When the Scriptures seek to illustrate the nature of the Christian life, the nature of sanctification, it uses two images: death and life. Note the order, death then life. In the covenant of works, made with Adam as the federal representative of all humanity, had in view eternal life and blessedness with God. There was, however, a threatened curse: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). Mysteriously, inexplicably, Adam chose death rather than life. He chose to enter into a covenant of death with the Evil One. The only remedy for our plight was death. After the fall God came to him and promised a curse upon the serpent and a Savior to fallen humanity:
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:14–15; ESV).
The Evil One was doomed. The eternal life promised originally in the Tree of Life, offered in the covenant of works (sometimes called the covenant of life) shall come A head crusher was to come but the salvation to be brought by the Seed of the Woman was to be costly. The serpent will strike his heel even as he triumphs over the serpent. The Savior will conquer but it will cost his own life. After the fall, life comes through death. So it is with the Christian life. We live in Christ but our life begins with our identification with Christ’s death.
In the Heidelberg Catechism we confess:
43. What further benefit do we receive from the sacrifice and death of Christ on the cross?
That thereby our old man is crucified, slain and buried with Him, that so the evil lusts of the flesh may no more reign in us, but that we may offer ourselves unto Him a sacrifice of thanksgiving.
The catechism is in three parts: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. We’re in the midst of the second part of the catechism, which is unfolding God’s grace to sinners. We’re looking at the accomplishment of redemption but even before we get to its application, as we consider Christ’s death for us and his accomplishment of salvation, we must give some thought to one of the great outcomes of his death: the sanctification of the believer. Not only should believers have confidence that God will freely accept believers for Christ’s sake alone (justification) and has saved us, is saving us, and shall save us by his favor alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), but by virtue of our union with Christ we shall also be conformed to the image of Christ (sanctified).
This is just how Paul talks about our new life in Christ.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 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 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 (Rom 6:5–11; ESV).
Each Spring, in observance of Easter, there is a bizarre ritual in the Philippines, where well-intended Christians are crucified and paraded. This is not the sort of union with Christ that Paul has in mind. Being literally crucified is not sanctification. Nowhere does Scripture commend to us that sort of thing. It does commend genuine moral renewal, purity, and Christlikeness. That only happens by God’s grace (undeserved favor) through a spiritual union with Christ and that union happens only through faith, which is God’s gift to his people (Eph 2:8–10).
Those who have been united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith alone, “shall,” as Paul says, “be united with him in a resurrection life his….” In other words, the Christian life is a dying to self and sin and living to Christ but the outcome is a glorious resurrection—not because we have been good but because God is gracious and graciously at work in us. Resurrection leads to glorification, which is the consummation of the good work that God began in us when he gave us new life and true faith (Phil 1:6). Christ’s death puts to death the reigning power of sin. Believers have been delivered from its perpetual control.
This truth does not mean that we personally experience the full realization of this truth but there is, in us, by the Spirit, a principle of new life. Before we were united to Christ we were dead men walking. We were zombies. Now, in Christ, the chains of death have been broken. By God’s grace we can resist sin (James 4:7). We can flee temptation (1 Cor 10:13). A zombie doesn’t know he is one. Now, having been given new life, having been united to Christ we are able to see what we were. We’re able to see a real difference.
In Colossians 2:12 Paul makes the same argument. Paul says,
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead (Col 2:11–12; ESV).
We are “in Christ” by God’s free favor, through faith alone, by the work of the Spirit. By virtue of that union we “were circumcised” not literally, physically but figuratively. The act of circumcision was about cutting away uncleanness. It was also a ritual death. Then Paul turns to baptism to illustrate the same truth. It too is a ritual death and the putting off of uncleanness (Heb 10:22; Titus 3:5). Circumcision and baptism are outward identifications with Christ. Circumcision looked forward to the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ.
As we meditate on Christ’s death for us we must always remember that, by virtue of our union with him, we also died with him. Because that is so, we sin has been put to death in us and we are free, the Spirit helping us, to put to death the old man and to be made alive by the Spirit in the new man. In the life our sanctification is always only inchoate, i.e., it is always and only a small beginning but it is a beginning. We may now, in Paul’s words, by his mercies, offer ourselves to God as a “living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom 12:1).