One of the simplest and most foundational aspects of the Christian faith is often one of the most misunderstood. Christianity is not only about having a relationship with God focused on eternal benefits. It offers a rebirth which gives us a new identity positively affecting our life on Earth. A relationship with God transforms us to live differently. It doesn’t deny suffering and imperfection, but offers newfound hope this side of the grave. It doesn’t make Christians better than others, just better off.
A life with God is lived by faith, without which it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11:6). That faith believes He delivers on His promises and is our supporting evidence when we don’t yet see breakthroughs with our natural eyes (Romans 4:20-21). The Christian life is not just marked by praying in hope, but by exercising faith which is the substance of that hope (Hebrews 11:1). This is informed by the Bible (Romans 10:17) which therefore not only inspires life choices, but also the life outcomes for which we pray. The exercise of faith that responsibly, but confidently, applies Scripture in prayer requires three changes to first take place as we embrace what Christ has done for us.
1. A new birth “through Christ”
Eternal life is God’s gift which must be ‘unwrapped’ by each person in a conscious choice to accept the lordship of Jesus who reconciles us to the Father. He then desires to speak to our circumstances by illuminating biblical truth as we read and apply it prayerfully. Eternal life comes in no other way (John 14:6) but is found “through Christ” (Romans 6:23). This requires a change of heart, before mind, as we become spiritually regenerated.
This is a new birth by means of ‘water’ and ‘the Spirit,’ according to Jesus’ conversation with the religious leader, Nicodemus (John 3:5). Jesus also said to him, “you must be born again” (John 3:7). To be born again of water speaks of cleansing from sin and to be born again of the Spirit speaks of the ongoing journey by which we conform to Christ. The Holy Spirit, unsurprisingly, works in us to achieve this by making us holy, just as Scripture requires (1 Peter 1:15-16). This warrants our respect of His grace, never abusing it to live as we please (Romans 6:1-2).
Ezekiel 36:24-27 would have been known to Nicodemus and it referred to these twin elements by which people are become the children of God. For us, the cleansing of water that it alludes to is symbolised in water baptism by which we die to our old nature (Romans 6:3-4). It is irrelevant that this practice would not have been known to Nicodemus, since it is merely an outward sign of what is first transacted in the heart. It therefore becomes a first step of obedience to Christ (and is therefore never taught in the Bible as a practice for infants.)
When Jesus defined discipleship in terms of being baptised and obeying His commands (Matthew 28:19), He highlighted the very same two aspects of being a Christian. The second refers to the ongoing steps of conformity to Jesus beyond a baptism in water. These are not taken in our own strength, but through the enabling of the Spirit, just as Ezekiel describes.
2. A new identity “in Christ”
The first step of salvation, that symbolised by baptism in water, involves our ‘Justification.’ The cleansing of sin requires that its penalty be removed. God loves us, but he must also judge us, since His love and justice are two elements of His nature which must coexist in perfect balance. He loves us perfectly but must judge us perfectly, or else He would be imperfect and thus not God. This fact warrants an eternal death for each of us, since we are all marred by sin which has corrupted us and made is incapable of perfection and therefore of access to a perfect God (Romans 3:23).
Sin is any action, thought or attitude that sees us live apart from God. We are born corrupted by sin (Romans 5:12) which needs to be paid for. The logical penalty is eternal death because of the need for a perfect God to have only perfection in Heaven. Therefore, we cannot save ourselves (Romans 3:10-12).
My legal standing before God requires that I appear “just-if-I’d” never sinned. This is only possible if the justice of God is appeased by payment for my sin in blood (Hebrews 9:22). This means a life-for-life substitution by one who has not sinned and can therefore qualify to atone for my sin, no matter how seemingly minimal it may be. The same is logically true for any of us.
Therefore, to accept the death of Christ in our place is to be saved, or made righteous, which simply means to be in right-standing with God. Payment for sin is the key to a relationship with God that unlocks the door of its potential for our life on Earth. It enables us to approach Him with confidence because the guilt for sin has been taken away to thus enable a realisation of the true potential intended by our Creator (Ephesians 2:10).
In 2 Corinthians 5, those accepting this gift of salvation by allowing Jesus to take their guilt and appease God’s legitimate wrath against their sin will therefore receive a new identity as members of His family. We need feel no shame thereafter because God no longer sees our old life. Verse 17 says that we are a new creation and the old nature has been replaced by a new one. Verse 21 shows us that Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin for us so that we could be made righteous (or ‘right’ with God). Both verses use the phrase indicating that our new identity is “in Christ.”
This is why the New Testament repeatedly speaks embracing the new identity with intentionality. It says that we put off the old nature and put on the new one, because we need to choose to accept who we have already legally become.
In the first century church, whether or not one was circumcised was a debated point of belonging to the company of God’s people, but this was quickly determined to be an irrelevant criterion. Galatians 6:15 says that the new creation is what mattered, and this was a brought into effect by a spiritual, and not a fleshly, circumcision. This was a circumcision of the heart, as described in Romans 2:29, a work of the Spirit bringing His fruit in our lives (as seen in Galatians 5:22-23).
Living with a sense of shame or inadequacy is unnecessary when our identity is centred in Christ. So too is making excuses for what cannot change or for who we think we are that does not accord with what the Bible affirms. Living by faith accepts who we have become ‘in Christ’ because of what the Bible says and not because of what we feel. 2 Corinthians 5:7 says that our walk is by faith and not sight; it is grounded in biblical evidence and not circumstantial evidence.
We are therefore not the prisoner of our anger problems. We are not the product of past abuses committed against us. We do not have to be shaped by our former addictions or perceived self-image. We are also not defined by our sexuality, our marital status, our health, or our social position. 1 Corinthians 6:11 even suggests that any unrepented sinful behaviour is associated with our old life and therefore characterises what we were, not what we are.
Why, then, do we often struggle to embrace our new life? Why do we sometimes wrestle with this old nature that seems unconquered? Why can personal breakthroughs appear difficult?
3. A new power “with Christ”
In Romans 7:14-21, Paul identifies the warring natures of the old and new self at work in us that might make it seem as if we really aren’t very different to those who don’t know Christ. It might also appear to deny the new creation identity we have been given.
Here, though, is where we really do need to understand that the Christian life is far more than just giving mental assent to a new way of living. We don’t just live an otherwise-worldly life with relief that we have insurance against an eternity apart from God. Breaking free of our old life honours the authority we legitimately have as children of the Kingdom by then realising that we represent this Kingdom in living out the rule and reign of God in this life.
It is about renewing the mind to embrace the truth of who we have become. To live as a Christian is to be confident, firstly, that the matter of our eternal security is settled. Then, we live in the power of God which is granted to those who are His children. This comes as we live our life with Christ so that we who are “in Christ” begin to experience the transformation of Christ who is also “in us” so that we would be free, so that others might be saved or healed, and so that ground could be taken from the Devil. Only when the Church realises its potential can justice or restoration be realised in our world.
God’s transforming power comes when we surrender to Him and accept the fullness of our birth in the Spirit and not just in water. The symbolism of water depicts a baptism of cleansing. The related baptism of the Spirit is not so much another baptism as it is another aspect of the one baptism of initiation into the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:5), one which ushers us into the fullness of life in God’s Kingdom (1 Corinthians 12:13).
The two elements are closely connected – ideally part of the same new birth experience – as evidenced in the Old Testament’s significant typology of the Exodus story. 1 Corinthians 10 shows us its intentional illustration of our spiritual life. The water crossings of the Red Sea and the Jordan River are two aspects of the one journey of faith, designed as closely connected, but distinct, aspects of letting go of the old life and embracing the new. Just as a new generation inherited the Promised Land, only a new creation empowered by the Spirit embraces the fullness of God’s provision.
Just as the Promised Land included spiritual warfare, so too does the Spirit-filled life. Once our security is settled, we are out of Egypt, but the question is whether Egypt is really out of us. Enacting faith-filled spiritual warfare (2 Corinthians 10:4-5) sometimes looks like first taking responsibility for change in our own lives before expecting change in the lives of others.
Conformity to Christ requires holy living as we reject the sin of our old life and honour God with our choices. This is not enacted by striving in our own strength or imposing rules of conduct. Rather, the absence of a legalistic condemnation to those who are “in Christ” (Romans 8:1) then enables the greater power of “Christ in” them (1 John 4:4) to then live a life that can overcome the power of sin. His power at work in us allows us to do more than we think or ask (Ephesians 3:20).
Jesus, who baptises with the Spirit, fills us with this power as we wilfully yield to Him. This is called ‘Sanctification.’ It is the ‘process’ of salvation that follows and evidences the ‘event’ of salvation. It is the journey of learned obedience to Jesus that He characterised as a hallmark of true discipleship. Disciples who are not baptised and obedient do not demonstrate that they are disciples at all.
Our conscience is only used by the Holy Spirit to lead us insofar as we condition it according to Scripture. Renewing our minds with the truth of the Bible is a process associated with transformation. The original text of Romans 12:2 uses a word from which we gain metamorphosis. The butterfly emerges from its chrysalis in a new form, and only by knowing that we are God’s righteous children can we then live as the new creation of God we were intended to.
As we accept biblical truth revealed by the Spirit who first encoded it in Scripture, we can be led by the Spirit whose work in us is inseparable from the Word. Our lives then become living worship, acceptable to God (Romans 12:1) because of embodying both Spirit and truth (John 4:24).
When we appreciate that justification removes the penalty of sin, we can better pursue sanctification by which we overcome the power of sin. Only in our eternal glorification in the next life can we ever be free from the presence of sin (Revelations 21:4). This is only possible by first accepting that the process of outworking salvation needs us to accept personally the line-in-the-sand event of salvation. “You must be born again.”