Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Justification provides the ground for God’s complete renovation of human beings

June 25, 2023

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 6:1b-11

A typical cheap shot against those who drink from the cup of Luther’s Reformation is that justification by faith alone leads to antinomianism, a salvation that consists of a legal fiction without an interest in moral formation. And yet, a fair reading of the totality of Luther’s works evidence a completely balanced attentiveness to both justification by faith as the ground of our salvation in Christ alone, and good works as the fruit of the faith of the one who is justified. I would concur with one of Luther’s finest literary points, namely that those who disagree are “like [a] mouse-dropping in the pepper.”1 

In Romans 6:1-11, Paul, after several chapters in which he expounds the doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works of the law, asks: “Shall we continue in sin in order that grace might abound?” His response in verse 2 is, of course, me genoito, “By no means!” Paul goes on to ground this rejection of antinomianism and ethical libertinism in the reality of our union with Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism (verses 3-5). This concept is similar to what we find elsewhere in the New Testament in Colossians 2:12, where we are said to have been “buried with [Christ] in baptism” and “raised with [Christ] through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Thus, the coherent and consistent biblical teaching here is that through baptism and faith we participate in the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection. The reality of our union with Christ and our participation in the efficacious benefits of his saving actions, leads not only to hope for eternal life in the future but the expectation of holy living in the present (verse 4). Baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ exists in order that “we also might walk in newness of life.”

Coming off of the heels of a focus on justification, this teaching indicates that whoever is declared righteous is empowered by the resurrection life of Christ to live a righteous life in accord with their righteous status. In other words, our right status (justification) and our right relationship with God (reconciliation) leads to right living (sanctification). That Paul has the full orb of salvation (including election, calling, justification, sanctification, and glorification) in mind is evident here if we look a bit ahead in Romans 6 to verse 19. 

In verse 19, Paul instructs the Roman Christians to “present [their] members for the purpose of righteousness which results in sanctification. The argument is very straightforward here with the Greek eis hagiasmon indicating the result of living in accord with righteousness, namely, that it leads to or results in sanctification. What’s more, if we fast-forward to the tail end of Romans 6, we can see the final result of sanctification. There in Romans 6:22 Paul asserts that since we have been “freed from sin” the fruit that we have “leads to sanctification, and the end is eternal life.” 

This is highly significant for the articulation of a complete Pauline understanding of salvation. Far from the “mouse dropping pepper” propaganda against justification by faith alone, a comprehensive reading of Romans reveals that salvation incorporates sanctification, not merely justification. While justification in Romans is declarative and forensic—courtroom language, not moral language—the totality of Paul’s understanding of redemption cannot be encapsulated solely with the orb of justification. Rather, justification provides the ground for God’s complete renovation of human beings—both legally (justification) and morally (sanctification and glorification). The “end” or “result” (Greek telos) of sanctification is eternal life (Greek zōēn aiōnion). 

In fairness to critics of Protestant understandings of the gospel, it probably isn’t completely off-base to level the charge of libertinism against many contemporary followers of Luther whether they are from progressive, mainline, or evangelical camps. While very few would intentionally adopt a position of “sinning so that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1), this is the inadvertent result of many implicit Protestant theologies—to both the left and the right—that lop-side all of salvation into the singular category of justification. It is certainly an overstatement to conceive of justification as a mere “subsidiary crater” as Albert Schweitzer famously did in his monograph The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle.2 Yet, viewing the foundational doctrine of justification within its larger context as one of several aspects of salvation through our incorporation into union with Christ, can help to course-correct our inadvertent tendencies towards brushing off good works so that grace may abound. 

When Romans 1-4 is read in light of our sanctification through baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6), our election in Christ (Romans 9-11), and our eventual (and we might say, inevitable) glorification (Romans 8), then we are setting salvation in the concord that comes through the comprehensive soteriological category of union with Christ, rather than in the monotone ethically-devoid droning dirge of justification—not merely apart from works as the basis of salvation but devoid of works as its fruit. While Paul would certainly have us rigorously avoid the “mouse-dropping in the pepper” of justification theologies based on meritorious works of any kind (whether Jewish works of Torah or generic works of religious performance), he would also resist a theology in which our justification by faith alone is not seasoned with the pure salt of sanctification that leads to eternal life.


1.On the Councils and the Church,” p. 56 of Luther’s Works, Volume 41
2. Schweitzer, Albert. The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (A&C Black, 1931), 225