The age old question:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?
Romans 6:1 (NASB)
Why does this question keep coming up?
Does grace grant us a license to sin? Why is this such an issue? This question is the perennial nut at the root of almost all theological conversation. We live under the just and beautiful expression of God’s wrath (Romans 1:18), and the public demonstration of God’s wrath upon Jesus at the cross satisfies that justice (Romans 3:24-25). The fundamental decision which distinguishes the Christian is not the decision to behave virtuously; it is the decision to let the judgment of justice be visited on Another. This is such an overarching and complete satisfaction that it raises the question of license: can we now just sin and sin and sin?
If you read this carefully, Paul words this even more strongly than most people would dare. He isn’t just saying, if there is so much grace, then what stops you from sinning? He is saying, if grace is so wonderful, shouldn’t we sin even more to get more of this wonderful grace? If it is true that a man is blessed when his sin is forgiven (Ps 32:1), then we should sin more in order to receive more blessing. This would be similar to some lovers who have more passionate intimacy when they make up after a fight, so they tend to fight all the more. Is this a healthy idea? Of course not (“may it never be” – Romans 6:2), but why not? We are looking for Paul’s answer, not a pithy metaphor. We are looking for truth.
The common if unspoken solution we apply to this problem is that one way or another we go back and change the potency of grace. The implicit idea is that if we change the essential nature of the purpose and scope of the blood of Jesus outlined in Romans 3:20-5:21, we can make this question disappear. We find this when people say things like, “Sure, Jesus died for us, but that doesn’t mean you can just do anything.” They imply that there are certain unspoken boundaries that the blood of Jesus can’t reach past. But is that true? What things remain unforgivable? Do we still require the threat of the law to coerce virtue, in Christ? What does it mean that we are “not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:15)? The question of moral license is an essential outgrowth of the true gospel.
My core position is very simple: you can’t solve the problem of license by watering down or limiting the scope of the power of the gospel. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1), and it is always “now”. If you start to water down the gospel to solve the problem of license, the gospel becomes nothing; you nullify grace. You’re essentially saying the solution to the problem of license is disbelief, which can’t possibly be right. I am not trying to imply that the answer is simple, but it is not to change the scope and power of the gospel itself.
Death in the Family
If you skim Romans 6, you will find that the central idea it asserts is that as believers we have died and have been resurrected with Christ. He goes on and on about how we have died. In answer to the question that grace leads to license, he says, you have died. He does not say, you should try to die, or that your death to sin is a gradual process, or that you should work harder on dying. He says that you have died. He doesn’t even say that you had anything to do with your own death. Outside agents and forces killed you off against your will.
If there is any struggle at all, it is that you should consider yourself in your mind to be dead because you are actually dead. Apparently all of your problems with sin as a believer come from the fact that you are confused about this death/resurrection thing that has already happened to you. You are not “considering” yourself as dead (Romans 6:11). What can this mean? I want to take a careful look at what Paul is saying – not to proclaim that I am mastering this way of living, but to understand what the apostle himself is saying.
The Three Selves
Paul says not only that we have died to sin (Romans 6:2), but that there was an old self which was crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6). We now have a new self (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10, Romans 6:4) that came into being when we were “raised up with Christ”. However, there is clearly an implication that we retain a persistent identity of some kind across these two selves. There is an “us” who existed prior to belief, who have died to “sin”. It is the “old self” that was crucified with Him (Romans 6:6), but there is a persistent knower that is still in charge of “considering” (Romans 6:11) and “presenting” (Romans 6:13). He is exhorting our persistent identical self to live in accordance with this new self, and in accordance with the death of the old self. The persistent self is clearly said to have control over this: 1)we can think and live in a way that acknowledges the fact of the death of the old self and the existence of the new self, or 2) we can live in a way that pretends the old self still exists in a way that the law has control and threat over.
There is a mistaken tendency to call the old self the “sin nature”, and make it out that we should be doing some kind of battle against it. I am not convinced this is what Paul is really saying. There end up being two ways you can go with that idea: post-conversion you should be sinless, or largely sinless, which implies that if you sin after conversion you really aren’t a Christian. The other way is to say that you really haven’t died, and that your “sin nature” is still alive and must be gradually killed off. None of this seems to reflect the meaning of the text; Paul goes on to dramatically acknowledge that we sin after conversion (Romans 7:19), and everyone knows that there are no degrees of death — you are either completely dead or you are still alive. He could have chosen some other word or metaphor, but he chose the word “death” for a reason. Death is a complete and irreversible end. We have been baptized into His death. He isn’t going to die twice.
If you take it as axiomatic that we are justified completely by Christ’s propitiatory blood (Romans 3:24-25), and that we are so forgiven and accepted and freed from judgment that we could be said to have eternal life (John 3:16-17, 1 John 5:11-12), and that we have entered into a perfect persistent love which has cast out all fear and all expectation of punishment (1 John 4:18), then we are indeed dead to the whole idea of sin. There is no more guilt and no more threat of judgment, because all has been judged (1 John 1:7). All things are lawful (1 Corinthians 6:12). How we live is a whole new paradigm, not motivated by fear or coercion. We have been declared righteous with a final binding authority, and this has profound practical impact. The judgment of our behaviors by the law has already been completed; it is finished (John 19:30). One of the keys to understanding Romans 6 is to stop waffling on the power and the justifying authority of Christ’s propitiatory blood.
We tend to think that when Paul says we have died to sin, it means that we have died to the propensity to do wrong, the attraction of the forbidden. I’m not sure this is quite accurate, and our care in observing this important point is the key to the passage. I propose that it means that the very idea of sin is dead for us; we are no longer under judgement so the dynamic of sin and guilt and retribution has died for us. If you think about it, what does it mean to die to sin? Sin isn’t about doing right. Sin is about transgression and guilt.
Our whole way of life under law was wrapped up in coping with our failure under the law: hiding our shame, pretending to be righteous, proclaiming high morals while hating them, constantly battling an evil conscience, judging others, worrying about how others judge us, falsely trusting in our own power to “repent”, and in Christ all of that has has ended. It has ended with such a finality that Paul dares to call it a death. In the book of Galatians Paul’s general (rather angry) message was that you can’t go back as a Christian to this way of living. In Christ we may be mere babes in the ways of grace, but we are real babes. We are suddenly allowed to be honest, to really confess, to come out of hiding, since the threat of judgment and rejection has been executed already in full.
This opens up a new world for us, a new identity, a new way to approach godliness: not by merit and deserving, but by pure and unadulterated gift (Romans 6:23). A gift is unearned, a gift is desirable, and the value of a gift does not depend upon what we can pay. We can be given far more than we can merit. Grace is able to go far beyond what we deserve by our virtue or significance.
As believers, the door is open to us to come out of hiding, but we may not want to come out. An important part of us had died, and a great deal of our identity was tangled up in it. The struggle comes not simply because we tend to sin, but because we want to go back to this way of life. We want to be measured. We don’t want favor and righteousness to simply be granted to us up front. Fear and coercion and the threat of punishment have been like a warm comfy blanket. We don’t want to be told we are getting A+’s on the first day of class, we want to earn our A+. We are afraid that we won’t know how to work hard if we are not threatened; these are new waters because our persistent self is not accustomed to our new self. So we keep wanting to crawl back over to the universe of law, but the old self which our persistent self had developed is really gone. This is the whole point of Romans 7:14-25. The way forward does not consist of going back to measuring out our wages based on some degree of success in our virtue; it lies in our complete lack of condemnation and our giftedness in Christ.
The New Self and the Nature of Christian Growth
I don’t mean to shatter your self-confidence, but you are a confused idiot. It’s OK, I am too. I thought when I came to Christ, it was just a decision about which religion I wanted to follow. I don’t remember a dramatic death and resurrection experience. Here is what Paul is essentially saying: there is something that was so central to you that it was called a “self”, that has died when you became a Christian. It is gone whether you understand it or not. He says “don’t you know that you have died (Romans 6:3)? You probably don’t know, or you wouldn’t have raised this question! You have been raised with Christ (Romans 6:4). You may only be dimly aware of this, but it is true. You can start counting on it. Your taste for sin is really gone even if you don’t quite know it or understand it yet. The more your persistent self reckons it to be so, the more you start living as if there is no condemnation and that tremendous godliness and gifting and unction is there for the asking. You have a new self which is untouched by judgment and threat and punishment, which simply loves righteousness and obeys from the heart. Consider it to be so; present your members to it; count on it. You don’t have to be perfect at this, your perfection is not the issue. His perfection is the issue. (1 John 4:18).
So, there remains a hole in us from the death to performance acceptance that the gospel has handed us. We are only accustomed to thinking of virtue and right behavior in terms of fear and coercion and this has been removed by the gospel. Christian growth does not consist of better controlling our old man; it consists in believing in the trustworthiness and existence of the new man. We already have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16)! We have been given eternal life (John 3:16)! We have already been given everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3)! Growth comes because our persistent self becomes swallowed up by our new self. The hole in us that death of the old self has left may not be completely filled this side of heaven. There is much that has been truly given to us that we do not understand and in whose light we have not yet learned to live. The more you count on your present lack of condemnation and giftedness, the more you count your justification as complete, the more your persistent self allows your new self to color your thoughts and actions. Christian godliness does not consist of putting a better leash on your old dog; that is Romans 7 territory. Christian godliness consists of living as if there really is no condemnation now or ever, and that the favor and help and compassion and love of God will reign over you now and forever. When you realize you have been loved with an unbreakable and unstoppable love, a love which not only died for you but resurrected with authority and power, you will stop groveling in your old prison of law and live with genuine humility and affection in the kingdom of grace.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.