An article from John Piper, Founder / Teacher, desiringGod.org
Why do I still battle with temptation if such a decisive work has been done in me, in Christ?”
“We can’t pursue the kind of life God calls us to live if we don’t know what happened to us when became a Christian.”
These questions are so important because we can’t pursue the kind of life God calls us to live if we don’t know what happened to us when became a Christian. There’s a great deal of emphasis today, it seems to me, on what has happened for us in the cross, namely that our sins are forgiven, and that we are accepted, and that we are loved, and that we have eternal life. But there doesn’t seem to me to be as much emphasis on what has happened to us in becoming Christians, what happened to us because of the cross.
And it’s precisely this — what happened to us, what changed in us — that Paul emphasizes in Colossians 2 as the key to how we are to pursue holiness and love and righteousness and all the fruit of the Holy Spirit. So, it’s a very important question.
Buried and Raised with Christ
Sometimes we can get all tangled up in our terminology, and so, in answering the question, I’m going to stay very close to the apostle Paul’s terminology.
Paul teaches that when we become Christians through faith in Christ, we are united to Christ so that his death counts as our death. And that’s true in two senses, not just one. First, it’s true in that the punishment we deserve for our sin was taken by Christ so that his death on the cross was our condemnation and so there’s now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
But the other sense in which his death counts as our death is that we really did die with him. In a profound sense, we really did come alive with him in his resurrection. And so the question that we’re asking is, in what sense did we die? What’s dead, and in what sense do we have newness of life?
When You Became a Christian
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. (Colossians 2:11–12)
So let’s start with the text in Colossians 2:11–12: “In him” — so there’s the union piece, in union with Jesus Christ — “In him, you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh . . . ” — now that’s the phrase we pick up on: “put off the body of flesh by the circumcision of Christ” — “having been buried with him in baptism in which you were raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God who raised him from the dead.”
So Paul is describing what happens to a person when he becomes a Christian, and he symbolizes that miracle in baptism, been buried under the water and raised up out of the water to walk in newness of life like a resurrection. So first, there’s a union with Christ. He says, “In him, you were buried and raised.” Second, this union is experienced through faith. “You were raised with him through faith, in the powerful working of God.” Baptism is an expression of faith. Third, in union with Christ, we died, and in union with Christ, we were raised. Some aspect of our being died. Something new came into being by this resurrection with Christ. Fourth, Paul compares this death in baptism through faith to a circumcision made without hands. So the analogy is that just as the foreskin of the male sexual organ is cut off and thrown away, so the body of flesh is cut off and thrown away. And we’ll come back to that in just a second (what is the body of flesh?).
This raises more questions: Who died, and who came to life, when we became Christians? And Paul describes who died in at least four ways. First, he says, “I died.” Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who lived.” So I died. Number two, he says our old self died. Roman 6:6: “We know that our old self was crucified with him.” Third, he says that our flesh died. Galatians 2:24: “Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh.” Fourth, he says the body of flesh. Now that’s a reference back to what we just saw in Colossians 2:11, the body of flesh. He says that in being buried with Christ, we have put off the body of flesh.
Now putting those four ways of saying it together, here’s what I conclude. In so far as I am identified with my flesh and in so far as my body is the instrument of my flesh, I died and my body died because my flesh died. Now, what does that mean?
What Is My Flesh?
What is my flesh? And here’s Paul’s answer to that question in Romans 8:7: “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God for it does not submit to God’s law. Indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh” — that is in the control and sway of this thing called flesh — “cannot please God.” So the flesh is not synonymous with the body. The flesh is my old self in its hostility to God. It’s insubordination to God. It’s inability to submit to God and please God — that’s my flesh. That’s what died when I became a Christian. God killed my hostility to God. God killed my insubordination to God.
God killed my inability to submit to God and my inability to please God. He killed me in that sense. And in the place of that old self of hostility and insubordination and inability, God created a new self. He calls it a new creation in 2 Corinthians 5 and in Ephesians 2:10. And what are the traits of this new creation, this new self that came into being when I was united to Christ and died and rose with him? Galatians 2:19–20 give a beautiful answer that says I died to the law so that I might live to God:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me, and here comes the key phrase I think, the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.
So three ways Paul describes his new self as a Christian. First, he’s alive to God. God is real to him, precious, beautiful, desirable. He isn’t hostile to God anymore, he admires God, he loves God, he trusts God, he’s alive to God. Second, his new self lives by faith in the Son of God. So he’s no longer insubordinate and self-sufficient and self-exalting, he trusts the son of God like a little child. He submits and depends upon the mercy of God in Christ. He’s a believer, that’s what came alive. A believer came alive. And third, another way to say it is that Christ himself lives in us. I have been crucified with Christ, it is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me.
The new self of the Christian is the God-loving, son-of-God-trusting, Christ-inhabited self. That’s the new creation that came into being when I rose with Christ.
Be What You Are
Now, we are asking how this reality, not possibility, reality, these things really happen to us, we don’t make them happen, they really happen to us, how that relates to our battle with sin. And the answer is that this way of understanding ourselves is the way we do battle with sin. Paul didn’t say, “Oh, since this glorious death and resurrection has happened to you, there’s no more battle of a sin.”
He said this new reality of life from the dead and this old reality which has died with Christ is precisely the way we fight sin in our lives. For example, Colossians 2:20, he says, “If with Christ, you died to the legalistic elemental principles of dos and don’ts — do not taste, do not touch, do not handle. . . .” And he’s explaining the false religion there. If you died to those, why are you submitting to such regulations? You’re dead to those. Don’t submit to them, be who you are.
Then later in chapter 3, he said, “You have died. So put to death what is earthly in you, immorality, impurity, passion.” So Paul did not say because you have died, there’s no battle. He said, “Because you have died, reckon yourselves dead,” Romans 6:11. Reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. In the other words, be what you are.
Cleanse Out the Old Leaven
It may sound paradoxical, but it is a profound and glorious truth. God has made us what we are. In Christ, we are new creatures. We don’t make ourselves new creatures; we are new creatures. We act the miracle that he performed. He performed the miracle, we act it out.
Listen to first Corinthians 5:7: “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump of dough as you really are unleavened.” That just captures everything right in one verse. You are unleavened, so get the leaven out. I just love it.
So, I say to all of us, don’t let your death with Christ in your new life in Christ cause you to shrink back from making war on your sin as though that conflict should not be happening. Rather, let your death with Christ and your newness in Christ be the happy, confident ground where you take your stand and put to death the sin that remains.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.