Saturday, November 9, 2019

Romans 6:11-14 – How does a Christian fight sin?

In asking the question, “How does a Christian fight sin?” I am assuming that the question makes sense to you.  However, I don’t think there is any doubt that for a lot of people, this is not a relevant query.  I think one of the reasons behind this seeming irrelevance is that we are constantly told today that the main thing is not to kill sin but to be faithful to yourself, to live out your desires, and to do whatever you want.  Of course, there is the caveat, unless it harms someone else, but this is an exceedingly tenuous caveat, if it is one at all.  What does it mean to harm someone else?  Are we limited to refraining from physical harm, or can it extend to emotional and mental distress?  It is not always obvious.  And who gets to decide what constitutes mental or emotional distress and harm to someone else?  Moreover, there are outcomes where someone is going to feel compromised or harmed, no matter what decision is made.  In that case, who decides who or what is “right”?  The problem with the morality of our culture is that there are no real boundaries, and people are bound to get hurt, no matter how often or how loudly you proclaim, “unless it harms someone else.”  There are all sorts of problems with post-modern morality.  And it all points to the fact that the morality of our day is no real morality at all, and hence the strangeness of this question to many: “How can you fight sin?”

But as a Christian, this is a most reasonable question.  It is most reasonable because we know that we are created by a good and holy God.  This means that the worst thing that can happen to anyone is to be separated from God, who is the fountain of all good.  Giving into our own desires in everything – especially when they are opposed to God’s desires for us –  may feel good at first, but ultimately it is self-destructive.  On the other hand, living under the blessing of the God of the universe is ultimately life- and joy-giving.  But what is it that separates us from God?  It is sin, which is a refusal to live according to the standards of God’s law.  As Romans 1-5 has reminded us, everything that is bad in this world is the result of sin.  Why is there death?  Because of sin, because of Adam’s sin and because of our sin: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  Why is there hatred and enmity and murder?  Because no one seeks after God (Rom. 3:9-20).  Why are we separated from God and why do we therefore need to be reconciled to God?  Because of sin (Rom. 1:18; 5:10).  

This means that the most important question for us is how to deal with the sin that is in our lives and its consequences.  So the main question should not be how I actualize my own dreams and desires, but rather how I can be forgiven and received back into fellowship with God.  For if I am not in fellowship with God, then I am separated from him, at enmity with him, and justly exposed to his holy wrath.  And unless something changes, I will go into eternal punishment, destroyed in both body and soul (Mat. 10:28; 25:46).  I can actualize my own desires all day long, but what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? (Mk. 8:34-38).  So the right and logical question to ask is: how can a person be right with God?  The biblical answer to that question is that we are reinstated into the fellowship of God through Christ, and in union with him, so that through him and what he has accomplished as our redeemer, we can be justified and forgiven and adopted and sanctified and ultimately glorified.  We saw last time that the whole sin problem is dealt with through the work of Jesus Christ the Son of God on our behalf.

But this also means that we should not only just be concerned about the consequences of sin in terms of guilt and hell, but of sin itself and of the remnants of its indwelling presence.  As we noted last time, it is the purpose of God that the power of sin should be destroyed in your life.  How then could we be okay with something so hateful to God?  How could we live at cross-purposes with the redemption accomplished by Christ?  How could we be okay with something opposed to our joy and glory?  It is not just the guilt of sin over us that we should want to unburden ourselves of, but also of the grip of sin upon us.  What Paul says at the beginning of this chapter ought to resonate with everyone who is a Christian: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2).  

So how should we fight sin?  This is the whole question of Christian sanctification.  As opposed to justification, which is a once-for-all event that happens at the very beginning of the Christian life, sanctification is something that progressively unfolds throughout our lives until the very end.  It is not until heaven when the saints are described as the “righteous made perfect” (Heb. 12:23).  So until we die, we will be fighting sin, which means that this is not a question we can avoid.

So how should we fight sin?  It’s important that we do this right, because if we don’t we are likely to fall and fall badly.  You are not opposed by a lightweight.  You are opposed by something which is described in terms of a king who has been dethroned and who is attempting to gain it back.  Waterloo didn’t happen when Napoleon was at the height of his power, but after he had been exiled the first time.  In the same way, indwelling sin is described as something which wants to “make you obey its passions” (12).  Though sin really has been dethroned, though the Christian is truly dead to sin, yet sin remains to wage guerilla warfare against the believer.  

Sadly there is a lot of advice out there on how to fight sin that is unbiblical and which will, in the long run, end up hurting rather than helping you.  So before we proceed with the strategies that that apostle lays out here in the text, let’s consider a number of these false options which are out there.

First of all, there is the approach of the antinomian or fatalist.  This is the approach of those who argue that any insistence upon the necessity of holiness for final salvation undermines the sovereignty of God’s grace.  Though they will admit that there is value to holiness in this life, they strenuously insist that good works have no bearing upon the age to come.  Of course they are right in that good works do not in any sense merit God’s favor.  However, since the Scriptures everywhere insist that good works are the necessary evidence of future salvation, we cannot separate holiness from eternal life.  

This is important in terms of fighting sin on a daily basis, because when I believe that I cannot go to heaven if I am not holy, it gives me a very important motivation for fighting sin, one that is completely lost in the antinomian scheme.  They will argue that this makes the battle for righteousness a legalistic thing, and causes people to be motivated by fear instead of love.  However, it is not legalistic as long as we recognize the crucial distinction between good works as evidence of salvation versus good works as the basis of our salvation.  Moreover, we can see that even the apostle was motivated in this way, as he puts it to the Philippians.  He tells them that he suffered the loss of all things to gain Christ, “that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8-11).  Do we have this same sense of urgency to gain the resurrection from the dead?

Second, there is the approach of the mystic.  This is the approach of those who decry the role of doctrine and thinking and doing in the fight for holiness.  They will argue that making this too intellectual undermines rather than further our sanctification.  Another way this is sometimes put is in the slogan, “Let go and let God.”  In other words, you need to stop doing and thinking and planning and just let God do it for you.

Now there is some value to what they are getting at.  This is because they value faith and reliance upon God, so far as they are talking about the God who is revealed in the Bible.  This is where they are right.  We cannot fight sin apart from faith.  We cannot gain the victory over remaining corruption apart from reliance upon God and his grace.  Nevertheless, ultimately theirs is a wrong view of faith because they tend to separate faith from its doctrinal contents.  As we will see, this is not how the apostle Paul, or indeed any of the apostles, exhort us to fight the sin that remains.  Though a bare intellectualism is dangerous and soul-killing, the Bible never encourages us to go over to the opposite extreme.  There is nothing intrinsically valuable in religious sentiment separated from Biblical truth.

Third, there is the approach of the ascetic.  The emphasis here is on our own will-power and what we can do for God.  Whereas the first approach involved a wrong view of God’s grace, and the second a wrong view of faith, this view involves a wrong view of our responsibility.  Though lip-service may be given to the grace of God, yet the burden falls upon our own will-power as the way to holiness.  In contrast to the mystic, the ascetic is all about rules and regulations.  This point of view is also sometimes coupled with a very negative view of the body, so that any physical satisfaction is viewed with suspicion. The apostle is almost certainly responding to this approach in Col. 2:20-23.  There, he writes, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirit of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings?  These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and ascetism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of flesh.”  Note how Paul views the value of ascetism: it is of “no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”  

That’s not to say there is no place for self-control with respect to the physical appetites.  That is part and parcel of the pursuit of holiness.  The problem is in relying upon the ascetic lifestyle as the path to holiness.  The problem is that it doesn’t reach down to the main problem, which is the heart and its desires.  That is where is the battle is at (Rom. 6:12).  The problem is that you can whip your flesh all day and never touch the idols of the heart.  

So that brings us back to the main question: How does you fight sin?  In the text before us , we see that there are three truths that we need to heed and put into practice if we are going to successfully put sin to death in us.

You must be a Christian

Verse 11 is the first exhortation in the book of Romans: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  Think about what that implies.  For over five chapters the apostle has been telling us what it means to be saved.  In particular, he has been telling us how we are justified in the sight of God.  The gospel is not about what we do but about what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.  Unless we grip that fact, we are inevitably going to go wrong in the pursuit of holiness.  Holiness is not about what I do to gain God’s favor, but it is what I pursue because of what God has already done for me in Christ Jesus.  

More than that, I cannot even begin to pursue holiness properly unless I am in Christ Jesus.  This is not something that I can do in my own power.  The foundation of the exhortations that follow in the book of Romans assume the union of the believer with Christ as the foundation of sanctification.  You must be dead to sin to fight sin.  But you can only be dead to sin by dying with Christ.  You can only rise to newness of life by rising with Christ.  This is why Paul says we are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  That is the only way it can happen.

My friend, are you a Christian?  That is to say, have you a real relationship with the Christ of the Bible?  Are you the recipient of his grace in your life?  Is he your Lord and Savior?  Has he changed your life?  Do not think that cleaning up your life or avoiding the more gross sins means that you are saved.  Being better than the next person does not mean you are saved.  You are only saved if you are saved by the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  You are saved by Christ when you entrust your entire life to him by faith as your Lord and Savior.  Have you put your faith in him?

You must think Biblically

Note what else the apostle says here in verse 11: “So you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”  We cannot emphasize enough the importance of right thinking when it comes to sanctification.  If you want to become more like Christ, this not only means you must desire holiness, but that you must think Biblically about it.  It means that doctrine plays an incredibly important role in becoming more Christlike in our daily walk.  Good intentions are not enough.  We must have right doctrine.

What are we to think about, what are we to consider?  Well, what that apostle essentially is saying here is that we are to apply the truths that he has laid before us in the previous verses.  That is the point of the word “so” at the beginning of verse 11.  The cold intellectualist will just read the verses and talk about them, but he will never act upon them.  But the Christian hears the truths that Paul has been setting forth here and puts them into practice.

Sin always works in us by deceit.  We believe a lie and we sin.  Truth, on the other hand, sets us free.  It exposes the lies that enslave us.  The lie that the apostle wants to free us from is the lie that sin is so powerful that we can’t overcome it.  If you are a Christian, there is no sin you cannot overcome.  Not because you have the inherent power to overcome it, but because in Christ you are united to a power that created everything out of nothing.  He can take your nothing and defeat the most ominous and powerful lust in your mind and heart.  

Are you a believer and feel like you are trapped by a sin in your life?  What about lust?  Or pornography?  Or drugs and alcohol?  Or anger?  Or anxiety and fear?  If you are a believer and yet don’t think you can ever overcome these sins in your life, it is because you do not believe the truths that the apostle has been teaching in this chapter.  If you are dead to sin with Christ then it is impossible that these sins could ever rule over you.  That doesn’t mean you can’t let them.  It doesn’t mean that they won’t try to rule over you.  But it does mean that sin does not have the power to prevent you from overcoming them through Christ.  Sin is no longer on the throne: Christ is.  You need to consider yourselves to be what you are, namely dead to sin and alive to God through Jesus Christ on account of his work for you and in you.

You must yield to God

But we must not stop at right thinking, we must go onto right application.  In particular, we must yield ourselves to God, which is the point of verses 12-13: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for unrighteousness.” 

When we were looking at verse 6, we noted that the phrase “the body of sin” does not just refer to our physical body, but to indwelling sin which manifests itself through our bodies.  Similarly, when Paul says that we are not to let sin use the members of our bodies as instruments (or weapons) for the purpose of sin, we are to understand that he is calling us to mortify the sin that is behind the misuse of our bodies.  Note that there are only two options here: you will either yield yourself to God or you will yield yourself to sin.  Like the German army in the Second World War that was trapped between the Russians on the east and the Americans and British on the west, so that they were going to have to surrender inevitably to one or the other, we are either going to surrender to the reign of sin over us, or we are going to surrender to God.  You are trapped between them, and you will have to chose one or the other.

What are we to yield to God?  Yield your tongue – that is the point of James 3.  Don’t use your tongue to speak words that destroy others, that tear down.  Don’t use it for slander, for lying, for gossip, for foul language, for conversations that make light of sin.  Rather, “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).

Then yield your eyes to God.  Godly Job said, “I have made a covenant with my eyes; how then could I gaze at a virgin?”  Young men, have you made such a covenant with your eyes?  Or think about what the psalmist prayed and let us pray with him to “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways” (Ps. 119:37).  Or, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless” (Ps. 101:3).  The eyes are an inlet into the heart, and the battle in the heart will either be easier or harder depending on how hard we are willing to work at what we look at.  As long as the enemy’s supply line remains intact, it will be much more difficult to defeat him, but once his lines are cut, the battle will be more easily one.  Guard your eyes, and cut the supply line of your enemy.

Further, yield your ears to God.  What do you listen to?  Hear Christ, listen to his word those who preach his word.  As computer programmers often tell us, “Junk in, junk out.”  You put junk into your ears and let it soak down into your heart, don’t be surprised when junk comes out in different areas of your life.

Then yield your feet to God.  Where do you spend your time?  One of the most disturbing passages in Scripture is the description in Proverbs 7 of the foolish young man who is the wrong place at the wrong time.  But he is only in the wrong place at the wrong time because his feet took him there.  Now this not only applies to the physical places our feet take us, but also to the places we go digitally on our smart phones and computers and tablets.  Where are you going?  Are they places where you can honestly say you can yield yourself to God there?

Most importantly, yield your heart to God.  At the end of the day, yielding is a fight for the desires.  What you desire most is what you will end up yielding yourself to.  This is why the Proverb tells us, “Keep your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).

What does this look like?  What does it mean for me, practically?  Well, it means that I am going to pray with all my might against sin.  You will not long desire what you consistently pray against.  Especially when you feel the tug of lust and sinful desire to be strong in your heart, pray against it.  Ask the Lord to give you the grace to say no, and persist in it.

This means also that I am going to be constantly reminding myself of what ultimate reality is.  Sinful desire always warps reality and makes ugly things look beautiful.  We need to remember that as we pass through this life that heaven is real and hell is real and that we are all moving inevitably toward God’s judgment seat.  If we can put ourselves before God’s throne in our minds and hearts, it will almost be impossible to sin there.

It means that I am not going to fill my mind so that there is no room or time for meditation on God’s word, and on his character and promise.  Don’t be shallow when it comes to divine things.  Be shallow when it comes to the fashions of this world, which will fade into meaninglessness sooner rather than later.

I want to come back next time to Romans 6:14, but let me close by seeking to frame an answer to the question that 6:14 begs, namely: Why are we told to let not sin reign over us (12) when Paul says that “sin will have no dominion over you”?  The answer is that, as believers, we can never be the slaves of sin as we once were, and this is seen in that we can now successfully resist it.  But it doesn’t mean that we can’t at times let sin gain the upper hand through spiritual negligence and slothfulness.  So let us fight the good fight of faith, fight with all our might against sin, and never give up until we lift up our eyes in the presence of God, perfect and spotless and full of the joy of the Lord forever.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

The implications of union with Christ – Romans 6:6-10

What does it mean to be a Christian?  The apostle’s argument in this text leads inevitably to the conclusion that, whatever else it entails, it at least means that you have died to sin.  We know this by Paul’s reference to baptism.  In the NT, baptism is what differentiates between believer and non-believer.  There is simply no category for “unbaptized believer” in the NT.  If you didn’t want to be baptized, that meant you didn’t want to be a Christian.  Though baptism doesn’t save, yet it is a distinguishing mark (in terms of external evidence) between those who are saved and those who are not.  In the book of Acts, baptism is part of the whole conversion experience.  So to imagine someone being converted and yet unbaptized was impossible in the categories of the NT church.  

Hence, when the apostle assumes that all his readers are baptized (ver. 3), he is implicitly saying that what he has to say here applies to anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian.  And what does he say?  He says that a Christian is someone who has died to sin through union with Christ.  

In the text before us, Paul basically restates and emphasizes the same points which he brought forward in the first five verses.  This is something that Paul wants us to get.  In the verses before us, Paul describes the same reality (death to sin) in terms of our old man being crucified with Christ so that the body of sin might be destroyed (ver. 6).  And then throughout verses 6-10 he points us to the connection between our death to sin and Christ’s death to sin (ver. 10).  It is only because we have died in Christ (ver. 8) that we can die to sin.  In light of this, and because of this reality, we can consider ourselves to be dead to sin and alive to God (ver. 11).

One of the things Paul is doing here is pointing us to the reality that everything in our salvation comes to us through Jesus Christ, including our death to sin.  What we have as saved people, we have by virtue of our union with Christ.  What is union with Christ, you ask?  It is just this: union with Christ means that by faith we are personally connected to all the saving benefits obtained by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.  It means that God regards the believer as one with Christ, so that his life is regarded as their life, his death as their death, his resurrection as their resurrection.  And thus we become recipients of the life and grace of God that flows from Christ’s death and resurrection.

Practically, this means two things.  First, it means that God gets the credit for your salvation, all of it.  So there is no room for pride in the church.  There is no room for self-glorification and self-display.  “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name be glory, for thy mercy and for thy truth’s sake” (Ps. 115:1, KJV).  Second, it means that there is nothing God calls us to do as saved people for which we do not have all the resources of Jesus Christ to draw upon in order to accomplish it.  That is very encouraging, because it means that our limitations are not determinative when it comes to obedience and God’s blessing upon our lives.  

And so the NT is continually pointing us to this reality.  In fact, we have picture after picture given to us in order to encourage us to draw upon the resources of Christ for us.  In Eph. 2:19-22, this union is pictured in terms of the relation between the stones and cornerstone of a building (see also 1 Pet. 2:4-6).  In Eph. 5:22-33, it is likened to the union that exists between a husband and wife.  In Eph. 4:15-16, it is compared to the relationship between head and body.  In John 15:1-5, it is represented in terms of vine and branches.  Note that every one of these pictures have this thing in common: they all picture for us the dependence of one thing (or person) upon another.  In the same way, we depend upon Christ for everything we need in order to have a relationship with God as our Father.

We also see our dependence upon Christ and his redemptive work in every “in Christ” passage in Scripture.  It is in Christ that we are chosen by God (Eph. 1:4-5).  It is in Christ that we are redeemed (Eph. 1:7), that we are regenerated (Eph. 2:4-10), that we are sanctified (our text), and that we are glorified (Rom. 8:17).  From eternity past to eternity future, we owe everything to our Savior.  

Now there is another reason why this is important.  Throughout the history of the church, it is sometimes a tendency to narrow down on one aspect of salvation to the neglect of the others.  Often one effect of this has been an unbalanced view of the Christian life and what it is supposed to look like.  Sometimes this leads to an inability to make proper distinctions between true and false believers.

For instance, sometimes there such an emphasis upon justification by faith alone that other aspects of our salvation, like sanctification and growth in holiness, are ignored.  It is claimed by some that if you require holiness in people who claim to be Christian, then you are legalistic and works-based and are denying the grace of God in salvation.  Others claim that the sovereignty of God’s grace means that there is no place for human effort in any aspect of salvation.  

Still others claim that the emphasis upon our response to God’s commandments in the Bible means that ultimately we are the determinative ones in salvation, that our response is ultimately determinative, not God’s grace.  The result of this telling of the gospel is that people end up with all the weight upon their own shoulders, instead of looking to Christ.

What we will see from the text in Romans 6 is that everything in our salvation is connected, because ultimately everything comes to us through Jesus Christ.  If you are united to Christ then you have everything that Christ has purchased for you upon the cross.  You cannot have justification without sanctification because both come through union with Christ.  Similarly, you cannot have justification or sanctification without glorification, because Christ purchased both upon the cross.  If you are united to him, you will be finally saved.  As we move through these verses, we will see that Paul connects being united with Christ (and thus being a Christian) with holiness (ver. 6), justification (ver. 7), perseverance (ver. 8-10), and future hope.

The connection between union with Christ and holiness (6)

As we have already pointed out, Paul is continuing to tell us what it means to be dead to sin.  In verse 6, he puts it this way: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”  In this verse, we are reminded of the basis of our death to sin, we are given the description of our death so sin, and the result of our death to sin.

The basis of our death to sin comes in the words “our old self was crucified with him [Christ].”  Here the apostle once again establishes the fact that whatever happens to us in terms of our salvation, it has only happened because we are connected to Christ in his redemptive work.  His death for us becomes our death through union with Christ so that we share with him in his victory over sin.  

He further describes it in terms of our old man being crucified.  What does Paul mean by that?  Well, he means what we are in Adam.  Our old man is who we are apart from Christ, before our conversion and new birth.  In Ephesians, Paul again speaks about the old man in 4:22-24.  In that passage, we are told to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”  The old man or old self is therefore connected to the kind of life we lived before we were born again.  This has been crucified with Christ.

What follows is the description of our death to sin: it is that “the body of sin might be brought to nothing.”  Personally, I like the KJV rendering better: “that the body of sin might be destroyed.”  What has been destroyed is the “body of sin.”  But what does the apostle mean by “the body of death”?  The meaning of this is clarified, I think, by what Paul says in verse 13: “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”  In other words, sin presents itself through the members of our bodies.  This doesn’t mean that our physical body is bad, or that sin just dwells in our physical members.  Rather, this is a term that represents the sin that indwells us as “the body of sin” because indwelling sin manifests itself though our bodies.

In other words, what is destroyed is the power of indwelling sin.  Obviously, this doesn’t mean that sin no longer indwells us in any respect, but it does mean that its power has been broken (see ver. 14; also 8:13).  However, the fact that Paul uses the word “destroyed” indicates that ultimately the very presence of sin will one day be a thing of the past.  Christ didn’t die so that sin could hang on forever.  He died so that its power would be broken in every way that one day we would be finally free from all the remaining vestiges of sin.

What is the result of this?  It is that “we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”  One of the reasons Christ died for you is so that you would no longer be the slave to sin.  It is therefore silly to think that one could claim union with Christ and fellowship with his death and resurrection and yet go on living as if nothing had ever happened to the old man, as if the body of sin were still on the throne.  My friends, Christ died so that the power of sin might be broken in your life.

And that being the case, if holiness is behind God’s purpose in Christ’s death, should we not make it our daily aim to increase the measure of sanctification in our lives?  How careful we should be that we do not sin!  Should we not make it our aim, as it was of the apostle John, that “you might not sin” (1 Jn. 2:1)?  Should not God’s purpose be our purpose?  

But how do you measure sanctification in your life?  It is measured by who or what you serve: “so that we would no longer serve sin.”  What has your heart?  To what do your give your time and resources?  What part does God have in any of that?  Is what you give your life and heart to consistent with obedience to Christ?  These are all questions that we would do well to seriously consider.

The connection between union with Christ and justification (7)

In verse 7, the apostle says something that at first seems surprising.  He writes, “For one who has died to sin has been set free from sin.”  Now this is surprising because actually the word that Paul uses for “has been set free” is the word “has been justified.”  It’s the same Greek word that everywhere else in this epistle has been translated by “justified.”

Why did the translators of the ESV (and KJV, NIV, NASB, HCSB, among others) choose to translate this word here differently?  I honestly don’t know the answer to that, but wonder if they did so because they were concerned about guarding the forensic nature of justification, since here justification is linked to sanctification.  You will perhaps know that one of the big differences between Roman Catholic and Protestant takes on justification is that Protestants typically take justification to be forensic and to refer solely to the change in legal status (condemned to uncondemned and pardoned and accepted) whereas Roman Catholic theologians insist that justification also involves a change of life, from being actually unrighteous to being actually righteous.  

However, that doesn’t change the fact that word Paul chose to use is the word “justified.”  And since it everywhere else has one meaning, I prefer to take that meaning here.  Nevertheless, I have not suddenly become Roman Catholic!  For I do not think that when the apostle says that the one who has died (to sin) has been justified from sin he means that being dead to sin is what causes justification.  That can’t be what he means because then that would undermine everything else he has written in chapters 1-5.  God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5), so that being dead to sin can’t figure into the equation of justification apart from works.

How then does this support Paul’s argument here in chapter 6?  I think what he is arguing is that we cannot be sanctified unless we are justified; better yet, that if we are justified we will surely be sanctified, so that if you claim the former you must have the latter.  We simply cannot be freed from enslavement to sin while remaining under the condemnation of sin.  Do you remember Romans 1?  Sin is itself a punishment for sin.  It follows that as long as you remain under condemnation for sin, as long as you remain unjustified, you will never have any hope for becoming sanctified.  That’s why Paul says that if we have died to sin, we have already been justified from sin.  Being justified inevitably leads to holiness because once the guilt of sin has been removed, the way is open for the Spirit to start working in us to make us more like Christ.

Note that this implies that the two things don’t happen apart.  You don’t believe on Jesus and are justified and then years later become dead to sin.  Though sanctification doesn’t cause justification, yet it is impossible to have one without the other.  Why?  Because both things are things which are purchased by Christ.  If you have Christ, you have both.  You cannot be connected to Christ in his saving righteousness that leads to justification and not be connected to his saving holiness that leads to sanctification.

The connection between union with Christ and perseverance (8-10)

One of the age-old arguments among professing Christians is the question of whether or not a believer in Christ can lose their salvation.  Here Paul precludes this possibility because in these verses he shows that the finality of Christ’s death to sin is parallel to our death to sin.  He shows that we have so died to sin that we can never come under its power again.  This is what he says: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.  We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.  For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.”

If we died with Christ, we will live with him – there is certainty here – if we share with him in his death, we will share also in his resurrection.  We will not only die to sin, but live to God.  However, the fact that our death to sin is rooted in our union with Christ also means that the finality of his death to sin has implications for our death to sin.  Christ can never come under the power of sin and death again; neither can the believer.  Thus we see why it is that the Christian can never lose his or her salvation; for that would mean that you would come under the power of sin and death again.  But since we are united to Christ, this is impossible.

Now I must clarify here that Christ’s death to sin is not exactly like our death to sin.  When the apostle says that Christ died to sin in verse 10, he doesn’t mean that he was ever under the power of sin.  For he was sinless, undefiled, and separate from sinners.  He was made sin for us, but he knew no sin.  In other words, the parallel between his death to sin and ours does not mean identity.  He died to sin as our representative and substitute; not because he was personally a sinner.  He died to sin for us so that we might be able to be freed from sin’s power and dominion.  

Nevertheless, Paul’s point here is that there is a parallel between the finality of Christ’s death to sin and our death to sin.  And the clear implication of this is that once you are saved, you are saved forever.

How do we use the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints?  Not as an excuse for sin.  That again would undermine all of Paul’s argument in this chapter.  It is not to be used as a pillow for spiritual slothfulness and laziness.  For one thing, though we affirm that the truly saved will remain saved, this doesn’t mean that everyone who claims to be a Christian is one.  There is no promise that if you have made a profession of faith that you will be finally saved.  There is no promise that if you have been baptized that you will be finally saved.  The promise is that if you are truly united to Christ, you will be finally saved.

Rather, the way we use this doctrine is as an encouragement to constantly look to Christ and to hold on to him and to ask him to constantly hold on to us.  Only those whom Christ brings to heaven will be saved in the end and brought safely through the judgment.  There is no reason to have confidence in our own profession.  There is no reason for us to have confidence in our own ability to remain faithful.  On the contrary, we have every reason to doubt ourselves.  So what do we do?  We don’t solve this conundrum by infusing our profession of faith with saving properties.  Rather, we solve it by reposing ourselves entirely upon Christ and by constantly orienting the direction of our hearts and souls towards him.  For only in union with him will we be finally saved.

The connection between union with Christ and our future hope (9-10)

In verses 9-10, we are reminded that the life that we have by virtue of our life in Christ is a life that will never die.  Paul describes it as a life “to God.”  It is a life that is not only a life lived for God (which is the best kind of life), but a life lived in the presence of God (which is the blessed kind of life).  It is a life that will extend into eternity into the very presence of God.  What we have in Christ is better than anything that we can have in this world.

If we take this seriously (and it takes faith to do this, which is the point of Heb. 11), then it will help us especially in the face of trials and suffering.  This present life is not the end of the story.  It should free us from fear (the fear that comes from losing the comforts and securities of this world) and it should motivate us to God’s service (instead of spending ourselves upon ourselves and spending all our time sandbagging against future calamities).  

We cannot live without hope.  But the hope that does not make ashamed (Rom. 5:5) is the hope that we have in Christ.  It is a hope that we have by being connected to him by faith and the Holy Spirit.  The world cannot offer you anything in comparison.  Secular philosophers (if they are honest) can only tell you to live bravely in the face of despair.  Jesus Christ, in contrast, tells you to live bravely in the face of hope, a hope which only he can give.

Thank God for Jesus Christ.  Thank God for his redemptive work, which he accomplished, not for his own sake, but for the sake of the elect.  Let us trust in him, live for him, and glorify him with our lives. 

Saturday, October 26, 2019

What does it mean to be dead to sin? – Romans 6:1-5

Does grace give us an excuse to live in sin?  Unfortunately, many throughout the history of the Christian church have drawn this very conclusion.  They argue that since we are justified by faith apart from works (Paul’s argument in chapter 3-4), and since this salvation is secure (Paul’s argument in chapter 5), we no longer have to worry about the sins in our life.  In fact, given what the apostle just got through saying, that where sin abounded grace did much more abound (5:20-21), it seems logical to conclude that grace is magnified whenever and wherever sin abounds.

Paul is going to argue that this isn’t the case.  Not only is the occasion for his argument rooted in a possible objection to his previous statement in chapter 5, but it is organically rooted in his argument from our union with Christ in the previous chapter.  The argument is this: just as we have union with Adam so that what he did accrues to those who are in him, even so believers have union with Christ so that what he did accrues to them.  However, Christ did not just deliver us from the guilt of sin, but also from the power of sin.  So if we claim to have union with Christ and yet go on living in sin, we are living in a fundamental contradiction to the reality of his redemptive work on our behalf.

The apostle’s answer to the objection of verse 1 is that we have died to sin (ver. 2).  Obviously, if you are dead to sin it’s impossible to live in it.  But what does he mean by this?  What does it mean to be dead to sin?  Now it’s important that we understand from the very outset what the apostle is claiming and what he is not claiming in making that statement.  Otherwise, we will go wrong in the application of the truths of this chapter to our lives.  Since this is the central thesis to Paul’s argument, it’s important that we really understand what he is saying here.

What I am going to argue is that being dead to sin does not mean moral perfection, nor positional perfection, but rather spiritual transformation.

Not Moral Perfection

First, of all, he is not saying that if you are a Christian, you become morally perfect so that you no longer have to struggle against sin.  That would contradict what he says later on, especially in verses 11-14.  We are exhorted to not let sin have dominion over us, not to let it reign in our mortal bodies.  In 8:13, we are commanded to mortify the sinful deeds of our bodies through the power of the Spirit.  Now none of this would be necessary (not to mention the exhortations of chapters 12-15!) if being dead to sin meant that we are morally perfect and without sin by virtue of our union with Christ.

Now there are some throughout the history of the church who have taught that you can be justified by faith but that later on you may just be able to break through the power of sin over your life and move to a different level so that you no longer have to struggle and fight with sin any longer.  Let me just say that that is nowhere taught anywhere in Scripture.  There is no indication that this side of heaven we can achieve a sort of perfection in which we are no longer prone to the assaults of sin.  Every believer, no matter where they are in their spiritual trajectory, are liable to fall into sin.  Let the one who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall (1 Cor. 10:12).  I don’t care how long you have been a Christian, or how many victories you have achieved, you need to be as vigilant against sin as the newest believer.  Some of the greatest moral and spiritual failures recorded in Scripture didn’t happen to new converts but to established saints.  One thinks of King David, or the apostle Peter, for example.  It was after Elijah’s greatest victory over the prophets of Baal that he sunk to his lowest level of unbelief and defeatism.

Now I am not saying that you can’t grow in grace.  Of course we should expect that.  There should be in all of us who have experienced the grace of God in our lives a measure of growth.  We are to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph. 4:15).  There is something wrong with us if there we are no more spiritually mature now than we were when we were first converted to Christ.  

But what I am saying is that being dead to sin doesn’t mean that the struggle against sin goes away.  And you shouldn’t conclude that because you have these inward struggles with sin that you are not a Christian.  In fact, I would say that the fact that you are struggling against sin is evidence of life.  I would worry about someone who thought they didn’t need to worry about sin in their life.  That’s not evidence of spiritual maturity but of spiritual folly.

Not Positional Perfection

Second, neither does the apostle only mean by being “dead to sin” that we are legally dead to the claims of sin upon us, what I before referred to as positional perfection.  In other words, there are some who look at these words and think that the apostle is claiming something here about our legal position in Christ (which is perfect), even if it is not an actual reality in our lives.  This is closer to the truth of these verses, but it is not quite right.  For clearly the apostle is not just talking about what we are positionally in Christ, but also about how his atonement has been applied to our lives.  Now it is true that in virtue of our union with Christ that sin has no claims upon us, and this reality is pointed to in verse 7, but the apostle is also at pains to argue that there are definite and real differences in the lives of those who have died to sin.  

Again, we must remember that this is an argument against continuing in sin that grace might abound.  Being dead to sin is a reason why we no longer live in sin, why it is utterly ridiculous to imagine those who are in Christ continuing in sin.  Therefore being dead to sin must have some reference to the breaking of the power of sin over our lives.

Spiritual Transformation

And this is what I believe is the key idea in these words.  To be dead to sin means to be freed from the power of sin over us.  It means spiritual transformation.  Note that the entire context refers over and over again to the reign of sin, to the power of sin, to the dominion of sin, to the enslaving authority of sin (cf. 5:21; 6:6, 12, 14, 17, 18, 20, 22).  To be dead to sin must therefore have reference to the breaking of this power of sin in the life.

What does it mean for the power of sin to be broken in our lives?  Well, I would suggest that it means the following things.

First, it means that the enslaving attraction of sin has been broken in our lives.  Now of course I’m not suggesting that sin no longer has its appeal to believers.  If that were the case, we wouldn’t have to have these exhortations to beware of the deceitfulness of sin (cf. Heb. 3:13).  Sin deceives us by appealing to us.  But there is a difference.  Before we are born again, we may see that certain sins are less desirable because of the consequences that are attached to them, but when we are born again, we begin to see sin for what it is, that it is undesirable in itself.  We begin to grieve over sins in ways that we did not do before.  

One of the reasons why sin loses its appeal is because it has been supplanted by a superior attraction in the heart, namely, that of God.  The real difference between someone who is in Christ and someone who is not in Christ is the fundamental loyalty and allegiance of the heart.  Those who are still “in the flesh” and enslaved to sin are those who love themselves more than they love Christ.  They may say they love God but the priorities of their lives tell a different story.  But whereas we once loved our own sovereignty, now we with pleasure embrace the sovereignty of God over our own lives.  We begin to taste and see that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8).  

I often tell people that the first time I realized I was a mathematician was the first time I read the proof of a certain theorem and thought it was beautiful.  It is one thing to read proofs and understand them, but to read a mathematical proof and see the beauty in it is what sets someone who is a mathematician apart from those who simply do math.  In the same way, what sets a Christian apart from those who merely do Christianity is that the true Christian sees the glory of God and the beauty of God and the majesty of God.  This is partly what the apostle is getting at when we wrote, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).  Those who see that no longer see a life apart from God as freedom but as the slavery that it is.  And in seeing that, sin loses its power over us.

Recently I picked up the Marsden biography of Jonathan Edwards.  In it he recounts Edwards’ own explanation of his conversion.  Edwards describes how as he was reading 1 Tim. 1:17 (“Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.” KJV), upon which “there came into my soul, and was as it were diffused through it, a sense of the glory of the divine being; a new sense, quite different from anything I ever experienced before.”  He goes on to say that “I thought with myself, how excellent a Being that was; and how happy I should be, if I might enjoy that God, and be wrapped up to God in heaven, and be as it were swallowed up in him.”  He described it as a “new sort of affection” toward God.[1]  That’s the difference, and what “breaks the power of cancelled sin.”  It doesn’t matter what sort of experience you have or have not had; what matters is what has the attraction of your heart: is it God or is it something else?  For until God has the love of our hearts, we will still remain in bondage to sin.

Another way to put it is that dying to sin breaks the blinding enslavement of sin within us.  Sin is attractive to us because it blinds us to greater glories.  “And even if our gospel is veiled [hid, KJV], it is veiled to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of his world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:3-4).  Sin deadens our senses to spiritual delights and realities.  It is not really primarily an intellectual problem as it is a moral and spiritual struggle.  Edwards notes that up to the point of his conversion he had had all these intellectual problems with the sovereignty of God and the gospel.  Then one day they disappeared; and Edwards, who never lost the ability to think acutely about the most knotty theological and philosophical problems of his day, couldn’t really explain how this had happened – except that one day what had once seemed unreasonable and objectionable now seemed delightful and glorious.  The blinders had been removed.

But I think being dead to sin means something much more.  What is to explain the loss of attraction that sin once had and the deliverance from spiritual blindness?  It can only be explained by virtue of our union with Christ in his redemptive work.  Because of this, there is now a power at work in us that there never was before.

This is the whole point of verses 3-5.  How can we die to sin?  Because we have died with Christ: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  

Here is the argument: we who are believers (as evidenced by baptism) have died with Christ.  However, we not only die with him, but we share with him in his resurrection.  The result of our union with Christ in his death and resurrection is so that “we too might walk in newness of life.”  If we are united with him in his death, we will also be united with him in his resurrection, and this means a different kind of life, a new life.  We are dead to sin because we now live for Christ.  There has been a fundamental change of allegiance.  Once we were enslaved by sin; now we serve and obey Jesus as our King.

But it is utterly crucial for us to see that what makes the difference is not something in us; we are changed in virtue of our union with Christ in his redemptive work.  The life that we now experience (6:4) is the life that he gives (5:17, 21).  Our ability to fling off the shackles of sin’s dominion and power do not come from our own power or ability.  They come from Jesus Christ, and are intimately connected to his death and resurrection on our behalf.  

Here it is important to see the connection between these verses and 5:12-21.  You are either in Adam or in Christ.  If you are in Adam, then you share in his death – and that death is more than just physical death, but moral and spiritual death.  But if you are in Christ, you share in his life.  Paul is now telling us what this life looks like and what the implications are for your life.  However, we must understand that this life only comes to us as we are in Christ, united to him through the Spirit and by faith.  This life is not a product of our own willing and doing.  It is not the result of trying harder.  It is not the outcome of a decision.  Rather, it is the fruit of our Lord’s redemptive work on our behalf, of which we become partakers when it is applied to us by faith.

This is a reality for every Christian.  Paul is not describing an advanced level of Christianity, he is describing what is true of every one who professes Christ, who is baptized.  If we say we believe in Christ then we are saying that we are united to Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection.  We symbolize it in our baptism.  This is not graduate Christianity; this is Christianity 101.  

Paul certainly believes that if we are united to Christ in this way, then there will be some definite changes in our lives.  We will no longer continue in sin.  We will walk in newness of life.  Is there a “newness” in our lives?  The apostle assumes this to be the case for everyone who claims to be a follower of Christ.

What conclusions can we draw from this?

First, as we have already pointed out, but I think important to emphasize, being dead to sin does not mean that fighting sin becomes easy.  Perhaps more importantly, it does not mean that it is automatic.  Becoming a Christian still means dying to yourself, and it means persevering through hard times.  No one in the early church would ever have imaged that following Christ was easy.  And the process of sanctification, of becoming more and more like Christ, is part and parcel of the enduring hardness that Paul called Timothy (and us) to (2 Tim. 2:3).  Paul, in another place, likens the Christian life to a boxing match (1 Cor. 9:26-27), hardly a metaphor for an easy going sanctification.  If you are not wrestling hard with sin, you are likely not growing in grace.  More than that, you are painting a target on your back for Satan.  The fact that Paul goes on to say that we should not let sin reign in our mortal bodies indicates that we are still in the struggle against sin (Rom. 6:12).  For the fact that sin still wants to reign means that it is still fighting against us, and unless we are willing to fight back, we are going to succumb (cf. Heb. 12:4).  Also the fact that Paul mentions our “mortal bodies” reminds us that we are not yet in heaven, that we are not yet perfect.

The point I am driving at is that we should never become lazy with respect to growth in holiness.  We should never take it for granted.  The spiritual disciplines are important.  Watchfulness is essential.  Prayer and Bible reading must be cultivated.  We must avoid those things which deaden our souls to spiritual things.  Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for a major fall.  And when we fall, we usually take others down with us – very rarely do the consequences of sin stay in the tidy margins of our own lives.

Second, it means that we can never really achieve any measure of spiritual success apart from the grace of Christ.  Although it is true that our death to sin does not make fighting sin easy, yet it does make it possible because of who we are in Christ.  It is not possible for anyone to truly grapple with sin apart from the work of Christ for us and in us.  We can only put sin to death by the grace of Christ, by virtue of our being united with him (cf. John 15:1-5). 

What this means is that our spiritual journey is not just about what we are doing; it is about communion with our Lord.  It is about relying on him for grace and strength.  Our victory over sin is not a product of our sheer will power; rather it is the product of the power of Christ in us, obtained by faith.  This is why the apostle John would write, “And this is the victory that overcomes the world – our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5).

Another way to put it is that the epistles of the New Testament are not self-help manuals.  Though it is vitally important to emphasize the role we play in disciplining ourselves for godliness (cf. 1 Tim. 4:7), yet we must also continually emphasize that we can only do this in a way that leads to real growth in Christ-likeness when we do so through faith in Christ, leaning upon him and trusting in him.  Our strength for the battle does not come from within, but from without – from heaven itself.  Do you want to put sin to death?  Then look to Christ!  Continually come to him for help and strength and grace.  “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

It also means that if you are not a Christian and are struggling with sin, what you need is not better advice but a Savior.  The bonds of sin that restrain us can never be broken by our own will-power.  It takes the power of God.  You need the gospel.  You need to look to the Savior before you need anything else.  

Now this doesn’t mean that we don’t do anything.  This is no excuse for laziness.  But we must continually preserve the balance of Phil. 2:12-13: work out your own salvation, yes – but do so knowing that it is only possible because God is working in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.  

Third, it means that if we are in Christ, there will be a definite difference in our lives.  Note how Paul puts it in verse 5: “we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”  For Paul, sharing in Christ’s resurrection means spiritual transformation (ver. 4; cf. also Phil. 3;10-11).  It was unthinkable for Paul to imagine a Christian whose life did not change as a result of his or her union with Christ.  Today, there are still people around who claim you can be elect, born again, a believer, or whatever, and yet go on living in sin.  This is complete and total rubbish.  If you are a Christian, there will be newness of life.  It is impossible to imagine Christ giving new life to someone and yet that person going on as if they were still dead in their sins.  I wonder if this is one reason why the apostle mentions the “glory of the Father” in verse 4.  It was the glory of the Father that raised Christ from the dead, and that same glory and power is part of our own spiritual resurrection (Eph. 1:19-20).  How can we not be completely transformed when shined upon by the glory of the Father himself?

Are you a Christian?  Then be encouraged!  Don’t think that you are on this journey alone, or that it is up to you to get to the end.  You are united to Christ, and united to him, to his power and grace for strength to fight the very thing that most threatens your joy: sin.  On the other hand, beware of a legalistic spirit that looks inward instead of upward.  Every step along the way, look to Christ, rely on him, trust in him, and love him above all things.

[1] George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Kindle Edition, loc. 652).

Friday, October 11, 2019

The increase of sin and the abounding of grace. Rom. 5:18-21

Verses 18 and 19 of Romans 5 not only complete the comparison that Paul began in verse 12, but they also summarize the overall argument of the apostle in these verses.  They are parallel and state the same truth in different ways.  They tell us that “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” and that “by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.”  The apostle here says explicitly that we are all condemned and regarded as sinners by Adam’s transgression in the Garden of Eden.  Since the human race exists in solidarity with Adam, what he did affects every one of his descendants.  It is the explanation for the sad state of the world that we see today.

But that is not the only thing the apostle says.  Adam is not the only one who has left his mark on the world.  There is another Adam, the Second and Last Adam, Jesus Christ, who has come into this world to put right what Adam messed up.  So the apostle also says that “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” and that “by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.”  What is the “one act of righteousness”?  What is the “obedience” referred to here?  Paul is almost certainly referring to what our Lord did on the cross.  You may remember a few weeks ago, we made the case that our Lord’s redemptive work should be seen in the context of his obedience to the Father.  This is why Paul writes elsewhere that our Lord “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).  So our Lord’s obedience in yielding up his life to the Father is what stands in contrast to Adam’s rebellion against God’s authority over him.  

The apostle says that it is by virtue of what our Lord did in yielding up his life an obedient sacrifice to the Father for us that we are granted justification and life.  Now Paul’s argument all along has never been that we obey God just as Jesus obeyed God and are justified.  No, his argument is that we are justified by grace by virtue of what Christ has done for us and in our stead.  This is why God can justify the ungodly (Rom. 4:5).  We are not saved by our righteousness but by the righteousness of God imputed to us when we believe on his Son.  

Now this is where the comparison is so important.  Notice the words of comparison in these two verses: “as . . . so . . .”  The apostle is teaching us that Adam’s sin bears upon our condemnation in much the same way that our Lord’s righteousness bears upon our justification.  The inevitable conclusion is this: just as Adam’s sin was imputed to us for condemnation, even so our Lord’s righteousness is imputed to us for justification.

Why is this so important, one may ask.  What difference does it make?  It makes this difference: if we are really to understand just how much we need the grace of God and work of Christ on our behalf, we need to understand how deep our need is.  And our need is deeper than our sinning against God.  Now don’t get me wrong: our own sin is enough to condemn every one of us.  Our own sin definitely has to be dealt with.  But our need goes beyond the first time we sin.  It goes all the way back to the point of Adam’s sin.  It is why we are born dead in sin and slaves to sin.  It is the explanation of the universality of sin and the universality of death.  Because of Adam’s sin, we are not born into the garden of Eden.  We are born, as it were, into a graveyard.  We are broken people in a broken world.

But what Paul is saying is that our Lord has undone what Adam did.  As we pointed out last time, Christ didn’t just put us back to where Adam was, but he has put us in an infinitely better position.  In Christ, we are not only potentially able to inherit life, but we most definitely will and must inherit the life purchased for us by our Lord and Redeemer.

Now this brings us to verses 20 and 21, which is where I want to focus our thoughts this morning.  Remember that in verses 13 and 14, the apostle had explained that the Law of Moses couldn’t explain why people died, because it couldn’t explain why people died between Adam and Moses.  But what he does here is to say that the Law of Moses can’t explain why people get saved.  

You see, someone may have tracked Paul up to this point, and said, “Okay, I get that the Law is not the ultimate reason why there is death in the world.  But why did God give the Law?  Didn’t he give it in order to save people from the sin, condemnation, and death that the sin of Adam brought into the world?”  The apostle’s answer comes to us in verses 20 and 21: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  In other words, not only is not Law of Moses not the reason why people get saved, it is actually the reason why sin has increased among those to whom it was given.  The law can’t save; it only puts us in a worse condition, one where sin has increased and abounded.

The obvious question at this point is: in what ways did the offense abound through the law?  In what ways dd the law cause sin to increase?  Looking ahead, we will see in chapter 7 that the apostle spends a lot of time defending the law and arguing for its essential holiness.  The law is not the problem; we are the problem.  The law is holy and just and good (Rom. 7:12).   We are the ones who are unholy and unjust and bad.  So we can’t say that the reason why sin increased through the law is because the law is bad.  

In a sermon on this text, Martyn Lloyd-Jones argued that the law cause sin to increase in three main ways: by giving us information about sin, by moving us to the conviction of sin, and through the provocation of sin.  I think he is on cue here, and so I am going to follow his general outline in our consideration of how the law causes sin to increase.

The law increases sin by giving us information about sin.

The first way in which the law causes sin to abound, or increase, is by giving us information about sin.  Though it is true that God’s law is written on our hearts by virtue of being created in his image, and that conscience testifies to this law, yet the fact of the matter is that our conscience is not infallible, and the law of God written on the heart often gets overwritten with data that is very different from what God’s law says.  Our environment, our culture, our upbringing, our life experiences all affect the way we read what is right and what is wrong.  In the book of Isaiah, we read of those who “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Isa. 5:20).  And so we can become blinded to what is true and pure and good.

That is where God’s law is so important.  What is sin?  The apostle John defines it for us: “Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law: for sin the transgression of the law” (1 Jn. 3:4, KJV).  If you really want to know what sin is, you must look to God’s word.  You must look to his law.  You must look to what he has said about what is right and what is wrong.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what society claims is just and right; what mattes is what the Lord says.  We need to understand that we can think that something is unjust not because it is but because our society has programmed us to think it is unjust (or vice versa).  We don’t realize just how much we are enslaved to the thinking of our culture.  

This is why we must constantly expose ourselves to the light of God’s word and law.  If God’s word seems strange to us, it is not because it is wrong but because we are.  And so this is, in a strange sense, how God’s law increases sin.  We suddenly become aware that there is something in our life that we thought was completely innocuous.  But there is it in the Bible: it tells us that it is wrong and sinful.  We didn’t think it was sinful before; now we are aware that an authority far above our own or that of our culture that says that this is sinful.  The law defines sin for us and tells us that certain things that we before thought were completely harmless are wrong, and in that sense causes in to increase.

Let me give you an example of one place where the law is especially helpful in causing us to see something as sin that we might not normally see on our own.  It is sin in the desires of our heart.  Paul himself confesses that, blameless though he was in respect to the external conformity to the law, the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet” made him realize that the reach of the law extended to the heart and its desires.  And suddenly a million sins rose up from the shadows and stood before his consciousness.  It’s not enough to avoid committing adultery, but you must also abstain from lust.  You must not only not extend your hand to take another’s life, but you must also abstain from hating them.  God’s word condemns pride with all the ferocity as it does robbing the poor of justice.  It takes aim not only at your actions but also at your affections.

This is the way our Lord deployed the law when confronted with the Rich Young Ruler.  Like Paul, he led a morally blameless life, at least in respect of his outward conduct.  But then our Lord confronts him with his covetousness, and his greed.  He prized his wealth more than he did the kingdom of God.  When he walked away, “disheartened” and “sorrowful” we are told (cf. Mk. 10:22), he was acutely aware of the reach of the law of God in ways he had never been before.  Sin certainly had increased in its scope because his knowledge of God’s law had expanded.

The law causes sin to increase by moving us to the conviction of sin.

Sin increases not only when we become aware of sin by virtue of its definition in God’s word, but also by being brought to the conviction of sin by God’s word.  If we are just confronted with the knowledge of sin, that knowledge is likely to flit in and then out of our minds just as quickly.  It only takes hold of our imaginations and thoughts and hearts when it becomes cemented there through conviction.  

It is not enough to know right and wrong.  We must also be moved to action through that knowledge, and that is where conviction comes in.  What is conviction of sin?  I would say that conviction of sin has taken hold of us when we agree with all our hearts with the judgment of Gods word upon our lives. It happens when we stop making excuses for our sins but are convinced that what we are doing is wrong and is worthy of God’s just judgment.  It happens when we surrender to the verdict of God’s word upon our lives.  It happens not only when we are aware of God’s sentence upon our lives and deeds, but when we are willing to say “yes” to it.  In the words of the hymn by Isaac Watts: 

“My lips with shame my sins confess
Against Thy law, against Thy grace;
Lord, should Thy judgments grow severe, 
I am condemned, but Thou art clear.

  Should sudden vengeance seize my breath,
I must pronounce Thee just in death; 
And if my soul were sent to hell,
Thy righteous law approves it well.”

There are many examples of this throughout Scripture.  David, for example, after he had sinned by adultery and complicity in the murder of Uriah, didn’t just admit he had sinned, but really believed that God’s judgment upon him was completely just and that any staying of his deserved punishment was sheer mercy.  He put it this way in Psalm 51: “For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.  Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (3-4).  You may judge a person’s conviction of sin by two things: by their willingness to admit that they are not only wrong but that the punishment that God’s word threatens is just, and by their desire to stop what they are doing and repent.

Now it is true that you can knowledge of sin without conviction, but you cannot have conviction of sin without the knowledge of sin.  And you cannot have knowledge of sin apart from God’s law – whether that written on the heart or that written in the pages of Scripture.  And by creating conviction of sin, God’s law in that sense causes sin to abound.  

Of course, conviction of sin is not enough for salvation.  It is necessary, because without it we will never reach for the mercy of God offered in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Conviction is a mercy and, painful though it can often be, we ought to be thankful for it.  But conviction is not salvation.  Our sin has to be dealt with, and this the law cannot do.  And that ultimately is Paul’s point.

The law increases sin by increasing the provocation to sin.

Now we must never say that God causes anyone to sin.  So that is not what we mean when we say that God’s law increases the provocation of sin.  This is because the reason for the provocation does not lie in God’s law itself, but in ourselves.  

What do I mean, then, when I say that the law causes the provocation of sin?  I mean that the law actually stirs up rebellion when it meets rebellious hearts.  In chapter 8, the apostle characterizes people who are not born again as “hostile to God” having hearts and minds that do “not submit to God’s law” (Rom. 8:7).  What does a rebel do when faced down with a decree from the king?  Does he not rebel against it?  Isn’t that what it means to be a rebel?  When a law was passed by the British parliament demanding the colonists to pay a tax on tea, what did they do?  They poured the tea into the Boston harbor!  They didn’t just not pay the tax, but committed an additional act of defiance.  When God’s law meets a rebel heart and demands its surrender, it doesn’t meekly submit.  It creates more sin by ignoring God’s authority and by doing the exact opposite of what God’s law commands.

I think this is primarily what the apostle is thinking of when he penned this verse.  This is how the law entering in caused sin to abound and increase.  So, far from promoting our salvation, by itself the law only makes the problem of sin more difficult.  The law does not draw us to heaven; it increases our transgressions and causes the separation between us and God to grow.  The law is not a bridge to forgiveness and fellowship with God; it is a barrier to it.

Now it’s very important to consider the corollary to this truth.  The law is God’s word to us on what we are to do and not to do.  The law tells us to stop sinning, to repent, to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves.  But that is all the law can do.  It cannot do more than that.  And that is the problem.  We need more than law written on a stone telling us what to do.  We need God’s law to be written on our hearts in a way that causes us to love what God has commanded.  And that the law itself can never do.  We need grace; we need the Spirit of God.  That is not a product of law, but a product of the work of Christ for us on our behalf.  

This is what Paul was getting at when he wrote to the Corinthians, “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor. 3:3).  He is contrasting the power of the gospel with the power of the law.  The point is that the law is powerless to produce in us the obedience that it commands.  Only the power of the Spirit of Christ who works in and through the gospel can do that.  

So it is not enough just to tell people what they need to do.  People need the grace of God.  They need the Spirit of God working in them to produce in them the obedience God’s law demands.  That is why they need the gospel, why they need to trust in Christ.  It is only when we trust in Christ that we receive the grace needed to obey.

But more than that, it is only when we trust in Christ that we receive his righteousness.  Remember, it’s not only a problem of future obedience, it’s also a problem of the guilt of sins.  We not only need to become new people, we also need to deal with the very real guilt from our sins, past, present, and future.  We not only need regeneration; we also need justification.  That doesn’t come from the law; it can only come through Christ and what he has done for us as the Second Adam.  

The way some people use the law reminds me of a skit done some time ago (with Bob Newhart), where a woman comes to see a counselor with a phobia that she hadn’t been able to conquer.  After she comes into the office, he explains to her that he charges $5 for the first five minutes and nothing after that.  She is very happy to agree to these conditions, of course, and sits down for the therapy session.  After she explains to him her phobia (being buried alive in a box), he tells her that he has two words that should clear everything up.  Upon which he says, very forcefully, “Stop it!”  (After a bit more give and take, the session ends when he tells her to listen to 10 words that will definitely clear everything up: “Stop it or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”)  

Now that is what the law does.  It tells us to stop it, good advice of course and one that we should take heed to.  But the problem is that we are not neutral people.  We are not neutral with respect to our sins.  The problem is that we love them.  Telling someone to stop it is not going to get them to fall out of love with their sin.  That takes the grace of God, and that is something that only comes to us through Christ.

How grace abounds.

So the law causes sin to increase.  But, thank God, that is not the whole story.  For the apostle continues: “but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The idea here is not that grace matches the increase of sin, so that as sin scores points grace puts the same number of points on the board.  No, the idea is that grace completely overwhelms the advance of sin.  

Is the law impotent against the march of sin?  Yes.  Does it not only not stop its advance but in some sense contribute to its ravaging the soul?  Sadly, yes.  Then how can we stop it?  Not by speaking powerless commands into the air!  The advance of sin is stopped, and along with it the condemnation and death that it brings, by the grace of God.  Paul is anticipating what he will write in the next chapter; in particular, in verse 14: “For sin will not have dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”  

Grace, in this context, is all that God is for us in Christ Jesus so that sin’s penalty, power, and presence are defeated.  That is how grace comes and abounds: “through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  How did our Lord do it?  By “righteousness.”  The righteousness here is the righteousness of Christ, his righteousness in obeying the Father, not only at the end of his life but from beginning to end so that he would be the perfect sacrifice.  He fully fulfilled the law, not only the types and shadows but also all the commandments, in our place.  And then he satisfied the law’s penalty by standing in for us and bearing the punishment that we deserved.  The righteousness of Christ therefore saves us.  And this righteousness is so powerful that it not only makes eternal life possible, but leads inevitably to eternal life for those who belong to him.

It’s important for us to see that in order for grace to abound where sin increased, grace must defeat sin in every aspect.  Some of Paul’s hearers apparently misunderstood him at this point, and therefore drew the false conclusion that if grace abounds where sin abounded, then let us continue in sin that grace might abound.  But that would be to misinterpret the work of Christ.  He didn’t come to leave us entrapped in the clutches of sin.  He didn’t come to give us forgiveness but leave us helpless.  No, grace does not leave a person where it found him or her.  It empowers us against sin; it does what the law cannot do.  This will be the theme of chapter 6, but we need to be aware of it as we end our consideration of this chapter.  It pains me to see people celebrate grace through the wounds that sin has given people.  Yes, grace can forgive us no matter what we have done, that is gloriously true!  But we dishonor the grace of God when we make people whose lives remain a wreck as exemplars of grace.  Grace is most honored when it not only clears our past but also makes us new people with new desires and new lives.  Like the saintly John Newton put it: "I am not what I ought to be.  I am not what I hope to be in another world.  But thank God, I am not what I used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am."  Grace does not allow sin to reign but displaces sin from its throne and reigns in its place.  Praise God for the grace of God that comes to us through Christ our Lord!

Romans 6:11-14 – How does a Christian fight sin?

In asking the question, “How does a Christian fight sin?” I am assuming that the question makes sense to you.  However, I don’t thin...