Dead to Sin, Alive to God

The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin – because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.

Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. (Romans 5:20-6:14)

Earlier in the letter, Paul established that God has placed all men under sin. No one escapes the verdict: Jew or Gentile, with or without the law, all men are shown to be damnable sinners. This is “so that you may be proved right when you speak and prevail when you judge.” In the words of a detractor, this means that “our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly,” and that “my falsehood enhances God’s truthfulness and so increases his glory.” Paul acknowledges this and does not attempt to refute it. He opposes only the false inference that this would render God’s wrath unjust or that it would make it improper for him to condemn men as sinners.

The detractor opposes the truth of Christian doctrine. His objection arises from the failure to recognize the obvious distinction between God’s decree and precept, between causation and definition, between what God causes to happen and what he commands men to do. This non-Christian confusion is also at the root of the long-standing aversion to acknowledge God as the author of sin. For God to cause men to sin in the metaphysical sense, and so that man has no freedom from God in any sense, does not mean that God himself is a sinner, or that he would be unjust to condemn sinners, or that he morally approves of sin in men, for whatever he morally approves would not be sin in the first place. The doctrine is that he metaphysically causes men to do what he preceptively forbids. There is no contradiction.

Theologians in all traditions have almost unanimously sided with Paul’s opponent. They share the same assumptions, but are embarrassed to explicitly arrive at the same conclusion. So, eager to agree with anti-Christian thinking in substance but to share the apostolic heritage in name, they would declare what Paul must have meant even in direct contradiction to his words. But Paul meant what he said: God sovereignly caused all men to fall into sin so that his own righteousness may be manifested when he condemns them to hell. There is nothing wrong with this or unjust about this, and there is nothing anyone can do to change it.

The thought recurs throughout the letter. There is that passage we just reviewed from chapter 3. Then there is our text in Romans 5 and 6. In Romans 9, Paul will say that God chooses to save some and to damn others. Contrary to the theologians, he does not merely pass over the reprobates so as to leave them in damnation, as if the reprobates created themselves and made themselves evil. Rather, God is the one who directly creates both the saved and the damned “out of the same lump of clay”; moreover, “he hardens whom he wants to harden.”

Again, Paul’s opponent surfaces and asks, “Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?” A typical response is that God is not unjust in saving some and leaving others in their sinful condition, but apostolic authority destroys this traditional answer, since Paul asserts that it is God who creates the reprobates as sinners and as those foreordained for damnation. The objection again ignores the distinction between causation and definition. What God causes to happen and what he defines as right or wrong are two different matters. “Why does God still blame us?” Because you transgressed his law! The metaphysical cause for the transgression is irrelevant, and is not factored into the verdict. Regardless of the cause, the issue is whether there is a violation of God’s command. Thus in offering a different answer that surrenders to some of the non-Christian assumptions, the theologians side with the enemies of apostolic doctrine even as they pretend to defend the justice of God.

Then, Paul writes in Romans 11, “For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” Since he has already established that some are foreordained and created for damnation, the “all” cannot refer to all individuals. In context, it means that God will show mercy to both Jews and Gentiles. In any case, this is one statement of the supralapsarian doctrine. God wished to demonstrate his mercy, and in order to make that happen, he caused men to fall into sin so that there might be sinners to show his mercy to. Thus sin has always been under God’s direct control as he uses it to further his own purposes. Since God is the sole standard of right and wrong and of what is just and unjust, there is nothing wrong or unjust about this unless God condemns himself as wrong and unjust. Moreover, there is nothing that anyone can do to change or prevent this, and if one is a Christian, he would not want to change or prevent it. Your disapproval means as little as your lame and needless theodicy.

To make sense of Romans, and indeed, to make sense of much of the Bible, one must accept the doctrine that God is the sovereign author of sin. This is the kind of God there is – the only God there is. You can take it or leave it. You can embrace the truth and ascend to heaven, or cleave to your man-centered morality and burn in hell with it. As a preacher, what I cannot tolerate is the delusion that you are in agreement with the Christian faith when you deny the doctrine that God has deliberately bound all men to sin so that he may have mercy upon them. When I say that I walk out to the kitchen so that I may have a drink of water, the thought of the water comes first, and walking to the kitchen is the means to that end. Getting a drink is not a reaction to walking out to the kitchen. Mercy is the purpose, sin is the means, and God is the author of them both. The doctrine itself is invulnerable to attack – God is who he is, as he told Moses. But Paul had to answer false inferences made on the basis of his doctrine. The problem is never with Christian doctrine, but with unintelligent people.

This becomes another reminder of the essential and pervasive disagreement between Christian and non-Christian systems. If some Christians have trouble with this doctrine, then the non-Christians who argue against us would not even imagine that we believe in this kind of God, one who is truly sovereign over all. Thus we cannot apply the same standard of judgment that the non-Christians use when we speak to them. We must not argue that the Christian faith satisfies their sinful assumptions and aspirations better than their own systems. The task of apologetics is not to prove that we are better non-Christians, but that we are something else altogether. Because of the regeneration of our spirits and the revelation of God’s word, our thinking operates on a superior plane. Other than logic, from which the non-Christians cannot escape, since man was made in the image of God, there are no shared assumptions between us. And even when it comes to logic, they do not understand it in relation to God as they ought. So when we preach the gospel, we want the unbelievers to know that the Christian faith is not something that they can slide into with their present resources. God must perform a work of power to save them.

All these remarks on God’s design for sin and his control of it are not superfluous even if you have studied my exposition of the doctrine elsewhere, because the teaching is a foundational principle for every portion of Romans. Thus as Paul makes the transition from justification to sanctification in chapter 6, we shall realize that just as God has foreordained the fall of humanity, he has foreordained the rise of his chosen ones. In fact, God caused sin to happen so that he could cause his people to overcome it. He has not only foreordained our victory over sin through Jesus Christ, but he foreordained sin so that this victory could happen in the first place. It is our destiny in Christ to triumph over evil and to walk in holiness.

Returning to our text, Romans 5:20 says, “The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” By now the meaning and significance of this statement should be clear without explanation. So we direct our attention to the false inference that was drawn from this: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (6:1). Even if Paul has in mind no one in particular in this verse, the objection is not hypothetical, since earlier he stated, “We are being slanderously reported as saying…’Let us do evil that good may result'” (3:8). The slander represents a false inference from the doctrine that “our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly.” In turn, the very similar false inference in 6:1 is based on the doctrine in 5:20.

As with the other instances, the false inference betrays a failure to distinguish between decree and precept, between causation and definition. So it is asked, “If precepts were added to increase transgressions – that is, precepts were added so that there would be more transgressions of precepts – so as to make more room for the manifestation of grace, should we not keep on sinning so as to keep on making room for grace?” This misses the point about precepts. There is no precept that tells us to sin, or that tells us to sin so that grace may increase, so there is no basis to say that we should do this. Instead, the precepts tell us not to transgress the precepts. This is the only way that transgression can be possible, for if there is a precept telling us to transgress the precepts so that grace may increase, then it would no longer be transgression to violate the precepts. However, the precepts themselves define right and wrong and already imply a prohibition against violating them, so a precept that tells us to violate the precepts would itself contradict the precepts, resulting in the breakdown of this system of ethics. This is not the case with the Christian faith. Rather, God’s precepts define sin, and his decree causes violations of these precepts to occur, and this makes room for grace as he redeems his chosen ones through Jesus Christ.

Paul’s answer begins in 6:2 and takes us further down the road by assuming a more christological angle. It stresses not so much metaphysics and theology proper but thinks about the matter within the context of redemption. This is appropriate because the false inference applies to those who receive grace, and wonders if they should continue in sin so that there would be more of grace. Whereas an answer derived from the nature of God and the distinction between decree and precept is needed, since it is in fact the foundation for an answer derived from christology, and since it demonstrates how much the false inference betrays a failure to grasp the most elementary principles, an answer from christology meets the issue with an awareness of the context of the letter, of the progress that has been made in the previous chapters. Therefore, Paul writes, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” The rest of Romans 6 elaborates on this.

Paul refers to baptism, so we will first comment on how we refer to a sign and the thing signified. A sign is commonly associated with the thing signified, and in language the sign is often referred to as if it is the thing signified, although it is never in fact identified with the thing signified, nor is it ever associated with it by necessity. To illustrate, in some cultures a ring and marriage are virtually identified, such that the two are often interchangeable in everyday speech. However, the two are never actually identified, and no one but perhaps the insane or the extraordinarily stupid would confuse the two. The ring (or the act of wearing the ring) is not love, or marriage, or in itself a promise of anything. And many rings are worn as fashion accessories.

A woman who removes her ring to wash her hands does not become unmarried for those fifteen seconds. The removal of the ring has no effect on her status. We may become suspicious of a man who removes his ring right before he joins a party, and this is because the ring is a symbol of love, marriage, and commitment – but it is nothing more than a symbol. A man could be just as in love, married, and committed without a ring. Or, a thief may steal my ring, but that does not mean he has stolen my love, marriage, or commitment. My marriage is unaffected. I could replace the ring that same afternoon, or I may choose not to replace it at all. Still, the marriage is unaffected.

Sometimes it is said that a ring may help a person remember his commitment. I would consider him a weakling and an unfit spouse – it should be his marriage that reminds him to put on his ring! Indeed, it is better to heed a reminder than to commit adultery, but if one needs this reminder, he is already in trouble. In any case, instead of leaning on a ring for strength, why not possess the inner strength to wear the ring? And if one has such strength, he does not need the ring. It would then be what it should be – nothing more than a symbol, “the pledge of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21). Thus as long as there is no confusion, and when there is no need for precision, it is acceptable to refer to a sign as if it is the thing signified, but if it is a sign, then it is never necessary for the sign to be present in order for the thing signified to come about or to persist.

The question is whether baptism is like the ring or whether it is something more. The above establishes that it means nothing when the language of a text seems to identify the sign with the thing signified. Jesus said, “This is my body.” But he also said, “I am the door.” So for something to be more than a mere sign, the text has to go beyond this type of language to say it or represent it, and it must be demonstrated that it is not a mere sign like circumcision, but that it is something else altogether. When the issue is posed this way, there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that baptism and the bread and wine are anything more than mere symbols. Some people wish to make more out of these things because they are weaklings and unfit believers. It is my faith that moved me to submit to baptism before many witnesses, and it is my faith that brings me before the table in remembrance of the Lord’s sacrifice until he returns. A theology that makes a mere sign more than what it is reverses this order and suggests a defective faith, if there is any faith at all.

Whereas there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that the signs are anything more than mere symbols, we have encountered Paul’s argument in Romans 4:9-12 where he shows us how he thinks about a sign of the covenant. There he calls circumcision a sign and seal, and confirms that it was a mere sign and seal by explicitly declaring it unnecessary to confer or maintain the thing signified. Thus to suppose that baptism and communion are anything more than mere signs and symbols is to at least in some degree return to the ancient Jewish error of a lazy and rebellious religion that substituted rites and trinkets for true faith and obedience. Instead of conveying the thing signified, which a sign never does in the first place, it then becomes a barrier to the thing signified.

Whatever we think about the Pentecostals, this is their advantage compared to the Catholics: the Catholics bring crucifixes and holy water to their exorcism rituals, but the Pentecostals bring the name of Jesus. In a publication that allowed four or five theologians from different traditions to state their positions on baptism and communion, one writer denied that they are mere symbols but at the same time wished to avoid the extreme of Catholicism. He could not show from the relevant biblical passages that they are necessarily more than mere symbols, but he still insisted that they are more than symbols. But what is this something more, and how does this factor into how the sign relates to the thing signified? He wrote that this is a “mystery.” And with this one word, even Satan is transformed into an angel of light. So let the man who values baptism take heed that he regards it only as a sign, but rather values more the thing signified, lest the water of baptism flushes him straight into the fires of hell.

Paul’s topic is not baptism but identification with Christ. He introduces this as an answer to the notion that we should continue to sin so that grace may abound. Our identification with Christ is the basis for Paul’s position that we should live free from sin’s power, and that we could live free from it.

Although Christ never sinned, he was born into a human nature that was diminished because of sin, albeit without its defilement. He was made weak and mortal. More significant than this, he bore the sin of his people and suffered the punishment that they deserved, so that he was killed and buried because of it. When he was raised from the dead, he was no longer subject to the power of sin in any sense. He suffered the punishment for sin, and sin has no more claim over him. He died once, and he cannot die again – death is powerless over him.

Paul explains that, as God’s people, we were identified with Christ in his death and resurrection. Theologians refer to a mystical union, but the Bible does not speak of it this way. Instead, it portrays Christ as the head of his people, as our champion and representative in his suffering, death, and resurrection. So the union is not mystical but forensic in nature. There is no merging of substance or personhood, but there is a recognition in the mind of God that Christ represented the individuals that were assigned to him before the creation of the world. This is the all-decisive factor.

Applying this to the Christian’s sanctification, Paul does not use the language of mysticism, but the language of cognition and recognition: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” The first step in sanctification is an act of intellectual recognition. It is the affirmation of a doctrine, the doctrine that Jesus Christ was dead and buried, and that he was raised from the dead, and that we were united with him in all of this, so that we have inherited his freedom from sin’s power as well as his resurrection life. This is something that has already occurred, and Paul calls us to live in accordance with it, beginning with an intellectual recognition of the doctrine, and then by withholding our members from sin and by offering them to righteousness. Therefore, the abundance of grace is not a reason for continuing in sin, but it is the reason for a new life of dedication to faith and holiness through Jesus Christ.