The Death of Sin
By Tony Woodlief
"If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” —Matthew 16:24-25
At Easter we dress our children in new clothes, and we spend extra time on dinner, and we sing the special hymns. Some of us may even try to count the cost of our salvation, though it is too great to contemplate. It is too great to consider, yet Christ enjoined us each to pick up a cross and follow Him (Matt. 16:24). And so we must, else we stand undecided until the great procession has passed us by, only to realize the walk to which we were called was everything. One day we’ll see that many things we counted as important were nothing, and cannot help us now.
We are called to the crucifixion, and perhaps on Easter most of all. We are called, first of all to see that we were bought with a price (1 Cor. 6:20), but also because we have crosses of our own that must be pounded into the cold dirt. As Christians, we need to be about the task of losing our lives. It can be a grim thought, especially at a time when flowers are blooming and bright Sunday clothes are coming out of winter retirement. We think of Easter as a time of resurrection, and we should, only we cannot rightly think on the resurrection without pondering the death that preceded it. Christ went up the hill to His murder, and walked from the tomb to His triumph, and perhaps the most chilling aspect of it all is that He calls us to do the same.
What is it about us, then, that must die? What is it about me? I’ve been thinking about this lately—about the ways I’ve ruined and wounded relationships over the years; about the squandered gifts and opportunities God has given me; how I’ve dishonored this body through which I was called to glorify Him.
Since becoming a Christian, I have lived so many years of my life like a drunk who periodically throws down the bottle, declares himself a new man, and then struggles not to drink again. The difference is, it’s my sins I so easily come back to. As I’ve pondered Easter, I’ve begun to think about how important it is to bury that bottle. There is no resurrection without death, and yet putting to death my sins is the thing I fear, the cost of it.
There is a scene in C. S. Lewis’s masterful little book, The Great Divorce, in which a man must decide whether to lay down his besetting sin and enter heaven, or languish forever outside its gates. His sin is lust, represented by a red lizard perched on his shoulder, whispering deceits in his ear. A being that represents the Spirit of God stands before the man, urging him to cast off the lizard. The man fears losing this beast, his sin. He worries he can’t live without it, that removing it will kill him, that maybe he can overcome it gradually, with time.
This last thought is perhaps the greatest danger—this notion that the sins afflicting us can slowly be negotiated with, tamed, brought to heel. I tell myself this because I, like the man in Lewis’s book, fear the deep surgery of the Great Physician.
I tell myself my sin can be brought to heel, which is to say tamed, but I know the truth in my heart, which is that it cannot: it can only be crushed under the heel of Jesus. But what pain must come to me in that process? What inconvenience and shame?
And here the mind goes back, as it must, to that slow walk up Golgotha. The world at the time saw it as a shameful occurrence, but it was really a battle march. The annunciation of angels outside Christ’s empty tomb was the victory trumpet, and what happened in between was the vanquishment of sin’s death lock on man. We are called to follow Him up that hill, our crosses on our backs. As such, we’re also invited to a victory celebration, because the battle has already been won.
We are each of us like that man in C. S. Lewis’s book, nursing and protecting our sweet-talking little sins, and all the while standing before us is the Spirit of God, saying, “Give this to Me. Let Me finish this work in you.”
The Christian walk, as God designed it, is marked by death and life, and each day we must choose which we will embrace. Time and again we are told that choosing life is, in what seems like an irony, choosing the very death we fear. But there can be no resurrection without death, and no death in Christ that will not be defeated by resurrection. These are two great and terrible truths of the Christian faith.
We are called to carry crosses, you and I, and Jesus didn’t mean the pretty gold ones we wear from chains around our necks. He meant the big, awful ones that have the power to break the chains around our hearts—the great besetting chains of these sins that threaten our souls.
At Easter we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and with it the release of sin’s hold. But we cannot be idle in the face of this. Not with “Follow Me,” ringing in our ears. Resurrections await us as well, and in each case, they must be preceded by something dying.
So I’ve been thinking on what must die in me—what are the lizards piled up on my shoulders until I can barely stand, each of them whispering their essential importance and how separating myself from them will kill me. I desperately want a resurrection in my own life, yet fear greatly this cross I’m asked to carry. This must be the tragedy witnessed daily from heaven: the sight of men who forfeit their souls for fear of losing lives so beset with sin they can scarcely be borne.
The Spirit stands before me, and perhaps you, urging death to these sins that feel so integral to our lives that we have come to believe they must actually be part of us. There can be no resurrection without death, we are reminded. And maybe we have the courage to hand over our sins—that is, to hand over ourselves—to the swift sword: the healing hand of God.
In Lewis’s book, when the man finally lets the Spirit of God slay the beast besetting him, he isn’t just liberated from its grip. The lizard becomes a great stallion, which he mounts and rides into heaven.
May it be so with each of us this Easter season, that we have the courage to give ourselves and our sins over to God, so He might do His work of transforming what is ugly into what is lovely, what is weakness into strength, what is death into life.