Scripture gives at least three aspects to our death with Christ:
- we have died with Christ (Romans 6:1–11)
- we are to mortify (put to death) the deeds of the body by the Spirit (Romans 8:13)
- death works in us (2 Corinthians 4:10–12)
Let's consider those three deaths in that order.
First, Scripture teaches that the believer has died with Christ (Romans 6:1–10; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:1–4). This isn't something the believer can do or must do: it is something that has already been done. There is a human responsibility attached to it: the responsibility to "reckon" it to be true (Romans 6:11). What does "reckon" mean? It means to accept it as true. God declares that I have died with Christ, and it is my place to believe it because God has said it.
I am not responsible to die with Christ, but I am responsible to believe God and accept that I have already died with Him.
And let's just mention: I hear a lot about "dying to self" in various Christian circles, but I don't see it in scripture. Scripture simply doesn't talk about "dying to self." From scripture I see that I have died with Christ (Galatians 2:20), I see that I am dead to sin (Romans 6:11), that I am dead to the world (Galatians 6:14), and that I am dead to the Law (Romans 7:4). But I don't see anything in Scripture that says I must "die to self". The teaching of Scripture is not that I must die, but that I have died.
Second, Scripture teaches that I am responsible to put to death "the deeds of the body", my "members that are on the earth" (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5–6). We notice right away that Colossians 3 connects vv. 5 & 6 with vv. 1–4 with a "therefore". What does that mean? It means that vv. 5–6 are the consequence of vv. 1–4. This is very important! Scripture teaches it's only those who have died can put to death their members on the earth.
So much of "Christian" ministry I hear and read skips over Colossians 3:1–4 and dives into Colossians 3:5–6, exhorting believers to put something or other to death. But the passage doesn't really bear that reading: it is only those who have accepted that they have died with Christ who are in a position to "mortify". We do not die with Christ by mortifying our members. The Scriptural order is the opposite: because we have died with Him, we can mortify our members.
In fact, so-called Christian teaching that skips over our death with Christ isn't really "Christian" at all. But that's another rant.
Romans 8:13 also talks about our responsibility to put something to death, but in Romans it's not our "members on the earth"; it's the "deeds of the body". Romans 8 is remarkable on many, many counts. But one thing that stands out even in this astonishing chapter is that there is a stark contrast between our [fallen] bodies and our [redeemed] souls: the body is "dead", the spirit is "life" (v. 10). There is coming a day when those two things will be reconciled (Romans 8:11, 23), but that day hasn't come yet. Someday the Son of God will come to redeem our mortal bodies (Philippians 3:21), but Romans 8 is all about the life we are to live while we wait for that day to come.
There is a third aspect of our death with Christ, and I confess I only saw it in the last couple years. This isn't our having died with Christ, nor even our responsibility to [by the Spirit] put to death the deeds of our fallen bodies. This is something deeper, more profound, and more painful: "death works in us" (2 Corinthians 4:10–12). Philippians 3:10 refers to this as "being made conformable to His death".
It is God's work to reveal the life of Jesus in our mortal bodies, but there is a cost. The cost of the life of Jesus manifested in my mortal flesh is that death must work in me.
I used to pray, "Lord, I'm ready for you to work in me". Then one day I realized that's almost the opposite of death working in me: by definition, death isn't going to work in me on my own terms. It's not death if it respects my schedule.
Death is a tool in the hands of God to reveal His Son in me. And really, that's what the world around me needs. They don't need to see me, they need to see Him. And God will do it, too: He will reveal Christ in me; but the cost is death working in me. Notice this isn't the "I have died" of Galatians 2:20, it's a different thing. I reckon that I have died: I accept it as true because God says so; but I didn't experience it. 2 Corinthians 4 isn't talking about reckoning: it's talking about the experience of death working in me, with all the pain that implies. It's like the difference between Israel crossing the Jordan (Joshua 3:6–17) and Israel circumcised at Gilgal (Joshua 5:2–9). In the former case they didn't even get wet: in the latter there was very real pain involved.
In the end, God isn't content to let us understand death with Christ, He isn't even content for us to reckon it. He is going to make it true in our experience as well.