Everything that had its beginning before resurrection must be wiped out. Resurrection is God’s new starting-point.
(Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life, p. 89)
The process of losing control always involves a kind of death and resurrection. The theme of dying and rising to new life runs throughout the New Testament. For instance, when Jesus tells Nicodemus he must be born again (John 3:3), Jesus means Nicodemus must put an end to the way he’s always lived his life and allow the Holy Spirit to raise up in him a new kind of life. When a person is “born again” it is the resurrected life of Jesus that takes up residence within him or her. They begin to live in and through Jesus. The apostle Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Galatians: …It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me… (2:20, RSV).
In the early centuries of the Christian church, baptism brought home this sense that in turning in faith to Jesus one was, in effect, dying and being raised up into a new life. In preparation for their baptism new converts to Christianity would spend up to two years in study and prayer before officially leaving behind their old way of life and being reborn into the resurrected life of Jesus. This may seem like an inordinate amount of time to those of us living in the twenty-first century, but back then people understood that conversion to Christianity from paganism meant making a total break with life lived the way they’ve always lived it. Unlearning the habits and attitudes that characterized the life they were about to leave behind and learning appropriate ones for their new life in Christ was not something that could be rushed or entered into lightly.
Paul writes about this learning process in his letter to the Ephesians: That… is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness…(4:20-24).
Back then, when a person was finally ready to be baptized he or she would first remove their garments as a way of metaphorically “putting off their old self.” They would then step down into a pool where a presbyter (minister) would gently lean them back until they were completely submerged under the water and then raise them up out of the water. This submerging and raising action was done a total of three times: first, in the name of the Father; second, in the name of the Son; and third, in the name of the Holy Spirit. Afterwards, they would step out of the pool and demonstrate how through baptism they’ve “put on the new self” by clothing themselves in fresh white robes. This baptismal liturgy reminded them that they had made a break with their old life. They felt like they had died and risen again, with Christ.
Today, however, many Christians no longer associate “death and resurrection” with being born again. Becoming a Christian is often viewed now as incorporating Christian beliefs and values into a continuing way of life instead of a radical break with one’s past. Although most of us wouldn’t mind new clothes, we’d most likely prefer to hold on to a number of things from our old life, including a few of our vices – especially the ones our friends find charming and our colleagues admire. After all, nobody wants to be born again…and end up as a bore.
However, if we take Paul as an example of someone who made a total break with his former way of life, it’s important to note that he didn’t suddenly become boring or turn into a drone. He was still the brilliant and argumentative person he was before he “died.”
But, in being raised to new life, Paul began to live increasingly free of pride and self-interest. He could more easily abandon himself to God and not worry about what people thought of him or his actions or whether he was following all the rules. He lived a grace-infused life, with peace and joy abounding. In dying to his pride-riddled self, he began to live life selflessly and abundantly through Jesus. Jesus’ resurrected life was present in him – and he had never been more alive or authentically “himself.”
I think what we all fear in this notion of making a break with our former way of life is giving up our autonomy. We fear the loss of power. But the truth is we don’t really have any power until we are reborn in Christ. Unless that happens we remain under the power of sin. Being held captive by sin means we are not free to be truly ourselves. We have only the illusion of being “free,” of being in control. Actually, we are trapped in patterns of self-interest, self-indulgence and self-serving behavior. Only through the figurative death and resurrection of turning to Jesus and surrendering our lives to his Lordship do we begin to truly live and become “ourselves” – the people God created us to be; the people we are powerless to be unless we are born again.
Next week: The cost of not losing control.