6:1-14 – Dying and Rising with Christ
[6:1-4]—Paul makes clear that his point about “grace abounding all the more” due to the “increase” of sin when “law came in” (5:20-21) has an ethical agenda at its heart. His thought is not that the abundance of God’s grace has to do with “going to heaven after we die,” but that it has to do with the empowerment of believers to live faithful lives in the present.
Should we continue in sin in order to bring more grace into the world (6:1)? Heavens no! Doing so turns the purpose of this grace on its head. God’s grace is not about pardon that allows us to “sin boldly;” it is about freedom from sin. In light of Paul’s earlier discussion in Romans about the consequences of sin – he argued that if you worship an idol, God “gives you over” to the process of growing in conformity with this idol – one could never imagine that sinning (practicing idolatry) could ever be anything but dangerous and self-destructive. God’s mercy is stronger, but it must be appropriated, trusted in, allowed to transform one’s life or one will remain subject to wrath (i.e., subject to the outworking of the corrupting processes of idolatry).
If one has truly “died to sin” (that is, been freed from the grip of the Powers and their seduction to idolatry), one would never “go on living in it” (6:2). If one continues to worship idols, one simply indicates that one has not “died to sin” (truly trusted in God’s mercy).
Baptism is the outer sign that indicates where one’s allegiance lies. Paul links baptism directly with the means by which Jesus broke the dominion of the Powers, his self-sacrificial death. The key point here, echoing Jesus’ own teaching (“take you your cross and follow me”), is that when we enter the waters of baptism, we are simultaneously sharing in Jesus’ own death (that is, we commit ourselves to the kind of life he lived that inevitably led to conflict with the Powers) and his resurrection (we are raised to be empowered to “walk in newness of life,” 6:4).
This is not a paradox, to link together dying and walking in newness of life. They are part one and part two of the process of the outworking of our “justification” (being made whole in relation to God and the world). Only be “dying” to the Powers and their allurements do we gain freedom truly to live as free creatures of God. Jesus opens the path to such life not by becoming a substitute whose faithfulness frees us from the need to be faithful. Rather, Jesus opens the path by modeling the kind of life we all may live (and will live should we truly be freed).
[6:5-11]—Paul continues explaining the close connection between Jesus’ death and resurrection and Paul’s challenging his readers to discipleship. When Paul says, “united with him in a death like his” (6:5), I understand him to have in mind a style of life characterized by selfless love, refusal to worship idols, and willingness to confront the Powers. That we certainly will “be united with him in a resurrection like his” (6:5) is a promise of vindication.
Paul sees a direct link between, on the one hand, Jesus’ own faithful life leading to the cross leading to vindication through resurrection and, on the other hand, the fate of those who seek to walk with Jesus. Paul’s central concern in these verses is to exhort his readers to share in Jesus’ way of life – the only authentic outcome for those who indeed do trust in God’s mercy.
When Paul writes of believers being “dead to sin” (6:11), he has in mind being freed from worshiping idols and from practicing injustice and from exclusivist self-righteousness – the specific problems he identified in chapters 1–2. He makes clear in this passage that such “death” is actually the only path to life.
If we think of Paul’s entire discussion here in light of the dynamics of trust in idols, of seduction by the Powers, of being “given over” to the self-destructiveness of placing things ahead of God in one’s hierarchy of values, his juxtaposing of death and the cross with resurrection and walking in the newness of life make perfect sense. The way to life is to give up trusting in idols. Easier said than done! This is why Paul places such an emphasis on the epoch transforming effect of God raising Jesus from the dead – and the believers’ identification with this work of God. We can be freed when we trust in God’s power of love – power effective in defeating death once and for all in Jesus.
“Our old self” that was “crucified with him” and “the body of sin” that “might be destroyed” (6:6) both have to do with our proclivity toward trusting in idols. Our old self is the self that has conformed to the Powers around us, living (in Walter Wink’s terms) a “dominated existence.” This self (as with Paul himself prior to meeting Jesus) opposed the way of Jesus. In an ironic shift of imagery, the self that seeks to crucify Jesus itself must be crucified.
Paul calls this the “self.” But as he himself experienced, the crucifixion of this “old self” actually frees a person to embrace one’s true self. It is not our truest self that seeks to crucify Jesus. That is a false self, a self in bondage to the Powers. Paul is not advising self-hatred or self-eradication here. Rather, he is seeking to free us to be ourselves – assuming that the self that trusts in Jesus’ way is most authentic to who each of us is meant to be as God’s child.
“Body of sin” likely simply is a reiteration of “old self.” Probably the term “body of sin” refers to the person in bondage to the Powers, worshiping idols and practicing injustice, heading toward self-destruction. Again, with a sense of irony, the “body” that is heading for destruction due to bondage to the Powers of death must be “destroyed” before it is too late. Paul seems to be saying that we must destroy our false consciousness before it destroys us. We must repudiate the idolatrous aspects of our person in order to free our true self to worship God and follow Jesus.
All of this “death” (i.e., of the “old self” and the “body of sin”) is only possible because of Jesus’ resurrection (6:8-9). One background idea here could be the sense that only with Jesus’ resurrection were his disciples freed from their fear of their own deaths and from their idolizing the notion of “Messiah” they had that caused them to misunderstand Jesus’ message.
Jesus’ disciples, like many of their peers, expected a warrior-king Messiah (like Caesar in relation to use of power and domination) to set things right. When Jesus presented himself as a different kind of Messiah, the social institutions that should have welcomed him as king (both the religious and political institutions who claimed to be serving God) instead put him to death. When God raised Jesus from the dead, God showed all with eyes to see that indeed Jesus was the true king.
The revelation of Jesus as true king put the lie to the claims of the Powers. This revelation frees those who receive it from their “old self” and “body of sin” that bought into the lies of the Powers and worshiped the creature rather than the Creator (cf. Rom 1:25). In worship of the actual Creator, then, believers are freed from fear of death and empowered to imitate Jesus’ life of self-sacrificial love in “walking in newness of life” here and now.
[6:12-14]—Because Jesus himself was raised from the dead, his way of living free from the Powers, free from idolatry, free from the dominance of sin becomes the norm for all who would worship the true God. And Jesus’ way of living also is revealed as possible. Hence, Paul can exhort his readers to “not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies” (6:12). Do not let sin make you obey the passions of these moral bodies. In the context of what has come earlier in Romans, we have good reasons for understanding this “passion” Paul speaks of in light both of the “lust-type” idolatries of Romans one and the “legalism-type” idolatries of Romans two.
Again, the problem with sin is seen as something from the outside that corrupts, seduces, and enslaves. Our bodies themselves are not sinful, rather sin is something that acts upon our bodies, causing the reductionisms we saw in chapters one and two, where love is reduced to lust and the law to legalism.
Here, again, we encounter two dik words who translation shapes their structure of effect. If we read Paul’s words here as being, do not “present your members to sin as instruments of injustice” but “present your members to God as instruments of justice” (6:13), we have a different sense than if we use the words “wickedness” and “righteousness.” Regardless of the English terms we use, we need to see here that Paul has relationships and social life in mind.
The problem with the idolatries of chapter one is that they lead to broken relationships, people hurting other people, and the fostering of social injustice and oppression. The problem with the idolatries of chapter two is the same.
Paul challenges his readers not to play supportive roles in either type of injustice. Do not give yourselves to lust, to the injustices of the Empire, or to the harmful exclusiveness of the religious community. This is committing yourself to “sin” rather than to “God.”
When we respond to God’s mercy with faithfulness (which is what God intended the dynamic to be from the time of Abraham on, as we see in Romans four), “sin will have no dominion” over us (6:14). When we respond thus, we are “under grace” not “under law” – just like Abraham. That is, Paul’s point here is not a chronological one, that in Old Testament times God wanted people to be “under law” and now, with the advent of Christianity, God wants people to be “under grace.” Romans four has made it clear (as do Jesus and the prophets) that God has always wanted people to be “under grace.” Law (Torah) was given to guide the life lived under grace. Only when Torah was misunderstood and distorted to serve legalism were people in bondage “under law.”
6:15-23 – Slaves of Righteousness
[6:15-19]—Paul again challenges any sense that centering on God’s mercy instead of works of the law implies a lessening of rigor concerning sin. Does living “under grace” instead of “under law” free us to sin without consequence (6:15)? Heavens no!
Paul has made it clear already that, in fact, living “under law” is itself a recipe for sin. Living “under law,” according the chapter two, is itself living under sin, practicing idolatry and the resultant injustices that constitute a life of sin.
He reiterates that we all are “slaves” to something – here the options are either, on the one hand, live as slaves to sin (that is, to the Powers, to the idols, to injustice), a slavery that leads to death, or, on the other hand, live as slaves to obedience, a slavery that leads to justice/wholeness/salvation. Paul has made it clear that the differences between these two kinds of slavery is radical.
One kind of slavery fosters a narrowing down, a de-humanization process where we become like the lifeless things we are giving our allegiance to. This is what we usually think of when we think of slavery, of being in bondage, of losing our self-determination. Ironically, according to the Bible, it is when human beings seek autonomy from God that they lose their ability to live as fully human.
The other kind of slavery is actually freedom. This claim of Paul’s lies at the heart of the challenging way he portrays the basic truths of the Bible. But he is only echoing Jesus (“whoever would save his life must lose it for my sake”) and the creation story (only by remembering and living according to God’s restrictions might Adam and Eve have remained free).
Paul speaks optimistically about the “obedience” of those he is writing to. “thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves to sin, have become obedient” to the gospel (6:17). The obedience Paul seeks, and that he believes characterizes the Roman Christians (or, at least, that he hopes characterizes the Roman Christians) is “obedience from the heart” to the teaching with which they have been entrusted (6:17). This “teaching,” most likely, is the message of Jesus contained in the gospel traditions.
Paul clearly has in mind here active obedience, practices in real life that reflect the way of life that Jesus embodied. In contrast to the injustices practiced by those enslaved to sin, the faithful life “leads to justice” (6:16). There is no neutral ground. Being set free from the bondage of sin does not make the faithful person a free agent, but rather empowers them to be “slaves of justice” (6:18). Again, human beings are worshiping creatures, we conform to that in which we trust – either injustice or justice, either God or the Powers. It has to be one or the other.
Life lived subjected to the Powers is a life of slavery “to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity” (6:19). Again, we should think of this sin dynamic in line with how the prophets and Jesus (and Paul himself) have characterized sin – the causing of harm to others, the breaking of relationships, practicing injustice.
In contrast, the word of hope now is that faith-full people are freed from this sin dynamic and empowered to offer their lives in service to their Creator. Such a life, paradoxically, is stilled called a life of “slavery” by Paul. However, as “slaves” to justice, faith-full people actually are genuinely free. We likely would not choose the “slavery” metaphor to characterize faith-full living in our context, especially in the light of the practice of slavery in North American history. However, Paul’s thinking seems to be that we all have some kind of “master.” We either orient our lives around injustice and the demands of the idols who we serve, or we orient our lives around justice and the expectations of the true God. Because of the character of this God, “slavery” to justice is actually a description of liberated existence.
Paul surely has in the back of his mind the Hebrew people’s experience of living in slavery in Egypt, being freed by God, and then called to life guided by Torah as a way both of serving God in God’s work to bless all the families of the earth and of fulfilling their purpose as people created by God.
“Sanctification” (6:19) refers to the process whereby people become whole and clean in their relationship with God. To be “sanctified,” according to Paul’s comment here, happens as we practice justice (6;19).
[6:20-23]—Paul makes the ironic assertion that when people are “slaves of sin” that makes them “free in regard to justice” (6:20). That is, being in bondage to the Powers keeps one from living according to justice. This is a harmful “freedom.” What advantage does one gain from such freedom? None whatsoever. This kind of freedom leads straight to death, and along the way the “free” (in this sense) person is committed to things that when they do genuinely find freedom they will be ashamed of (6:21).
The way to life involves a complete upturning of the dynamics of slavery/freedom Paul has identified as leading to death. The person moving toward “sanctification” (holiness, wholeness) is a person who is a “slave of God” who becomes “free in regard to sin” (6:22). The result of switching the slavery and freedom dynamic will be “eternal life” (6:22). By eternal life Paul is not thinking of “life after death” as distinct from life in the here and now so much as a high quality of life in the here and now, free from the domination of the Powers, free to devote to genuine restorative justice, and moving toward sanctification – all in continuity with the resurrected life to come.
Paul completes his thought with another contrast between the two ways. Life lived enslaved to sin is characterized as earning “wages,” but the wages that are earned are “death.” Life lived enslaved to God is characterized as receiving “the free gift” of “eternal life” (6:23). So, the power of sin is linked with wages and death; the power of God is linked with the free gift and eternal life.
From what Paul has made clear earlier in Romans (and will emphasize several more times in the book), a major reason for this argument arises from the practical reality that life in the present world, shaped by it is by the Powers, generally offers rewards of wealth and comfort for many who live enslaved to the Powers (examples abound both among the lusters and the judgers of chapters one and two). Life in the present world, likewise, generally offers persecution and sufferings for many who live enslaved to God and practice God’s restorative justice in an unjust world.
So, part of Paul’s agenda, thinking especially about life in the heart of the Empire, is to challenge the imaginations of his readers. What seems in the present and to superficial sight (dimmed by the dynamics of idolatry, Romans one) as attractive about enslavement to the Powers and unattractive about enslavement to God is a false impression. Genuine life results only from freedom from idolatry and trust in the only true God, the God of Jesus Christ.