Commentary on Romans 6:12-23
This reading needs context.
It jumps in the middle of a particular argument Paul is making about the believer’s relation to sin, driven by two questions: one in Romans 6:1 and the other in 6:15. This argument is part of a larger case Paul is making about how the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ transforms believers from old humanity to new humanity in Christ and thereby brings about death to sin and nullifies the function of the law.
Verses 12 through 14 are better treated as the conclusion to the previous section in Romans 6:1-11. It is because we’ve died to the old humanity through baptism, and been united to Christ, that Paul exhorts the believers to not let sin rule their lives. We have a choice to recognize that we’ve been set in a new reality, and Paul exhorts them in light of the new reality. In this life because they are “in Christ,” a choice exists that once did not: “Don’t let sin reign. Don’t give your bodies to be used as instruments of sin.”
The reason Paul gives for this exhortation is in 6:14: those who have died with Christ in baptism are “not under law, but under grace.” This is the operative contrast that gives birth to the rhetorical question in 6:15: “Should we sin because we are not under law, but under grace?”
The concern is real. If, because in baptism Christians who have died to sin are also no longer under the law, then what are we under? Not being under law is a particularly difficult claim for Paul’s audience (whether Greek, Roman, or Jewish). Everyone in the first century operated with a sense of “law” as that which ordered life and gave identity. The law should not be reduced to works-righteousness or a salvation-by-works scheme. What defines how to live, what provides the ideal? What gives identity and sets Romans apart from Greeks and Jews? Law. If we’re not under law, but under grace, then the conclusion might be to continue in sin because not to be under law is to be open to sin, and from what Paul said earlier, that’s where grace over-abounds.
Paul had just argued in 6:1-14 that Jesus Christ removes us from the realm of law-living and all its effects because all of those things are part of the old humanity (Galatians 4:4-5). But here he presses further. If we’ve died to the old humanity, it includes these human ways of ordering life. This is a problem for the first-century person (not just the Jew). For Paul, death in Christ means no law to govern living and identity formation. And this pulls the rug out from much of the social-moral ordering of the world for Paul’s audience, whether Jew, Greek, or Roman.
To explain what he’s getting at, Paul draws upon the common language and imagery of slavery. The scenario Paul sets up would have been shocking to Paul’s audience. Being “under law” is connected with serving sin and injustice (“unrighteousness”)! It appears Stoic or even like something radical Skeptics might have said. But they would not have gone this far. Law was still needed for the weaker types who need a crutch to rely on. But they would not have associated law with sin and injustice. This reveals the fundamentally radical nature of the “fracture” the cross of Christ effected in the world.
The law is the way sin works out its mastery over old humanity. Adamic humanity exists “under law” because they are slaves to sin, serving sin and producing “unrighteousness” (better: “injustice”). As slaves to impurity they live lives of “lawlessness” in verse 19. Even keeping the law does this because the law fundamentally creates walls that serve the injustice of a fractured humanity. By contrast the baptized live under and serve a different Lord and thus also an entirely different system of living and finding one’s identity. Instead of sin, those baptized have transferred to life under God, serving “justice,” rather than sin, and resulting in sanctification and eternal life. Identity (not just function!) is now part of the body of Christ — in being part of one another who make up this body (whether Jew, Greek, or Roman). This is where Paul is headed in Romans (Romans 14:1-12; 15:7).
Paul says those who are not under law are “sanctified.” It’s important to note that this is not the moral outworking of some system or program of Christian moral piety. Sanctification is the theologically loaded translation of the Greek word hagiasmos. As many of us learned, it generally means to be “set apart.” This “set-apartedness” is the fruit of the transfer that is signified by baptism; it is the outworking of God’s grand work of deliverance from the old humanity. We are “set apart” for God’s use, rather than sin’s. While the reality is that we’ve been transferred, we still need to adjust to the new life. Sanctification is both immediate and ongoing, but it is fundamentally positional and relational, not achievement based.
Verse 17 makes an important point: “You have obeyed from the heart the form of instruction which you have received.” Three central ideas are at work here: the heart, the form, and the reception.
The obedience of those transferred from the old humanity is not an outward show; it is rooted in kardia. This hearkens to the promise of Jeremiah 31:33-34 that God would give new hearts imprinted with God’s Torah (here “instruction” not “law”), and that all would know God. God is at work, transforming the heart, in fulfillment of what God had promised.
The obedience is to the form, not the content. The word is used in Platonic and Middle-Platonic thought. It refers to a type or manner of something. The form or type of “instruction” for Paul is “imaged” in the crucified Christ, it is the form of life in Philippians 2.
The obedience of the baptized is to a form of teaching that is received. It is not learned, nor memorized. It is received, implanted in the lives of those transferred to the rule of grace.
Romans 6:15-23 reflects an insufficient understanding of what being “under grace” really means, and an uneasiness with the idea that “law” is no longer to be relied upon for identity and meaning, for living.
It is worth wondering how much we overlook the ways we construct “law” in our churches to keep our fear of moral anarchy at bay. How often do the “ungodly” meet not grace and welcome, but suspicious looks and marginal embrace at best? Is our treatment of others contingent on age, experience, social circles, political circles, or other hurdles we place before them in the name of being pious, lest we just endorse dwelling in sin as we’ve defined it for ourselves, all the while ignoring that continuing to put up law is itself still living in Sin? Are we playing it too safe? Afraid to live lives not “under law”?