Third Sunday after Pentecost

“Shall we continue in sin?”

Carrying the cross of Christ
Loire, Gabriel. Carrying the cross of Christ, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

June 25, 2017

Second Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Romans 6:1b-11

“Shall we continue in sin?”

This is Paul’s opening question in Romans 6:1.

It’s not necessarily the case that someone in Paul’s audience really thought that it would be a good idea to “continue in sin.” This was Paul’s way of rhetorically advancing his argument. The question derives from Paul’s claim in 5:20 (“where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”).

It also arises from firsthand experience that the radical gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ led to accusations of moral anarchy (Romans 3:8). God’s grace extends to the ungodly and obliterates any attempts to claim justification on any other ground. God’s grace mocks silly distinctions on the basis of human ideals, ideologies, and other lines in the sand we draw to sort out the good citizens from the riff-raff. This might lead to the conclusion “Well, if it’s the case that our boundaries and our laws are meaningless, dear Paul, then let’s just all be ungodly sinners all of the time.” Paul says no. Such an understanding reflects an anemic understanding of grace and justification. This passage should lead to deeper reflection on both how we understand grace and justification.

The lectionary text is part of a longer argument, the second part of which also begins with a similar rhetorical question in 6:15: “Should we sin since we are not under law, but under grace?” The present passage (which really should extend through 6:14) cannot be taken in isolation from 6:15-23. In the first section, Paul draws attention to the foundational reality of believers. In the next section, Paul addresses the outworkings of that foundational reality. The entirety of Romans 6 is closely linked to Paul’s thoughts about Christ as the new Adam in Romans 5, and to the reality of freedom from the law in Romans 7. For Paul, death to sin is the necessary flipside of being united to Christ the new Adam. And it is linked to death and to the law. If we have not truly been transferred out of the land of Sin, then we have not been united to Christ, nor have we transferred from the hold of the law.

In this first section (verses 1-14), Paul makes two main moves, centered on what the community took for granted: baptism. First, Paul speaks of baptism as death. Second, Paul links baptismal death to death to sin.

Baptism is linked to death

Whatever we might draw from this passage about baptism, one thing is clear: baptism is more than another event that takes place in the life of a person, like graduation, where all the relatives come and celebrate. And it’s more than a religious ritual where church members commit to one another in word but not action. Baptism is very serious business.

Death through baptism is not merely a spiritual metaphor. Throughout Paul’s letters, this “death” to old humanity is very real. The language Paul uses emphasizes that this death is a “knowable” reality. In verse 3 Paul speaks of “not knowing” to remind his audience that baptism is baptism into death with Christ: “Do you not know that all of us … were baptized into his death?” In verse 6 he writes about “knowing” that the old humanity was crucified, with the result that the body of sin is destroyed. And in verses 8-9, Paul writes, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will live with/in him, knowing that … death no longer lords over him.”

It is this knowable experience of “death” to the old humanity that enables Paul to eschew social convention (Galatians 3:28), to dare to risk folly and persecution rather than play according to the world’s “wisdom” and seek fame (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), and to actually say that obedience to the law avails nothing in terms of “marking” someone as being in or out of God’s favor (1 Corinthians 7:19).

Baptismal death is death to sin

Many Christians today struggle with the idea of being “dead to sin.” When Paul talks about “dead to sin,” is this the same thing as “sinless”? The problem might be that we operate with a moral perfectionism system of thought where “sin” refers to the individual acts we do that miss the perfection mark.

The contexts suggests that Paul is working with an understanding of sin as an operating force, something that exercises dominion over people, a mode of living in the world defined by corruption of God’s good creational intentions for humanity and the world. Given the overall context of what Paul says about Adam and Christ in Romans 5 and the law in Romans 7, it makes sense to consider that in baptism believers have died to their previous existence, of slavery in the land of Sin. They have been rescued by death, to be brought into a new land and a new existence.

The resonances with the Exodus of Israel are thick in Paul’s narrative imagination. Like Israel, those who are baptized in Christ have passed through waters, being separated from enslavement to all that was before, and they’ve been transferred like Israel by God’s delivering hand into a new existence. Does this mean that the Israelites changed? Yes and no. The important point is that they’ve been transferred from one reality to another. Paul’s concluding statement makes the point: “Consider yourselves on the one hand dead to sin, but on the other hand living to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11).

The rhetorical question in 6:1 reflects a shallow understanding of the transformation that God’s grace brings about. God’s grace moves the ungodly to a new land and changes their identity and the nature of the rules that govern their lives. God’s grace is no excuse to remain unchanged. Paul is not preaching moral anarchy. Nor is Paul advocating an understanding of the Christian life as untransformed. It does not give us pardon while we keep playing in Sin as we always have, only feeling better because we believe God overlooks it. In dying with Christ, we no longer dwell in the land of Sin, we become God’s new creation in Christ. This is our new reality! Justification and grace are not only forensic or the easing of guilt; they are regenerative. Baptism is not a security; it is a reality changer.