The apostle Paul often teaches that Christians are “united with Christ” (Romans 6:3-5, Galatians 3:27, Romans 8:1-2, Corinthians 5:17). To be united with Christ means that we actually share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, His death becomes our death, and His resurrection becomes our resurrection. What is the significance of this? Paul uses a number of metaphors to explain.
Those who yield to sin’s temptations are depicted as “slaves” to sin (Romans 6:16). Jesus uses similar language: “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34, NIV). This analogy explains how yielding to sinful influences actually begins to corrupt our hearts and minds (Galatians 6:8). Patterns become established and reinforced—patterns that hold us in a form of bondage. In the ancient world, a slave was legally bound to the service of his or her master. This legal contract, however, was nullified by death. Using the metaphor of slavery, Paul explains that when we share in Christ’s death, we are set free from our former master (Romans 6:3-10). We are no longer under any obligation to “obey” sinful thoughts or impulses. Temptation will still come, but in Christ we are free to say “no.”
At this point it may be helpful to explain exactly what “sin” is, from a biblical perspective. God’s hope and plan for humanity is that we will know and experience His love, that we will love Him in return, and that we will love our neighbor as we love ourselves (1 John 4:7-21, Luke 10:27). “Sin” is the opposite of love. Love does no harm to its neighbor (Romans 13:10). Sin, on the other hand, harms neighbors, harms self and grieves the loving heart of God (Ephesians 4:30).
Through the prophets, the apostles and the Messiah, God reveals that sin will one day come to an end. God will not allow it to continue indefinitely. The reign of sin can end in a person’s life through one of two ways: salvation or judgment. “In Christ,” we are set free from sin. Its reign is ended, and there is no need for judgment. In Christ, we are not only free from sin, we are also forgiven (Colossians 1:13-14).
In Christ, we also share in Jesus’ resurrection (Romans 6:5). Continuing with his slavery metaphor, Paul explains that while we are dead to our former master (sin), we are now made alive to live in the service of a new master–God. Jesus describes this as a “new birth,” a miracle accomplished by God’s Holy Spirit (John 3:3-21). God is not, however, looking for slaves; he is looking for friends (John 15:15). We are free to know, experience and share the love of God that we find “in Christ.” We can know and share the love of God in this life, and throughout eternity, since for those who are united with Christ, there will be no judgment (John 3:16-18).
How are we united with Christ? How do we share in his death and resurrection? How are we freed from sin and judgment to love and be loved for eternity? Jesus, Paul, John and others teach us through the New Testament that we are united with Christ by faith (John 3:16, 1 John 4:14-16, Romans 10:9-13). In other words, when we trust that Jesus is the Savior who came and died to free us from sin and judgment, the Holy Spirit unites us with Christ, and we are “born again” (John 3:3-8).
Paul uses yet another metaphor to explain this. When we are united with Christ by faith, we “put off” the sinful patterns that held us in their grip, like we would take off a soiled garment. We then “put on Christ” and his righteousness (Ephesians 4:22-24, Galatians 3:27). The analogy of “putting on Christ” can also be found in the following parables of Jesus:
The Prodigal Son:
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” (Luke 15:11-24, NIV)
When the son turned away from his sinful life and returned home to his father, the first thing his father did was hug him, kiss him and call for the “best robe” to be put on him. This is an analogy of being “clothed with Christ.”
The Wedding Feast:
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 22:1-13, NRSV)
All are welcome to a feast of celebration in the Kingdom of Heaven. It does not matter what we have done or not done, or how we have lived our lives in the past. What matters is that we are willing to be “clothed with Christ.” God loves every single human being and welcomes us all to the feast. To our heavenly Father, we are all loved and precious. “Sin,” however, like a soiled garment must be left outside.
Union with Christ does not just make us appear righteous; it begins to transform us from the inside out. To explain this, Paul uses yet another metaphor. He compares those who share in Christ’s resurrection to the Temple of God that stood in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 3:16, 1 Peter 2:5). When we are united with Christ by faith, God’s Holy Spirit comes to dwell in the Holy of Holies of our hearts. From here, God teaches, comforts, leads, loves and works to transform us more and more into the loved and loving people he created us to be (Romans 12:1-2, John 14:15-17, John 16:12-15). Sinful patterns no longer have dominion over us, and we can begin to shed them from our lives (Colossians 3:8-11). The Bible repeatedly compares sinful patterns of living to the “flesh” that is removed in the Jewish rite of circumcision (Deuteronomy 30:6, Romans 2:29). As we learn to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16), old patterns begin to be replaced by new patterns of thinking and behavior, which are described (in yet another metaphor) as the “fruit” of the Holy Spirit: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things” (Galatians 5:22-23, NRSV).
Contrary to what bad theology tells us, humanity is not perceived as a loathsome, “damnable mass of sin” (Augustine, Letter to Simplicianus 1.2.16). This is the language of shame. We are God’s dearly loved creation: “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NRSV). God does, however, truly “hate” sin. The sin that envelops us is hated because it does harm to God’s creation—the children that he loves. Enveloping sin becomes a false self that is once again depicted as a soiled garment that must be removed from the person that God loves: “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you’” (Zechariah 3:3-4, NIV).
Jesus loves us so much that he became a human being and died to free us from sin, to clothe us with his righteousness, and to invite us to live with him in his Kingdom of Love forever. This wonderful message of hope is what is known as the “gospel,” which means “Good News.”
The Good News is that God offers each of us love, forgiveness, righteousness, freedom and eternal life. The Bible calls this “salvation” (1 Peter 1:8-9). It is a gift that each of us may receive by willingly sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through faith (John 1:12).
If you wish to receive God’s gift of salvation, you may express your faith in Jesus Christ by saying the following prayer:
Thank you that you died on the cross and rose again so that I might be freed from sin and forgiven. I trust in you as my Savior. Please send your Holy Spirit into my heart, so that I might know how much you love me and how valuable I am in your sight. Help me to love you with all my heart, soul, mind and strength; and teach me to love my neighbor as I love myself. Deliver me from sinful patterns of thinking and behavior, and help my life to become filled with the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Thank you that because of your death and resurrection, I can be “clothed with Christ” and spend eternity with you in heaven. Amen.