– by Tim Savage –
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.
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.