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01. We Who Died to Sin

Chapter 1

“We Who Died to Sin”

“How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Ro.6.2)

Why Begin By Talking About Death?

Since what we are concerned about is the important matter of life—new life through becoming a new person—why then are we talking about death? The reason is found in the basic fact that the new cannot come until the old has passed away. That is why the apostle Paul says, with regard to the new person in Christ, “the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2Cor. 5.17).

1. To Weep or To Rejoice?

“Once upon a time, Duke Ching of Ch’i was rambling about on the Mount of Niu. When he saw the beautiful scenery in the north where his country lies, tears fell from his eyes, and with a sob, he said, ‘How beautiful are our fruitful plains, and our rippling rills. But our lives are as short as the water in the river that passes by.’ After he spoke, he wailed aloud.

“Ai-K’ung and Liang-Ch’iu-Chu wept with him. But Yen-Tzu laughed alone by the side. As Duke Ching wiped his tears from his eyes, he asked, ‘We are all weeping here, why is it that you are laughing?’

“Yen-Tzu said, ‘It is your meaningless mourning I am laughing at. If the length of men’s lives were not so short, how then, would it be possible for you to be the Prince of Ch’i?’”[1]

Who was right, those who wept or the one who laughed? No doubt both were right, though for different reasons. The calamitous reign of death over humankind because of man’s sin is certainly cause for the deepest grief. Yet, in God’s plan and purpose, death serves an important function: It removes the old, thus making way for the new. If the old does not pass, how can the new come? It is this truth that Yen-Tsu perceived so clearly. And is the coming of the new not a cause for rejoicing? Therefore, amidst a sea of sorrow there is an island of gladness.

The Gospel is precisely such an island in the ocean of death. In God’s wisdom, even death is made to serve the advancement of life. If we focus our observation exclusively on the reality of death (as those in the story do) then we must weep. But when we consider life emerging out of death, we have reason to rejoice. Yen-Tsu, remark­ably for one who did not have opportunity to know the Gospel, had, or was granted, a glimpse of a truth the fullness of which came to light in Jesus Christ.

This vital principle, namely, that the new life in Christ can only come into our lives when the old has passed away, is something which needs to be firmly grasped if the message of the Gospel of a new life in Christ is to be clearly understood and effectively implem­ented. For this reason we will have occasion to return to this found­ational truth in various places in this book, in order to gain an ever clearer insight into it.

In this connection we discover another significant truth: physical life begins with birth and ends in death, but the spiritual life begins with death and through it enters life. Thus, death, the death in union with Christ, is the gateway to new life, eternal life. This being the case, there is much that we need to understand about this death, in order that we may enter life—the life which God has prepared for us.

2. Simple yet Hard to Explain

Many times and in various ways, the Word of God speaks of the believer as having died to sin,[2] to the “old man” which we once were, and to our old way of life under the power of sin. What does this kind of dying mean in the Bible?

Dying is hard to explain precisely because it is something so simple. It is like trying to explain the meaning of total commitment to God. Many people struggle to under­stand what total commitment is, yet it is actually quite simple. If I commit myself to something, I give myself totally to it. If I commit myself totally in marriage, for example, I give myself totally to my wife. My possessions are hers; my whole person is hers; I live my life in consideration of her.

Likewise, if I commit myself totally to God, all that I have is His: my jacket, my watch, my pen, even my life. My abilities, modest though they are, are His too. Is there anything difficult to understand about this?

Hence, if I try to explain the meaning of dying, I immediately run into a difficulty: I don’t quite see the problem. What exactly is so hard to understand about it?

There are of course many difficult questions which arise when the reality of death is discussed as a universal and existential reality confronting human beings in general, questions such as: Why is death an inevitable reality in human experience? Why do people have to die? What is its ultimate cause (as distinct from its immediate causes, such as sickness, etc.)? Is sin its cause? How does sin result in death? Is death final? Or is it more like a tunnel through which everyone must pass? But these are not the questions we are discussing here.

What concerns us in this chapter is specifically death to sin (and to the whole old life under sin) as the way by which we enter into new life in Christ. This does in fact supply the answer, in practical terms, to the general questions about death which were put forward in the previous paragraph. But we will not discuss this matter on the theo­retical level.

What then is dying? Basically, dying to sin means to finish with the old way of life; in forsaking it completely, we put an end to that old lifestyle. “Cut off” is one rather striking way in which the Old Testament describes how someone’s life is terminated (e.g. Exodus 9.15). Dying with Christ cuts our attachment to our old lifestyle once and for all.

3. Death Described as ‘Sleep’

Let me use an analogy to explain the meaning of death. The Bible often compares death to sleep, as seen in statements such as “the sleep of death” in Psalm 13.3 (cf. Jo.11.11,13; 1Cor.11.30; 15.6,18,51).

I use this analogy because it is easier for us to understand sleep­ing than dying. If someone should ask you to explain what sleeping is, you might say, “That’s simple. Sleep is sleep. What more can I say? I lie down, close my eyes, take a few breaths—and I sleep.”

Some people make us envious. They walk into their rooms, lie down and—behold!—in a few minutes they are fast asleep. Other people (I was one of them) toss and turn for an hour and are still awake. Even if someone expounds to them what sleep is, they are still unable to sleep. What is the point of listening to a lecture on the subject if in the end sleep still eludes us? We learn every technique of getting to sleep, yet nothing seems to work.

By the grace of God, when He called me to Himself, He said, “Take up your cross and finish with the old life.” I said, “All right, my old life is finished. I hand myself over to You.” Do you remember that when Jesus saw Peter and Andrew going about their work, “He said to them, ‘Follow me’. And they immediately left their nets and followed him”? Jesus then saw James and John “and he called them. And they immediately … followed him” (Mt.4.19-22).

Their response to Jesus’ call was total and instantaneous. The immediateness of their response sprang from the spontaneity of glad obedience. They were not crippled by the hesitancy of a divided will—theirs against God’s. They left everything, and their whole old way of life, and followed Jesus.

This is not to deny that there was a preparatory period prior to their response. They must certainly have seen and/or heard of Jesus prior to his calling them, and therefore knew of his person and his message. They had undoubtedly considered his person and his message carefully and prayerfully. An immediate response does not mean a blind response. On the contrary, a genuinely spontaneous response comes from seeing “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Cor.4.6).

What is dying? All I can say is: “Well, dying is dying. What more can I say?” This tautological reply is similar to the answer we would get if we asked the fast sleeper “What is sleep?” and he finds himself obliged to say, “Sleeping is sleeping. I lie down, and in ten seconds flat I am fast asleep.”

Explaining What Sleep Is

That simple question turns out to be hard to answer. We could try to explain sleep scientifically in terms of electric currents that flow within the brain. So in our imagination, we try to generate a current in the brain, yet we find ourselves still awake. Then some­body comes along and says, “Try hot milk because milk is rich in amino acids, especially tryptophan which promotes sleep. Drink more of it and—presto!—you’re asleep.” So you gulp down gallons of milk but the indigestion keeps you awake!

Is there any other solution? Try knocking me on the head with a hammer! Short of that, there are many books on sleeping. I studied the techniques of sleeping but they did not work for me. In theory I know a lot about sleep, but in practice there is a problem. Is that not exactly the problem with so many people when it comes to the matter of dying to sin?

4. Sleep Gives Strength and Vigor

Those who have died to sin have a remarkable spiritual vigor. Using the analogy of sleep, it is usually the case that those with sleeping problems lack the physical vigor of those who sleep well. Analogously, those who have died spiritually have an inner power that others lack.

More than that, those who have died with Christ have wonderful spiritual experiences. They can testify of what God has done for them. This causes others to ask, “What about me? I never exper­ience what these people are talking about. God does wonderful things for them but not for me!” Analogously, those who sleep well can say, “I had this wonderful dream!” Then you murmur to yourself, “Never mind dreaming, I can’t even sleep.”

There is a clear parallel between sleeping and dying. By under­standing the one, we can gain a better understanding of the other. If you have no problem sleeping, you should have no problem dying if you apply the analogy to your life.

5. Commitment to Die

I have discovered that a commitment to sleep is absolutely necessary if I really intend to sleep. A root of my problem was that I was not com­mitted to sleep. When I lay down, my mind would be thinking about various matters. And the more I thought about them, the harder it was to sleep. I would keep turning on the table lamp, sit up, and jot down notes.

I went to bed without a true com­mitment to sleep. I was preoccupied with many matters, and sleep was given a low pri­ority. But I noticed something interesting: My commitment to sleep increased markedly when I determined to get up in time for some special meeting. Remarkably, once I was committed to sleep, I did sleep well. Having learned this lesson, sleep difficulties vanished.

Similarly, there are those who say they cannot die to the old life, or have difficulty dying to it. The root problem is that you are not willing to die. If you examine your heart honestly you will see that you are not really committed to die. You know very well the importance of dying because it pertains to your salvation and to living the new life in Christ; but after counting the cost, you are not willing. Therefore, the problem lies not in the understanding of the concept but in the unwillingness to die.

This leads to another parallel between death and sleep which we can bring out by asking: Does sleep depend on something I do, or is it something that happens to me? Sleep is mysterious. You relax and commit yourself over to sleep, and suddenly it takes over. You take the first step, then sleep comes upon you.

Similarly, when you commit yourself to die with Christ, death comes upon you. Is sleep active or passive? Few people would regard sleep as an activity, for it is something that happens to us. Yet we must still do something on our part.

6. Sleep is Hindered By a Bad Environment

When we go to a church camp we may be willing to sleep, but the cold nights make it difficult. You want to sleep but the chill keeps you awake. Or if you live in a hot country, the heat keeps you awake.

Noise is another thing that interferes with your commitment to sleep. Opposite our home lives a youth who likes the “Boom! Boom!” type of music, but to me it doesn’t sound like music. It is accompanied by shouting (some kind of singing?) and deafening noise. It woke me up many times. Once that happens, that is usually the end of the sleep.

There is a parallel here. Many people want to commit themselves to dying, but the cold of rejection keeps them awake. Cold shivers run down your spine at the thought of people rejecting you. Your family rejects you, your friends reject you, your colleagues reject you, and your schoolmates reject you. Who wants to be left out in the cold? So you settle for a partial commitment that is not only a compromise but also self-deception.

Or the problem of the heat. Jesus compares heat to per­secution (Mt.13.6, cf. v.21). The sun shines and the heat beats down on you. You want to commit your heart to the Lord but you are afraid of hardship and persecution. So you dare not finish with the old way of life and live the new one.

Then there is the noise and distractions of the world. People in Hong Kong are familiar with noise. In Hong Kong I have to plug my ears just to get some sleep. There is the noise of barking dogs, the noise of heavy construction, the noise of people shouting. Someone has verified with a noise meter that Hong Kong is one of the noisiest cities in the world. Stereo headphones are popular nowadays because they help to block out the surrounding noise and play what you want to hear. All the noise and distraction make sleep so difficult.

The world is clamoring for our attention even with neon lights. At a hotel where I once stayed, there was a neon sign just outside the window. It went on and off, on and off, red and green, red and blue. Some hotels have curtains so thin that they are practically useless. Lights are flashing everywhere. You turn the other way, and the wall is flashing, the ceiling is flashing, everything is flashing! This time I brought along an eye cover that makes me look like Batman. But with the lights flashing everywhere, what choice do I have?

With the world vying for our attention, how can we die? Hong Kong must be a hard place to die spiritually, not just a hard place to sleep physi­cally. I know from experience that it is a hard place to get to sleep. I have tried everything, including plugging my ears with tissue and then moving on to the latest rubber earplugs. In Hong Kong, the material world shouts at you from every corner: watches, cameras, music players, food, jewelry. Everything is flash­ing at you, urging you to buy and buy. How can you die? How can you sleep?

Having considered bad environments, what about good environ­ments? At our church camp at beautiful Lake Magog (in Quebec, Canada), some people slept well because the fresh air somehow induces sleep. A pleasant and comfortable environment creates the opposite problem: struggling to keep awake at daytime during the meetings! Similarly, material well-being can be detrimental to spiritual well-being. A nice and cozy physical environment can be bad for our spiritual health!

In a complacent or dead spiritual environment—and therefore one which encourages and promotes a life dominated by the flesh—it is much more difficult to die to the old life. If Christians, even church leaders, around us are worldly, then dying to the world would be difficult for us, requiring nothing less than great commitment.

The sleep analogy helps us to see that dying, like sleep, is basically a matter of commitment. Admittedly, it is not an easy com­mitment to make amidst all the noise, distraction, heat and cold of this world. But it is a commitment that we must make if we want the new life in Christ.

7. Freedom from Sin

Apostle Paul makes a striking statement in Romans 6.6-7: “Our old man is crucified with him (Christ) that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin” (KJV). In Romans chapter 6, Paul explains the meaning of baptism and an important consequence of baptism: freedom from the dominion of sin.

Paul’s concerns are practical. It is the practical Christian life that must also be our concern. Many theolo­gians in their treatises on Romans leave us with the impression that Romans is a grand excursion into the heights of a theoretical theology that is out of touch with daily life. In actual fact, Romans is most relevant to daily living.

Paul says that “our old man was crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be destroyed”. Here “old man” is a literal translation of the Greek “palaios anthrōpos” (παλαιὸς ἄνθρωπος, which some translations render as “old self”). As for the term “body of sin,” the genitive here describes the body as possessed and controlled by sin. This is the body that is “destroyed” at baptism. When we are united with Christ at baptism, the body of sin—the body controlled by sin—is “destroyed”.

You might retort, “But my body is still around! I can even swim across the lake!” That is not what “destroyed” means here. In studying the Bible, it is important to work with the original lan­guages. Here the English word “destroyed” is misleading. We cannot blame the translators because there is no exact English equivalent. Several of the main Bible versions have “done away with” the body of sin. But this does not clear the confusion. Our bodies have not gone away or disappeared after baptism. What, then, does “des­troyed” mean?

8. “Destroyed” Means Neutralized

The Greek word is katargeō (καταργέω), which is derived from two words, kata and argos (ἀργός, ‘idle, ineffective, useless’). Argos comes from ergon (ἔργον, ‘work, deed, action’) combined with the privative ‘a’ prefix. The privative negates or reverses the meaning, so that argos refers to something that does not work—idle, lazy, not functioning.[3]

This reminds us of devices that look impressive but are prone to breakdown. During my student days, when quartz watches first came on the market, I bought a relatively cheap one. They were sup­posed to be accurate. But the one I bought gained several min­utes a day! It stopped functioning after two weeks. This can be described as argos; it quit working; it was non-functional.

Correspondingly, katargeō means to render unemployed, idle, useless, non-functional. In military terms, it means to neutralize or to put the enemy out of action. The neutralized enemy may still be around but is no longer a threat.

You can appreciate how hard it is to translate this Greek word. If you looked up this word in a concordance, you would see that it is tran­slated in various ways, depending on the context. Some words are truly difficult to translate. Unfortunately, when a Bible translation says that the body of sin is “destroyed,” it confuses more than it explains. Several widely used modern translations have “done away with,” which is scarcely more illuminating.

What the apostle is saying is that the body of sin has been neutralized. It is no longer the dominant power in our spiritual life. This is the result of God’s work in our lives, by which our old man was consigned to death. The old man is still there, the body formerly controlled by sin is still there, but it is no longer the controlling element in our spiritual lives. That is the good news of Romans 6.

The same Greek word is used in Hebrews 2.14 to say that Jesus was manifested to “destroy” (KJV, RSV) or, better, to “render powerless” (NASB) the devil. In what sense has the devil been destroyed? Isn’t he still around? We know very well that Satan is still active and has not been put out of existence, but his power has been curbed. And the day will come when he will be completely neutralized (Rev.20.10).

Paul uses the same word katargeō in 2Timothy 1.10 to say that Christ “abolished” death. This is the translation given in most of the major versions, except NIV which has “destroyed”. But death is still a reality. One of my friends died just the other day. Paul doesn’t mean that death has been abolished out of existence, but that death, for the Christian, has been neutralized. It no longer has power over the Christian because death, for him, is not the final chapter.

Similarly, the devil has been destroyed not in the sense of being wiped out of existence, but in the sense of no longer being able to control and to destroy those who abide in Christ. Neither is death a threat if we abide in Christ, though physical death is still a reality. The day is coming when death will indeed be completely eliminated (Rev.20.14).

To use an analogy, at various times outbreaks of cholera or the bubonic plague have wiped out large segments of humankind. When a plague strikes, thousands upon thousands of people can perish in a short time. However, through improved medical knowledge and practice, cholera and the bubonic plague have been neutralized (katargeō) today, just as death has been neutralized for the Christian who is in fellowship with God.

But it doesn’t mean that these germs or viruses have been eliminated. It simply means that they have been neutralized, that is, their power to destroy us has been rendered ineffective, and they are no longer a threat to mankind provided we take the proper precau­tions. Similarly, although the body of sin is still around, it is no longer a threat to me provided I take the right precautions (abide in Christ).

Cholera and bubonic microorganisms can still kill any unpro­tected person who comes into contact with them. Those who handle them in research laboratories must take precautionary measures because these biological agents are just as active and lethal as they have always been.

In the same way, if we play around with sin, Satan can destroy us just as effectively as before. Yes, the body of sin may have been neutralized, freeing us from sin’s control. But if we return to sin, it will destroy us as surely as it did before. Sin will have no more power over us only if we abide in Christ.

That is the good news of Romans 6.6. It becomes a reality in us when we commit ourselves to God by an act of faith through baptism. Commitment is the act and express­ion of faith.[4] Entering into baptism is a step of faith, but baptism without faith is an external ritual without spiritual significance.

When we take the step of faith by commit­ting ourselves—consigning ourselves—over to death with Christ in baptism, the body of sin is neutralized by God’s power in Christ. We can exper­ience this dying to sin and freedom from sin as surely as in the case of refreshing sleep coming upon us; thus we know its reality.

9. Freedom from Sin is a Reality

Romans 7 goes on to talk about the power of sin. In verses 15-16 Paul describes his former predicament: The good he wanted to do, he could not do; the evil he didn’t want to do, he found himself doing. We can sympathize with his experience. In the past, even if you didn’t want to indulge in lustful thoughts, you couldn’t resist their power. You didn’t want to hate, yet you hated a certain person.

But Paul says we are no longer at the mercy of sin. We now have the power to resist the devil, and he will flee from us (James 4.7). Satan may be much more powerful than you or me, yet he will flee from us when we resist him. We have the power to resist him and to resist sin, now that we are free from their control.

Is that your present experience? I say “present” because Romans 6 is talking about a present experience. For example, verse 7 says, “For he who has died is freed from sin.” The body of sin is neutralized right now, not just at some point in the future. At baptism we commit ourselves to death—death to the old self—and we finish with the old way of life here and now.

We can experience this freedom now. In the past we conformed to the bleak picture in Romans 7: we could not resist sin. But thanks be to God, Romans 8.2 says, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” In you the principle of life in Christ Jesus has defeated the principle of sin and death. You have been freed because one power overcame the other. In Christ, life overcame death. The power of sin is admittedly great, but you have been freed by the greater power of life in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

Now I can resist sin because it is no longer the boss of my life. Romans 6.12 says, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts.” Note the significant word “let”. Previously you had no choice but to sin because sin con­trolled you. You tried to resist sin but your effort was in vain, for sin was simply too power­ful. But now you have the power of choice—the power to “let”. This freedom means that you are now free to choose not to “let sin reign in your mortal body”.

But if you continue to let sin reign in your life, then death will certainly await you. As the Apostle warns the Christians at Rome, “For the mind set on the flesh is death”. He then exhorts them with the truth that “the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (8.6). We can choose the one or the other, the flesh or the Spirit, death or life. Previously we had no choice because sin controlled us, but now we can choose not to be a slave to sin.

Romans 6.14 says, “Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” Under the Old Covenant, the Holy Spirit was not available to everyone as God’s gift. The Holy Spirit is the sign and the seal of the New Covenant, not the Old. Under the law, sin had dominion over people. We too, though we knew the command­ments, could not keep them. Sin was too powerful for us. The law made it perfectly clear that all human beings, even the most relig­ious of them, are under the dominion of sin. But now sin has lost its control over those who are in Christ.

In Romans 6.18 Paul says, “Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” In verse 22 he tells us what is the consequence of this freedom: “Now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (NIV). What is the outcome of a life that has been freed from sin and is progressing in holiness? Eternal life.

That is why it is so important to be freed from the power of sin. It is not a trivial take-it-or-leave-it matter. It has to do with our salva­tion. Freedom from sin is vital because the end of the narrow road is eternal life. Those who have not been freed from sin will walk on the broad road to destruction.

10. At Baptism We Walk to our Burial!

Just as we commit ourselves over to sleep amidst the noise and the distraction, so we commit and consign ourselves over to be united with Christ through the Spirit, “baptized into his death” (Ro.6.3), and “buried with him through baptism … so that we might walk in newness of life” (v.4).

That decision is ours. The one who is about to receive baptism is walking to his own burial! That is remarkable, given the fact that people are normally carried to their burials. Moreover, we don’t drag people to baptism kicking and shouting, “burying” them against their will. No, each person must make the deliberate choice to walk into the water to be buried with Christ. To die and to be buried has to be our own choice, or else, after the coffin is shut, we might bang and shout to get out!

But if we give ourselves to God without reserve, the other part is passive: death comes over us like a wave. The billows come over us, to use an Old Testament picture (e.g. Jonah 2.3). The waters of baptism will sweep away the old way of life, as did the flood waters in Noah’s time (1Pet.3.20,21), so that in Christ (like the ark) we are brought to a new life. It is something that God does to take effect in us, not something we do to ourselves.

11. Man: Body and Spirit

Romans 6.6 speaks of our “old man”. The Bible speaks of man as having two parts: body and spirit. Here we won’t go into a theological discussion on man’s constitution, whether it is a dicho­tomy or a trichotomy (i.e. made up of two parts or three; please refer to the Appended Note at the end of this chapter), except to say that man, in Scripture, basically consists of two parts: the spiritual and the physical. For example, Matthew 26.41 says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Here the spirit, being weak, is over­powered by the flesh. If the spirit is to triumph, the flesh must be neutralized or deprived of its power over us.

Romans 8.10 also speaks of body and spirit: “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness.” But is your body dead? No, it is very much alive and even in good health. But I think you now understand the point. The body has been consigned to death in order to destroy sin in the body, thereby removing its power. As a result, “the spirit is alive because of righteousness”. “The spirit” in this verse is the human spirit. If our spirit is indeed alive, then it can and does function in intimate harmony with God’s Holy Spirit.

The apostle’s words in Romans 8.13 can now be fully implemented: “If by the Spirit (God’s Spirit) you (your human spirit) are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live”. But how can the deeds or activities of the body be “put to death” when the body which produces those activities remains functional? Clearly “the deeds of the body” can only be neutralized when “the body of sin” is rendered non-functional through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

Here an important matter must be noticed: When sin’s control over the body is broken, with its power neutralized, the liberated body can now serve effectively as the “temple of the Holy Spirit” or the “temple of God” (1Cor.6.19 and 1Cor.3.16). Though the flesh always has the innate tendency to fight against the Spirit, the body in which the deeds of the flesh are neutralized can become a truly effective instrument of righteousness which, indeed, it is meant to be.

But we must not overlook the important fact that the words in Romans 8.13 are addressed to “you”. Your spirit plays a vital role in the act of faith in yielding itself (yourself) to the lordship of God and consigning the deeds of the body to death. You (your spirit) are called to an active role in this commitment.

12. Committing Our Spirit: Emptying Ourselves—Being Poured Out

In what sense is my spirit committed to God? Here we can learn from Philippians 2. The committing of our spirit is parallel to Jesus’ self-giving commitment. Philippians 2.5-7 says, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself.”

Christ emptied himself. He expressed it con­cretely by becoming a servant and by humbling himself, being “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (v.8). This mind or attitude in Christ has its counterpart in us when we, like him, consign our body over to death in pouring ourselves out for him.

We experience freedom from sin when we commit ourselves (spirit and body) in sacrificial self-denial (a common theme in the gospels) in following the Lord. When Jesus emptied him­self, he gave himself for our salvation. Likewise, when we empty ourselves, we give ourselves for the salvation of others. We now see discipleship in its true light.

Paul too emptied himself. In the same chapter he says, “Even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and ser­vice of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all” (Phil.2.17).

Paul depicts himself as a vessel from which his life is being poured out. The vessel is his body, and it contains his life offered up as a sacrificial offering. His life is to be poured out like the Old Test­ament drink offer­ings. Paul is saying, “If my life and my blood are poured out for you, I rejoice.”

Paul emptied himself to serve God’s people, imitating the Lord Jesus who came not to be served, but “to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt.20.28). He poured himself out for us, and Paul followed in his steps.

If we want freedom from sin, should we not also want freedom from its power? Formerly, as slaves of sin we had no choice but to sin. Now we have both the freedom from the power of sin and the free­dom of choice.

But do we find the price of becoming a new person in Christ too high? Do we imagine that remaining under bondage to sin will result in a lesser cost to us? Is pouring ourselves out as a sacrifice to God for the blessing of others, and as a thank offering to Christ “who loved me and delivered himself up for me” (Gal.2.20), far more than what we are willing to give?

When we speak of our “faith” are we really talking about the same thing as the apostle Paul in Philippians 2.17 where he speaks of “the sacrifice and service of your faith”? What kind of faith is it that produces neither of these? Do we suppose that that kind of faith is saving faith?

May God grant to us a living, dynamic and functional faith that abun­dantly expresses itself in “the sacrifice and service of faith”.

 

An Appended Note

The “inner man” and the “outer man”

Does Scripture speak of man as having two parts or three? This is an often discussed question. We need not be rigidly dogmatic when considering such questions, but we need to look at the Biblical evid­ence with an open heart and mind.

In 2Corinthians 4.16 the Apostle writes, “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” Paul speaks of man in terms of “outer” (the body or the “flesh”) and “inner” (the spirit). He refers to the “inner man” also in Romans 7.22 and in Ephesians 3.16; hence the use of this term in 2Corinthians is by no means an isolated case.

Corresponding to this, he contrasts the “flesh” and the “spirit” of man, as in 1Corinthians 5.5 and 2Corinthians 7.1. This is in harmony with the Lord’s teaching: “Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt.26.41; Mk.14.38).

In these words of Jesus, the contrasting juxtaposition of flesh and spirit finds a clear parallel in Ro.7.15-25 where in vv.22,23 we read, “I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man (i.e. the spirit, in contrast to the “outer man,” the body), but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind”.

From this it is clear that “my mind” is a faculty of the “inner man” (or spirit), which is “willing” (Mt.26.41) and which “joyfully concurs” (Ro.7.22) with God’s law. So the mind can serve the law of God while the flesh serves the law of sin (v.25). Hence it would be a mistake to speak of “spirit, mind, and body” if by so doing one intends to state that these are equal parts that together constitute man.

The Holy Spirit works on the side of man’s spirit in its battle with the flesh, hence the contrast and conflict between flesh and Spirit is also frequently mentioned: Ro.8.4,5,6,9,13; Gal.3.3; 4.29; 5.16,17; 6.8; Phil.3.3.

From the foregoing evidence in Scripture it clearly emerges that man is generally spoken of in terms of “inner” and “outer,” or of “spirit” (supported and strengthened by the Holy Spirit) and “flesh”. That is to say, man is spoken of in terms of a dichotomy.

The Meaning of ‘Psyche’

There are, however, some who believe that man is a trichotomy (that is, having three parts: body, soul, and spirit). This notion is based mainly on one verse, 1Thess.5.23, and derives from an inadequate understanding of the Biblical meaning of the word translated “soul” (Greek ψυχή, psychē). A major problem is the fact that the meaning of the word “soul” is exceeding imprecise and is consequently understood in a considerable variety of ways. Here is a selection of the main definitions given in The Concise Oxford Dictionary: “1. The immaterial part of man. 2. Moral and emotional part of man. 3. Intellectual part of man. 4. Animating or essential part (of person). 5. Person viewed as embodying moral or intellectual qualities. 6. Emotional or intellectual energy. 7. Personification or pattern (of a quality in a person, such as honor). 8. Departed spirit.”[5] Often we can get a general but imprecise idea of the meaning of a word from its context or from the way it is used, but very frequently this cannot be done, as in the case of 1Thess.5.23.

Which, then, of all those meanings do those who use the word “soul” wish to convey? Given all these possibilities of meaning, the word is virtually useless for conveying a reality in a more precise way. What is the point of insisting on a trichotomy in man when a major constituent in it is too vague to make any real sense? Some Christians, in an attempt to make sense of the word, provide a definition (such as mind or intellect) based upon very inadequate exegesis of Scripture.

To correctly understand what the apostle Paul means by psychē in 1Thes.5.23 we need to look at the way in which he uses the word. When we do that, we will find that the way he uses the word is in line with the way it is used in the New Testament as a whole.

The apostle Paul uses the word psychē in three main categories of meaning: (1) A living “person” (psychē never refers to a dead person), for example, “let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Ro.13.1; also 2.9; 1Cor.15.45; etc); (2) the “heart” as the central element of a living person (Phil.1.27; Eph.6.6; Col.3.23); (3) the physical life, as in Phil.2.30 where it refers to Epaphroditus (v.25) who, for the sake of Christ, risked his life; so also in Ro.11.3; 16.4.

From this we see that psychē is at times used with an emphasis on the inner life (the “heart and mind”), though without losing sight of the whole person as its context. At other times it is used with an emphasis on the outer life (the physical life), again without losing sight of the whole person. But frequently it has refer­ence to both the inner and the outer life, and thus refers to the person as a whole. The central element in every instance is the life of the person.

This is in perfect harmony with the meaning of psychē in the New Testament as a whole[6], where its basic definition as referring to a person’s “life” stands out clearly. It is worth noting, by way of contrast, that the word “life” does not appear at all in the definitions of “soul” provided by The Concise Oxford Dictionary quoted above. Anyone who tries to understand the Bible by depending solely on a standard dictionary may, at times, find himself in the dark!

If psychē in the New Testament essentially means life, then 1Thess.5.23 fits in exactly with the Old Testament teaching that it is man’s life which holds his spirit and body together. This means that when a man dies, body and spirit separate. Ecclesiastes explains what hap­pens in death: “The dust (the body, Gen.2.7; 3.19) will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it” (Eccl.12.7). This explains why the word psychē stands between “spirit” and “body” in 1Thess.5.23. Because psychē is that which holds spirit and body together, it can refer to a person as a whole.

In view of the fact that psychē comprehends both the inner and outer aspects of man’s life, it is not surprising that it is frequently used when referring to the salvation of the person as a whole (Mt. 16.25; Mk.8.35; Lk.9.24; Jas.1.21; 5.20; Heb.6.19; 10.39; 1Pet.1.9,22; 2.25; 3.20; 4.19; etc).

Because psychē holds together the spirit and the body, the saving of one’s life necessarily means the saving of both the spirit (1Cor.5.5) and the body (Phil.3.21) in which this life exists and functions. Life, then, is not a third element independent of spirit and body but is, in its very nature, integral to both spirit and body in a living person. Salvation in Christ embraces the whole person.

Finally, it makes no more exegetical sense to argue that 1Thessa­lonians 5.23 proves that man is composed of three parts than to argue from Luke 10.27 and Mark 12.30, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (cf. Dt.6.4-5) that man is com­posed of four parts!

The New Jerusalem Bible correctly translates 1Thess.5.23 as follows, “May the God of peace make you perfect and holy; and may your spirit, life and body be kept blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”



[1] This story is from Yen-Tsu Ch’un Ch’iu. The translation is probably by J. Legge, but since I do not have access to the Chinese text or the English translation, the extract used here is drawn from Encyclopedia of 7000 Illustrations by P.L. Tan, Assurance Publishers, 11th edition, 1990, p.305. It will be noticed that the names in the story are spelt according to the old Wade-Giles system, not Pinyin.

[2] “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death?” (Ro.6.3); “he who has died is freed from sin” (Ro.6.7); “You have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col.3.3); “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jo.12.24).

[3] The meaning of Greek words cannot always be derived from their compound structure or their etymology. Etymological derivations are not necessarily accu­rate in defining the full scope of a word’s meaning. Katargeō, for example, apart from the definition “made ineffective, powerless, idle,” has other definitions. These other definitions, “abolish, wipe out, bring to an end, be estranged from, etc” (cf. Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich, A Lexicon of the New Testament) are indeed applicable in other places in the New Testament. A word would often, in the course of time, acquire wider meaning than it may originally have had. However, in this particular instance, understanding its etymology is helpful.

[4] New Compact Bible Dictionary (Zondervan, 1967) in the article “Faith” says, “Faith is not to be confused with a mere intellectual assent to the doctrinal teach­ings of Christianity, though that is obviously necessary. It includes a radical and total commitment to Him as the Lord of one’s life.” (BC) [Throughout this book, “BC” in a footnote indicates that the footnote was provided by Bentley Chan.]

[5] It should, therefore, come as no surprise that few readers of the Bible have much idea what the word “soul” really means. Notwithstanding this, the word occurs frequently in various English Bible versions, though its frequency appears to decline according to how recent the versions are. For example, occurrences of “soul” in some of the major versions are as follows: KJV, 458 times; NASB, 278 times; NRSV, 208; NIV, 129 times. The number of occurrences of the word in NIV is less than a third of that in KJV!

[6] The following are the section headings under psychē (ψυχή) in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich; Chicago, 1979: “1. Life on earth in its animating aspect mak­ing bodily function possible: a. (breath of) life, life-principle, soul; b. earthly life, life (itself); c. that which possesses life/soul; 2. Seat and center of the inner human life in its many and varied aspects, soul; 3. An entity with personhood, person.” Notice that life is central to all these definitions.

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church