“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

We’re dead either way. The grace is that we get to choose which death we die.

Lent, the season of solemnity and contemplation, has become this year a global grappling with sickness, loss, and death not seen in generations. There is no spiritualizing away this novel coronavirus, tying it up in neat religious packaging. Yet there remains opportunity to be confronted not just by headlines and disease, but by God’s Word and the depths of mortality.

Scripture is clear: Before Christ comes into our lives, we’re dead in our trespasses, even while we live (Eph. 2:1–3). We’re not injured, not dirty, but dead. It’s offensive, for we can be so proud of the lives we construct. I know I was.

Yet even without the Bible telling us so, sometimes we can suspect that what we’re experiencing is death-life—that there must be more. Desperate activity and disappointment creep into the corners of our lives like clouds of mustard gas, reeking of mortality. We exhaust ourselves trying to gain or prove or establish, sometimes finally giving up.

Perhaps some of us are indeed chasing righteousness, hoping it will bring life. More likely, we’re addicted to something else that promises the same: CrossFit, essential oils, or something garden variety like money, sex, or a particular relationship that’s captured our attention. We 21st-century Westerners love self-improvement, ever seeking the next upgrade for our lives and selves. We believe in it; we deeply believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Before knowing Christ, I wanted to live—the verb’s meaning emphatic, hard to pin down, something more than merely existing. Perhaps I could sense the death I was living in without being bold enough to name it. Passionately, purposefully, I sought to grab life by the shoulders. Yet I was only half right (that most seductive kind of wrong). I did need to live. But to get there, I needed to die.

Jesus knew we needed to die before we were ever born, and he provided the means for that in dying for us. That’s the gift. Look at how Paul framed it in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Paul spoke here in metaphor that isn’t really metaphor. Paul was not literally on Jesus’ cross with him that Good Friday. But Jesus’ death in literal history was just as much Paul’s crucifixion as it was the Lord’s.

In an inverted way, it mimics how Eve and Adam didn’t physically drop dead when the fruit hit their tongues, though they died all the same. And not only that, but we died too in Adam’s death (Rom. 5:12–18; 1 Cor. 15:22)! This is the source of our death-life. We weren’t there when our first parents ate the fruit. Yet our continued pattern is to act just as they did, eagerly, with the same deadly results. We’ve got their moral DNA, their terminal disease.

But Jesus came to offer a death to undo that death. For us, as for him, the only way forward is through. Because Adam’s death has claimed us, we must, like Paul, fully abandon ourselves to Christ’s death as well. Paul could have hardly been more emphatic: He was crucified, and he no longer lived. A crucified man can languish for hours, but his fate is sure. Nailed in place, it’s done.

We, too, need to fully identify with this death to self. If we posture ourselves as if all we need is a little scrubbing up, we’re deluded. We need so much more than an upgrade. Programs to make us smarter, fitter, or even more morally excellent all ultimately fail to bring us the life we need. We’re simply too corrupted, image-bearers though we are.

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If the old me stays alive, awaiting a cosmic self-improvement project, I never escape hell. Instead, I live it. Jesus came to give us more.

Right after Galatians 2:20, Paul declares in verse 21, “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” He was writing to a people who thought they could get to life through the law, walking again that minefield of half right. God’s law is perfect, such that to keep it would bring someone life! But the other half of the truth falls like a guillotine’s blade: We can’t.

Today we console ourselves with “Nobody’s perfect.” Yet we still live as if we can achieve life ourselves—yes, even as Christians. Friends, if this were possible without Christ’s death, he wouldn’t have had to come to die. We must remember how he pleaded in the garden, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39, ESV).

It was not possible, and Christ drank the bitter fullness of that cup until it was as dry as the bones that filled Ezekiel’s visionary valley. But if we allow ourselves to die with Christ, to be crucified with him, we will, like that army, find sinews, flesh, and the breath of life added to us.

Isn’t this just what Jesus preached as he wound his path slowly toward Gethsemane, toward Calvary? In the chapter after Christ called Lazarus out of his tomb, he spoke this to his disciples: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24–25).

If we know him, we know these words. But see how John leads us into them: “Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ ” (v. 23). There is always a direct connection between his death and ours.

Christian, what joy that his death secures yours! Now no failure can condemn you, for all is forgiven through that death. Now no temptation can own you “because anyone who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom. 6:7). Now no accusation can stick to you—even the true ones—for “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:37).

Lord, teach us how to die.

Rachel Gilson serves on Cru’s leadership team for theological development and culture. She recently completed her MDiv (Gordon-Conwell) and is the author of Born Again This Way: Coming Out, Coming to Faith, and What Comes Next.

This piece is part of The Cross, CT’s special issue featuring articles and Bible study sessions for Lent, Easter, or any time of year. You can learn more about purchasing bulk print copies of The Cross for your church or small group at OrderCT.com/TheCross. If you are a CT subscriber, you can download a free digital copy of The Cross at MoreCT.com/TheCross.