The vocabulary of dying to sin is most explicit in 1 Peter 2:24: “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; by His wounding you have been healed” but the idea pops up all over the place. For example, while Paul calls Christians to ‘put to death’ sin in Col 3:5, in a parallel passage only 3 verses later, he tells them to ‘rid themselves’ of sin (Col 3:8). Paul is not identifying two different actions here but using different vocabulary to refer to the same thing. Other examples of this include when Paul tells the Ephesians to ‘put off your old self’ (Eph 4:22) and speaks to the Galatians of having crucified the sinful nature (Gal 5:24).
Dying to sin and its corollary, living to righteousness, normally appear together in the Bible. In the 1 Peter passage above, there’s a connection between the two: one cannot ‘live to righteousness’ without first ‘dying to sin’. To use the theological terminology, the natural end of mortification is vivification. This is not to say that they are synonymous but it does suggest that they are inseparable. Indeed, in Colossians 3, the commands to ‘put to death’ and ‘rid themselves’ of sin are matched by the command to clothe themselves with godliness (Col 3:12). If ‘dying to sin’ and ‘living to righteousness’ are found without one another, they have been inadequately understood.
The trickiest thing about understanding what it means to die to sin and live to righteousness is the tenses. Dying to sin is commanded, yet being crucified with Christ is spoken about in the past tense (Romans 6:3-4, 6). However, Paul explains in Romans 6:2 “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” The death to sin has already occurred: Christians confess that the ‘old person’ has been crucified in Christ. However, this change will have consequences for lifestyle. Mortification and vivification refers to the living out of this reality. The power for that comes from Christ’s death on the cross.
Note then, that this lifestyle change is possible only for Christians. More than a promise to behave differently, it depends on having the God-given capacity to put sin to death. In biblical theology, “die to sin and live to righteousness” means rejecting the old lifestyle that went along with being the ‘old person’ and instead choosing the new lifestyle that is appropriate for the ‘new person’ that you are in Christ.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.