“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:1-4 NIV)
There are questions one needs to ask at the outset of this chapter, and indeed of this section (chs. 6-8), that will affect how we read the details to follow. Why is Paul concerned with this particular subject? Is his concern logical-theological (i.e., to fill out the argument of his "gospel" that he says at the beginning of his letter he desires to proclaim to them [ 1:14-17] and that he has in fact been explaining in chs. 1-5), or is it moral-pastoral (i.e., ch. 1:11-15)? I think we are forced to conclude that it is both.
It is not enough to say at this point (with L. T. Johnson, Writings of the New Testament, 326): "Paul must now answer objections to his thesis," for he has been anticipating objections of an imaginary interlocutor all along in chapters 1-5. Bishop Robinson puts it this way:
What then? Are we to persist in sin, so that there may be all the more grace? Once again the objector comes in, as in the parallel place in 3:8. It is the logical sequence to Paul's thesis in 5:20, which is precisely: the more sin the more grace. But here he takes no more space to counter it than in chapter 3. He does not meet it at the logical level - it cannot be so met. It is still 'No, no!' (6:1, 15). He appeals to the facts and experience of the new relationship in Christ, for if a man really is in that relationship, the suggestion is preposterous (J. A. T. Robinson, Wrestling with Romans, 67).
On the one hand, no "gospel" of Christ is complete with a discussion of how forgiven and justified people are enabled and instructed to live in the present. For despite the traditional distinction in Christian theology between " justification" (forgiveness and being made right in God's eyes) and "sanctification" (growing in practical goodness in relation to other people), the two matters are ultimately part of the same essential process which leads finally to our "glorification." Paul will talk about this later, in chapter 8, verses 28-30. And already in chapter 1, verses 11-15, he has made it clear that this practical side is an essential part of his purpose in writing this letter.
So then, what is the problem he confronts in chapter 6? On the practical side ("sanctification"), once a person has believed and been made right with God, what assures him/her that the old life of sin will not just go on?
He has finished chapter 5 ( verses 20-21) with the conclusion that, after the long period between Creation and the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), God added the law of Moses so that ordinary sins were now seen more clearly as a deliberate disobedience to God’s explicit written commands. That is what he means by "so that the trespass might increase" (5:20, NIV). But even before the coming of our Lord Jesus, God provided through Israel's system of sacrifices doorways to his forgiving grace, so that with the increase in recognizable acts of disobedience, God's forgiving grace also might increase proportionately (5:20-21). As the multiplication of recognizable disobediences was producing spiritual death—alienation with God, the second was producing eternal life—a right relationship to God. No single sin or number of sins is too much for God to forgive in Christ.
God's forgiving grace—whether experienced prior to the birth of Jesus or after—has always been based upon what Jesus accomplished for us in his death and resurrection. That is the only just grounds on which God can acquit us of the guilt our acts of disobedience have incurred.
But the Christian gospel—whether you call it "Paul's gospel" or just "the gospel"—does not leave believers enslaved to their old pre-faith lifestyles and habits. Of course, God's forgiving grace continues after one becomes a believer (see 1 John 1:8-10). But Paul wishes to guard against believers thinking that the more they sin, the more glory will come to God for his mercy in forgiving (see 6:1, 15)! That would be a truly strange way to reward God for his mercy, wouldn't it? So in chapters 6, 7 and the first part of 8 Paul explains to the Romans (and to us) how we can and why we should live totally different, Christ-honoring lives as believers. The “how we can” side is logical and theological, while the “why we should” side is moral and pastoral.
Here is the question that Paul wishes to answer in chapter 6. Compare Rom 6:15, where the question is repeated in slightly different terms. Both the verbs for sinning and the supposed rationale are differently formulated. The spurious rationale in v. 15 refers back to v. 14 (“not under law but under grace”).
Paul’s reaction to this outrageous suggestion is strong. The Greek verbal construction me genoito translated as “By no means!” in NRSV, NIV and ESV, literally means “May it never happen!” It is the equivalent of our “Out of the question!” or “No way!”
Paul totally ignores the false premise “in order that grace may abound” based on 5:20, and bases his answer solely on a newly introduced fact: “(in our union with Christ) we died to sin.” Living “in” sin is no longer possible.
Here is where the “already … not yet” structure of Paul’s eschatology comes in for effective use. For according to this NT concept at the (death and) resurrection of Jesus, the new age in fact dawned for those who believed in him. In Old Testament prophecy the eschatological kingdom of God would begin with the resurrection of the dead. We who believe in the resurrected Son of God are already living the life of the “Last Days.” It is a little appreciated fact that the Greek phrase translated commonly as “eternal life”, given to all believers, literally means “life of the (coming) age.” It is therefore not a quantitative term (“everlasting”), but a qualitative one (“eschatological living”). Of course, eschatological living also necessarily implies a life that will have no end, for the dead—once raised—will never die again. But we should not miss the implication that this kind of life given to us in Christ has for present-day behavior, lived in the midst of what Paul calls “the present evil age.” So when Paul uses the believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection as the logical-theological grounds for arguing against our lives simply continuing as they were before Christ, he is merely stating a fact that every one of us should know and act upon. The baptism imagery—showing death and resurrection—is an apt illustration of a spiritual reality.
It used to be held that baptism as a dying and rising with Christ was a peculiarly Pauline doctrine, derived by him from the Hellenistic mysteries. But, quite apart from the fact that he appeals to the knowledge of it as an accepted fact with those to whom he has never preached( in both Romans and Colossians), it is now recognized … that it goes back behind Paul to the common theology of the … church. Indeed I am convinced that it goes back by implication to Jesus himself, who spoke of his own death as a baptism (Mark 10.38; Luke 12.50). In fact I believe that this understanding of the death of Christ as a baptism, which is the corollary of the understanding of baptism as a dying with Christ, is to be found right through the New Testament and is one of its most important ways of describing the work of Christ (Robinson, Wrestling With Romans, 68f.).
But we must not confuse the illustration with the reality. It is not the rite of baptism that confers or even accompanies the transformation. As important as the rite of baptism is as a testimony to the reality of the inner transformation of a believer, that transformation has already occurred before the rite is undergone.
Paul elsewhere uses a different metaphor, which is simply a more Jewish way of saying the same thing: believers united by faith to Christ in his death and resurrection are circumcised by the stripping off of the sinful nature's power:
In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead (Colossians 2:11-12 NIV).
This metaphor is already found in the Old Testament, where unbelieving Jews were called "uncircumcised in heart" ( Jeremiah 9:26, compare Acts 7:51).
This claim must now be explained: how did we die to sin? The words “Or don’t you know?” (NIV) may—as Bishop Robinson’s above-quoted remark assumes—imply that Paul thought they did know this already. But even if they didn’t know it already, he is reminding them of what they should already know and is drawing a consequence from it.
Paul’s answer is that our death to sin resulted from our being “baptized into Christ”. The wording “all of us who have been baptized…” is not intended to imply that some believers have not. Paul’s distinction is not between classes of believers, but between believers and non-believers. Consequently, also in Gal 3:27 the phrase “as many of you” is not functioning to distinguish between believers. Rather, as 1 Cor 12:13 makes clear, all believers participate (“For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink”). The emphasis in 1 Corinthians 12, however, is less on the union with Christ than on the union with each other (“baptized … into one body”). The effect Paul speaks of here is not produced by the religious rite of Christian baptism, but by God’s sovereign act. At this point he isn’t even concerned with the issue of when it occurs with each believer. In fact, it almost looks like his concept is not multiple individual baptisms into Christ, but one great one of the corporate entity of all believers. Being “baptized into Christ” is synonymous with being united with him, mystically and supernaturally. We are now one with him. What occurred to him in his death and resurrection happened also to us. Our new union with Christ is stressed by the series of Greek verbs containing the “with” (sun) prefix: buried with him (v. 4), crucified with him (v. 5), alive with him (v. 6).
The result of our dying, being buried and rising with Christ is that, as he now lives a new kind of life, beyond the reach of the “present evil age”, so also we can enjoy a new kind of life totally pleasing to God (“walk in newness of life” NRSV). It is very unlikely that any believer in history has ever made use of this power to live without any further sin. But the power to do so is there. And the tragedy is that we make so little effort to use it! Later, in ch. 7, Paul uses a metaphor taken from marriage, when he writes: "So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God" (7:1). The Greek verb translated "bear fruit" can have the meaning of producing offspring.
“If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” (Romans 6:5-7 NIV)
God’s salvation is always both from something and to something. Just as Jesus did not simply die, but was raised again, so also we who are united to him by faith not only die to sin’s power, but live righteously by God’s power that raised Jesus from the dead. The NIV’s “in death like this” (v. 5, NRSV and ESV: “in a death like his”) refers not to the imagery of Christian baptism, but to what Paul has just explained about what being united with Christ means. Our union with Christ in his death does not mean our hearts stop beating and we stop breathing: it means that we can stop sinning. According to the experiential interpretation, the future tense "we will certainly" is no indication that Paul speaks here of the future bodily resurrection of believers (contra Chester, Conversion at Corinth 301, Das, Paul and the Jews 35, and others), but of the inevitable sequence of death and resurrection in our present union of Christ. George Ladd, however, correctly saw this passage as speaking of an "eschatological"—even if not futuristic—reality.
"[T]he passage is to be interpreted in terms of Paul's eschatological thought. Dying and rising with Christ means death to the old aeon of sin and death, and participation in the new aeon of life and righteousness. The death and resurrection of Christ were not merely events in past history but eschatological events. By death and resurrection Christ introduced a new aeon" (Ladd, Theology of the New Testament, p. 528).
In his de-emphasis on the subjective, Ladd leaves it unclear if Paul's teaching merely exhorts to live like you are in the new aeon or informs of a new power to live in it. Consider Ziesler’s thoughts on the matter:
It is not easy to be precise about the meaning of “a death like his”. In one sense, the believer's death with Christ is not at all like his, for unlike him the believer does not yet literally die. Moreover, while the believer dies to his or her own sin, there is no suggestion that Christ did that. If there are such clear points of dissimilarity between Christ's death and believers' death with him, in what does the similarity lie? Any answer must be tentative, but two things may be said.
(a) The believer's death in baptism is an end to the old life, just as the cross represents the end of the old world. This is reinforced by the fact that sometimes in the primitive church the cross was seen as a baptism (Luke 12:50).
(b) The baptism of the believer represents a working out in individual terms of that shift of the ages which took place with the cross and resurrection of Christ.
If we thus put together the baptismal imagery and the eschatological assumptions about the cross, it does make sense to talk about believers' undergoing a 'death like his', despite the patent differences (J. A. Ziesler, Paul's Letter to the Romans  158).
The phrase "knowing this" (NRSV; “for we know” in NIV’s paraphrase) again acts as a reminder to the believers. Here Paul makes the way believers are united to Christ's death even more specific: we were "crucified with him" (see also Gal 2:20; 5:24; 6:14). Why “were crucified” instead of simply “died”? Why the specificity here? Is it because Paul wants the penal aspect of Christ's death also to be applied to what he calls the "body of sin"? Although there is no possessive, and no plural in "the body of sin," the following clause makes it clear that he means the lives of believers (“that we should no longer be slaves to sin”). Paul never uses "body" (sôma) in an evil or pejorative sense. Nor does he contrast it with the mental and moral faculties. It is the whole person. The added "of sin" means the whole person who is under enslavement to sin prior to conversion.
The phrase "body of sin" probably means the physical body as it is controlled by sin (v. 13). The horror of sin in a believer is that, although they he or she is a new creature with the old self crucified, he or she sometimes willfully chooses to act against both what he or she knows and what he or she is. It is as a new person that believers sin—a new person who is no longer bound to sin as its slave. Thus a believer cannot place the blame for sin on the old person, who is dead and buried with Christ (cf. Col. 2:12). (Witherington, Paul's Narrative Thought World, 280)
In vv. 6, 12, and 17 sin is personified as a slave-master, with unbelievers as its slaves. Today we can speak of people being slaves of alcohol or drugs. In a similar way Paul speaks here.
Logically (but not temporally), the believer's justification by faith must precede his union with Christ in his death to sin and resurrection to righteous living. This is argued by Frank Thielmann thus:
In Romans 6:7, for example, Paul hints that participation in Christ's death originates in God's juridical declaration of the believer's innocence:
Our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be made powerless in order that we might no longer be slaves to sin, for the one who has died has been justified [dedikaiotai] from sin. (Rom. 6:6-7, aut.)
The first part of this statement describes the believer's "mystical" participation in Christ's death and claims that this participation has freed the believer from the grip of sin. The second part of the statement, however, grounds this freedom in God's declaration that the believer is innocent. In the second half of Romans 6 Paul uses the term "righteousness" in an ethical sense to describe the believer's new "lord" to whom he or she is enslaved (6:13-20). This suggests that the declaration of the believer's righteous status was the beginning point of the participation. (Theology of the NT, 468f.)
The concern in these verses is that the believer should know that there is no danger of a recurring death after resurrection, hence, no danger that he will become again a slave of sin. But he must affirm his freedom as a statement of faith in a real fact.
“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” (Romans 6:12-14 NIV)
"The mention of law in 6:14 shifts Paul's language from the contrast between death and life to that between slavery and freedom. To continue in sin is to forget that it is slavery" (L.T. Johnson, Writings of the NT).
Here Paul urges that we not allow sin make a false claim of dominance in our lives. We are not its helpless victims and must never allow that thought. Realizing our freedom consists in actively presenting our bodies to Christ's service, just as we once actively presented our bodies for the service of sin and self. Our bodies are instruments (6:13, Greek hopla literally "weapons" or "tools") to be used either for wickedness or righteousness. It is now our privilege to transfer these to the service of God.
“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:15-23 NIV)
Admittedly, Paul chooses not to use the word "body" here, but the more particular "members" (i.e., body parts). Why? Probably because this helps the Roman Christians understand that each individual part of their lives must serve Christ (tongue = speech, eye = perception, hand = work, foot = travel, etc.).
Now that through faith they are "obedient from the heart" to God (6:17 ; cf. 2:15, 29), they are "slaves of righteousness, having been set free from sin" (6:18). But obedience to the Lord of all, the source of all, is actually true freedom, for in it the creature is established in "right relationship." Each form of obedience brings a reward. Slavery to sin wins wages which are death (cf. 4:4); but obedience to God (faith) enabled by "the free gift in Christ Jesus our Lord" receives eternal life (6:22-23). Something has happened to them; it has reversed their lives; to turn back to any other power' or to measure their lives by any other norm but that of the gift, is to lose it (L.T. Johnson, Writings 327).
What is the upshot of this chapter for you and me? Clearly, Paul wants the Christians in Rome to understand that Jesus has done something much more profound and far-reaching in their lives than simply forgiving their sins and giving them a ticket to heaven! A new age has dawned. Their lives can never be the same.
Well, has a new age dawned in your life? Maybe you don’t feel resurrected. But then faith has neve depended on feeling. How you feel is more likely the product of whether you got a good sleep last night, or what happened at work yesterday. Feeling is likely to result from circumstances. But the fact is that, if you have invited Jesus to be your Lord and Savior, God has united you with him in his death and resurrection. You have entered the Kingdom of God, a state not only of peace with God (Romans 5), but of behavior controlled by your relationship with God in Christ.
How will you get through today’s difficulties without “losing it”? The same way you got into God’s kingdom in the first place: not by human exertion and will power, but by God’s power acting through your weakness in response to your faith. And faith often works best when we have the right focus. Not a negative focus on old, seeming insuperable habits—a bad temper, lack of patience with the kids, a complaining disposition, a lustful eye for good-looking women in the office—but a positive focus on “How can I act lovingly and helpfully and forgivingly toward everyone around me today? How can I focus on others’ needs instead of my own?”
I pray that you and I will take this focus into our affairs today.