Recently, I was asked to speak on the implications of the cross in the life of the believer. The following three posts are simply my presentation on this topic. I hope they will prove useful. Please excuse the less literary and more oral nature of the post.
The Living Cross
We are gospel people. And we are gospel people in the fullest sense. Our lives are created and shaped by the gospel and right at the heart of this gospel is the cross.
The cross is critical to the gospel as this winter series has reminded us. The cross is God’s answer to the fundamental problem of existence – the problem of human sin. God’s glory and man’s happiness are both jeopardized by human sin. What is the solution? The solution, the only solution, God’s solution, is the cross. There in the death of Jesus all is made right. God’s glory is vindicated. His heart of love towards man, even though he is a sinner and a God hater is declared. His own integrity is revealed as he shows how he can be right while declaring right the ungodly. His holy wrath is displayed in all its glory against sin yet in a way that exonerates the sinner. The cross is God’s propitiating sacrifice for sins. There the debt of sinful humanity is more than fully met as Christ who knew no sin became sin for us and underwrote our liabilities. There the stain of sin whose defiling effects have pervaded the whole universe was expunged in Christ through whom God has reconciled all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
At the cross, God’s power is placarded as every cosmic enemy of God and man that found strength through sin was disarmed and defeated and disgraced as Christ triumphed over them by removing the sin that gave them leverage through the sacrifice of himself.
An inglorious Roman cross, paradoxically, is the great revelation of God’s glory and basis of all human happiness. I say paradoxically for of course to any other than those who have eyes of faith the cross is an object of derision. It is a symbol of folly and failure. Criminals died on crosses. Failed messianic pretenders died on crosses. Wisdom, power, salvation did not lie in a cross; it was the opposite of these. Such is the perceived wisdom of the world. Yet God’s wisdom delights in confounding the worldly-wise and his power mocks the pretensions of the strong. Ironically, God reveals the glory of his infinite wisdom in the folly of crucifixion, and the glory of his mighty power through the weakness of one crucified. Such, and much more, is the story of the cross.
In this cross we believe. Of this cross we preach. But, and it is an important but, the cross is not simply a spectacle we observe, and a paradox in which we believe, it is an event in which we participate. If our lives as gospel people are gospel-shaped then this means they are cross-shaped. The cross is not an icon we wear it is an experience we share, our identity, our lives are cross-shaped, they are cruciform. We are a crucified people. Identities are shaped by histories or narratives; our history, our narrative, is that we have been crucified with Christ.
In Philippians Paul says it succinctly,
Gal 2:20 (ESV2011) I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
In a sense, Paul’s whole understanding of the Christian life is packed into this text. It is a life of faith-union with Christ that takes us out of this world and into another. At conversion by faith and through the Spirit we are united to Christ and share in Christ’s death and resurrection life. At the cross our moral history as people alive in this world came to an end. When Christ died we died. When Christ was raised to a new life in resurrection so too were we. If Christ is now in heaven then so too are we; holy and without blame before God in Christ is our true moral position. This is where God sees us and it is here we must see ourselves. For Paul, Christian living is simply this reality of death and resurrection unpacked and applied.
Our task tonight is to explore some of the ways Paul unpacks this reality, particularly the reality that we are now crucified with Christ and are now dead. We could turn to may Scriptures to do so but we will limit ourselves to a few.
Firstly, Roms 6.
Died to Sin
- What would be your response to someone who said they were a Christian but seem unconcerned about sin in their life? What would you say to a Christian who said all evangelical talk about seeking holiness was legalistic pietism and a denial of our justification?
- How would you counsel someone who claims to be addicted to some sin?
- How would you answer someone who claims to keep trying to die to sin but with no success?
- What do you say to someone who feels disgusted/hates at who they are and tends to despair?
- A popular slogan is I am simultaneously a saint and a sinner? Is this true?
- How would you counter the claim that the gospel of grace is a licence to sin?
Paul’s answer to each is found in Roms 6.
Paul has taught that we are right with God purely by grace apart from works (Ch 3-5). We can do nothing to bring about our own salvation. Our right standing with God is a gift and comes through grace (5:17). Indeed Paul has just said, where sin has abounded (by law making sin more sinful) God’s grace has abounded all the more (Roms 5:20).
If, however, our salvation is all of grace in the face of human sin and has nothing to do with our own efforts does not this encourage sin? If my standing with God has nothing to do with my personal responsibility but is sourced in God taking the entire responsibility for my righteousness will I not cavalierly give myself to sin?
Rom 6:1 (ESV2011) What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?
Paul’s answer is clear.
Rom 6:2 (ESV2011) By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
Don’t you know, Paul says, your baptism enacts your participation in Christ’s death (2b). In his death, not only were our sins dealt with (Roms 3:25, 4:7) but so too was sin – the entity or power. It was dealt with because at the cross the person we were in Adam died; we were crucified with him for the express purpose that sin should lose any rights over us and so any hold upon us (vv 6,7).
You can’t accuse a dead man of sin – he is beyond it. Sin cannot demand his obedience for he is no longer alive; dead men don’t sin. Sin has no rights, no claims, no power over someone who is dead. While a man is alive he is responsible for his actions and will be judged by them but when he is dead he is beyond all of this – he is no longer accountable for them. Nor is he going to sin again because he is dead. All living people in the world are under the authority of sin. It rules their lives (Eph 2:1-5). It dominates their existence. But dead people are not ruled by sin. Sin cannot come to a dead person and accuse him or demand his obedience. He is beyond its jurisdiction, its claims, its sphere of influence and control.
On the cross Jesus placed himself under the jurisdiction of sin. He took sin’s charges and accusations upon himself. But in death he moved beyond sin’s authority never to have any relationship with it again. The death he died to sin, he died once for all, but the life he now lives he lives to God (Roms 6:10). He rose out of death into a realm where sin had no place, no influence or authority. He lives now in the presence of God, and for God, never to have to do with sin again.
Now says Paul this is your location as one who participates in Christ. Consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Roms 6:11). As he is now so are you in this world. Treat this as the reality of your life. He does not, in Roms 6, tell us in detail how this is realised in our lives. He does not tell us that we are born of God, are partakers of the divine nature, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit who enables us to hold the flesh in the place of death and live a new life to God. All of this will come later. Here we are simply told it is all the product of living under grace (Roms 6:1,11). For at the moment he simply wants us to grasp the change in jurisdiction is what the cross achieves and the moral implications it carries. We are says Paul, as far as this world is concerned, dead. We no longer live in the realm where responsibility to gain righteousness and life lies in us. All the responsibilities of the old age have no legitimacy in our lives for we do not live in it. This is the logic, the moral force, the moral imperative of the cross in your life. At the cross whatever was involved and entailed in being a son of Adam (authorities, relationships, and responsibilities/obligations to these) came to an end.
But, is not all this talk of gospel grace dangerous? Is it not a licence to sin? If you tell a man he is, from God’s perspective, no longer a responsible man living in this world will not this result in antinomianism and freedom to sin? If you tell him when he does sin that he can say ‘it is no longer I but sin dwelling in me’ (Roms 7:17) is not this a means of passing the buck and promoting evading moral responsibility? Will it not simply encourage sinning with a sense of impunity? No, says Paul, for how can we if we have died to sin wish to live any longer in it? It is a moral contradiction, an incongruity. The whole reason you became a Christian was to be done with sin. To be free from its rights over you. You wished to be free from the great burden of being a failed person. You saw just how much of a sinner who were and that if you were held responsible for right living you would ever stand condemned. You needed to be free from all of this responsibility and this is precisely what God did in the cross. He took you out of the realm where responsibility for living lay with you and so sin reigned and placed you in another realm, the realm of grace where all is ‘of God’.
Little wonder such teaching frightened people and led to accusations of antinomianism. But Paul’s response is not to water down his claims. Rather it is to press home the inner logic of them. Your participation in Christ has taken you out of the world where sin has rights why would ever want to subject yourself to it again. If you give yourself to obey sin you have not understood what the cross is all about. The moral force of the cross means you have done with sin. The moral imperative is now to live as one dead to sin (one who will never allow it authority again) for that is your new position and standing and anything else is contradiction and inconsistency.
Rom 6:17-18 (ESV) But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
But you don’t understand sin has a grip on me. There are sins I am addicted to. First of all remember we are talking of sin as a force and power not individual sins. You may commit individual sins because Christians fail and slip back into unbelief. We fail to live consistently with who we are in Christ. But this must not shake our confidence in who we are. We must not think because we sin, we must sin. Grace has freed you from this power, this tyranny. Grace works in your heart through the new nature and Spirit so that you need not sin. You may sin but you are not addicted to sin, nor to any individual sin. This is a lie of Satan. You have died to the realm where sin has authority and cannot be resisted. You live in the realm of grace where the authority is ‘grace’ and so all is of God. Sin for a Christian should not be regarded as an inevitability to which we resign ourselves. All God’s power in grace is available to enable you to overcome sin. You need not yield to sin. Sin has no longer dominion over you. It cannot force your obedience. You may find it difficult to forsake any specific sin but I assure you, in Christ, you can.
It is a matter of faith. It is a matter of asserting to yourself – I have died to sin’s power, I need not sin, I will not let this particular sin or any other sin have control in my life. This applies to anything. It applies to addictions of every kind. It applies to the draw of pornography, lying, stealing, covetousness, greed, etc. I must never assume as a Christian these are inevitable for they are not.
A temptation may present itself and do so powerfully but you are free and must tell yourself this. You must grasp and insist on your new identity in Christ. This is the fight of faith. Turn away from sin. Refuse to listen to its lusts and desires. These are not yours. They come from the old life to which you have died. Refuse to listen and refuse to do what the temptation demands. It may call powerfully, insistently, like a past lover, but you have died to that relationship. That life has passed. You may say you do not ‘feel’ you are dead to sin. This is understandable for indwelling sin (the flesh, or the old person you once were while living in this world) is crying out to be obeyed. But it is not a matter of how you feel but of living by faith. Faith lives by what God says not how we feel. Faith believes what God says is true and acts on that basis; it takes God at his word. Faith inhabits the gospel realities. Faith is a gospel-shaped life. Thus Paul writes,
Rom 6:12-14 (ESV) Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
I keep trying to die to sin, but I can’t. All the old desires just keep coming into my mind. All the old weakness and temptations keep raising their ugly heads. It seems as if my soul is still full of sin. But who asked you to try to die to sin? Certainly not me. Not the Bible. Paul doesn’t say we must die to sin he says we have died to sin. It is a matter of affirming this in faith. He does not say sin has died. Sin is still as powerful as ever. It is still within as insistent as ever. The flesh (indwelling sin) is always clambering for attention. Look within and you’ll still see all kinds of volcanic sin ready to erupt.
It is not sin that has died, it is you who died.
This means, in practice, at least two things.
Firstly, it means you must not feel depressed and guilty about the sinful tendencies of your heart. When you see all kinds of evil smouldering in your heart you must not despair, rather you must refuse ownership. This is not the real you. This is the old you who God has declared dead and you must reckon this to be so. The new you (of resurrection faith) is the real and true you. The old is sin dwelling within. It is the flesh seeking place and power. But it is not ‘you’. You have died and passed through death into a new life. Therefore you must not feel guilty about these old lusts and desires. You must not think they are yours, they are not. You are not responsible for them. You must disown them. They belong to a world and personal identity that died at the cross. Never accept any accusations about these tendencies. Never take responsibility for them. Never feel depressed and despairing about them. God does not view them as you and neither must you. You are a new person. You are risen with Christ. You are the new life created and sustained by God’s indwelling Spirit whom God already sees seated with Christ in heaven, holy and blameless and beyond sin and accusation. What a glorious freedom the gospel brings from guilt and the terrible crushing sense of failed responsibility and a corrupt heart.
Secondly, we should realise we are not called to try die to these thoughts and inclinations, that is, we are not called to find some way of stopping them arising in your souls. We can’t stop sinful thoughts and inclinations arising. What you are called to do is by faith recognise that these are not the real you. The ‘you’ to whom these belong has been pronounced dead. This ‘you’ was crucified at the cross. Judgement has been carried out on this ‘you’. These are the inclinations of a life which is gone and all you need to do is accept this judgement (concur with it) and live in the light of it.
In other words, refuse to listen to their clambering and cries. Give them no credence. No foothold. When they arise simply dismiss them from your mind. Remind yourself these all belong to a past you, a former self and you have died to that self and will neither be condemned by it nor conned, cowed, or coerced into obeying it. Whatever it urges refuse. This is what Paul means when he says we are, by dependence on God’s Spirit, to put to death ‘the deeds of the body’ (Roms 8). There may be pain in this, and cost, for the flesh desperately wishes to be pampered, but we must crucify it, or rather recognise it is crucified and treat it as such.
Unconverted folks have great difficulty in looking with equilibrium at the corruption that is in their own hearts for they (rightly) think of what lies in their heart as ‘them’; they are identified by their ‘flesh’ and thus find the truth about themselves hard to face at but Christians should not be like this. We should be able with a steady eye to look at inner corruption and condemn and disown it for that is precisely what God did with it at the cross and what we accepted in conversion. We realised then that the flesh had no profit and was evil and we have gladly done with it that we may live in a new life of grace, beyond responsibility and its corollary condemnation where all is ‘of God’.
Paul earths this faith-perspective in Ephesians and Colossians.
Eph 4:17-32 (ESV)
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!- assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, [your having put off] to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and [having put on] to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
This is how we live in the reality that we have died to sin and are alive to God (Roms 6:10). In Colossians, Paul expresses it slightly differently but it is essentially the same point.
Col 3:1-17 (ESV2011)
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God…
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.
Sin is a moral contradiction for those who participate in the cross. It is a denial of all we have become in Christ. How can we who have died to sin live any longer therein?
Let me consider one further point.
What if as a Christian I do sin? And both experience and Scripture tell us we will and do. Surely I must take ownership for this sin. Surely this sin condemns me and defines me. Surely for this sin I am responsible. Surely I must hate myself because of this sin? Well, this is a point where it would be easy to get our thinking skewed. On the one hand, there is a sense in which of course we do take responsibility for our failure. We recognise that we have failed to live by faith. We have not lived as close to Christ and as dependent on the Spirit as we ought and so we have sinned. Our response should be to feel the shame of our action and hatred for our sin and to confess it with the intent of forsaking it knowing God will be faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
However, and it is a very important ‘however’ we will do this never wavering in our consciousness that we are sons, seated with Christ in heaven, holy and without blame in God’s sight. We will insist the sin does not define us. We will insist it is inconsistent with who we are and not a reflection of our proper identity. We are saints, not sinners.
In this sense we can rightly say, that this sin is not of me but of sin dwelling within me (Roms 7:17). Its source is not so much in me (the new me) as in the principle of sin that still resides within, namely, ‘the flesh’ (7:18,22). Thus I will hate the flesh and hate the sin but refuse to hate myself for ‘self’ or my true identity is that of a new person in Christ. I may as well hate Christ for my life and identity is in him.
Responsibility for sin in any ultimate sense I will reject for responsibility (of the kind that brings judgement) can only be laid at a living person in the world and I am not alive in the world; I am dead, crucified with Christ. The source from which this sin originated has already been condemned in the flesh of Christ and is no more. Thus I refuse to wretchedly self-condemn, though, by faith, I do condemn and disown (and hate) the sin and the nature from which it erupted. By faith I concur with God’s verdict upon this nature and all that flows from it. Through the cross I have now what the writer to the Hebrews calls, ‘no more conscience of sins’. He does not mean I do not care about sin but that I do not stand condemned by sin. In Pauline language, I have died to sin and my life is hid with Christ in God. Or, as in Roms 8
Rom 8:1-4 (ESV)
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Praise God for such a salvation. With Horatius Bonar we exclaim,
I bless the Christ of God, I rest on love divine,
And with unfaltering lip and heart, I call the Savior mine.
His cross dispels each doubt; I bury in His tomb
Each thought of unbelief and fear,
Each lingering shade of gloom.
I praise the God of peace, I trust His truth and might;
He calls me His, I call Him mine, My God, my Joy, my Light.
In Him is only good, in me is only ill;
My ill but draws His goodness forth,
And me He loveth still.
’Tis He Who saveth me, and freely pardon gives;
I love because He loveth me; I live because He lives;
My life with Him is hid, my death has passed away,
My clouds have melted into light,
My midnight into day.
Some further implications of participation in Christ’s death I will consider in the next couple of posts.