Dying and Rising with Jesus
If you’re looking for a book to help reinvigorate and refocus your Christian life at the start of the new year, look no further. I want to recommend J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life, by Paul E. Miller (Crossway, 2019). Miller has proven to have a gift for challenging the thinking and stirring the affections of God’s people with fresh insights into the nature of discipleship. His work A Praying Life is probably the best book I’ve ever read on prayer. J-Curve explores sanctification more broadly.
Specifically, J-Curve is a study of the Pauline theme of union with Christ and its practical implications. If believers have heard of union with Christ, it’s likely with reference to the doctrine of justification. Because we have been united with Christ legally, his righteousness has been imputed to our account (e.g., Rom 5). With its radical reliance on divine grace, justification by faith undercuts all human boasting. So the Christian’s obedience is not about performing in order to gain favor with God. Additionally, justification frees us from the burden of seeking significance by trying to prove ourselves before other people. In his opening chapters Miller highlights union with Christ for justification as foundational to everything else.
A Fuller View of Union with Christ
Miller’s concern, however, is that Christians today have grasped only part of what it means to be united with Christ. As a result, antinomian-leaning teaching has experienced a troubling comeback. Even more troubling, many believers lack the theology they need in order to grow as well as navigate the disappointments and trials of life. So Miller focuses on the relevance of union with Christ for sanctification.
In part this means that the authority of sin over us was broken, and in Christ we enjoy the power to obey God (e.g., Rom 6). But Miller concentrates on another dimension: the death and resurrection of Jesus as the pattern for the Christian life. This is no moralistic “What Would Jesus Do?” advice. Instead, it’s about how the Lord intends our daily lives to reflect the structure of the gospel. Ironically, however, this concept receives little or no attention in much of today’s “gospel-centered” teaching.
Miller derives his teaching from multiple Pauline texts. Especially important is Philippians 3. Here the apostle describes how he repudiated self-dependence and rested on Christ alone for justification (vv. 1–9). Yet being found in Christ and receiving his righteousness is not the end of the matter. Paul now aims to know Christ more intimately, and this includes experiencing the power of Christ’s resurrection (v. 10). While verse 11 looks forward to the ultimate resurrection, in verse 10 the apostle is talking about experiencing resurrection power in this life. And the only way that can happen is if he undergoes death-type experiences now. That’s why verse 10 adds, “And may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”
The “J-Curve” is a memorable model for visualizing this dynamic. It blends a concept from the business world—reflecting the down-up structure of the letter J— with the fact that Jesus’s name begins with that letter. Simply put: in union with Christ and by the enabling of the Holy Spirit, the Christian life is a constant down and up, requiring regular death to self followed by resurrection-type experiences.
death and resurrection in many forms
Miller explains that we face three types of death to self (pp. 87–88):
- The love J-Curve (Phil 2:5–11): “You pursue a problem outside of yourself. Love leads you to go after evil, to absorb pain.”
- The suffering J-Curve (2 Cor 12:7–10): “Evil comes at you from the outside, unwanted and unasked. You’re not pursuing it. Pain finds you.”
- The repentance J-Curve (Col 3:5–11): “Evil is in you. You’re the problem. You cause the pain. Here, you kill evil in yourself; you crucify it.”
In the resurrection side of the J-Curve God ministers life or renewal to and even through us. This can also take different forms: encouragement from having lived for the Lord instead of for self, fresh strength to endure, growth in Christ-like character, temporal deliverances and provisions in answer to prayer, ministry to others, etc. Here’s just one illustration from the persecution Paul suffered: “For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (2 Cor 4:11–12).
I find this resurrection emphasis one of Miller’s most helpful points because it gives me hope that God truly is at work in the most agonizing of circumstances. Christian living is not merely about self-denial. Because I am united with Christ I also experience supernatural power in and through self-denial!
Yet the death side of the J-Curve presents a sobering reality check to triumphalistic approaches to sanctification. We ought to expect that Christ-likeness involves difficulty and pain just as it did for Christ himself. Suffering is normal. Arming ourselves with this mentality also helps us to resist self-oriented mindsets characteristic of secular culture: what Miller calls the “manager” lens and the “therapist” lens.
A Solid Read
Though Miller writes for over 300 pages, his book consists of thirty-six short and digestible chapters. These chapters divide into five parts. After Part 1 introduces the J-Curve concept, Parts 2 and 3 explain dying with Jesus and thereby displaying his love, and Part 4 explores rising with him. Then Part 5 considers what a “J-Curve community” looks like.
Miller’s work is marked by careful exegesis, backed up by the work of respected scholars such as commentator Anthony Thiselton and theologian Richard B. Gaffin Jr. Though some of Miller’s concepts can be difficult to grasp, he writes accessibly, with the lay reader in focus. His many charts and graphs make the abstract concrete. But what makes Miller’s style so effective is his frequent use of stories. These are drawn largely from his personal life—especially his interactions with his disabled daughter Kim. Miller’s vulnerability touches the reader’s heart. We see clearly how he has internalized the J-Curve through humbling failures as well as through thrilling victories.
Of course, except for the Bible every book could be improved. For instance, Miller’s use of Mother Teresa as an example is questionable (chapter 8); he at least needs more qualification here. In addition, I disagree with the way chapter 32 defines the “weak” and the “strong” in 1 Corinthians 8. See chapter 10 of my book Beyond Chapter and Verse.
Such critiques aside, Miller has done the Body of Christ a great service in drawing our attention to a vital but neglected aspect of the New Testament’s teaching on the Christian life. In his own words (p. 22),
My goal is to draw you, the reader, into the dying and rising of Jesus—to reset your sense of the normal Christian life, freeing you from cynicism and despair. Inhabiting the J-Curve promises to transform your entire vision of how you engage life, freeing you from the world of resentment, touchiness, and just plain old grumpiness, and inviting you into Jesus’s world, a world rich with joy, hope, and love.