Chapter 6- The Crucified Flesh
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. ~Romans 6:6
There’s a strange phrase that appears over and over again in the New Testament. It’s so ubiquitous that you might have never really noticed it, let alone spent time dwelling on its significance and power. It’s the phrase “in Christ.” That specific phrase appears 83 times in the writings of Paul, and when you include its equivalents like “in him” or “in the Lord,” it’s there a whopping 216 times! It’s on every page of Paul’s writings, over and over and over again. Consider these few examples, all taken from the short letter of Ephesians:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. ~Ephesians 1:3
He chose us in him before the foundation of the world. ~Ephesians 1:4
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses. ~Ephesians 1:5
In him we have obtained an inheritance. ~Ephesians 1:11
He raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. ~Ephesians 2:6-7
We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. ~Ephesians 2:10
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. ~Ephesians 2:13
In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. ~Ephesians 2:22
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. ~Ephesians 4:32
It’s everywhere! This is one of the most pervasive themes of the New Testament. In the opening paragraph of Ephesians alone, Paul says that we are blessed in Christ, chosen in Christ, redeemed in Christ, given an inheritance in Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit in Christ. In the rest of the letter, he talks about how we were raised with Christ, seated in Christ, recreated in Christ, brought near in Christ, built into a dwelling place for God in Christ, forgiven in Christ, and more. Every aspect of the Christian life can only be understood in relation to this massive, mysterious truth: we are in Christ.
And yet, what exactly does that mean? If you’re anything like me, you probably just skim over those words when you read them, not giving them much thought. When I read 2 Corinthians 5:17—“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation”—I usually just skip to the second part and think about what it means to be a new creation, instead of considering the foundational condition in the first part: “if anyone is in Christ.” The only way to be a new creation is to be in Christ. But what does that mean?
UNION WITH OUR REPRESENTATIVE
Remember back in chapter 3, when uncovering the origins of the flesh, we looked at Romans 5:12-21 to see a surprising truth? We are not, most fundamentally, individuals, but have been created by God to be united to one representative. God created the human race to be—in some mysterious yet very real way—united together and represented before him by one man. That original representative was Adam, and Romans 5 explains that because Adam represented everyone united to him (all humanity), his actions counted for them. By virtue of your humanity, you come into this world united to your representative, Adam. God credits the actions of your representative, and the consequences of those actions, to you. When Adam ate the fruit, you ate the fruit in him. When Adam received the sentence of spiritual death, you received the the sentence of spiritual death in him. The power of sin and the allurement of the world usurped God from the throne of Adam’s heart, and therefore usurped the throne of your heart in him. That’s why 1 Corinthians 15:22 says simply, “In Adam all die.”
The incredible good news that we saw back in chapter 3, however, is that God in his great wisdom so constituted the human race so that the very thing that was our downfall was turned around to be the means of our rescue. Jesus became a man in order to be the new representative for a new human race: all who would be united to him by faith. And in the same way that Adam’s disobedience was credited to you—even though you didn’t do it—and you reaped both the eternal consequence of that sin and its daily power in your life; so also Jesus’ perfect obedience was credited to you—even though you didn’t do it—and now you reap both the eternal consequences of that obedience and its daily power in your life. When Jesus resisted and overcame Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, you resisted and overcame Satan’s temptations in him. When Jesus perfectly honored his Father and obeyed him completely, you perfectly honored the Father in him. That’s why the Bible speaks of being justified—declared righteous—in Christ; because he is your representative, his obedience counts as your obedience. And when Jesus paid the penalty of death for sin, you paid the penalty of death in him. That’s why the Bible speaks of being forgiven and reconciled and redeemed in Christ; because he is your representative, his payment counts as your payment. When he paid sin’s penalty perfectly, once for all, God marked your account as “paid in full.”
You can see, then, that the doctrine of union with Christ is not just theoretical or theological. This isn’t an ivory tower, esoteric discussion; this is the heart of the gospel. This is the only basis of your acceptance before God: everything Jesus did counts for you. Think for a moment of the practical implications of that truth, if you really start to see it in Scripture and believe it.
When you stumble into that same pattern of sin for the ten thousandth time, you are secure in the love and favor of your Father because Jesus never stumbled. The Father considers Jesus’ obedience as counting for you. And he will not hold you accountable for your failure, because he considers it already paid for, because Jesus’ payment counts for you. That means you can boldly approach the throne of grace with confidence to ask for mercy and help (Hebrews 4:16). You don’t have to hesitate and cower like the prodigal son; you don’t have to run away and hide from him like Adam and Eve. You are accepted and beloved and righteous every moment of every day, because Jesus never sinned, and in him, you’re just as righteous as he is.
And conversely, on your best days—the days when you’ve had an hour-long quiet time and prayed for every family member and nation of the wold and shared the gospel with three people and said kind, humble things all day long—you have not added one brick to the foundation of your acceptance before God. You are still accepted only on the basis of Jesus’ perfect obedience counting for you. And that’s good news, because your best prayers were shot through with doubts, and all your kind, humble deeds were polluted with mixed motives, and you still sinned a thousand times in thought and action. Your obedience doesn’t make you any more secure than your disobedience makes you insecure. Your security, your foundation, is Jesus Christ and him alone. He is your righteousness, he is your payment for sin, and every moment of every day you can confidently say, “I am forgiven and accepted and beloved and righteous in him.”
We must get this—really get this, deep down in our hearts—if we are to live in the confidence and freedom that the gospel offers us. Fight to see this in the Word, pray for faith to truly believe it, and start venturing more and more of your hope onto the solid rock and firm foundation of your representative’s perfect obedience.
There’s an important reason why I’m lingering on this doctrine, here in this chapter on the gospel and the flesh. It’s because, after uncovering the origins of the flesh in Romans 5, this is exactly where Paul goes in Romans 6. We’re about to see that the war on the sinful flesh can only be waged from this platform: everything Jesus did counts for me.
CRUCIFIED WITH CHRIST
By the time that Paul has finished up with Romans 5, he has so highly exalted grace and made such a big deal of our acceptance before God apart from anything we do, that the question naturally arises, “Well then, does it matter at all what we do? If God forgives sin, should we go and throw a big sin party?” Paul’s answer to that question is a resounding no, but he goes about answering it by extending his argument about our union with Christ: because Jesus’ perfect obedience was credited to you, you don’t just reap the eternal consequences of his obedience, you also reap its sin-conquering power in your daily life. Because everything Jesus did counts for you, his death to sin was your death to sin, and his resurrection to new life was your resurrection to new life.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. ~Romans 6:1-4
Paul’s argument here extends our union with Christ and makes it the foundation not just of our justification, but our sanctification as well. He says that our old self was crucified with Jesus, not just so that we wouldn’t bear its condemnation anymore, but also in order that the power and presence of sin might be decisively defeated, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. We can say truly that Jesus died for us on the cross, but Paul wants us to see something else, even more mysterious and wonderful. The good news of the gospel isn’t just that Jesus died for you on the cross; it’s that when Jesus died, you died too. You were there on the cross too, because Jesus is your representative. “Our old self was crucified with him.” That’s why God can look at you and reckon your sins forgiven: the punishment for sin is death, and on the cross, you died. That’s why Paul stresses that you were baptized—joined—into Jesus’ death; that’s another way of saying, “You have been included in his death in such a way that when it happened to him, it happened to you.” The punishment has already been handed down; the payment has already been made in full.
This is the reality that Paul talks about in Galatians 2:20- “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 body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” I was executed on the cross, Paul says, and my life now is a life of union by faith with the Savior who loved me and gave himself for me. In Colossians 3:3, Paul says it this way: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” My old self is no longer my identity; my identity is now wrapped up in Jesus.
What, exactly, does it mean that “our old self” died with Jesus on the cross? Obviously, in one sense you weren’t actually there—you weren’t born yet. And yet that’s not an obstacle for a God who “inhabits eternity” (Isaiah 57:15) and invented time. If it can be truly said that we sinned in Adam, it is just as easy to say that we died to sin in Christ. 2 Timothy 1:9 says that God gave us his grace “in Christ Jesus before the ages began.” From eternity past, God planned to include you in Jesus’ death, and to execute your punishment there. And so, on that dark day in 33 AD, God took your old self—the human nature that was united with Adam and credited with the damning consequences and enslaving power of his sin—and nailed it to the cross there. The punishment that you were owed because of Adam’s sin was paid in full.
But the reality of our union with Christ is even bigger than that, and the truth that our old self was nailed to the cross with Jesus has massive implications for our struggle with the flesh today. Verse 2 puts it like this: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” We have been joined to Jesus (that’s the reality which baptism pictures) in such a way that his power of over sin and death has become our power over sin and death: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” That newness of life is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who has given you a new, tender heart that is responsive to God and has the power to say “no” to sin and “yes” to God.” By virtue of Jesus’ resurrection power over sin, you now have the ability, in him, to say “no” to the sinful desires of your flesh, and “yes” to everything that God is for you in Jesus.
ALREADY… NOT YET
But this is where it gets tricky: to what extent is that newness of life ours now? Paul says that “our old self was crucified with him… so that we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” I don’t know about you, but I still often feel enslaved to sin. If I have power to say “no” to sin, why do I still find myself saying “yes” so often? I sympathize with what Paul says in the next chapter, Romans 7: “I don’t understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Why? If my old self was crucified with Christ, doesn’t that mean it’s dead and gone? Why do I still feel like it’s alive and kicking? Did my old self somehow survive the crucifixion?
That’s where Paul goes next in his application of this doctrine of union with Christ. After saying that our union with Jesus enables us to walk in newness of life, he continues in verse 5 with an important clarification: the fullness of this redemption comes in stages.
…We too might walk in newness of life. For (because) if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Paul is making a profound argument here. We have the ability to walk in newness of life now because, just like we were united with Jesus’ death, we shall certainly one day be united with him in his resurrection. One has already happened; one hasn’t taken place yet. You can see that in the verb tenses of verse 5: “We have been united with him in a death like his… we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” One has already happened; the other has not yet fully materialized. And right now we are stuck in the middle between the already and the not yet. But the power to live free now flows from the certainty of that future event.
The whole Christian life is lived in this tension between the already and the not yet. On one hand, we have already been declared righteous; but we are not yet perfected and fully conformed to that judgment (Hebrews 10:14). We are already children of God; but we are not yet reigning with Christ in the full enjoyment of that title (1 John 3:2). We have already been given an inheritance; but we have not yet taken possession of it (Ephesians 1:14). And while we have already been crucified with Christ, we have not yet experienced the fullness of resurrection life like Jesus has (1 Corinthians 15:52). We have a taste of it now, as Romans 6:4 affirms—we walk in newness of life, indwelt by the Holy Spirit—but full freedom from death and sin is not quite ours yet.
CONSIDER YOURSELVES DEAD
But what does that mean for us now, today? I think Paul’s answer to that can be summarized like this: our “already-happened” death with Christ decisively broke sin’s power, and the way we appropriate that power in our lives today is by banking on the certainty of our “not-yet” resurrection with him. Your experience of “newness of life” and power to say “no” to sinful desires rises and falls in proportion to your firm anticipation of your future resurrection. Let’s look at the next couple verses:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For the one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
“The one who has died”—that’s you, by virtue of your union with Jesus—“has been set free from sin.” But in the next sentence, there’s the already/not yet tension again: “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” We’ve died and have been set free from sin, but aren’t yet alive in the same way that Jesus currently is. We’re still lugging around what Romans 7 calls “this body of death.” Sin’s power has been broken, but its still clinging to us, wrapped up in our bodies down to the level of our DNA. The antidote has been administered, but the poison is still circulating in our veins. Our sinful nature has been nailed to the cross, but it’s still kicking and whispering and cajoling us to join in its suicidal desires.
But in the middle of this already/not yet tension, Paul injects a note of hopeful certainty on which your entire life hangs: Jesus is currently living in the fullness of his resurrection life, and soon you will too. Verses 9-10: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.” We can have absolute confidence that Jesus’ resurrection did not fail; death has no dominion over him, and he is removed from all effects of sin and enjoying the presence of his Father forever. And that’s the guarantee we have that one day our fight with sin will be over: “we believe that we will also live with him.” Jesus won the battle in his resurrection, and because we were united with him in his death, one day we will share that victory too.
Look at the emphasis Paul puts on our faith and certainty. “If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again.” This hopeful certainty is the present-day power of our future resurrection. The poison of sin is still circulating in your veins, but to the extent you anticipate the antidote’s power, the antidote begins working now. Your hopeful certainty is the antidote’s present power.
We can see that in the way Paul describes Jesus’ resurrection life now, and what that has to do with our flesh. Paul describes Jesus’ resurrection life in verse 10: “the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.” Note that Paul didn’t say that Jesus died “for sin” (although that’s certainly true). He said that Jesus died “to sin.” When Paul says that Jesus “died to sin,” he means that all of sin’s effects are gone from Jesus forever. He is no longer subject to any temptation, and will never experience any of the consequences of sin again. Of course, he never experienced consequences of his sin, because he didn’t have any—but he did experience the consequences of your sin, and he was tempted in every way that you are. But now he has died to sin; on the cross, he took all of it on himself, brought it down to the grave, and left it there. And now that he is in heaven in the presence of his Father, “the life he lives, he lives to God.” That means he is fully focused on and committed to his Father’s glory and purposes above all else. All his life and power today is bent on completing his Father’s agenda.
That’s what Jesus’ life in heaven is like now. And—here’s the crucial connection—one day, that’s what your life will be like too. That’s the connection that Paul made in verse 5: “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” One day, all the effects and temptations and consequences of sin will be removed from you permanently, and you will finally be free to fully focus on the Father’s glory and purposes forever. That’s what heaven is for the believer: final release from every trace of remaining sin and freedom to joyfully pursue God unhindered forever. You are nearer to that reality today than you were yesterday; every day moves you closer to the finish line. Philippians 3:20-21 highlights this guarantee in both its “already” and “not yet” dimensions: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we eagerly await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” Today, by virtue of our union with Jesus’ death and resurrection, our slavery to sin is broken and our citizenship is now in heaven, and we look forward with eager anticipation to finally participating in the fullness of Jesus’ resurrection life. And it is in that eager anticipation that we find victory over the flesh in the meantime.
That’s why the way Paul makes his conclusion in verse 11 is so important:
He died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
That resurrection is your certain future, so day by day live in the good of that future victory. He died to sin and is free from all its tangling effects; so you reckon yourself similarly dead to its effects. He is alive to God and fully focused on his Father’s purposes; so you likewise fix your mind on things that are above and focus on the Father’s purposes.
God has said that these things are already true of you—in Ephesians and Colossians he says that “you have been raised up with Christ”—and even though you aren’t standing there yet, the secret to victory over the flesh is to live like that’s true. This doesn’t mean that the Christian life is some kind of mind game, an easy “believe it and it’s true” scheme. No, it’s a lot harder than that; it’s the call to trust what God says more than you trust what you feel, because what he says is more real than your feelings. The resurrection life of Jesus is yours now and will be yours fully soon, so today, live like it. When your flesh whispers for you to give into a temptation, say to your soul, “No, that desire is crucified with Christ and no longer has any claim on me. I am alive to God and, by his grace, fixed on his purposes. I don’t have to obey that desire anymore; I have better things to live for.”
SET YOUR MIND ON THINGS ABOVE
That’s the complicated yet life-changing argument of Romans 6. If Paul’s words have left your head spinning, don’t worry: I feel that way too. Living today with a radically future-oriented faith is a difficult thing to understand, let alone accomplish. So I want to end this chapter in Colossians 3, where this same flow of argument is condensed and practically applied:
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. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. ~Colossians 3:1-5
Do you see how the same flow of logic from Romans 6 is working here in Colossians 3? You are united to Jesus’ death and resurrection; therefore set your mind and attention and pursuit on heavenly things, where Christ is reigning in the fullness of his resurrection life. Do this, verse 3 says, because you have died with Christ, and your life is now wrapped up with him. Wait with eager anticipation for your own resurrection life to appear (verse 4), and in the meantime, in light of that coming glory, put to death all those earthly desires of your flesh. Put to death what has already been executed at the cross of Christ. Those earthly desires were crucified with Christ; so instead of listening to them cajoling you from the cross, take the sword of the Spirit—the promises of God—and run them through with its blade, and do not let them distract you from “seeking the things that are above” where your resurrection life is waiting for you.
In chapter 9 we will further unpack what this means practically; how, in the words of Romans 8:13, to “by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh.”
Holy Spirit, Increase my faith and help me to set my mind on things above. Help me to truly look forward to my ultimate union with Jesus, to long for my inheritance, to eagerly anticipate my full citizenship in heaven. And then help me, in the power of that anticipation, to put to death everything earthly that remains in me.