You are here

1. We Who Died to Sin


– Chapter 1 –

We Who Died to Sin

“How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2)

Why begin by talking about death?

Since this book is concerned with the vital matter of life — the new life through becoming a new personwhy are we talking about death? The reason is that the new cannot come until the old has passed away. Paul says of the new person in Christ that “the old things passed away; behold, new things have come” (2Cor.5:17).

How shall we explain this profound topic of life and death, of the new and the old? We begin by way of parable, using two illustrat­ions, a short one taken from Chinese history and a longer one regarding the struggle with insomnia, before we proceed to the formal Scriptural teaching on dying with Christ.

To weep or to rejoice?

The following is a brief but thought-provoking account of an event that took place in Chinese history, involving Duke Qing who led the state of Qi from 598 to 582 BC:

When Duke Qing of Qi 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 … But our lives are as short as the water in the river that passes by.” After he spoke, he wailed aloud. Ai Kong and Liang Qiuzhu wept with him. But Yan Zi laughed alone by the side. As Duke Qing wiped his tears from his eyes, he asked, “We are all weeping here, why is it that you are laugh­ing?” Yan Zi 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 Qi?” [1]

Who was right, those who wept or the one who laughed? Both were right, but for different reasons. The calamitous reign of death over humankind because of man’s sin is cause for the deepest grief. Yet in God’s plan and purpose, death serves an important function: to remove the old, making way for the new. If the old does not pass, how can the new come? It is this truth that Yan Zi per­ceived so clearly. Is the coming of the new not a cause for rejoicing? Amidst a sea of sorrow is an island of gladness.

The Gospel is 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 sight solely on the reality of death, then we must weep like those in the story. But when we see life emerging out of death, we have reason to rejoice. Yan Zi, remark­ably for one who did not have opportunity to know the Gospel, had a glimpse of a vital truth, the fullness of which came to light in Jesus Christ.

This vital principle, that the new life in Christ comes into our lives only when the old has passed away, is something we must firmly grasp if we are to understand and apply the message of the Gospel of a new life in Christ. We will return to this foundat­ional truth in various places in this book, to gain an ever clearer insight into it.

In this connection we see yet another significant truth: physical life begins with birth and ends in death, but the spiritual life begins with death, and through death enters life. The death which is in union with Christ is the gate­way to new life, eternal life.

Simple yet hard to explain

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

Dying is hard to explain precisely because it is 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 quite sim­ple. If I commit myself to something, I give myself totally to it. If I commit myself totally in marriage, I give myself totally to my wife. My possessions are hers; my whole person is hers; I live my life in consider­ation of her.

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

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

Difficult questions arise when death is discussed as an existential reality con­fronting human beings, questions such as: Why is death a reality in human experience? Why do people have to die? What is its ultimate cause (as distinct from its immediate causes, such as sickness)? Is death caused by sin? Is death final? Is it like a tunnel through which everyone must pass? But these are not the questions we are discussing here.

What concerns us is specifically death to sin as the way by which we enter into new life in Christ. This supplies the answers to the quest­ions about death 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. In the Old Testament, “cut off” is a striking way of describ­ing how one’s life is terminated (e.g., Ex.9:15). Dying with Christ cuts our attachment to our old lifestyle once and for all.

Death described as “sleep”

Before we proceed to the biblical teaching, let me use another analogy to explain the meaning of death. The Bible often compares death to sleep, as in “the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3; cf. Jn.11:11,13; 1Cor. 11:30; 15:6,18,51).

I am using 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, “It’s simple. Sleep is sleep. What more can I say? I lie down, close my eyes, take a few breaths — and sleep.”

Some people make us envious. They lie down, and fall asleep in a few minutes. Others toss and turn for an hour and are still awake. Even if someone explains to them the mechanism of sleep, they are still unable to sleep. What is the point of listening to a lecture on sleep if in the end sleep still eludes us? We try every technique of falling asleep, yet nothing seems to work.

When God 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.” When Jesus said “Follow me” to Peter and Andrew, they immediately left their nets and followed him. When Jesus saw James and John, “he called them, and they immediately … followed him” (Mt.4:19-22).

Their response to the call was immediate, a total and spontaneous response that sprang from glad obedience. They were not hindered by a divided will — theirs against God’s — but left their way of life, and followed Jesus.

This does not rule out a preparatory period before they made their response. They must have seen or heard of Jesus prior to his calling them, and knew of his person and his message, which they considered carefully and prayerfully. An immediate response does not mean a blind response, but one that comes from seeing “the light of the know­ledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Cor.4:6).

As for the question What is dying?, all I can say is: “Dying is dying. What more can I say?” This tautological reply is similar to that which we may get if we asked someone, “What is sleep?” He will find himself obliged to say, “Sleeping is sleeping. I lie down, and in ten seconds I am fast asleep.”

Our simple question turns out to be hard to answer. We might try to explain sleep scientifically in terms of electric currents that flow in the brain. Then some­one suggests, “Try hot milk because milk is rich in amino acids, especially tryptophan which promotes sleep.” You gulp down lots of milk but the indigestion keeps you awake!

Is there any other solution? There are many books on sleeping. I have read on the techniques of sleep but they do not work for me. In theory I know a lot about sleep, but in practice there is a problem, as in the case of people who struggle to understand what dying to sin is.

Sleep gives strength and vigor

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

More than that, those who have died with Christ have wonderful spiritual experiences and can testify of what God has done for them. This causes others to say, “What about me? I never exper­ience what these people are talking about. God does wonderful things for them but not for me.”

There is a parallel between sleeping and dying. By under­standing the one, we 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.

Commitment to die

A commitment to sleep is vital to being able to asleep. Part of my pro­blem is that I am not com­mitted to sleep. When I lie down, my mind would be thinking about many things. I would turn on the lamp and jot down notes. I was preoc­cupied with many things, so sleep was given a low pri­ority. But I noticed something remarkable: When I have to get up for a meeting, I commit myself to sleeping, and I sleep well.

Analogously, some have difficulty in dying to the old life. The root problem is that you are unwilling to die. If you examine your heart honestly, you will see that you are not really com­mitted to die. You know the import­ance of dying because it per­tains to your salvation and the new life in Christ, but after counting the cost, you are unwilling.

This leads to another parallel between death and sleep: Does sleep depend on something I do, or is it something that happens to me? Sleep is mysterious. You commit yourself over to sleep, and it suddenly takes over. You take the first step, then sleep comes upon you. So when you commit yourself to die with Christ, death will come upon you.

Sleep is hindered by a bad environment

When we go camping we may be willing to sleep, but the cold night keeps us awake. Or if you camp in a hot country, the heat keeps you awake. Noise is another thing that interferes with our sleep. Opposite our home lives a young man who likes the “Boom! Boom!” type of music which has disturbed my sleep many times.

We see a parallel here. Many want to die to the old life, but are prevented by the cold of rejection, by the thought of people rejecting you. Your family rejects you, your friends reject you, your colleagues reject you. Who wants to be left out in the cold?

Or the problem of the heat. Jesus compares heat to per­secution (Mt.13:6, cf. v.21). The heat of the sun beats down on you. You want to com­mit your life to God but are afraid of hardship and persecution. 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 from the noise of barking dogs, construct­ion work, and shouting on the streets. Someone has verified with a noise meter that Hong Kong is one of the noisiest cities in the world.

The world is clamoring for our attention even with neon lights. At a hotel where I stayed, there was a neon sign 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. The wall is flash­ing, the ceiling is flashing. More than that, the material world urges you to buy and buy, offering nice watches, cameras, music players, food, and jewelry. How can you die to the old way of life?

Having considered bad environments, what about good environ­ments? At our church camp at beautiful Lake Magog in Canada, some people slept well because of the fresh air. A comfortable envir­onment creates the opposite problem: struggling to keep awake in the daytime dur­ing the meetings! Analogously, material prosperity can be detrimental to spirit­ual well-being. In a dead or complacent spirit­ual environment — but which encourages a life dominated by the flesh — it is hard to die to the old life. If Christians and even church leaders around us are worldly, then dying to the world would be all the more difficult for us.

Freedom from sin

Paul says: “Our old man is crucified with [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” (Rom.6:6-7, KJV). In that whole chapter, Romans 6, Paul explains the meaning of baptism and its consequence: freedom from the dominion of sin.

Paul’s concerns are practical, so our concern must also be with the practical Christian life. Many academic books on Romans leave us with the impression that this letter is a grand excur­sion into the heights of a 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, rendered “old self” in some Bibles). As for the term “body of sin,” the genitive here depicts the body as controlled by sin. It is this 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!” This is not what “destroyed” means here. In study­ing the Bible, it is important to work with the original lan­guages. Here the English “des­troyed” is mislead­ing, but we cannot blame the translators for this because there is no exact English equivalent of the Greek word. Several mainstream Bibles render it as “done away with,” but this does not clear up the confusion. Our bodies do not disappear at baptism. What then does “destroyed” mean?

“Destroyed” means neutralized

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

It reminds us of devices that look impressive but break easily. When quartz watches first came out, I bought a relatively cheap one. They were sup­posed to be accurate, but the one I bought gained several min­utes a day, and stopped working after two weeks. This can be described as argos; it quit working; it was non-funct­ional.

Correspondingly, katargeō means to render something idle, useless, unemployed, 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 Greek words are genuinely difficult to translate. Unfortunately, when a Bible translation says that the body of sin is “destroyed,” it confuses more than it explains. Several modern translations of Romans 6:6 have “done away with,” which is scarcely any more illuminating.

What Paul is saying is that the body of sin has been neutralized. It is no longer the dominant power in our spiritual lives. This is the result of God’s work in our lives, by which our old man is consigned to death. The old man is still around, as also the body formerly controlled by sin, 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 still, to “render power­less” (NASB) the devil. In what sense has the devil been destroyed? Isn’t he still around? We know well that Satan is still active and has not been put out of existence, but his power has been curtailed. And the day will come when he will be totally 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 or her, is not the final chapter.

Similarly, the devil has been destroyed, not in the sense of being wiped out of existence, but 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 humanity. When a plague strikes, thousands upon thousands can perish in a short time. But 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.

It doesn’t mean that these germs or viruses have been eliminated, but that they have been neutralized, that is, their power to destroy us has been rendered ineffective, and is no longer a threat to humankind 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 an unpro­tected per­son who comes into contact with them. Those who handle them in re­search laboratories must take protective measures because these biological agents are just as active and lethal as they have always been.

Likewise, 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. This good news becomes a reality in us when we commit ourselves to God by an act of faith in baptism. Total commitment is the act and express­ion of faith.[4] Enter­ing into baptism is a step of faith, so baptism without faith is an external ritual without spiritual significance.

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

Freedom from sin is a reality

The next chapter, 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; the evil he didn’t want to do, he found himself doing. We 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. James 4:7 says that we have the power to resist the devil, who will flee from us. Satan may be far 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, being free from their control.

Is that your present experience? I say “present” because Romans 6 is talking about a present experience: “For he who has died is freed from sin” (v.7). The body of sin is neutralized 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.

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.”

The principle of life in Christ Jesus has defeated the principle of sin and death in you. You have been freed because one power over­came the other. In Christ, life overcame death. The power of sin is great, yet you have been freed by the greater power of life in Christ Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

I now 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 efforts were futile, for sin was too power­ful. But now you have the power of choice — the power to “let”. 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, death will certain­ly await you. As Paul warns the Christians in Rome, “For the mind set on the flesh is death”. He then tells them 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. We previously 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.” In the Old Covenant, the Holy Spirit was not available to everyone as a gift from God. The Holy Spirit is the sign and the seal of the New Covenant, not the Old. Under the law, sin had dominion over people. Though we knew the command­ments, we could not keep them, for sin was too powerful. The law made it 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.

Romans 6:18 says, “Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” Verse 22 explains 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.

It is crucial to be freed from the power of sin. It is not a take-it-or-leave-it matter, for it has to do with our salva­tion. Freedom from sin is crucial because the end of the narrow road is eternal life. Those who have not been freed from sin will walk on the broad road that leads to destruction.

At baptism we walk to our burial

Just as we commit ourselves over to sleep amidst the noise and dis­traction, so we commit and consign ourselves over to be united with Christ, to be “baptized into his death” (Rom.6:3) and “buried with him through baptism … so that we might walk in newness of life” (v.4).

That decision is ours to make. The one who is about to receive baptism is walking to his own burial, which is remarkable because people are usually carried to their burials. And we don’t drag people to baptism kicking and shouting, burying them against their will. No, each person must make the choice to walk into the water to be buried with Christ.

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 (Jonah 2:3). The waters of baptism will sweep away the old way of life, as did the flood waters in Noah’s time (1Peter 3:20,21), so that in Christ (like the ark) we are brought to a new life. It is something that God does in us, not something we do to ourselves.

Man: Body and spirit

Romans 6:6 speaks of the “old man”. How do we understand the constitution of man? The Bible speaks of man as having two parts: body and spirit.

We won’t go into a theologi­cal discussion on man’s constitution, whether it is a dicho­tomy or a trichotomy (that is, made up of two parts or three). Those who are interested can refer to the Appended Note at the end of this chapter.

In Scripture, man 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 depleted 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 literally dead? No, it is very much alive and possibly still in good health. But I think you 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, it will function in intimate harmony with God’s Holy Spirit.

Paul’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 is capable of producing 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 Spirit.

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; 3:16). Though the flesh has the innate tendency to fight against the Spirit, the body in which the deeds of the flesh have been neutral­ized can become an effective instru­ment of righteousness.

But we must not overlook that the words in Romans 8:13 are add­ressed to “you”. Your spirit plays a vital role in yielding itself (yourself) to God’s lordship and in consigning the deeds of the body to death. You (your spirit) are called to an active role in this commitment.

Emptying ourselves — being poured out

Here we can learn from Philippians 2. The committing of our spirit to God is parallel to Jesus’ self-giving commitment, who “emptied him­self” (Phil.2:7). Christ emptied himself. He expressed it con­cretely by becoming a servant and humbling himself, being “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (v.8). This mind of Christ has its counterpart in us when we likewise consign our body over to death in pouring ourselves out for him.

We are freed from sin when we commit ourselves, both body and spirit, in sacrificial self-denial, in following the Lord Jesus (a common theme in the gospels). 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 is a vessel from which his life is poured out. The vessel is his body, which contains his life offered as a sacrificial offering, poured out like the Old Test­ament drink offer­ings. He is say­ing, “If my life and my blood are poured out for you, I rejoice.” Paul emptied himself to serve God’s people, imitating his Lord who came not to be served, but “to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt.20:28).

If we want freedom from sin, will we not also want freedom from its power? Formerly, as slaves of sin we had no choice but to sin. But now we are free from the power of sin and have the free­dom of choice.

Do we regard the price of becoming a new person in Christ as being too high? Do we think that remaining under the 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 “faith” are we talking about the same thing as Paul in Philippians 2:17 where he speaks of “the sacrifice and service of your faith”? May God grant us a living, dynamic and functional faith that 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 quest­ion is often debated. We need not be rigid or dogmatic when con­sidering this question, but we need to look at the Biblical evid­ence with an open heart and mind.

Paul says, “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” (2Cor.4:16). 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 Ephesians 3:16; hence the use of this term in Second Corinthians is by no means an isolated case.

He draws a parallel contrast between the “flesh” and the “spirit” of man, as in 1Cor.5:5 and 2Cor.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).

The contrast of flesh and spirit in these words of Jesus finds a parallel in Romans 7:15-25 where in vv.22,23 we read, “I joyfully con­cur with the law of God in the inner man [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 the “mind” is a faculty of the “inner man” (or spirit) which is “willing” (Mt.26:41) and “joyfully concurs” (Rom. 7:22) with God’s law. The mind can serve the law of God while the flesh serves the law of sin (v.25). It would be erroneous to speak of “spirit, mind, and body” if in doing so one intends to state that these are equal parts that together constitute man.

The Holy Spirit works alongside man’s spirit in its battle with the flesh, which is why the contrast and the conflict between flesh and Spirit is often mentioned (Rom.8:4,5,6,9,13; Gal.3:3; 4:29; 5:16,17; 6:8; Phil.3:3).

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

The meaning of psychē

There are some who teach that man is a trichotomy (having three parts, body, soul, 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 that the meaning of the word “soul” is exceedingly impre­cise and is consequently understood in a variety of ways. Here is a selection of the main definitions given in 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]

We often get a general but imprecise idea of the meaning of a word from its context or from the way it is used, but frequently this cannot be done, as in the case of 1Thessalonians 5:23.

Which of these meanings do we choose if we use the word “soul”? Given all these possible meanings of “soul,” the word is virtually un­usable for conveying a precise meaning. Why insist 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 understand what Paul means by psychē (soul) in 1Thess.5:23, we need to look at the way he generally uses the word. We will then see that the way he uses the word is in line with the way it is used in the New Testament as a whole.

Paul uses 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” (Rom.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 Rom.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 life and the outer life, thus referring to the person as a whole. The central element in every instance is the life of the person.

This harmonizes perfectly with the meaning of psychē in the New Testament as a whole, where its basic definition [6] 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 Concise Oxford Dictionary quoted above. Anyone who tries to understand the Bible by relying solely on a standard diction­ary may 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 that holds his spirit and body together. It means that when a man dies, body and spirit separate. Ecclesiastes 12:7 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”. 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.

Since psychē comprehends both the inner and outer aspects of man, it is not surprising that it is used frequently to refer 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 that man is composed of four parts: “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).

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 Yan-Zu Chun Qiu. 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. Chinese names have been converted from the old Wade-Giles system to standard Pinyin.

[2] “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized in­to his death” (Rom.6:3); “he who has died is freed from sin” (Rom.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” (Jn.12:24).

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

[4] The understanding of faith as total commitment is well known to New Testament scholarship. Zondervan Bible Dictionary, art­icle “Faith”: “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 Christ as the Lord of one’s life”. Dictionary of the Bible (John McKenzie, S.J.), article “Faith” (p.268): “The scope of the faith demanded by Isaiah shows that faith was a total commitment to Yahweh, a renunciation of secular and material re­sources, a seeking of security in the saving will of God alone.” Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary begins the article “Faith” as follows: “Faith — a belief in or con­fident attitude toward God, involving com­mitment to His will for one’s life.” See also The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, article “Faith, Faithfulness,” sub­article “Faith as assent and commitment” (vol.2, pp.416-417).

[5] Hence it comes as no surprise that few readers of the Bible have much idea what “soul” really means. Notwithstanding this, the word occurs frequent­ly in some English Bible versions, though its frequency seems to decline accord­ing to how recent the versions are. The 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 for NIV is less than a third of that for 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, by Bauer, Arndt, and Gingrich: “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) 2021 Christian Disciples Church