En Cristw, the Heart of Paul’s Moral Theology


Henry Wansbrough


There can be no question in a short presentation even of outlining Paul’s moral teaching in general. I have chosen, therefore, to present the kernel of his conception of Christian existence, from which issues his whole conception of Christian motivation and activity. This kernel is the presence of Christ in the Christian and of the Christian in Christ, at the level both of the individual and of the community. This is the well-spring of Paul’s thinking about the Christian life, the basis on which actions are decided and the motive force behind them. Whatever moral problems or questions arise, the starting-point of decision for the Christian is this personal and community interpenetration with Christ. The Christian has put on Christ, been plunged into Christ, in such a way that this absorption into Christ is the foundation of both personal and social being.


A preliminary illustration of the importance of this conception may be given from the light-hearted Letter to Philemon, a throw-away, playful letter, full of wit and chuckles[1], and therefore all the more valuable to demonstrate the well-springs of Paul’s thinking. Three times, at beginning, middle and end, Paul mentions that he is a prisoner of Christ or in Christ (verses 1, 9, desmioV tou Cristou, 23 aicmalwtoV en Cristw). It is in these bonds – with a joking allusion to his physical bonds – that he has fathered Onesimus (verse 10). Onesimus is now more than a slave, a brother to Philemon kai en sarki kai en kuriw[2](verse 16). Paul’s final request is an appeal from the heart en Cristw (verse 20).


I. Paul’s Commissioning in Acts


Paul’s awareness of the presence of the Christian in Christ and of Christ in the Christian is already expressed in the account in Acts 9.4, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ This account of Paul’s commissioning should not, perhaps, be taken as a literal, historical account, for it bears all the marks of Luke’s talented story-telling, for rendering a theological message in narrative form[3]. Its theology is all the more important for that. In persecuting Christians, Saul has been persecuting Christ himself. Whether or not the account is historical, the awareness of the interpenetration of Christ and his followers is deep-seated in Paul’s thinking and attitudes. The words put in the mouth of the Risen Lord by Luke are a clue to much of Paul’s conception of the Christian life.


II. Early Signs


The earliest expressions of this union might seem to be only eschatological, for in the apocalyptic appearing of Christ ‘we who remain alive will be raised up…to meet the Lord in the air’ (1 Thess 4.17) at the signal given by the eschatological trumpet. Yet even here there is a previous dimension of union with Christ, already firm and lasting in this present life. The members of the Church are encouraged sthkete en Kuriw (3.8), and those who have died have ‘fallen asleep in Jesus’ (4.34) or ‘died in Christ’ and those who are alive are exhorted ‘whether awake or asleep we should still live with him’ (5.10). Already also Paul sees not only the dimension of individual life in Christ, but also the dimension of the presence of  the community in Christ, when he writes to ‘the church of God in the Lord Jesus Christ’ (1 Thess 1.1; 2 Thess 1.1[4]) and speaks of ‘the churches of God in Judaea in Christ Jesus’ (2.14).


III. En Cristw/|


In the great letters being ‘in Christ’ is constantly in Paul’s mind. It is in fact much more widespread than terminology of justification, which responds to the particular circumstances of the controversy forming the background of Ga and Rm, namely the  value of the Jewish Law[5]. The sphere of ideas centred on ‘in Christ’ goes more directly to the heart of Paul’s own positive thinking. It is used in continuity with his theology of baptism and the Body of Christ.  It is never explained, but is a fundamental reality which underlies Paul’s thought so basically that he does not feel that it requires explanation.


This most frequent of all prepositions of the New Testament, en, has a wide usage. Blass-Debrunner[6] despairingly declares, ‘The phrase en Cristw, which is copiously appended by Paul to the most varied concepts, utter ly defies definite interpretation’ (#119). Dunn echoes this with, ‘Better let the richness of the vision, its poetry and harmonies, capture heart and spirit, even if conceptual clarity remains elusive’[7].  In the phrase en Cristw is it a local en? Is it instrumental, as the Hebrew b ? Does it give the circumstances? Is it modal? Or should it be understood simply as ‘religious language’ and remain undefined? A. Westermann[8] suggests that the origin of the idea is in the blessing to Abraham in Genesis 12.3 and 18.8, quoted in Gal 3.8: Euloghqhsontai en soi. panta ta eqnh. Paul’s thought is predominantly founded on the Bible, and especially in Gal and Rm the blessing on Abraham and on his faith is so fundamental  that this is an attractive possibility. The meaning of this evn soi. would therefore be of paramount importance for determining Paul’s meaning. Paul is not concerned with the original meaning  of the phrase in Genesis[9], but uses it to show that the blessing promised to Abraham can be extended to all nations. The Hebrew notion of corporate personality must be involved: the promise is that in some sense Abraham is a representative figure in whom are included all his descendants, and eventually all nations, the whole human race. Abraham is the archetype of this blessing. In blessing him, God intends to bless all the nations of the earth.


A further clue to Paul’s meaning may be gathered from the parallelism of being in Christ with being in Adam. This parallelism is created by Paul, coming to prominence in Rm 5 and 1 Cor 15, and probably underlying also other passages, such as the early Christian hymn incorporated into Phil 2.6-11[10]. In contemporary Jewish literature the part of Adam in explaining the sinful state of humanity is not prominent. Explanations featuring the two tendencies, the bwjh rcy and the [rh rcy, and the sin of the angels in Gen 6 are more prominent. There is only the occasional mention of Adam, such as in 2 Bar 54.15, 19.


For though Adam first sinned and brought untimely death upon all men, yet each one of those who were born from him has either prepared for his own soul its future torment or chosen for himself the glories that are to be… Thus Adam was responsible for himself only: each one of us is his own Adam.[11]


This particular explanation is, however, attractive to Paul precisely because the relationship of human beings to Adam helps to clarify the relationship of human beings to Christ. It is not – as some streams of Christian tradition have mantained – that all men sinned ‘in the loins of Adam’, that they somehow acquired the guilt of Adam’s sin through being seminally present in Adam. This would be a misunderstanding founded on the ambiguous Vulgate translation ‘in quo omnes peccaverunt’. Moral guilt cannot be acquired physically. In this passage, exactly as in 2 Baruch, Adam introduces sin into the world, but each human being is responsible for joining Adam in sin. Rather Adam (the Hebrew word meaning in itself ‘man’) is a myth of human sin[12], and death spread to all people in so far as all in fact sinned (ef w panteV hmarton, Rm 5.12), that is, as 2 Bar 54 explains, in so far as they were joined to Adam by an act of personal sin. In the same way those who have been joined to Christ are so joined by the concrete act of faith expressed in baptism. ‘As in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive’ (1 Cor 15.22). As Adam is the archetype of human disobedience (Rm 5.19), so Christ is the archetype of human obedience. As human beings unite themselves to Adam and his disobedience by sin, so human beings unite to Christ and his obedience by faith expressed in baptism, by being ‘plunged into’ (baptizw) Christ.


IV. Christ and the Christian


It is useful to catalogue the expression en Cristw with regard first to the individual, then to communities. With regard to the individual there are several different moments:


1. This union to Christ depends on a specific act or event in the past, often expressed by an aorist. The principle passage is Rm 6.3-11, which elaborates on the act of baptism, being plunged into Christ, as the cause of an enduring relationship, ebaptisqhmen eiV Criston (Rm 6.3). A gift implies an act of giving, being clothed implies an act of clothing. So eucaristw epi th cariti th doqeish umin en Cr I (1 Cor 1.4), endusasqe ton kurion I Cr (Rm 13.14)[13], or, more graphically and temporally, Gal 3.27: osoi gar eiV Criston ebaptisqhte Criston enedusasqe.

Other passages may envisage either Christ’s historic act or the act of appropriation of the salvation then won: thus the atemporal dia thV apolutrwsewV thV en Cristw  Ihsou (Rm 3.24) or hgiasmenoiV en Cristw  Ihsou (1 Co 1.2).


2. This act creates a living bond with Christ[14]. In the most encyclopaedic and embracing expression of all, Paul says, ‘Christ lives in me’ (Ga 2.20), or similarly he can speak of ‘eternal life in Christ Jesus’ (Rm 6.23). Boldly, Paul can say that his desire to be with the Philippians is a desire which physically implicates Christ’s own body (Phil 1.9): martuV gar mou o qeoV wV epipoqw pantaV umaV en splagcnoiV Cristou Ihsou. He also uses physical images of both father begetting and mother giving birth in Christ to express his parental relationship to his converts: 1 Cor 4.15  en gar Cristw Ihsou dia. tou euaggeliou egw. umaV egennhsa The feminine of the same image of childbirth is used in Ga 4.19 ‘My little children, I am going through the pain of giving birth to you all over again, until Christ is formed in you’, the somewhat complicated metaphor suggesting that the life Paul gives to them as a mother is the life of Christ The enduring relationship with Christ is worked out in a most expressive series of  statements by means of a group of some 40 words compounded with su,n, many of which are coined by Paul himself[15], to convey the interpenetration of Christ and the Christian in all its ramifications. These words refer to the action in the past by which the Christian was united to Christ, to the present relationship and to its future consummation. They have their densest frequency in Rm 6.4-8 and 8.16-29.


  • sunetafhmen sunestaurwqh describing the past, whereas the perfect tense sunestaurwmai in Ga 2.19 indicates that Paul feels himself to be still in the present united with Jesus on the cross, ‘I am crucified with Christ’.
  • sumfutoi, 'grown together', referring to the present – the word is used in medical terminology of a wound healing up or parts of a broken bone fusing together.

summarturei  sumpascomen  sustenazei - present activity or passivity.

sugklhronomoi is best considered to refer to the present condition in view of the future inheritance, ‘co-heirs who will inherit’.

  • suzhsomen describing the future, eschatological goal.

sundoxasqwmen  prowrisen summorfouV - future, though in Phil 3.10 this concept is also used of the past: summorfoumenoV tw qanatw autou .


An important difference between the classic Pauline letters and the later Paulines is that in the former the complete transformation of life is still in the future (2 Cor 4.14), whereas in the latter the life of the Christian is already hidden with Christ in God, and is now merely waiting to be revealed: so Col 2.13 sunezwopoihsen umaV sun autw and 3.3-4 (cf. Eph 3.17). suntafentej autw ezwopoihsen umaj sn autw (note the past tenses), but ‘when Christ your life is revealed, then kai umeij sun autwfanerwshsesqe en doxh (3.4, future). Similarly in Ephesians, in the past, sunezwopoihsen tw Cristw kai sunhgeiren kai sunekaqisen en toij epouranioij en C I (Eph 2.6). The final member reflects the concentration in the Captivity Epistles on the present Lordship of Christ, who is now risen and seated ‘far above every principality and power’ (Eph 1.21), a situation in which the Christian shares, since God is o euloghsaj hmaj en pash eulogia pneumatikh en toij epouranioij en Cristw (past tense, Eph 1.3). 



3. The relationship leads on immediately to action in Christ.

Paul’s boasting is in Christ (Rm 15.17). His apostolic work is in Christ, for he greets his sunergouV mou en Cr I (Rm 16.3), and Urbanus is sunergoV hmwn en Cristw (Rm 16.9). In that most passionate of all passages about his union to Christ[16], his ‘chains in Christ’ are both a witness and a sharing of the sufferings of Christ (Phil 1.13), a realisation of both expressions in Rm,  summarturei and sumpascomen. Paul can claim that Christians have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2.16), which will enable them to assess the value of everything. He exhorts others to have the same mind as Christ (touto froneite en umin o kai en Cr I (Phil 2.5). This should not be dismissed as merely psychological, an exhortation to think like Christ (a property not necessarily confined to those in Christ). Paul regards union with Christ also as a physical, bodily belonging, so that the person who lies with a prostitute takes Christ’s limbs and unites them with the prostitute (1 Cor 5.15)[17].


V. Christ and the Community


The community dimension is equally important.

The community of many constitutes en swma en Cristw (Rm 12.5), where of course sw/ma does not mean a body in the sense of an inert corpse, but a single living, organic being. Not only is this community one body in Christ (Rm 12.5) but this body is Christ (1 Cor 12.12). Paul uses the conventional figure of a ‘body politic’, first attested in a story about Menenius Agrippa (Livy, Historiae, 2.32.9-12) and common first in Plato’s Republic and subsequently in Stoic thought, to express the organic interaction of parts in a whole, each part making its own specific contribution to the well-being of the whole (1 Cor 12.12-30).

Nowhere else in the literature, however, is this body identified with any particular person, as Paul identifies the body with Christ. So divisions within the community can be characterised as division of Christ (1 Cor 1.13), and sinning against your brothers and sisters is described as sinning against Christ (8.12). The realism and extent of this identification becomes clear in the eucharistic passages, 1 Cor 11.27: ‘Anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body is eating and drinking his own condemnation’. The reference is most likely to failure to pay due attention to the eucharistic community rather than to the eucharistic bread, since throughout the passage Paul is criticising the failure to recognise the unity of the community[18]. Furthermore he omits mention of ‘the blood of the Lord’, which has hitherto been paired with ‘the body’ with reference to eating and drinking. This interpretation is confirmed by 1 Cor 10.17, ‘And as there is one loaf, so we, though many, form one single body, for we all share the one loaf’.

This too has its implications for morality: ‘By calling the community the Body of Christ, therefore, Paul identifies it as the physical presence of Christ in the world. The mission of the church is a prolongation in time and space of the ministry of Christ by manifesting, as he did, the power and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1.24)’.[19] The most immediate manifestation of the Body is in diversity within unity, the manifestation of love (delineated in 1 Cor 13) and unity, each member exercising the charisms and offices proper to each for the building up of the Body. To this the disunity of squabbles and dissensions (2 Cor 12.20), of lawsuits (1 Cor 6.1-11), contempt for (1 Cor 11.17-22), inflexibility towards (Rm 14) other members of the Body stand in direct opposition. It is no accident that Paul’s ethical instructions in Romans are bracketed by the law of love (Rm 12.4-9; 13.8-10). It is notable that Paul mentions his participation in Christ and his activity in Christ overwhelmingly in connection with his apostolic activity of working for the advancement of the Body of Christ (e.g. Rm 15.17-20; 2 Cor 2.17; Phil 1.18-24).

The question cannot but arise how this concept of a body of human beings can be a particular person, how one person can dwell in another, how many can be united in one person. ‘How can we speak of Christ as a body consisting of human beings, or subsequently as “head” of the cosmos, or think of him as somehow “inside” other individuals, and still envisage him as a person in recognizable human form who will return on clouds? To pursue such questions as though we could achieve a single answer, however, would be a false hope.’[20] Our modern concept of personality is designed precisely to differentiate one person from another as an individual centre of consciousness, memory and motivation. Is the famous dictum of John A.T. Robinson[21] (‘The new tissues take on the rhythms and metabolism of the body into which they have been grafted’) mere poetry? The beginning of an answer – and we cannot attempt more – may be in the transformation of the Risen Christ sketched in 1 Cor 15. There is continuity, for ‘each kind of seed has its own body’. But there is also transformation from perishable to imperishable, from contemptible to glorious, from weakness to strength. Finally, what is sown is yucikon and what is raised is pneumatikon (1 Cor 15.44). In each case the change is from human properties to divine: imperishable, glorious, strong. The Risen Christ (and the risen Christian) is transferred into the sphere of the divine. The answer suggested here by Paul is that our experiences of the physical body are no longer relevant – ‘Someone may ask, “How are dead people raised, and what sort of body to they have when they come?” How foolish!’ (1 Cor 15.35-36). The Risen Christ is pneumatiko,j, and the life of the Christian is the pneu/ma  of Christ[22].


VI. The Spirit

It must be remembered that Paul is writing at the very beginning of Christian reflection on the doctrine of the Spirit, long before Trinitarian teaching developed. Part of the function of the spirit of God in the Old Testament is to give life (Ps 104.29-30; Ezek 37.1-14). The whole relationship of God to the world is transformed by the Resurrection, and the spirit can now be referred to as the pneuma Cristou as well as the pneuma qeou (Rm 8.9). Both indistinguishably establish the presence of Christ in the believer: ‘... since the spirit of God has made a home in you. Indeed anyone who does not have the spirit of Christ does not belong to him’. The spirit of life in Christ Jesus has already set the Christian free from the law of sin and death (8.1), giving the Christian the relationship  adopted son, crying ‘Abba, Father’.

However, although the spirit of life already dwells in the believer, Paul seems to envisage a further stage. The second Adam is described as a pneuma zwopoioun (1 Cor 15.45). Since the contrast made here between yuch and pneuma comes in the context of the transformation which takes place in the resurrect ion of the dead, it should follow that the pneuma zwopoioun is operative only in the transformation of the resurrection. There are, then, two different modes of the presence of Christ, one as pneuma thV zwhV and the other as pneuma zwopoioun.

From the point of view of the moral life, the indwelling spirit of Christ is the force behind all good actions, as is shown by the Haustafeln (Ga 5.16-25, etc).

VII. The Captivity Epistles

The developed thinking in the Captivity Epistles on the exalted position of Christ brings with it a more ample view of the Body of Christ. On one level the Body of Christ now extends to the whole universe, just as Christ is above all Powers and Authorities. It is the Father’s plan anakefalaiwsasqai not merely Christians but ta panta en tw Cristw (Eph 1.10). At the same time there is, almost paradoxically and illogically, certainly unexplainedly, a special relationship to the Church. God has put all things under his feet, and made him, uper panta and at the same time (Eph 1.22-23) kefalhn th ekklhsia, which is his Body. Similarly in Colossians, the conclusion of the first stanza of the great hymn suddenly narrows, as though by an afterthought, from the whole of creation to the Church (Col 1.18): kai autoj estin h kefalh tou swmatoj thj ekklhsiaj. In any case, it is this unity as one Body in Christ which lies at the heart of the teaching on morality, and particularly on unity. Jesus Christ is – and here the metaphor of building is used – the corner-stone, and every oikodomh sunarmologoumenh auxei eij naon agion en kuriw(Eph 2.20-21). Hence the faithful are exhorted (Eph 4.3-5),

Take care to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together. There is one Body, one Spirit, just as one hope is the goal of your calling by God. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God and Father of all.  

and every joint adds its own strength for each individual part to work according to its function (4.16).

According to the new development of the image of the Body, the members no longer go to make up the Body which is Christ, and Christ is no longer the Body itself, but is the Head of the Body, with all the richness of the meaning of far. This corresponds more to the fuller conception of the supreme exaltation of Christ, and includes also the notion that Christ is the guiding and authoritative element which supplies cohesion, direction, vigour and life to the members. In the moral exhortation of Eph 4-6 this principle is constantly shimmering in the background as the thought moves backwards and forwards between particular moral counsels (unity, mutual respect, forgiveness and obedience, no lying, no thieving, bitterness or anger, drunkenness) and a variety of images for the Body (‘form the perfect Man’, ‘grow completely into Christ’, ‘put on the New Man’, ‘sealed with the holy Spirit’, emaqete ton Criston, ‘singing to the Lord in your hearts’. The intimate relationship and interdependence of husband and wife is seen as an image and revelation (musthrion) of Christ and the Church. Similarly in Colossians the principal orientations of the moral life are bracketed by allusion to the indwelling of Christ: ‘your life is hidden with Christ in God’ (Col 3.3) and ‘may the peace…the word of Christ dwell in you richly’ (3.15, 16). 






Work for the Future

Mutual indwelling in the Johannine writings

The presence of Christ in the Church in Matthew




[1] The pun on OnhsimoV= eucrhstoV = useful (verses 10-11), the repeated ambiguity of his bonds in Christ and in prison, and the pun between OnhsimoV  and the Pauline hapax onaimhn (verse 20).

[2] Ziesler suggests (Pauline Christianity, Oxford University Press, 1990) that ‘in the Lord’ is used for imperative phrases, whereas ‘in Christ’ is used in the indicative.

[3] Remarked by such diverse critics as Gerhard Lohfink, Paulus vor Damaskus, (Stuttgart, Verlag Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1965), Ernst Haenchen, Die Apostelgeschichte, (Göttingen, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1956),  Richard L. Pervo, Profit with Delight (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1987).

[4] This full expression occurs only in these two greetings and 2 Thess 2.13. James D.G. Dunn suggests, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Edinburgh, T&T Clark, 1998, p. 396), that this may be ‘a stilted early usage’. The expression ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’ or ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ is regular in 2 Thess (9 times), and ‘Christ’ without these two prefixes only at 3.5 in that letter. I would think it honorific rather than ‘stilted’.

[5] See E.P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (London, SCM Press, 1977), p. 507, ‘Repentance and forgiveness are not substantial themes in Paul’s writings: he did not begin with the problem to which they are a solution, namely, sin as transgression, but rather with the reality of the new life offered by Christ’.

[6] F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament (ninth/tenth German edition, Cambridge University Press, 1961) #218-220.

[7] The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 410.

[8] A.J.M. Wedderburn, ‘Some Observations on the Use of the Phrases “in Christ” and “with Christ”’ in JSNT 25 (1985), 83-97.

[9] C. Westermann, Genesis (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987) prefers the reflexive ‘bless themselves in you’, i.e. bless themselves by using the name of Abraham, rather than ‘be blessed’ or ‘receive a blessing’. But of course a Pauline interpretation of scripture was not dependent on the meaning favoured by modern exegesis.

[10] If this indeed is an early Christian hymn, it may be the source of Paul’s thinking on the first and second Adam. It is, however, impossible to date either this section of Phil or an underlying hymn.

[11] The Apocryphal Old Testament, ed. H.F.D. Sparks (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1984), p. 874-5. This writing is normally dated around the turn of the first/second centuries. P. Bogaert attributes it (orally, at the Qumran Seminar in Oxford) to R. Joshua b. Hananiah, c. 40-125.

[12] Which is not intended to deny that for Paul Adam was also a historical figure. Myth and history are by no means exclusive alternatives.

[13] This metaphor is attested from Dionysius of Halicarnassus (11.5) of playing a role in a drama

[14] It is not simply ascription into Christ’s company. Commenting on baptism epi tw onomati or eiV to. onoma tou Cristou/, C.K. Barrett says, ‘The converts become Christ’s men and women’ (Acts, ICC Commentary, London, T&T Clark, vol 2, page xci). For Paul it is more than a simple belonging to Christ.

[15] More than half of them occur only in Paul.

[16] Paul’s easy and informal relationship with the Philippians (from whom he even accepted money) enables him especially to ‘let his hair down’ to them.

[17] Of course the distinctions between body, soul and spirit traditional in western philosophy are simply not applicable to Paul’s anthropology: eqanatwqhte tw nomw dia. tou swmatoV tou Cr (Rm 7.4). He sees the human being as an animated body, not Platonically as a body inhabited by a soul. His distinction between body and spirit is quite different: ‘body’ (sarx, or sometimes swma) is opposed to pneuma as something needing to be saved opposed to something salvific: Rm 8.11.


[18] cf. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 616-618.

[19] Jerome Murphy O’Connor, Paul, a critical life (Oxford University Press, 1997), p.287.

[20] Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 409.

[21] The Body (Xpress Reprints, 1993), p.63 – originally an article for TWNT.

[22]It may be helpful to compare this approach to Karl Rahner’s treatment of the soul after death. He sees the soul, freed from its fleshly limitations, to stand somehow in wider relationship to the cosmos: ‘[Die Geisteseele] wird also im Tode nicht akosmisch sondern allkosmisch werden’. He writes of ‘eine unmittelbare, innerweltlich sich vollziehende Auswirkung von Einzelperson, die im Tod allkosmisch wird, durch ihren real-ontologischen und offen werdenden Weltbezug auf die Welt als Ganzes eintritt’. (Zur Theologie des Todes, Freiburg, Herder, 1958), p. 22-23.