Sermon for June 25, 2017

Scripture readings: Gen. 21:8-21 and Ps. 86:1-10, 16-17
or Jer. 20:7-13 and Ps. 69:7-10, 16-18; Rom. 6:1-11; Matt. 10:24-39

Sermon by Ted Johnston from Romans 6:1-4 
(drawing on John Stott's commentary)



In today’s reading in Matthew, Jesus declared that his first disciples were to take up their crosses and follow him (Matt. 10:38). We have the same calling today—this is the life to which we as believers are called, empowered by the Spirit. In our reading today in Romans, Paul addresses the topic of Christian living. The passage falls within a section of Paul’s letter where he addresses the unity believers have by virtue of their shared spiritual union with Christ. Chapter 5 presents that unity from the perspective of justification— the standing believers have with God apart from works or personal merit. Some were strongly objecting to Paul’s assertion. “If we are justified apart from the law,” they asked, “then what about Christian living?” What about that? Can believers do anything they want and expect future glory? Does Paul advocate continuing a life of sin?

Well, Paul anticipates these questions and objections, noting that some people already were “slanderously” misquoting him as saying, “Let us do evil that good may result” (Rom. 3:8). Up to chapter 6, Paul waived such accusations aside, but now he addresses them head on—pointing out that God’s grace not only forgives sin, it delivers from sin. Grace not only justifies, it sanctifies. This is because the Spirit unites us to Christ (Rom. 6:1-14), thus initiating us into a form of slavery—slavery to God and to his righteousness (Rom. 6:15-23). These two halves of Romans 6 closely parallel one another in upholding the grace of God, showing that grace does not undermine ethical responsibility, pointing to baptism and conversion in showing the radical discontinuity between our pre-baptism life in Adam and our post-baptism life in Christ.

In this sermon we’ll look at Paul’s argument in Romans 6:1-14, which explores the topic of Christian living as understood in accordance with the logic of our baptism.

“Baptism of Christ” by Davezelenka (2005)
(used with Creative Commons permission)

Paul begins with a vehement rejection of the notion that God’s grace gives a believer permission to sin. “What shall we say, then?” Paul asks, “shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?” His emphatic answer is, “by no means!” (Rom. 6:1-2). But on what grounds can Paul make such a statement? At first sight, logic seems to be on the side of the antinomians, since the more we sin, the more opportunity God will have to display his forgiving grace. But Paul counters that false logic with a seven-step argument related directly to the meaning of our baptism.

1. We died to sin (Rom. 6:2)

It may be true that some believers think that grace is permission to continue in sin. But Paul counters that false understanding by asking a question, which in literal translation from the Greek is this: “We died to sin (in the past); how then shall we live in it (in the future)?” (Rom. 6:2). Phillips translates it this way: “We who have died to sin—how could we live in sin any longer?”

What does Paul mean that we have “died to sin”? First, he does not mean that it is impossible for Christians to sin. Rather he is saying that for a Christian to continue to live a sinful life—to continue in the practice of sin—makes no sense. The expressions “died to sin” or “dead to sin” occur in this section twice of Christians (Rom. 6:2, 11) and once of Christ (Rom. 6:10). To say that Christ “died to sin” does not mean that it became impossible for him to sin, yet he never did sin. The meaning is that Christ bore sin’s condemnation, namely death. He met that claim, paid sin’s penalty, accepted its reward—and this he did “once for all.” In consequence, sin has no more claim or demand on him. “It is finished,” he said.

Paul’s point is that what is true of Christ is therefore true of Christians—those “in Christ.” By virtue of being united to Christ by the Spirit, Christians have “died to sin.” The New Testament tells us not only that Christ, in his vicarious humanity, died in our place as our substitute (so that we will never need to die for our sins), but also that he died as our representative, so that we may be said to have died in and through him. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “We are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14). By being united to Christ, his death became our death.

To be “dead to sin” is not to be dead to or immune from sin’s power. As believers, we continue to be tempted and, in our weakness, to succumb. But, in union with Christ, we are relieved from the guilt of sin—and thus it makes no sense that we would continue in a life of sin. Paul next emphasizes this point by discussing our baptism by which believers, through the Holy Spirit, are united to Christ in his death.

2. We share in Christ’s death (Rom. 6:3)

“Don’t you know,” asks Paul in Romans 6:3, “that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” When people ask whether Christians are free to sin, they betray their ignorance of what baptism means. Baptism represents various things, including cleansing from sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit, but its essential symbolism is the union of the believer with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection—and in this verse, the emphasis is on Christ’s death. To be baptized into Christ means to enter into relationship with him, much as the Israelites were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” that is, into allegiance to him as their leader (1 Cor. 10:2). Christian baptism involves a signifying of a personal, vital identification with Jesus Christ—including with his death to sin on our behalf.

3. We share in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:4-5)

Just as our baptism signifies the believer’s union with Christ in his death to sin, it also signifies their union with Christ in his resurrection, in order that “we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4)—in order that we may share in the glorified, human resurrection life of Christ—a life that begins now and will be completed on the day of our bodily resurrection in glory.

Romans 6:5 drives the point home: “If we have been united with him like this in his death” (literally “with him in the likeness of his death”), “we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection,” or perhaps better translated, “with him in the likeness of his resurrection.” What is this “likeness” of Christ’s death and resurrection? This has puzzled Bible students throughout Christian history. It seems to refer either to baptism as representing death and resurrection, or to the fact that our death and resurrection with Christ are very similar to his, though not identical. Or, as commentator John Stott notes, it may be best to understand this verse in more general terms: “For if (in baptism) we have become conformed to his death, we shall certainly also be conformed (in our life here and now) to his resurrection.”

These verses seem to allude to the pictorial symbolism of baptism, where being plunged beneath the water is like a death, the momentary time spent under water is like a burial, and reemergence out of the water is like a resurrection from the dead. This outward symbolism pictures or signifies that by faith we are united by the Spirit with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection, and have thus come to share in their blessings. What these blessings are Paul now enlarges on, elaborating the significance of Christ’s death in Rom. 6:6-7 and of his resurrection in Rom. 6:8-9, bringing them together in Rom. 6:10.

4. We died with Christ (Rom. 6:6-7)

Romans 6:6 contains three closely related clauses. We are told that something happened, in order that something else might happen, in order that a third thing might happen: “We know that our old self was crucified with him (Christ), so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:6). Perhaps the best way to grasp Paul’s logic here is to take these three stages in reverse order. God’s end-purpose, he tells us, is our freedom from sin’s tyranny: “that we should no longer be slaves to sin.” That is plain. But before our rescue from sin’s slavery is possible, “the body of sin” must be “done away with.” In short, conquest must precede deliverance.

What, though, is the “body of sin”? It is not the human body itself, which the Bible says is God’s good creation. Rather, the “body of sin” is the “sinful self” (REB)—our fallen, self-centered nature, which misuses and perverts the God-given use of our body. It is God’s will and purpose that this sinful self (body of sin) should be “done away with”—defeated, disabled and deprived of power in our lives.

To understand how this disabling happens, we come to the first clause of Rom. 6:6, which says that “our old self” (KJV “our old man”) “was crucified with him” (with Christ). This “old self” cannot be the same thing as our “body of sin” (sinful nature) or the sentence would make no sense. The “old self” is not our sinful nature that remains alive, but “the man we once were” (NEB)—the person we were in Adam who now has been put to death with Christ, the new Adam. What was crucified with Christ was not our sinful nature, but who we were as a person in our pre-conversion state. This is clear because the phrase “our old self was crucified” (Rom 6:6) is equivalent to “we died to sin” (Rom. 6:2).

There is some confusion concerning Paul’s use in v. 6 of the verb “crucified.” Many associate it with Galatians 5:24, where “those who belong to Christ are said to “have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” But Paul’s point in these two verses is entirely different. Romans 6:6 describes something that has happened to us (“our old self was crucified with him”), whereas Galatians 5:24 refers to something which we ourselves have done (we “have crucified the sinful nature”). There are in fact two quite distinct ways in which the New Testament speaks of crucifixion in relation to our sanctification: The first is our death to sin through identification with Christ; the second is our death to self through imitation of Christ. On the one hand, we have been crucified with Christ. But on the other, we have crucified (decisively repudiated) our sinful nature with all its desires, so that every day we renew this attitude by taking up our cross and following Christ to crucifixion (as we saw in our reading today in Matthew 10). The first is a legal/positional death, a death to the penalty of sin; the second is a moral/experiential death, a death to the power of sin. The first belongs to the past, and is unique and unrepeatable; the second belongs to the present, and is repeatable, even continuous. I died to sin (in Christ) once; I die to self (like Christ) daily. It is with the first of these two deaths that Romans 6 is chiefly concerned, although the first is with a view to the second, and the second cannot take place without the first.

But how has the fact that our former self was crucified with Christ resulted in the disabling of our sinful self and thus our rescue from sin’s slavery? Romans 6:7 supplies the answer. The NIV says it is “because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” “Freed” is from a Greek word that predominantly means justified. Thus a better translation would be: “he who has died has been justified from his sin.” But how are our death and consequent justification (Rom. 6:7) the basis of our liberation from sin (Rom. 6:6)?

The only way to be justified from sin is that the wages (penalty) of sin be paid. But the wages of sin is death and how can we die, yet live in liberation? The wonderful thing about Christian justification is that our death is followed by resurrection, in which we can live the life of a justified person, having paid the death penalty (in and through Christ) for our sin. For us it is like this: We deserved to die for our sins. And we did die, though not in our own person, but in the person of Jesus Christ, our representative and substitute, who died in our place, and with whom we have been united by the Holy Spirit through faith and baptism in a spiritual union. And by that union with the risen Christ, we have now risen again. So the old life of sin is finished, because we died to it, and the new life of justified sinners has begun. Paul’s point is this: our death and resurrection with Christ render it inconceivable that we should go back. It is in this sense that our sinful self has been deprived of power and we have been set free!

5. We live with Christ (Rom. 6:8-10)

Paul then continues discussing our new life in and with Christ: “Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Rom. 6:8). This “living with Christ” occurs now (following baptism) and comes to fullness in the future (following our bodily resurrection); or as Paul writes in Rom. 8:10, in consequence of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, “your spirit is alive” and “he…will also give life to your mortal bodies.”

The guarantee of the continuing and unfolding nature of this new life in Christ is found in Christ’s resurrection: “For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again” (Rom. 6:9). Jesus was not resuscitated (like Lazarus), but resurrected—raised to a new plane of living, from which there will never be any question of return: “Death no longer has mastery over him” (Rom. 6:9). Having been delivered from death’s tyranny, he has passed beyond its jurisdiction forever. As the glorified Lord himself declares: “I am the living one; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!” (Rev. 1:18).

Next Paul summarizes Jesus’ death and resurrection in a short statement: “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives he lives to God” (Rom. 6:10). Jesus’ death is a past event—“once for all,” which dealt with sin. His resurrection is a present (and continuing) experience to God’s glory. As believers, in our spiritual union with Christ by the indwelling Spirit, we died once to sin—it is finished; the debt is paid. And now, united to Christ in his resurrection we live in an unending life of service to God that will culminate in our bodily resurrection to glory.

6. We count ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (Rom. 6:11)

If Christ’s death was a death to sin (which it was), and if his resurrection was a resurrection to God (which it was), and if by baptism, signifying our trust in Christ, we have been united by the Spirit to Christ in his death and resurrection (which we have), then we have died to sin and risen to God. We must therefore “reckon” (AV), “consider” (RSV), “regard” (NEB), “look upon” (JBP) or “count” (NIV) ourselves “dead to sin but alive to God in,” or by reason of our union with, “Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11).

This reckoning is not make-believe! It’s not a mind-game. We are not pretending that our old nature has died, when we know perfectly well it has not. Instead we realize and remember that our former self did die with Christ, thus putting an end to its career. We consider ourselves to be what in fact we are—“dead to sin and alive to God” (Rom. 6:11), like Christ (Rom. 6:10). Once we grasp this—that our old life has ended, with the score settled, the debt paid and the demand of the law satisfied—we shall want to have nothing more to do with it. It is not to a mind-game that Paul calls us, but to deep reflection and vivid recollection of reality. In short, he is calling us to preach the gospel to ourselves.

We have to keep reminding ourselves of who we are in our spiritual union with Christ. It is inconceivable that we should live as though our death and resurrection with Christ had never taken place. Can a married woman live as though she were still single? Well, yes, I suppose she can. But let her remember who she is! Let her feel her wedding ring, the symbol of her new life of union with her husband, and she will want to live accordingly. Can a born-again Christian live as though she were still in her sins? Well, yes, I suppose she can—at least for a while. But let her remember who she is! Let her recall her baptism, the symbol of her new life in union with Christ, by the Spirit, and she will want to live accordingly.

So the basis of Christian living is in knowing that our former self was crucified with Christ. It is in knowing that our baptism into Christ is a baptism into his death and resurrection. It is in knowing that through Christ we are dead to sin and alive to God. We are to recall, ponder, grasp, and register these truths until they are so much a part of us that a return to the old life is unthinkable!

Christians, who are alive to Christ, should no more contemplate a return to their old life than adults would contemplate a return to their childhood, married people to their singleness, or discharged prisoners to their prison cell. That is because our union with Jesus Christ, by the Spirit, has severed us from the old life and committed us to the new. Our baptism stands between the two like a door between two rooms—closing on the one and opening into the other. We have died, we have been buried, and we have risen! How can we possibly live again in what we have died to?

7. Conclusion: we must therefore offer ourselves to God (Rom. 6:12-14)

The word “therefore” in Rom. 6:12 introduces the conclusion of Paul’s argument and thus to this sermon. Because Christ died to sin and lives to God, and because through union with Christ by the Spirit we ourselves are “dead to sin but alive to God,” and we must “count” or consider ourselves so, therefore our whole attitude to sin and to God must change. We do not offer ourselves “to sin” because we have died to it; rather we offer ourselves “to God” (Rom. 6:13), because we have risen to live for his glory. This is the emphasis of these concluding verses.

Paul’s exhortation has negative and positive aspects that complement each other. The negative comes first: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal [i.e. physical] body so that you obey its evil desires” (Rom. 6:12). Not all our bodily desires are evil, of course, but sin can use our body as a bridgehead through which to govern us. So Paul calls us to rise up in rebellion against sin. Because we are “free from sin,” we have to fight against it—we are to “revolt” in the name of our rightful ruler, God, against sin’s rule. A second negative exhortation follows: “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness” (Rom. 6:13). “Instruments” is a military term, the idea being that we are not to offer our bodies as military instruments in support of the wicked ways of sin. Rather (and Paul now turns to a positive exhortation), “offer yourselves to God as instruments [weapons] of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13). Whereas the command not to offer ourselves to sin was in the present tense, indicating that we must not go on doing it, the exhortation to offer ourselves to God is in a Greek tense that indicates deliberate, decisive, continuing commitment.

The ground on which these exhortations are based is that we “have been brought from death to life” (Rom. 6:13). The logic is clear. Since we have died to sin, it is inconceivable that we should let sin reign in us or offer ourselves to it. Since we are alive to God, it is only appropriate that we should offer ourselves to him. This theme of life and death, or rather death and life, runs right through this section. Christ died and rose. We have died and risen with him. We must therefore regard ourselves as dead to sin and alive to God. And, as those who are alive from death, we must offer ourselves to God’s service.

The apostle now supplies a further reason for offering ourselves not to sin but to God. It is that “sin shall not” (he is expressing an assurance, even a promise, not a command) “be your master.” Why not? “Because you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). This is the ultimate secret of freedom from sin. Law and grace are the opposing principles of the old and new orders, of Adam and of Christ, the new Adam. To be “under law” is to accept the obligation to keep it, and so to come under its curse and condemnation (Gal. 3:10). To be “under grace” is to acknowledge utter dependence on the work of Christ for salvation, and so to be justified rather than condemned, and thus be set free from sin and its power. Those who experience freedom from condemnation have the freedom to resist sin’s power with strength and boldness.

Thus our passage today is wedged between two references to sin and grace. In Rom. 6:1, the question is asked whether grace encourages sin; then in Rom. 6:14, the answer is given that, on the contrary, grace discourages and even outlaws sin. While law provokes and increases sin (Rom. 5:20); grace opposes it. Grace lays upon us the responsibility and the ability to live a life that is consecrated to God—this is the Christian living to which we are called.

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