During my time at music school, I had a good conversation with my buddy Dave on a lengthy drive. I really wanted Dave to understand that we are saved by grace through faith, not by our works. After a few hours of chatting, I knew Dave got the point when he said, “Okay, that sounds good. I’ll put my trust in Jesus’s death for my sins.” I was delighted—until he added, “but I want to keep on living the way I want.” I was like, “Ah . . . no, that’s not how it works.” Then Dave said, “But you say it’s not about what I do, it’s about what Jesus has done for me. So, why can’t I live how I want?” The truth is I couldn’t give a good answer. If we are saved by grace, why do we need to turn from our old way of life? At the time, I didn’t really know. And I suspect many Christians do not know how to answer that question.
Years after that conversation with my friend Dave, learning about union with Christ has helped me to understand why our lives are transformed with Jesus. And I realized that, centuries ago, the apostle Paul had already anticipated Dave’s question in Romans 6. Paul argues for five chapters that our right standing before God comes through Jesus, not by our good deeds. Then he asks, “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (romans 6:1). If we’re made right with God through Jesus, not through our own good deeds, why not just continue in the old life of sin? Paul’s short answer to that question is “By no means!” (v. 2). His longer answer takes up the rest of the chapter. Paul explains that believers have died to sin. Since we’ve been united to Jesus, we also joined him in his death (vv. 2–8).
But what does that mean practically? First, we need to understand that when Paul talks about “sin” in this chapter, he is not talking about little, everyday things we do that fail God. Instead, he means the deep corruption that dominates all humanity. We can see this throughout Romans 6 with its language of sin ruling, enslaving (vv. 6, 9, 14), reigning (v. 12), and acting like a slave master over people (vv. 16, 20). The idea is that, on our own, we are captive to the power and rule of sin’s corruption. How can we escape sin’s rule?
They say that once you’re in the mafia, there’s only one way out: death. The same is true if you want to escape the rule of Sin: the only way out is death. Death is both the penalty for sin (romans 6:23) and the path that frees us from it. The point of saying that believers have died with Christ is so that we can escape the dominion of sin’s corruption. If we have “died” already with Christ, then we have died to sin (6:2). And since we have died to sin, we are free from its corrupting power. So, Paul’s answer to the question “Should we continue in sin?” is No—we have died with Christ. We are both able and invited to live differently—free of corruption, free of self-centered obsessions, and free to live like Jesus.
But what is dying with Christ? When we first have faith in Jesus, we are joined to him. But we’re joined with not just his future, but also his past.It’s as if a man who has only a high school diploma automatically gains the degrees his wife earned on the day they say “I do.” We share in Jesus’s death (as in romans 6) and in his resurrection and ascension (ephesians 2:5–6). Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension do not remain distant events of long ago, but are connected to us spiritually because we are connected to him. Theologians call this “participation with Christ,” and it’s very important in Paul’s writings. Without participation with Christ, Paul’s theology would not make much sense. It’s how we receive what Jesus has done for us, by faith.
This chapter began with a car trip. Let’s take another one. Imagine you’re stuck in a dark, depressing town, with no way out. You feel like everyone there hates you and wants to do you harm. You feel like your soul will be destroyed if you stay in that town another minute. Then out of nowhere Jesus pulls up next to you in a fast car. He says, “Let’s get out of here!” You get in the car and speed away with Jesus. It’s not a perfect illustration, but you get the idea. If you go with Jesus, you go where he’s going. Participation with Christ is like that—we go with Jesus through death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. If you want to escape sin, go with Jesus. He gets you out of there. His story—his successes in his first advent—become our story as well.
His new reality enables Paul to live free from the world’s captivating power. He is not a slave to its corruption, but is able to live God’s way. The same is true for anyone who shares in the death of Christ—anyone who believes in him. We have died to the world, and the world is dead to us. If we let this truth sink in, it has the power to transform our way of life, our thinking, our loves, and our relationship with God and others.
Have you ever been hurt, offended, or disrespected? Of course you have. What’s your natural reaction when things like that happen to you? If I’ve been disrespected, I feel angry. If I’m offended, I feel hurt. And if I’m hurt, I end up feeling angry. The worldly value of pride often lies underneath our reactions to offense and disrespect. Our impulse is to protect our self-importance. It’s about making sure that others respect us. But if we’ve been crucified with Christ, like Paul, we can let go of pride. Our pride clamors to make us the center of the world—to make sure we get what’s ours. But in Jesus, that’s no longer necessary. Jesus has all of our interests in mind. He’s promised to take responsibility for providing for our needs, our future, and our hope (matthew 6:26; 11:28–30; 1 peter 5:7).
We’ve also been raised with Christ, which can change our priorities. As Paul says, since we’ve been raised with Christ we ought to set our hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (colossians 3:1–2). Being raised with Christ means we cherish the things that God prioritizes. If home is where the heart is, so our hearts ought to reflect where our true home is—the kingdom of God’s dear Son. Cherishing “things above” means we put greater value on the character traits such as love, mercy, and forgiveness than on pride, hate, and selfishness. It means we value Jesus more than celebrities. We care more about compassion and helping others than we do about wealth and our own comfort. It’s a growth process, sure, but we’re able to do it precisely because we’re in Christ.
The key phrase here is with Christ. If you’re a Christian, you died with Christ. You have been made alive with Christ. You have been raised up and seated in the heavens with Christ. We share in what Jesus has done for us. As we will see in the next chapter, dying and rising with Christ also “changes our address,” so that we no longer live under the realm of sin and death, but now live in the kingdom of the Son. That new address changes everything.