What does it mean to be dead to sin?

What does it mean to be dead to sin?

Lingering. Habitual. Out of control. How would you describe the persistence of sin in your life? Many Christians, even though they are sincerely committed to following Christ, continue to live with besetting sins. They continue to feel as if they are powerless to overcome the impulse to act against God's commands and their own better judgment. It's easy to believe this is just the way things are. Nobody's perfect, right? Pretending like we are feels self-righteous or hypocritical. Popular culture accepts, and sometimes celebrates, the fact that we each have our deep and personal hang ups. Everyone has a skeleton in her closet. It's not a matter of if you have an addiction, a secret indulgence, a private vice. It's a matter of which one and when it will come to light. If this is true, maybe we should just accept our weaknesses and embrace them as part of who we are.

But here the Scriptures stop us. A persistent theme of the New Testament, especially in the letters by Paul, is that the sinful habits we find so hard to shake are not an integral part of us. We are not condemned to sin forever. Instead, Paul insists that Christians can be "dead to sin." As John Wesley explained it, this means being "[f]reed both from the guilt and from the power of it." That's a counter-cultural message in a society convinced we're all broken beyond repair.

Dead in Sin

It is true that left to our own devices we are all doomed to struggle unsuccessfully against our sinful tendencies. That's because before we can ever hope to be "dead to sin," all of us are born "dead in sin." Paul writes in Ephesians 2:1 that before we become Christians, we are all "dead in [our] transgressions and sins." Of course he does not mean that we are physically dead. Rather, the life of a person who has not experienced new life in Christ is characterized by spiritual death. This means that person is separated from God's salvation. But it also means that it is impossible for that person to produce spiritual fruit, to show signs of life. Imagine such a person as a dead branch broken from a tree in a storm. Where it lies on the ground, separated from its source of nourishment, it will never again produce tender buds or green leaves or sweet fruit.

The Reformation theologian John Calvin summarized the situation this way in his commentary on Ephesians 2:1: "He [Paul] does not mean simply that they were in danger of death; but he declares that it was a real and present death under which they labored. As spiritual death is nothing else than the alienation of the soul from God, we are all born as dead men, and we live as dead men, until we are made partakers of the life of Christ."

According to Romans 5, we are in this predicament because of the sin of the first human, Adam. Sin entered the world "through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people" (Rom. 5:12). Now the only way we can find liberation from sin is through death, for "anyone who has died has been set free from sin" (Rom. 6:7). As if that were not bad news enough, matters get worse. If we die physically without being reconciled to God through Christ, then we also die spiritually and spend eternity separated from him.

So there we are: because of the sin of Adam, we are that broken branch, separated from our source of life. And as a branch is helpless to change its circumstances, so are we. Humans are totally dependent upon God for life. Without his intervention, we will be forever dead in sin.

Dead to Sin

That's the bad news. But Paul also delivers very good news. Remember that the only way to be free of sin is through death. Fortunately there is a way to die to sin without suffering physical death. Paul explains in Romans 6 that those who are in Christ, by faith and through baptism (v. 3), participate in his death on the cross. "For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin" (v. 6). In other words, because Christ died, those who are united with Christ have died, too. Moreover, Christ did not stay dead; God raised him from the dead. And just as we participate in Christ's death through faith, we also participate in his resurrection: "Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him" (v. 8).

This makes us "dead to sin" and "alive to God in Christ Jesus" (v. 11). Being dead to sin means that sin no longer has jurisdiction over us. Returning to the image of the dead branch, imagine that it has been grafted onto a live tree by a master gardener. Now its brittle limbs become limber again. It produces buds and leaves and fruit. Although it was previously characterized by death, now it is characterized by life. In Christ, all is made new. Though in our natural condition we are dead in sin, through Christ we are dead to sin.

Living Alive to Christ

Paul seems to prefer to use the more positive image and say that we are now "alive to God in Christ." And he insists that this transition from death to life has already taken place—really and truly—in the death and resurrection of Christ. It has happened in the spiritual realm, the "heavenlies." And that means, of course, that we can't witness this change with our naked eyes. If I become a Christian on Tuesday, I may not feel all that different on Wednesday. It's true that some new believers are immediately and radically delivered from previous sins. I grew up on a steady diet of conversion testimonies in which such stories were told: a man was an alcoholic and philanderer until one day—wham—just like that he makes a clean start. This wasn't my experience. For the rest of us, transition may be much less dramatic. But that makes it no less real.

Paul knew very well that his readers were likely converts of the less dramatic sort. In fact, that's the point of his entire discussion in this section of Romans. After explaining the metaphysical realities of our association with Christ in his death and resurrection, Paul brings the point home. "In the same way," he writes, "count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:11). In other words, it's not enough simply to know that we are new creations; we have to embrace the concept, and that means changing our behavior.

At this point Paul gives two commands in the active voice: "do not let sin reign" in your bodies and "Do not offer any part of yourself to sin" (vv. 12-13). To keep on sinning would be inconsistent with your new character as one who is "dead to sin." It would be a bit like speaking in a phony accent. To be dead to sin means sin is alien to us. It's out of character.

What Paul is getting at here is that we have to take active steps in order to stop sinning. The power of sin is broken, which means that we can have success in our striving against sin. Our shackles have been unlocked. But we have to take the steps to leave the dungeon. In other words, all our struggles and weaknesses don't vanish when we become Christians. The life of faith will always involve temptation. It will also likely include falling short. But we can struggle knowing that victory is secured in Christ.

Giving the Spirit a Fighting Chance

In other places, Paul uses the metaphor of clothing to describe the way Christians ought to think about their relationship to sin. He encourages them to "take off" the old nature (sin) and "put on" virtues appropriate for a new creation in Christ (Eph. 4:22-32; Col. 3:8-10). This is more easily said than done. Old habits die hard. If we want to let Christ reign in our lives through the Holy Spirit, then we have to make a concerted effort to abandon the behaviors that characterize being dead to sin.

For centuries, Christians have used spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting to achieve a life of victory over sin. The disciplines orient the heart and will toward Christ and weaken the power of sin. They aren't magic spells. And they don't accomplish anything on their own. God uses them to do his work in us. In his now classic book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster explains, "God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us." All this is to say that actively "putting off" our old, sinful behaviors and "putting on" the new behaviors characteristic of life in Christ help break our sin habits. Spiritual disciplines give the Holy Spirit a chance to produce spiritual fruit in our lives.

If you are a Christian who continues to struggle with sin you just can't shake, don't lose hope. Don't buy the world's message that sin is inevitable. Take heart from Paul's extraordinary claim: "you have been raised with Christ" (Col. 3:1)! As far as God is concerned, you are dead to sin, freed from its power. Like the prodigal son who finally looked up from the mud and slop of the pigsty to realize that he did not belong there, embrace your identity as a child of God made alive to Christ. And strive knowing God has already won the victory.

Brandon J. O'Brien is a writer and teacher whose most recent book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (IVP 2012), is forthcoming. He lives with his wife and son in the Chicago suburbs.

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