The Apostle Paul knew well the power of Christ in his life. As Saul of Tarsus he had zealously persecuted the early ecclesia until, stopped in his tracks as he approached the city of Damascus, he heard the voice of the Lord Jesus ask, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” His persecution of Christ’s followers was tantamount to persecuting Christ himself. It seems Saul had been “kicking against the goads” (Acts 9:5; 26:14, nkjv) for some time, or to use J B Phillips’ paraphrase, “kicking against his own conscience”. Perhaps he was one of those who disputed with Stephen and was “not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake” (6:9,10); perhaps he was troubled by Stephen’s impressive, Divinely inspired testimony in Acts 7, and his dying words. However long his conscience had been troubling him, he was ready for the Lord’s call when it came.

After three days of blindness—and therefore darkness—he “received his sight forthwith, and arose” (9:18), experiencing in a figure death and resurrection following the pattern of the Lord, and heard the words of Ananias saying to him, “And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (22:16). Throughout his writings, we are frequently reminded of his thankfulness for the mercy that had been extended to him, and the shame he felt about his former way of life. For example, when writing to Timothy, Paul said: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled [ie strengthened] me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceeding abundant with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus … Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Tim 1:12–14, 17).

Here the Apostle Paul begins by recording his thanks to “Christ Jesus our Lord”, and concludes by praising “the only wise God”. This reminds us that the great work of human redemption belongs to God, and the Son is an essential part of that work, totally in harmony with his Father. Indeed, as the type of Abraham and Isaac teaches us, “they went both of them together”; or as Jesus expressed it, “I and my Father are one”—united in mind and purpose.

Denying Self

The Apostle Paul recognised that the grace of God had been extended to him—and he was a living example of what that really meant. The Truth has a transforming effect: Paul found this in his own life and desired to see it also in the lives of all his brethren and sisters. Essential to this transformation is the recognition of our natural waywardness and proneness to sin, and the determination to submit to the Divine will as revealed in Scripture. The Gospels teach us that the Lord Jesus submitted his will to that of his Father, and with his example before us we have to endeavour to do likewise.

Jesus told both his disciples and the people who came to hear him: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34 rsv). Brother LG Sargent described this as “the most radical demand that any teacher had ever made”, and continued:

“Jesus calls for a two-fold act: the first part concerning a man’s relation to himself and his own life, and the second governing his relation to the world in which he lives. To deny one’s self is more than self-denial; it is to say “No” to the very self with its tacit assumption of a right to the life we possess; it is to repudiate the ego which claims a right to go its own way. Man has no right to life, and therefore no right to use life as he pleases for his own ends; and the meaning of the saying was to be demonstrated fully and finally when Jesus himself went voluntarily to surrender his life. He deliberately substituted his Father’s will for his own, saying “Not what I will, but what Thou wilt”; and when his life was ended in the darkness of death his own will was extinguished in oblivion. This was the perfect and ultimate denial of himself, but it was a denial which carried with it an affirmation: the “I” had become “Not-I”, not as a barren negative, but in order to affirm “Not I, but Thou”; the “No” to the self became the great “Yes” to God. As Paul later could say, “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me”, so Jesus with even greater truth could have said, “I live; yet not I, but God liveth in me.” With that denial of himself and affirmation of God made on the Cross, he rose to divine and incorruptible life.” (Mark: The Gospel of the Son of God, pages 119, 120)

For all those who would be Christ’s disciples, Self not only has to be denied but also condemned (Rom 6:6). In accepting the Truth and submitting to baptism, we are united with Christ in his death, in his denial of Self, in the exalting of God’s will; and so our old Self—thoughts, actions, habits—was crucified with him. We have repudiated our old way of life, and have been raised up to a new life in him—a life in which the Divine character, revealed in the Word of God, has to be developed.

To be “in Christ” is a supreme privilege, but “putting on” the name of Christ in baptism is only the start. It is not like putting on a garment, which merely covers a person’s nakedness, but is an acceptance that the whole of Self must be subsumed into the Lord, our Saviour. We have to be “conformed to the image” of the Son of God (Rom 8:29). We not only “put on Christ”, but pray to God that we may be found “in him”.

Spiritual Warriors

Of course, it takes time to change, to be renewed in the spirit of our minds (Eph 4:23). We have to make a determined effort to learn a new way. There is a daily battle to be fought against the impulses of the flesh which so often lead us astray. Peter implored those to whom he wrote his epistles, “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts [desires], which war against the soul” (1 Pet 2:11).

How are we to fight this battle? The Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6 reminds us that we are spiritual warriors, and must equip ourselves with the seven items (the figure of Divine completeness) that together make up “the whole armour” of God’s providing: the girdle of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit (“which is the word of God”), and prayer (Eph 6:11–18). The Apostle Peter sums it up succinctly when he says that we must arm ourselves with the mind of Christ (1 Pet 4:1)—that mind which is revealed to us in the Gospels and other Scriptures that speak about him.

This is a work in which we should be engaged each day. It is again the Apostle Peter who exhorts us to put aside undesirable characteristics, like malice and guile, and “as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that [we] may grow thereby” (1 Pet 2:2). The figure of milk is one that we can readily understand. Babies long for milk which is ideal for growth. In the same way, we should long for “the sincere milk of the word”. This milk contains that which is necessary for our early spiritual growth and is taken in, not through our lips, but through our reason.

In Hebrews 5 Paul says that we then have to progress from milk to the strong meat of the oracles of God. Both of these passages make it plain that growth is expected of all who are in Christ. As time passes there should be growth in understanding. It is impossible to stand still in the Truth and if we make no spiritual progress, then all too soon the little we have gained will be lost (cp Matt 13:12). This surely emphasises to us the importance of taking every opportunity of reading and studying the Word, both as individuals and ecclesias, that the mind of Christ might be developed in us. For if we neglect the Word we shall certainly become poor soldiers of Christ.

Prayer, that seventh item of the warrior’s armour noted above, is also a vitally important component of daily life. We know from the Gospels that our Lord had constant recourse to prayer—often, it seems, for hours at a time. His disciples did not fail to notice this and appealed to him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). He gave them a ‘model’ prayer in response. There is, in fact, another such prayer—a much shorter one—given in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. The Lord puts into the mouth of the publican a prayer which he commends: “God be merciful to me a sinner” (18:13). While this petition does not express everything that could be said in prayer, it was all that was necessary on this occasion, and beautifully balanced. The prayer begins with “God”, ends with “me a sinner”, and it is the mercy of God (through Christ) that brings the two together. In prayer, therefore, the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ and the disciple are brought together. What a wonderful privilege it is, and essential as we seek to develop the mind of Christ.

Christ in Us

Thus, it is not simply that we are to be “in Christ”, but he has to be formed in us. These are two sides of the same coin. Paul spoke about this to the Galatians when, pained by the influence of the Judaizers, he said: “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Gal 4:19). Earlier in the same epistle, Paul had described his new, living relationship with the Lord in similar terms: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (2:20).

The Lord Jesus had said to his disciples in the upper room: “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him” (Jn 14:23)—not by a physical presence but by the disciple knowing and loving his Lord, and keeping his words. The Lord used similar language on other occasions. For example, in his teaching on “the true vine”, he said: “He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit … If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you” (John 15:5–7). Again, when the Lord prays for his followers in John 17, he says to his Father, “I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one … I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them” (v23, 26). Many years later, when the Lord Jesus delivered his letter to the ecclesia in Laodicea, he said: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Rev 3:20).

In effect, therefore, Christ abides in us to the extent that we abide in him. The Apostle Paul confirms this when writing to the Ephesians: he prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith” (Eph 3:17 rv; Gal 2:20). Faith is the prerequisite; without it no man or woman can please God (Heb 11:6), and without this essential foundation there can be no indwelling of Christ in the heart.

Paul continues in his prayer for the Ephesians by referring to the purpose of this indwelling of Christ: “that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (Eph 3:17–19). We have to be “rooted and grounded in love”, that is, firmly established in the love of God as a building on a foundation (Eph 2:20–22), as a tree whose roots go deep (Psa 1:3; 92:12,13; Jer 17:8). That love is the basis of all our hope; without it, there is nothing. Here Paul says that we have to know the “love of Christ”, and in Ephesians 5 we learn something of its quality: he “hath loved us, and hath given himself for us”. It behoves us, therefore, to “walk in love” in the same spirit.

Paul’s petitions in his prayer come to their climax with the appeal that the Ephesian brethren and sisters might be filled with “all the fullness of God”. Once again, Christ sets the standard. He was “full of grace and truth”, perfectly revealing to men and women the character and the will of God—to such an extent that he could truthfully say, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father”. As Paul writes to the Colossians, “In him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily, and in him ye are made full, who is the head of all principality and power” (2:9 rv). Commenting on the climax of this prayer, Brother John Carter wrote: “It is a bold and amazing thing that is here desired. The words, few and simple, easily slipped over in the reading of the chapter, express the highest possible aim of mortal man. All that God is, they must try to be. The Son of God was manifested to make it possible” (The Letter to the Ephesians, p 87).

How Do We Measure Up?

Any consideration of God’s scheme for human redemption and our relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ is both encouraging and challenging. We are encouraged when remembering that we are a privileged people now in Christ, with a hope of greater things to come. But we are also challenged when asking, How do we measure up to these things? Can we in some way test our spiritual progress, the extent to which Christ is in us? Perhaps the best method is to assess our reactions to the various circumstances we face in life. Do we respond to situations with a Christ-like spirit, asking ourselves how he would have reacted? Do relevant passages of Scripture readily come into our mind to guide us? Do we show the same compassion as the Lord? Do we share his abhorrence of the sinfulness of the world around us? Do we share his dedication to the work of his Father?

Most of us will admit, faced with such questions, that we fall far short. Inevitably, we are restricted by the impulses of the flesh and mourn our frequent failure to do the right thing. Nevertheless, we persevere in the assurance that with the forgiveness of our sins now, and the moulding of our characters from the Word of God—characters which we take with us into the Kingdom—at the last when Christ returns will come the redemption of our bodies: they will be changed from corruptible to incorruptible, being energised by the Spirit of God. At this time the helmet of the faithful spiritual warrior will be replaced by a crown!