Romans 6:1&2 “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?”
Romans chapter 6 is one of the most helpful and glorious sections of this letter and therefore of the entire Bible. God has given me this privilege of beginning today to preach to you on its magnificent themes. Last week we mentioned a friend who owns an apartment in Glasgow where his daughter was living as a student with her friends. There was a burst pipe and collapsed ceilings and damage done to the flat and to those homes underneath that flat. And from your response you could identify with our brother in his frustration and yet also in his desire to submit to the sovereignty of God in allowing this mess to occur (which came to him a few days before Christmas). He didn’t find submission to the Lord concerning the ramifications of a burst pipe an easy matter, though he believes with all his heart that his Saviour is in charge and always works all things after the counsel of his will.
Chapter 6 of Romans is written for people like him, and like you and me, people whose chief desire is to live authentic, God-like lives. We live at a time when many in the professing church chiefly desire more money coming in on Sundays, and more people sitting on the pews. They are pragmatists; they want remedies that are shallow and short-lived. Jim Packer has a wonderful book called Among God’s Giants and his giants are people like John Bunyan, Richard Baxter and John Owen, the Christians of the Puritan period, that is, from 1550 to 1700. He compares them to the giant redwood trees of California, their roots going down and down, their bark so thick that they are immune from destruction in forest fires. They are the great survivors.
We still read and study the puritans today. More copies of their books are published today than in the 17th century. They endure. John Piper says that the American quick fix mentality in responding to such profound griefs as our children having serious illnesses, and our parents dying before our eyes, indicates that affluence has been making dwarfs and deadheads of us all.
Now, do you have the patience to sink your roots of suffering and loneliness and authentic love into the deep strata of Romans 6? We all want to hear about a full and free justification, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to all who believe but then, giving God a nod of thanks, we want to jump straight from Romans 5 into Romans 12 and all its practical applications. “Just preach six ‘how to do this and that’ sermons pastor, and tell us what to do. Fix the problem at a surface level and it will go away.” But Paul doesn’t do that. He gave us 16 chapters in this epistle to the Romans and we need each one of them if we are going to survive in an evil day. Being a Giant Redwood and standing tall with wind-whipped flames all round, or enduring a mighty storm without being blown over, doesn’t come easily or quickly. Paul is going to present to us in this chapter the roots of godliness, and they are here for us all, as they were written for the simple congregation of illiterates, slaves and street people of Rome almost 2000 years ago. Our calling is not to be little people who crave for “How to do this” sermons. We are to be people who stand up for Jesus, and having done all to keep standing, who go from victory unto victory, people of unshakeable life and elasticity and patience and wisdom and love. In order to be like that you have to understand Romans 6.
What a chapter it is, and in that magisterial series of volumes on Romans transcribed from the sermons of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones the one on Romans 6 is often considered to be the best. For example it impacted Andrew Davies and he blessed God for the day he began to read it. Begin with that one!
THE CHAPTER BEGINS WITH A QUESTION.
There are in fact two questions (and even three for there is a third in the second verse). Paul is engaging with us, inquiring, searching, “are you following me?” The first question is minor and the next is major, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?” What aren’t you asking these questions? Have you been thinking about what I’ve been saying as we’ve gone through chapter 5? Have you been made to think to yourself “What can I say?”? Have you heard me explain that because of what Jesus Christ alone has done, and because of only and simply putting your trust in him that then you are clothed in his righteousness? All your sins are forgiven, every single one dealt with and washed away by the bleeding, violent death of Jesus Christ. Your sins no longer control or modify your relationship with God. It is as if they never existed, all your past sins and all your present sins and all your future sins have all been pardoned. All those deep scarlet sins have been washed away and your life is as white as snow. God can never separate you from his Son; you and he are one, a single indivisible unit, and God accepts you as eagerly and affectionately as he loves the Lord Jesus. This is true for the dying thief who in the last hours of an evil life admitted that he deserved to end as he has, a condemned man nailed to a cross slowly dying until they broke his legs with a sledgehammer.
He deserved such a horrific death for he had been a vile man, but the moment he cried to Jesus to remember him when the Lord came in his kingdom, he was safe for ever! That day to be absent from his body was to be present with the Lord in paradise. That day he had breakfast with Jesus on Mount Calvary, and supper with Jesus in paradise. He was wholly forgiven through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Then there was the foul adulterer and murderer King David, and he confessed his sin to Jehovah and he was completely pardoned for such cruel vile behaviour. Or there was Saul of Tarsus who tortured and imprisoned men and women who confessed that Jesus was the Christ. He did much damage to the body of Christ, persecuting it for months, challenging the initial joy of the first generation of believers, and yet the risen Lord Jesus temporarily left the right hand of God and stood before Saul on the road to Damascus and changed him totally. He didn’t put him in purgatory for decades; he began to use him immediately; he became the greatest Christian preacher, and when he was about to die he knew a crown of righteousness was awaiting him.
What shall we say? That the salvation of stinkers and rotters and the dregs of human society actually magnifies the grace of God. I affirm that it does. There is hope for every one of us if King David and the dying thief are there in glory having been translated into the image of Jesus Christ. What did the dying thief do to be worthy of that? His redemption was all because of Jesus’ pity. My argument is from the greater to the lesser. If these great hideous sins are freely forgiven then isn’t there hope and assurance for you, that if you cry to the Lord for salvation then his mercy will take you to be with him where there is fulness of joy for evermore?
Have you seen that? You are an evil person but you can be ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, clothed in the righteousness of God, changed into the image of Christ the very moment you open your eyes in heaven! And the more indelible and longstanding and black the stain then the more glorious will be the fact of it all being wiped away in the cleansing of every fibre of that stain. The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, will cleanse us from all traces of shame and blame. Your salvation from your wickedness will magnify the power of that redemption.
Do you see what I’ve been saying? Have I made the extraordinary nature of the salvation of Christ clear to you? I am not yet asking you if you appreciate the moral implications of his forgiveness. I am not yet asking you if you love the Saviour who gave his life for you. I am saying do you understand my logic? God the Son has taken all the wickedness of all his people into the lake of fire, and all that guilt and shame has been consumed by the majestic rectitude of a holy and just God, so that your sins have all been dealt with. You are forgiven. You are as holy in God’s sight as an angel is. Have you understood that?
Then if you have understood it aren’t you thinking, “What shall I say?” Are you saying, “Amazing grace . . . that saved a wretch like me . . . Amazing love, how can it be that Thou my God shouldst die for me?” In other words, there is a wonder to your deliverance and you can’t comprehend it.
So then you are beginning to ask these two questions that Paul asks in the opening words of this chapter. If you’re not beginning to ask them I have to think I haven’t made the unbelievable wonder of what Jesus Christ has done clear enough and simple enough. “He dealt with all my sin; and he’s opened the door of heaven that leads right into the eternal bliss of glory, and he did it for me when he hung and suffered on Golgotha. It was not because I made the supreme effort and I changed. It was not a reward at all. It was sheer vertical sovereign grace to me.”
Yes, that is exactly correct. That is the teaching of the Bible. So are you now beginning to think, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?” In other words you are thinking if it is only because of his grace then I’d better be careful how I explain it to others because this could be a very dangerous doctrine? Couldn’t I be encouraging all sort of lawless living – the buzz word is ‘antinomianism’ – by telling people these things? Aren’t people going to say, “Well, let me give the grace of God plenty of scope! Let me sin like David and the dying thief and like Saul of Tarsus all put together, and then all I have to say is, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’ and I will go immediately to a great welcome in heaven with all the angels singing Hallelujah.” What grace!
That is the issue, and every true preacher wants to preach the fulness and freeness of the divine pardon so clearly and with such earnestness and assurance that the natural reaction among his hearers is going to think like that and ask this question of our text. A man has never preached the gospel as it should be preached unless he gets this response. He is going to think to himself, and some of his more discerning hearers are going to think, “Dangerous stuff! This is going to encourage them to ungodly living.” And maybe there was a polluted stream of teaching in the early church that was teaching, “If you have been justified you are free to live as you please. In fact by sinning you are actually increasing God’s grace. If I sin then I know that it is all covered by the grace of God. So my sin doesn’t really matter very much because I know the God of King David will forgive me no matter what I do.” It was a clever, sneaky way of justifying giving in to the lusts of the flesh and of the mind.
PAUL RESPONDS WITH THE WORDS, ‘GOD FORBID.’
Before we examine Paul’s answer, be sure you see what his answer is not. This is crucial. His answer was not, “Ah the antinomian has simply misunderstood the radical character of justifying grace.” Neither did Paul protest, “Oh, you misunderstood. I didn’t really mean that justification is all of grace and all based on the righteousness of Christ and only obtained by faith without works.” Neither did Paul protest, “What I really meant was that justification is after all based on your behaviour.” Paul didn’t say, “It’s OK; justification won’t lead to lawlessness because law-keeping is part of what you have to do to get justified.” No he didn’t say any of those things. Paul might have corrected his opponents those ways if he thought that that was their error, but he didn’t. That wasn’t their mistake. They had seen something with 20/20 vision: justification is entirely by grace through faith alone on the basis of the works of Jesus Christ alone. That is how anyone gets right with God. That is the foundation of the Christian life.
It’s this radical view of super-abounding grace that seems to have caused this problem, grace alone cleanses and reconciles a holy God to sinful men.
So then, what is Paul’s answer to why people who are justified by grace through faith do not continue in sin? His first answer is in verse 2. He simply cries, “By no means!” This rhetorical answer is, “We can’t do that!” In other words, rhetorical questions don’t expect answers; they make statements. For example, children, if your Dad asks you, “How are you going to keep your room neat if you throw your clothes on the floor and never hang them up or put them in the drawers?” Then he’s not looking for an answer. He’s making a statement: you won’t keep your room neat if you throw your clothes on the floor and don’t hang them up. Or if Mam says, “How can you expect people to be your friend if you’re not friendly?” Then she’s not looking for an answer. She’s making a statement. Perhaps a plea . . . you won’t have friends if you are not friendly. Well, that is the way Paul is using the rhetorical question in HYPERLINK “http://biblia.com/bible/esv/Romans%206.2” \t “_blank” Romans 6 and verse 2. He is not expecting an answer; he is making a statement: “God forbid. How shall we who died to sin still live in it?’ That’s his statement. That is his answer to the objection.
So Paul declares first of all the words, “God forbid.” That is the familiar translation of the Authorized Version. It is a splendid translation of two Greek words me genoito. “May it never be!” This is Paul’s strongest negative interjection. How can one translate it? “Impossible . . . Absurd . . . Nonsense . . . Surely not! God forbid that we should ever argue or even think like that!”
There may have been once a time in your life when, like Charles Wesley, your imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Then God’s eye diffused a quickening ray. You woke. The dungeon blazed with light. Your chains fell off; your heart was free; you rose went forth and followed Jesus. So I ask you, if you have experienced something dramatic like that will you ever go back from your semi-detached house to living in that foul dungeon? You cannot! God forbid! You were a slave to sin for years. Will you go back to slavery again? God forbid. You are happily married to a gorgeous wife. Will you go back to the whorehouse? God forbid. You have been delivered from Belsen Concentration Camp. Will you voluntarily go back to living there? God forbid. You escaped from the horrors of North Korea, and will you go back to live there again? God forbid! You have been delivered from bondage to various addictions. Will you go back to those destructive habits you once had kicked? God forbid. You lived in a world without hope and without acknowledging God, a world of despair as death gets nearer. Will you go back to bleak unbelief? God forbid. Paul says, “God forbid!” The Bible says, “God forbid!” All your Christian friends say, “God forbid!” The Holy Spirit says, “God forbid!”
Once a Puritan preacher was speaking on this subject of antinomianism, and he was explaining that there was an accusation made against free grace preachers that they taught a gospel that led to loose living. “Let me ask you all,” he said, “whether there is anyone here who has been living such a life that he or she has given other people an excuse not to believe in Jesus? Have you constantly hurt people so that they say, “You call that Christianity?” In your business do you lie, and cheat, and overcharge? So the Puritan preacher continued, “Now do you see that a professing Christian who lives a godless life does more harm than the good that ten holy and loving men do by their righteousness?” God forbid that we should defiantly choose to sin this sin or that sin in order – we say so proudly and foolishly – “that God’s grace may increase.”
PAUL REMINDS US THAT WE DIED TO SIN.
Here’s another response of Paul to the antinomian: “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Paul’s entire doctrine of the Christian life hangs on this fact that all Christians have died to sin. Note the tense: “We died to sin.” That’s past tense. It refers to something that has already happened to every single Christian without exception. Paul is not talking about something that needs to happen. He is not describing an ongoing present action, “We are dying to sin” and that again is a biblical truth as we are all mortifying the sin that is in our members. Nor is he describing something that is in the future, “We will die to sin one day.” This is not an imperative, “Mortify! Kill remaining sin!” He is not enforcing any obligation. This is not an exhortation of pastor Paul, “Come on now dearly beloved, and all of us together, let’s die to sin.” Rather this is a simple statement of what once had happened to all the members of the church in Rome, “You have died to sin.” The simple truth is that if you are a mere believer in Jesus Christ, you’ve already died to sin. It’s a past event, an accomplished fact. What is a Christian? A Christian is a believer in Jesus and like all believers any time and everywhere he has died to sin. It is fundamental to Paul’s practical application of his Christian teaching. At a particular point in his past life there is this completed event, there is this past experience; there has been this definitive, once-for-all, irreversible occurrence, the believer has died.
Let me say again that Paul isn’t pushing the power of positive thinking here. He’s not saying, “Whisper to yourself fifty times every day, ‘I have died to sin . . . I have died to sin . . . I have died to sin.’ If you’ll just tell yourself enough times that you’re a person who has died to sin, well then, you will eventually die to sin.” Paul is not playing games here, he is talking about a reality which has been wrought by God in every Christian. He’s talking about you taking on board in your reckoning and thinking a great change of status and resources and relationships that have already occurred as you have entrusted yourself to the Lord Jesus. He is not saying, “Let go and let God become your Lord.” Paul is not encouraging denial. He’s not encouraging people who are whole-hog in love with the life of unbelief and self to pretend that they’re not. He’s not saying, “OK, you people that are in love with sin, just for a moment pretend like you’re not, and pretend . . . like . . . you’ve died to sin.” He’s not encouraging denial. Paul is describing one of the definitive changes that occurs when a person entrusts themselves to Christ.
Paul in this whole passage is talking about union with Christ. The reason the believer has died to sin is because he is united to Christ. In union with Christ, the believer dies to the penalty and to the power of sin. Think of who you are. You were in Adam but now you are a person united to Christ, and therefore, as he died on the cross so you also died to sin in him.
All right, but what does that phrase mean, “died to sin?” Here is the simple answer. It means that you have been set free from the tyranny and domination and ruling power of sin in your life. Romans 6 is portraying sin as a slave-owner. Before you came to Christ, you were enslaved to sin. Sin told you to ignore God; never to pray; not to go to a Bible-preaching church; to change the conversation when a Christian family member or friend began to drive it in a certain religious direction, and you did change the subject; you never thought about praying or even about dying, or about the Bible. Sin, who was your former master, said things like that to you and you did what your master told you to do. You were a man in Adam who obeyed sin, but when God’s grace laid hold of you God joined you to Christ and set you free. Your chains fell off. The prison doors were opened and you walked out of that status of being a prisoner to sin. So the sin-obeying man you were “died” to sin’s ruling power over you and you were placed under the rule of Jesus Christ. Once the slave has died his master can yell at him and scream and whip him, but he doesn’t move. He lies on the floor dead. He has died to the influence of the tyrant Sin over him. Sin has no more hold over him. So it is with the Christian. When sin tells us to reject Jesus Christ . . . “curse him . . . have nothing to do with him” then we do nothing of the sort and sin can rant and rave, but we don’t hear him and we don’t fear him.
Let me use another vivid picture. Imagine an ancient slave market. If you are a slave, you must obey your master’s every word. He says “Come!” and you come. You have no choice. You are ‘alive’ to his voice because he is your master. But suppose you are sold at an auction to a new master. From the moment of the sale, your old master no longer has any legal right to command you. He can see you in the street and can shout to you, ‘Come here this minute!” but you no longer have to go running to him. He can command until he is blue in the face, but you don’t have to respond. You have “died” to his authority and “come alive” to a new master. Can you still obey the old master? Yes, if you choose, but you no longer have to submit because he has no power over you unless you choose to give him power. It doesn’t make sense to obey your former master when you have a new master. No man can serve two masters.
That’s the whole argument of Romans 6 in a nutshell. You “died” to your old slave master (sin) and have “come alive” to a new master (Jesus Christ). So why serve sin voluntarily when you don’t have to? Why not serve Jesus Christ? I got those sweet explanations from Ray Prichard whom I much admire for his lucid, punchy style of preaching, and I got this simple comparison from him also. If you are a Christian, your life has two parts, B.C. and A.D. ‘Before Christ and After Deliverance.’ The story of your life is your translation from the ‘Before Christ’ side to the ‘After Deliverance’ side. That’s why the phrase in verse 6—“our old self was crucified with him”—is so crucial. Your “old self” is the life you used to live. It’s the person you once were. It’s the “old you” with your old unbelieving way of thinking and acting and relating. All of that is now gone. Your friends search for that unregenerate unbelieving man whom they once knew – the old you, the man you used to be. They look in the nightclub and in the betting shop but they never find you in your old haunts. The old you no longer exists. People have been looking for you since you turned religious but you’re not to be found anywhere. That unbeliever is dead and buried. He was crucified with Christ. All they can find now is a new man who sings, “How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear.”
He loves the Lord’s Salvation, the Lord’s people, the Lord’s book, the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Spirit. That old man has gone from B.C. to A.D. Why would you want to live back in B.C.? You’re not to be found in that life anymore. The believer is not regenerate man and unregenerate man at the same time. The believer doesn’t have a new heart and an old heart. He is and he is only a regenerate man. He has and he has only a new heart. The unregerate mind that was at enmity against God has ceased to be.
Why does Paul go into this in such detail? Because the flesh (remaining sin) and also the devil, and also the enticements of this fallen world and all your buddies who live in that world system are together trying to get you come away with them or at least to live in two worlds at once. Our sinful nature would like to straddle the fence between the old life and the new life. Our sinful nature would like to put one foot in the kingdom of sin and one foot in the kingdom of God. Our sinful nature would like to have Christ plus our old way of life. Paul says you can’t do it. It won’t work. It’s not natural. You become spiritually schizophrenic. No man can live forever straddling the fence. Eventually you have to go one way or the other.
Sin no longer “fits” your life. Oh, you can “wear” sin for a while, but it’s like wearing old clothes that are two sizes too small. You can do it but you won’t be comfortable, you won’t look natural, you won’t feel right, and frankly, you won’t look right either. Sin no longer “fits.” Coming to Christ is like getting a whole new wardrobe. What fits now? Love, joy, peace, holiness, righteousness, compassion, zeal, concern for others. Those spiritual clothes fit just right. They were tailor-made for you. And those sins you used to wear so comfortably? Pride, and anger, and bitterness, and self pity. They just don’t fit any more. You feel awkward and you look goofy when you try to put them back on. You died to that sinfulness so you can’t live in it longer.
4. PAUL’S FINAL QUESTION, HOW CAN WE LIVE IN SIN?
Notice that what Paul denies is not that a Christian can never commit a sin again. Paul says that you cannot “live in it.” There is a difference between real obedience and perfect obedience. The man who has died to sin is not yet capable of perfect obedience but he is capable of real obedience, of saying to himself, “How can we live in sin any longer?” Living in sin corresponds to the question in verse 1: “Shall we go on sinning?” The idea in those two phrases, “go on sinning” (verse 1) and “live in sin” (verse 2) is that it’s impossible for us to go on ignoring God in unbelief and defiance and rejection because we are joined to Christ. Can you imagine our Lord living in sin and going on sinning? Of course you can’t. It is just as impossible for the new man united to Christ deliberately to go on doing what sin tells him to do.
So here we are in Christ, that is, in our status of being joined to Christ. God established that once and for all. That is our truest position and our truest identity. This is decisive, unrepeatable, and unchangeable. This is the foundation for all our warfare against sin, and all progressive sanctification. We become increasingly what God made us at the beginning of our lies in Christ.
The Christian life is an ‘already’ and a ‘not-yet’ experience of our position and identity in union with Christ. What happened to Christ Jesus in his life and death – and to us in him – is applied to us. In him we are already fully forgiven and acquitted and declared righteous and justified and glorified and seated in the heavenlies – all that comes purely from our union with Christ not by our working up some feeling and conviction. We are already delivered from the slavery to sin, that is, from the power of sin as the defining direction of our lives. God has done this, and said this and we believe this. That is our victory. That is how we overcome sin.
Paul put it like this in HYPERLINK “http://biblia.com/bible/esv/Philippians%203.12” \t “_blank” Philippians 3 and verse12, “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” You see the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet.’ Christ has laid hold of Paul for perfection and everlasting blessing. That secures Paul. Now Paul confirms that great work of God in Christ by laying hold of that for which he was laid hold of by Christ.
Right, water pipes burst and ceilings fall and we damage other people’s cars and dividing walls. We push dead cars for a stranded friend, and write letters of sympathy to them when we hear of the terrible strain and grief that has come upon them, and we pray together in small groups – and everything else beautiful that displays the reality of being in Christ. Those are some of the marks of the deep and glorious foundation of what happened once for all for you when Christ died and rose, and what is happening progressively in you by faith.
In sum: If you are a Christian, God created a union between you and Christ, you died with Christ when he died. Because you died, you are now free from the guilt and power of sin in your fullest and truest identity, that is, in your union with Christ. And because of this unshakable position and identity, you are positionally sanctified, but you are not yet perfected. Your calling from now on is to confirm the great transaction of dying to sin’s dominion and living to Christ’s life by reckoning yourself to be what you really are in Christ.
1st February 2015 GEOFF THOMAS