One of the dangers of preaching salvation by grace alone is that it can be interpreted as license to do whatever one wishes. The Apostle Paul was well aware of this tendency, as we saw in Romans 3:8 where he mentioned that some were slanderously reporting that he and his followers were saying, “Why not do evil that good may come?” Because of this type of misrepresentation, Paul was always on guard when he made a strong statement about grace. So when he said in Romans 5:20, “But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” he knew the worst would be made of it by some. He knew that a pernicious logic would be applied: “Well, if sin brings more grace, let’s sin!” He also knew such thinking was not only logical to some minds, it was also natural because sin has its “fleeting pleasures” (Hebrews 11:25). He knew, too, that sinning could even be twisted into a religious duty, because it provides an opportunity for God to give his grace and love and thus glorify himself. Even people who have claimed to be Christians have thought this!
The church in Corinth had this problem, for when Paul insisted that an incestuous couple be excommunicated, there were some who saw nothing wrong with the incest, thinking it was an excellent display of Christian liberty (cf. 1 Corinthians 5).
A famous historical instance of such thought comes from the Russian monk Rasputin, who dominated the Romanov family in their final years. Rasputin taught that salvation came through repeated experiences of sin and repentance. He argued that because those who sin more require more forgiveness, those who sin with abandon will as they repent experience greater joy; therefore, it is the believer’s duty to sin. At times this type of thinking has been intellectualized, as in the nineteenth century in James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.1 Today this thinking is very common among those who wish to justify their sexual lifestyles. I have actually had such rationalizations seriously presented to me as if they were based on the Bible.
So when Paul said, “But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,” he could sense the inevitable question coming and went ahead and voiced it himself: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). His answer was: “By no means!” (Romans 6:2) (“May it never be,” NASB; “Of course not!” TLB; “God forbid,” KJV; “No, no!,” NEB; “What a ghastly thought!” Phillips). Paul has no use for even the slightest intimation that grace encourages sin. In fact, he finishes Romans 6:2 with a question to the contrary: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” The remainder of the chapter goes on to substantiate his position.
Romans 6:3-14 answer the question, how do those of us who are under grace live without being characterized by sin? How are we to live lives of victory? Paul answers logically. First, by understanding the nature of our identification with Christ (Romans 6:2-10). Second, by accepting our identification with Christ as true (Romans 6:11). Third, by yielding to the Christ with whom we are so wonderfully identified (Romans 6:12-13).
The Nature of Our Identification with Christ (vv. 2–10)
For Paul, what a believer understands is terribly important. Paul was convinced that Christian living depends on Christian learning, that duty follows doctrine. Therefore, it is natural that he attempts to increase our knowledge. The key word in Romans 6:3-10 is “know,” which occurs three times: “Do you not know...” (Romans 6:3), “We know...” (Romans 6:6), and “We know...” (Romans 6:9). Above all, Paul wants us to know or understand the nature of our union with Christ.
To help us, he employs the powerful metaphor of baptism. For Paul, a believer’s baptism symbolizes wondrous realities. Ron Ritchie, a pastor on the West Coast, experienced a beautiful illustration of this when he was conducting a baptism service in the Pacific Ocean.
A woman came up to him and asked him to baptize her 9-year-old daughter. Ron was reluctant to do so without finding out whether the girl really understood what was happening, so he began to question her and to teach her about the reality behind the water baptism. He was gesturing as he talked to her, and noticed the shadow of his hand as it fell on the sand. So he said to the little girl, “Do you see the shadow of my hand on the sand? Now that is just the shadow; the hand is the real thing. And when you came to Jesus, when you believed in Jesus, that was the real baptism. You were joined to him, and what happened to him happened to you. Jesus was alive; then he died, was buried, and then he arose from the dead. And that is what happened to you when you believed in him.” He pointed to the shadow on the sand and said, “When you go down in the water and are raised up again, that is a picture of what has already happened.” The girl immediately caught on and said, “Yes, that is what I want to do because Jesus has come into my life.”2
Baptism is the shadow of what happened to us when we met Christ. Keeping that in mind, let us examine Romans 6:3-5:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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. 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.
The overall emphasis of these verses is upon our profound identity with Christ. Baptism bears with it the idea of identification, especially when it is linked to a person’s name. For instance, 1 Corinthians 10:2 tells us that the Israelites were “baptized into Moses”—referring not to water baptism, but to the fact that they became united with him as never before as they recognized his leadership and their dependence on him. So it is with Christ. When we were baptized into him (Matthew 28:19), we achieved a profound identification.
Our text further emphasizes this identity in Romans 6:5, which uses a botanical term in saying we have become “united with him.” The word “united” (Greek: symphytoi, “grown together”) pictures a branch bound to another—they are grafted together. That describes our union with Christ. The Scripture boldly affirms this in a number of places. Galatians 3:27 says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” So close is our identification with Christ that we are, so to speak, robed with him. 1 Corinthians 12:13 adds: “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body”—the Body of Christ. There could not be a more profound identity or union. To state our union concisely:
Our spiritual history began at the cross. We were there in the sense that in God’s sight we were joined to Him who actually suffered on it. The time element should not disturb us, because if we sinned in Adam, it is equally possible to have died to sin with Christ.3
This is our position. We do not have to be conscious of it any more than of our conscious participation in Adam’s sin. It is a fact: we are identified with Christ.
The specific emphasis of Romans 6:3-5 is that we are so profoundly identified with Christ’s death and resurrection that we actually did die with him and truly were raised with him, so that we now share in his resurrection life. Again the Scriptures attest to this. Galatians 2:20 tells us: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Galatians 6:14 says: “...the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Just as we died with him, we were also resurrected with him. “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). Whereas before we had only a solidarity with Adam’s sin, now that has been broken and we have a solidarity with Christ, the Second Adam, in his death and resurrection. We need to know and count on this if we are to experience victory over sin.
What that means practically in life is this: as Christ did not serve sin, neither must we. Romans 6:6-7 go on:
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. For one who has died has been set free from sin.
The “old self” is the kind of person we were before our conversion. That self was crucified with Christ. “The body of sin”—the body as it was, a vehicle of sin—has been rendered inoperative. Paul concludes this explanation of our union and deliverance in Romans 6:8-10:
Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 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.
Paul emphasizes that when Christ died he died “once for all.” This is a technical term used repeatedly in the book of Hebrews to emphasize the finality of Christ’s work. Paul made this emphasis because the believer must have full confidence that the Captain of his salvation will never again come under the power of sin and death.
When we began this study we emphasized that in dealing with the problem of those who turn grace into license Paul would insist that the place to begin is our knowledge. We must know two things: First, we must know something of our immense identity (solidarity) with Christ. Though we cannot fully understand it, we actually did die with him and were resurrected with him in the historical events. Second, this shared death and resurrection means that the dominance of sin has been broken and we are freed from sin.
The argument that we should continue in sin because we are under grace is absolutely fallacious! The reverse is true. It is impossible to continue living unchanged when you become a Christian. In fact, I will put it even stronger: those who argue that grace allows a buffer for sin—that their sin will ultimately glorify God anyway—are revealing they are not under grace! They are not Christians, no matter how much they argue otherwise. When we have experienced solidarity with Christ, our lifestyle is affected, just as it was by our solidarity with Adam. If one’s life has not changed and if there is no impulse for further change toward Christ, he or she is very probably not a Christian.
We have considered the truth of Paul’s argument in Romans 6:3-10 about our union with Christ. How do we make this work? Now we come to the practical application of everything we have said, and it has to do with the second key word of the text, the word “consider” in Romans 6:11.
The Reality of Our Identification with Christ (v. 11)
“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). The word translated “consider yourselves” or “reckon” (KJV) is one of the most important words in Romans. Paul uses it nineteen times in the letter, and if one does not know what it means he or she will not understand Romans. It is a commercial term that means “to impute to one’s account.” The idea is, we are to reflect on our position in Christ. Then we are to set two things to our account: 1) We are “dead to sin.” And 2) we are “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Have you ever taken the time to consider the fact that you participated in the events of the cross, that you died and that you were resurrected with Christ? If not, why not do it right now. This is prevention theology. So much of our time is spent in corrective theology—what to do when we sin, as for example in 1 John 1:9 (“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”). This is good and necessary. But reflecting upon our identification with Christ is even better because it curbs our sinning. This reckoning to our account is something we are to constantly do, as the present tense of the verb indicates: “Keep on counting yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
So far Paul has told us what we must know about our union with Christ. Then he explained about the necessity of reckoning. Now he tells us we must act. Theory must produce action.
The Response to Our Identification with Christ (vv. 12, 13)
Romans 6:12 commands: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” Exactly what does this mean? Paul is very precise and clear, and his answer falls into two corresponding halves. The first is negative: “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness” (Romans 6:13). That is, do not keep on making the parts of your body (your tongue, hands, feet) available as tools of unrighteousness. Be on constant guard against doing this. And while you are doing this, take positive actions: “present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Romans 6:13). The tense here demands a decisive once-and-for-all act. All of us must come to a time when we present everything to God for righteousness. This does not rule out subsequent commitments as well, but this initial time of surrender must come to all of us.
God, here I am—alive from the dead! I have died with Christ and have been resurrected with Christ. Praise your name. Now here is my body (my arms, my voice, my eyes). Take them all, that they might be instruments of righteousness and not of sin.
Have you done this? Perhaps you have done the no—refusing to yield your body to the service of sin. That is good, but it is not enough. There must be the yes—“Take and use my entire life, Lord.”
The logic of our passage is compelling in its three key words: “know... consider... present.” Do we know something of our amazing solidarity with Christ—that we actually participated in his death and resurrection? We do not completely understand it, but do we at least understand that the Scriptures claim this union for us? Then, have we consciously set to our account that we are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus? Finally, have we yielded our entire lives to him?
If so, then we know the answer to those who argue that grace encourages sin. As Romans 6:14 tells us: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Grace has delivered us from the old system.
When as a young teenager Stuart Briscoe was drafted into the Royal Marines during the Korean War, he came under the control of a particularly imposing regimental sergeant major who strode around the barracks leaving a train of tough men quaking in their boots. Briscoe did not realize how dominant this man had become in his life until the day he was released from the Marines. Clutching his papers in one hand, he was luxuriating in his newfound freedom to the extent of putting the other hand in his pocket, slouching a little, and whistling—sins so heinous that if they had been observed by the sergeant major, they would have landed him in big trouble! Then Briscoe saw him striding toward him. On an impulse he sprang into the posture of a Marine until he realized that he had died to him. He was not dead, and neither was the sergeant major. But as far as the sergeant major’s domination of his life was concerned, it was all a matter of history. So Briscoe did some reckoning, decided not to yield to the man’s tyranny, and demonstrated that fact by refusing to swing his arms high and march as if on parade and keep his back at ramrod stiffness. Instead he presented his feet, hands, and back to his newfound freedom as a former Marine—and the sergeant major could not do a thing about it!4
Let us continue considering ourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
1. James Hogg, Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (New York: Grove Press, 1959), p. xiii where Andre Gide in his introduction summarizes the process that made the novelist’s main character, Robert Wringham, an “antinomian”—a man who believed a child of God cannot sin and that those things that are sins in the wicked are not sins in him!
2. Ray C. Stedman, From Guilt to Glory, vol. 1 (Waco, TX: Word, 1981), pp. 152, 153.
3. Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 10, Romans—Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), p. 70.
4. D. Stuart Briscoe, Romans, vol. 6 in the Communicators’ Commentary, ed. Lloyd J. Ogilvie (Waco, TX: Word, 1982), p. 138.
Few Christians would dispute that the book of Romans is one of the most powerful and influential books ever written. After all, Paul’s epistle has been the written force behind some of the most significant conversions of church history. Pastor Kent Hughes invites us now to experience the same power that was exhibited in the lives of great Church leaders such as Augustine, Luther, Wesley, and so many others. The fundamental truths expressed in Paul’s letter—the themes of justification by faith, abounding grace, and freedom from sin—come to life as we explore the book that has so challenged and nourished followers of Christ for centuries.