I spent years confused by Paul’s statement, “I die every day!” (1 Cor. 15:31). The confusion came because when I became a Christian the message I heard was salvation is a free gift, with no strings attached. The forgiveness of sins was free, apart from merit, works, or duty. I can’t earn it. It’s a free gift that will never be taken away. That was good news! No strings attached? I’m in! Where do I sign up?
But what happens to most of us (probably all of us) is that once we’re in, the message changes. It morphs into something else. It morphs into my own ability to keep God happy with me by the things I do, think, and say. I was no longer free, but weighed down with “Christian duty.” The message changed from Jesus plus nothing to I’m now responsible to be doing A-Z, whatever A-Z was determined to be, and my failure to do A-Z consistently resulted in feelings of guilt and remorse for being such a failure. Failure to have a consistent quiet time resulted in feelings of shame and guilt. Failure to read the Bible through in a year resulted in feelings of shame and guilt. Failure to pray every day with my wife and children brought feelings of shame and guilt. Failure to be the husband and father I was told I needed to be by those in the men’s Bible study brought feelings of shame and guilt. Failure to confess every sin I committed brought feelings of shame and guilt. Lying to others in my accountability group about my supposed progress and incredible ability to carry out my spiritual disciplines brought feelings of shame and guilt. By the way, everyone in your accountability group is doing the same thing I did. It’s a massive cover-up. And then I was told I need to die daily. I need to die to self every day by denying myself. And the list goes on and on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.
Do you see what’s happened? We get into trouble when we insert ourselves into Bible texts in which we don’t belong. We as Christians read about confessing our sins in 1 John 1:9 and turn it into a “spiritual discipline.” So we get busy trying to confess all of our sins, hoping we don’t miss one and wondering what happens if and when we do. And when we realize we’ve missed some and we can’t possibly keep up with such an impossible goal, we feel miserable and ashamed. We as Christians read the Beatitudes of Matthew 5 and think they’re goals for us to meet, so we get busy working on being meek, humble, lowly, and pure in heart so we’re not a disappointment and we can shine in our accountability group. Likewise, we read Paul’s words, “I die daily” and insert ourselves into them and think we need to be about dying to ourselves every day. It sounds spiritual and if dying daily was good enough for Paul, it must be what I need to be doing too. But is it? Would Paul have wanted us to insert ourselves into his words and make them about us and what we need to be doing?
Context, Context, Context
Let’s take a closer look at the context in which Paul penned these words:
Why are we in danger every hour? I protest, brothers, by my pride in you, which I have in Christ Jesus our Lord, 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.” (1 Corinthians 15:30–32)
The context in which Paul is speaking is the resurrection of the dead and more specifically, the resurrection of believers who have died. The death Paul is talking about is the literal, physical death he faced daily as he preached the gospel and “fought with beasts at Ephesus.” Paul isn’t talking about self-denial as some sort of spiritual discipline but the threat of physical death he faced daily. It’s in that context that he makes his point, “What do I gain… if the dead are not raised?” What good is my facing death every day if there is no resurrection of the dead? Furthermore, he didn’t tell the Corinthians to die daily, he was talking only about himself and his own experience. It was a descriptive statement, not a prescriptive one. In his second letter to these same people, he said,
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? (2 Corinthians 11:24–29)
Paul literally faced death every day. He wasn’t giving us a self-denial assignment to carry out. He wasn’t giving us the goal of one more spiritual discipline we could fail at and feel shamed and defeated when we failed to do it consistently. No, he was speaking of his own experiences with literal, physical death as a result of preaching Jesus.
If It Bleeds, We Can Kill It
That’s one of my favorite lines from the movie, Predator. Unfortunately, because we’ve inserted ourselves into a passage where we don’t belong, it’s also how we view ourselves in Christ – as something that needs to be killed or put to death because on some level, we’re in the way. We view ourselves as an obstacle that needs to be removed instead of a participant in the Divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4). But what if the death we needed to die has already happened? Consider this:
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)
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)
Not only have I already died with Christ but because of his death and my dying with him, I’ve been raised to newness of life. I’ve been crucified with Christ and the life I live right now is Christ in me and me in Him. There’s nothing dirty about that that needs to die repeatedly or die over and over again every day. I have already died and my life is now “hidden with Christ in God.” I’m not in the way, I’m a participant. He lives in and through me and it’s the Father’s good pleasure to give me his kingdom (Luke 12:32). This is my identity in Jesus. I am a new creation – a new person with a new identity, a new heart and a new life because the death I needed to die has already occurred:
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. (Romans 7:4)
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. (Romans 6:4)
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17)
In my mind this begs the question, why would I want to put to death this new creation? Why do we think we need to kill off what’s already died? Why do we think we need to kill what’s been made new? If the life I now live is “no longer I, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20) why do we feel the need to put it to death? Why would we do that? To go through my day thinking there remains an unworthy or dirty part of me that needs to be put to death is to deny what God has done in me and replaces it with false guilt and condemnation. I have been made a partaker of of his divine nature (2 Peter 1:3-4) and I get to be myself and enjoy him. To think there’s something in that formula that needs to die, takes away what God intends I enjoy.
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. (1 Timothy 6:17, emphasis mine)
Christian, relax. There are no hoops to jump through. You don’t need to be putting yourself to death. The death you needed to die has already occurred. You’ve been raised to newness of life. Live that life freely in the grace that’s been given to you because the life you’re living is Christ in you and you are free to be yourself.