Happy Friday, everyone, and welcome back to the podcast. Pastor John is back in the studio with me today for a really sharp Bible question on Colossians 3:3. It comes to us from a listener named Josiah. “Pastor John, hello and thank you for taking my question today. How do we reconcile Colossians 3:3, ‘For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,’ with Ephesians 2:1, ‘And you were dead in trespasses and sins’? I know this refers to our spiritual state of existence before and after Christ. I was already dead, and then I died? Is that right? So those who are saved were dead, and then they died again. So dead men die? Is that how salvation works in Paul’s mind?”
That’s a really good question. I love this kind of question. When people read the Bible carefully enough that they think, “How does that fit together?” those are just golden moments in Bible reading to go deeper. So Josiah has put his finger right on a crucial biblical paradox. So Ephesians 2 describes all human beings as dead in trespasses and sins, in need of life. And then Colossians 3 says, “We must die in order to have that life.” That’s a good question.
So the answer is yes. Dead men must die if they are to live. That’s true. That’s the clear teaching of Scripture, and there are two senses in which the dead must die in order to live. So now, if we step back and say, “Whoa, that sounds really confusing” — there are five things that need to be clarified.
First, in what sense are all people dead apart from Christ? Second, in what sense are those dead people alive while they are dead? Because it’s clear those dead people are walking around all around us during the day. Third and fourth, what are the two ways that these dead people must die if they are to live? And then finally, fifth, what is the difference between the life we have after this double death and the life we had while we were dead?
It all sounds very odd, I know, but those are exactly the questions that Scripture leads us to ask.
Dead in What Sense?
So here’s number one. First, in what sense are all people dead — all people, until God makes them alive in Christ? Here’s the way Ephesians 2:1 and 2:3 describe it: “And you were dead in trespasses and sins . . . and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” So, this is not just a few people. Deadness is what characterizes all of mankind, Paul says — all human beings.
“Dead men must die if they are to live.”
And here’s the way John describes our deadness before new birth: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death” (1 John 3:14).
Or here’s the way Jesus talks about it: “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matthew 8:22). And the father in the parable of the prodigal son says, “My son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24). Or here’s Paul again in 1 Timothy 5:6: “She who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives.” So in what sense, then, were we all dead before God made us alive in Christ? Paul has several ways of describing our deadness.
Here’s one in Ephesians 4:18: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” So, darkness and hardness — can’t see certain reality, can’t feel certain reality.
What couldn’t we see when we were dead? Second Corinthians 4:4 says unbelievers cannot see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” And in this darkness, this blindness and hardness, we don’t have the moral ability to gladly submit to God. Romans 8:7–8 says, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
So what does our original deadness mean? It means hearts hard and blind to the beauty of Christ, and therefore in revolt against the will of Christ.
Alive in What Sense?
Second, in what sense are those dead people — all of us before conversion — alive? Because Ephesians 2:1–3 also says they’re very, very active. Paul says this:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked [you’re walking, dead men walking], following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience, among whom we all once conducted ourselves [so we’re dead, conducting ourselves] in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
So, we are very active dead people. And Romans 6:17 and 6:20 describes the dead as slaves of sin. There was no faith. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). We sinned and sinned and sinned. So the dead were very active slaves, but nothing came from faith.
How Do the Dead Need to Die?
Now, here comes this double clarification, third and fourth, I said. There are two senses in which the spiritually dead need to die in order to live. First, they need to be united with Christ so that his death counts as their death.
- Romans 6:5: “If we have been united with him in a death like his . . .”
- Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ.”
- Romans 6:6: “Our old self was crucified with him.”
So this union with Christ in his death happens through faith. When we believe in Christ, God counts his death to be our death. This means that the condemnation owing to our sins falls on Christ. And because of our union with him, we are now counted free from punishment, no condemnation for those united to Christ — that is, “in Christ” (Romans 8:1). So that old, hard, blind, rebellious, dead self is now freed from guilt. Its sins are punished, covered. Now what?
“When we believe in Christ, God counts his death to be our death.”
Here’s the second sense in which the dead must die. Our old self — our old, blind, hard, rebellious nature — is replaced by a defining new nature, a new person. This is what the new birth does. This is a real transformation. Paul describes the ongoing experience of this newness like this: “You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:9–10).
So, the original dead person passes through two deaths on the way to life. The hard, blind, rebellious, dead self is miraculously, graciously, freely, sovereignly — by God — united to Christ as God creates faith in the heart, so that all the punishment that dead men deserve was endured by Christ. And in that same instant, in that same act of faith, God creates a new nature in us. Which leads now to one last question.
What Distinguishes the Living?
What is the difference between the life of this new nature and the life we had when we were dead? Let’s let Paul answer the question, because he does it so beautifully in Galatians 2:20. There are not many verses more preciously personal in Paul’s writings than Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” And now here comes my answer to the question. What’s the new life that you have after this double death that you walked through? “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.”
So, the new nature that God created in the new birth is a nature that has faith in the Son of God. It is a nature that believes. It is not hard. It’s tender to the truth and the beauty of Christ. It’s not blind. It sees the supreme worth of Christ. It’s not insubordinate and rebellious. It gladly submits to the lordship of Christ. So yes, Josiah, the dead must die in order to live. And what a glorious work Christ has wrought in his death and resurrection to make that happen.