The Wartburg Project

June 1st, 2018

47. What does it mean to be clothed in Christ or to put on Christ?

In Galatians 3:27 should the translation be “Indeed, as many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” or “Indeed, as many of you as were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ”?

Grammatically both translations are possible. The Greek verb form is a so-called middle/passive, so it may translated with a passive sense in which the subject acted on by another agent— in baptism God clothes us with Christ. Or it may be translated in a middle sense—baptism is an act through which we put on Christ, who covers us throughout our lives like a garment.

Translations are divided on the issue, but of the sixteen translations consulted for this FAQ, thirteen have a middle or reflexive sense, you clothed yourselves (the middle sense in English may come out as an active verb, put on, since the middle sense is often not made explicit in English.) It seems that a middle sense is the most common sense for this verb.

The less-common passive sense seems to fit best with baptism, which is a gift we receive from God.  Baptism is God’s work for us.  Scripture often speaks of us being clothed with Christ or with his righteousness.

The middle does seem to be by far the most common sense of the verb. This is probably the reason so many translations use it here.  But does the middle sense here create a problem by implying that we co-operate with God in our conversion or that we earn any of the gifts we receive from God?

The middle here describes the result of God’s action, a result which visible to observers—we have put on Christ. The passive sense stresses that God the Holy Spirit is the invisible cause that brought this change about. These two ways of viewing the one action are very common in Scripture.

For example, Scripture teaches that we do not cooperate in our conversion. We are turned to God by the Holy Spirit. But Scripture also uses active language of people turning to God. The interplay between the passive and active is best expressed by Jeremiah 31:18:

הֲשִׁיבֵ֣נִי וְאָשׁ֔וּבָה

“Cause me to turn and I will certainly turn.”

The first verb is hiphil causative. God is the cause of our turning.

The second is emphatic qal. We are seen to be turning from sin to God.

A literal translation is best in this verse because it provides us with a basis for understanding the other passages that speak of people turning to God. We may say, “I see a car turning at the corner,” but we understand that a driver is causing the car to turn. We see a person turning to God, but we understand that we can see him turn only because the Spirit turned him.

The situation is similar with putting on Christ. God clothes us with Christ. The visible result is that we have put on Christ and that he covers us our whole life long.

The verb in question and its synonyms may describe a variety of situations.

Sometimes the verb simply describes a result without specifying how it occurred:

Acts 12:21 Herod, dressed in his royal robes and seated on his throne, delivered a public address to them.

Herod likely had an attendant who helped him put on his robes, but the only concern here is that Herod is wearing them.

The same situation applies to spiritual uses of the term.

Revelation 19:14 The armies in heaven, which were clothed with white, clean, fine linen, were following him on white horses.

Sometimes both aspects of the situation may be expressed in one passage.

2 Corinthians 5:2-3  In fact, the reason we groan is that we long to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven. 3If we do indeed put it on, we will certainly not be found naked.

In some cases it may be argued whether the sense should be active/middle or passive.

1 Corinthians 15:53  For this perishable body must put on [be clothed with] imperishability, and this mortal body must put on [be clothed with] immortality.

The Bible often speaks of us putting on virtues and putting off vices. We know that in all these cases the change is worked by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace.

Ephesians 4:22-24  As far as your former way of life is concerned, you were taught to take off the old self, which is corrupted by its deceitful desires, 23and to be renewed continually in the spirit of your mind, 24and to put on the new self, which has been created to be like God in righteousness and true holiness.

Colossians 3:9-10 Do not lie to each other since you have put off the old self with its practices, 10and put on the new self, which is continually being renewed in knowledge, according to the image of its Creator.

Ephesians  6:11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can stand against the schemes of the Devil.

1 Peter 5:5  Clothe yourselves with humility.

Colossians 3:12 Therefore, as God’s elect, holy and loved, clothe yourselves with heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.

Romans 13:12  So let us put away the deeds of darkness and put on the weapons of light.

Colossians 3:5 So put to death whatever is worldly in you: sexual immorality, uncleanness, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry.

The interplay of active, middle, and passive verbs becomes especially sensitive when the doctrines of conversion and repentance are involved.  But we should remember that the Bible often describes the same event from two viewpoints: the visible change we see in a person and the invisible underlying cause.  The Bible often speaks in paradoxes. (A paradox is two statements that seem to be contradictory but really are not.)

Romans 6:6 We know that our old self was crucified with him

Romans 8:13 But if by the Spirit you put to death the actions of the body, you will live.

Our old self has been put to death, but we are to put it to death. Both sides of the paradox express spiritual truths.