How Can I Change?/United With Christ
From Gospel Translations
When I was converted in 1972, in the wake of the charismatic and Jesus movements, I wasn’t impressed by logical arguments about God or the Christian life. Mine was an irreverent generation, a “get high and stay high” generation. I was more likely to mock any serious conversation on the subject of religion than listen.
What I needed was an experience with God. And that is exactly what I got.
I met a Christian family whose joyful lives made a tremendous impression on me. They talked about Jesus as if he were right there, and they acted as if his life made a real difference to them. At first I thought it was quaint. But then I became curious. I was attracted by the quality of their lives. And when they explained that it had not always been this way for them, but that Jesus had changed their lives, I began to hope the same could be true for me.
By “changed life” I am referring to the difference Jesus Christ makes in a person’s manner, habits, and worldview, even down to the very core of his nature. This family was solid proof that God did indeed make a difference. And when I was born again and my life began to change, I too concluded that Jesus is alive.
But I also learned that change involves more than a one-time experience. We need to understand how change happens, why it happens, and who makes it happen. These issues are squarely addressed in Scripture. Here’s where to go if you want to grow.
A Letter to Rome
How do we overcome sin and live victoriously in Christ? Christians everywhere are looking for answers to this question...many of them in the wrong places. As you might expect, God has given the answer in his Word. The sixth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome has long been recognized for its essential contribution to the doctrine of sanctification. In it we find Paul contending for a proper understanding of what it means to live as a Christian. But it would be a mistake to try to discover Paul’s meaning in Romans 6 without regard for its context, so a brief review of the letter is in order.
Romans, more than any of Paul’s other letters, systematically sets out the doctrine of salvation. After some introductory remarks, he unleashes a stinging indictment of the entire human race, showing that all men are guilty as sinners before God. He then explains how God justifies those sinners through faith in Jesus Christ. This is the gist of the first four chapters.
In Chapter 5 Paul begins to talk about the peace and assurance that come to us as a direct result of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. We now have peace with God and can rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. We can even rejoice in tribulations that come our way because they develop our character and produce hope. God’s love has been poured out upon us through the Holy Spirit. And since these great things were done for us when we were his enemies, we can be all the more assured of God’s continued grace now that we’re his friends.
In the latter part of Chapter 5 Paul sketches a comparison and contrast between Jesus and Adam, showing that the sacrifice of Christ more than compensates for the misery caused by Adam’s sin. He ends the chapter with these two verses:
The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Ro 5:20-21, emphasis added)
Paul would like to go on describing the blessings of justification, but he pauses, realizing hislast statement could easily be misinterpreted. Thus he begins Chapter 6 with a frontal assault on those who would try to twist his meaning: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (Ro 6:2).
When rightly preached, the gospel of grace will always be open to the charge that it promotes lawlessness. Wherever Paul went he was hounded by opponents who accused him of teaching people that since they were forgiven, it did not matter how they lived. This was how they distorted his reasoning: “If God forgives us freely by grace (which he does) and if it is true that God’s grace is magnified in the forgiving of sin (which it is), then why not sin all the more so that more grace flows and God receives more glory?”
“Not so fast.” says Paul. “You’re missing something fundamental. Through this gospel, we died to sin. And if that’s the case, how can we go on living in it?”
Paul spends the rest of Chapter 6 countering this charge of lawlessness, or antinomianism. In doing so, he not only answers his critics but supplies us with some of the richest teaching to be found in the New Testament. For here we discover what it means to be united with Christ, a status that radically alters our relationship to sin.
Were You There?
We can all look back on individuals who have influenced our lives: our parents, a special friend, or perhaps an effective elementary school teacher. But Jesus Christ is different from any other. It’s certainly true that many who have never been born again have been influenced by our Lord’s example and teaching, but the New Testament has always held that real faith in Jesus Christ leads to a relationship much more penetrating and infinitely more significant than mere moral influence. Paul talks about our being “in Christ” and Christ being “in us.” And the implications of this mysterious union are, without any exaggeration, astounding.
John R.W. Stott has written,
The great theme of Romans 6, and in particular verses 1-11, is that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are not only historical facts and significant doctrines, but personal experiences of the Christian believer. They are events in which we ourselves have come to share. All Christians have been united to Christ in his death and resurrection. Further, if this is true, if we have died with Christ and risen with Christ, it is inconceivable that we should go on living in sin.
Below are the verses from Romans chapter six that highlight our union with Christ: Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin. (Ro 6:3-6, emphasis added)
That our Lord actually conquered death is an overwhelming truth. Yet, as amazing as this is, it is perhaps more remarkable that we are considered as being united with him in his death, burial, and resurrection. Paul reiterates this truth in another letter:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20, emphasis added)
Note the phrases “with Christ” and “in me” in the passages above. They point to our union with Jesus Christ. Paul uses the act of baptism to remind us of these truths. What he is eager to show, however, is not baptism, but the faith that leads to baptism. It’s upon this faith that our present union with Christ is built.
So what are the implications of this relationship? Somehow we are connected to Jesus Christ himself. And this is one of those cases where who you know is a lot more important than what you know—a lesson I learned in a Connecticut deli.
In 1974 my younger sister Joyce and I visited our aging grandmother in Bridgeport, Connecticut. One day Joyce suggested we go across the street to the deli and get some subs. But Grandma’s neighborhood had been deteriorating, and as soon as we walked in I knew we had made a big mistake. The place was packed with hardened, menacing-looking teenagers. Things got quiet as all eyes fixed on us—and no one was smiling.
A number of thoughts crossed my mind. Do they think we’re invading their turf? I wonder if they’re old enough to know you can get in trouble for murder?
I still get nervous thinking about it. Joyce, on the other hand, was cool as a cucumber. Although attractive and very feminine, she had spent a couple of years as a director at a Job Corps training camp in Montana where she gained valuable experience handling punks. And in future years she would go on to serve as a public health nurse in Alaska, hike much of the Appalachian Trail, and work as a shock trauma nurse. (These are just the highlights.) I guess you could say she was fearless.
But not I. As we stood there, surrounded by imminent danger, Joyce sensed my apprehension. She said in a voice I thought much too loud, “What’s the matter? You scared?” I didn’t feel like answering, at least not then. We somehow managed to get our subs and left a few minutes later without incident. Safely outside, I said to her, “Joyce, this is a dangerous part of town. I’m glad you’re with me. I need the protection.” It’s not what you know, but who you know that counts.
The Meaning of Union
All Christians—not just the spiritual elite—are united with Jesus Christ. If one is not united to Christ, he is not a Christian. 
Our union with Christ is a living relationship that provides us with the grace to overcome sin and live victorious lives. Jesus is the author and finisher of our faith, the captain of our salvation. He is the pioneer who has gone before us and has even conquered death. Sinclair Ferguson describes him as the lead climber of a team scaling the holy mountain of Zion. We’re roped to him. And just as surely as he has triumphed, so will we.
This relationship can also be seen in the imagery our Lord himself uses when he says, “I am the vine; you are the branches” (Jn 15:5). We are told to abide in him, for apart from him we can do nothing. The King James Version brings this out as well: “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also [in the likeness] of [his] resurrection...” (Ro 6:5 KJV, emphasis added). Our union with Christ is dynamic, not static. He has grafted us into a growing relationship.
Whether or not we feel united with Christ is of secondary importance; the fact is, we are. This is our status as believers. Does a marriage cease to exist just because a husband and wife feel distant from each other? Of course not. They remain legally united even if their affections grow cool for a season. Feelings—or the lack thereof—in no way jeopardize the fact of our union with Jesus.
Marriage offers a beautiful analogy of our bond with Christ. In marriage, two people come together to form a new entity, a union. They retain their individual identities while merging in a way that is unique and mysterious. The woman takes the name of her husband, showing her submission to him. The husband assumes responsibility for his wife’s support and protection. They hold all assets and liabilities in common, and wear rings as symbolic evidence of their special relationship.
So it is when we are wed to Jesus Christ. Though we retain our own personalities, our natures are dramatically changed as we become partakers of the divine nature. We are no longer the same people we were before. We belong to Christ, having taken his name. We have identified ourselves with him, desiring to be known as his, no matter the cost. We bring all our assets and liabilities into the relationship and so does he. (What an apparently bad deal for the Lord—he gets our sin and we get his righteousness!) And lastly, baptism is the “wedding ring” which tells a watching world we belong to him.
Our union with Christ is an enduring and eternal union. Jesus reassured his disciples with the promise, “You also may be where I am” (Jn 14:3). The clear meaning is that we will one day enjoy the Lord’s physical presence, just as we enjoy his spiritual presence now.
That the Christian is united to Jesus Christ is a clear fact. But just how we are united to him is a matter of deep mystery. We know this is effected by the Holy Spirit. To quote Lewis Smedes:
The Spirit is the living bond between him and us. He takes what is Christ’s and brings it “down” to us. The Spirit is always pictured in personal terms. He is not like a pipeline through which some stuff called life is poured into us at the other end. He is always a living, dynamic creator of life; he brings us to our spiritual senses, opens our eyes to the reality of Christ, nourishes our faith, disciplines us, and, above all, engrafts us into the living Christ.
We haven’t been eliminated in this union, but Christ has been added. We haven’t been eliminated, but we have been changed by the Spirit who has taken up residence within us. Furthermore, we haven’t been handed a guidebook and told to find our way to heaven. Instead, we’ve been given a Guide who will escort us there personally.
Shall We Continue in Sin?
As we noted above, Paul answers this question with a resounding negative. We cannot continue in sin, he argues, because “we died to sin.” Unfortunately, this phrase has been subject to misinterpretation, sometimes with catastrophic results.
One popular Bible teacher takes Paul’s statement to mean sin no longer has any pull on the Christian. He poses this question: If you took a dead man and propped him against the wall, then paraded before him some scantily clad women, what effect would it have on him? No effect at all. Why? Because he’s dead. Sin can no longer entice him.
Though certainly appealing, this interpretation contradicts human experience and renders unintelligible the multitude of biblical warnings to avoid sin. Paul urges us not to yield our bodies to sin (Ro 6:12-14), an admonition “entirely gratuitous if we had so died to sin that we were now unresponsive to it.”Those who think they are somehow beyond temptation ignore the apostle’s warning to the Corinthians: “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1Co 10:12).
Some have tried to understand Paul’s phrase “we died to sin” as an imperative, a command, something the Christian must perform. The next step is to insist that every Christian have a “death to sin” or “death to self” experience: “You need to die to self. And if it hasn’t happened, you need to reckon it to be so until it does.”
If we see “dying to sin” as something we must perform, we’re headed toward serious discouragement...or worse. I believe this is why many seem to fall so suddenly. (Remember my friend Greg?) They struggle to maintain an outward appearance of victory while on the inside their lives are a mass of frustration. Then when they finally run out of gas, they have no hope for trying again. Having already given it their best shot, they don’t see how they can possibly make it.
I think Sinclair Ferguson has the more accurate interpretation of this death to sin. He writes, “Paul is not telling us to do something; he is analyzing something that has taken place.”Despite our ongoing vulnerability to sin’s enticement, two things can be said with certainty for those who have been united with Christ:
We died to the penalty (or guilt) of sin. Scripture states clearly that “the wages of sin is death” (Ro 6:23). Death is the penalty for sin. Yet our Lord’s death eliminated sin’s penalty. And because we are “in him,” we too have died to the penalty of sin. Another way of saying this is, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Ro 8:1).
We died to the reign of sin. As a result of our union with Christ in his death, we are no longer obligated to sin. This is exciting! It’s not that we’re not able to sin but that we’re able not to sin. Paul says, “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Ro 6:14).
Slavery is a prominent theme in Romans 6, where two very different types of slavery are presented. Before becoming Christians we were slaves of sin. We had no choice but to sin. Now that we are in Christ we are slaves of God. The master/slave relationship we had with sin has been broken. God is now our master. It is therefore correct to say, “I don’t have to serve sin today. I have been set free.” But the only person who may truly say this is the person who is God’s bondslave.
Though we have died with Christ, Scripture exhorts us to “put to death the misdeeds of the body” that we may live (Ro 8:13). We hope Appendix B, starting on page 96, will shed light on this potentially confusing topic.
What It Takes to Change
So much for the foundation for victory.How does it work out in actual practice?
I have had many opportunities to lean on these truths in my own life and pastoral ministry. On more than one occasion, men struggling with sexual fantasies have asked me for help in renewing their mind. Lust is a matter starkly antithetical to the whole notion of holiness. Those dealing with it are desperate for deliverance. But lasting help rarely comes immediately.
I recall one man in his early thirties who displayed the proper attitude toward this problem. His conscience had been awakened and he saw his sin in the light of God’s holiness. Because he wanted to be free to glorify God he was very motivated and willing to do the work necessary to grow in holiness. These were the thoughts I shared with him from Romans 6:
Know the truth. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Ro 6:6)
We must first know in order to believe. Spiritual knowledge precedes faith. I suggested to this man that he start by memorizing the sixth chapter of Romans. Paul later states that “the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Ro 8:6). What better way to be spiritually minded than to fill one’s mind with Scripture?
It is much easier to follow Jesus’ example of fighting temptation with the Word of God when that Word has been stored in the heart. “I have hidden your word in my heart that I may not sin against you” (Ps 119:11). We need to have the truth in our hearts and on the tips of our tongues. As we memorize and meditate on Scripture, we’ll be transformed from spiritual pushovers who cave in to the slightest temptation to spiritual warriors who say, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
Count it to be true. “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Ro 6:10-11, emphasis added)
|5 Battling sin begins in your mind. Draw a line connecting each of the destructive thoughts below with the verse that most effectively refutes it.|
|“I’m all alone tonight... what if someone breaks in?”|| Php 4:13|
| “I’m so ugly and fat—there’s no use sticking to this diet.”|| 1Co 10:13|
| “I just don’t have the guts to tell my boss about Jesus.” || 2Ti 1:7|
| “I’ll never be able to maintain my virginity.”|| Mt 19:26|
| “How could I possibly forgive him for what he did?” || Ps 139:14 |
“This is no game of ‘let’s pretend,’” writes theologian F.F. Bruce. “Believers should consider themselves to be what God in fact has made them.”  Because we are dead to sin, the penalty and guilt of sin is no longer an issue. We have Jesus to thank for that. But beyond this, we are no longer obligated to sin, because sin is no longer our master. Its dominion is over. And not only have we died to sin, but we are alive to God in Christ Jesus! This phrase brings us back once again to our union with Christ and all the blessings associated with that happy principle.  “Count yourselves dead” uses an accounting term which could also be translated “reckon” or “calculate.” If I were trustworthy and told you I had deposited money in your bank account, you would count on it being there. In essence, Paul is saying, “Don’t act like a loser, because you’re not a loser. Act like the child of God you are.”
Offer yourself to God. “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.” (Ro 6:13, emphasis added)
We have a choice to make—many choices—every day. We may offer the parts of our body to God for use in righteousness, or we may offer them for wicked use. Our minds, tongues, eyes, and other parts of our body are themselves morally neutral. But the way in which we choose to use them determines whether we honor or grieve God.
Sinful habits do not develop overnight, and rarely are they changed overnight. Only through the persistent application of God’s truth can they be overcome. But as Jay Adams notes, this requires perseverance:
Too many Christians give up. They want the change too soon. What they really want is change without the daily struggle. Sometimes they give up when they are on the very threshold of success. They stop before receiving. It usually takes at least three weeks of proper daily effort for one to feel comfortable in performing a new practice. And it takes about three more weeks to make the practice part of oneself. Yet, many Christians do not continue even for three days. If they do not receive instant success, they get discouraged. They want what they want now, and if they don’t get it now, they quit.
One lady I know had been plagued with fearful and depressing thoughts stemming from sins committed against her in years past. Her negative thoughts had her in a spiritual prison. If she reflected on those former experiences or encountered a present difficulty, a phonograph needle in her mind would come down and begin playing a familiar time-worn blues LP. Thought patterns repeated over the years had worn deep mental grooves which played the same depressing songs over and over again.
But then she learned she didn’t have to sing along. Christ Jesus died on the cross to shatter those records. As that awareness grew, she began to recognize the old melancholic tunes when they began and quickly replaced them with new songs from God’s Word.
When people hear the liberating truth that past experiences need no longer dictate their present actions, hope springs up in their hearts. It’s no longer our past, but Christ’s past that is now the decisive factor in our lives, because we’re united with him in his death and his new life. I have had to learn that when memories of past sins crowd into my mind, I must refer immediately to my union with Jesus Christ. Now, rather than being paralyzed by condemnation, I’m typically able to turn such memories into an opportunity to thank God for forgiving my sin...even that one.
Lancaster, Pennsylvania is home to an excellent ministry for unwed mothers. The House of His Creation was founded and led by Jim and Anne Pierson for many years. On one occasion Anne told me of a recurring difficulty their young women faced. Many of these girls had become pregnant as a result of sexual sin, but came to believe in Jesus and receive his forgiveness. About five months into their pregnancies, however, when they began to feel their babies move within them, they would be reminded vividly of their former sins. Each new kick or internal somersault multiplied their guilt and discouragement.
But the Piersons beat the accuser at his own game. Anne taught the young women to let the baby’s movement serve as a reminder that God had indeed forgiven them, and that he would cause all things to work together for their good. What a wise and creative way to deal with condemnation!
Through our union with Christ, we have died to the penalty and power of sin. His crucified body has atoned for our guilt, just as his resurrected body is our promise of victory. Our union with Christ is the basis for our deliverance from the bondage of sin. It is as immovable as it is unmerited; as sufficient as it is certain. If we will but seek to know the truth, consider it to be so, and then offer ourselves in consistent obedience to God, we will go from faith to faith, strength to strength, and glory to glory.
- Have you ever identified so closely with someone else’s experience that it felt you had experienced it yourself?
- In your own words, try to describe this mystery of being united with Christ.
- How can we reckon ourselves “dead to sin” when we are still so susceptible to temptation?
- In light of this chapter, how would you explain 1 John 2:1?
- “It’s not that we’re not able to sin,” writes the author, “but that we’re able not to sin.” (Page 32)What does he mean?
- How will this chapter change the way you resist sin?
Men Made New by John R.W. Stott (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1966, 1984)
Romans Chapter Six: The New Man by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972)
- ↑ D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans Chapter Six: The New Man (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), pp. 4-6.
- ↑ John R.W. Stott, Men Made New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1966, 1984), p. 30.
- ↑ Lewis Smedes, Union with Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1970; revised edition, 1983), p. xi.
- ↑ D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans Chapter Six,p. 39.
- ↑ Sinclair Ferguson, Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification, Donald L. Alexander, ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988), p. 49.
- ↑ Lewis Smedes,Union with Christ, p. 32.
- ↑ John R.W. Stott, Men Made New, p. 40.
- ↑ F.F. Bruce, The Letter of Paul to the Romans: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1985), pp. 129-130.
- ↑ Sinclair Ferguson, Christian Spirituality, p. 55.
- ↑ D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans Chapter Six, p. 30.
- ↑ F.F. Bruce, The Letter of Paul to the Romans, p. 132.
- ↑ D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans Chapter Six, pp. 106-148 for a full discussion of these verses.
- ↑ Jay E. Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Manual (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1973), p. 185.
- ↑ Ibid., p. 118
- ↑ Quoted in Sinclair Ferguson, The Christian Life, pp. 25-26.