Law and Grace - Part 2

Theme: Dying to Sin

This week’s lessons teach that God’s grace, rather than leading to sin or even an indifferent attitude about it, actually leads to a holy life because we are now dead to sin and have been made alive in Jesus Christ.

Scripture: Romans 6:1-14

Yesterday we looked at the first reason why the idea that God’s grace should lead to sin is irrational and unthinkable. The second reason why the antinomian objection is unthinkable is because it overlooks God's means of saving sinners. Earlier we looked at the grace of God in our justification. Justification is the act by which God declares a person to be in a right standing before his justice due to the death of Jesus Christ. This is a wonderful truth, but it is not all that is involved. God justifies, but Jesus also redeems. God forgives, but the Holy Spirit also makes us spiritually alive so that we can perceive and embrace that wonderful forgiveness.

Indeed, what has Paul been talking about in Romans 6? He has been talking about the believer's union with Jesus Christ, hasn't he? And what is that union like? It is not a mechanical thing, still less a legal fiction. It is as vital as the union between a vine and its branches or between a head and the other parts of a person's body. If we are saved, we are “in Christ.” If we are “in Christ,” then he is in us and his life within us will turn us from sin to righteousness.

The reason why grace does not lead to lawlessness is that those who have become Christians have “died to sin.” This is the most important idea in Romans 6. It is introduced in verse 2, but it is repeated throughout the section, the words “died,” “dead,” or “death” occurring thirteen times. What does dying to sin mean? Let's begin by eliminating a few mistaken answers.

The Christian is no longer responsive to sin. This is a very popular view, though a harmful lone. It usually goes like this. What is it that most characterizes a dead body? It is that its senses cease to operate. It can no longer respond to stimuli. If you are walking along the street and see a dog lying by the curb and you are uncertain whether or not it is alive, all you have to do to find out is nudge it with your foot. If it immediately jumps up and runs away, it is alive. If it only lies there, it is dead. In the same way, so this argument goes, the one who has died to sin is unresponsive to it. Sin does not touch such a person. When temptation comes, the believer neither feels nor responds to the temptation.

J.B. Phillips, the translator of one of the most popular New Testament paraphrases, seems to have held this view, because his rendering of verse 7 reads, “a dead man can safely be said to be immune to the power of sin” And then his paraphrase of verse 11 goes on to read that we are to look upon ourselves as “dead to the appeal and power of sin.”

What should we say about this? The one thing in its favor is that it takes the tense of the Greek verb “died” at face value. It says that Christians have literally died to sin's appeal. But the problem with this interpretation is that it is patently untrue. There is no one like this, and anyone who is persuaded by this interpretation to think he is like this is due to be severely disillusioned. Moreover, it makes nonsense of Paul's appeal to Christians in verse 11-13. He says there, “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ.... Do not let sin reign in your mortal body.... Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness.” You do not urge a corpse to hold still. It will do that without your urging. We can dismiss this interpretation, even though it is held by many people.

The Christian should die to sin. This view has been common in a certain type of holiness meeting, where the Christian is urged to die to sin. He is to “crucify the old man,” which, he is told, is the secret to a “victorious” Christian life. The best thing that can be said for this view is that it is obviously correct to urge Christians not to sin. Indeed, that is what Paul himself will do later. In v. 12 he writes, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body,” and in v. 13 he exhorts his readers: “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin.” But aside from that, everything else about this view is in error. The starting point is wrong; it begins with man rather than with God. The image is wrong: one thing nobody can do is crucify himself. Above all, the tense of the verb is wrong; for Paul is not saying that we ought to crucify ourselves (or die) but rather that we have died. He is telling us something that is already true if we are Christians.

The Christian is dying to sin day by day. All this view means to say is that the one who is united to Christ will grow in holiness, and this is true. But it is not by increasingly dying to sin. It would be true to say that we will have to be as much on guard against sin's temptations at the very end of our lives as we need to be now. To think of the verse as urging us to die to sin, though it touches on something true, nevertheless gets us away from the proper and only effective way of dealing with sin, which is to count on something that has already happened. This interpretation takes “died” as if it is an imperfect tense (“are dying”), rather than as an aorist (“have died”) which is what Paul actually says.

Study Questions:

  1. What is the second reason given for why grace should not lead to sin?
  2. List the three ways that the idea of “dying to sin” has been misunderstood.

Application: How would you seek to explain the weaknesses of these first three misunderstandings of “dying to sin” to someone else?

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