places. This realized view of our current position, our living in Christ now as we will live in Christ forever, is mind-blowing. At this present time we are already in a place of honor and prestige because of the saving act of Jesus. We are truly children of the one true King.

  • In Christ you will appear with him (Colossians 3:4)

We will share in the glory of his appearing. When Christ is publicly manifested for all the nations to see, those who are in him will also participate in his return. This act of vindication for the saints echoes many Old Testament passages, and the person that we are in Christ will one day experience that.

The Gospel Narrative

This narrative of death, resurrection, ascension, and return is not only the gospel story about Jesus, but the story of the believer in Jesus. I’m convinced that our spiritual growth in holiness is dependent upon this gospel narrative in Christ. As believers in Christ, we have entered into the story of redemption not just by believing in the story, but through experiencing the narrative itself in our own lives. Being in Christ means allowing the gospel narrative to shape the way we think and live. We have died, we have been raised, we are currently seated with Christ, and we will appear with him at his coming.

Because we have already experienced this gospel narrative, we can then live it out in Christ. Our union with him grants us the ability to live out the gospel imperatives. This follows Paul’s formula of indicatives and imperatives. He begins with straight-forward gospel realities and then moves into gospel commands. The commands are grounded in realities. To divorce the commands from the actual realities could result in ill-founded legalism. As in my case many years ago. The imperatives can become no more than a list of dos and don’ts without understanding that in Christ you are already granted the ability to live them out. The point: become what you already are in Christ.

Live the Reality

When you think of spiritual formation, you may be thinking about the “spiritual disciplines” such as prayer, fasting, and reading Scripture. No doubt, these disciplines are important to the growing Christian and they should be practiced. However, the beginning of our spiritual formation is not rooted in our spiritual actions. Paul recounts in his testimony “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil 3:8). Spiritual formation begins with knowing Christ and participating in the gospel narrative. The story of the Bible is the story we share. It is an ongoing narrative that we don’t get to make up; we simply enter in. We have entered into the grand redemptive drama of “God reconciling the world to Himself in Christ” (2 Cor 5:19). It is the cosmic plan of God to unite all things in Christ, things in heaven and on earth (Eph 1:10). And we are part of that story.

Understanding our spiritual formation “in Christ,” as participating in the narrative drama as God unites all things together, makes holiness simply the natural outflow of knowing Jesus. Holiness is the outflow of being in Christ because Christ is holy, not because we are holy. The disciplines are not a means to the end nor are they the end themselves. The disciplines flow from our positional standing in Christ, who is the beginning, middle, and end. We pray, fast, and read because we are becoming what we already are in Christ. New creational people live as new creations.

Spiritual formation is like watering a plant. You can pour water on the plant all you want, but if it isn’t potted in good soil, it will not grow. We are potted in Christ. Therefore, as we receive the living water through the Word, community, and prayer, we can grow into what we already are. The reality is you are in Christ; you are free to live and think that way. Allow the gospel narrative to shape your life. May those gospel realities motivate you to live out the gospel commands. Beware of trusting in your own ability to become holy. To be holy is to be in Christ.

Be what you are: a new creation.

Michael Cooper is married to his wife Kailie and they are expecting their first child, Sophia Grace in December. He currently serves as an assistant to the president at Criswell College where he is also pursuing an M.Div. You can follow him on twitter: @mrcjr24