Grace Unites Us to Christ: The Logic of Baptism (preaching resource for 6/25/23, 4th Sunday after Pentecost)
This post exegetes Romans 6:1-14, providing context for the RCL Epistles reading for 6/25/23. It draws on John Stott’s "The Message of Romans," and "The Expositor’s Bible Commentary."
The overall theme of Romans 5:1-6:23 is the unity believers have through their common union with Christ. In Chapter 5, Paul asserts that this unity results from our justification in Christ, which is of grace, not law-keeping. But some Corinthian (and other) Christians object: If justification truly is by grace apart from law as Paul teaches, what about Christian living and discipleship? Can believers do anything they want and still be in right standing (justified) with God? Is Paul advocating that believers continue in sin? Paul anticipates these objections—noting that some already have 'slanderously' misquoted him as saying, 'Let us do evil that good may result' (Romans 3:8).
Though up to chapter 6, Paul waived aside these accusations, he now addresses them head on by pointing out that God's grace not only forgives sin; it delivers from sin. Grace not only justifies; it sanctifies. This is because grace unites us to Christ (1-14), initiating us into a new form of slavery—slavery to God and his righteousness (15-23). These two halves of Romans 6 parallel one another in upholding God’s grace, showing that grace does not undermine ethical responsibility, and pointing to baptism to show the radical discontinuity between our pre-baptism life in Adam and our post-baptism life in Christ (the new Adam).
In this sermon we’ll look at Paul’s argument in verses 1-14, which explores the logic of baptism.
Romans 6:1-2. Paul begins by rejecting outright the false assertion that God's grace gives license to sin. *What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means!* (1-2a).
But on what grounds can Paul be so categorical? At first sight, logic seems to be on the side of the antinomians, since it would seem that the more we sin, the more opportunity God would have to display his grace. But Paul counters this false logic with a seven-step argument related to the meaning of baptism.
1. We died to sin
Romans 6:2. In response to the false notion that grace gives license to continue in sin, Paul askes 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)?' (2b). 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 (as some claim) that Christians are free of all sin in their lives (as though it were impossible for Christians to sin). Rather he is saying that for a Christian to continue to live a sinful life—to continue the practice of sin—simply does not make sense. The expressions 'died to sin' or 'dead to sin' occur in this section twice of Christians (2, 11) and once of Christ (10). To say that Christ ‘died to sin’ does not mean that it became impossible for him to sin—it means that he never sinned at all, and that he bore sin's condemnation, namely death. He met sin's claim, paid its penalty, accepted its reward, and he did it 'once for all'. In consequence, sin has no more claim or demand on him.
Paul’s point is that what is true of Christ is also true of Christians for they, by the Spirit, are united to Christ. We too have 'died to sin' because in our union with Christ we may be said to have borne its penalty. The New Testament tells us not only that Christ died instead of us, as our substitute, so that we will never need to die for our sins, but also that he (in his vicarious humanity) died for us, 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). That is, 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—we continue to be tempted and we continue, in our weakness, to succumb. However, in our union with Christ by the Spirit, we are relieved from the guilt of sin—and thus it makes no sense for us to continue in a life of sin.
Paul next emphasizes this point by discussing our baptism by which believers are united to Christ in his death.
2. We share in Christ's death
Romans 6:3. *Or don't you know*, the apostle asks incredulously, *that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?*. Those who ask whether Christian people are free to sin betray their ignorance of what their baptism meant. Baptism represents various things, including cleansing from sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit, but its essential symbolism is our union 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 the signifying of a personal, vital identification with Jesus Christ—including with his death, on our behalf, to sin.
3. We share in Christ's resurrection
Romans 6:4-5. Just as our baptism signifies union with Christ in his death to sin, it also signifies our union with Christ in his resurrection (4a), in order that *we too may live a new life* (4b)—in order that we may share in the resurrection life of Christ—a life which begins now and will be completed on the day of our bodily resurrection in glory. Verse 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 probably 'with him in the likeness of his resurrection'. Exactly what the 'likeness' of Christ's death and resurrection is 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 it may be better to understand the 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 (signifies) that by faith inwardly we are united 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 verses 6-7 and of his resurrection in verses 8-9, bringing them together in verse 10.
4. We died with Christ
Romans 6:6-7. Verse 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* (6). Perhaps the best way to grasp Paul's logic here is to take these three stages in the opposite 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*. The conquest must precede the 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) 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 verse 6, which says that *our old self* (AV 'our old man') *was crucified with him* (with Christ). This ‘old self’ can not 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 which remains alive, but 'the man we once were' (NEB)—the person we were in Adam who now has been put to death with Christ. 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* (6) is equivalent to *we died to sin* (2).
One of the causes of confusion in understanding verse 6 is Paul's use of the verb *crucified*. Many associate it with Galatians 5:24, where 'those who belong to Christ Jesus' 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 which 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 holiness: 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 (Lk. 9:23). The first is a legal death, a death to the penalty of sin; the second is a moral 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? Verse 7 supplies the answer. The NIV says it is *because anyone who has died has been freed from sin*. *Freed* is from the Greek *dedikaiotai* which 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 (7) the basis of our liberation from sin (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 our justification in and through Christ is that our death is followed by a 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 in fact 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 faith and baptism. And by union with the same 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. Free for what? To live with Christ.
5. We live with Christ
Romans 6:8-10. Paul then continues discussing our new life in Christ: *Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him* (8). This ‘living with Christ’ occurs now (following conversion) and comes to fullness in the future (following our bodily resurrection); or as Paul writes in Romans 8:10f, 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* (6:9a). 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* (9b). 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 epigram: *The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives he lives to God* (10). Jesus’ death is a past event—‘once for all’ which dealt with sin. His resurrection is a present (and continuing) experience which redounds to God’s glory.
In our union with Christ, we died once to sin—that 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
Romans 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 faith-baptism we have been united to Christ in his death and resurrection (which we have been), then we ourselves 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* (11). This reckoning is not make-believe. It is not some sort of mind-game. We are not to pretend that our old nature has died, when we know perfectly well it has not. Instead we are to realize and remember that our former self did die with Christ, thus putting an end to its career. We are to consider ourselves to be what in fact we are, namely *dead to sin and alive to God* (11), like Christ (10). Once we grasp this—that our old life has ended, with the score settled, the debt paid and the law satisfied—we shall want to have nothing more to do with it. It is not to a life of pretending that Paul calls us, but a life of deep reflection and vivid recollection.
In short, we have to preach the gospel to ourselves every day. We have to keep reminding ourselves who we are in 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—it is not impossible. 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 they are still in their sins? Well, yes—at least for a while. It is not impossible. But let them remember who they are! Let them recall their baptism, the symbol of their new life of union with Christ, and they will want to live accordingly.
So the basis of holy living is knowing (6) that our former self was crucified with Christ. It is in knowing (3) that baptism into Christ is baptism into his death and resurrection, and in considering (11, RSV) 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 integral to our mindset that a return to the old life is unthinkable! Christians should no more contemplate a return to unregenerate living than adults to their childhood, married people to their singleness, or discharged prisoners to their prison cell. For our union with Jesus Christ 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?
What then shall we do? Offer ourselves to God.
7. Conclusion: we must therefore offer ourselves to God
Romans 6:12-14. The word *therefore* introduces the conclusion of Paul's argument. Because Christ died to sin and lives to God, and because through union with Christ we are ourselves 'dead to sin but alive to God', and must 'count' or consider ourselves so, therefore our whole attitude to sin and to God must change. We do not offer ourselves *to sin* (13a), because we have died to it; rather we offer ourselves *to God* (13b), 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, which complement one another. The negative comes first: *Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires* (12). Paul's use of the adjective 'mortal' shows that it is our physical body to which he is referring. Not all its desires are evil, 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* (13a). ‘Instruments’ is a military term here, 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* (13c). 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 an aorist, which indicates deliberate, decisive, continuing commitment.
The ground on which these exhortations are based is that we *have been brought from death to life* (13b). 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 and our faculties to him. This theme of life and death, or rather death and life, runs right through this section. Christ died and rose. United to Christ by baptism, 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* (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. 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 our salvation, and so to be justified rather than condemned, and thus set free from sin and its power. For those who experience freedom from condemnation have the freedom to resist sin's power with strength and boldness.
Thus the first half of Romans 6 is wedged between two notable references to sin and grace. In the first verse the question is asked whether grace encourages sin; in the last verse (14) the answer is given that, on the contrary, grace discourages and even outlaws sin. It is law which provokes and increases sin (Romans 5:20) whereas grace opposes it. Grace lays upon us the responsibility and the ability to share in Jesus' vicarious humanity which is consecrated fully to God—a life of holy living.