One of the most remarkable assertions of the apostle Paul is that Christians actually die with Christ.
What does this mean?
Paul explains in a letter to the church of Colossae.
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used)? . . . they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:20-23).
This is a typical Pauline sentence, over-packed with words and jumbled syntax. The apostle is trying to compress a multitude of thoughts into a single breath.
AS THOUGH WE DIED
He begins with the affirmation: “If with Christ you died . . . ”
At first blush, it is a puzzling affirmation. Surely only one person died on the cross and it was not us. It was Jesus.
How can Paul write, “if with Christ you died”?
There can be only one answer: what happened to Jesus on the first Good Friday happened, in some sense, to us as well. It is as though we died with Jesus.
Paul’s explains the mutual death in the following way: “we know that our old self was crucified with [Christ] in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin . . . for sin will have no dominion over [us]” (Rom. 6:6, 14).
It was "our old self” that died with Christ, specifically the old self in its attachment to sin. Because we have been crucified with Christ, we are “no longer . . . enslaved to sin.” For the first time in our lives, we are no longer dominated by sin. We are able not to sin.
DEAD TO ELEMENTAL FORCES
In Colossians, Paul identifies the sin to which we are no longer bound. We have died “to the elemental spirits of the world” (Col. 2:20).
Scholars have puzzled over the identity of the “elemental spirits of the world.” To what do they refer? Most likely they refer to the selfish desires which prompt us to make a life for ourselves apart from God. It is certainly true that such desires pervade humanity—indeed, nothing in our “world” is more “elemental” than “spirits” of selfishness.
To such “spirits” we have died.
Selfish impulses have not themselves died. They are still very much alive. Rather, it is we who have died to them.
Liberated from the selfish gene, we are no longer enslaved to self.
SET FREE FROM OURSELVES
Too few of us are aware of this liberation. Even many Christians struggle to come to grips with the meaning of co-crucifixion with Christ.
That is why Paul delivers a rebuke to his Colossian converts. “Why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch?’”
That is to say, why do you let yourself be dogmatized by the world? Why do you allow your peers to determine what you handle, taste, and touch? Why do you yield to the social dogmas of the day regarding self-image, personal ambitions, and financial security?
The dogmas of the world won’t take you very far. Indeed as Paul says, they will “perish as they are used.” In other words, they will die in your hands.
SET FREE FROM THE FLESH
My first exposure to death was an encounter with a rotten duck. I stumbled onto its dead body when I was four years old, walking alongside a lake in Los Angeles. Before my mother could whisk me away from the putrid sight, I managed to steal a glimpse at its maggot-infested gut. Instantly, I withdrew, taking two steps backwards. Even though just a young child, I knew instinctively not to touch the gruesome remains. I knew they would contaminate me.
As adults, we should be so discerning. Consider the things we touch every day: money, sex, and power. How we love to fasten our grip on these things. None of them is bad in itself— handled well, money, sex, and power can bring many blessings. But when we look to them for fullness of life, we are invariably disappointed. As inanimate objects, they are powerless to create life. To think otherwise is to watch them rot in our hands.
Hence Paul ventures a bold assertion. Money, sex, and power, and other earthly things like them, “are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” Here the word flesh is a synonym for selfish desires. Pursuing money, sex, and power will not assuage selfish desires. It will not stop the indulgence of the flesh. On the contrary, it will excite the flesh. It will exacerbate selfish desires still more.
Evidence for this abounds.
Alexander the Great had immense power, conquering most of the civilized world, but when his troops were too exhausted to push into India, he broke down and wept. Much power was not enough power. He wanted more.
Robert Louis Stevenson won fame as one of history’s most beloved storytellers, writing such classics as Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But his last words, the self-composed epitaph of his tombstone, were doleful. “Here lies one who meant well, tried a little, and failed much.” Much fame was not enough fame. He wanted more.
Claude Monet, impressionist painter par excellence, was downcast at the end. “I always wanted to believe that I would make headway and finally do something worthwhile. But, alas, I must now bury that hope.” Much success was not enough success. He wanted more.
Most of us can identify with these disappointments. When we pursue material things as though our lives depended on them, none truly satisfies. Worse, each perishes in our hands, contaminates our lives, and excites the flesh still more.
LIBERATION IN CHRIST
Happily, there is a better way. It is the liberation offered by Jesus. Through his death, he loosens the shackles of the flesh. He sets us free from selfishness and the self-serving dogmas of the world. He liberates us from the contaminating spirits of our day.
It is imperative to grasp the full significance of this liberation.
On the final night of July in 1834, eight hundred thousand slaves of the British Empire rose to celebrate their liberation. By a decree of Parliament, the night of their cruel bondage was coming to an end. In the words of famed historian George Trevelyan, at the strike of midnight an entire race of people climbed “onto the hilltops to watch the sun rise, bringing them freedom as its first rays struck the waters.”
For emancipated slaves, it was history’s finest hour. To this day we celebrate the victory. Yet abolition did not put an end to the evils associated with slavery. The scourge of racism and social injustice remain with us today.
While the victory was won, it was not fully implemented.
It is the same with our liberation from sin. What was accomplished on the cross of Christ was a full and final victory. Vanquished once and for all was the dominion of sin.
Dying with Christ, we are no longer bound to sin. But the victory has not been fully implemented. Christians—even Christians—still sin.
The apostle John cautions us against thinking otherwise. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).
Instead, we must acknowledge lingering sin, indeed, confront lingering sin. Doing so, John invites us to a tree outside Jerusalem, the cross of Jesus Christ, where, in repentance, we receive forgiveness of sins.
“If we confess our sins, [Jesus] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Lapsing into selfish thoughts and self-serving behavior is something we all do. But we are not bound to continue. We are free from the domination of sin. Cleansed and forgiven, we are able not to sin.
Seldom a day passes that I don’t succumb to self-seeking desires. The allure of the elemental spirits is strong. I still pursue the imagined rewards of power, fame, pleasure, influence, and success as though they were the ultimate building blocks of my life.
JOINED TO CHRIST
Yet I am no longer enslaved to that pursuit. I am no longer dogmatized by it. Because of my co-crucifixion with Christ, I have come out from under its grip.
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).
Joined to Christ, I am no longer yoked to sin.
Praise God—we have died with Christ!
Content taken from Discovering the Good Life by Timothy B. Savage, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
Tim Savage (PhD, University of Cambridge; ThM, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a pastor, author, international conference speaker, and founding council member of the Gospel Coalition. He has served in churches in Arizona, Great Britain, and Texas. He is married to Lesli and they have two adult sons, Matthew and Jonathan. Tim is the author of No Ordinary Marriage.