Question: "What does it mean to put on Christ in Romans 13:14?"
Answer: In a very real sense, the Christian life is a “put on.” In Romans 13:14, the apostle Paul instructs believers to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (ESV). The phrase put on Christ means to figuratively clothe oneself with the Lord Jesus Christ to reveal the glory of God to the world.
Paul was talking about putting on spiritual clothing. Those who clothe themselves with the Lord Jesus are believers who do not focus on gratifying the desires of the sinful nature. In the preceding verses, Paul had encouraged the saints to “wake from sleep” (Romans 13:11) and “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (verse 12).
Paul paints a vivid picture of moving into the new life in Christ as trading the darkness of night for the light of day. As believers, we must not only wake up and throw off our night clothes but also get dressed in the appropriate outfit for the new day. Our “old clothes” were the deeds of darkness, but the proper new daytime attire for the solder of Christ is God’s armor of light (see Ephesians 6:11–18).
The expression put on Christ occurs again in Galatians 3:27: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (ESV). As in Romans 13, putting on Christ here speaks of having clothed oneself with the new nature; believers are taught “to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). We put on Christ when our old ways are nailed to the cross and we wear the grace and forgiveness of Jesus as a glorious garment for all the world to see.
To the church in Colossae, Paul echoes the teaching: “Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him” (Colossians 3:10, NLT). The spiritual garment no Christian should ever be without is the Lord Jesus Christ. Putting on Christ means letting the Lord be our armor, embracing Him over and over, and daily trusting Him in faith, thankfulness, and obedience. John Chrysostom (c. AD 347—407) described putting on Christ as “never to be forsaken of Him, and His always being seen in us through our holiness, through our gentleness” (quoted by C. E. B. Cranfield in Epistle to the Romans, T&T Clark International, 2004, pp. 688–689).
To put on Christ means to follow Him in discipleship, letting our lives be conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29). Rather than adapting ourselves to the pattern of this world, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds and the modification of our behavior into the model of Christ’s life on earth (Romans 12:2). This change requires putting off the old self and putting on the new throughout the Christian life (Ephesians 4:22–24; Colossians 3:12). To achieve this transformation, we rely wholly on our righteous standing before God made possible in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:22; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 5:21).
Putting on Christ means abiding in Jesus and living to please Him. John Wesley described it as “a strong and beautiful expression for the most intimate union with Him, and being clothed with all the graces which were in Him” (quoted by L. Morris in The Epistle to the Romans, Inter-Varsity Press, 1988, p. 473). We are clothed in Christ when we become so closely united with Jesus that others see Him and not us.