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Counseling and our Union with Christ

Our union with Christ is the foundation for personal change.

Apr 14, 2021

Our union with Christ is the foundation for personal change, and the best passage of Scripture to study this is Romans 6. It’s not the only passage, as we could also go to Ephesians 1 and 2, but the reason I like sharing Romans 6 with counselees is because it’s so systematic. In this chapter, Paul is dealing with the believer’s relationship to sin. It describes how we’ve been set free from sin’s domain. This is an indispensable truth in biblical counseling for both the counselor and the counselee. In fact, I found that I need to refer to this liberating truth in probably 90 percent of counseling cases. The importance of Romans 6 as it relates to our struggle against sin cannot be overstated.

Romans 6:1-14 says, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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.

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. 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. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” We’re no longer under the old system but under grace.

Overview of Romans

The book of Romans presents the answer to two of man’s greatest problems: the penalty for our sin and our bondage to the power of sin. The first five chapters reveal how God through His grace made provision for our guilt. He made provision for the penalty for our sin. What is that provision? It’s the “J” word: justification. The Apostle Paul writes about our need for justification through the atoning work of Jesus Christ through faith on the cross. What does God do? He opens our eyes to the gospel. You realize you’re a sinner in need of the Savior. You repent. You come to faith in Christ. And then what does God do? He declares us righteous, justified in His sight. Justification means that we’re in a right standing before God, free from the guilt and the penalty for sin. You and I both remember that day. I was 27, living like a pagan for all those years, and I remember that glorious day. 

Romans 5:1 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The first five chapters speak about how we’re relieved of the penalty of sin through Christ’s atoning sacrifice, and we have peace with God. In chapter 6, Paul turns to the subject of the “S” word: sanctification. Sanctification describes how we have been set free from bondage to the power of sin. We’re free to change and free to grow in godliness. The truth of this passage is going to be very important in counseling and discipleship. We’re going to counsel many Christians who live defeated spiritual lives. They may not want to live that way. But many of them aren’t able to overcome issues in their life that they know are not pleasing to God. There are many Christians crippled by fears and consumed with worries and anxieties. Many are given to lustful thoughts. Many have struggling marriages because they’re not able to overcome a biting tongue or an unforgiving spirit or a bad temper. They resign themselves to living a mediocre Christian life. We all know people like that. 

The Liberating Truth of Romans 6

The liberating truth of Romans 6 can be a real eye-opener for these people, a real faith-builder. Biblical counselors need to have a very good grasp of Romans 6 because its truths need to be taught in the majority of counseling cases. As we move through this essential passage of Scripture, you can even apply it to your own life. You know what struggles you may be going through. Whatever struggle that may be, I want you to know this: There’s no sinful habit, no tendency, and no lifestyle that is beyond what’s being addressed in Romans 6. John Piper once preached a sermon and made a reference to this chapter. He asked the question, “What sin is beyond the reach of Romans chapter 6?” He said, “Be careful because nothing is beyond the reach.” No sin. A true believer can have victory. The liberating truth of this chapter hinges on three key words in the English Standard Version. The word “know” in verse 3. The word “consider” in verse 11, and the word “present” in verse 13. This liberating truth can be built on these three terms. I have them underlined in my Bible. Do you notice that whenever you counsel people, quite often you go back to a lot of the same verses? That’s why I recommend in counseling training that people who want to go into formal counseling get a wide margin Bible because you can put little notes in there. Everything in these first 14 verses fit into one of these three headings. You have to know something; you have to consider something; and you have to present something. Taken together this is God’s prescription for believers to walk in victory.

Know Your Position in Christ

Let’s begin with the first keyword: “know.” First, you need to know your position in Christ. Between verses 3 and 9, the Apostle Paul repeatedly uses the word “know.” In verse 3, he asks, “Do you not know?” Then in verse 6 he adds, “We know.”  In verse 9. he goes on to say, “We know.” He wants believers in Christ to know something very important. He keeps repeating himself here. Now the question is “What does he want us to know?” If you want victory over sin, know your position in Christ. Ignorance of who you are in Christ is a major cause in hindering a life of victory. If Satan can keep you ignorant of this truth, then he can keep you spiritually weak. When counselees’ spiritual eyes are opened up to this faith-building truth, I have seen their physical eyes light up. God wants us to know a tremendous spiritual truth. We see it in verses 1 and 2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Paul is asking if it is permissible for a Christian to continue to live a sinful lifestyle, to live the same way he or she did before Christ. He answers in verse 2, “By no means!” The idea here is that sanctification is the result of justification. He goes on to say, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (v. 2b). Notice that Paul says that we died to sin. We have a new status, and this new status radically alters our relationship to sin. Its power and its reign over us have been broken by Christ. Before redemption we were slaves to sin. We had no choice but to sin. We’re fallen beings. We’re born with that propensity to sin. But at conversion, through faith in the sacrificial and substitutionary work of Christ on the cross, God delivers us from the ruling power of sin. Sin’s power over us has been broken. That’s the point of Romans 6:14. That’s what it means when Paul says that we have died to sin.

I don’t want you to think we’re free from temptation. When some believers get saved and are tempted, they think, “Oh brother, what’s wrong?” Even Jesus was tempted. We will still be tempted. Being saved doesn’t mean that we’re no longer going to sin. But it does mean that sin no longer need dominate our lives. This is the case Paul is building here. This is the conclusion he’s coming to in verse 14, “For sin will have no dominion over you.” That’s about as clear as it gets. Sin is no longer your lord and master as it was before Christ. You’re free. You can now pursue a life of righteousness. This is the major factor that demonstrates whether or not a person has genuine faith. John says in 1 John 3:9, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning.” Let’s try to grasp this wonderful truth.

Implications of Our New Identity

Follow Paul’s train of thought in verses 3 and 4: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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.” The implications here for believers are staggering. This speaks of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul considers it as having happened to us. When you place saving faith in Christ, you became a recipient of His death, burial, and resurrection. This is what theologians refer to as identification. Through faith, you identify with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What Paul is saying is that we have a whole new identity based upon our union with Christ. Your identity changed when you came to faith in Christ. The glorious truth is that His atoning death for sin became your death to sin. His burial became your burial to the old, sinful lifestyle. His resurrection to life became your resurrection to a new life. It’s a glorious truth. You have a whole new identity by virtue of your union with Christ. You’re no longer in Adam. You’re now in Christ. This is your new spiritual position.

As a footnote to verses 3 and 4, Paul expresses the believer’s union with Christ in terms of baptism. Whenever you say the word “baptism,” what do people generally think of? Water, right? Wet. I don’t think it’s wet; I think it’s dry. I think this is spiritual baptism, not water baptism. However, all of what is stated here is symbolized in the act of water baptism. When a new believer is baptized in water, what are they doing? They’re symbolically identifying with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s why as a pastor, I would submerge in water for baptism. It symbolizes that the old you has been buried with Christ, and the new you is raised to newness of life. This is the testimony that something took place in their life prior to their baptism, and they’re just symbolically testifying to that fact by being baptized.

Our New Identity and Transformation

This is the main point. You will not enter it into a life of victory if you only see the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a means of delivering you from the penalty of sin. That’s mainly where most Christians are. “Okay, I’m saved. I’m not going to hell.” To live a life of victory you also need to see yourself as having died with Christ and as having been raised to newness of life. In other words, God’s not content simply to forgive us of our sins; He also wants to transform our lives from the inside out. He wants to change our way of thinking and change our way of behaving. Verse four states that, “. . . we too might walk in newness of life,” new in character, new in lifestyle, and new in quality, a different person than you were before Christ. Look at what Paul writes in verse 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.” He’s reiterating what’s already implied in verse 4. Believers not only participate in Christ’s death, so that we have now died to sin, but we also participate in His resurrection, so that we now live a new life as we’re awaiting His return and the resurrection of our bodies. The emphasis in verses 3 and 5 so profoundly identifies believers with Christ’s death and resurrection that we actually did die with Him and we actually did raise with Him so that we now share in His resurrection life, a spiritual resurrection.

Hope for Counselees

We can counsel believers who are struggling in sin and temptation that they now have the potential in Christ to live a new, godly life. This concept is better caught than taught. I teach this to struggling believers who come for counseling. They’ve never heard much about this at all. They know salvation by faith, and that’s it. Then they hear this liberating truth, and I see their eyes start to light up. When a counselee comes, and they claim to be a Christian, and this truth falls on deaf ears after the two or three sessions, I start wondering whether or not they are truly a believer. Do they really have the Spirit of God? If you have the Spirit of God, He is going to bear witness to this truth. We really need to know this, and we need to count on this if we’re to experience victory over sin in our daily lives.

Verse 6, a key verse in this passage, goes on to state, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin [the rule of sin that we inherited from Adam] might be brought to nothing.” We are released of its control so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. He talks here about the old self. We know that the old self was crucified with him, and that refers to your old identity as a descendant of Adam. Your old lifestyle was dominated by the ruling power of sin. Paul clearly states in this verse that its mastery and power has now been broken in your life. He restates this in verse 7, “For one who has died has been set free from sin.” If you want to see how this works, the next time you go to a wake or a funeral, walk by the casket and try to tempt it. It’s not going to do any good, right? This is the idea. This is the believer’s position in Christ. You have a new status that radically alters your relationship to sin. As a result, the normal pattern of life for the Christian should be progressive growth and sanctification. That is the liberating truth of our union with Christ, It should have a profound effect upon our lives. And it should have a profound effect upon the lives of our counselees.

Combating the Deception of Our Old Self

Before conversion you identified with Adam, and because of your identification with Adam, you were like the rest of fallen humanity. You were in bondage to sin, and you were easily influenced by the power of Satan. But now through faith, you identify with Christ. He’s broken the power of sin in your life, and you no longer need to give in to that pull of sin. However, if you don’t grasp this truth of your position in Christ, you’re not going to live a life of victory. Satan is a master deceiver, and he’s going to try to get you to think, “I can’t get rid of this bad habit. I can’t overcome this temptation or this sinful lifestyle,” but that’s a lie. Don’t believe the lie! What is Satan’s primary strategy that he uses against us? His primary strategy is deception and lies. How do we combat his primary strategy? We combat his lies with the truth of the Word of God. You’re no longer in Adam. You’re now in Christ. You have a whole new identity. It’s so vital to think in terms of our new identity.

I remember watching an old movie, and there was this ship. It was a legitimate ship, not a pirate ship, and the captain was really cruel. He would just boss his crew around, screaming out orders to them while they were out to sea. He was an evil guy, and eventually, he wound up going mad, and the crew chained him to a beam, and he was replaced by the first mate. For the crew that meant that the old captain no longer had any legitimate authority over them. They had a new captain now that had authority over them. But the crew found themselves prone to doing what the old captain said when he was shouting out orders as he’s chained to that beam. What do they have to do? They had to keep in mind that that old captain no longer needed to be obeyed. He’d been stripped of all his power, stripped of all authority, and he was replaced by a new captain whose orders they must now obey. That’s how it is with us as believers.

Some of our central tendencies and propensities are going to shout out orders as if we need to obey them. We no longer have to because Jesus Christ broke sin’s enslaving power over us. He’s our new captain, whose commands we’re now free to follow.

Consider This to Be True

That brings us to the second key word: consider. Verse 11 says, “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” In simple terms Paul is saying, “Believe it!” Believe what God says about who you are in Christ. Consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God. Have you ever reflected upon the fact of your union with Christ? That’s something you should contemplate. You should really sit down and contemplate that the old you died, and you’ve been resurrected to newness of life.

Kent Hughes, a theologian and pastor, calls this preventative theology. He goes on to say that reflecting upon our identity in Christ curbs our sinning. Until you accept the truth that Christ has broken the power of sin over your life, you’re not going to live a life of victory because in your heart you don’t think it’s possible. That’s where a lot of Christians are.

In 1972 an incredible thing happened on the island of Guam. I was a young man in my early 20s at the time, and I remember watching it. It was a little humorous in a way. A World War II Japanese soldier came out of the jungle that he had been hiding in for 27 years from 1945 until 1972. The question is why was he hiding in that jungle for all those years? He was hiding because in 1945 when news came that the war had ended, he refused to believe it. He just couldn’t believe that Japan had surrendered, so he hid in that jungle for 27 years. You would think he would hide from 1945 to maybe 1950.

During those 27 years, was he free to return to his homeland? Sure. He could return just like a lot of Japanese soldiers did. It wasn’t like General MacArthur was going to come after him and shoot him or something. He could have gone back to Japan anytime. Between 1945 and 1972, he was free to come out of that jungle and return to Japan, just like many other soldiers did. Instead, because he didn’t want to believe that the war was over, he lived in this self-imposed bondage for 27 years. Was he free? Technically he was, but not in reality because he chose to live in bondage. Unfortunately, it’s the same way with many Christians. Too many Christians are living in the jungle of sin, even though Jesus Christ has defeated the power of sin in their life. They have been set free from sin’s domain as Romans 6 says, but they refuse to believe it, so they go on living in a self-imposed bondage of sinful habits, sinful thoughts, and sinful desires.

What About Feelings

At this point, I like to warn my counselee about feelings. We’re very feeling-oriented people. And when sinful impulses arise in our hearts—because we’re still tempted—we feel as though we have to obey them. However, it’s right at that point that we need to take by faith that the facts of Romans 6 are true no matter how we feel. Unfortunately, many Christians fail by making decisions about what they’re going to do or what they’re not going to do by how they feel at that particular moment, not by the facts of what God says. They don’t consider, as verse 11 says, something to be true when God says it’s true. Instead, they consider something to be true only if it feels to them to be true at that given moment. The result of that kind of living is a yo-yo Christian. There’s instability. He is up one day and down the next. Don’t allow your decisions to be made on the unstable view of your flesh and what feelings are going to give you.

How does verse 11 work in everyday life? Imagine yourself at a point of temptation. There’s a struggle going on within, and you begin to feel compelled to make a sinful choice. It’s right there that you need to exercise your faith, believing that you’re free from sin’s control. In your heart you have to believe “I’m dead to that. I no longer have to live that way. I no longer have to give in to that. I no longer have to continue in that sin.” Your identity in Christ must shape the way you think about yourself and the things you face in life. This is reinforced in verse 12, which says, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body to make you obey its passions.” You can now choose not to obey your old sinful desires and tendencies. Sin is no longer your master as it was before Christ. In order for a believer to fully live out his new life in Christ, he has to believe he’s not what he used to be. Satan doesn’t want Christians to believe this, does he? He wants us to think we cannot change these long-standing sinful patterns of behavior. However, the command in verse 12 implies that it is possible: “Let not sin therefore [based upon our union in Christ] reign in your mortal body to make you obey its passions.” Sin should have less and less of a hold on us as we grow in the faith.

Theologian Wayne Grudem writes about this in his book, Systematic Theology: “In practical terms, this means that we must affirm two things to be true. First, on the one hand, we will never be able to say, ‘I am completely free from sin,’ because our sanctification will never be completed (on this side of Heaven). But, on the other hand, a Christian should never say, ‘This sin has defeated me. I give up. I have had a bad temper for 37 years, and I will have one until the day I die, and people are just going to have to put up with me the way I am!’ To say this is to say that sin has gained dominion, and it’s to allow sin to reign in our bodies.”

Present Yourself to God as an Instrument for Righteousness

That brings us to the third keyword: present. Present yourself to God as an instrument for righteousness. Knowing the truth and believing the truth are going to lead to doing the truth. In verse 13, Paul gets very practical, “Do not present your members [your hands, your eyes, your nose, your feet, your legs, and so on] to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” This is where we see the practical working of the sanctifying process. I want you to notice something very important here. The believer is active in the sanctifying process. It’s not just “let go and let God.” It’s not just “stop trying and just trust.” That’s only half of the story. We are to be involved in the sanctifying process. We can’t gain victory over temptation if we violate this principle in verse 13. Many Christians violate this principle and wonder why they can’t overcome temptation. They watch certain movies. Some women read certain books or they go to certain places where they know they’re going to be tempted or they hang out with certain friends, and they wonder why they’re falling into temptation. That’s the point. It’s very practical. We can’t gain victory if we’re going to violate this principle.

We are to transition from something to something. We are to transition from presenting ourselves to sin to presenting ourselves to God for the purpose of promoting and growing in righteousness. This is growth in Christlikeness. This is the type of change that is to characterize the rest of our lives. This is it—from unrighteousness to righteousness. Look at verse 19 where Paul writes, “I am speaking in human terms, [he’s using the illustration of slavery] because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”

For a number of years, I’ve been teaching a seminar in churches on how to change ungodly thinking and behavior and how we progress in the sanctifying process. Whenever I teach it, there’s usually someone who asks, “Will it get any easier?” It’s usually a person who has been struggling with something for a long time, and they’ve just lost hope that change is possible, and they were challenged here that change is possible. And you know what? I can confidently say to them. Yes! In some ways and to a certain degree, it does get easier. Not that they’re never going to struggle with something. We’re never going to hit perfection this side of Heaven. But, there were things that I struggled with years ago, that I don’t struggle with any longer. I’m sure some of you who have been believers for a long time know what I’m talking about. It’s more natural now for me to live victoriously in that particular area that was a great struggle for me years ago. My life was a mess before Christ. I was a pagan. The Lord didn’t just save my soul, he gave me “sanctified sucker punch.” I was 27, and he opened my eyes up.

Look at verse 19 again. I like to show this to these people who ask if it gets any easier. Paul says, “I’m speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness.” What does that tell us? Sin is progressive; it leads to more sin. It gets more natural to sin. Do you remember when you were kids, and you started doing things the bad, older kid wanted you to do that you shouldn’t be doing? At first when you did them, you felt terrible; your conscience bothered you, but then, after a while, you could do them like it was nothing.

Sin is progressive, leading to more lawlessness. It becomes easier to sin. But look what he goes on to say in the last half of that verse, “So now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” I think the implication here is leading to more sanctification. It’s telling us that sin is progressive, but so is sanctification. It becomes more natural over time to live the new godly way of life. God opened that verse up to me. God has given you a new life in Christ. Therefore, you can make that dramatic transformation from anger to self-control, from anxiety to trust, from bitterness to forgiveness, from demeaning words to edifying words, from lust to purity, and from impulsiveness to thoughtfulness. You’re now free to pursue righteousness.

Pursue Holiness

Sanctification is not merely the avoidance of sin, it’s the promotion of godliness. Many Christians have a religion of avoidance, trying to stop doing what they know is not pleasing to God. I think it’s better for us to think about what God wants us to become. Victory over our sinful thoughts and habits and tendencies can be a daily experience. Sanctification can now be attained. That’s the reason I wrote the book Transformed Into His Likeness. It’s been in print for about 11 years now. It shows us how we can go from-to, the putting off and putting on process. It is a very helpful resource, detailing how to put Christlike change into practice in everyday life. This is the basis of our union with Christ. This is the result. We’re now free to pursue righteousness. Praise God!