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There is no religion in the history of the world that contains an invitation remotely like the Christian gospel. From its very inception, in the words of Christ, we are told, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). It is, as John Piper points out, an invitation to die.
This has always been counterintuitive to us. From our earliest years, we want to seize life with both hands and seek to live it to the full. Where, then, is the magnetism in Jesus’ words that has drawn so many people to Him through the ages?
The answer was not immediately obvious to His own disciples while they were with Him on earth. When Jesus announced His intention to go up to Jerusalem as the climax of His ministry drew near, Thomas voiced the thoughts of his fellow disciples when he said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). But we know that to them the notion that Christ would die and that they would have to lose their lives in following Him seemed bewildering (Mark 9:30–32; John 12:23–26). Only after Christ’s death and resurrection did the full significance of the wording of the gospel’s invitation began to crystallize. What to human minds made no sense before Calvary, in its aftermath and through its Apostolic exposition made glorious sense in light of the greatness of God’s salvation. So, it is hardly surprising that the principle of “dying in order to live” embodied in Christ becomes a recurring theme in New Testament preaching and instruction.
It features prominently in several places. Paul, in his exposition of the gospel in Romans, speaks of believers’ being “baptized” into the death of Christ (6:3). Likewise, in Philippians, he speaks about his goal in the life of faith as “becoming like him [Christ] in his death” (3:10). So, Paul speaks about both the beginning of the Christian life and its continuation as involving our need to die.
Peter sounds the same note in his first letter. Speaking to Christians who had been scattered throughout the Roman world because of persecution and who were struggling to make sense of their sufferings, he says (again in relation to Christ), “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24). This is among the pithiest explanations of what Christ means by saying we must die to live.
The key detail that stands out in Peter’s statement is that our experience as Christians cannot be separated from what Christ experienced on our behalf. What Jesus did for His people is the foundation of everything He does in us by His Spirit. As the Spirit unites us to Christ, He brings us out of the realm of spiritual death and into newness of life through Him. This saving union is the bedrock of what it means to be a Christian. In this union, we are given the ability to live out the new life we receive through the new birth and by justification. What was impossible for us when we were spiritually dead—to walk in God’s ways and live for His glory—we now can do by His enabling grace.
What is so significant, however, about Peter’s words in this context is that Jesus’ death also provides us with a template for this new way of life. He says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
Peter’s choice of words is also helpful when he tells us that we are called to die “to” sin. That means, as Calvin explains in his commentary on this passage, we die to this world (as a fallen order) in order that we might live to God in Christ. We are given a whole new orientation in life. No longer are we by nature inclined to love and live for this present evil age, but instead our hearts and minds are set on things above, where Christ is seated in glory (Col. 3:1–2).
Having this whole new direction in life—one that is Christ-centered, rather than self-centered—means we will not only rely on the One who liberated us from the realm of spiritual death, but we will look to Him in His exalted humanity as the template for our new life as His children.
Edmund Clowney points out that Peter uses an unusual word when he says that Christ provides an example, so that we might “follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). It carries the sense of a child learning to write by tracing over an outline of the letters. So, when it comes to the alphabet of the Christian life, Christ is the template of our humanity.
In his second letter, Peter spells out some of the key characteristics of what this new life looks like—virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love (2 Peter 1:5–7). These are some of the “fruit” he cites as proof of new life in Christ (v. 8). Paul and Jesus speak of others, but what is true of them all is that they are Christlike traits.
There has always been a temptation to focus narrowly on the “dying to sin” aspect of our growth in grace—what an older generation of Christians called mortification—but this, as we have seen, is only part of what is involved. That same generation of Christians also spoke of “vivification”—living out the righteousness we have in Christ. Just as weeding and planting are two essential elements of cultivating a beautiful garden, so also is our need to die to sin and live to righteousness if we are to cultivate a life that reflects the beauty of Christ.