What is Romans 6 Really All About?
January 22, 2009 8 Comments
I have quoted or turned to Romans 6:1-6 & Romans 6:23 dozens of times when talking with people about becoming a Christian and the importance of baptism. Only recently have I really taken a look at Romans 6 in light of what Paul is actually trying to say through the context and audience of the letter. Again, Romans is a letter and when we write a letter we write it with a purpose and it has a logical flow. When we prooftext things we strip them of their context and miss much of what is actually being said. For instance, in Romans 6:1 Paul writes, “What shall we say then?” That implies that what he is about to say is predicated on what he has just said in the previous chapter. So what did he say in 5 that informs our views on what is in Chapter 6? Let’s have a look.
In 5 Paul was talking about sin and grace. He mentioned the sin that came through Adam (5:12) and how much greater was the grace that came through Jesus Christ (5:15). His point was that once you are unified with Christ you have life (5:17-21). Paul begins chapter 6 this way, “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” Because Paul cannot be there in person to deliver this letter, he masterfully takes on their questions in advance and then addresses them one by one. The natural question that results from what he said in chapter 5 would be this, “If God looks so glorious because of how much grace He gave through Jesus to forgive sin, wouldn’t he look even more glorious if He had to give even more grace?” And how would He do that? If we sinned even more! That is the attitude, in my view, that Paul is addressing in chapter 6. We will unpack 6 to see how he answers it in a moment.
Before we do that we have to remind ourselves that Paul is writing to Christians, not non-Christians. What is funny about how we use this verse is that we have traditionally used it to speak to non-Christians about baptism. That is not at all what Paul is doing or even intending in this chapter! Paul is saying that once we realize what actually took place at our baptism, we cannot even think of asking such a question that might rationalize us sinning all the more. Why? Because we have died to that master (6:2 & 7). You cannot talk about continuing to live in something you have died to. Paul uses the example of slavery. Once a slave dies, he is no longer bound to serve his master. In baptism we have died to the master of sin and are set free from those old ways. We are raised to follow a new master…one who brings us holiness and eternal life (6:22).
So this beautiful picture of what is happening in our baptism in Romans 6 is not written to convince non-Christians they should be baptized. It is written to convince Christians not to fall back into sin. Those who are baptized are raised from the waters of death to sin to walk a new life (6:4). Through this act we are united with Christ both in his death (6:3) and also in his resurrection (6:5). When you think of the grandest moments of the Gospel story it has to be the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. Here, Paul is saying that we participate with Christ in that and in doing so, just like Christ…we don’t have to die ever again (6:8-11). Praise God!
Before we move on to 6:12ff we have to talk for a moment about the kingdom of God. When Jesus came to earth and began his ministry Mark records that he preached repentance and the coming kingdom of God (Mark 1:15). In Mark 9:1 Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.” We would assume he is talking about Pentecost but whatever your interpretation of that verse is, it is clear that Jesus did not view the kingdom as something a zillion year from now in a land far, far away. Instead he viewed it as something that was being revealed in the hear and now and that we can participate in. Here is why that is important background to discussing Romans 6. God has a desire for us to live life as He intended it before sin was in the picture. He wants us to be holy, righteous, and upright. He wants us to do His will and live for Him. The only way to do so, once sin entered the picture, was to die to sin through uniting ourselves with Christ’s death and to be resurrected through baptism to be united with Christ in new life. So for Christians to even ask if they should now be able to sin more shows that they misunderstand their new identity in Christ. That is what Paul is reminding them of in Romans 6. To go back into a life of sin is like a man who has been raised from the dead who walks around a while but then longs to be back in the grave among the dead. That wouldn’t make sense would it? That would be foolish wouldn’t it? And so it is with those who have been raised from death and united with Christ in his resurrection and yet return to evil ways.
So what about the rest of the chapter? Romans 6:12 ties back with a “therefore” – “do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” He goes on to say that we are either instruments of wickedness or of righteousness and that what we do in the body actually does have a spiritual impact on our lives (6:12-14). There is no room for dualism here. There is no big disconnect between body and soul. I think we would all agree that our actions have spiritual consequences but I wonder how often we live with that in mind. Isn’t it great to think that we are to be instruments of righteousness here on earth? We can be used by the hand of God to accomplish His will but we have to remember who we are, what we have died to and why we live again.
In 6:15 Paul asks the question that was implied back in 6:1…just in case they didn’t get it in 6:1-14. This time he expands on the slavery example that he mentioned in 6:7. He says in 6:15-23 that the master you choose leads either to life and righteousness (6:22-23) or to death and sin (6:6:16,21,23). They are confronted with a choice of who they will serve. To me this is one more instance where “once saved, always saved” just doesn’t pan out. Paul is warning these Christians sternly to choose to continue to make God their master and not turn back to the death that is found through sin. We get to that famous verse that offers a summary of all Paul has laid out in chapters 5 & 6 – “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (6:23). What I find interesting about this verse is that he doesn’t say, “The wages of sin is death but the wages of righteousness are eternal life.” He makes a distinction here. Back in Romans 4:4 he says that when you work your wages are not given as a gift but as an obligation. Apply that to what Paul is saying here. When you sin, you earn your just wages – death because you worked hard for it! You cannot receive life as the result of a wage. It is a free gift that can only come from God.
So Romans 6 is more than a series of prooftexts (Rom 6:1-6 & 6:23) to be pulled out and used at the proper time. This continues his line of thinking from the beginning of the letter but especially from chapter 5. I will post thoughts on chapter 5 soon.