In some Christian circles, there’s a huge emphasis on the life-transforming impact of faith. You’re born again, and this new belief in Jesus Christ changes your whole life, your whole outlook, your way of being in the world. Everything is shiny and better. This transformation is often testified to as radical, an extreme and overwhelmingly joyous putting aside of all the things that were unhealthy and that troubled you, in a sudden sweeping away of your old life. This kind of understanding of Christianity is extremely attractive to people who are in pain, or lonely, or living difficult lives, because it emphasizes a new start and the absolute power of grace. But it can also be heartbreaking, and at times lead to a breakdown in practiced faith, if the changes of the new life in Christ fail to manifest themselves so openly.
The reality is that not everyone experiences this sort of change as a result of discovering, feeling, or rediscovering belief. And yet 2 Corinthians tells us that we are new creations, that the old has passed away and the new has come. Not even that we’re becoming new but that we already are: “he is a new creation.” What can this mean for people who feel mired in their ‘old’ lives?
To be “in Christ” is layered with meaning. One thing it means is that you’re in Christ and you’re proclaiming the Good News. Paul is writing about himself, his fellow apostles, and the new believers: “So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us” (2 Cor 5:20). Professions of faith are a way of openly being in Christ and can be signs of God working in us. You are a new creation because you’re living a new holiness of life, a new kind of worship of God, that doesn’t rely on the observance of the Law but on the unfolding and outworking of the love of Christ by grace. So you are in Christ, a new creation in the sense that you’re living the new life that is Jesus’ life in you. You’re not ‘in Christ’ because you profess Him; you can’t gain this for yourself by behaving faithfully any more than you could lose it because depression takes away your ability to do so. Being in Christ is the work of God, not man (2 Cor 5:18-19).
We are “in Christ” when we give ourselves over to Him in trust, choosing to believe that God will do the work that needs to be done. Paul beseeches us to “be reconciled to God” (5:20). In the deepest sense we are already reconciled to God because “Christ reconciled us to himself” (5:18); when we reconcile ourselves to God, it reflects a choice to trust and to lean on God regardless of what seems to being going on around us. We are “in Christ” in the way that we feel and believe that it is God who will pull us through, and not our own effort. We become able to see that our lives are being used for another purpose than our own, and that we have a place in God’s plan which is for the whole world. Paul expresses this belief when he describes the dichotomy of having death at work in himself so that the life of Jesus “may be manifested [in] the mortal flesh” (4:11). We are a new creation because our lives are for others and for God rather than for ourselves. Where, under the Law, each person was working out salvation for themselves, as new creations we are a part of the greater saving action of God that encompasses our lives as part of the transformative work of grace in the world.
We are “in Christ” because He loves us: our lives are hidden in Christ with a secret being-ness that we do not always see nor profess nor understand, and which has nothing to do with us and everything to do with God. We are in Christ because He loves us before we can ever begin to love him, when we are still being knit together in out mother’s wombs. This being-in-Christ is the ground for the other layers, the professions of faith, the decision to trust.
Receiving Christ in His act of self-giving love, giving His life for us and for the world, we have something new in us that isn’t part of the old man, and we are a new creation. The old man, the human reality before the Incarnation, no longer exists: “the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.” At the same time, the fallen-ness of the world has not disappeared, because the kingdom of God is still coming into being, growing like a mustard seed. Although we can say that the old has passed away, it is at the same time still-here and passing-away, the conflicting realities the Bible struggles so mightily with. For while we are new creations, we are still part of a world “groaning in travail” (Rom 8:22).
In 2 Corinthians 4 and 5, Paul talks about his and the apostles’ struggles as part of the knowledge that we are still mortal and all that this entails. He describes the old and new life as inner and outer nature, which has less to do with a sense of something better lodged inside our human body than the difference between the seen and the unseen (2 Cor 4:16-18). Both are here at once, as the old nature remains even while the new nature is already here as the life of Christ in us. Both are important and meaningful and real: we will face Christ with the full force of our bodily life (5:10), which for Paul always symbolizes the old life of our fallen natures.
We are being and are transformed, are and are becoming new, but Paul is at pains to point out that the new nature is secret, unseen, invisible, though the effects can at times be dramatic. The problem is that some Christian theologies assume the effects of this grace are always and necessarily visible. It can lead people to claim they ‘know’ they are saved and, more disastrously, can lead those who are suffering from the effects of depression and other hardships to believe that they don’t have the new life within them because their lives are still the same.
People ask themselves, “Why isn’t my life transformed and my suffering ended? Does this mean I don’t really believe in God? Does this mean Christ doesn’t dwell in me?” In reality, the question we all should be asking ourselves is why we think we should be able to dictate to God what the new life looks like. “My life isn’t transformed enough yet, hurry it up;” “I want to be better, isn’t that the outcome of faith;” “I want to be happy, that’s what your love should mean.” Of course this is ridiculous and the height of arrogance. No one but God decides what grace will outwardly work and transform in the lives of his people. Paul explicitly tells us to stop judging things by outward appearance and worldly standards (5:16). But we continue to do it each time we build a theology where faith and new life is connected to a necessary, visible, positive change that people can point at and say “that’s the work of God right there.”
The new creation doesn’t erase the brokenness of our world or its consequences, and doesn’t promise that every tear will be wiped away from our broken lives. Our lives hidden in Christ, we touch the Kingdom, so it is both here and coming; but it is held by God and working itself out for God’s purpose of reconciling the world to Himself, a work so big and miraculous that we can’t begin to comprehend or predict what it will do in something so small and infinite as one person’s life.