Central to Christian teaching is the forgiveness of sins and eternal life afforded in the person and work of Jesus Christ our Lord. Every earthly expression of the Christian community does not agree on how, or upon what basis, God forgives sin and makes sinners a part of His own family. But, every Christian group to my knowledge admits that mankind is sinful and that God frowns on sin.
In his letter to the believers at Rome Paul gives a brief version of the origin of sin and how that sin invades every person.
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— (Romans 5:12)
When Adam sinned he represented us all, each of us has an appointment with a grave. Physical death is a result of sin, first of Adam and then all of his decedents.
Adam was (is) a “type” of Jesus (Romans 5:14) in that he too was our representative in his life and death.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. (Romans 5:15)
How then did God choose to break the curse of Adam’s sin, and our common death? He accomplished that by the representative death of Jesus. Central to the gospel is that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3). And when Jesus died “for us” he represented us in his death so that the effect is we died with him. It is specifically for that reason that His death is effectual for us.
One way Paul illustrated this dying was to use the death of a woman’s husband. A widow is no longer bound to her marriage vows and to her husband. Death ends the marriage with it’s obligations.
Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. (Romans 7:1,2)
In the same way a wife is freed from the law of marriage through the death of her husband, we Christians are freed from the law of sin and death in the same exact way.
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:4-6)
The question that is raised is, “When did we die the death that frees us?”. The answer is in the passage above. “you also have died to the law through the body of Christ“. When Christ died for us God counted, or reckoned us as having died with him. “How can this be?” you ask. In the same way God counted the sinless Son of God utterly sinful (2 Corinthians 5:21) on the cross, he counts us as having died when He died.
Paul goes at this truth from another vantage point in Romans 6. Here our baptism is used as an illustration of this very truth. Paul is combating the idea that those who are in Christ are free to go on sinning as before.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:1-11)
Our symbolic dying is in the waters of baptism. We are “baptized into his death” in the watery grave acting out what actually happened when Jesus died. It is not in baptism that we actually die to sin. Baptism points to the reality that “our old self was crucified with him…” and, “we have died with Christ..”. In the exact sense that we do not actually rise from the dead when we come up out of the water we don’t actually die when we go into the water. The symbol never stands alone but always points to the reality.
In light of the truth that when Christ died we effectively died with him, and by that death are no longer are under the dominion of sin, Paul says “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11) Another way of saying this is to count yourselves dead as God does because you died with Christ.
One of Paul’s best known statements is found in Galatians 2.
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 (Galatians 2:20)
Ours is a salvation accomplished outside of us without any help from us. Christ reconciled us to God by the blood of his cross. Paul therefore writes to the Colossians these words.
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. (Colossians 1:21,22)
Sinners are reconciled to the Father, not by what they know, not by what they do, but by what Christ has done.
Let’s roll back the odometer of history, to the first century? No, further. To the time of the patriarchs? No, further yet. Let’s go all the way back before history was being made. Let’s go back to pre-creation, pre-earth and see what God was up to.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:3-14)
All of this love, this definite plan, before time, to be implemented in time, and at just the right time. Our God is a God of purpose and his purpose is the praise of His glory! God’s salvation leaves no room for boasting in ourselves.
Without regard for some nuanced meaning of what “righteousness” or “justification” means in Paul’s writings two things are crystal clear. God is just! And, He is the justifier of the ungodly! Jesus saves! Your salvation? You didn’t build that!