If you’ve ever invested time in watching a soap opera, then you know that virtually nothing happens from day to day. You can watch an episode, take a couple of months off and watch another episode, and it’s, like, two days later on the show. The plot has advanced very little in your absence.
My Romans Bible study on Wednesday night seems like that! We’ve been at it for fourteen weeks now, and we’ve only gotten through the middle of chapter 6. Not that I’m complaining. I’ve certainly learned a lot, and I believe my students have as well.
Even last night, when we covered Romans 6:1-14, I learned something new, and I’m excited to share it with you.
In 6:1 Paul asks a question that Jewish opponents to the gospel had undoubtedly asked him as he debated them in synagogues around the Mediterranean: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” This question follows on the heels of Paul’s words in 5:20: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”
It’s easy to see, therefore, the devilish logic in Paul’s question in verse 1: Grace is good. More grace is better. Since the consequence of Christ’s atoning sacrifice is that sin, abundant though it was and is, has been overwhelmed by an even more abundant amount of grace, let there be even more grace by first letting there be more sin.
In verses 2 and following, Paul explains why this logic doesn’t hold: We believers are now “dead to sin”: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).
I’ll be honest: I have at times read these words with skepticism—almost as if it were wishful thinking on Paul’s part. “Yeah, right! We’re dead to sin! Our old sinful self was crucified with Christ! Maybe on the other side of eternity that will be true, but not in the here and now. In the here and now, my struggle with sin bears witness to the fact that sin is alive and well in my life!”
Or I imagined that Paul were saying that we ought to be dead to sin—if we really, truly understood what Christ has done for us. I didn’t doubt that Paul was dead to sin, but I was sure that I wasn’t. Therefore, the fact that I’m obviously not dead to sin means that I’m a failure, and our enemy, the devil, takes yet another opportunity to make me feel guilty.
Or, finally, I’ve read these words as if our “death to sin” were a gradual process, which takes place only as we’ve been sanctified and perfected in love (as our Wesleyan tradition emphasizes). This death takes place, but only over time as we try really hard to make it a reality. (Please note that this is the point at which our Calvinist brethren accuse us Wesleyan Arminians of being “semi-Pelagian.”)
While it’s true that we ought to sin less and less over time—indeed, to become holier—Paul is not saying anything here about holiness. Nor is he saying anything about the extent to which believers continue to fall victim to sin—except it’s clear from Paul’s words here that they do, otherwise why bother raising the issue in the first place? Clearly, Christians continue to face temptation and continue to sin.
No, Paul says, in spite of whether or to what extent we’ve been sanctified, we are still, at this present moment, “dead to sin.” This is, Paul says, an objective fact that is true of all Christian believers.
Why? Because of what Christ has done for us! “For the death [Christ] died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God” (Romans 6:10). In other words, we are dead to sin not because of anything we’ve done, or do, but because of what Christ did, “once for all” (all includes all humanity) on the cross!
Christ, please remember, represents us—sinful human beings though we are—throughout his life, death, and resurrection. He substitutes for us. I often say the following—and even though it’s a cliché, I love it because it’s true—”Jesus lived the life we were unable to live and died the death we deserved to die.”
But Christ doesn’t merely die on the cross for our sins (although that’s saying quite a lot), he dies to our sins. Since we die with him, as represented by our baptism (as Paul says in Romans 6:4), we also die to sin. His death to sin has become our death to sin. And this is true, regardless of the fact that we remain sinners.
What does that mean for our present sinfulness? As N.T. Wright says in his For Everyone commentary, Paul wants us to view our baptism the way we view Israel crossing the Red Sea. We are now set free from our slavery to sin on the other side of baptism, just as Israel was set free from slavery to Pharaoh on the other side of the Red Sea. We’re in a new world now. We haven’t yet arrived in the Promised Land (which happens in our future resurrection), but we’re on our way. When we believers sin today, it’s almost as if we’re the Israelites in the wilderness, grumbling to Moses about how good life was back in Egypt.
Sin is something that belongs back in the old world. It no longer fits who we are today.
Wright gives an illustration to help us make sense of Paul’s words, which I would quote directly if I had the his book with me. He asks us to imagine living on the property of a bad landlord, who mistreats his tenants, extorting rent from them, making outrageous demands, and failing to live up to his end of the lease agreement. Later, we find a new place to live under a good landlord who settles our debts with the previous landlord. We have a new lease. Our old lease is null and void.
Suppose, however, after moving into our new place, the old landlord comes back. He barges in and starts ordering us around again. Old habits die hard, of course. We might still obey him, even though we don’t have to. But we have piece of paper—a contract with a new landlord—that proves that the old landlord has no authority over us whatsoever.
Instead, we should ask him to leave—and call the cops if he doesn’t!
Being dead to sin, therefore, is like this new lease. It doesn’t necessarily change our behavior right away. But it’s objectively real. And with practice—availing ourselves of the means of grace, submitting to the life-changing work of the Holy Spirit—our behavior will change.
I find Paul’s words deeply reassuring. I hope you do, too.