It has been difficult for me to comprehend the doctrine of the cross for a long time. What I mean by this needs a little introduction. I understand perfectly well the notion of dying to self. I understand perfectly well the crucified life. I understand perfectly well that we are new creatures. Yet, in that last statement I find my exact point: we are resurrected. The point of the cross, as I understand, is not simply to die, but that we would be raised up with Christ by the same glory that raised Him up. So, I’ve been confused about this for a while. How is it that Christ Jesus would say, “I came to give you life, and life abundantly”, but then we want to say that we have to continue to die to self?
I’ve heard many times about the notion of dying to self. We take up our crosses so that God might raise us up. Yet, if you’ve been raised, then you’ve been raised. If your life is hid with Christ in God, then your life is hid with Christ in God. If you are crucified with Christ, it is no longer you that live but Christ that lives in you, then you are crucified with Christ. If you are a new creation, then you are no longer the old creation; you are now a new creation. Do you see my dilemma? In one sense, I understand full well that I need to die to the sinful passions of my old lifestyle, and thus be raised by the glory of God unto newness of life. I understand full well what it means to taste death and now be alive in Christ. But, once I’m alive in Christ, I can no longer die.
In Romans 6, Paul makes an interesting statement: “If we have been united with [Christ] like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection… that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died once and for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive in God in Christ Jesus.”
Did you catch it? If you have died, and have been raised unto newness of life, then you cannot die again. This has an implication with the second death – the lake of fire. We know that because we have already died, we cannot die again. That old man has received its judgment, if you will allow me to say such things. Now, here is my confusion. If we have died and been raised unto life, then we can no longer die. Yet, it is told to us that we are to die daily, and that we are to continuously be giving our lives and dying to self. Just because you quote Paul’s words that he dies daily doesn’t necessitate the validity of the statement. This has perplexed me for quite sometime… until a couple days ago.
My wife and I have been looking through the seven churches mentioned in Revelation 2-3. While discussing the words of Jesus to these churches, it dawned on me what is going on with the cross here. Jesus said, “No one takes my life.” He actually believed that. His life was taken by no one. Instead, He laid it down willingly. Now, when we talk about His life being laid down, what exactly are we talking about? I would like to suggest something rather profound. The “my” being used here might not refer to Christ in totality. Who Christ is, His essence, is found in His relationship with God the Father. Likewise, the true you, the true me, is not found in my body, but instead is something more than my body. The true Jesus could not die, because it was already alive to God. Though His body went into the grave, and though Jesus descended into the depths of the earth, the statement that Jesus is making is not about death like we think it is.
Let me try to explain a different way. Because Jesus was alive to God, He could not die. So, because He willingly gave His life, it was His to take it up again. The point of the cross in this sense is not about death, but about life. It isn’t that Jesus is going to die, but that He will continue to live. Though He gives His own life, it is His to take up again. Why? Because Jesus had already passed from death to life. The reality of the cross was already at work in Him. The epochal moment of death on the cross was an ultimate climax of a succession of events that were all crosses before it. He had already died, and therefore He was already raised unto resurrection. Yet, the literal and bodily death and resurrection had not yet taken place.
Are you starting to see where I’m going here?
When we talk about dying and taking up our own crosses, what exactly are we talking about? There is a time and place to die to self and live unto God. There is a legitimacy to our phraseology of dying and being raised again. Yet, once you have passed from death to life, you no longer have to die again. You have already passed through unto eternity. You are already alive unto God. This is why Paul gets into Romans 7 and deals with our struggle with sin.
“Do you not know brothers… that the law has authority over a man only as long as he lives?”
Did you catch it? What is the point of Romans 6? WE ARE NO LONGER ALIVE TO SIN, BUT INSTEAD DEAD TO SIN. The whole point of Romans 7 is, then, to be understood as those who have not yet passed through death unto life. We might technically be saved, but we have not yet come unto the place of resurrection. One man said it this way: Many saved, few converted. Paul continues:
“So, my brothers, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might believe to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God.”
Our life is hid with Christ in God. For they who have been raised unto this glory no longer face the death to self that is required of those who have not yet died. This is why later in Romans 7 Paul says, “As it is, it is no longer I myself who [sins], but it is sin living in me.” And again, “Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” Why does Paul say this? Because the “me” being spoken of is not the same “me” that was put to death. The “me” that Paul is speaking of is the relation that I have with Christ. It is the new life. I am now alive to God, and that “me” cannot sin.
So, when we come back to our theology of the cross, we ask the question of what it means to die daily. The cross of Jesus was not about death, but instead about sacrifice. It was not about death, but instead servanthood. It was not about death, but instead selflessness. That which needed to die – the sinful man – had already died. Likewise, the cross that I bear daily is not a cross unto death that I might be resurrected. That has already happened. It is about me giving my life as a ransom for many. It is about me giving my life for my friends. Even if I descend into the deepest depths of the earth on their behalf, it is still my life to take back up. I am both priest and sacrifice, pouring myself out like a drink offering on behalf of my friends.
That is the cross as life. It doesn’t diminish my life. It doesn’t take away from who I am in God. It isn’t about dying to self. It isn’t even about dying to selfishness, because that selfishness has already died. It is about giving my life as a ransom for many. It is love covering a multitude of sins. It is me being merciful, so that through my mercy, they may obtain mercy. It is me being a living sacrifice. This theme is taken up through the whole of the book of Romans, and yet I’ve never heard anyone else proclaim it. I’ve heard others come close, but I can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone who would speak this. I no longer live, but Christ in me. Therefore, when I lay down my life as a living sacrifice, it is not me dying – it is me obtaining even greater life. Because I lay down my life willingly, it is mine to take back up again – not because I am somehow on par with Christ, but because that kind of sacrifice is what attains unto eternal reward. It is the wisdom of the Kingdom: he who loses His life shall obtain life. How much greater life do we obtain when we willingly lay down our lives in apostolic priestliness for the benefit and glory of another?
Maybe this helps us to understand why Paul tells the Philippians, “…in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing.” Again, he tells the Thessalonians, “For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been in vain.” Paul has been a living sacrifice to these churches. Has this sacrifice been a waste? But, alas! In neither instance does it seem as though Paul concludes that it has. It is a labor of love – even my own death – because I know that God has already raised me up unto life. To die is to be with Christ. My cross that I bear is no longer one of death; it is now a cross of liberty. I am not forced to die upon this cross any longer, because I have already died upon it. I now walk according to the Sprit. But, that Spirit bids me back to the cross so that I might express the same love that Christ expressed on Calvary.
The cross is life for the believer, not because we constantly die to self, but because in the laying down of our life, others find life. This challenges me, but also excites me. I hope it has the same affect on you. May the Lord work this deeply in both of us that we might obtain life and meet in Zion.