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.