Apostle Paul by Rembrandt

Paul and Participation in Christ: An Introduction

Terminology, Meaning, Perspectives

  1. give an overview of important Pauline terms for this union and
  2. of important theological/systematic terms to describe it;
  3. summarise the meaning of the cross and resurrection of Christ and
  4. the way believers participate in it and in him; and
  5. put the transformation of believers in theological perspective.

1. Pauline Terminology

The words Paul uses to talk directly about union with Christ are κοινωνία (koinōnia, ‘fellowship’, ‘sharing’, ‘participation’), κοινωνέω (koinōneō, ‘to share, participate’) and κοινωνός (koinōnos, ‘partaker’, ‘sharer’). [2] Most basically, these terms denote a personal and communal participation in the single gift of Christ and the Spirit (to use Barclay’s language).

  • Every human is born outside of Christ (χωρὶς Χριστοῦ chōris Christou; Eph 2:12) and in another system of participation, namely in Sin, Death and the Flesh (cf. Rom 6:1–8:7). This is the place ‘from’ (ἐκ ek) which we are rescued (Gal 1:3; Col 1:13). Through faith and baptism, believers move into (the realm of) Christ (εἰς Χριστὸν, eis Christon; faith: Gal 2:16, Phil 1:29; baptism: Rom 6:3–4, Gal 3:27; cf 1 Cor 12:13).
  • Now believers can properly be described as ‘in Christ’ (ἐν Χριστῷ, en Christōi). Paul uses this phrase or near synonyms (i.e., ‘in the Lord’, and also ‘in the Spirit’) dozens of times throughout all his letters. It describes Christ as the locus of believers’ existence. They have their being in the realm that is filled with and marked by the crucified and risen Christ.
  • In (the realm of) Christ, believers share all things with (σύν syn) Christ. Paul often creatively uses this preposition as a prefix. [3] It is logical that this is such a common preposition in discussions of participation because that is what koinōnia is at its core: a sharing of everything with Christ and those in Christ.
  • Now the faith of Christ is the origin of believers’ existence: they are from the faith of Christ (Rom 3:26; Gal 2:16; cf. Rom 4:16; Gal 3:7, 9). Believers live through (διὰ dia) Christ (1 Cor 8:6); they suffer for (hyper) Christ (Phil 1:29), and live in accord with Christ Jesus (κατὰ Χριστὸν Ἰησοῦν kata Christon Jēsoun; Rom 15:5).

2. Theological Terminology

‘Union’ is actually one word among others that theologians use to get at this concept. Others are:

  • Representation — Christ represents believers as king
  • Incorporation — believers are incorporated into (the community of) Christ
  • Identification — believers identify with Christ
  • Participation — believers participate in the life and story of Christ
  • Objective — the individual, unique Son of God, crucified and risen in history, present through the Spirit in believers and the church;
  • Subjective — the individual believer participating in Christ through the Spirit, adopted as son, co-crucified and co-risen with Christ;
  • Intersubjective — the corporate community of believers united to Christ and to each other in death and resurrection with Christ through the Spirit.

3. The Crucified and Risen Christ

At the heart of Paul’s theology is, indeed, the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ. This constitutes the ‘objective’, historical dimension. Christ was crucified, Christ was resurrected. A short discussion of the meaning of Christ’s work here is necessary.

Christ was faithful to God and his God-given mission in loving others till death.

Fourthly, the cross not only leads to the resurrection but also defines resurrection life. The cross was both an act of faith(fulness) toward God and love toward human beings. [7] Christ was faithful to God and his God-given mission in loving others till death (Rom 3:21–26; Gal 2:15–21; Phil 2:5–11; 3:9) — not just others, but his very enemies (Rom 5:6–11). Moreover, the resurrected Christ remains the crucified Christ, which means that, to use Gorman’s terms, resurrection life is cruciform, namely, marked by faith and love. Although there will not be suffering in the age to come, there will be cruciformity.

Believers are empowered by the resurrection to suffer with Christ in faithfulness to God, in love for others, and in hope of the coming glory.

4. Individual and Corporate Participation through Pistis and Pneuma

The gospel of the crucified and resurrected Messiah does not remain objective. The crucified and resurrected Christ is living and present in the church through faith and through the Spirit. These two are integrated, even inseparable, realities: faith is produced by the Spirit, and the Spirit is the Spirit of cruciform faith. [9]

Christ’s faith is both the source (thus the benefits) and the shape (thus the participation) of the believers’ faith.

The Spirit, then, unites Christ and believers existentially or mystically: the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9; Gal 4:6; Phil 1:19) and ‘the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead’, indeed, the very glory and power of God (cf. Rom 6:4; 1 Cor 6:14). This is what systematic theologians call inseparable operations: where the Spirit is at work, so are the Father and Son, and vice versa. Thus, also Christ is said to live in believers (Rom 8:10; 2 Cor 13:5; Eph 3:17; Col 1:27), while the presence of the Father can be deduced (cf. 1 Thes 1:1; 2 Thes 1:1). (The latter is a Johannine notion; see Joh 14:23; 1 Joh 4:4, 15–16; cf. Joh 10:30).

Conformity to Christ is not just imitation; believers actually embody and enact Christ’s faith.

Therefore, while faith concerns the work of Christ and believers, the Spirit entails the person of Christ and believers. To use philosophical terms, the first is functional, the second ontological. [11] Faith and the Spirit come together in the corporate, participatory rites of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, but I must leave those very promising topics for future articles.

5. Transformation: Wholeness and Theosis

Therefore, both missionally and mystically, believers are united with the Son of God and, in this union, are transformed through the Spirit. This transformation in Christ can be approached from two angles. Working from the concepts of the image of God and the incarnation, Jesus is the archetypical (new) Human, the new Adam who represents the new humanity, the new Messianic philosopher-king who represents the new Israel. He embodies human faithfulness to the covenant and the covenant God in loving others to death, thus showing that cruciformity is at the heart of what it means to be human. Therefore, as believers come to share more and more in the cruciform Christ, they become more human.

In the embodied forms of individual and corporate Christ-life, the fullness of God is present.

Thus, in union with Christ, believers do not merely become whole as human beings, but they do so as they participate more and more in God. This process is historically called theosis. [13] At the center of this all is the image, the ikōn, of the crucified and resurrected Christ. To be human is to be like him; to be like him is to be like God, and to be like God is to be cruciform. [14]


To sum up, participation in Christ is narrative and eschatological, pistological (to coin a term) and pneumatological, cruciform and resurrectional, humanising and theotic. It is both anthropological and theological, with the christological dimension firmly at the center. Christ, and participation in him, is, indeed, at the heart of Paul’s thought and holds it all together. [15]


[1] Cf. the recent work on Paul by Douglas J. Moo, A Theology of Paul and His Letters. See also Michael J. Gorman, Participating in Christ: Explorations in Paul’s Theology and Spirituality.



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