Dead to sin. Alive to God.
So many people want to make personal changes. God has changed us from dead to alive.
James F. Borgwardt
The general populace’s dissatisfaction with their status quo has led to many billion-dollar industries. Trainers, cosmologists, and plastic surgeons use free weights, cosmetics, and scalpels to help people sculpt and carve out a new appearance. Therapists, counselors, and life coaches utilize research, insight, and motivational speeches to lead individuals to change themselves. Such professional help can cost big bucks. Do-It-Yourselfers can find volumes of self-help books that promise to give self-starters all the direction they need.
You could argue that Christians crave change more than anyone. If a person’s desire to change is used as an indicator, some might consider Christians to be the most dissatisfied people on earth. Think about it. We daily admit to failure and always resolve to do better tomorrow. This doesn’t mean that we’re an unhappy or discontented lot. It simply means we realize that living a sanctified life—a life “set apart” to honor God—will never be perfect. There will always be room for improvement.
We earnestly desire those changes but not because we need to gain God’s favor. Jesus already earned that for us through his life, death, and resurrection. Through grace in Christ, God has adopted us as his children. He’s declared us to be holy. He’s paid our debt of sin, which means we don’t owe God anything. Not one thing.
So then why do we strive so hard to change our lives for him? For one thing, it’s simply natural. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Second, it’s vitally important. Our sanctification is a matter of life and death.
Once dead to God
Many people, even a few in the church, suppose that being a Christian and being a “good person” are one and the same. But if that were true—if being a Christian simply meant good, clean living—then the Pharisees of Jesus’ day would have received Jesus’ highest praise. Instead, they received his harshest rebukes: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean” (Matthew 23:27).
Jesus essentially called the Pharisees walking corpses. If zombie stories were all the rage then as they are now, I wonder if Jesus would have called them that. Such a shocking assessment was meant to get their attention and drive them to repentance. No matter how alive they appeared or how well they thought they kept the commandments, they were dead to God.
It wasn’t just the chronic do-gooders of this Jewish sect who received such a divine diagnosis. Pagan Gentiles who reveled in immorality were also dead men walking. Their lives just didn’t look as pretty. Consider the church in Ephesus before they became Christians. Paul reminded them: “You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world . . . gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts” (Ephesians 2:1-3).
Now alive with Christ
Whether a clean-living Pharisee or an immoral pagan, a person is spiritually dead until he encounters the Lord, the Giver of Life. Jesus once described how this vital change happens. “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24).
This is exactly what happened for the Christians in Ephesus. The Ephesians heard the voice of the Son of God through the preaching of the apostle Paul, and the dead came to life. “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4,5).
Becoming spiritually alive is no less miraculous than when God raised dead Lazarus to life with nothing more than the power of his voice. Do you remember that dramatic event? Jesus walked to the entrance of the dead man’s tomb and called, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). Obeying his Creator, Lazarus came to life and walked out of the tomb.
Your conversion was probably less dramatic, but no less miraculous. That’s why conversion to saving faith is also called the first resurrection (Revelation 20:6). That’s where we begin when thinking about the sanctified life. To set us apart for holy living, Christ made that momentous change within us. He didn’t merely smooth out some of our rough edges or refine a few personal weaknesses. He brought a dead soul to life.
Wouldn’t it be silly to think of this climactic change as any sort of a Do-It-Yourself project? God did all the work here. Christ reversed the natural progression of things,
moving us from tomb to womb, as he explained to Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again. . . . No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:3,5). This new life was a spiritual rebirth, brought about at our baptism.
And dead to sin
When a close friend and I joke back and forth, we can insult each other pretty deeply. If I get him real good, he might jokingly respond, as if gravely offended, “You’re dead to me.” When spoken in jest between friends, it’s funny because it’s such a shocking statement. I couldn’t imagine saying something so hateful and actually mean it—except when I battle against my sinful nature. Sins that I once loved, I now hate and struggle to stay away from. This is the part of a sanctified life in which I take action: counting myself dead to sin.
Think of Lazarus again. Imagine that hours after he came back to life, when he was ready to turn in for the night, he returned to his grave to curl up for a good night’s sleep. After all, he had slept there the last four nights. Was he starting to get used it? Unthinkable!
Returning to our old sins is no less ludicrous! God tells us to view sinful choices this way. “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness” (Romans 6:11-13).
God is in the change business. And so are we. Our sanctified living began with the death-to-life change God brought about at our baptism through the power of Christ’s resurrection. It continues with daily choices he empowers us to make as we consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
James Borgwardt is pastor at Redeemer, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.
This is the first article in a six-part series on sanctification and good works.
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Author: James F. Borgwardt
Volume 102, Number 6
Issue: June 2015
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