Blog Post

Feeling Christ within us

I want you to picture the scene: a pastor is meeting with a member of his congregation who has come to him seeking his counsel. The member has been struggling with assurance of salvation and is asking the pastor for help. The question uppermost in this member’s mind is, “How can I know for sure that God is for me and not against me?”

The scene is not unusual. Pastors get asked these kinds of questions all the time. The struggle for assurance is undoubtedly one of the most persistent struggles that many Christians will face in their lifetimes. But what would you say if I told you that the pastor in this scenario responded by saying, “The key to knowing whether or not God is for you is to feel Christ inside of you”? How would you respond if you were the one sitting in the pastor’s office, and this is the counsel you received? Many people that I know would be tempted to get up and walk out. Feelings are fallible. They can easily mislead us, and, oftentimes, they do. So, why would any faithful pastor direct his church members to feel anything within themselves?

Surprising as it may be, however, this is precisely the counsel that John Calvin—of all people—gives in his commentary on Ephesians 5. After devoting significant time and energy to unpacking the doctrine of union with Christ, Calvin quite unexpectedly says: “Let us therefore labour more to feel Christ living in us, than to discover the nature of [our union with Him].” It’s a statement that comes out of left field, as least it does for me. I cannot recall another place, off the top of my head, where Calvin speaks of feeling anything much less of feeling Christ within us. Quite simply, Calvin is not known for his “touchy-feely” demeanor, convictions, or counsel. This statement sounds more like what we would hear from a pastor or ministry leader in the 21st century than in the 16th century. What is Calvin trying to say here? And what does it mean to “labour…to feel Christ living in us”?

What is Calvin saying?

The first thing that Calvin has in mind here is the mysterious nature of our union with Christ. It is “mysterious” not because we don’t know anything at all about it but because, as AA Hodge once said, “it so far transcends all the analogies of earthly relationships, in the intimacy of its connection, in the transforming power of its influence, and in the excellence of its consequences.” Rather than seeking to understand how Christ is “in us” or what it really means, we should instead, according to Calvin, focus upon other things that are less mysterious. And Calvin believes that feeling Christ within us is at least one of things that qualifies.

The second idea that Calvin has in mind in encouraging us to feel Christ within us is the fruitfulness of our union with Him. When the apostle Paul says that “Christ in [us]” is “the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27), he is highlighting the transformation that union with Christ produces within every believer. To have Jesus within us is to have something that we didn’t have before: namely, hope. That hope represents an experiential change within the believer; it is something that we can see and feel, generally speaking. Every Christian may well undergo seasons in which that hope is veiled, but that should be the exception rather than the rule. Being a Christian means having Christ within us, and having Christ within us means that we have hope.

Paul speaks more explicitly about the transformation we experience in Romans 8:9-11, which says:

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

The first thing we see here is that the terms “Spirit,” “Spirit of God,” “Spirit of Christ,” and “Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead” are all used interchangeably. The Holy Spirit, according to Paul, is both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Christ. But notice also, in the second place, that to have the Spirit living within us is the same thing as having Christ living within us. “Spirit of Christ” and “Christ…in you” are used in parallel by Paul, which is to say that Christ lives within us as believers by way of His Holy Spirit. And if we have the Spirit living within us, two things are true of us: (1) we belong to Christ (i.e., we are genuine believers); and (2) we have been transformed from death to life.

Paul’s point is that there is a real change that comes into every Christian’s life. Although we were once dead in our sins and trespasses (Eph. 2:1), we are now very much alive spiritually. The new life that comes to us by way of the indwelling Spirit testifies to us that we are the children of God (Rom. 8:16). In other words, there is an experiential component to our union with Christ. Real and noticeable change comes into our lives, change that can be seen and felt.

What does it mean to “labour…to feel Christ living in us”?

We don’t really know how Calvin would answer this question, simply because he doesn’t tell us. His commentary ends without giving us any more information. But based on the theological connections he would no doubt have been making in his mind (as outlined above), I think we can draw the conclusion that Calvin would say we feel Christ within us when we are “led by the Spirit” of Christ (Rom. 8:14)—which is what Paul says right after he speaks about our experience of the Holy Spirit—or, as he says elsewhere, when we “walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). I think this means at least three things practically:

1- Because the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of intercession—i.e., Paul says that he “helps us” when we pray and “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26)—this means that we are “walking by the Spirit” when we give ourselves to prayer. And because the Spirit is “interceding for us” as we pray, we have every reason to expect that when we pray, the Spirit testifies to our spirits that we belong to Christ (Rom. 8:15-16). After all, it is by the Spirit that we experience intimacy with God (“we cry, Abba! Father!”), and prayer is itself an experience of intimacy with God. So, prayer is one way that we can “labour…to feel Christ living in us.”

2- The Holy Spirit is the author of Scripture, as Peter says in 2 Peter 1:20-21. And if that is the case, then “walking by the Spirit” would also entail meditating upon the words that He inspired. This means more than simply reading the Bible; it means thinking about what it says, chewing on it over and over again, unpacking the logic of the sentences, and applying everything to our lives. When we do this too, we have every reason to expect that the Holy Spirit will testify to our spirits that we belong to Christ. So, meditating upon the Spirit’s words in Scripture is another way we can “labour…to feel Christ.”

3- One of Paul’s main points in Romans 8 is that the Holy Spirit not only gives us new life but leads us in living according to that new life (see vv. 12ff). When we live the way God wants us to live, therefore, we are “walking by the Spirit,” and it’s then that we can feel Christ living in us by way of His Holy Spirit. When we disobey, when we live the way we want to live and disregard what God wants for us, we grieve the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30) and work against Christ who lives within us.

What does this mean for assurance?

Every Christian is a sinner, not by nature but by behavior. Sin remains within every one of us and will do so for our entire lives. That means that none of us will ever pray perfectly, meditate perfectly, or obey perfectly in this lifetime (i.e., we will never perfectly feel Christ within us). If we are looking for perfection in these areas, we will never have assurance of our salvation. But we aren’t supposed to look for perfection; it will never be there. The apostle Paul wasn’t perfect. By his own admission, he was actually the worst of all sinners, at least in his own eyes (1 Tim. 1:15). Instead of looking for perfection, we should be looking for any desire to pray, any desire to meditate, and any desire to obey—however small. We should look for conviction when we fall short too. Is there any remorse in regard to your prayerlessness or lack of attention to Scripture or to obedience? If so, be encouraged. These kinds of things are impossible without the Spirit of Christ, because apart from Christ no one will ever want anything to do with God in any way (see Rom. 3:10ff).

As sinners, we are to cast ourselves upon Christ. He lived a perfect life and died in our place paying the price for our guilt. Rather than taking our eyes off of Christ, our sins should send us fleeing to Him for grace. And as we flee to Him, the Spirit of Christ within us will testify to our spirits that we belong to Him.