Taken and adapted from, “Epistle to the Romans, a Commentary, Logical and historical”
Written by James M. Stifler, Professor of New Testament Exegesis in Crozer Theological Seminary
“Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?”
The question comes logically from the last two verses in the preceding chapter, where Paul virtually says, the more sin, the more grace. But it looks back also necessarily over the whole discussion of justification. That this question, involving such an answer as that which follows, should emerge at all shows clearly Paul’s idea of justification. If the latter signifies “to make good,” the question would be impossible. If justification means “to declare good,” the question is pertinent. If the sinner is justified on the ground of any personal merit, for any good that he is doing with a view to justification, the question is inexplicable. But if God by his free grace in Christ Jesus justifies “the ungodly” (Chapter 4:5), this question must come to the front and press earnestly for an answer.
And this answer is found wholly in the facts that go to make the gospel story. It is not found in the obligation of the law that says “Thou shalt not”; it is not found in the gratitude which the justified man should feel toward him who died for him; it is not found in good resolutions, in prayer, and in watchfulness; it is found in Christ.
“God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?”
To live in sin is to be under its sway (verses 1-14) and to practice it (verses 15-23). Paul with vigorous language repels the thought that a justified man can remain in this enslaving service. The reason is that the justified are also dead to sin. This death belongs to their redemption, on the ground of which they were justified. “Dead to sin” is far from meaning the death of sin as a power or principle in the heart. (See chapter 4:11.)
In the history of the church many who have embraced this view have been driven from it by a sad experience, and those who have not been so driven have lived a life of self-deception.
“Dead to sin” does not mean a resolution to imitate Christ; it is more than an act of will, it is death in and with Christ in the actual fact of his death.
Christ’s death was the believer’s death also (2 Cor. 5:14; I Pet. 2:24). Paul has virtually said this in the verses just above (v.18, 19). What the one did, all did. He died not only for sins (1 Cor. 15:3), but for sinners. He atoned not only for the acts, but for the actor. It is the consideration of the latter fact only that occupies this chapter. –“We, that are dead,” having died when he did. The blood shed at the cross washes the sinner as well as his sins. “If I wash thee not” (John 13:8).
To be saved is to be saved from sin first of all. After Paul has labored through five chapters to show that this salvation is a gratuitous gift to faith in Christ, how can he now refer it to something else, a subjective death in the heart of the sinner? He is not so illogical, but some of his interpreters are. When the apostle is asked whether his doctrine that grace covers every sin, the more sin, the more grace, –“Let us do evil, that good may come” (Chapter 3:8),” is not promoting sin, his answer is just simply a further explication of grace, an opening up of a wider view of the work of the cross.
The power against continuance in sin is faith in the cross.
Sin’s power, its mastery over the soul, comes from its presence. The enlightened man soon sees that his guilt lies not so much in what he has done as in what he is. It is not his acts, it is himself, that is an offense against God. Sin dwells within him, tainting every fiber of his soul. He cannot escape it by anything within his own power any more than he can change the color of his eyes. It is ever present and is thereby master. But why seek to escape it? Why not continue in it if grace covers it? “How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” How can one on whom the sun has risen walk now in the dark? The believer died in Christ’s death. The believer is dead, and that death answers for the guilt of what he is. Faith takes Christ for sinfulness as well as for sins; and indwelling sin has lost its power to vex the conscience and to cut off the light from God’s countenance the moment that faith says, “He died for what I am as well as for what I did.” Sin loses its power, because sin is gone from the heart by the death of Christ, in which the sinner dies.
Note three things:
First, the question so far is not about continuing to sin, but about continuance in sin, in its power.
Secondly, the only change that Paul contemplates in the justified man up to this point is a change in his attitude toward Christ; from being a non-believer he has become a believer.
Thirdly, this first verse makes but the first step in answering the question, “Shall we continue in sin?”
3. The question could not be asked if the Romans bethought themselves of what they assumed in their baptism. They were dead, as the verse above declares, for they were baptized into Christ’s death. This third verse, then, is in the way of explication that the Romans died to sin, the hour of that death being the time when they entered the waters of baptism. The meaning of their baptism was death.
But how did they die by means of baptism? Paul answers, to quote the Revised Version: “Or are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” They knew, of course, that they were baptized into Christ; but Paul insists on the one point that baptism involved among other things oneness with him in his death to sin.
By the ordinance of Baptism or in the ordinance of Baptism they declared their acceptance of him as Saviour and so came “into” him. The nature of the union is not disclosed, but it is real. Their salvation is not effected by the baptism, but in it. In baptism the believer virtually says, “I make Christ’s death to sin my death to sin.” It is the symbolic response of the heart to the teaching of the gospel that Christ’s death is also the believer’s.
But must it not be said now that Paul has abandoned his theme, salvation by faith, in substituting the word “baptism”?
Why did he not say, “All we who believed into Christ,” a common phrase in the New Testament (Romans 10:14; Gal. 2:16), “believed into his death”? The difficulty arises from the modern wrong conception of the New Testament meaning of the word “baptism,” that it is a mere rite, an act to be done, at the best, because one believes in Christ. The New Testament writers never separate it from the faith which it embodies and expresses. It is the fixed sign for faith, just as any appropriate order of letters in a word is the sign of an idea.
The sign stands for the thing and is constantly used for the thing. Hence Paul can say that Christ was “put on” in baptism (Gal. 3:27), and Peter does not hesitate to declare that “baptism doth also now save us” (1 Pet. 3:21). It is referred to as the “laver of regeneration” (Titus 3:5), and said to “wash away sins” (Acts 22:16). To refuse to be baptized is to reject God, and the opposite is to accept him (Luke 7: 29, 30). Every one of these passages –and there are more like them –would teach salvation by a rite, salvation by water, but that the word for baptism is used as a symbol of faith. Faith so far is not one thing and baptism another; they are the same thing. The faith that accepted Christ in Paul’s day was the faith that showed its acceptance in baptism. The water without the preceding faith was nothing. The faith without the water could not be allowed. Believers were baptized into Christ or they were not considered to be in him.
The word being so used, it is easy to see that Paul has not departed from the gem doctrine of justification by faith; and by employing it he has gained definiteness of statement. Faith is a wide term and shows itself in many ways, each exhibition being exactly appropriate to the way in which faith is then exercised. The exhibition is an exponent of the faith. In faith of a coming flood, Noah appropriately built an ark. In faith that Israel would one day leave Egypt, Joseph gave commandment concerning his bones, that they be not left behind.
In faith that one dies with Jesus, he is buried with him in baptism, the faith taking this fit form. The Romans had a broad faith that ran out in many lines, and it was known far and wide (Chapter 1:8). Just one of these lines led to salvation –the one that found its appropriate exhibition in baptism. When Paul said they were baptized into Christ, they knew instantly to what hour (see chapter 16:7) and to what line of their multi-formed faith he referred –the faith that saw the man and not merely his sins on the cross and in the tomb, so that to show itself appropriately the whole man must be buried with Christ in baptism. The act of baptism is an exponent, first of all, not of the remission of sins, but of the death of the believer in Christ, so that his sinfulness is atoned for. He himself has died to sin.
4. The second verse declares the fact of the believer’s death in Christ, a fact explained in the third. The two have just the one thought” death. This fourth verse draws the natural conclusion: therefore we are buried with him by means of the baptism into death. He does not say into “his” death this time, because he is not now emphasizing the union with Christ brought about in the ordinance, but the condition in which it places the baptized man. He is dead. And this favors the view that the phrase “into death” is to be joined with “baptism.” We are buried with him by means of an into-death baptism. To connect it with the verb “buried” gives an unnatural figure, buried into death, but one that is supported by some. The mention of the burial prepares the way for the next step, the second in the question of continuance in sin. It is only touched and then dropped to go on with the idea of death until the end of the seventh verse.
We were buried with him in order that, just as the Father raised up Christ from the dead by means of that “glory” which is the sum of the gracious excellence of his character, so we also should walk in the newness of the principle of life. The “should” does not express obligation, but the Father’s intent in the raising of the Saviour on our behalf. The mention of the glory in connection with Christ’s resurrection suggests that the same glory will be exhibited in the walk springing from the new life-principle.
5. This verse tells why there may be a new walk in pointing out the power of that walk. The reason is that, as we are one with him in his death, so are we also in his resurrection, being endowed in the latter with the same life which he received in rising from the tomb. The reference is not to our future bodily resurrection. “For if” (or “as”), a graft in a tree (John 15),”we became [not “planted,” but] grown together [“with him] in the likeness of his death [viz., our baptism], so shall we be also still grown together [with Him] in the likeness of his resurrection [viz., our emergence from the watery grave].” To state this idea of union Paul has not abandoned his figure of baptism. Grafting, to be sure, is not done in water, but the union in the baptism is as vital as that between the graft and the tree. It must be noted that none can share in Christ’s resurrection life except by first dying. We are buried in order to be raised (John 12:24).
Now for the first time Paul has clearly asserted union with Christ. For the thought is, if we went into the baptism in union, why should we not come out in union? The oneness in the immersion is proof of the oneness in the emersion.
6. He changes his figure, but holds in both the same point of view –the death of Christ. The connection is causal; we may say that we are grown together in the likeness of his resurrection because of our “knowing this,” viz., the significance of the cross. It must not be said here, with Shedd, that “St. Paul adduces the personal experience of the believer in proof.” Did any man ever experience that he died with Christ?
The word does mean an experimental knowledge, but in this case, as in many others, it is the experience of faith (Gal. 3:7; 2 Tim. 3:1) and not of fact. It is by faith we know that “our old man,” our former self before our acceptance of Christ, was (not “is”) crucified with him, in order that our body, the possession and slave of sin, might be (not “destroyed,” but) annulled by dying with Christ to sin. By “body” is meant nearly the same as “old man.” The latter is the man in his relations to life and to his own history. The former is the means of these. The intent of the annulling of this body by the cross was that we might no more do bond-service to sin, or, as the Revised Version, “that so we should no longer be in bondage to sin.”
7. That we are no longer debtors to sin, to render it any kind of service, is proved by the accepted maxim in human penalties that he who died (not “is dead “) thereby stands acquitted (not “is freed”)from sin. Death cancels everything.
So far, then, in the main Paul’s answer to the question,” Shall we continue in sin?” is this: that every believer, and not merely a most devout man or two, is dead. It is not that he ought to die, but his death is an accomplished fact in Christ Jesus.
Baptism means death and burial. In the crucifixion of Christ the believer sees himself crucified too. Not only were his sins there, but he himself was there, so that the “old man,” the former self, was slain. How can he “continue” in sin when he and his sins are no more? The words “old man” suggest a new man, against whom there is nothing penal either for what he was or is, or for what he has done. These are objective facts of the gospel, and the faith that has laid hold of them finds perfect liberty before a holy God, and is certain of his love.
This faith opens the heart for the incoming of that love mentioned in v. 5.
When Christ is taken for no more than the forgiveness of sins, then baptism has wholly lost its significance, for it buries the man and not his sins, and the cross has been robbed of half its efficacy, for it crucifies the body of sin at the same time in which it puts away its guilt.
The power subjectively against continuance in sin is a belief in these objective facts of the gospel.
8- 10. Sanctification begins with this chapter with the question, –“Shall we continue in sin?” Paul has securely laid the foundation of it in justification.
There is no break with sin but by trust in the gospel facts, and no one can have the power of the resurrection life in his heart until he dies with Christ in order to be raised with him.
To die is to be justified from sin…
…by which death comes union with Christ in life before God. Thus it is that God’s righteousness is a righteousness by faith.
Spiritual power flows into the soul by union with Christ, but that fact is not developed until the eighth chapter. Here the eye is still turned upward, not inward.
At this point, therefore, Paul takes up the second means against continuance in sin; or rather it is the other side of what has already been given, and touched on just once in verse 5. “He was delivered for our offenses.” This is verses 1-7. “He was raised again for our justification.”(See on Chapter 4:25.) This is verses 8-14. The believer dead with Christ will surely “live” with him, now in this present time, and then, of course, ever hereafter. It is only the present time that is here in view. Note that now for the first instance since 4:24 we have the word “believe,” signifying, however, not faith in the gospel directly, but persuasion or conviction of its efficacy. Since our present Christian life depends wholly on Christ’s life, since we live only in his life (see verse 5 above), Paul need only prove that Christ, once raised, dies no more. That he died at all was because of sin, and for this he died “once” for all. Sin has no more dominion over him, and in him it has no more dominion over the believer. And now that he lives, he lives to God, or for God, for his pleasure and glory. This is said in proof that Christ can never again die, the suppressed premise being that he who lives for God must live forever. It is also suggested that we who live by the power of that life in him, and which has become ours, will also live “to God,” and so live both now and evermore.
11. With this verse an exhortation begins that is continued through the next two. To “reckon” is to account (Chapter 2:26), to “conclude” (Chapter 3:28), to think (Chapter 2:3). They were asked to think of themselves (“yourselves”), just as God’s Word here describes them in Christ, “dead unto sin” and “alive unto [or “for”] God.”
To conclude about ourselves what God has declared about us in the gospel is faith (Chapter 4:17). If the gospel says we are dead to sin in Christ, we must say so too; if it says we are alive in him, we must so reckon ourselves. This reckoning stands on the gospel and not at all on experience.