Amazing Grace by John Montgomery Boice 1993
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? . . . Sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. ROMANS 6:1-2, 14
A number of years ago, when I was preaching through Romans 6 as part of a careful exposition of that book, I was in a Bible college for some meetings and mentioned my upcoming series to one of the Baptist professors. His reply was immediate: “Ah, that is a good Baptist chapter for a Presbyterian.” The comment took me entirely off guard because the chapter has nothing to do with baptism, as I understand it. In fact, the only reason I can think of that this man might have said what he did is that Paul uses the illustration of baptism in verses 3 and 4 to reinforce his earlier point about our being united to Jesus Christ by God’s grace.
Actually, the sixth chapter of Romans is a parenthesis dealing with the first and most logical objection that anyone can bring against the gospel: that it leads to lawless conduct.
What is the relationship of grace to law? Is it opposed to law? In one sense it is because, as we saw in our study of Galatians (“Falling from Grace,” chapter 8), to fall from grace is to fall into legalism. A person who wants to be saved by law cannot be saved by grace, and vice versa. But does that mean that grace leads to license, to an utter disregard of God’s law? It is here that Romans 6 comes in, for this important chapter teaches that grace does not lead to sinful conduct and, equally important, shows how righteous conduct actually comes about.
Not surprisingly, the answer is “by grace.” The first half of the chapter (vv. 1-14) begins with grace: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (v. 1). It ends the same way: “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (v. 14).
A Rational Objection
In the last study we were looking at the words “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (Romans 5:20). We saw how wonderful they are. But they lead to the inevitable question Paul asks at the start of chapter 6: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” If sin is overwhelmed by grace, why shouldn’t we keep on sinning? Sin doesn’t matter. Or, to make the objection even stronger, why not sin intentionally so that grace will increase proportionately and even more glory will be given to God?
The presence of this question is so reasonable that in one sense it is a test of whether or not a person’s understanding of the gospel is sound. Most religious teaching is not. Most religions tell you that in order to get to heaven you must stop sinning and do good works, and, if you do this well enough and long enough, you will be saved. If a person is teaching along those lines, it is
inconceivable that anyone would ever say to him, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” A teacher like this is not talking about grace. He is talking about works, and his whole point is that salvation comes by doing them. To go on sinning is the exact opposite of his doctrine. No one ever raises that question to one who is teaching “works” righteousness.
But teach, as Paul did, that one is saved by grace apart from works, and the objection we are looking at is the first thing that comes to mind.
Yet the idea that God’s grace should lead to sin is also irrational and unthinkable. Why is that? There are several reasons.
First, it overlooks God’s purpose in the plan of salvation, which is to save us from sin. What does that mean? Does it mean to save us only from the punishment due us because of our sin? It does mean that, but not only that. We are justified by God in order that we might be saved from wrath at the final judgment, but that is only one part of God’s plan. Well, then, does salvation mean that God is saving us from sin’s guilt? Yes, that too. But again, not only that. Sin brings guilt, and one of the blessings of salvation is to be delivered from guilt, knowing that sin has been punished in Jesus Christ. Still deliverance from the guilt of sin is also only a part of what is involved. How about deliverance from sin’s presence? Of course! But again, that only happens when we are glorified.
The important thing here is that God is also saving us from the practice of sin now. No one part of our deliverance from sin can rightly be separated from any other. So if we go on practicing sin now, we are contradicting the very purpose of God in our salvation.
Second, the antinomian objection is unthinkable because it overlooks God’s means of saving sinners. Earlier we looked at the grace of God in our justification. Justification is the act by which God declares a person to be in a right standing before his justice due to the death of Jesus Christ. This is a wonderful truth, but it
is not all that is involved. God justifies, but Jesus also redeems. God forgives, but the Holy Spirit also makes us spiritually alive so that we can perceive and embrace that wonderful forgiveness.
Indeed, what has Paul been talking about in Romans 5? He has been talking about the believer’s union with Jesus Christ, hasn’t he? And what is that union like? It is not a mechanical thing, still less a legal fiction. It is as vital as the union between a vine and its branches or between a head and the other parts of a person’s body. If we are saved, we are “in Christ.” If we are “in Christ,” then he is in us and his life within us will turn us from sin to righteousness.
Dying to Sin
The reason grace does not lead to lawlessness is that those who have become Christians have “died to sin.” This is the most important idea in Romans 6. It is introduced in verse 2, but it is repeated throughout the section, the words died, dead, or death occurring thirteen times. What does dying to sin mean? Let’s begin by eliminating a few mistaken answers.
1. The Christian is no longer responsive to sin.
This is a very popular view, though a harmful one. It usually goes like this. What is it that most characterizes a dead body? It is that its senses cease to operated. It can no longer respond to stimuli. If you are walking along the street and see a dog lying by the curb, and you are uncertain whether or not it is alive, all you have to do to find out is nudge it with your foot. If it immediately jumps up and runs away, it is alive. If it only lies there, it is dead. In the same way, so this argument goes, the one who has died to sin is unresponsive to it. Sin does not touch such a person. When
temptation comes, the believer neither feels nor responds to the temptation.
J.B. Phillips, the translator of one of the most popular New Testament paraphrases, seems to have held this view, because his rendering of Romans 6:7 reads, “a dead man can safely be said to be free from the power of sin” and of verse 11, that we are to look upon ourselves as “dead to the appeal and power of sin.”
What should we say about this? The one thing in its favor is that it takes the tense of the Greek verb died at face value. It says that Christians have literally died to sin’s appeal. But the problem with this interpretation is that it is patently untrue. There is no one like this, and anyone who is persuaded by this interpretation to think he is like this is due to be severely disillusioned. Moreover, it makes nonsense of Paul’s appeal to Christians in verses 11-13. He says there, “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ . . . Do not let sin reign in your mortal body . . . Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness.” You do not urge a corpse to hold still. It will do that without your urging. We can dismiss this interpretation, even though it is held by many people.
2. The Christian should die to sin.
This view has been common in a certain type of holiness meeting, where the Christian is urged to die to sin. He is to “crucify the old man,” which, he is told, is the secret to a “victorious” Christian life. The best thing that can be said for this view is that it is obviously correct to urge Christians not to sin. Indeed, that is what Paul himself will do later: “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body” (v. 12) and “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin” (v. 13). But aside from that, everything else about this view is in error. The starting point is wrong; it begins with man rather than with God. The image is wrong: one thing nobody can do is crucify himself. Above all the tense of the verb
is wrong; for Paul is not saying that we ought to crucify ourselves (or die) but rather that we have died. He is telling us something that is already true if we are Christians.
3. The Christian is dying to sin day by day.
All this view means to say is that the one who is united to Christ will grow in holiness, and this is true. But it is not by increasingly dying to sin. It would be true to say that we will have to be as much on guard against sin’s temptations at the very end of our life as we need to be now. To think of the verse as urging us to die to sin, though it touches on something true, nevertheless gets us away from the proper and only effective way of dealing with sin, which is to count on something that has already happened. This interpretation takes died as if it is an imperfect tense (are dying), rather than as an aorist (have died), which is what Paul actually says.
4. The Christian cannot continue in sin because he has renounced it.
This view carries no less weighty a name in its favor than that of Charles Hodge, a former great theology professor at Princeton Theological Seminary. Hodge noted the full aorist tense of the verb died, observing rightly that it refers to a specific act in our past history, and he sees that act as our renunciation of sin in order to follow Christ. This is a good interpretation for two reasons: (1) it recognizes the full force of the aorist verb died, and (2) what it says is true. Coming to Christ as Savior does involve a renunciation of sin; to renounce sin and to continue in it at the same time is a contradiction. If we had no other possible interpretations to go on, this would be an attractive explanation.
But there is a problem. In Hodge’s interpretation “dying to sin” is something we do. It is our act, the act of accepting Christ. However, in Paul’s development of the idea, “dying to sin” is not
something we do or have done but rather something that has been done to us. It is the same as our being joined to Jesus Christ, which he is going to talk about in a moment under the figure of baptism. We did not join ourselves to Christ. Rather we were in Adam, and then God by his grace took us from that position and transferred us into the kingdom of his Son. It is because of that work that we are no longer to continue in sin, that doing so is unthinkable.
5. The Christian has died to sin’s guilt.
This last mistaken understanding of the phrase we died to sin is Robert Haldane’s. He sees it as having nothing to do with sanctification but rather with one result of justification, death to sin’s guilt. What Haldane says is undoubtedly true as far as it goes. The justification of the believer has freed him or her from the guilt of sin, and it is true that in this sense the person has indeed died to it. As far as the guilt of sin and its resulting condemnation are concerned, sin no longer touches the Christian.
But that does not go far enough. True, we have died to sin’s guilt. But what Paul is dealing with in this chapter is why we can no longer live in it. If all he is saying is that we are free from sin’s condemnation, the question of verse 1 remains unanswered.
Our Old Life and Our New Life
It is obvious that, having rejected five important interpretations of the phrase we died to sin, including no less weighty interpretations than those of Charles Hodge and Robert Haldane, I must have a better view in mind — presumptuous as that may seem. But I think that is exactly what I do have, though I have certainly not invented it. It is expressed in various forms by such scholars as
F. Godet, John Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and John R.W. Stott.
In a short study titled Men Made New (Baker, 1984) Stott begins by noting that there are three verses in Romans 6 in which Paul uses the phrases died [or dead] to sin: verses 2, 10, and 11. In two of those instances, the first and the last, the reference is to Christian men and women. In the second of those verses the reference is to Christ. It is a sound principle of interpretation that whenever the same phrase occurs more than once in one context, it should be taken in the same way unless there are powerful reasons to the contrary. And if that is so, then the first question to ask in order to understand how we have died to sin is how Christ died to it. How did Jesus Christ die to sin?
The first answer we are inclined to give is that he died to sin by suffering its penalty. He was punished for our sin in our place. If we carry that through, we will come out near the position of Robert Haldane, thinking of justification only and of our death to sin’s guilt.
But I want you to notice two things. First, the reference to Jesus’ death in verse 10 does not say that he died for sin, though he did, but that he died to sin — the exact thing that is said of us. That seems to be a different idea. Second, Paul’s statement does not say only that Christ “died to sin” but adds the very important words once for all. The full verse reads, “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” This means that as far as sin is concerned, Jesus’ relationship to it is finished. While he lived upon earth he had a certain relationship to it. He had come to die for sin, to put an end to its claims upon us. But now, having died, that phase of his life is past and will not be repeated. Verse 9, which leads into verse 10, says exactly that: “We know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him.”
Now apply this understanding of “death to sin” to the other
two instances, which refer to us. How? By realizing that, as a result of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection, that old life of sin in Adam is past for us also. We can never go back to it. We have been brought from that old life, the end of which was death, into a new life, the end of which is righteousness. Therefore, since this is true of us, we must embrace the fact that it is true and live for righteousness.
Stott thinks of our biography being written in two volumes. Volume 1 is the story of the old man, of me before my conversion. Volume 2 is the story of the new man, of me after I have been made a new creation in Christ. Volume 1 of my biography ends with the judicial death of the old self. I was a sinner. I deserved to die, and I did die in the person of Jesus with whom I have become one. Volume 2 opens with my spiritual resurrection. I am now alive in him.
The First and Great Imperative
So what does that mean? What should I do in light of this teaching? Paul’s answer is in verse 11: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
This is an imperative. It is a command to do something. So let me begin by asking: How many times in Romans up to this point has Paul urged his readers to do something? That is, how many exhortations have there been? More than ten? Thirty? Less than five? The answer is that there have been none at all. This is the first time in five and a half chapters that the apostle has urged his readers to do anything.
What are they to do?
The verb is count (or reckon, as some of the other versions have it), in Greek, logizomai. It had two main uses:
1. In commercial dealings.
It was used in the sense of evaluating an object’s worth or reckoning up a project’s gains or losses. In other words, it was a bookkeeping term. We have preserved a bit of this in our English words log, logistics, and logarithm. A log is a numerical record of a ship or airplane’s progress. Logistics is a military term dealing with the numbers and movement of troops or supplies. A logarithm is an exponent of a base number that equals another given number.
2. In philosophy.
It was used in the sense of sound, objective, or nonemotional reasoning. We have preserved this meaning in our English words logic and logical.
The common ground in these two uses of the word is that logizomai has to do with reality, that is, with things as they truly are. It has nothing to do with wishful thinking. Nor is it an activity that makes something come to pass or happen. It is an acknowledgment of or an acting upon something that is already true or has already happened. In bookkeeping, for example, it means posting in a ledger an amount corresponding to what exists. If I “reckon” in my passbook that I have $100, I must really have $100. If not, reckoning is the wrong word for me to be using. I am not reckoning. Deceiving myself (or others) would be more like it.
This has important bearing on what Paul is saying in Romans 6:11. For although he is proceeding in this chapter to the area of things we are to do and actions we are to take, his starting point is nevertheless our counting as true what God has himself already done for us.
This is so critical that I want to ask sharply: Do you really understand this? How can I say it clearly?
How about: The first step in our growth in holiness is counting as true what is in fact true.
How about: The way to a holy life is knowing that God has taken us out of Adam and has joined us to Jesus Christ, that we are no longer subject to the reign of sin and death but have been transferred to the kingdom of God’s abounding grace.
How about: The secret to a holy life is believing God.
Paul says there are two things God has done that we are to count on. First, that we are dead to sin, if we are Christians. We have already seen how this is to be taken. It does not mean that we are immune to sin or temptation. It does not mean that we will not sin. It means that we are dead to the old life and cannot go back to it.
The second reality we are to count on is that we are now alive to God in Christ Jesus. This completes the parallel to verse 5, in which Paul said, “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” It explains how the earlier verse is to be taken. Our union with Jesus in his death is a present experience; we have died. So also is our union with him in his resurrection. Therefore, just as we have died to sin (and must count on it), so also have we been made alive to God in Jesus Christ (and must count on that also).
What does being made alive to God in Jesus Christ mean? Let me suggest a few of the changes that have taken place.
1. We have been reconciled to God.
In the earlier chapters of Romans there has been a grim sequence of terms: sin, wrath, judgment, death. But God has lifted us out of that downward-spiraling sequence by a set of opposing realities: grace, obedience, righteousness, eternal life. This means that we were subject to the wrath of God but that now, being in Christ, we are in a favored position before him. Before we were God’s enemies. Now we are friends, and what is more important, he is a friend to us. There is a new relationship.
2. We have become new creatures in Christ.
Not only is there a new relationship between ourselves and God, which is wonderful in itself, but we have also become something we were not before. In 2 Corinthians Paul puts it like this: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:17-18).
Another way of speaking about this is to speak of regeneration or of being born again, which was Jesus’ term for it. He told Nicodemus, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). This was a deliberate backward reference to the way in which God breathed life into our first parent, Adam, so that he became “a living being” (Genesis 2:7). Before that, Adam was inert, a lifeless form. But when God breathed some of his breath into him, Adam became alive to God and all things. Likewise, God breathes new spiritual life into us by the work known as regeneration. We become something we were not before. We have new life, and that life is responsive to the one who gave it.
Before this, the Bible meant nothing to us when we read it or it was read in our hearing. Now the Bible is intensely alive and interesting to us. We hear the voice of God in it.
Before this, we had no interest in God’s people. Christians acted in ways that were foreign to us. Their priorities were different from our own. Now they are our very best friends and coworkers. We love their company and cannot seem to get enough of it.
Before this, coming to church was boring. Now we are alive to God’s presence in the service. Our worship times are the very best of our week.
Before this, service to others and witnessing to the lost seemed strange and senseless, even repulsive. Now they are a chief delight.
3. We are freed from sin’s bondage.
Before we died to sin and were made alive to God, we were slaves of our sinful natures. Sin was ruining us. But even when we could see that clearly and acknowledge it, which was not often, we were still unable to do anything about it. We said, “I’ve got to stop drinking; it’s killing me.” Or, “I am going to ruin my reputation if I don’t stop these sexual indulgences.” Or, “I’ve got to get control of my temper,” or “curb my spending,” or whatever. But we were unable to do it. And even if we did get control of some important area of our life, perhaps with the help of a good therapist or friends or a supportive family, the general downward drift was unchanged. We really were non posse non peccare (“not able not to sin”), as Saint Augustine described it.
Being made alive to God, we discover that we are now freed from that destructive bondage. We still sin, but not always and not as often. And we know that we do not have to. We are now posse non peccare (“able not to sin”). We can achieve a real victory.
4. We are pressing forward to a sure destiny and new goals.
Before we were not. We were trapped by the world and by its time-bound, evil horizons. Being saved, we know that we are now destined for an eternity of fellowship and bliss with God. We have not reached it yet. We are not perfect. But we echo within what Paul said, describing his new life in Christ to the Philippians:
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,
I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)
5. We can no longer be satisfied with this world’s weak offerings.
To be sure, the world never did really satisfy us. The world, which is finite, can never adequately fill beings who are made with an infinite capacity for fellowship with and enjoyment of God. But we thought the world and its values were satisfying. We expected to be filled.
Now we know that it will never work and that all we see about us, though it sometimes has value in a limited, earthly sense, is nevertheless passing away and will one day be completely forgotten. Our houses will be gone; our televisions will be gone; our beautiful furniture and cars and bank accounts (even our IRAs and Keoghs) will have passed away. So these tangible things no longer have any real hold on us. We have died to them, and in their place we have been made alive to God, who is intangible, invisible, and eternal, and of greater reality and substance than anything else we can imagine.
Therefore, we know ourselves to be only pilgrims here. We are passing through. Like Abraham, we are “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
Nowhere to Go But Forward
Where do we go from here? Do we continue in a life of sin so that, as we might piously choose to put it, grace may increase? Or do we choose the other path, the path of Godlike conduct? By now we should be able to see that there is no true alternative.
The life of sin is what we have died to. There is no going back for us, any more than Jesus could go back to suffer and die for sin again. But if there is no going back — if that possibility has been eliminated — there is no direction for us to go but forward.
Some people try to find the key in an intense emotional experience, thinking that if only they can make themselves feel close to God, they will become holy. Others try to find sanctification through a special formula or methodology. They think that if they do certain things or follow a certain prescribed ritual, they will become holy. But godliness does not come in that way, and, in fact, approaches like these are deceiving. A holy life comes from knowing — I stress that word — knowing that you can’t go back, that you have died to sin and been made alive to God. You are no more able to go back to your old life than an adult to his childhood.
Can an adult become a child or infant again? I suppose if he really wants to, he can act childish. But he can’t actually become a child again. No more can a true Christian become a non-Christian, and that is the reason grace does not lead to lawless conduct. We cannot go back to sin or even continue in it. There is no way to go but forward.