So we’re supposed to die to ourselves, right? But so many times a day I put myself ahead of God and others.
It’s easy to get discouraged about the contrast between how we are supposed to act as disciples of Christ and how far short we fall. That’s why it’s important to remember our death to self is a spiritual reality to which we aspire in the here-and-now but won’t be fully realized until we’re in heaven. Colossians 3:1-3 says,
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Until we’re with God in heaven, we strive to match up our present lives with whom we already are in the spiritual realm—righteous by the blood of the Lamb and united with him. This tension between the spiritual reality and our “not yet” temporal reality is reduced (though never eliminated) as we walk in the Spirit. We’ve been called to be dead to ourselves, and in Christ that’s already true. Jesus already died for us on the cross, and that reality guarantees our salvation.
Yet our daily experience reminds us how often we fall short. We commit ourselves to live only for Christ, then we complain when we are slighted or shown disrespect by a store clerk. We worry about what others think about us. We fret over our next job. We sin and we sin and we sin and we sin. Often, we act profoundly un-dead, as if it were all about us and our desires. We find comfort to read the Apostle Paul’s similar struggles in Romans 7:
We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! (vv. 14-25a)
Or again in Philippians 3:12-14, Paul writes about how far short he has fallen from living the life he wants to live:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
The key is striving. We may sin "seventy times seven" each day, but if we’re trying not to sin, God is quick to forgive. He knows our sinful state. He knows we are made of dust.
But his anger is aroused if we stop trying. He was tough on the Israelites when they gave themselves over to their idolatry, but ever merciful in their repentance. He’s gracious with us when we seek his will and his ways, but hard when we shake our fist at him and tell him we know better.
This is a vital point: we’re saved by grace, and we can’t work our way into heaven. But if we don’t strive to turn from sin, then it calls into question whether we’ve really repented. Forgiveness presupposes repentance. Without a repentant spirit, we stand in grave peril.
One of my kids asked me whether she had to stop being jealous of her siblings in order to go to heaven. I explained that she at least had to want to stop sinning to have the assurance of salvation. It was clear she didn’t want to stop, and she asked me whether she would still go to heaven. I told her that I didn’t know what would happen since God is the judge, but I couldn’t provide her with any false security that she would be okay. Motivated by fear, she repented.
In one way, the Good News is really bad news for us. It’s like major surgery followed by chemotherapy and then radiation. It is painful, sad, and debilitating to what the Bible calls “the old man.” But if we have terminal cancer, it’s very good news. And the cure rate is 100 percent. But we have to choose to undergo the treatment. And the treatments go on daily until we die and find ourselves in heaven, fully healed, free of pain, sin, and sorrow.
Michael Card’s song, “Livin’ We Die,” captures well the paradox of dying to find life:
Saved by His death, healed by His pain Raised to new life to never die again Before you can have the hope of the call You’ve got to give it all
It sounds too good to be true That the Son of God should die for you That it could give you the key To open up your life and set you free But that’s not all of the story There’s something that He gave you That you got to pay No matter what that good time gospel tells you The battle is uphill all the way Livin’ we die, dying we live Givin’ it all is what you’ve got to give Just look to the Lord and all that He gave When He died to save you Saved by His death, healed by His pain Raised to new life to never die again Before you can have the hope of the call You’ve got to give it all
 Some commentators believe that this passage refers to Paul’s state before he was saved. The passage so clearly comports with my experience as a sinner that I believe it refers to our state as Christians. Regardless, this experience of struggle with sin is endemic to the most godly people I have known. We have turned from sin and hate it, but we still have not completely conquered it until our nature is perfected in heaven.
 Many Christians deride fear as a motivator to do the right thing. But Jesus employed the fearfully vivid imagery of eternal fire and weeping and gnashing of teeth to motivate his hearers to follow him. The desire to please God is a superior motivation, but fear is also legitimate and too quickly dismissed. God uses many negative emotions to drive us to do right. Fear, shame, and pain are useful tools God employs to good effect. Also, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
 This analogy is imperfect because, unlike radiation and chemotherapy that do heal us, our “treatment” of dying to self does not save us. It sanctifies us, making us more like Christ, but the salvation is Christ’s work on the cross. Yet if we do not make a practice of dying to self, it calls into question whether we have been saved. Jesus said a tree is known by its fruit, and without the fruit of dying to self we have reason to worry whether we are truly Christ’s.