Death to Sin: The Radical Solution of the Cross
In Romans chapters six, seven and eight, Paul deals with topics of immense significance for the Christian’s practical life. In these chapters we see how radically Paul conceives of our problem as human beings and how radical his solution to that problem is. Too often we think of ourselves as basically good people and if we just tried harder to keep God’s moral law as revealed in the Scripture and if we just got that Scripture into our minds and hearts, we would be able to keep it. But in these chapters Paul exposes the insufficiency of external law to cause a change in the human heart. He exposes the fallacy of self-effort, and our absolute powerlessness before the power and person of sin, i.e. Satan. But Paul does not leave us hanging but provides us with an answer: God Himself, in the person of the Holy Spirit, has come to dwell within us to live His life through us and to manifest His own holy character through us as His vessels. Only in this way will we no longer fall short of the perfect glory of God (see Rom. 3:22).
In Romans 5:20, Paul says that the law was added so that the trespass might increase. Now to us this statement may not appear unusual, but to the ancient readers it must have seemed quite astonishing. The Jew of Paul’s time believed that God had given the law as the means of keeping oneself from sinning. To the Jew, the law itself was the manifestation of God’s grace. The law was God’s gift to Israel. How then could the law lead to even more sinning? To the Jew, Paul’s statement would have seemed nothing short of blasphemous. The idea that God gave the law or the old covenant in order to increase the amount of sinning in the world, not to restrain or hold back sin is the springboard from which the following three chapters arise. Despite this horrible effect produced by sin when combined with God’s holy law, sin does not have the last word. Even though sins had multiplied as a result of God’s law, nevertheless, God’s grace increased to meet the need (5:21).
The next two and half chapters (Romans 6-8:13) have a two-fold purpose. Positively, Paul wishes to show how his gospel meets our need for deliverance from the power of sin. Negatively, Paul wishes to answer the objections of Jewish Christians who opposed him and who specifically objected to that very statement in 5:20 that the law had led to an even greater amount of sin rather than restraining it. In order to understand what Paul is saying it is important to notice the four objections that Paul answers in these chapters. In 6:1, his opponents ask "Shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?" In 6:15, they ask, "Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?" In 7:7, they ask, "Is the law, then the same thing as sin or something sinful?" And in 7:13, the opponents ask "Did that which is good become the cause of my death?" These questions are critical because they provide the context to which Paul is writing. The real issue in these chapters is this: "Why isn’t the external law and self-effort enough to produce righteous behavior?
Righteous behavior and the fruits of repentance are an essential condition for salvation at the final judgment. Of course one could never earn or deserve salvation by means of one’s own efforts and good works, but God still requires that those who would be saved to repent or turn from the sinful life that they had been living and live in obedience to His will. Without repentance or obedience, there can be no salvation, for the wages of sin are death (6:23), and those who live according to the flesh will die (eternally) (Gal. 6:7-8). This means that holiness and a righteous life-style is an indispensable necessity for the Christian. But if external law only results in an increase in sinning rather than restraining it, what hope do we have even to change our behavior by our own efforts to keep God’s law? Paul’s answer is: Absolutely none!
Powerless Over Sin
So in chapters six to eight Paul shows that a more radical solution is needed than the mere application of external law. The problem, as we shall see in chapter seven, is that we are indwelt and operated by a power greater than ourselves, and that apart from the radical intervention of God at the cross, we are hopelessly enslaved to the master of sin. So Paul aims to demonstrate on the one hand that his gospel does not lead to greater sinning, as his opponents accuse, and on the other that the law is an insufficient solution to the problem of humanity. His opponents do not realize the depth and extent of their slavery to sin.
Of course, when we stop to think about it, how often do we think of ourselves as hopelessly enslaved to sin with no possibility of escape except by confession of our own powerlessness and a miraculous deliverance by God? How often do we think of ourselves as basically nice people with a few flaws here and there? Not perfect maybe, but still pretty good compared to so and so next door. . . Somehow we believe that knowing and applying God’s Law to our lives will be enough to keep us from sinning. But our problem goes much deeper than this.
Paul’s opponents believe that the Law given in the Old Testament is enough to enable them to live righteous lives in obedience to God. So when Paul says that the law was added to make the amount of sinning increase, they must have surely thought he was insane. So they ask Paul in a mocking way: "Shall we sin that grace may abound?" In other words, if our sinning gives God the opportunity to be merciful and to display His power in delivering us, shall we sin some more so that He has an even greater opportunity to be merciful? The question is meant to be ridiculous and Paul’s opponents were not seriously suggesting going out and sinning more. Rather they were saying that Paul’s gospel led to sinning as its logical conclusion. In chapters six and seven Paul turns their position around and shows that it is not he but his opponents who actually encourage sinning by their refusal to admit the inability of the law to deliver them from sin. In refusing to admit the impotence of the law, his opponents are actually making the proud boast that they have within themselves the power and the ability to keep God’s Law, and it is this pride that is the root of sin. It is the pride of those who say they do not need God even while attempting to do God’s will as revealed in the law. And we are guilty of this pride if we believe we have any power in ourselves, no matter how minuscule, to do God’s will.
Freed by Death
Paul’s immediate answer to his opponents’ question is an emphatic No! The reason we can no longer go on sinning is that we have died to sin, so how can we go on living in it any longer. Now what does it mean to die to something? When someone dies, they leave the realm of this world and enter another realm, whether heaven or hell. Thus a person at death dies to this world and becomes alive to another world. What takes place in this world no longer has an effect on them and they can no longer be the cause of anything in this world. So if you are dead to something, you can no longer respond to it or be affected by it: you have left the realm or sphere in which that "something" operates as a power. Therefore, to die to sin is to leave the realm in which sin operates as a power and to enter a new realm where a different law or power is operative.
But how did it happen that we died to sin? It certainly doesn’t feel like I’ve died. In verses three and four, Paul says that those who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death, and buried with Him, as it were, in His tomb. But how is that possible? Jesus died and was buried almost two thousand years ago, how is it that I can be buried with Him? Surely we are not supposed to go to Jerusalem and hole ourselves up in some ancient tomb! Instead Paul draws a connection between our baptism and Christ’s death and burial. Somehow in our baptism the death of Christ becomes effective in our experience. It is as if the event of the cross reaches two thousand years into the future and reproduces itself in our life, so that Christ’s death on the cross becomes our death. But how is this possible, you say, when it is obvious that I am still quite alive in this world? It is possible because Christ’s bodily death had spiritual effects that ripple down through the corridors of time to affect my present life spiritually.
Illustration of Baptism
Because Paul understands this joining of our life to Christ’s as taking place at the point of baptism, it is quite important to understand the significance of baptism in the early church. It is unfortunate that baptism today no longer has the same significance in the Protestant and cCatholic churches today that it had in the early church. Baptism was not something that one did after accepting Christ; rather it was the means by which one acknowledged Christ as one’s new Lord and Master. Baptism was a dramatic ritual in which you publicly displayed that you were renouncing your old life in Satan’s realm and taking a new oath of allegiance and obedience to a new lord and master. One was not considered a Christian or saved until one was baptized because it was at baptism that one made the decision to break one’s allegiance to Satan and to become joined in one spirit to Christ. The purpose of the ritual was to dramatically display this decisive change of allegiance, this death to the claims of one lord, and the uniting of oneself to a new husband and master. So baptism is to conversion what a wedding is to marriage. Now one might say that it is not necessary to partake of the ritual of a wedding to be married, which is true, but somehow the wedding ritual and the public taking of solemn vows enables us human beings to have a greater appreciation for the seriousness of what we are about to undertake. In the same way, it is certainly possible to be saved without being baptized, for one need only think of the thief on the cross to whom Jesus said: "Today you shall be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
The ritual of baptism allows one to count the cost, to seriously consider the choice that one is about to make, whether you are willing to give up everything, the whole of one’s life as lived in Satan’s realm, and to embark on a new life joined to Christ. Baptism is the outward expression of an inward repentance. Unfortunately today people are offered a gospel that demands nothing of them, not even repentance. It is true that that the gospel is free, but one must give up one’s life in this world to receive it. It is like the story of the monkey who put his hand into the hole of a coconut to grab a ball within it, but when he tried to take the ball out he found he couldn’t remove his hand . . . unless he were to let go of the ball. So we cannot get free of sin and death (that is, saved) unless we let go of our life in Satan’s realm. The gospel is free, but it costs everything.
So the dramatic ritual of baptism displays to us and to those around us the momentous decision we are undertaking. It is an acted out picture of our death to our old life and our rising to a new life joined to Christ. But how is baptism an answer to the objection his opponents raised that his gospel leads to sinning? The answer is clear: if we made a decisive break with our old master, sin, by choosing to identify ourselves with Christ in his death and proclaim our allegiance to Him as our new master, then sin or Satan will no longer be the operating power in our lives. Christ has replaced sin as the new person in us, so that is it is now He rather than Satan who lives out through us. In verses six to eleven, Paul explains in detail how this happens.
His Death was Our Death
Verse six can be particularly difficult to understand. Paul uses two phrases, "old man" and "the body of sin," which are not immediately obvious in meaning. Many have thought that the old man is some kind of nature inside us or some kind of bad self that we have or used to have, as the NIV seems to say. Instead, the old man refers to the whole of the human race descended from Adam and the sinful way of life we all led as members of that race. So it is best to translate the phrase as "old humanity" or "old mankind." Just as Adam was the representative head of all humanity, so that his sinful choice had consequences for all humanity, so now Christ as the new representative head acts on behalf of all mankind and his death has effects upon the whole of humanity. In 2 Corinthians 5:14 Paul states it more clearly: "We are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died."
But how could all have literally died when all had not yet been born? All died because Jesus was the representative of all humanity, so that his death was our death. His death had consequences for us that become effective for us when we believe and apply this truth to ourselves by faith. So when Christ died on the cross, God executed upon Jesus the sentence of death He had pronounced upon mankind for their sins. Because Jesus died in our place, it is as if we had really died. In executing the death penalty, God broke Satan’s hold over humanity, a hold which came from human guilt. So because Jesus died in our place as our representative, we can consider ourselves to have died with Him when we appropriate that death for ourselves by faith. When we make the crucial decision to renounce the self-for-self life of Satan and to choose for Christ to live His self-giving life for others through us, the cross becomes effective in our lives.
The purpose of crucifying the old humanity was that the body of sin might be destroyed. Paul is not saying that the physical body is the cause or source of sin. Instead, one might translate "body of sin" as the "body indwelt or possessed by sin." This body indwelt by sin is destroyed in the crucifixion because Jesus represents us bodily on the cross. When Christ died, we died, and when he died, body was separated from spirit, and the spirit of sin, Satan himself was expelled from the spirit-core of humanity, if we trust in Christ. So in verse seven Paul gives the reason why we may claim this truth for ourselves: "For whoever has died has been set free from sin." Because we died with Christ on the cross, and appropriated that death for ourselves in the crucial decision we made at baptism and conversion, we can claim absolute freedom from sin’s (Satan’s) power.
Resurrection: Joined to a New Spirit
In verse eight, Paul turns to the positive side of our resurrection with Christ: "If we died with Christ, we also believe that we shall live with Him." It is not enough to simply die to sin as our old master, we must have a new master to express His will and life through us. To use Paul’s terms, we not only died with Christ, we were raised with Christ. Verses nine and ten focus on what happened to Jesus, and verse eleven focuses on the implications for us. Since Christ has already died, sin and death no longer have any claim to dominion over Him since He has left the realm in which sin and death rule. Jesus has entered into heaven, into God’s own presence, where God Himself is the power which rules and is operative. If we are joined to Christ in his death and resurrection, then we too are now already in the heavenlies where God’s power, not sin or Satan is the operating power. Paul says that the life Christ lives, He lives to God. This does not mean, as some translations put it, that Jesus now lives for God, and therefore that we ought to live for God also. No, to live to something is the opposite of being dead to something.
As we discussed earlier, to be dead to sin was to be beyond the reach of its power, to be outside the realm of its operation, to be subject to its power and control no longer. Therefore, to become alive to God is to become subject to a new master who now becomes our operator and motivator. To live to God means that we are hooked into God’s electrical outlet rather than Satan’s. We are the wire and the wire is only "alive" as long as it is hooked into a source of power that flows through the wire. When we are unhooked from one power source, we die to that power, and when we are plugged into a new source we are alive to the new source of power. Since we have been separated by death from that old spirit of error, Satan, we are now joined to a new Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, who will live His life through us if we trust Him.
The Necessity of Faith
In verse eleven, Paul draws out the practical implications of his teaching for the Christian life. He tells us that we are to consider or reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Now "consider" or "reckon" are faith words. Essentially Paul is commanding us to have faith of a specific sort. Now two conditions apply when we exercise faith. First we can only consider something to be true because we are convinced it is true. If Paul asked us to reckon or consider the moon to be made of green cheese, we would not be able to exercise faith in that direction because we know that statement to be patently false. On the other hand, we can only exercise faith when real doubt exists as to the truth of the statement. In other words, there must be an appearance that our conviction is not true. Otherwise, we would not reckon something to be true; it would simply be a fact. Faith requires doubt in order to exist at all.
To return to Paul, when we reckon ourselves dead to sin, it will seem very obvious to us that we are not dead to sin at all, since we still have strong temptations and pulls to act in sinful ways. What is going on here? How can we be dead to sin yet feel so alive to it? At this point we must distinguish our feelings from the spirit-reality created by faith. Feelings of temptation arise because we are still physically in Satan’s realm and we are therefore subject to his temptations and pulls to believe in reality as he defines it. He wants us to continue believing that we are not dead to sin but still very much plugged into it and subject to it. And so we feel intense pulls and attractions toward actions God has forbidden. But those feelings are not us, nor are they a bad part of us or an old nature, but simply the result of Satan’s pulls.
But the spirit-truth is that we truly have died to sin in Christ and we must continue moment by moment to appropriate that truth in the face of and against our feelings to the contrary. God specifically designed life this way so that we would have to exercise the faith that glorifies God. We must focus our attention on God’s word, which has proclaimed us freed from sin and dead to it, and trust Him when He proclaims through Paul that "it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives through us."
More Articles from The Intercessor, Vol 24 No 2
- God’s Twofold Restoration
- The Editor’s Note
- The Necessity of Doubt
- Death to Sin: The Radical Solution of the Cross
- Romans Tells Us How
- Two Problems Solved
- Our Total Salvation: The Two Works of Jesus on the Cross and in the Resurrection
- Book Review: Paul’s Key to the Liberated Life: Romans Six to Eight
- How Acquire Faith?
- Faith in Action
- Rees Howells and the New Birth
- Free From the Law of Sin and Death
- Words to Live By
- What Really Happens at Regeneration?
- The Total Remedy