Paul has completed his exposition of justification by faith. He has explained how sinful and guilty people can be viewed and judged as righteous in God’s sight on account of what Christ has done for them on the cross. He now moves on and does so by anticipating an objection.
v.1 “The oldest, most plausible, and the most commonly repeated objection to salvation by grace [or justification by faith] is that it destroys the necessity of good works and also their importance. If men are not saved by their works, works are not necessary; if God is as willing to save the chief of sinners as the most moral of men, good works are not important. And, moreover, if the grace of God is more manifested in the salvation of the wicked than of the good, then the worse we are the better.” [C.Hodge, Princeton Sermons, 268] Admit it; aren’t we more amazed and thrilled when a murderer comes to faith in Christ than when an upright community activist does so? This objection has been made by Roman Catholics against the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith since the time of the Reformation.
But the fact that our doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone is open to this objection is part of the proof that it is, in fact, Paul’s doctrine. For Paul obviously thought that, having finished his exposition of justification by faith, people were going to think his view of salvation undermined righteous living. No one has ever objected to the Roman Catholic doctrine that justification is by faith and works on the grounds that it undermines the necessity and importance of good works. No one can object to it on those grounds because it is not subject to that objection. The Roman Catholic doctrine of justification requires our good works for our righteousness before God. That leads me to the conclusion that Paul was not a Roman Catholic! Only a view of justification that leaves our works out of the picture is subject to the objection that Paul anticipates in Romans 6:1. That is evidence enough that Paul’s doctrine is, in fact, that our good works are not the ground or the cause or the reason of our being declared righteous in God’s sight. He knew that people who heard him explain justification would object that it undermined good works. That is proof positive that Paul taught justification is by faith alone.
But it is also proof that human nature being what it is, it is a very real temptation to take Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith and not by works as an excuse for sinning. Some of Paul’s own converts did that very thing, acting as if the gospel gave them license to live as they pleased. Paul had to address that misunderstanding in some of his letters, but he does not address that misunderstanding by amending his doctrine of justification. Legalism is not the antidote to disobedience. He offers instead other considerations. As a matter of fact, Paul’s gospel doctrine does not undermine good works. They remain necessary, but for other reasons than that they make us righteous in God’s sight. Christ alone can do that! Years ago our own Dr. Buswell, the first professor of theology at our Covenant Theological Seminary, wrote a little book entitled Ten Reasons Why a Christian does not Live a Wicked Life. None of the ten was that you needed good works to be justified before God! Good works are necessary because of the nature of God and the unchangeableness of his law; because genuine faith in Christ is in its very nature fruitful in good works; because salvation is itself the deliverance both from the guilt and the power of sin, and so on. It is this argument for the necessity of obedience from the nature of salvation that Paul offers here in Romans 6.
v.2 Paul is now going to explain the consequences of our union with Christ, our participation in his death and resurrection because he was acting in our stead and on our behalf. That participation, our being in Christ is the meaning of our baptism that marks the transition in our life experience from old life to new.
v.7 The verb translated “set free” in both the NIV and the ESV is, interestingly, the same verb “to justify” that appears so frequently in chapters 3 and 4. It does not seem to have the same meaning here, not forgiveness per se or right standing before God but, in a larger sense, deliverance from the power and the control of sin.
v.11 Notice the characteristic interplay between the indicative and the imperative. You get this everywhere in the Bible. We are commanded to behave as the people we have been made to be in Christ. What we are must control what we do or how we live.
v.14 The statement that the Christian is no longer under law has been understood in many different ways. Obviously it does not mean that the Christian is not obliged to obey God’s law for Paul says that the Christian is most assuredly to obey God’s law later in this same letter and he has already said at the end of chapter 3 that his doctrine of justification does not nullify the law but rather establishes its authority. Paul no doubt means that we are no longer under the condemnation of the law, for he contrasts “under law” with “under grace,” and since “grace” means God’s undeserved favor, “under law” here would seem to mean God’s disfavor or condemnation. [Cranfield] He may also be referring to our deliverance from sin as a force or power in our lives. While the law (and so our efforts to obey it) can do nothing to relieve our bondage to sin – indeed it accentuates and confirms it – God’s grace that places us in union with Christ liberates us from sin and enables us to triumph over sin. [Murray; Bruce]
This is a hugely controversial text and I have shamelessly slid right by most of the controversy. It is controversial because of Paul’s introduction of baptism in v. 3. In fact, vv. 3-14 could be entitled, indeed have been entitled [Bruce], “The Meaning of Baptism.” Just what does baptism do? It is controversial because of the argument raised by some from vv. 4 and 5 that the rite of baptism should always be performed by immersion, the subject always put under water and brought up out of the water as a picture of death, burial and resurrection. It isn’t much of an argument in my view, but this is the text many cite to support that position. It is controversial again in our day in our own Reformed circles because of Paul’s interesting use of the verb “to justify” in v. 7. What precisely is the relationship between justification and the renewal of a Christian’s life; between justification and sanctification? It is controversial because of Paul’s statement in v. 14 that Christians are no longer under the law. Many have argued that that verse abolishes the authority of God’s law in the life of Christians and, with it, most if not all of the Old Testament as the living Word of God to be believed and obeyed. We are not going to take up those controversies. It will not surprise you that great books have been written on these fourteen verses.
As I said at the outset of this series of sermons, we are not going to get bogged down in the details of Paul’s argument. Do that and you are very likely to spend years in Romans! We are going to proceed paragraph by paragraph, treating the burden or main point of each in turn.
And the great burden of these famous verses is not at all difficult to identify. Paul wants his readers to know that the salvation that is in Jesus Christ is deliverance from the power of sin as surely as it is deliverance from guilt and liability to punishment. It is the renewal of life as surely as it is the forgiveness of sins. The great work that Jesus did answered to both our needs in respect to our sin: deliverance from its guilt and liberation from its power. When Christ redeemed us from bondage to sin, when he reconciled us to God, when he gave himself for us on the cross, he not only secured our justification, our righteous standing before and acceptance with God, he generated the power of a new life for his people.
This reality is described in many different ways in the Bible; even Paul describes it in different ways. Elsewhere Paul speaks of Christians having become in Christ new men, as if in a Christian one finds some kind of a soul or person transplant. They have left their old selves behind. In another place he speaks of them as new creations, as if God started all over again and made them a second time; the old things have passed away and all things have become new. In Titus 2 Paul writes that Christ “gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” In Ephesians he says that we were “created in Christ Jesus to do good works…” It was never Christ’s intention to save anyone without at the same time transforming that person into a human being whose thoughts, words, and deeds are pleasing to God and give him glory. Indeed, as far back as before the foundation of the world we were chosen by God to be conformed to the image of his Son; to be made like Jesus.
Elsewhere in the Bible we hear of our hearts being circumcised or cleansed or of our hearts of stone being replaced by hearts of flesh. Or we read of the new birth, that completely new beginning that the Holy Spirit creates in those who are being saved. In all of these ways we are taught that Christ’s death and resurrection have a transforming effect on our lives. It was intended to have such an effect and it does. Those whom Christ has died to save will and must be changed radically, that is, down to the root. Paul in these verses is talking about what theologians call regeneration – the change of nature – and sanctification – the change of behavior – both of which are parts of the salvation that Christ has accomplished for his people and eventually puts in their possession.
It is by no means a simple thing to work out the logic of Paul’s thought. How precisely does the death of Jesus on the cross transform our lives? It is not so difficult to see that by his bearing our punishment in our place, satisfying divine justice on our behalf, our sins would be forgiven. Our sins were dealt with, punished when Christ bore them in our place on the cross. Our debt has been paid so it is cancelled. The man who does his time leaves prison no longer liable to be punished for his crime. We understand that. That is clear. But what is the connection between the Savior’s death in our place on the cross and the transformation and purification of our lives? Paul asserts that our solidarity with Christ or Christ’s solidarity with us has this profound effect upon who and what we are, but precisely how? It is, of course, the Holy Spirit who creates new life in those who are being saved. How is his work within us related to Christ’s work for us? The one comes from the other, but in what way is not entirely easy to say. Surely the fact that our guilt has been removed and that we have been reconciled to God means that God can now treat us as his children and bless us as those he is free to bless because his wrath is no longer against us. That is clear. But Paul says more than that. He says that the renewal of our lives happened on the cross just as the forgiveness of our sins happened there. There was once-for-all renewal as there was once-for-all justification.
At the moment of Christ’s death and resurrection the power of sin in the lives of all God’s people was dethroned. What happens in their individual lives is simply the outworking of that once-for-all victory over sin on the cross. That dethronement of sin at Calvary is made a fact of life for those who are united to Christ in their own personal history and this radically new nature, whenever given to them, begins increasingly to assert itself and must continue to assert itself until we are perfect men and perfect women in heaven.
Always there is this double aspect. There is the relational and positional change that takes place at the headwaters of a Christian life. This is the dying and rising with Christ to new life Paul is speaking of in vv. 3-10. In this sense sanctification is once for all and definitive. The back of our bondage to sin has been broken. Paul can look back to sanctification in this sense as a past event. We can say we were sanctified when Christ died and rose again, or we can say that we were sanctified when we first became Christians and were baptized. It matters not because the latter is absolutely and inevitably the result of the former. The latter is simply the historical and individual expression of the former. Given Christ’s victory over sin for his people on the cross, there was never any possibility that their lives would not be transformed as a result. This once-for-all and definitive sanctification is why Christians can be addressed and are addressed as saints in the New Testament. They have been sanctified or made holyin Christ. The New Testament never teaches that Christians must live holy lives to become saints. That is the Roman Catholic view, but it is not the view of the Bible! The Bible rather says, and it always says, that Christians must live holy lives because they are saints. This is the initial and fundamental change of nature that Paul says here is the inevitable effect of Christ’s triumph over sin for his people on the cross.
But, then there is the progressive and continuing renovation of life that arises from the alteration of nature that has already taken place. In this sense the believer grows in grace and holiness of life as he or she lives in this world. And in this aspect of the renewal of our lives, we have a part to play. So the change to the imperative in vv. 11-14. Since this is what Christ has made us to be, since he has sanctified us by his death and resurrection, since we were in him when he accomplished his victory over sin on the cross, we must now live like it! We must be and become more and more what he has made us to be.
Sin has not yet been destroyed in us. We must strive to kill it and to rid it from our thinking and speaking and acting. Every Christian knows this. But the mastery or domination of sin has been broken. Christians often forget this! There is a great deal of difference between sin that survives and sin that reigns; between sin living in us and we living in sin. It is one thing for the enemy to occupy the capital; it is another for defeated enemies to mount rear-guard and harassing actions against the victors. [Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 145] And that is sin in a Christian’s life: a defeated foe; it cannot win, it must lose; but it won’t surrender either.
Christians still sin. We know that fact all too well and Paul will acknowledge it soon enough. He has as much as acknowledged the fact in vv. 11-14. Christians have to be told not to sin because sinning is something they are still far too accustomed to do. But they are no longer the slaves of sin. A radical change has come over them and has been worked in them.
Can an adult act like a child? Of course he or she can. We see adults behaving like children all the time. But can an adult become a child again. Of course not. Adults cannot cease to be what they have become. And that is why when adults behave like children we very naturally tell them to act their age or to behave like the grownups they are. Well, that is what Paul does here.
He tells us that we have died to sin and risen to new life in Jesus Christ. Our lives have been radically altered; we have become different people. Now we must behave like it! We must stop acting as if we were not saints! And it is not only here in Romans 6 that this point is made. It is everywhere the Bible’s perspective on our life. In the OT Israel was always being told that because she had been brought into covenant with the Lord, she was to be holy as the Lord is holy. The indicative defines the imperative. She was to live as the people whom the Lord had redeemed from sin and death and made his very own. She was to be holy because her God is holy and because, God had made her his holy people. She was able to be holy. Nothing was stopping her! And in the NT it is no different. “The great theme of the New Testament writers is for us to realize who and what we are” and to believe it. [Lloyd-Jones, Living Water: Studies in John 4, 416] And then, believing it, to live accordingly.
Paul, of course, is the New Testament’s principal example of this transformation from one kind of man to another, from a life lived in the realm of the flesh to one lived in the realm of the Holy Spirit. Of a man who had one heart and then had it exchanged for another. A man who was once one kind of person and then became another. Jesus Christ made him a new man. And the result of that was a radically different life: a life lived for different purposes, with different powers, within a different community, according to very different standards. The result of his encounter with Christ, of his union with Christ was an utterly different understanding of himself, of God, of Jesus, and of the meaning of his life. And out of that different understanding came a very different life. I suppose he still liked the same food, he looked the same, his voice sounded the same, but everything else was different. The Christian Paul was not at all the same man he had been before his encounter with Jesus.
In the case of great men like Paul, great intellects who become Christians, we tend to think of the great change becoming a Christian makes in terms of the alteration of intellectual viewpoint that resulted from his or her conversion. Their ideas change. And certainly their ideas do change. They look at the world very differently. But far more changed in Paul’s life than his intellectual viewpoint. The whole man changed. When C.S. Lewis became a Christian he, of course, gave up his skepticism; the former enemy of the faith became its intellectual champion. But there were many other changes of a much more personal and behavioral sort. Lewis came to regret deeply the way he had treated his father in the years before his father’s death. He found reasons to reproach himself that had not existed in his mind before. He judged his behavior very differently than he had before. He became much harder on himself than he had been before. Just after the conclusion of the First World War, Lewis, a wounded veteran, boasted that in the trenches he “never sank so low as to pray.” But now prayer became a major part of his daily life. A prep school friend of Lewis said later that he was staggered to learn that the C.S. Lewis who wrote The Screwtape Letters was the same foul-mouthed Jack Lewis he had had known as a teenager. [Downing, The Most Reluctant Convert, 49] Lewis began to speak differently than he did before. He began to feel very differently about people, perhaps especially the people who would have simply annoyed him before. In matters both great and small the new life Christ had given him began to express itself. And the same story could be told of every Christian life, even those that began in infancy. The new life is first created and then, inevitably, it begins to express itself in every conceivable way including ways no one would have predicted at the time. A person cannot escape his or her nature and Christ has given us a new nature!
I told you some years ago of the young woman who had worked for the National Organization for Women, NOW. She was a champion of abortion rights and lesbianism. She marched in parades, hated Bible-believing Christians; the whole predictable viewpoint and lifestyle. And then the Lord brought her to himself in a dramatic and unexpected way. She was, in the language of Paul in Romans 6, sanctified. She became a saint. Christ’s victory over sin was made a reality in her own life. No one told her in her early days as a Christian that some views she held passionately as a lesbian and abortion activist were going to have to change. But she realized herself and intuitively that she could not longer defend abortion or lesbianism. The new nature was asserting itself. She was more and more living in consistency with what Christ had made her: a saint. She would marry and eventually come to work for Focus on the Family. She was finding that she could not do anything else but be what Christ had made her to be.
Now, when Romans was written, in the time of the first generation after the death and resurrection of Jesus, most of the members of the church had become Christians as adults and out of Jewish or pagan backgrounds. They could remember very easily what they had been like, what they had believed, on what principles they had lived their lives, what view of God they had had and of salvation, and how all of that changed so dramatically when they first heard and believed in Jesus Christ and were baptized.
But even among them there would have been quite different experiences of this transformation. Some would have come suddenly and all at once. The passage to new life for others would have been more gradual. And, of course, in the case of their children it would have been quite different. Growing up in now Christian homes, they would have believed from the early days of their lives. Paul is not talking about how we experience the transformation of life; he is talking about what it is and where it comes from and why, therefore, it is inevitable. What the Lord Christ has done cannot be undone! You can’t undo it; you couldn’t if you wanted to. But you don’t want to because you have a nature now that wants, indeed craves what Christ wants for you.
Some of you can remember exactly when you became a Christian and can remember very clearly how your life changed from that point in one way after another. Others of you cannot remember far enough back to find a time when you were not a Christian. It matters not. What matters is that Christ died and rose again to change your lives from lives dominated by sinful desires to lives dominated by godly aspirations.
Florence was back in Iowa last week to see her mother. Mrs. Roskamp, now 92, has dementia and hardly knew who Florence was. She was often distracted and inattentive; less interested than she would have been had she understood that she was talking to a much loved daughter. But when Florence read her mother the psalms she immediately came to life. Knew them, spoke them as they were being read, commented on them, and took comfort from them. She heard a voice she knew! She heard the truth and recognized it for what it was. Her true self, her true nature in that moment sprang back to life.
Well, brothers and sisters, so it is with you and me. We often behave as if we were not saints, we are often distracted and forget our true selves. We have a kind of spiritual dementia; we don’t remember who we are! But we are saints! We who are in Christ are new men and new women. We cannot be anything else. Even when we sin, when we disgrace ourselves, we sin as people who are sinning against their natures. So we can’t sin without being disgusted with ourselves, without realizing that we have betrayed not only the Lord but our true selves. We have acted in a way that befits people who are not like us.
We are so much saints that we can’t escape our nature even when it hurts the most to have it, when we have to reproach ourselves for our failures to live according to it, when we must give up what we strongly desire. I can’t do that; I can’t have that; I can’t be with him or her; I can’t enjoy that. Christ has made us what we are and what we are is a saint.
Some of you have read the Puritan theologian and pastor Thomas Watson. In 1663 Watson published a little book, an exposition of Romans 8:28, entitled A Divine Cordial. In the preface of that little book Watson says that one of his most difficult tasks as a pastor is to make the godly joyful; to make them appreciate the greatness and wonder of what the Lord has done for them.
Brothers and sisters, you are saints. You think, “Well, I’m not much of a saint.” Who cares? You’re a saint; a new man; a new woman. And you must eventually, as a result, become a perfect man and a perfect woman; sooner than any of us thinks it will be true. The deed that makes this inevitable was done a long time ago. Your destiny is written. It cannot be otherwise. You are a new creation. Take it to the bank! Christ has made it so. Say to yourself, “I am a new man; a new woman.” And then, in that sense of privilege and in gratitude for the great change; thinking about how different your longings and aspirations are because you have been united to Jesus Christ and his conquest of sin on the cross, stand up straight and live like one! You can and you will!
And if you are sitting there an unbeliever, be honest with yourself. What you really need, what you really want is to be good. You are tired of yourself, your pettiness, your sinful desires, and all the trouble and sadness and guilt that come from them. You want to be a new person. Of course you do. You want – you would never say this to yourself, but it is true – you want to be a saint instead of a sinner. You want the power of sin, what is ugly in human life; you want that power to be broken in your heart and life. There is one and only one who can do that for you. Jesus Christ. He can, and he will.