“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-7).
This passage is very rich and theologically dense, in a classically Pauline way, and of course it centers around the person of Christ and what God has accomplished in Christ for human beings. It is not easy to understand, at least not at first glance, and for this reason it would be helpful to dig a bit deeper into some of what Paul says here.
For example, what could it possibly mean to say that God “made us alive together with Christ,” and that He “raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus”? Is Paul describing something that happened to us, or to Christ? Or could He be describing something that happened both to Christ and to us? But if so, how is that possible, given that what happened to Christ took place long before we were even born?
Here we have to do with Paul’s all-important doctrine of union with Christ. In some way, in virtue of some mysterious union between believers and Christ, the things that happened to Christ also happened to them or for them, and it is precisely in this way that salvation is accomplished. There is a connection of some kind between Christ and the believer so that what happens to the former, also happens to the latter, in some way.
In this particular passage, Paul highlights the way in which God worked a redemption or salvation of Christ’s own humanity. He raised Christ from the dead, He ascended Him up into heaven, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places. These things all happened to Christ’s humanity. When Paul goes further and says that they have also happened to us in some way, he is asserting a union between Christ’s humanity and us as human persons. When Christ’s own humanity was resurrected from the dead, we also were made alive together with Him; and when He was ascended into heaven and seated at the right hand of the Father, we too were lifted up with Him.
Here I am clearly proposing a version of the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ. What Christ accomplishes in salvation first has to do with His own human nature, but He also acts on behalf of others, representing them in a way. What Christ accomplishes as a human being, He also accomplishes on behalf of all human beings, for whom He stands as a mediator.
Now here is an important question: Is all of this true for me even before I believe it? For example, am I united to Christ, and do His actions count for me, even before I believe anything about it? Or do I have to believe (and subsequently be baptized) in order for it to be true of me that I was made alive together with Christ and raised up and seated with Him in the heavenly places, etc.?
Here is one interpretive possibility, which I propose but to which I do not commit myself. Paul says that God did all these things “even when we were dead through our trespasses” (v. 5). Assuming that the “being made alive together with Christ” refers to the event of Christ’s resurrection, just as the being raised up with Him and the seating in the heavenly places presumably refer to (the resurrection and) the ascension of Christ, it would seem clear that these things occurred before Paul or his audience ever believed. If Paul, dead in his sins and trespasses, was raised up with Christ, then this is arguably before he believes and thus his union with Christ precedes his faith. If anything, Paul’s faith is an assent to an already existent reality and a corresponding reorientation of his thought and life on that basis.
Sticking with this interpretive possibility, perhaps there are two ways of thinking about this matter. From God’s side, the union is there insofar as Christ acts as the representative of all people. God’s salvific intent in Christ is universal in scope and thus, as far as God is concerned, the union is in place with all people. But from our side, we have to come to learn of this union and accept it and personally appropriate it through the relevant means — e.g., faith, baptism, regular communion, etc.
This interpretation proposes an understanding of the Christian life that puts a heavy emphasis on the acquisition of a Christian consciousness. There is some fact about the world — the fact of God’s accomplishment in Jesus Christ for humanity — to which our minds must be conformed and in light of which we must change the way we think and understand ourselves. On this view, too, there would seem to be little room for a very robust sacramental system, in light of the once-for-all, finished, definitive aspect of God’s accomplishment in Christ. Christ’s humanity has already been brought to the very top, as far up as it can go, so to speak, and this counts for all of us, too, because Christ acts as our representative. The sacraments, if they are to do anything on this scheme, would serve only to reinforce and cement the “transformation by the renewal of our minds,” as Paul talks about (cf. Rom. 12:2).