Paul’s theology revolves around the central concept of the change that takes place when a person trusts in Christ.
For Paul, every human being lives in one of two spheres of existence, and faith in Christ is the means God uses to move a person from one sphere to the other. Colossians 1:13 captures the essence of Paul’s theology in a single verse: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (ESV). Elsewhere in his letters, Paul draws the contrast between “our old self” and “our new self” and, more pointedly, between “in Adam” and “in Christ.” The deliverance from being in Adam and the transfer to being in Christ take place on the basis of God’s grace, through the means of faith, apart from works, religious ritual, or law. As followers of Christ, therefore, we are new creations, for whom “the old has passed away [and] the new had come” (2Cor 5:17, ESV), and we live out our new existence in Christ by the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Rom 8:1–17).
We Were Once in Adam
In addition to specific references to “Adam” (Rom 5:14; 1Cor 15:22, 45) and “our old self” (Rom 6:6; Eph 4:22; Col 3:9), Paul also uses the adverbs “once” (e.g., Eph 2:2, 3, 11, 13) and “no longer” (e.g., Eph 4:14, 17, 20) to refer to our old sphere of existence before we placed our faith in Christ. The good news is that, although we were once in Adam, by grace through faith we no longer are.
Although we are no longer in Adam, it is essential that we understand the situation from which we have been delivered, because every aspect of that sphere of human existence is broken. Paul deals briefly with the physical, personal, and relational aspects of this broken existence but addresses at greater length the spiritual and moral aspects. Physically, “our outer self is wasting away” (2Cor 4:16, ESV). Personally, our thinking was futile (Rom 1:21; 2Cor 3:14; Eph 4:17), our hearts were hardened (Eph 4:18), and our wills carried out the desires of the body and the mind (Eph 2:3). Relationally, we were alienated from one another (Eph 2:13–16).
Spiritually, Paul tells us that in Adam we were dead, doomed, and dominated. Adam’s sin not only brought physical death that spread to every human being (Rom 5:12–14), we were also spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1, 5; Col 2:13), and the sin that dwells in us (Rom 7:17, 20) seized the opportunity provided by the law to produce further death (Rom 7:7–12). Adam’s sin not only produced death, but it also placed us under condemnation (Rom 5:16, 18). For that reason, we were doomed to experience God’s wrath (Rom 1:18; 2:5; Eph 2:3; 5:6; Col 3:6; 1Thess 1:10). Further, in Adam we were dominated by supernatural forces (Eph 6:11–12) that are subject to Satan, “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2, ESV), and seek to separate us from God and his love in Christ (Rom 8:38–39; 2Cor 4:4).
Morally, Paul tells is that in Adam we lived lives of disobedience, slavery, and futility. Adam’s sin was an act of disobedience (Rom 5:19), and as his offspring, we lived lives characterized by disobedience (Eph 2:2; 5:6; Col 3:6; Titus 1:16; 3:3). In Adam, we were under God’s law (Gal 3:23; 4:4), but we disobeyed his law because we were slaves of sin and lawlessness (Rom 3:9; 6:17, 19, 20) and, conversely, were free from any obligation to righteousness (Rom 6:20). As a result, we lived lives of shame (Rom 6:21) and futility. Our best intentions to live in accordance with God’s law were doomed to failure because of the sin that dwells in us (Rom 7:14–23), and we longed to be delivered from “this life that is dominated by sin and death” (Rom 7:24, ESV). The means of deliverance that God has provided is faith in the person and work of Christ.
The Father Transferred Us by Grace through Faith in Christ
God’s saving grace is the basis for his work of transferring us from being in Adam to being in Christ (Eph 2:8–9). For Paul, however, grace is far greater than we sometimes consider it to be. God’s sanctifying grace conforms us to the image of his Son (Titus 2:11–12). His sustaining grace brings us through the hard times in our lives (2Cor 12:9). His serving grace allows us to minister effectively for him (Eph 3:7). His surpassing grace gives us more resources than we will ever need as we walk with Christ (Eph 2:7).
For Paul, faith is the means of appropriating the effects of Christ’s work. Faith is trust in God and his provision for salvation, which itself is a gift received on the basis of God’s grace (Eph 2:8–9). Faith is a matter of the heart (Rom 10:9) in which we place our trust in Christ alone for salvation (Rom 5:1–2; Col 2:12) and make a personal commitment of our whole person to him (Rom 3:26; Eph 1:15; Col 1:4; 2:5; 2Tim 3:15). That commitment results in obedience to God in every aspect of our lives (e.g., 2Cor 1:27; 5:7; Gal 2:20).
Faith in Christ results in good works that God has planned in advance for us (Eph 2:10). Paul, however, explicitly rules out works (Rom 4:1–8), religious ritual (Rom 4:9–12), or law (Rom 4:13–17) as playing any role in our salvation. It is faith in his promise alone that God counts as righteousness (Rom 4:18–25). Our deliverance from being in Adam and our transfer to being in Christ, therefore, take place solely on the basis of God’s grace, through the means of faith, and apart from works, religious ritual, or law.
We Are Now in Christ
In addition to specific references to “our new self” (Col 3:10), Paul also uses the adverb “now” (e.g., Rom 3:21; 6:22; 7:6; 11:30) to refer to our new sphere of existence after we place our faith in Christ. References to “in Christ” abound in his letters (146x in 73 verses), and that idea is central to Paul’s theology. It is particularly good news that by grace through faith, we are now in Christ because his work has totally transformed our existence.
Physically, although we still exist in our decaying bodies, we look forward expectantly to the resurrection (1Cor 15:20–22), when God will give life to our mortal bodies (Rom 8:11) and Jesus will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil 3:21, ESV). Personally, God renews our minds with knowledge (Eph 4:23; Col 3:10), Jesus establishes our hearts as blameless and holy (1Thes 3:13), and we align our wills with the Father’s (Eph 5:17; 6:6). Relationally, Jesus has eliminated hostility, established peace, and brought us together into the body of Christ (Eph 2:14–22).
Spiritually, God has delivered us from an existence in Adam that was characterized by death, condemnation, and spiritual oppression and has transferred us to an existence in Christ that is characterized by life, justification, and spiritual dominion. When God made us alive with Christ (Eph 2:5), new life became our present reality (Rom 6:4) and eternal life became our future hope (Rom 6:22; 1Tim 1:16). When God raised us with Christ (Eph 2:6), his righteousness became our righteousness (1Cor 1:30; 2Cor 5:21; Phil 3:9), resulting in our justification (Rom 4:25; 5:16, 18). When God seated us with Christ in the heavenlies (Eph 2:6), we entered the realm of the exalted Christ, who has the name above every name (Phil 2:9–11), who sits at the right hand of God (Col 3:1), and to whom all things in heaven and on earth are subject (Eph 1:20–22).
Morally, God has delivered us from lives that were characterized by disobedience, slavery, and futility and has transferred us to lives that are characterized by obedience, freedom, and victory in Christ. Adam’s sin was an act of disobedience, but Christ’s life was a life of obedience (Rom 5:19). The gospel of Christ calls us to “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; 16:26), which includes both a faith response to the message of the gospel and a subsequent walk of faithful obedience to Christ (Rom 6:16–17; 2Cor 10:5). Our faith response to the gospel sets us free from sin (Rom 6:18, 22) to serve righteousness with the same singleminded devotion with which we once served sin (Rom 6:12–13, 19; 12:1; 1Cor 6:20). Further, we are set free from the futility of trying to keep the law, which allows us to walk in newness of the Holy Spirit (Rom 7:5–6), who empowers us to live victoriously for Christ (Rom 8:31–39).
The Spirit Empowers Us for Life and Ministry in Christ
Although we are “no longer” in Adam but are “now” in Christ, there is a caveat, because Paul tells us that we still look forward to “then”—a time when we will appear with Christ in glory (Col 3:4), a time when we will know fully, even as we have been fully known (1Cor 13:9–12), and a time when we will acquire final possession of our inheritance (Eph 1:13–14). While we watch and wait, God has “put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2Cor 1:22, ESV). The indwelling Holy Spirit now provides the resources we need to live out our new existence in Christ.
Paul makes it clear that the Holy Spirit plays an active role in our transfer to being in Christ by regenerating us (Titus 3:5), sealing us (2Cor 1:21–22; Eph 1:13–14; 4:30), baptizing us into the body of Christ (1Cor 12:13), indwelling us (Rom 8:9, 11; 1Cor 3:16; 2Tim 1:14), and giving each of us spiritual gifts for service and the benefit of the body (Rom 12:6–8; 1Cor 12:4–28; Eph 4:7–13). In addition to those one-time works, the Spirit also repeatedly fills us to bring us under his control for life and service (Eph 5:18–21). In so doing, he provides the resources we need for growth in holiness and effectiveness in ministry.
The Spirit’s work of empowering us for growth in holiness extends to both our character and our conduct. The Spirit transforms our character as he produces his fruit in our lives (Gal 5:22–23; 2Cor 6:6). That fruit stands in stark contrast to the character qualities the flesh produced when we were in Adam (Gal 5:19–21). The Spirit also transforms our conduct as he sets us free from the law of sin and death (Rom 8:2), guards our thinking (Rom 8:5–6), enables us to put to death the deeds of the body (Rom 8:13), leads us (Rom 8:14), assures us (Rom 8:15–17), intercedes for us (Rom 8:26–27), teaches us (1Cor 2:12–14), and strengthens us (Eph 3:16).
Paul acknowledges the Spirit’s work of empowering us for effectiveness in ministry when he attributes everything he accomplished to the power of the Spirit of God (Rom 15:19), who sanctified his missionary work among the Gentiles (Rom 15:16). In particular, the Spirit empowers us for preaching (1Cor 2:4) and proclamation of the gospel (1Thes 1:5). His work also unifies the church (2Cor 13:14; Eph 4:3–4; Phil 2:1). The gifts he gives us contribute to the common good (1Cor 12:7), and the proper functioning of those gifts facilitates the growth of the body of Christ as it moves toward spiritual maturity (Eph 4:11–13). Individually and corporately, the Holy Spirit provides the resources we need to live out our new life in Christ (Rom 7:6), become increasingly conformed to the image of Christ (Rom 8:29), and wait for the return of Christ (Rom 8:23–25).
Those of us who, by God’s grace, have placed our faith in Christ and his work no longer exist in the domain of darkness (“in Adam”), characterized by death, condemnation, spiritual oppression, disobedience, slavery to sin, and futility. Instead, we now exist in the kingdom of God’s Son (“in Christ”), characterized by life, justification, spiritual dominion, obedience, freedom, and victory. We look forward eagerly to the time when we will experience the perfect realization of our new existence in Christ. While we wait, we rely on the resources provided by the indwelling Holy Spirit to live out our new existence in Christ.
- Christiaan Beker, “Recasting Pauline Theology: The Coherence-Contingency Scheme as Interpretive Model” in Pauline Theology, Volume I
- James D. G. Dunn, “Paul’s Theology” in The Face of New Testament Studies
- Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence
- Michael J. Gorman, “Pauline Theology. Perspectives, Perennial Topics, and Prospects” in The State of New Testament Studies
- John D. Harvey, Anointed with the Spirit and Power
- John D. Harvey, Interpreting the Pauline Letters
- Richard N. Longenecker, Paul, Apostle of Liberty
- Douglas. J. Moo, A Theology of Paul and His Letters
- Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory
This essay is part of the The Gospel Coalition Bible Commentary, edited by Phil Thompson. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike, allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators, please reach out to us.
This work is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0