< May 17, 2015 >

Commentary on Romans 6:1-14

 

For many of us, Romans 6 is scripture we have turned to as we have developed a theology of baptism, debated the merits of immersion versus sprinkling based on the imagery of burial and resurrection, and to whom it should be applied.

Let’s mute those voices for a few minutes.

Because here is another message awaiting us here, a message for all of us regardless of where we fall in such debates. Romans 6 depicts the power we have in our everyday life to live in ways that are faithful to God.

The future or the present?

If you look closely in Romans 6:1-11, you will see that the verbs referring to Christ are consistently past tense. But the verbs referring to our new life are regularly in the future tense (we shall also walk, 6:4; we will be conformed, 6:5; we will live with him, 6:8). Thus, New Testament scholars will often argue that Paul is intentionally hedging here: we can only say that we have died with Christ, not that his resurrection intrudes upon our present.

But it might not be so simple. On the one hand, it is certainly correct to say that Paul envisions a future salvation that will include a resurrection from the dead. This hope is the ultimate fulfillment of the claim that as we have died with Christ we will also live with him (Romans 6:8).

On the other hand, the overall question of the chapter is, “Shall we continue in sin?” The answer Paul provides is no, we’ve been united to Jesus’s death so that we might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).

The imperatives of chapter 6 summon us to take hold of our resurrection life and bring it to bear on the present: We are to consider ourselves “as those who are alive from the dead” (Romans 6:11). Again, in v. 13, we are to present ourselves to God “as those alive from dead” in order to join the battle against the forces of sin and death.

The eschatological future of being raised with Christ begins to impinge upon our present as the Spirit empowers us, in Christ, to live lives that are pleasing to God.

From death to life

One of the most important contributions that Paul makes in Romans 5-8 to our understanding of life in this world comes in his exposition of the idea that sin and death stand arrayed against humanity as hostile powers. The mystery of salvation is that Christ’s obedient death brings to an end the rule of sin over humanity, while his resurrection overcomes death.

Importantly, Jesus dies and rises again precisely as a human being (Romans 5:15). As a human being he bears “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3).

However, he breaks the reign of sin by becoming obedient to the point of death. And with his body dead to the power of sin, he is released from the power of death through his resurrection.

If we imagine that Jesus is raised from the dead in order to show us that he is, in fact, divine, then we remove the entire ground for the hope God wants to give us in Christ. Because if Christ’s resurrection means that he is divine, then there is no reason to hope that we who are not divine will be raised.

The one who died

Jesus is likely the subject of Romans 6:7. Paul is not quoting a general aphorism about the power of death to free people from sin -- such a point cuts against the grain of his claims that sin and death are in cahoots. Instead, he is reflecting on the death and resurrection of Jesus: “The One who died has been freed from sin.” The resurrected Jesus no longer lives under the reign of sin.

Paul sees two realities at play simultaneously. First, Jesus is united with us in our humanity, which exists in a cosmos where sin and death hold sway. When Paul says that our old humanity was crucified with him (Romans 6:6; not “old self,” as most English translations have it), this claim finds its grounds in the fact that Jesus is himself a participant in this humanity that died on the cross. Second, however, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection, so that we, too, can be delivered from the power of sin and death.

We do not have to sin anymore.

This is the message of “baptism” that Paul proclaims in Romans 6: that through baptism we are united to Christ. And if we are united to Christ, then what is true of him is true of us. Dead to sin, we no longer have any excuse to sin. This is the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Alive to righteousness, we have been ushered into the new life of the new humanity that will live and reign with God forever.

Fighting the good fight

Paul depicts the powers of sin and death arrayed against God in a cosmic battle. Sin steals the life that God intends for humanity, enslaving us to death.

However, not only has Christ conquered sin and death, but we are called to join the battle as well. And so in v. 13 Paul commands, “Present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as weapons of righteousness to God.”

Our hostile lords have been displaced. “Sin shall not be master over you,” he continues in Romans 6:14, “for you are not under law, but under grace.”

Life “under grace” is not an invitation to sin, because life “under grace” is life “in Christ,” which is the death knelt to sin in all its manifestations. Our hope for a future resurrection life makes itself known in continuity with the life we live now -- a life in which sin has been put to death so that we walk, now, in the newness and righteousness of life.