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