NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER SIX (Lesson II)
Theologian F. F. Bruce addresses this idea of those people claiming to be Christians who still live sinful lives: “This is not a completely hypothetical objection. In fact, there have always been people to insist that this is the logical corollary of Paul’s teaching about justification by faith; and unfortunately, in every generation, people claiming to be justified by faith have behaved in such a way as to lend color to this charge. A notable historical instance may be seen in the Russian monk Gregory Rasputin, the evil genius of the Romanov family in its last years of power. Rasputin taught and exemplified the doctrine of salvation through repeated experiences of sin and repentance. He held that as those who sin [the] most require [the] most forgiveness, a sinner who continues to sin with abandon enjoys, each time he repents, more of God’s forgiving grace than any ordinary sinner. The casebooks of many soul-physicians would reveal that this point of view has been commoner than is often realized, even when it is not expressed and practiced so blatantly as it was by Rasputin.”1
There is an interesting story in a book by British author James Hogg that illustrates how often believers separate their devotion to God from their devotion to self. It happened in Scotland during the time when the Reformation was taking hold, and people were being saved through a revival where salvation by faith was preached, then asking Christ Jesus to be the Lord and Savior of their lives. It involved a rich, elderly gentleman who just married a young lady from a highly respectable family. After the wedding ceremony, they participated in the wedding festivities. The elderly gentleman was drinking and dancing to the music and having a grand time. Meanwhile, his beautiful bride was quietly sitting next to her favorite Pastor, talking about the goodness of the Lord.
It was customary in those days that best-man and maid-of-honor, along with a few select friends, would go to the couple’s quarters after they retired for the night, and there they would make a toast to the good health, happiness, and posterity of the happy couple. But the older gentleman was so anxious to enjoy his wedding night that he slipped away quietly to join his bride in their honeymoon suite, and bolted the door. As he turned around, he saw her sitting demurely reading one of the Gospels. He walked over and began to caress her shoulder, but as she pulled away from him, she said something about the broad way that leads to destruction. Her groom wasn’t sure what she meant since he was not as versed in the Scriptures, so he went over and began to take off his shoes and stockings.
It was bedtime, so he was anxious for his new bride to join him. But as he was untying his shoes, she suddenly said to him: “Surely, Mr. Colwan, you won’t go to bed tonight, at such an important period of your life, without first saying prayers for yourself and me.” The old man’s head raised suddenly all flushed as red as a rose and replied: “Prayers, Mistress! Lord help your crazed head, is this a night for prayers?”2 The story goes on to tell how no matter how much he objected, calling prayers on such a night as being completely out of place, she insisted. However, with him lying in bed, she knelt down beside him and begin to pray fervently. After reading this, I wondered how many believers say grace before drinking their cocktails or whiskey, or say a prayer before watching an R rated movie, or say a blessing before telling a dirty joke? In the Apostle Paul’s mind, we should be dead to all of these things, and the best way to keep them from becoming part of our lives is seeing how impossible it would be to make them part of our sanctified lives.
Swiss theologian Karl Barth gives a warning against misinterpretation of what Paul says here: “God forbid that such manipulations of human logic should be current among us. God forbid that the ineffable and invisible ‘Moment’ at which the power of sin and the power of grace are equally balanced, and both are sanctioned by God, shou1d be translated into terms of mind over matter sensations and experiences which jostle and succeed one another in unabashed visibility. God forbid that we should honor and welcome sin as a cause of grace, as though they stood in a mutual relation of cause and effect. God forbid that we should piously attribute the sovereignty of God to men, and with equal piety ascribe to Him impotence. God forbid that we should play a false dialectical game with the eternal tension and polarity and antinomy3 in which we are set, and then imagine that we are acting in accordance with the divine decrees. All this is, however, forbidden by the power of the Resurrection, of which we must now speak.”4
John Stott focuses on Paul’s critics: “They were implying that Paul’s gospel of free grace actually encouraged lawlessness and put a premium on sin, because it promised sinners the best of both worlds: they could indulge themselves freely in this world, without any fear of forfeiting the next.”5 So we can see why it was imperative the Paul answer such criticism right away and not wait until some point later on in his letter. Stott goes on to say: “Paul’s answer to his critics is that God’s grace not only forgives sins but also delivers us from sinning. For grace does more than justify: it also sanctifies. It unites us to Christ (1–14), and it initiates us into a new slavery to righteousness (15–23).”6
Paul then likens this idea to someone who dies but is kept sitting at the dining room table in a mummified condition so they can continue to be fed as if they were still alive. This was Paul’s declaration to the believers in Galatia: “The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is my only reason for boasting. Through Jesus’ death on the cross, the world is dead to me, and I am dead to the world.”7 He also passed on the same message to the Colossians: “Your old-self died, and your new life is kept with Christ in God.”8 Again, we find that the Apostle Peter was in one accord with Paul: “Christ carried our sins in His body on the cross. He did this so that we would stop living for sin and live for what is right.”9
So we find that this was not only a central theme here to the Romans, but had also been a topic in his letter to the Corinthians: “He died for all so that those who live would not continue to live for themselves. He died for them and was raised from death so that they would live for Him.”10 And the Apostle Peter came to the same conclusion: “Now you are children of God, so you should obey Him and not live the way you did before.”11 Peter then goes on to say: “Strengthen yourselves so that you will live your lives here on earth doing what God wants, not the evil things that people want.”12
Early Church scholar Origen has this to say: “In order for this point to be clearer, let us inquire as to what it means to live to sin and what it means to die to sin. Just as living for God means living according to God’s will, so living for sin means living according to sin’s will, as the Apostle says [in verse 12] below. To live to sin, therefore, means to obey the desires of sin… To die to sin is the opposite of this; it means refusing to obey the desires of sin… If someone dies to sin, it is through repentance that he dies.”13 Origen goes on to expound: “Note how carefully Paul has weighed his words when he says: ‘Can we still live in sin?’ To go on in this way means to continue something without interruption. If someone does this, it is clear that he has never been converted to Christ. But it sometimes happens not that someone continues in sin but that after having broken with it goes back to his vomit and becomes most unfortunate, since after having rejected the rule of sin and death and accepted the rule of life and righteousness he returns to the control of sin and death. This is what the Apostle calls the shipwreck of faith.14”15
Martin Luther categorizes what Paul says here into the following statements: 1) We are dead to sin; 2) We live for God, this signifies that we do not yield to our sinful passions and sin, even though sin continues in us. Nevertheless, sin remains in us until the end of our life, as we read in Galatians 5:17. Therefore all apostles and saints confess that sin and the sinful passions remain in us till the body is turned into ashes, and a new body is raised up which is free from passion and sin. This is what we read in 2 Peter 3:13.16
Reformer John Calvin draws this conclusion on what Paul says here: “Christ indeed does not cleanse us by His blood, nor render God grace to us by His atonement, in any other way than by making us partakers of His Spirit, who renews us to a holy life. It would then be a most strange inversion of the work of God were sin to gather strength on account of the grace which is offered to us in Christ; for medicine is not a feeder of the disease, which it destroys.”17 Then Adam Clarke gives us his thinking of what Paul said about our being dead to sin: “The phraseology of this verse is common among Hebrews, Greeks, and Latins. To die to a thing or person is to have nothing to do with it or him; to be totally separated from them: and to live to a thing or person is to be wholly given up to them; to have the most intimate connection with them.”18 Clarke’s commentary seems to be the most logical explanation.
Robert Haldane gives us his explanation of what Paul meant when he said we are dead to sin: “It exclusively indicates the justification of believers, and their freedom from the guilt of sin, having no allusion to their sanctification, which, however, as the Apostle immediately proceeds to prove, necessarily follows… No other designation could have been so well adapted to introduce the development of their state, and its inseparable consequences, as contained in the following verses. Formerly, the persons spoken of were dead in sin, but now they were dead to it, as it is said in the 7th verse, they are justified from it. In the seventh chapter, it is affirmed that believers are dead to the law. They are, therefore, dead to sin for the strength of sin is the law; and consequently, sin has lost its power to condemn them, their connection with it, in respect to its guilt, being forever broken. In the 10th verse, it is said that Christ died unto sin, and lives to God; and in the same way, believers have died to sin, and are alive to God, to serve Him in newness of life.”19 As said before, remember that these are mystical terms or figures of speech, and best understood that way.
1 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, pp. 138–139
2 The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself (James Hogg), Published by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, Paternoster Row, London, 1824, p. 6
3 As used here, “antinomy” means the opposition between one law, principle, rule, etc., and another.
4 Karl Barth: On Romans, loc. cit.
5 John Stott: On Romans, loc. cit.
7 Galatians 6:14
8 Colossians 3:3
9 1 Peter 2:24
10 2 Corinthians 5:15
11 1 Peter 1:14
12 Ibid. 4:2
13 Origen: On Romans, loc. cit.
14 1 Timothy 1:19
15 Origen: Ibid
16 Martin Luther: On Romans, loc. cit.
17 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
18 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
19 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc.cit., p. 239