I often hear Lutherans say things like: “It’s not about Christ in us, but Christ for us.” The “Christ in us” language belongs to pop evangelicalism and the Eastern Orthodox. For Lutherans, Christ in us is a reality…but we shouldn’t really talk about it. To do so would be to adopt an evangelical or Eastern view of the Christian life. If we focus on the indwelling Christ, then we will be pointed inward for assurance, and for justification. When that happens, we are no longer Lutherans!
This kind of thinking has, I think, been very damaging to the Lutheran church as we have lost the traditional language of the unione mystica (mystical union). Yes, we probably confess the mystical union, but do we ever talk about it? Have you ever heard your pastor preach on it? Has your favorite blog, author, or podcast ever spoken on it? And I don’t mean just in passing, but actually dealt with it positively and extensively. Our forefathers were not afraid to speak of Christ in us. C.F.W. Walther preached on the topic often (see his sermon “On the Gracious Dwelling of God in the Hearts of Men,” in From our Master’s Table, 76), and Johann Gerhard meditates on it extensively in his Sacred Meditations.
There is a fear of speaking about the indwelling Christ because we don’t want to give believers the idea that assurance must be found within us, rather than in the objective means of grace. When assurance or justification is placed inward, then we really miss the mark, and we are really no longer Lutherans at that point (I have spoken against these views of assurance here). That problem shows itself in medieval mysticism, puritanism, and especially in some later strands of pietism.
So what should we do then? If we can’t point people inward for assurance, then how do we speak about the mystical union? Should we ignore it? Should we just tell people not to worry about it? That solution is, I think, a common one, but in doing so we are ignoring some really important passages of Scripture.
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Gal. 2:20)
“so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:17-19)
“If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” (Rom. 8:10)
“My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you.” (Gal. 4:19)
“to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Col. 1:27)
I think the best way to deal with both of these prominent Biblical themes, Christ for you and Christ in you, is within the context of the two kinds of righteousness. In one’s life coram Deo, the sole concern is Christ as he is for you. When dealing with the passive righteousness of faith, and one’s status before God, we must always look to the objective means of grace given to us for assurance. We look to Christ’s objective life, death, and resurrection from the dead. It is here alone that the Christian finds assurance of forgiveness, life, and righteousness. With regard to this question, we cannot look inward at any works, obedience, or renewal within us. Instead, we look solely to Christ’s alien righteousness.
However, one’s life coram mundo is not only about Christ for us. Instead, we live in this world in view of Christ in us. Our concern in our vocations is not merely the passive righteousness of faith, but the active righteousness of renewal that the Spirit is working within us. Here, in this realm, life is all about Christ as he dwells within us, helping us to love and serve one another. It is in this realm that the third use of the law functions in order to guide us in this life, that we might be obedient to God and serve our neighbor. And this is only possible because the Holy Trinity is dwelling within us, changing us, conforming us to the image of Christ, and thus giving us the ability to serve others.
As Lutherans, we must be bold to speak about all Biblical truths. We need not be afraid to talk about Christ dwelling within our hearts. Rather, we simply must be careful about the context in which we do this. If the question is assurance, its all about Christ for us. If the question is one’s life in the world, its all about Christ in us.