Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Romans 6:1-14] Humans have a sin problem. God has a grace solution. But it's an absolute solution -- it changes us at the core of who we are. There is no "sort of" salvation, only absolute freedom from the sin that once enslaved us.
We have been buried with Christ through baptism into His death. Romans 6:4
What Is Freedom?
The easiest way I know to get us thinking about this week's passage is to say the word "freedom". There are people all over the world who, when they read this lesson, who have a very different reaction to it than Americans will. The Wikipedia page for this topic is amazing, sharing the various freedom indices (economic freedom, moral freedom, democracy, etc.) and also a table putting every country on a color-based grid.
Yes, it's Wikipedia, which means its not perfect. But if you're interested, it provides links to organizations and reports that document how and why countries are categorized as they are. If you want to know about the "state of freedom" in our world today, it's a good place to start. The little map I copied is a comparison of religious freedom--the darker, the less freedom.
Freedom. In America, we have freedom to vote as we want. Freedom to work where we want. Freedom to worship how we want. Freedom to speak our mind. Freedom to own weapons. Freedom to report unpopular truths. Are those freedoms absolute? No. If we use a weapon wrongly, we lose freedoms. If we slander, we lose freedoms. If our workplace is illegal, we lose freedoms. Our freedoms are limited by laws. And yes, some laws infringe on freedoms in ways we find obtrusive (that's why America doesn't rate perfect on that country index).
As an aside, please let me say this: the current restrictions on religious gatherings are not attacks on our religious freedom. [Editor's note: if you're reading this post-COVID, remember that there was a long time when state and local governments were restricting the number of people who could gather for any reason, including worship. As this has gone on, I have heard stories that indeed sound like some governments were singling out churches; that changes my opinion. But where we are in Georgia, I do not believe that churches have been unfairly targeted.] I'm very alarmed by people who say they are. What's happening now is affecting businesses and medical practices even more than churches. Our freedom of assembly is being suspended for the good of the people. If we get the impression that authorities intend to continue to suppress churches after this is over, then we rise up. But if anything, I am impressed by how much our administration seems to care about how our churches are doing.
My point, as we get thinking about this passage, would be that every human freedom has a limit, even in the most "liberal" country. Some of those limits are practical (our bodies have physical limitations; our resources have quantitative limits). Some of those limits are moral (we must consider the welfare of others; sometimes we just make bad decisions). But those limits exist.
So it is in Christ. We have freedom beyond imagination--but it's limited. Limited for our own good! What the liberal elements of our world hate to acknowledge is the tendency of the human condition toward sin, toward destructive decisions. When we are free in Christ, we are free to do righteousness, not to sin. But that's not a bad limitation, something Paul wants to help his audience understand. Jesus did not die to free us from sin so that we would go back to it. We were made to live for so much more! I've posted a pair of music videos for our "musical learners": one about the person desiring to break the chains of sin, and one about the person who keeps finding himself going back to those chains. Switchfoot is a grunge-rock band (just a warning). All right - let's dig in!
This is the main thing that Paul wants to establish in these verses: Christians are wrong to think that they are absolutely free as Christians. We aren't! Our limits are both conditional and unconditional:
We are unconditionally not free to do something that would lose our salvation. We could do nothing to earn it in the first place; we can do nothing to ruin it (Christ's sacrifice is greater than our sin).
We are conditionally free to disobey God. This is really where Paul is going. Are Christians free to sin? Well, yes. But that misses the whole point of Jesus! Arguing for this freedom might be proof that you aren't truly a Christian!
If that doesn't quite convince you of what Paul seems to be saying, watch this great little video about the image of God. When it's done, ask yourself this: "Knowing who Jesus is and what He's done, do I want to live like Him, or do I want to live like the broken person I was before I gave my life to Him?" I hope that's an easy answer.
Our Context in Romans
As we said last week, Romans 5 is a turning point. Paul has established (in chapters 1-4) that humans have a sin problem--a problem that comes with severe consequences; but God has a grace solution--salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. Then, in chapter 5, Paul pivots to the glorious truth that is new life in Christ. Charles McDonald led us through the invaluable benefits of being right with God: peace, joy, hope, and love. I hope you were encouraged by it!
In the next two chapters (and this week's passage is the only lesson we have on these two chapters), Paul continues to talk about life in Christ's salvation, but he does so by exposing a number of misunderstandings and misapprehensions. Here are the rhetorical questions he asks:
"Are we to remain in sin so that grace may increase?" (6:1)
"Shall we sin because we are no longer under law but under grace?" (6:15)
"Is the law sin?" (7:7)
Freedom in Christ is not something we should consider to abuse. Children consider abusing the freedoms given to them by their parents. We aren't supposed to be like that any more!
Part 1: Dead to Sin - Romans 6:1-7
What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply? Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be rendered powerless so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin.
Wow, I love these verses! Sure, we hear them just about every baptism, but that's necessary! Baptism isn't just for the person being baptized. They experience it directly--but it preaches to us. It reminds us that we, who have been baptized, have died to sin and are no longer bound to it. Paul uses a really cool contrast that we have talked about before: death // life (the most extreme contrast humans can understand). But here, he gives it a different flavor: old // new.
Everybody has a favorite "old vs. new" comparison. I put them in three categories:
"Ages like fine wine" - there are some things that handle aging really well. Think of your favorite baseball glove, or pair of shoes, or a good relationship. The longer you've had it, the more you love it. It takes more TLC as time passes (like an old car, or an old house), but you're willing to put it in. That's not what Paul's talking about.
"Back in my day" (or "hey kids get off my lawn") - there are some things that don't age well, like rotary phones and typewriters. Yes, they might technically still work, but why would you want to go back? These comparisons usually reveal the generation gap quicker than anything. But this isn't really what Paul is talking about.
"His race is run" - eventually your time is up. Even everything in the examples above have an expiration date; nothing lasts forever. The most beautiful flower withers. The sharpest mind becomes untrustworthy. The greatest athlete breaks down. There comes a proverbial point of no return. That's what Paul is talking about.
As Paul explains, salvation is getting a new life. A completely, no-strings-attached, brand-new life. This isn't about choosing between an old and new pair of sneakers, or even a car vs. a horse-and-buggy. No, this is about giving someone a choice between a vibrant, blossoming bush, and a completely dead, decaying bush. There should be no comparison! Choosing to sin is like choosing to be a dead bush. Why would you do that? Why, why, why, why?
This is directed at the professing Christian who doesn't care a whole lot if his action is sin. Why worry about it? I'm going to be forgiven anyway, right? And doesn't a testimony sound really great when there's a lot of forgiven sin in it? That's totally beside the point! I can play basketball on the highway and stick my tongue in an outlet and juggle chainsaws with no training. But would I? Ever? Of course not! So it doesn't matter if I "could". Paul wants us to have that kind of extreme in mind when we think about sin of any kind.
To hammer this home, Paul uses the baptism image. Frankly, if you're a paedobaptist (i.e. you believe it's okay to baptize infants or anyone who hasn't made a personal profession of faith), this verse (and much of what Paul writes) makes no sense. We have to remember that Jesus' life wasn't taken from Him. He laid it down willingly. Likewise, we willingly choose to enter the waters of baptism to follow Christ. When baptism is a response to salvation, this image works:
Here's a classic diagram explaining what Paul means. As he says in a few verses, Christ cannot die again. He is now and always resurrected. Likewise, when we follow Christ in baptism (and as you can see, the image is one of dying and rising again) we have a new life. We cannot go back to our old life any more than Christ could die again.
And this is your really cool Easter tie-in: Christ's resurrection is the proof of all sorts of promises to us. (We will cover this a lot more next Sunday.) But for this week, it's the promise that when we died to our old life, that life has no power over us. We are no longer slaves to sin. (There's a really cool Exodus allusion in here--the Israelites being slaves in Egypt but freed by passing through the Red Sea.) We are free!
[Really important question: "But doesn't the Bible tell us that we can't live sinless lives? What's Paul talking about?" Yes, and hold that thought. More on this in a few verses.]
Finally, Paul gives us the first of two "legal consequences of death" images. In 7:2, Paul talks about death as the legal end of binding to the law. He gives the example of marriage--when a husband dies, the wife is no longer legally bound to him. That should only make sense. Here, he says it's equally true of sin. Death is also the "legal" end of binding to sin. A dead person does not sin. To an unbeliever, that statement is horrifying and crass. But to a believer, it is life and hope.
Part 2: Alive in Christ - Romans 6:8-11
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him, because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over him. For the death he died, he died to sin once for all time; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
These verses give us the theological backing for what Paul just told us. Like much of Romans, it's a tour de force of irrefutable logic. Let's follow his argument:
Christ died but is now alive. Therefore, anyone who dies in Christ will also live in Christ.
Because Christ rose from death, death no longer has power over Him. Therefore, death no longer has power over anyone who is in Christ.
Because Christ's sacrifice for sin was once-for-all-time, He will never die again. Therefore, anyone who is in Christ will never die again.
Christ died to sin but now lives to God. Therefore, we who are in Christ have died to sin and now live to God.
Now - if you believe that Jesus is anything less than the perfect Son of God, Paul's logic breaks down. But if we believe Jesus is everything Paul says He is, then this logic holds true. And if we fail to believe this logic in all of its implications, then the truth is that we don't really believe Jesus is everything He said He is.
David recently reminded us of Jesus' first sermon: "Repent, for the kingdom of God is near." What does it mean to repent? Well, to pent again, obviously. Which doesn't make any sense. It means to turn away from sin. But it means much more than that! It means to turn to God. Likewise, we know from Paul's logic that Christians have died to sin, but they are no longer dead. We are alive! But to what? To sin again? I hope not! Jesus told a strange parable about demon possession:
“When an unclean spirit comes out of a person, it roams through waterless places looking for rest, and not finding rest, it then says, ‘I’ll go back to my house that I came from.’ Returning, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and settle down there. As a result, that person’s last condition is worse than the first.”
Seems odd, right? Here's one of His points: when you're freed from evil, if you don't fill your life with good, evil will just come right back in. When we died to sin, that "vacuum" was filled by the Holy Spirit. We live to God now! We no longer are bound to sin.
This video on Sacrifice and Atonement draws the picture of Christ, the cross, sin, death, baptism, and life a lot better than I could, so I encourage you to watch it. All of the things that are true about Jesus's eternal life are true of us. We can't imagine Jesus sinning or sullying His resurrected life, can we? And so should we view ourselves.
Part 3: Tools of Righteousness - Romans 6:12-14
Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires. And do not offer any parts of it to sin as weapons for unrighteousness. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God as weapons for righteousness. For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under the law but under grace.
And now it's time to pay off that nagging question. Basically, it seems as if Paul is telling Christians that they have no excuse when they sin. That Christians should never sin. That sin is incompatible with Christianity.
Yep. When did we start thinking that it was okay for a Christian to sin?
Sin is disobedience to God and a thumbing of our nose to His grace. Sin essentially puts Jesus right back on the cross for all we care. Sin is as contrary to holiness as oil is to water, a slap at the Holy Spirit within us. So, no, we shouldn't sin.
But we do. In the next chapter (7:13-25), Paul talks about his own struggle with sin. There's a lot of debate over what exactly he means in those verses, but the overall point is that the human condition in Adam is one of being prone to sin.
Let me give you one very short lesson on Augustine. He gave a profound summary of the human condition:
Adam originally: possible not to sin
Thus, in Adam: not possible not to sin
Now, in Christ: possible to sin (possible not to sin)
Then, in glory: not possible to sin
The difference, according to Augustine, between us in Christ and Adam is paradise is one word: possible not to sin // possible to sin.
If that sounds like it's splitting hairs, look at it this way: Adam was born perfect, put into a perfect world, and given the freedom to sin. (Which he did.) We are born sinners, put into a sinful world, and in Christ are given the freedom not to sin. Isn't that beautiful? Yes, we're going to fail and fail regularly. As John says, "If anyone claims to be without sin, he deceives himself" (1 John 1:8). But the point is that before we came to Christ, we were slaves to sin. We did not have the freedom not to sin. But now, in Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, we are freed from that slavemaster. We have the freedom to choose not to sin. And we should exercise that freedom. "Do not allow sin to reign in your mortal body." When you're not saved, you don't have that choice. That's the amazing freedom we now have in Jesus.
And if you needed any more convincing that Christians should not sin, Paul uses a dramatic image: that of the slave army. Slaves of the Empire could be forced to do anything, including be a soldier that attacks your own land and people. How awful would it be to be sent to destroy your own home! But that's exactly what sin does through us--it destroys our families, our friends, our churches. Why let sin use you as a weapon of destruction when God has freed you from that and offered you a place in His army for good? You can serve God and shine light in the darkness and free the captives and tear down the strongholds. Why would we want to do anything else?
There are two ways Christians tend to abuse what Paul is saying, and that's what he explains in the rest of chapters 6 and 7. First, there are those who think that sin isn't really a big deal any more because (1) they are free, and (2) they are forgiven. Paul explains that such logic fails immediately because you are a slave to the one you obey. (Just as Jesus said that you cannot serve both God and money.) Second, there are those who rebel against all commands and laws not wanting to serve any law. That's an unnecessary extreme because some laws (including God's Law) are good and helpful. Laws can help us regulate our behavior and protect us from veering into sin. Doing what the law says isn't necessarily wrong (indeed, in chapter 13 Paul will tell us to obey the law of the land).
That's why I gave the title of this lesson "Free to do, free not to do". Our freedom works in both directions. One application is very pertinent to our current situation: we are free to obey the governing authorities and not physically gather for worship. It's okay because it's temporary and intentional and in the best interest of our church members who might be at risk. It's not a lack of faith. It's not even disobedience. It is being a Christian in the best way we can under the circumstances we're given. We want to use our freedom rightly. (As a humorous aside, to those individuals who say they can use their freedom to routinely not come to church but instead sit in a deer stand, I had a friend respond, "I'll admit that you can worship God in your deer stand if you'll admit that you don't." Let's use our freedom rightly!)
I want to end with an application that Lifeway's Quicksource gave. It comes from the perspective that the power of sin is guilt, which is certainly partially true. In other words, not only does Jesus free us from the "need" to sin, but also the guilt of sin. We don't have to ask God to forgive sins we've already asked Him to forgive. Christ's sacrifice has given us true forgiveness and freedom from guilt. Does the burden of your past sin still give you shame? or suck the power from your witness? It shouldn't. Christ's righteousness is absolute. When He says we are forgiven, that's also absolute.
Sin should have no power over us. Celebrate that!
Bonus Section: what does Paul mean in Romans 7?
This is not a part of this week's lesson, but if you're reading through Romans, you'll eventually ask about this. In Romans 7:7-25, Paul talks about a struggle with sin. People wonder what he means. Let me just say this, and then I'll summarize the three traditional options: Paul's point is "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" Whatever he means, it's about victory in Jesus, not failure in sin.
There are pros and cons to each interpretation. Certainly, in chapter 8 Paul shifts to emphasize the Spirit, so this could be describing life without the power of the Spirit. But the fact that he's so aware of this struggle implies Spirit-given enlightenment. Regardless, we all know that we struggle with sin, so I take heart in Paul's words. God bless you. Stay take. Keep taking care of your families. Always in Jesus, mww