Saturday, September 10, 2011

Grace Is Not a License to Sin: An Exposition of Romans 6:1–14

Christianity is a religion of grace. The concept of grace as God’s undeserved favor to sinners is, generally speaking, strongly promulgated in evangelical Protestant theology today. But is grace a license to sin? A small minority of Christians down the years have come to that conclusion, but the Apostle Paul argues in Rom 6:1–14 that being under grace involves being set free from sin to serve and obey God. Christianity is a religion of grace, but grace actually involves God moving his people to obedience.

In Paul’s day, there were people who objected to Christianity on the basis that it was anomian or law-less. This was a specifically Jewish objection. Christianity proclaimed that being right with God was a matter of belief in (i.e., submission to) Jesus Christ rather than a matter of obedience to the law of Moses. Christianity, therefore, “devalued” the law of Moses in the sense that the law of Moses was viewed as being subordinate to the revelation of God’s will that had come through Jesus and his apostles. In effect, orthodox Christianity viewed the law of Moses as being divine revelation of second-order magnitude. But this “devaluation” of the law of Moses was viewed by orthodox Jews as being heretical. It was viewed by them as constituting a rejection of Moses and as being disobedience to God.

One of the objections of such people against Christianity was that it was anti-torah. They heard Paul speaking of being under grace instead of law, so they assumed that he and Christianity must be law-less. They also knew Paul’s teaching regarding the primary function of the Mosaic covenant in salvation history: that the purpose of Israel receiving the law from God in the first place was so that Israel would sin against it, thereby creating the opportunity for grace to abound. As Paul argues in Rom 5:20: “The law came in, in order that the transgression might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”

Paul reflects the objection of such people in Rom 6:1. Romans 6:1 is basically a quotation of one of the objections offered against Paul and his view of the purposes of God in giving the law to Israel. The word translated as increase in Rom 6:1 is a deliberate reference to the language that Paul was using to explain God’s purpose in giving Israel the law (see Rom 5:20). Paul’s opponents were basically saying: “Well, Paul, if God gave the law to Israel, so that Israel would sin, in order that grace might increase, then following your logic, the more we sin, the more grace will increase. Let’s continue then to sin, in order that grace might increase! Your teaching here, Paul, is absurd. Your religion promotes sin, and that is obviously wrong!”

But this portrayal of Paul’s teaching was incorrect. It is true to say that Paul understood that God gave the old covenant to Israel primarily as an instrument to bring about the covenant rebellion of Israel as a backdrop for God’s gracious dealings with Israel and the nations through Jesus. It is true that the giving of the law of Moses led in the purposes of God to an increase in sin in order that grace might increase all the more. But this is not to say that God wanted Israel to sin, nor is it to say that God wants such sin to continue as part of the new covenant that Christ has come to establish.

Paul argues against this Jewish misinterpretation of his teaching by appealing to the significance of Christian baptism. Arguing his case from Christian baptism is a weak argument to use in a debate with non-Christian Jews, but the epistle to the Romans was written to Christians. The main problem for Paul was that the traditional orthodox Jewish view of the law was accepted by many (primarily Jewish) Christians. These Christian Judaizers were in turn promulgating their views in Rome. With the return of Jews to Rome after Nero’s accession to the throne had brought an end to Claudius’s edict of expulsion, the Judaizing position was growing in influence in Rome, and causing disunity within the church. Arguing from Christian baptism is a powerful argument in a Christian context.

The basic principle put forward by Paul was that we (Christians) have died to sin. Having died to sin, it is not theoretically possible to continuing living in sin (Rom 6:2). This death to sin was formally sealed and symbolized in Christian baptism. Christian baptism is a baptism “into Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:3). Through baptism, Christians formally become one with Christ, a member of his body, the church. Baptism unites us to Christ. This means that baptism also unites us to Christ’s death. Baptism also unites us to his burial. Christian baptism means that the Christian is dead and buried with regard to sin! But being dead and buried is not the end. Through baptism (whose efficacy continues as long as faith continues), the Christian also shares in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is new life. “Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so also we [Christians] … walk in the newness of life” (Rom 6:4).

Being a Christian is about having new life; and having new life, also means having a new lifestyle. This life and lifestyle necessarily go together. Paul proves the truth of Christians having a new way of life, by pointing out that sharing in Christ’s death means that we Christians will (in the future) also share in Christ’s resurrection in an experiential way (Rom 6:5). This unity in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection means that our former self (i.e., the person that we were before our formal conversion at the point of baptism) has been crucified together with Christ. This has happened in order that the body of sin (i.e., our sinful nature) might be rendered inoperative, i.e., that it might be destroyed, so that we might “no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6). Union with Christ means, therefore, being “set free” from slavery to sin (Rom 6:7).

“If we have died with Christ, we believe that we we will also live together with him” (Rom 6:8). Union in his death goes together with union in his life. It is a total package. And just as Christ has been raised from the dead never to die again, “death no longer rules over him” (Rom 6:9). When Christ died, he died because of the power of sin; but he did so “once and for all” (Rom 6:10). The fact that Christ was raised from the dead to live forever means that his death has dealt fully with the problem of sin. Sin, having been dealt with, Christ’s resurrection life is fully lived under the positive purposes of God. With his resurrection, Christ’s suffering ended. In effect, his resurrection means that he is free from the overbearing power of sin. The implication of all of this is that just as death no longer rules over Christ, likewise sin and death should not be allowed to rule over us Christians. Paul spells this out in Rom 6:11: “So also consider yourselves as being dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Our baptismal union with Christ means that, in a way analogous to Christ himself, Christians have been set free from the power of sin to live new lives in the service of God. To say that Christianity is law-less because it does not follow the law of Moses in every detail according to Jewish tradition is to fail to see the purpose behind the coming of the new covenant and the significance of the believer’s union with Christ.

Paul concludes his argument against this anomian objection in Rom 6:12–14. In Rom 6:12–13 he notes the ethical consequence of our baptismal union with Christ, and calls upon his Christian readers to serve God in righteousness: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, to obey its desires” (Rom 6:12). The bodies that we currently live in are destined to die. This is the consequence of sin in the world , yet Christians have already been set free from the power of sin. We are not, therefore, to allow sin’s former reign to continue to control us. The pronoun its in the phrase its body is textually uncertain with regard to its gender, although the evidence seems to favor its referent being your mortal body. The desires of the mortal body are sinful desires, but these are not to be obeyed. Neither are Christians to “offer your members as tools of unrighteousness to sin” (Rom 6:13). The word translated as members denotes limbs or parts of the body. Christians are not to use their bodies in the service of sin to do what is not right. Rather, says Paul, “offer yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as tools of righteousness to God” (Rom 6:13). Christians have been set free in Christ to serve God rather than sin, and it is to God that we are to offer ourselves in obedient service. God is the King that we serve, not sin. Christians are to serve God, because “sin will not rule over you” (Rom 6:14). The sense of the future tense of the verb translated as will rule seems to be incorporating the time from the present into the future. This is at least the sense that emerges in the light of the present tense used in the second clause of v. 14: “for you are not under the law but under grace.” The law of Moses in the old covenant age was a historical epoch in which sin and death reigned over Israel (see Rom 5:21). In this, the covenant rebellion of Israel served to replicate and intensify the original rebellion of Adam, which brought death into the world in the first place (Rom 5:14). But Christians through their union with Christ now participate in the new covenant. We belong to the historical epoch in which grace and righteousness rule (Rom 5:21), and continuing to serve sin is incompatible with this new reality.

Being under grace does not mean, therefore, that Christians live in a moral free zone. Paul’s Jewish opponents were wrong to suggest this. Christians have been saved to serve God in righteousness. Christianity may appear to be anomian and anti-torah from the traditional Jewish perspective, but obedience and righteousness are still important. Christ came to enable the obedience of faith among all nations. Grace, therefore, is not incompatible with personal righteousness. Indeed, grace guarantees the proper service of God.

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