In the last post, we made an important observation. The supposed objecting party in Romans 6:1 is not made up of lazy Christians who are looking for an excuse to keep on sinning. Rather, it is made up of persons who revere God’s commands, and who believe that Paul’s radical gospel of grace provides this excuse for sin, and diminishes the importance of obedience. Therefore, in the verses we are about to read, as well as all of chapters 6-8, Paul’s aim is not to convince them that sin is bad and obedience is good. They already believe that. Rather, it is to teach/remind them how his gospel is the only real solution to sin, how it is actually the means to obedience over and against the law which they believe is still necessary.
It is also worth noting that the gospel which Paul proclaims can be summed up as the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. It is the good news about what God has accomplished (grace) for all who simply believe (faith). And by Paul’s assertion, it is the only true way to obedience, righteousness, sanctification, or whatever you may call it. In other words, obedience is not something other than, or in addition to, faith. It is the product of genuine faith. And the law is not a supplement to God’s grace. It is something that can only be fulfilled in us by God’s grace. This will become ever more clear as we continue to read and learn.
6:2 May it never be! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
This may be one of the most important questions in the Bible. And the way we answer it will affect the way that we live the rest of our Christian lives. It is clearly rhetorical, in that Paul is not really searching for an answer (as if the answer is unclear). Rather, he is making a point; the answer is supposed to be obvious. Yet for us, I am not sure that it is, so we need to look at it a little more closely.
For the most part, I believe it comes down to the way you interpret the word “How”. For the longest time, here is the way I understood it: When Paul says, “How can we…”, he means something like, “How could you ever do that to God? Do you not have any integrity or love?” Or, “How could you possibly have the nerve to keep living in sin after God saved you from it?” Or, “God has shown you grace upon grace, and now you’re thinking about sinning? How could you? How dare you? Have you no appreciation?” In this way, the “how” is not to be taken literally, but as a plea to our conscience to choose righteousness over sin, and not to disrespect or despise the gift of God. The implication is that any believer who continues in sin is basically an ungrateful and selfish jerk.
Thankfully, that is not how Paul meant it. The “how” is not meant as a plea to our conscience, nor as some sort of guilt trip, but as an appeal to reason and/or logic. In other words, when Paul says “how”, he means literally “How?”. Just as it is not possible for a butterfly to move like a caterpillar, for a plant to resist the sunlight as if it were still a seed, or for a slain animal to keep standing, it is also not possible for those who have died to sin to continue living in it. (This sounds a lot like something John said, too [see 1 John 3:9].) I encourage you read that again, and chew on it a little.
Do you see the difference between these two interpretations? If the first meaning is true, then the “obvious” answer to Paul’s question is that we shall not continue to live in sin. If the second is true, then the answer is that we cannot continue to live in sin (assuming that we have actually died to it).
Now think, if Paul’s goal is to explain how grace is a more effective means to obedience than the law, then the first meaning does not make any sense. For the law also says that we shall not sin. How would grace be superior to the law — as a means to obedience — if it merely said the same thing? Would it not, in a way, still leave us under the law? What advantage would we have, regarding daily obedience, over any God-fearing Jew? To be sure, this argument would be (for Paul) uncharacteristically and epically lame. Just imagine:
Objection: “Your message about grace seems to suggest that we should continue in sin.”
Response: “No, we should not continue in sin. That would mean we are ungrateful.”
Objection: “But then there’s just more grace to cover our ingratitude, right?”
Response: “Well, yes. But you still shouldn’t sin.”
Don’t you think Paul was a little more clever than this? Don’t you think the mystery hidden for ages, which God had planned since before the foundations of the earth, would have been a little more profound than this? Not to mention, don’t Paul’s own words allude to the intended response? He does not say, “Shall we who died to sin still live in it?” He says, “How can we…?” Thus, the definitive answer is, we cannot.
This is the foundation of his entire argument. All their accusation and worry that grace would undermine obedience is evidence of the fact that they do not really understand grace. More pointedly, they do not understand fully the finished work of Christ. They see it merely as forgiveness now and hope for the future. Paul sees it as death and new life, now.
By God’s doing, through Jesus Christ and our faith in him, we have died to sin. Therefore, we cannot still live in it. This is not a grace that we will one day enter into. It is (part of) “the grace in which we stand“, and it is accessed by faith (Romans 5:2).
But if this is true, then why do we keep sinning?
Now that we understand the basic point that Paul is making, it begs another question: If we have really died to sin, then why do we keep sinning? It is a logical question, but we need to be careful how we process it — that is, through the lens of faith, not sight (see 2 Corinthians 5:7).
The natural mind depends on what it can see, feel, prove, measure, explain, understand, etc. Thus, using our natural minds (or walking by sight), the conclusion we will come to — given the observable fact that we continue sinning to some degree — is that we have not actually died to sin, or otherwise have only died to it partially. But notice that this is not how Paul thinks. In his thinking, the given is not that we remain in sin to some degree, but that we have died to sin entirely. Therefore the conclusion is that we cannot remain in it.
Do you see the difference? In Paul’s way of thinking, one believes an invisible truth, and the result is the visible manifestation of the invisible reality — i.e. by grace through faith. In the natural way of thinking, the visible dictates what we believe is true, and the result of this unbelief is untapped grace. Or in other words, we keep on sinning because we have not believed that we are dead to sin. Remember when Jesus said “the truth will set you free” (see John 8:32)? If we are not living in freedom, then at some level, we are not believing truth.
How can I believe something so counterintuitive?
I know how the mind races to understand these spiritual truths, in order that we may believe them. But let me encourage you, first, to simply believe before understanding. If it helps at all, this is nothing short of biblical command, which we will see later (see Romans 6:11). If you feel like you need to make sense of it before you can accept it as true, then you are once again walking by sight, not by faith. And you should not expect to receive anything from God.
Humble yourself before him. Take him at his word, and strive to believe it in every moment. Say, “Thank you, God, that I am dead to sin.” Say, “Lord, I believe, but help me with my unbelief.” Or, “Lord, I believe, now help me understand.” Then trust that he is faithful to lead you into all truth (see John 16:13), patiently watching and waiting for him to provide it.
If I haven’t made it clear yet, believing and understanding this truth — that you are truly dead to sin — is the very thing that will make sin impossible and righteousness inevitable. The only reason Christians continue living in sin is due to a lack of faith and understanding in this regard. God has done something amazing through Christ. We must learn what it is, and walk accordingly. It is our freedom; it is our victory; it is our sanctification, our peace, and our joy. It is the key to unlocking all the promises of the kingdom which he has richly provided to all who believe.
As I finish up this post, I realize, once again, that I have only covered one verse! So I’m going to stop trying to predict how much I’ll cover in each post, and just hope that you hang in here with me. Although I do expect to go through some sections much more quickly than this one. We are just laying a really important foundation.
In the following post, we will start to see more clearly how it is that we have actually died to sin — not metaphorically but literally. SUBSCRIBE to this blog if you’d like to receive updates each time that I post. And please share with anyone you think is hungry for God’s word. If there’s some topic you’d like me to cover, or some question you’d like me to answer, let me know!