We have an intriguing Bible question today from a listener named Brandi. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for your ministry. I have a question regarding death and the types of death Paul refers to in his epistles. I know we all face a physical death. And for non-believers there is a second spiritual death, an eternal death. However, when Paul is speaking in Romans 8 to believers, he says, ‘If you live according to the flesh you will die’ (Romans 8:13). Does Paul mean that our sins somehow shorten our earthly lives? Or are believers subject to eternal death? And what does Paul mean when he says the man in Corinth who has his father’s wife is to be handed over to Satan ‘for the destruction of the flesh’ (1 Corinthians 5:5)? What kind of death is this? I feel like I’m missing an integral piece to the puzzle. Thanks for your help.”
I love this question partly because it pushes me to do something I’ve never done before — namely, see how many different ways the New Testament speaks of a Christian dying. I’ve never done that. So, instead of just addressing two of the examples that Brandi raises, Romans 8:13 and 1 Corinthians 5:5, let me mention six ways I see the New Testament speaking of a Christian dying, and take up those two where they turn up in the sequence.
1. Crucified with Christ
Paradoxically, the Christian life begins at conversion with a death. In Galatians 2:20, looking back on his conversion, Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
When we are converted to Christ, our old, rebellious, unbelieving, spiritually dead self dies — dies with Christ — and a new, believing, submissive, spiritually sensitive life comes into being, a new creation.
2. Reckoning Ourselves Dead
Following from that experience of death to our old sinful nature, Paul calls us now, in view of that reality, to reckon ourselves to be dead. Romans 6:11: “So you also must consider [or reckon] yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
So, this is an act of faith by which we repeatedly preach to ourselves the reality that what happened to us at our conversion is true: We really died with Christ. We died to sin. We died to rebellion and unbelief. And now, by faith, we repeatedly reckon it to be so: “I’m dead, sin; you don’t rule.” We preach to ourselves.
3. Killing Indwelling Sin
This is one that Brandi asked about in particular: Romans 8:13. We turn against every uprising of our old sinful nature and put it to death by the Spirit every day. The sword of the Spirit is for killing, after all; that’s what swords are for. Paul says in Romans 8:13–14, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”
So, we take one step beyond reckoning ourselves dead and actually target specific uprisings of the old nature and kill them. We kill them. We kill them by the Spirit; that is, we trust the promise of the Holy Spirit’s power to help us defeat sin, and we say to the temptation, in the name of Jesus, “You don’t own me.” And we stick it with the sword of the Spirit, the word of God, a better promise than what sin is offering.
“We really died with Christ. We died to sin. And now, by faith, we repeatedly reckon it to be so.”
And Brandi asks whether the death Paul threatens, if we don’t do this, is early physical death (that’s one option she holds out), or, she asks, “Are believers subject to eternal death?” Well, eternal death is what Paul has in mind here, not just some kind of disciplinary suffering or physical death. We know that because the argument he gives to support it in verse 14 is this: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” In other words, when we put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit, we are being led by the Spirit into that kind of warfare against sin, our sin. And thus, we prove by that warfare that we are sons of God. If we don’t make war on our sin but rather make peace with it, we show that we are not led by the Spirit of God and, therefore, not the children of God.
So no, Brandi, the children of God are not subject to eternal death. But Paul often addresses the church with the warnings of eternal death, so as to make plain who are the true believers who respond to this warning and who are not.
4. Taking Up Our Crosses
The New Testament talks about a Christian dying in the sense that Jesus did and Paul did in different words. Here’s what Jesus said in Luke 9:23: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
To take up the cross is to take up an instrument of execution. It’s like wearing a little electric chair around your neck. It is, in a profound sense, to die, like Bonhoeffer said: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Now, in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul was pleading against those who denied the resurrection, and in verses 31–32 he said, “I protest, brothers, . . . I die every day! What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”
I think this is Paul’s way of saying what Jesus said. Every day, Christians make choices that, to the world, look like little deaths: risking your life in Ephesus, denying yourself some immediate comfort or security in order to serve someone else. We deny ourselves, we die to ourselves — our immediate demand for comfort or security or pleasure — in order to bring others life, and the greater blessing we find in giving.
5. Suffering in the Body
For some people, like Paul, there are marks of these kinds of dying in their own bodies. He said in 2 Corinthians 4:10 that he was “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” And in Galatians 6:17, he said, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” These kinds of scars mingled with love caused Paul to realize that, in a profound sense, he was completing the very death of Jesus by making it tangible or visible to people for whom Christ died in his own body.
“Every day, Christians make choices that, to the world, look like little deaths.”
He said in Colossians 1:24, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Which I take to mean that Paul’s very bodily existence as a suffering apostle was a presentation in the flesh of the sufferings and death of Christ, so that people could actually see in Paul, by his suffering, how much they are loved by Christ.
6. Returning to Dust
There is physical suffering and death, and if Jesus does not come back first, every one of us will experience this. It’s very close for some of us. In answer to Brandi’s question regarding when Paul handed over to Satan the immoral person in 1 Corinthians 5:5 who had been sleeping with his stepmother, I think Paul was saying that his prayer for this person was that suffering and impending death would shake the disciplined person out of his spiritual stupor and bring him to faith and life, even if he died.
Dying to Live
So now, to get the biblical emphasis right, we need to end like this: In every single case of dying in the Christian life, the biblical emphasis, amazingly, falls on for the sake of someone’s living. It’s always for the sake of someone’s living that we talk about dying. We die in order to live.
The death at conversion is a spiritual resurrection of life. We reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God. We kill sin so that we live in righteousness. We lose our lives to gain them. We carry the marks of Jesus so that people see life, the life of love. And we die, finally and physically, triumphant over sin, over death, over Satan, only to rise in the last day and shine like the sun in the kingdom of our Father (Matthew 13:43).