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Ask a Theologian: Putting On Christ

Dear Theologian,

I have a question about a verse of Scripture that was read in Church recently: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Rom 13:14) What does it mean to “put on” the Lord Jesus Christ? And how can one attempt to do that?

Mystified Disciple

Dear Disciple,

St. Paul understands the Christian life in terms of the most intimate possible identification with the crucified and risen Jesus. The metaphor of “putting on Christ,” as one might put on a garment, seems to express the deliberate choice to identify with him. But this is, at the same time, a “putting off” of one’s sinful behaviors. The verse you quote is preceded by these words:

“Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.” (Rom 13:12b-13)

Putting on Christ is closely linked, in St. Paul’s writings, with the mystery of Baptism. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Gal 3:27) But this means being identified with Christ’s death and resurrection.

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom 6:3-5)

Baptism is the beginning of a life that is “clothed with Christ,” but this identification with him is to increase in depth and intensity throughout the believer’s life. On the one hand, of course, all this is totally the work of God. On the other hand, it involves the ever-renewed free choice of the believer to be thus transformed. Hence St. Paul often urges and exhorts his people to make that choice (as in the verse you are asking about).

Perhaps we can get some insight into the “how” of putting on Christ if we look at another text of St. Paul. In Philippians 2, he is urging his people to be of one mind and heart, and to relate to one another with humility, rather than selfish ambition or conceit. Then he writes:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:5-8)

We are urged to have “the mind of Christ.” And in another context, Paul even says that we do already have it: “... who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:9-11,16)

What is “the mind of Christ”? Only those who love him can begin to know, as they share ever more fully in his risen life. But we might get some understanding if we ponder the mystery of his being Son. At his baptism, the voice of God says: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:11)

We ourselves share in this dimension of the Lord’s being. When we accept Jesus as the Christ and are baptized “into” him, each of us becomes, in a profound way, “son” or “daughter” and we experience the divine acceptance. It is as if the Father says also to each of us: “You are my beloved son/daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”

As this awareness grows in us, we can begin to live increasingly “from” the Father, as Jesus himself did. We can become more and more aware of our utter, absolute dependence upon God for all things. Attitudes that accompany this awareness are wonder, praise, gratitude, confident dependence and trust. To live this way is to be set free from undue anxiety.

As we try consciously to live the new Christ-life, we come also to recognize that we desire to do God’s will, to let God’s Kingdom come and be realized in us and in our world. The attitude is well expressed in what Jesus says to his disciples when they want him to eat the food they have brought: “I have food to eat that you do not know about.... My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” (Jn 4:32,34)

As the Holy Spirit works in our lives, we also understand better the teachings of Christ and find that we desire increasingly to live by them. The way of being human that is revealed in Jesus, in his parables and in his actions, becomes the pattern for our own efforts to live with integrity and compassion.

“Putting on Christ” in this way, we too, like God’s holy ones in all generations, may come to reveal in our lives something of God’s peace and joy, God’s justice and God’s mercy. We can learn to be simply present and available to our fellow human beings—to love and serve them in practical ways. We can learn to be peacemakers who do not return evil for evil but rather overcome evil with good and repay hatred with love. When we suffer, we can learn to go through our ordeal in union with the suffering Christ, not giving way to bitterness or despair.

The Theologian

The Rev. Wayne L. Fehr writes a monthly column for the diocesan newsletter called "Ask a Theologian," answering questions from ordinary Christians trying to make sense of their faith. You can find and purchase his book "Tracing the Contours of Faith: Christian Theology for Questioners" here