We have just read John Calvin’s words, “the death of Christ is efficacious … for the mortification of the flesh.” What, in practical terms, might this look like in everyday life? Maybe the primary question is, how does the death of one actually give life to another? To understand this first may help us to see more easily how the mortified or sanctified life goes.
In Saint Peter’s own words: “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). “Living to righteousness” means the same thing that Calvin meant when he wrote “mortification of the flesh.” To mortify, or destroy, the flesh (not the body, of course, but the sinful corruptions therein) is, as we saw in Friday’s devotional, to live righteously (or with justice) and faithfully as God’s people (see Col. 3:1–11). This kind of life, as the apostles affirm and Calvin wisely concurs, finds its cause in the death of Jesus the Christ. Still, it is not any clearer as to how that is so.
Going back to Colossians 3, verses 9–10, the apostle Paul wrote that those who have been raised with Christ “have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed … after the image of its creator” (see also Rom. 6:6; Gal. 5:24; Eph. 4:22ff.). Something real, according to this apostle, has the power to affect our lives and the way we live them. That something, both Peter and Paul argue, is the crucifixion of our Lord (bearing our sins “in his body on the tree”).
This is possible because in reality, we humans have one of two people representing us. Thomas Goodwin, seventeenth-century Puritan and president of Magdalen College, Oxford, once said, “In God’s sight there are two men — Adam and Christ — and these two men have all other men hanging at their girdle strings” (quoted in F.F. Bruce’s Tyndale commentary on Romans, p. 120). Or, to use Saint Paul’s own words in Romans: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (5:18 NASB). The two men and their actions are universal: Adam’s led to condemnation for all; Christ’s, justification and life for all. Now, this is not an argument for universal salvation by the apostle; rather, his point is that Christ, and Christ alone, is the man in whom salvation is the way for all. Nor must we, at this point, discuss exactly the way in which Adam’s disobedience involves us, for the simple fact is, according to the apostle in Romans 5:12, that it does.
Thus, both the first Adam and the second Adam are unified with their own particular groups of people. They share the same interests with them, the same purposes, and the same sympathies.
Even further, they share in the same personality, so that, by virtue of the relationship in which they stand with either Adam or Christ, they can be identified as one or the other — the “old” self or the “new” self. For this reason, the apostle Paul refers to Jesus and His people as the one seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:16), or, “though many,” as “one body of Christ” (Rom. 12:5). In fact, they are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
Now, how does being one with Jesus and His death actually enable us to live faithfully? It does so because the “old self” was cast aside at Golgotha, on the cross (see again Col. 3:1ff). At an actual point in time and history, the old man, the way of Adam, was judged, cursed, and defeated. Each of us who were in Adam but are now in Christ, had that old self crucified in the first century (see Rom. 6:6). While the benefits of this are not realized in us until we actually are given the gift of faith (read the Westminster Confession, 11.4), we nonetheless can look at the death of Jesus as the precise moment when His group of people put off the old man and put on the new one. Even though Jesus was sinless, we are told that He was sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” unified with those of us who constitute His elect, that elect then being freed from the old self, which was condemned in His flesh (see Rom 8:3–4 and 7:4).
We can bear fruit for God because that old, hell-bent way of doing things was crucified in the flesh of Jesus, the Messiah. Life now has a new order, for the old chaos of Adam’s way has lost control. Only from and with this grace can our efforts of living rightly before God (or, crucifying the flesh, Gal. 5:24) meet with any success. Thus Calvin said, the death of Christ really does produce a desired effect, namely, the laying aside of a life riddled with a sinful, corrupted nature for the grandeur of being renewed after the image of God. In death, we are raised to life, because Jesus really was raised to life about two-thousand years ago.
We Christians, His group, His people, have been set free to live for righteousness, and thus we must actively pursue it. And pursuing it is simply this: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:3). If to live is Christ, the new covenant mediator, then that life must endeavor to mediate His justice and mercy to all, without distinction. The Word must be preached; the sacraments administered; compassion and forgiveness must be extended to those in need, if for no other reason than we ourselves have been shown it. This life, in short, knows “nothing … except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2.2).