Romans 6:5-6 has puzzled me by the statement that the believer has in effect already been crucified with Christ.
“For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” (nasb)
My problem may have been that I viewed the crucifixion of my “old self” as having been accomplished entirely in the past, at my conversion. We are to “consider [ourselves] to be dead to sin” (6:11) so that we respond by denying the impulses and attractions to sin that (unfortunately) continue throughout this life. In practice, I have liked the idea of knowing that I am no longer a slave to sin, that I am not obligated to give in to temptations, and that I have a new capability from the Holy Spirit to live as God calls me to do. Is there importance of crucifixion for understanding my present condition?
Obviously, the metaphor of crucifixion here is important because that is the way that Jesus suffered death in our place representatively to bring us out of the clutches of the law and condemnation, and into the freedom of belonging to God. I think there is more in the metaphor that bears meditation.
Paul explains “the flesh” and “the old self” as a continuing problem for the believer. Defeated and dealt with in principle by the cross, the flesh as a power still pulls at the Christian to live contrary to the Spirit in the habitual and familiar ways of sin. What was an enslaving power of sin before conversion now continues to drag as weakened and invisible tentacles of perpetual evil in the modes of pride, coveting, lying, etc. that we are warned against in the Bible.
Such a multi-faceted and maladaptive personal condition must be crucified and allowed to die. The crucifixion has already begun (we “have been baptized into His death” Rom. 6:3), but the killing by crucifixion is not instantaneous completion as with beheading or hanging. Notice that crucifixion is a drawn-out death that takes time of many days. The death does not come quickly without leg-breaking (or, in Jesus’ case, suffering something extra not visible to observers). People could remain alive while enduring crucifixion for a few days. A spear thrust to the chest in Jesus’ case was a confirmation that death had finally occurred.
Death by crucifixion also comes with some cooperation of the victim, by contrast to other executions in which the victim is entirely passive and one’s life is cut off or ripped out in sudden violence. The crucified one progressively submits to death on the cross, just as we see Jesus yielding up his spirit while the two men hanging alongside him persisted in struggling against their deaths and had their legs broken to end their resistance.
What prevents the crucified one from dying? His own efforts to remain alive by continuing to support himself for gulps of breath. Only when he is exhausted will the man surrender to death. You cannot crucify yourself, but you can choose to resist or embrace the death a cross inflicts (through asphyxiation). In the word, we see that disciples of Jesus must voluntarily each “take up [their] cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23). We must actively surrender to God’s works that kill our familiar adaptive mechanisms (“the flesh”). We must submit to the crucifixion in daily life. In this way, the metaphor of crucifixion is our lifelong suffering of God’s sanctification. This metaphor opens up a good fit with other statements that the afflictions and daily suffering of this life are how we follow Jesus’ path of suffering to glory (Rom. 8:17-18) and part of God’s work to conform us the image of his Son (Rom. 8:28-29). He progressively exhausts our attempts to live from the flesh, and God progressively defeats our illusions of our ability to do anything apart from him.
For the Christian, the metaphor of crucifixion is a severe and imitatio Christi model of God’s work to sanctify us progressively. We are made to share in Jesus’ sufferings of all sorts (1 Pet. 4:13) and on the way to sharing in his liberty from sin and death that plague us now.