For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
Here’s a question as old as Christianity: if God has freely and completely forgiven me through the death and resurrection of Jesus—if it is all by grace and not by works—then what possible incentive is there for me to lead a new life of godliness? Why not just keep sinning, since God’s grace and forgiveness will cover it in the end?
The apostle Paul’s extraordinary statement in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15 is one of the best answers to that question in the entire Bible.
In this passage, Paul is explaining to the Corinthians why he lives like he does. He opens his heart to them and says that the reason he lives a life that many would regard as extreme or even mad is that the love of Christ “controls” him. It controls him, he says, because he has come to a conclusion; he has become convinced of a certain truth. He is convinced that one has died for all.
So far, so good, we might say. We all know that Jesus died for all. But here’s the twist: what Paul says next is not the conclusion that most of us would normally draw. Based on what most of us know and have been taught, we would tend to say: “Jesus died for all so that all could escape death and live forever in God’s kingdom. Jesus died instead of us, as a substitute, taking the punishment in our place.” And this is completely and gloriously true.
But it’s not what Paul says in this particular place. He says: one has died for all, therefore all have died. The logical result of Christ dying for all, says Paul, is not that we avoided death, but that we all died. He died so that I would die. His death was my death.
In other words, while it is true that Christ died as a substitute, here Paul is saying that he died as our representative—not only instead of me, taking God’s anger in my place, but also taking God’s anger as me.
If you will forgive the analogy, it’s a bit like our politicians, who are our representatives. We elect them. They don’t vote in the parliament or congress instead of us, as if it’s them or us. They vote as us, as our local representatives. Their vote is really our vote.
In much the same way, Christ died for us, as our representative. When he died, the death we rightly face as sinners took place. He died; therefore we died—provided of course that he is our representative, and that we are in his electorate.
Christ becomes our representative when we leave our wretched home in the domain of darkness and go and live ‘in him’; when we give up our rebellion against him, and confess him to be our Lord, and turn back to him, seeking his forgiveness and submitting to his kingship—or as the New Testament often puts it, when we repent and put our faith in him.
Now if we are ‘in Christ’, then we receive the benefits of what he has done as if we ourselves had done it—so that when he died on the cross, it was also our death. And when he rises from the dead, then we also rise with him to live a new life.
This is why the love of Christ in dying as our representative completely changes Paul’s life. Because if Christ has died, then Paul has died. His old life is over. It’s gone: the rebellious sinful Paul, the old Paul, who lived for himself and his false gods. That life has ended. It received its just penalty on the cross with Jesus.
And the purpose, says Paul, the very reason that Christ died as our representative, was so that our old rebellious life might die on the cross with him, and we would be liberated and raised up with him to live a new life—no longer rebellious, no longer obsessed with self, but now living for him, the rightful Lord and ruler of all.
This is why Paul has no option, and why this love of Christ constrains and compels his life. If he is going to join himself to Christ and thus receive the benefit of dying with Christ on the cross, then his old life is over. He is a completely new person; he has a new Spirit inside him. He is compelled to lead a completely new life—no longer for his own rebellious self, which is now dead, but for the Christ who for our sake died and was raised.
This is why it is unthinkable that we should come to Christ in repentance for the forgiveness of our sins… and then go straight back and wallow in them as if nothing has happened, or as if God didn’t really care. The very reason he has rescued us out of the domain of darkness and slavery and sin, and transferred us to the kingdom of his Son, is so that we may live a new life of godliness and holiness ‘in him’.