Dead to Sin and Alive to God

November 7, 2021 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Romans: Real Hope for the Righteousness of God

Scripture: Romans 6:1–6:11

1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 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. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

We concluded last week at the end of chapter five and its assertion that the power of grace and the life that brings is infinitely stronger than the power of sin and the death it brings. So, where sin increases, grace abounds all the more (v. 20), “so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 21). The promise of the gospel is astounding, the power of grace simply amazing. The claim is that in the person and work of Jesus, the grip that sin and death hold on life as we know it has been broken. There is a new world, a new creation that has begun for everyone who believes in Jesus.

Now here in chapter six, the Apostle Paul deals with a question that is frequently raised, both in his day as well as ours, when the gospel of grace is rightly proclaimed. The question is posed in verse 1: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” The answer comes immediately and emphatically in verse two: “By no means!” This answer is then followed by an explanation of why we are not to continue in sin in verses 3 through 10, with a concluding thought in verse 11.

So this morning, let’s consider from this passage, first, our problem with sin. Second, our victory over sin. And then the relationship we have now with sin.

Our Problem with Sin

First, our problem with sin. Far from allowing this amazing grace to sit in the abstract, Paul continues to push the issue into the real day-to-day reality for the one who trusts in Jesus. “What shall we say then?” (v. 1) is a way of recognizing that what has just been said can be misunderstood or misapplied.[1] The question is presented memorably in verse one. “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” We’ve already seen this question arise, back in Romans 3:7-8, and it comes up twice in this chapter, occurring again in verse 15. At issue here is the practical reality of what it would mean if in fact the great promise of God, the promise to redeem and restore his creation, has arrived with Jesus as the promised Messiah. If that is so, what about sin? Why is it still an issue, and how shall we deal with it?

The Gospel Against Legalism

Before we jump into the heart of our passage this morning, let’s consider for a moment why it is being asked and why it matters.

The first answer we can give is that the question of our relationship to sin remains because of the emphasis on grace, a clear, strong emphasis on grace and not works as the basis or grounds of our justification. The counterintuitive truth of the gospel is that God does not consider any good deed or moral effort on our part—either past, present, or future—as a prerequisite for justifying us. He gives grace to sinners as a gift, and the only way to be justified is to receive this grace with empty hands.

Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to the cross I clean.
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace.

This is counterintuitive because ingrained in the sin-sick heart is the desire to relate to God contractually rather than by grace. It is the dreaded disease of legalism that troubles all of us.

Yes, all of us. We are all legalists at heart, every single one of us. Until we have preached the gospel of grace so loudly and repeatedly that we start to wonder if perhaps we could just keep on sinning so grace abounds all the more, we will remain legalistic in how we seek to relate to God.

God’s grace is seen most clearly in those who have sinned most badly. God’s grace abounds, not just to the greatest of all sinners but especially to the greatest of all sinners. This is the cleansing flood that drowns legalism at every point.[2] And our churches should proclaim this radical grace. Our churches should have this atmosphere, this culture of grace. It is what the gospel ought to create in a community that believes the good news of Jesus.

The Gospel Against Antinomianism

But now, we must deal with the question. So can we remain in sin? Are we to remain in sin? Notice that this question is dealt with just as strongly in this chapter as was the emphasis on grace in the previous chapter: “By no means!” or “God forbid!” or “Perish the thought!” What is the opposite of legalism? The word that is often used for the other end of the spectrum is antinomianism, a word that means “against the law.” If legalism is seeking to merit God’s favor by works, and if this is a deadly disease we must resist, then antinomianism is sometimes thought to be the remedy. “We cannot be saved by our good deeds, so let us then care nothing about being good.”

The problem here is that we often think the cure for one disease is a little dose of the other.[3] Legalism and antinomianism may be opposites in one sense, but they are equidistant from the gospel of grace.

Reformation Discovery

The question of how we relate to sin is important because it is connected to how we relate to God. If neither legalism nor antinomianism gives us the solution, then what does?

Some have said that the faith that saves is necessarily transformative: that is, when God justifies a person who trusts in Christ, he not only imputes righteousness but also imports it. Consequently, a person who has received grace must also truly be transformed so that they can now cooperate with grace and do good deeds. This is the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, but the Reformers rightly saw that this goes against the plain teaching of Scripture. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Rom 3:28). Abraham was not “justified by works” (Rom 4:2) but by faith (Rom 4:3), and so will it be for all of us (Rom 4:22-24; Rom 5:1). The promise of God “depends on faith” so that it “may rest on grace” (Rom 4:16), not on works.

This being so, the charge of Romans 6:1 makes sense. But what doesn’t make sense is to just shrug our shoulders and let the charge stand. Paul certainly doesn’t do that! We cannot live with the charge of antinomianism any more than with the charge of legalism. Paul doesn’t and neither should we.

So what is the solution? How do we get victory over sin?

Our Victory over Sin

The question takes us to the heart of these verses where we find the answer. Paul does not simply say, “No, we should not keep on sinning in view of abundant grace”; he tells us why we should not.

Actually, he first tells us why we cannot. He tells us that we have already conquered sin. We’ve already defeated it. We already have victory over sin. That’s what he means at the end of verse two: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

Dead to Sin

It is this question of status, not behavior, that is in view in the passage before us this morning.[4] The force behind the question of Romans 6:1 is not so much about whether we Christians can just go on sinning with impunity; that comes in the second part of the chapter. Before we can address questions about how we should live, we have to see the facts about where we now live. Don’t you see, Paul says, that if you are now united to Jesus by faith then you have died to sin? Don’t you understand, Paul is saying, that when God declares a person to be righteous by grace through faith in Christ, that person also becomes dead to sin?

Now it is obvious that this dying to sin does not mean that a Christian becomes sinless, unable to actually sin. This is obvious in experience, but it is also obvious in this text, this whole chapter, this whole section in Romans, which is focused on this issue of resisting sin and abstaining from it. So to be dead to sin does not mean a person cannot sin; it means that a person does not have to sin.

This becomes quite clear in verse six where the Christian’s death to sin means that “the body of sin” has been “brought to nothing.” The phrase “the body of sin” does not mean that our physical bodies are intrinsically sinful. The body is referenced because sin takes concrete expression in our bodies, in our bodily members like our brains and our tongues, our eyes and our hands.[5] To die to sin means, in the verse that follows, that one has “been set free from sin.”

So it is clear that, no, we should not choose to keep on sinning because we don’t have to. We have died to sin, so sin has lost its power over us. We don’t have to sin anymore because we have died to it.

Christ’s Death as Victory

But when and how did we die to sin? Verse three answers that question. Our death to sin took place when we were “baptized into Christ Jesus,” for at that time we were also “baptized into his death,” which was apparently to be understood as a dying to sin. Again, not a dying by sin, as if sin killed Jesus, but rather his death was a victory, it was the overthrowing of sin and its power.

Christ did not die because sin gained the mastery over him, because he was defeated by it. Instead, Jesus’s death was the defeat of sin, the breaking of sin’s power. If we ask here, “Why did Jesus die?” we must answer, “In order to break the power of sin over all creation, including over us.” In this sense, Jesus’s death is not a tragedy but a triumph. Jesus did not die only to pay the penalty for our sins; he was also bringing to an end the ruthless power of sin over us. He was declaring that the present evil age had come to an end and a new era had now dawned. The kingdom of God had come!

Now this is, of course, strange and unexpected. The kingdom of God did not dawn upon the world in a show of might, but in humility. The way to the kingdom was by the way of peace and love, the way of the cross.[6] And this is critical for us to understand. Victory over sin, Jesus demonstrated, cannot come by use of sin’s own weapons—sin does not get toppled with more sin. It gets toppled by grace! By the grace that is in Christ.

United to Christ

Now, what if the death of Christ—a death which is a victory—were to be ours as well? “Do you not know,” Paul says in verse three, that it is! Those of us who have been baptized into Christ were baptized into his death. And again, in verse 5, “we have been united with him in a death like his,” that is, a death which is a victory. If you and I died like Jesus died—not a physical death on a Roman cross, but a death that defeats sin, then this would mean that sin has lost its power over us too.

How have we been united to Christ’s death? By being “baptized into Christ Jesus.” It does not mean that the act of baptism unites us to Christ magically. Baptism is mentioned here simply because it was the universal initiation rite for believers in Christ. Baptism here simply stands for all Christians.[7] And we Christians are supposed to look back on our baptism and remember what it means. To be baptized “into” someone means that one has given up his independence and has confessed complete allegiance. Baptism is like an enlistment ceremony.[8] So Paul is reminding all true Christians what it is we have signed up for when we embrace Christ, when we enlisted into him. We signed up to share in his death.

Now perhaps you didn’t quite understand all that when you were baptized, when you enlisted into Christ. That’s ok; there’s no reason to go through the ceremony of baptism again. I’m sure that most wide-eyed soldiers don’t completely understand what they are getting themselves into when they enlist in the military. Baptism is not only something you did but something that happened to you, something that gave you a new status. So now you know that this is what you signed up for. You signed up to “know him,” Paul says in Philippians 3:10, and “the power of his resurrection.” And the way to know him and his power is to also “share his sufferings” and to become “like him in his death.”

Justified to Be Sanctified

Death—this death anyway—has this clear purpose. Verse four says we were buried with him by baptism into death “in order that”—for this reason or ultimate purpose—“just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” The whole reason to be conformed to Christ’s death is to live in the thrill of his victory. If death has been defeated, then life reigns. We don’t have to stay under the power of sin. We can live in “newness of life.”

In theological terms, here’s what we can say. Justification (a declaration of righteousness) and sanctification (a process of becoming righteous) are not identical, but neither can they be separated. If in Christ we have been justified, then in Christ we also have been sanctified. They necessarily go together, and verse seven makes it explicit. The verb translated “has been set free” is the same Greek word for justified, suggesting that undergirding the whole goal of sanctification is the same decree “not guilty” that justifies.[9] If we are not under sin’s condemnation, then we cannot still be under its reign.

Our Relationship to Sin

So what do we do now? How do we deal with the problem of sin? And the answer is found as we understand what our relationship with sin now is.

The Intermediate State

And the way to understand your relationship with sin is to understand your relationship to Jesus. Verse eight says, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Since we have already died with Christ in Christian baptism, but we await a coming literal resurrection of the body, we are in a kind of intermediate state, as we might say of those Christians who are physically dead.[10]

That means there is a two-part answer to how we now relate to sin. There is something that is already true but also something that is not yet realized, something which we must await.

Dead, Once for All

What is already true? Verses nine and ten tell us, “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.” So, with Christ, we have already died to sin once for all. Remember this death is a victory, a triumph, not a tragedy. In other words, in relationship to sin, we are victorious. It no longer has dominion over us.

I know for some of us this just doesn’t seem true. You feel defeated by sin day after day. But the reason sin no longer rules is because grace has come. And grace is a greater power. So when you sin, when you feel defeated by sin, when sin feels like an invincible power, don’t turn to a resolve to try harder or do better—turn to Christ to whom you are united by faith and find in him abundant grace.

Alive to God

But what is not yet realized? We are not yet done with our striving against sin. There is still sin to fight, sin to kill. The antinomian gospel is no gospel at all because it leaves us feeling defeated by remaining sin, unable to overcome it and actually eliminate it.

So, what should we do? Verse eleven expresses the two-part summary: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” The verb “consider” does not mean “pretend.” It urges us to “count up” what all we have “in Christ Jesus.” While we may still await the resurrection, we have been united to the one for whom the resurrection has already passed.

So, in this sense we are not in any intermediate state. We have weapons to fight sin that are stronger than sin. We have real hope because we are not just dead to sin’s power; we are alive to a new power—God’s power—and to the eternal life of the resurrected Christ.

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[1] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, Word Biblical Commentary 38A, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker, (Dallas: Word Books, 1988), 306.

[2] Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016), 135.

[3] Ibid., 86.

[4] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2003), 251.

[5] Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament 6 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 316.

[6] N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Christian Origins and the Question of God (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1996), 595.

[7] Schreiner, Romans, 306.

[8] J. I. Packer, Growing in Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), 112.

[9] “Sin has no further claim upon the person who is . . . vindicated” (John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, 2 vols., The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F. F. Bruce, [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965], 1:222).

[10] Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 251–52.

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