What is the meaning of “our old man is crucified” (Romans 6:6)?
The tense of the verb, here translated “is crucified,” points to a single event. In this case, the event is in the past, so some translations read “has been crucified” (JND) or “was crucified” (ESV, NASB, NKJV). The verb could be translated “co-crucified,” clearly referring to the crucifixion of Christ. Our old man was co-crucified with Christ.
Paul opens this chapter asking, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” In answering that, he extends the truths established in the previous chapter. Adam is the initial “federal head,” representing us all. He sinned and we have received the condemnation of that: physically, “death passed on all men” (5:12). Legally (in God’s court), we are constituted sinners, because of his disobedience (v 19). Morally, we tend to choose sin, for God’s giving man greater light in the Law only increased the transgression (v 20). The Law showed man’s sinful disposition. Those under the federal headship of Christ receive justification (v 18). Can these who have been justified by faith (v 1), continue the same as they were when Adam was their representative head? No, they cannot because of one act of obedience and righteousness (vv 18, 19).
For believers, that act, the death of the cross, brought justification, meaning God has declared them righteous. By that same act, they will be made righteous (v 19). Now Paul shows that the same act has righteously ended their legal standing in Adam (6:6). God views the crucifixion of Christ as ending that standing. Our old man (our legal standing in Adam as sinners) was crucified together with Christ. We are no longer under the dominion (or reign) of sin and death (5:21 with v 17). God’s purpose in ending our former standing was that “we should not serve sin” (6:6). We cannot continue in sin.
Why do some object to the expression the old nature?
For most of us, our earliest Christian teaching included “the Christian’s two natures: the old nature and the new nature.” This was the accepted and handy way of explaining the struggle within a believer that drew him to sin when he genuinely wanted to please the Lord. Some of us may have found this confusing when we learned that orthodox Christians have historically upheld that our Lord possessed two natures. In this case, the expression means that He was truly human – although without the possibility of sin – and truly God in one unique Person.
Actually, the vocabulary of the New Testament does not use two natures to describe either teaching. That Christ is both God and man is foundational, essential truth. Godly men, who labored to defend and clarify this profound truth, distilled the Bible’s teaching into the expression two natures.
The New Testament, however, does provide the terms that describe the struggle within the believer. “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Gal 5:17). Paul also deals with this at the end of Romans 7. The problem is the flesh with its unchanged and unchangeable disposition toward sin (v 18). He perceives a law in my members, a governing principle linked with fallen humanity. This principle wars against the law of my mind, which is the result of the Spirit’s regenerating work.
Using the New Testament’s vocabulary may help us in at least two ways. Speaking about our old nature may isolate us from the problem, as though the responsibility lies with my nature, but not with me directly. Paul says, “In me (that is, in my flesh) . . .” (v 18). I am directly responsible for the problem. Second, the teaching about the flesh embraces our hope of deliverance. The flesh refers at times to our physical body of flesh (Rom 1:3; 2:28; 3:20) and at other times to our moral disposition toward sin (Rom 7:5, 18; 8:4, 5) , a principle presently inseparable from our physical body. The death of Christ has legally severed us from Adam and the consequences of his disobedience. The results of that death will eventually deliver us completely from both the physical consequence (the condemnation of death) and moral consequence (sin dwelling in me – the flesh) of the Fall. This physical and moral problem elicits Paul’s question at the end of Romans 7 (v 24). Deliverance from this body of death (JND) is what God had in mind when “the old man was crucified with Him, [in order] that the body of sin might be destroyed (brought to nothing, WEV)” (6:6). In chapter 8, Paul expands his answer, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (7:25).
The objections to using the term the old nature are likely intended to bring us to a clearer understanding of New Testament truth.
In what sense have we “crucified the flesh” (Galatians 5:24)?
This involves an individual change of viewpoint that began when we discovered we were without strength before God. It is not what God did at the cross nor could we have done it. They that are Christ’s began at the cross (Galatians 3:1). As a Jew, Paul recognizes he became dead to the Law when the Law’s penalty was carried out at the cross (2:19). Having been crucified with Christ, the believer lives, not by the Law, but by the faith of the Son of God (2:20). The law demanded that the flesh be obedient. After reviewing all that the flesh can produce (5:19-21), Paul insists that it cannot be obedient; therefore, Law-keeping is not Christian living. The believer’s crucifixion with Christ (2:20) declares that God is finished with the flesh. In the crucifixion of Christ, the believer sees the irrelevance of the flesh in righteous living. That is the viewpoint God intends all believers to maintain. The cross negates every suggestion that any contribution from us, that is, from our flesh, can please God. Since we began in the Spirit (3:3), He must govern our manner of life (5:25). We can become like Christ only under the control of the Spirit.