Are Christians punished with Christ?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

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Question: My question is about justification. I know that justification means “being declared righteous by God.” In this context, we're dealing with a legal term and the term presumes a trial scene, in which: (1) God is the Judge (2) The Law/Conscience is the prosecutor/accuser (3) The man is accused. The man is utterly guilty (Romans 3:23; Colossians 1:21; Ephesians 2:3) and deserves the death penalty (Romans 6:23). But instead of convicting man, God acquits him — what Paul calls “the righteousness of God.” Now my question is: “If we were acquitted, why does the Bible tell us that we died with Christ? He took our punishment upon Himself and died in our place but, still, the Bible does say that we died [with] Him, which would imply that we were punished with/in Him: “We are therefore buried with Him through baptism into death...” (Romans 6:4); “For we know that our old self was crucified with Him...” (Romans 6:6; “For Christ's love compels us because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” There seems to be a contradiction. We were declared righteous, but we were punished after our acquittal (since we died with Christ)? Christ died and we died, that is, His death was our death and His resurrection was our resurrection. (Male, 18-30, Asia, Christian)

Answer: Greetings friend — and thank you for submitting such a well-constructed question. I rarely receive one that is so clearly articulated and fully cited… so I will try to answer it in kind.

First of all, you reconstructed that biblical trial scene pretty faithfully. Indeed — we Christians flow through God’s judgment just like that! But we need to fine-tune one of your concepts in preparation for untangling the apparent contradiction. You said: “But instead of convicting man, God acquits him….If we were acquitted, why does the Bible tell us that we died with Christ?” You see, if we were indeed acquitted, that would mean that there was not enough evidence to convict us. As such, we would have been innocent ... but we know that that is not true; the trial scene teaches just that.

So, instead of saying that we were acquitted, let us say that we were pardoned — because a pardoned person is still a guilty person; he’s just one who goes unpunished — but he does so with the knowledge and permission of the government. That describes us more accurately. But we Christians need to qualify this further because we were not merely pardoned — we were redeemed. What’s the difference? A redeemed person is still a pardoned person … but the pardon is not arbitrary; it is purchased under exacting constraints. One of those constraints is that it can only be purchased by someone who is innocent of our crime (which is sin) — and Jesus is the only one thus qualified. So Jesus did exactly that: he purchased our pardon. That best describes our legal state because the law can no longer condemn us even though we “did the deed” of sin (Romans 3:23; 8:1).

By making this adjustment — by seeing that our sin has been legally addressed… yet that something of it remains — it will be easier to see how our two subsequent states interact. First, we are God’s eternal children (John 1:12). As such, sin cannot affect our eternal destination. But we’re not there yet… and that’s our second state: we are residents of this earth — and we bathe in sin daily. What this means is, although sin can no longer destroy us, it will continue to annoy us… until Jesus comes back anyway. We Christians have two natures: we are new creations in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17)… yet our old natures remain with us until we die. With the former, we are free! But with the latter, we battle on — and this is Paul’s teaching to the believers in Ephesus.

“So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed. That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.”
(Ephesians 4:17–28, NIV, emphasis mine)

Can you see Paul’s teaching here? There is a “way of life” associated with the Christian life — and this way is taught and learned with some effort. Even saved people must do things like “….put off falsehood and speak truthfully….” As such, we can assume two things: a sin-free life does not come with salvation, and believers must still work hard to look like Christians. Please note that performing these way-of-life tasks does not maintain salvation — Jesus does that. So why bother with these efforts? First, it’s good for us to be congruent Christians, not hypocrites. Second, outsiders should see a difference between the Christian lifestyle and the pagan lifestyle (Matthew 5:16). Now that we have normalized our data, let me co-opt a few of the verses you cited.

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.” (Romans 6:1–7, NIV, emphases mine)

Look at the bolded texts above. Neither baptizing nor crucifying the “old self” has anything to do with punishment. They are both metaphors for a Christian’s ongoing life. So, just as Jesus put away sin at the crucifixion, so should we put away the “former way of life” (Ephesians 4:22)… a lifestyle which made it obvious that we were slaves to sin. The baptism metaphor merely joins us to him in the process. These have nothing to do with salvation or any ostensive punishment awaiting the believer… but this has everything to do with Christian congruency: if you belong to Christ… then look like it! Put away anything that will make you look like a pagan, and put on that which will make you look like Christ. That is the force of this passage.

As an exegetical technique, you must first strive to understand each individual passage in its fullest possible context before considering which passages might be conjoined to support a doctrine or a premise. Otherwise, you run the risk of putting words in God’s mouth because God meant what he said only in context. Now, the Bible is unique in many ways… and that makes it wonderful! But what makes it useful is how it is the same as other documents. God established logic, reading and writing… but he also established their properly basic usage so that all people may parse all words throughout all time. What does this have to do with your question? God did not set things up so that every thought might be joined to any other thought arbitrarily.

“So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. Go and do likewise.” (Mat. 27:5; Lk. 10:37b)

You did this same type of thing when you formulated your question. If you had first examined every verse in light of its individual context, you probably would not have confounded them with issues of punishment or salvation because they address the Christian lifestyle and testimony.

I read a lot of commentaries; this keeps me out of trouble. Now, don’t get me wrong… I definitely have my own ideas about a lot of things! But the odds are that the consensus of scholars is correct where we disagree. And furthermore, knowing what the consensus is is not hard with today’s tools (like WIKI). As such, why not check your ideas out against the 2000 years of collective insights from people who did this type of thinking for a living? After doing that, if you think your idea has merit even when it opposes hundreds of scholars that disagree with you, you could be the next Luther! … or you could just be wrong. When this happens to me, I go for wrong.

That being said, I applaud the fact that you are reading, making connections and trying to figure out what’s valid with the Scriptures. I pray that my small piece of input will help you in these future endeavors.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20161010 Are we punished with Christ?).

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