Any Christian genuinely seeking to please God struggles with sin. We all recognize that we are not where God wants us; that our thoughts and actions are still far too worldly; that we are far short of the holiness that God insists should characterize His people.
No wonder, then, that a virtual “cottage industry” offering “the key to the Christian life” has sprung up in Christian circles. One cannot peruse a Christian publisher’s catalog or scan a list of local church seminar offerings without finding some writer or speaker claiming to have the solution to our struggle with sin. Some, perhaps most, of these books and seminars can genuinely help us grow in Christ. But almost all of them promise more than they can deliver — for there is no simple “key” to the successful Christian life, and success will not come easily but only after years of hard, dedicated spiritual discipline.
Paul gives us a glimpse of what the struggle against sin is like in Romans 6:1–14. For five chapters he has proclaimed the Good News that sinners can be put right with God by believing on Christ and His work. But the more Paul emphasizes that we are justified by faith alone, the more we wonder whether there is any point in even trying to live a consistent Christian life. If God has already accepted us, why should we worry about sin? Paul’s basic answer is that the true Christian will never seriously ask this question. To be justified by faith means that we also are brought into a relationship with Christ — and that relationship cannot help but change the very way we look at sin.
But we are particularly interested in the way Paul elaborates his answer. We can best understand Paul’s response by unpacking its essential logic, a logic that proceeds in three steps:
We have died with Christ (Romans 6:3).
Christ died to sin (Romans 6:10).
Therefore, we have died to sin (Romans 6:2).
Following Romans 5, with its teaching about the sinner’s identification with Adam in sin and death, and the believer’s identification with Christ in righteousness and life, it is no wonder that Paul continues in Romans 6 to emphasize our real involvement with Christ in redemptive events. As Christ died to take away the penalty our sins had earned, so He also died to cancel the power of sin over us. Through faith, expressed in baptism, we identify with Christ and enjoy the power over sin that He Himself won (v. 10). Of course, Christ was never under sin’s power in such a way that He was forced to sin. But as a fully incarnate man, He was exposed to its power. Therefore, His death won release from sin’s power over Him. And it also wins release from sin’s power for every Christian united with Him by faith.
And so Paul can claim that we have “died to sin.” What does this mean?
A dear friend from seminary days, now with the Lord, once told me how he used to illustrate Romans 6 when he preached. He would remind the congregation just how much he loved strawberry shortcake. But, he would continue, when he was dead, lying in his coffin, people could bring all the strawberry shortcake they wanted into the room and he would not react. He would be “dead” to strawberry shortcake.
My friend was not long into his ministry before he realized how bad an illustration this really was. The analogy suggests that the Christian who is “dead” to sin cannot react to it any longer — that sin cannot entice or tempt him. But we know from experience that this is just not true. More important, we know from Scripture that it is not true. For Paul goes on in this very passage to urge Christians not to let sin reign in their mortal bodies (v. 12). Such a command is simple nonsense if believers cannot react to sin any more. So being “dead to sin” does not mean we are insensitive to sin; it means we no longer are under its ruling power. Paul unpacks the concept of being “dead to sin” by claiming that we are “no longer . . . slaves of sin” (v. 6); thus, he can conclude, “sin shall not have dominion over you” (v. 14).
What Paul presents as the “key” to the Christian life, therefore, is a new relationship to sin, anchored in our identification with Christ’s own death and resurrection. In that new relationship, sin no longer has the power to dictate terms to us. But this new relationship does not mean that the battle with sin is over. Indeed, in a sense, it means that it has just begun. The non-Christian, while capable of doing good things by virtue of God’s common grace, can never win out over sin. But we can. God has given the Christian a new power over sin. It is our job to use it in fighting the continuing, manifold enticements of sin.
This is why Paul concludes this passage with a call to arms: “Do not present your members as instruments [or weapons] of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments [or weapons] of righteousness to God” (v. 13). Paul gives no hint that this battle will end any time soon; indeed, he makes clear elsewhere that it will not be until God redeems our bodies in the last day that we will have final victory over sin (Rom. 8:23).
For Paul, then, the “key” to the Christian life is a new relationship to sin through identification with Jesus Christ. This is not a key that we can put in the lock and magically open the door to total holiness. It is more like a power source from which we draw every day as we seek to conform our lives more and more closely to the One who died for us.
From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343.