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Lesson 29: Death in Adam or Life in Christ? (Romans 5:12-19)

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When most commentators say, as Thomas Schreiner does (Romans [Baker], p. 267), that our text “is one of the most difficult and controversial passages to interpret in all of Pauline literature,” I know I’m in trouble when I have to preach on these verses! Another commentator (Alva McClain, Romans [BMH Books], p. 131) suggests that perhaps it was this passage that Peter had in mind when he said that some of Paul’s writings are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16). After reading hundreds of pages of commentaries and sermons on these verses, I began to wonder if I should look for another line of work!

The difficulty with the text is not with the main idea, which is fairly clear, but with the many details. Just about every word or phrase generates pages of discussion and debate among the scholars. But rather than wading into several weeks of messages on that level of detail, I decided to give a single broad overview of verses 12-19. I won’t be able to explain every detail, but hopefully you will get the big picture.

Part of the debate is whether these verses summarize what came before or point ahead to what follows. It seems that they serve as a transition to do both. “Therefore” (5:12) looks back, especially to 5:1-11, to show more benefits of being justified by faith in Christ. Paul shows that the only way to escape the effects of the fall of the human race into sin is through the free gift of God’s grace that offers justification to all who will receive it. Practically, this gives even greater assurance and hope to believers. If we are in Christ, we are saved not because of our good deeds, but because of what Christ did for us on the cross. So these verses reinforce and cement what came before.

But they also point to what follows. In chapter 6, Paul moves from salvation to sanctification. Crucial to living a life of holiness and freedom from sin is understanding our new identity in Jesus Christ. So when Paul contrasts our old identity in Adam with our new identity in Christ, he looks ahead by laying a foundation for our sanctification. Also, the themes of grace, sin, and death as reigning powers will appear frequently in chapters 6-8 (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 315-316).

Identification, either with Adam or with Christ, is the key to understanding 5:12-21. Paul is saying that either you’re under condemnation because you are in Adam or you’re justified because you are in Jesus Christ. Also, he is showing that God’s gracious gift of righteousness in Christ is far greater than the devastation of sin that resulted from Adam’s disobedience. Twice (5:15, 17) he says, “much more.” He wants to encourage believers in Christ with the certainty of their glorious future in Him. To sum up:

If you are in Adam, you are under the reign of death, but if you are in Christ, you will reign in life, because Christ’s gift is greater than Adam’s sin.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: Assurance [Zondervan], p. 178) put it, “The whole story of the human race can be summed up in terms of what has happened because of Adam, and what has happened and will yet happen because of Jesus Christ.” First, Paul explains what happened to the human race through Adam:

1. If you are in Adam, you are under the reign of death (5:12-14).

Romans 5:12-14: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come.”

A. Sin and death entered the world through Adam and “in Adam,” we all sinned (5:12).

In passing, note that Paul believed in the historicity of Adam and the story of the fall in the first three chapters of Genesis. Adam was not a mythical figure invented by the author of Genesis to explain how sin entered the human race. Rather, God created Adam and Eve as the first humans, placed them in the Garden of Eden, and gave them a strict commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They disobeyed God, resulting in God banishing them from the garden and imposing the curse on the human race as a result of their sin.

Also, note in passing that although Eve was the first to sin, God held Adam accountable for plunging the human race into sin. Why? Because God appointed the man as the head of his wife in the garden before the fall. The main idea of headship is responsibility or accountability. Satan approached the woman to tempt and deceive her. Adam passively followed her lead into sin. But God charges Adam with introducing sin into the world, because as Eve’s head, Adam was responsible. This responsibility and accountability for husbands to lead their families spiritually is still in place (Eph. 5:23; 1 Cor.11:3). And men are responsible to provide godly leadership in the local church (1 Tim. 2:11-15; 3:2-7; Titus 1:5-9).

Paul says (5:12a), “through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin.” The one man is Adam (5:14). Paul is referring to the original sin when Adam disobeyed God’s explicit command and ate the forbidden fruit. God had warned Adam that in the day he ate of that fruit, he would die (Gen. 2:17). This referred both to physical death and to spiritual death, or separation from God. At the moment Adam and Eve ate the fruit, the effects of physical aging and death were set into motion. While the patriarchs lived extraordinarily long lives, the repeated refrain of Genesis 5 is, “and he died, … and he died.” Not only did people begin to die physically after the original sin, but also the entire creation began to experience death (Rom. 8:20-22).

But Paul has in mind not only physical death, but also the spiritual death that came through Adam’s fall. In Romans 5:21, Paul contrasts the death that came in through sin with eternal life. When Adam sinned, he experienced spiritual separation from God that, apart from the gift of eternal life, would have resulted in eternal separation from God, which the Bible describes as “the second death” (Rev. 20:6, 14). So both physical and spiritual death entered into this world through Adam’s original sin.

But the crucial (and most controversial) phrase in Romans 5:12 is, what does Paul mean when he says, “and so death spread to all men, because all sinned”? There have been four main views (plus a fifth, more recent view of Thomas Schreiner). Without explaining those views, I think the best view in light of the context is that Paul is saying, “When Adam sinned, we all sinned.” In other words, God appointed Adam as the representative head of the human race. His sin involved the entire human race in sin. His sin was imputed or charged to everyone born after him. Because of Adam’s sin, each of us was born guilty of sin before we ever committed our first willful sin. We are not sinners because we sin; we sin because we are sinners by virtue of our union with Adam.

The common reaction to this is, “That’s not fair!” But it’s always very dangerous to accuse the Almighty Sovereign of the universe of unfairness (Rom. 9:20-21)! If God determined to treat Adam as the representative head of the human race, it is certainly God’s prerogative to do so. Also, we live with this sort of representation every day. If our political leaders declare war against another country, we go to war and some of our soldiers will die because of the action of our leaders. Their decision was our decision because they represent us. A further response to the unfairness charge is, do you think that you would have done better than Adam? Do you think that you would have resisted temptation and lived a sinless life if you had been born without the effects and guilt of Adam’s sin? That’s not likely! And, finally, if it’s not fair that Adam represented you when he sinned, neither is it fair that Christ represented you when He died on the cross.

But since there are other views, how do we know that Paul is really saying, “When Adam sinned, we all sinned”?

B. The proof that Adam’s sin affected the entire human race is that death is universal (5:13-14).

Paul begins verse 12 with a comparison (“just as”), but then breaks off in mid-sentence to explain or prove (“for”) his comment, “because all sinned.” While the flow of thought is not easy to follow, Paul seems to be arguing that the fact of universal death from the time of Adam until Moses was not due to their individual sins, which were not imputed to them because they were not breaking the specific commands of the law, but rather due to their identification with Adam in his original sin.

But, what does Paul mean when he adds (5:14), “even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam”? Again, there is much debate, but it seems that Paul means that after the Law was given, sinners violated the specific commands of God, even as Adam did. But those who lived between Adam and Moses still sinned, even though their guilt was not imputed because they didn’t violate specific commands. So, if their guilt wasn’t imputed, why did they all die? Answer: they died because Adam’s sin was imputed to them. They sinned when he sinned. The proof of their sinning in Adam is that they all died.

But, why does Paul add at this point that Adam is “a type of Him who was to come,” namely, of Christ? Answer: Paul wants us to see the parallel. Adam’s descendants were all implicated in his sin and died, even though they didn’t violate specific commands as he did, because they are “in Adam.” When he sinned, they sinned. In like manner, all of Christ’s descendants, born spiritually through the new birth, are identified with Him and are counted as righteous not because of their individual deeds of righteousness, but because of Christ’s righteousness.

John Piper (“Adam, Christ, and Justification,” Part 2, on explains and applies this:

That is the all-important parallel. The deepest reason why death reigns over all is not because of our individual sins, but because of Adam’s sin imputed to us. So the deepest reason eternal life reigns is not because of our individual deeds of righteousness, but because of Christ’s righteousness imputed to us by grace through faith.

O how much light this sheds on why Paul embarked on this paragraph at all! He did it for the sake of our faith and our assurance and our joy. He did it to underline the fact that our right standing with God and our freedom from condemnation is not based on our righteous acts but on Christ’s righteous acts.

One other thought before we look at the rest of our text: Outside of Christ, the human race is still under the reign of death. As George Bernard Shaw wryly observed, “The statistics on death are quite impressive: one out of one people die!” We try to put it out of our minds, but then it hits someone close to us and we realize, “I’m going to die someday, too.” We try to preserve our bodies through exercise and health food, and AARP magazine perpetuates the myth by showing us old geezers who compete in triathlons, as if they will live forever. But the fact is, those old geezers are going to die. Plastic surgery may allow us to leave a young looking corpse, but it’s still a corpse! And, contrary to popular mythology, death is not a natural part of the life cycle. Death is God’s penalty for Adam’s sin, imposed on all his posterity. Death reigns if you are still in Adam. How do we escape the curse?

2. If you are in Christ, you will reign in life because Christ’s gift is greater than Adam’s sin (5:15-17).

These are also very difficult verses, and I can only skim them. Paul is making a comparison between Adam and Christ, but even more, a contrast. He’s showing why Christ is far superior to Adam, as seen by his twice-repeated phrase, “much more” (5:15, 17). Adam’s sin resulted in condemnation and death to the human race, but Christ’s obedience unto death resulted in justification and life to those who receive it. Let’s look briefly at each verse:

A. The work of Christ is greater than Adam’s sin because it displays and dispenses the abundance of God’s grace (5:15).

Romans 5:15: “But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many.”

Paul contrasts the devastating effects of Adam’s transgression—the many died—with the glorious effects of God’s free gift and grace, which abounds to the many. “Many” is not viewing the affected groups numerically, but qualitatively. It has two different ranges here. In the first instance, it refers to the devastating effects of one man’s sin on many, which means, the entire human race. It’s like one little campfire left untended which starts a forest fire that destroys the entire forest. One man sinned, but many died. In the second instance, it cannot refer to the whole human race, but only to those who “receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness” (5:17). It would be wrong to interpret the second “many” to mean that salvation is offered to all, because in 5:16, the second group is actually justified. Rather, it refers to the many who actually receive the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

The “much more” refers to the superlative nature of salvation over judgment. Paul piles up words like “grace,” “gift,” and “abound” to emphasize how wonderful God’s gift of salvation is, provided freely to us at Christ’s expense. It is an undeserved gift and it abounds to us through the grace of God and through the grace of Christ, who are linked in this verse. How much sin have you piled up? God’s grace in Christ is more abundant! How great is your guilt and debt? God’s free gift and abounding grace is greater!

B. The work of Christ is greater than Adam’s sin because it overcame many sins to freely bestow justification (5:16).

Romans 5:16: “The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification.”

The main contrast here is that one sin resulted in condemnation of the entire human race, but the many sins of that fallen race resulted in justification for all who believe. The word believe is not here, but it’s implicit because from 3:24-5:1 Paul hammered home that justification is received by faith alone. Condemnation and justification are judicial terms. Christ’s work is greater than Adam’s sin because it overcame the great devastation that resulted from Adam’s sin. Adam lit the forest fire that devastated the human race, but Christ not only put it out, but planted a new forest, an eternal one, for all who will receive His gracious gift.

C. The work of Christ is greater than Adam’s sin because rather than bringing the reign of death, it causes those who receive it to reign in life (5:17).

Romans 5:17: “For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.”

How do we escape the awful reign of death? By receiving “the abundance of grace” and “the gift of righteousness” through Jesus Christ! Again Paul refers to the abundance of grace to let us know that there isn’t any chance that God’s supply will run dry on the sinner who is in line before you. The gift is righteousness, Christ’s righteousness credited to your account, which is the meaning of justification. God does not just forgive your sins; He also bestows the positive righteousness of Christ to you, so that you stand before God not in your own righteous deeds, but in the righteousness of your representative, Jesus Christ.

And, not only do you escape the reign of death. Also, you will reign in life through Jesus Christ. This begins now as you live in victory over sin (Romans 6). It also means that the sting and fear of death are removed, so that we are more than conquerors in Christ (Rom. 8:36-37; 1 Cor. 15:56-57; Heb. 2:14-15). But it also means that throughout eternity we will reign with Christ (Rev. 1:6; 3:21; 1 Cor. 6:2, 3). He is the King of kings. Who are the kings that He is King over? We are (Lloyd-Jones, p. 265)!

Then Paul sums up verses 12-17:

3. To sum up: Through Adam’s sin all were condemned as sinners, but through Christ’s righteousness all in Him are justified (5:18-19).

Romans 5:18-19: “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men. For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.”

Verse 18 completes the idea that Paul began, but broke off, in verse 12: One man’s sin brought death and condemnation to all, but One Man’s righteousness brought justification of life to all. Paul is not teaching universalism, that all people will be saved. That would contradict what he teaches elsewhere, that sinners will face judgment and eternal condemnation (2:5, 8, 9). Also, in 5:17 he has just stated that it is those who receive the gift of righteousness who will reign with Christ. Rather, the two “alls” relate to their representative heads. All who are in Adam are condemned. All who are in Christ are justified. The same limits apply to the “many” in verse 19: Through one man’s disobedience, the many (the entire race) were made sinners. Through One Man’s obedience at the cross, the many (believers) will be made righteous.

The word made means to appoint, but it must be interpreted here in light of the forensic context. Douglas Moo (p. 345) explains, “To be ‘righteous’ does not mean to be morally upright, but to be judged acquitted, cleared of all charges, in the heavenly judgment.”

So Paul is summing up 5:12-17 in verse 18 and repeating it in slightly different language in verse 19. The main point is: If you are in Adam, you’re under the reign of sin and death, headed for eternal condemnation. But if you are in Christ by faith in His sacrifice on the cross, you are free from sin and death and will reign in life through Him, because Christ’s gift is greater than Adam’s sin.


These difficult verses have required a lot of explanation, but let me wrap it up by restating some of the practical applications:

(1) Fathers, your behavior and choices greatly affect your children, so live prayerfully and carefully. Thankfully, our sins won’t affect the entire human race, as Adam’s sin did. But we never sin in isolation. Think about how your conduct will affect your children.

(2) Since the universal problem of the human race is sin, the universal solution is the gospel. From primitive tribes to educated professors, the need and the solution are the same. Don’t be intimidated by someone with a Ph.D. He is a sinner and he needs the Savior. You can point him to Christ.

(3) If the universal problem is guilt by identification with Adam’s sin, then salvation cannot be through adding our good works. This text is all about how sinners can be put right with God. We must be identified with Christ’s righteousness by faith. We must receive God’s gift through Christ.

(4) If we are in Christ, our salvation is secure not because of anything in us, but because we’re in Him. You won’t be saved by your performance, but rather by Christ’s obedience on the cross and the fact that you’re trusting in Him alone. Are you in Adam, under the reign of death? Or, by faith are you in Christ, reigning in life?

Application Questions

  1. Is the doctrine of our identification with Adam in his original sin unfair? Why/why not? Why is this doctrine important?
  2. Discuss the implications of the twice-repeated “death reigned” (5:14, 17). What does it mean with regard to unbelievers (Eph. 2:1-3)?
  3. Discuss what it means for believers to “reign in life” through Jesus Christ. How does this apply to daily life now?
  4. Discuss the four practical applications given in the conclusion. What other applications can you think of in this text?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 30: Super-Abundant Grace that Reigns (Romans 5:20-21)

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In 2005, Christian Smith and Melinda Denton wrote Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers [Oxford University Press]. Based on interviews with about 3,000 teens, they described what they considered to be the common religious beliefs among American teenagers as “moralistic therapeutic deism.”

The authors summed up these beliefs as having five elements: (1) A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. (2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions. (3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. (4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. (5) Good people go to heaven when they die.

The authors believe that “a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradi­tion, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbe­gotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (Source:

Sadly, I think the authors are largely on target: much of what goes under the banner of Christianity is moralistic in that it believes that good people will go to heaven (although often the standards for “good” are not in line with the Bible). It is therapeutic in that feeling good about yourself is the main reason to go to church and believe in Jesus. He can help you succeed in your goals. And it is deism in that you don’t really need a Savior from sin because you’re a good person. God is there when you need Him, but the rest of the time, just believe in yourself and pursue your dreams. God, His glory, and the cross are not at the center of this belief system.

I hope that you can see how far moralistic therapeutic deism is from the gospel that Paul sets forth in Romans. After stating the theme of Romans, that he is not ashamed of the gospel, which reveals the righteousness of God (1:16-17), Paul shows that every person has sinned and is under God’s condemnation (1:18-3:20). He then shows that by His death on the cross, Jesus Christ satisfied God’s righteous demand so that He can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (I hope that you can see how far moralistic therapeutic deism is from the gospel that Paul sets forth in Romans. After stating the theme of Romans, that he is not ashamed of the gospel, which reveals the righteousness of God (1:16-17), Paul shows that every person has sinned and is under God’s condemnation (1:18-3:20). He then shows that by His death on the cross, Jesus Christ satisfied God’s righteous demand so that He can be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (3:21-4:25). Then Paul sets forth some of the blessings of being justified by faith in Christ (

Then (5:12-19) Paul re-emphasizes why we must be justified by faith: When Adam sinned, we all sinned in him. His sin was our sin; the fact of universal death proves it. But the last Adam, Jesus Christ, more than overcame the devastating effects of Adam’s sin. Adam’s sin resulted in death for all who are in him, but Jesus Christ’s obedience in going to the cross resulted in justification of life for all who are in Him. Adam’s sin was credited to all his descendants, but Christ’s righteousness is credited to all who are His descendants through faith in Him.

But, Paul anticipates a question that anyone familiar with the Old Testament would have: Why, then, was the Law given? What was its purpose? Didn’t God give the Law through Moses so that people could keep it and live? So in 5:20-21 Paul contrasts the Law and its result with God’s grace in Christ and its result. He is saying,

Through the Law, sin reigned in death, but through Christ super-abundant grace reigns in righteousness to eternal life.

Paul’s words in 5:20 would have been utterly shocking to his Jewish readers: “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase ….” The average Jew would have thought that the Law came in to restrain sin, not to cause its increase (Thomas Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment [Baker], p. 73). We’ll consider in a mo­ment what Paul meant by this statement, but for now just note that most Jews would do a double-take and say, “Did I read that correctly?” Paul’s assertion definitely would have gotten their attention! He is saying:

1. Outside of Christ, the Law causes sin to increase and to reign in death.

There are several things to consider here:

A. The Law does not restrain sin at the heart level.

There is a sense in which both civil law and God’s Law restrain sin externally. The speed laws cause us to slow down, especially when we see a police car. Laws against theft, murder and other things may restrain people who would otherwise do those things. But the law cannot restrain the evil desires of the fallen human heart. I still want to speed. Greed makes me want to steal. The law cannot bring my sinful heart into willing submission.

Jesus hit the Pharisees with their hypocrisy in these things. Outwardly, they practiced obedience to the Law so that others would think that they were righteous. But in their hearts, Jesus said that they were full of self-indulgence, uncleanness, and lawlessness (Matt. 23:25-28).

B. The Law actually increases sin.

“The Law came in so that the transgression would increase ….” Paul isn’t just describing what actually happened, but rather God’s intent or purpose for giving the Law. This was not God’s only purpose or ultimate purpose, in that the increase of sin under the Law magnified the splendor and power of God’s grace (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 295). But, in the sense that I am going to explain, the Law actually increases sin. It didn’t make the human race as fallen in Adam better; it made it worse.

The verb translated came in (5:20) points to the Law’s subordinate role in God’s economy (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 347). The idea is that the Law came alongside the existence of human sin, not to provide salvation, but to increase sin in several ways:

(1). The Law increases sin by turning our imputed sin in Adam into actual sins of deliberate disobedience.

This is Paul’s main point, as seen by the words, the transgression. He has just used this word to describe Adam’s disobedience (5:15, 17, 18). Adam disobeyed an explicit commandment of God. By way of contrast, those living from Adam until Moses sinned, but not in the same way that Adam sinned, in that they did not have God’s explicit commandments (5:14). They violated their con­sciences (2:12, 15). But when God gave the Law, the transgression of Adam increased, in that now sinners violated God’s explicit commandments. And so the Law of Moses turned those it addresses into “their own Adam” (Moo, p. 348). Each sinner, like Adam, now broke an explicit law. As Paul says (3:20), “for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (also, 7:7).

Maybe you’ve had the experience of doing something that didn’t quite seem right, but you were not aware of any law against it. But then you learned that the law specifically forbids doing what you were doing. If you do it again, the law has caused your sin to increase, because you are now deliberately disobeying.

(2). The Law increases sin by imputing our guilt to our account.

In Romans 4:15, Paul said, “Where there is no law, there is no violation.” In 5:13 he added, “For until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law.” Sin existed before the Law, in that sinners instinctively knew that what they were doing was wrong. But that sin was not specifically charged to them unless God had expressly forbidden it. So when the Law came, the transgression increased by imputing guilt to every sinner.

(3). The Law increases sin by exposing the utter sinful­ness of sin and removing all excuses for disobed­ience.

Paul says (7:13) “that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.” It’s one thing to do something wrong when you are not aware of any law against it. But when the law is posted on the wall or it is verbally explained to you, and then you go out and break that law, you have no excuse. Your deliberate disobed­ience reveals your sin to be utterly sinful.

(4). The Law increases sin by stimulating our sinful flesh to disobey it.

This is not Paul’s primary meaning in 5:20, but in light of what he goes on to say (7:7-11), it cannot be completely absent from his thought. The Law, which is holy, combines with our rebellious flesh to entice us to sin. Paul says that when the Law said, “You shall not covet,” it produced in him coveting of every kind (7:7-8). It’s like the little old lady who told the preacher that she wished he would stop quoting the Ten Commandments every week, because he was putting wrong ideas into people’s heads! We’ve all had the same experience. I wouldn’t have thought about walking on the grass if that sign had not said, “Do not walk on the grass”!

So the Law does not restrain sin at the heart level. Rather, the Law actually increases sin. But this raises the question: By giving the Law, was God causing us to sin? I hope that the very question causes you to say, “God forbid!” God cannot tempt anyone to sin (James 1:13). Rather, sin comes from our own lusts (7:5, 11-14). But that leads to a third observation about how the Law operates:

C. The Law is necessary to expose our self-righteousness and to convict us of our sin.

Outside of Christ, the tendency of the proud human heart is to trust in our own goodness and good works. We think that by our own efforts, we can commend ourselves to God. But the problem is, like the Pharisees, we focus on the outside of the cup, but conveniently ignore that the inside of the cup is filthy. And so God graciously sends the Law to tear down our self-righteousness and convict us of our sin so that we will be driven to the Savior.

Jesus did this with the Pharisees in the Sermon on the Mount. They took pride in never having murdered anyone, but Jesus said that if they had ever been angry, they were guilty of murder. They prided themselves on their morality, but Jesus said that if they had lusted after a woman, they were guilty of adultery in God’s sight. Jesus did the same thing with the rich young ruler. He took pride in having kept all the commandments, or so he thought. But by telling him to sell his possessions and give the money to the poor, Jesus showed him that he had not kept the first commandment, to have no other gods before the living God. His money was his god.

Thus the Law comes in, not just to increase the transgression, but also to reveal to us how guilty we are of violating God’s holy standards. This is actually gracious on God’s part, because in our self-righteousness, we don’t see our need for a Savior. But when the Law exposes our self-righteousness and convicts us of our sin, it drives us to the cross where we find grace. But not only does the Law cause sin to increase; also …

D. The increased sin reigns in death.

We saw this last week: sin led to death and “death reigned from Adam to Moses” (5:14); “death reigned through the one” (5:17); but, he repeats it again (5:21): “as sin reigned in death.” Two brief thoughts:

(1). Sin reigns as an evil tyrant in those who are not under Christ’s lordship.

In other words, sin doesn’t just move in as a polite houseguest; it takes over. It’s like bringing home a pet tiger kitten. It’s so cute and playful at first. But pretty soon, it grows into a vicious predator that kills you. Sin does not come in to work with you to accomplish your cherished objectives. It does not cooperate with you to help you be happy. It comes in pleasantly enough at first. It seems like a nice little pet. But invariably, it grows into an evil tyrant that reigns in death. If you do not conquer it, it will conquer and kill you (Gen. 4:7).

(2). Sin does not lead to a better, happier life, but to temporal and ultimately eternal death.

Sin reigns in the sphere of death, which refers both to physical and finally to spiritual death, which is eternal separation from God in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14-15). At first, sin always puts on a positive look: “You will be like God.” The fruit is good for food and a delight to the eyes (Gen. 3:5-6). Why not give it a try? It will bring you what you’ve always wanted! But that’s how sin deceives us. It did not bring Eve what Satan promised. It led her and the entire human race into death. Her oldest son murdered his brother out of jealousy. Sin is always ugly and leads to death. Remember that the next time you are tempted!

It’s a bleak picture, isn’t it! Outside of Christ, God’s holy Law causes sin to increase, so that it reigns in death. But thankfully there is some very good news:

2. Through Jesus Christ our Lord super-abundant grace reigns through righteousness to eternal life.

Romans 5:21 stands in contrast to 5:12. In 5:12, there are Adam, sin and death; in 5:21, we see the new Adam, Jesus Christ our Lord, righteousness, and eternal life. The new factor that makes the difference is super-abounding grace (Alva McClain, Romans, the Gospel of God’s Grace [BMH Books], p. 139).

The backdrop of sin displays the glory of God’s grace all the more (Schreiner, The Law, 242). F. Godet (Commentary on Romans [Kregel], p. 228) points out that Golgotha, “where human sin displayed itself as nowhere else, was at the same time the place of the most extraordinary manifestation of divine grace.” I once read about a master gem salesman who watched a rookie salesman fail to make a sale. With the next customer, the master showed the rookie how to display the gem on a background of black velvet to bring out the beauty and luster of the diamond. Even so, the glory of God’s manifold grace shines even brighter against the blackness of human sin. Note three things here:

A. God’s response to increased sin is super-abundant grace.

The Greek verb translated “increase” and “increased” has the idea of numerical increase. But the root of the word translated “abounded” means “to overflow,” or “to have more than enough.” But then Paul adds the Greek word, hyper, so that it means, “abounded all the more.” So we can translate, “where sin added up, grace super-abounded.” Donald Grey Barnhouse paraphrased it, “Where sin reached a high-water mark, grace completely flooded the world” (cited by James Boice, Romans [Baker], 2:618).

James Boice develops two points regarding God’s super-abundant grace. First: Grace is not withheld because of sin. Second: God’s grace is never reduced because of sin (pp. 619, 621). He points out that we do not usually operate this way. If someone wrongs or offends us, we withdraw from that person and do not treat him graciously. But God is not like this. Sinners crucified His Son who came to save them. After the resurrection, Jesus easily could have instructed the disciples, “Get out of this evil city of Jerusalem. It does not deserve to hear the gospel.” But instead, He told them (Luke 24:47) “that repentance for the forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations,” and then He added, “beginning from Jerusalem.”

John Bunyan, who titled his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, also wrote a little book called, The Jerusalem Sinner Saved (both in The Whole Works of John Bunyan [Baker], vol. 1). His point was that Jesus Christ would have mercy offered, in the first place, to the biggest sinners.

B. God’s grace reigns through righteousness to eternal life.

Paul does not just say that in contrast to sin reigning in death, now grace reigns in life. He adds that “grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life.” Righteousness here refers to “the gift of righteousness” (5:17), which is the justification that all sinners receive when God imputes the righteousness of Christ to them by faith. As sinners who have been declared righteous, we are not made perfectly righteous in actual conduct until we see Jesus and become like Him (1 John 1:8; 3:2-3). We grow in godly behavior, but when we do sin, we have “an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1). So our sins do not cut us off from God because His super-abundant grace reigns through the righteous standing that we have before Him through Christ.

This grace reigns “to eternal life.” In 5:17, Paul says that grace causes us to reign in life, but here he says that God’s super-abundant grace reigns to eternal life. This means that God’s grace takes us beyond where Adam was before the fall. He did not possess eternal life before the fall. We do. He did not have permanent, perfect righteousness credited to his account. We do. This should give us solid assurance of salvation. What God began in us when He graciously credited Christ’s righteousness to us as ungodly sinners (4:5), He will complete unto eternal life.

John Piper (“The Triumph of Grace Through Righteousness,” on points out that Romans 5 begins and ends with two infinite realities: eternal life at the end, and the hope of the glory of God at the beginning (xistence needs to be eternal so that we can experience more and more of the infinite glory of God (Eph. 1:6, 18; 2:7; Rom. 9:23). This also insures us that heaven will not be boring, because God’s glory is infinitely beautiful and enjoyable. He puts it this way:

Any amount of time short of eternity would be inadequate for a finite creature to experience the glory of God. It will take forever for us to see all there is to see and admire all there is to admire and enjoy all there is to enjoy of the glory of God. Therefore God ordains that there be eternal life for us.

There is one last thought that I can only mention in passing:

C. God’s grace is mediated to us through our Lord Jesus Christ.

All blessings come to us as believers through Jesus Christ our Lord, who graciously came to this earth and bore the penalty that we deserved on the cross. He mediates God’s blessings to us. Since we deserve nothing from God except judgment, this is pure grace. Throughout this chapter, Paul has repeated this so we won’t miss it: “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). “We shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him [Christ]” (5:9). “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (5:10). “We also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (5:11). “Much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ” (5:17). And here (5:21), grace reigns “through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

All spiritual blessings are to be found in Christ (Eph. 1:3). Do you have Him? If so, His super-abundant undeserved favor will keep flowing and flowing to you unto eternal life!


In the center of Bath, England, stands a stone marker in honor of the city’s medicinal waters that have blessed so many people. It reads: “These healing waters have flowed on from time immemorial. Their virtue is unimpaired, their heat undiminished, their volume unabated. They explain the origin, account for the progress, and demand the gratitude of the City of Bath.” (From “Our Daily Bread,” Aug., 1982.)

That’s like God’s super-abundant grace for sinners who have trusted in Jesus Christ! The gospel of God’s grace is decidedly not moralistic therapeutic deism! Rather, through the gospel God’s enemies are reconciled to Him through “the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness” (5:17). His super-abundant grace reigns in us through Christ’s righteousness unto eternal life! A godly pastor who was about to die said, “I’m gathering together all my prayers, all my sermons, all my good deeds, all my evil deeds; and I’m going to throw them all overboard and drift to glory on the plank of Free Grace” (ibid.). Amen!

Application Questions

1.      Is it necessary to experience deep conviction of sin before coming to saving faith? If so, how should this affect our pre­sentation of the gospel?

2.      Someone may reason, “If the Law causes sin to increase, why not just throw out God’s commandments?” Your response?

3.      Discuss: Self-righteousness is one of the biggest hindrances to a person’s reception of the gospel.

4.      Someone objects: “You say that sin reigns in death, but I’ve been much happier since I started yielding to my lusts.” How would you respond?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 31: Are You Dead to Sin? (Romans 6:1-4)

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I’ve often chuckled at a cartoon (by Mary Chambers) that I saw years ago where two couples are talking and one woman says, “Well, I haven’t actually died to sin, but I did feel kind of faint once.”

That cartoon captures how many of us feel about Romans 6:2, where Paul says that we “died to sin.” We would have to admit, “I don’t feel very dead to sin!” Maybe there have been a few times when I’ve felt kind of faint towards it. But, dead? No way!

So when we come to Romans 6, where Paul doesn’t just say once (in 6:2) that we died to sin, but in some form he says it in 6:3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 11, and 13. So if it seems like I’m repeating myself over the next couple of weeks, it’s because Paul repeats himself. But he wants us to get it because apparently it is crucial when it comes to living a godly life. And yet it’s very difficult to understand because I don’t feel very dead to sin! In fact, I rarely feel kind of faint!

Although commentators differ, most agree that in Romans 6:1 Paul turns from the subject of justification (or salvation) to sanctification, or how we grow in holiness. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, whom I highly respect, vigorously differs with that analysis and James Boice, whom I also highly respect, follows Lloyd-Jones. So it’s difficult for me to disagree with such men, whose insight into Scripture far exceeds mine. They may be correct.

But even though this section obviously flows out of chapter 5 (as Lloyd-Jones argues from “then” in 6:1), it seems to me that Paul begins a new theme that he pursues through chapter 8: If we have been justified by faith, how do we grow in sanctification? Justification by faith dealt with the penalty of our sin. But how can we live a holy life in which sin’s power is broken?

Chapter 6 falls into two main sections: In 6:1-14, Paul addresses an objection that he knows will follow from what he has been teaching about God justifying sinners by grace alone through faith alone, apart from any merit. He is especially responding to what he has just said in 5:20, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” The anticipated response is, “If God’s response to increased sin is to pour out super-abundant grace, then maybe we should sin all the more so that God can be all the more gracious!” Paul brought up this same reaction to his teaching back in 3:8, where he acknowledged that some were accusing him of saying, “Let us do evil that good may come.” His response there was, “Their condemnation is just.” Here (6:2), his response is, “May it never be!” Then he launches into his extended discussion of our being united with Christ in His death and resurrection.

In the second main section (6:15-23), Paul responds to another anticipated response to his teaching (in 5:20) that the Law came in so that sin would increase, along with his comment that we are not under law but under grace (6:14). The objection is (6:15), “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” His response is the same as in 6:2, “May it never be!” Then he develops an analogy from slavery. In 6:1-4, his main idea is:

Our union with Christ in His death and resurrection is the foundation for separation from sin and walking in newness of life.

I’m going to work through the text verse by verse to try to get our minds around what Paul is saying under four headings:

1. There is a logical implication to reject: Since God’s response to increased sin is abundant grace, then we should sin more to get more grace (6:1-2a).

Romans 6:1-2a: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be!”

Verse 1 is a test of whether you have correctly understood Paul’s message up to this point. If you’ve been tracking with him, he knows that you will be thinking, “If God’s response to increased sin is abundant grace (5:20), then why not sin more?” Since God freely justifies not those who try hard, but rather those who do not work; and since He justifies not those who are good people, but rather the ungodly (4:5); then why work at being good? Or, another form of it is, “If God is gracious towards sinners, then I’ll just sin and ask for His grace.” Or, as poet W. H. Auden put it (cited by Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans Eerdmans], p. 356), “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.”

But the point is, if salvation or justification is by faith plus our good works, the objection that Paul anticipates here never would have come up. Or, if we hedge in God’s grace or tone it down, no one would dare to think what Paul knows we will think if we heard him correctly. For example, the popular seminar leader, Bill Goth­ard, redefines “grace” to mean, “the desire and power to do God’s will” (Men’s Manual [Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts], p. 112). While God does give us the desire and power to do His will, that is not grace! God’s grace is His undeserved favor. If we understand and teach grace correctly, people will at least think what Paul here anticipates. And, significantly, Paul doesn’t modify his teaching that God justifies the ungodly apart from their works, or that increased sin leads to abounding grace. Neither should we!

2. There is a spiritual fact to know and believe: In Christ we died to sin, so we cannot still live in it (6:2b).

Romans 6:2b: “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” This is a rhetorical question, which expects the answer, “There is no way that those who died to sin can still live in it!” It should be obvious: Dead men can’t live in sin.

But this raises a lot of questions. If Christians are dead to sin, then why do they sin? Can we attain sinless perfection in this life? If so, doesn’t this statement imply that we attain this state of being dead to sin at the moment of conversion? If not, do we need to work at being dead to sin? So what does Paul mean when he says that we “died to sin”?

There are a number of views (Martyn Lloyd-Jones elaborates on them, Romans: The New Man [Zondervan], pp. 16-20). For sake of time, I’m not going to take you through them all. But let me tell you what it does not mean, and then what I think it does mean.

Clearly, Paul does not mean that believers cannot sin or that they are immune to temptation. Some teach that if you go into a morgue and try to tempt a corpse to commit some sin, you will not succeed because he is dead. Likewise, it is said, Christians are dead to sin. It can’t entice them.

But, apart from the obvious fact that there are no such Christians in existence and there never have been, such a view makes all of the moral commands in the Bible to be superfluous. Why command me not to lust if I can’t lust because I’m dead to it? Why command me not to steal if I’m dead to greed? Besides, there are many examples in the Bible of otherwise godly men falling into serious sin. Noah got drunk. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all lied. David committed adultery and murder after he wrote many of the Psalms. Peter denied the Lord and later acted in hypocrisy toward the Gentile believers in Antioch. And in Romans 7, Paul shares his own struggles with sin. So he does not mean that believers cannot sin or that they are immune to temptation.

What does he mean? We just saw (5:12-21) that all people are identified either with Adam under the reign of sin and death, or with Christ under the reign of grace through righteousness. There are no other categories: Either you are in Adam or in Christ. By virtue of our physical birth, we all enter this world in Adam. His sin was imputed to us. When Adam sinned, we sinned. But when we trust in Christ, we are transferred from Adam’s headship to Christ’s headship. Just as Adam’s one sin condemned us all, so Christ’s one act of obedience on the cross justified all who receive His gracious gift of eternal life.

So Paul means that if you are in Christ, when He died on the cross, you died in Him. It is not something that you feel, but rather a fact that is true of you because God declares it to be true. If Christ our Head died, we who are His body died with Him. This is our new status or position before God. Since Christ died to sin (6:10) and we are now in Him, we died to sin. We derive the benefits of His death because we are now in Him.

In the Bible, death is not primarily cessation, but rather separation. At physical death your soul is separated from your body. When we died with Christ, we were separated from the reign of death and put under Christ’s reign of righteousness. Its reign over us was broken. As a result, Paul implies (by his rhetorical question) that we cannot continue in sin or live in it. He is not talking about committing acts of sin, but rather about living in sin as a way of life.

I understand 1 John 3:9 to be saying the same thing from a slightly different perspective: “No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” John is not saying that believers cannot sin at all, because in 1 John 1:8 he has said that if anyone claims that he has no sin is deceiving himself. And in 2:1 he says that if we sin, we have an Advocate with the Father. He means that those born of God cannot continue in their old way of life, which was characterized by sin. The new birth removes them from it.

So both John and Paul mean that those who are in Christ cannot continue in sin as a way of life. When we are saved by God’s grace, He places us in a new realm, under the reign of grace, where we now walk in the light as He is in the light (as John puts it). We now obey God and keep His commandments as our pattern or habit. So Paul says that we need to know this fact and believe it: In Christ we died to sin, so we cannot still live in it.

3. There is a spiritual analogy to help you understand: Your baptism pictures your union with Christ in His death (6:3-4a).

Romans 6:3-4a: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, …”

Verse 3 generates a lot of controversy. Is Paul talking about water baptism or the baptism of the Holy Spirit? If he means water baptism, is he saying that the act of baptism itself conveys these benefits? Sparing you all of the debates, I think that Paul is referring to the spiritual reality that takes place at salvation, which water baptism symbolizes.

Keep in mind that the apostles all associated saving faith with water baptism to such an extent that the concept of an unbaptized believer would have been foreign to them. When people in that day professed faith in Jesus Christ, they expressed it by being baptized in water. Paul assumes that all of the Christians in Rome had been baptized. (“All of us who have been baptized” means, “all of us believers.”) Since at that time, baptism usually followed faith in Christ rather quickly (Acts 2:41; 8:36; 9:18), the thought of distinguishing between Spirit baptism (which happens at the moment of salvation) and water baptism would not have occurred to Paul (Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 307, note 6).

Also, not to be controversial, but there is no evidence in the New Testament that infant baptism was practiced, nor are there any verses to support such a practice. The entire argument for infant baptism rests on the assumption that it has replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant. While Colossians 2:11-12 links some aspects of circumcision with baptism, those verses also specifically link faith in Christ with baptism. The clear pattern of the New Testament is that a person first believed in Christ and then expressed that faith in water baptism. In modern evangelicalism, we’ve wrongly replaced baptism with walking the aisle. But if you have believed in Christ as your Savior, you should be baptized in water to confess your faith.

What does baptism picture? The main thought is that of identification. The word clearly means, to immerse (as even Calvin admitted, The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 4:15:14 & 4:15:19). It was used of people being drowned, or of ships being sunk (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 246). To be baptized into Christ’s death means to be totally identified with Christ in His death. When He paid the penalty of death for sin, we paid the penalty in Him. When He died to sin, conquering its power, we who believe in Him died to sin and its power.

Why does Paul emphasize not only Christ’s death, but also the fact that we were buried with Him through baptism? Scholars agree that burial is mentioned because it confirms that death has occurred (Schreiner, p. 308). Generally speaking, you don’t bury a living person. To say that we were buried with Christ means, we really died with Him. Baptism by immersion pictures this when a person goes under the water. If we held them under for a few minutes, they really would die physically! Immersion pictures the spiritual reality: When we believed in Christ, we became fully identified with Him in His death and burial. We are united with Him in that historic action (6:5).

While Paul does not specifically say (which means that scholars argue about it) that coming out of the water pictures being raised up with Christ in His resurrection, it is implied. As I understand him, he uses baptism as an illustration to help us understand our union with Christ. It pictures our death, burial, and resurrection with Christ, which took place historically when Christ died, was buried, and was raised on behalf of His people whom He redeemed. It was applied to us the instant that we believed, but we express it symbolically in water baptism. Finally,

4. There is a spiritual fact to believe and act upon: Since we are united with Christ in His glorious resurrection, we should walk in newness of life (6:4b).

Romans 6:4b: “… so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Christ was raised bodily from the grave, not just spiritually. But spiritually, we were in Him, so that when He was raised in victory over sin and death, we were raised too (Col. 3:1). We will not receive our new resurrection bodies, which will be completely free from sin, until Jesus returns. But before then, the action on our part as a result of our spiritual resurrection with Christ is that we should walk in newness of life.

Paul says that Christ was raised from the dead “through the glory of the Father.” It’s an unusual expression. I would have expected him to say, “by the power of God.” While most commentators say that “glory” is used here as a synonym for “power,” Paul does say “glory,” not “power.” C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 27:626) points out that glory is a grander word, because it includes the display of all of the Father’s attributes in raising Christ from the dead. The word “Father” (rather than “God”) implies His great love for His Son and for us in giving up His Son to death. The wisdom of God was displayed by allowing Christ to suffer in our place before raising Him from the dead. The Father’s justice is displayed at the cross and resurrection (4:25). His faithfulness to His promise not to allow His Holy One to undergo decay (Ps. 16:10) was seen in the resurrection. And, of course, His great power was displayed there, too (Eph. 1:19-20).

As a result of our union with Christ in His resurrection, we are to walk in newness of life. This means that our new walk in Christ should be totally distinct from our life before Christ. We should develop transformed minds through God’s Word, so that our whole worldview lines up with Scripture. Our motives for why we do what we do should no longer be selfish, but rather for God’s glory. Our attitudes, especially in trials, should not be complaining, but rather thankful to God. Our emotions should be marked by joy and hope in the Lord. Our character should be developing the fruit of the Spirit. Our use of time and money should be managed in light of eternal values. And we should be walking in consistent obedience to God’s commandments, which are for our good.

The description of this newness of life as “a walk” implies a long, steady, gradual process. Paul is not talking about sinless perfection, but rather a direction of life in which we sin less and less. Over time, we should make progress in holy, obedient living as those who have been raised up with Christ.


I realize that the concept of being dead to sin and alive to God in Christ is difficult to comprehend and apply. We’ll look at it further in weeks ahead, since Paul does. But let me conclude by giving three applications based on this text:

(1) Do not presume on God’s grace as permission to sin. Many Christians stupidly (I chose that word deliberately!) think, “I can go ahead and sin and just get forgiven. After all, I’m under grace.” That is stupid because it ignores what we saw last time, that sin does not move in to help you achieve your objectives. It moves in to reign and its reign is one of death. God’s grace does not mean that He is tolerant of your sin. Grace does not excuse sloppy living. God is committed to your holiness, and if you play loose with sin, He will discipline you, perhaps severely!

(2) If you have trusted Christ, make a distinct break with your past life and declare it publicly in baptism. Becoming a Christian means burning all your bridges to your past life of sin. If you have drugs in your possession, destroy them. If you have alcohol and you are tempted to get drunk, pour it down the drain. If going to bars tempts you to drunkenness or picking up loose women, stop going there. If you have pornographic magazines, get rid of them. If Internet porn is a problem, get some system of accountability or stop using the Internet. Follow the example of the new believers in Ephesus, who burned 50,000 days’ wages worth of magic books (Acts 19:19). And then confess your new faith in water baptism.

(3) Meditate often on your union with Christ and what it means. You are now in Christ. Think about it and act accordingly. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (pp. 25 ff.) uses the example of the slaves who were freed by President Lincoln during the Civil War. His Emancipation Proclamation declared them to be free. Many of the older slaves had not known any other life. They were born slaves and had lived all their lives under a cruel master. But now they “died” to slavery. They were declared free. But they didn’t feel free. When they saw their old master coming, they may have shook in fear and even obeyed him if he gave them a command. But they didn’t have to obey him. His power over them was broken. They did not have to live under his tyranny. They could walk in newness of life.

Even so, in Christ you died to sin. You no longer have to live under its power. You don’t have to obey it. You have been raised up in Christ so that you now can walk in newness of life. Think often about your new position in Him. Our union with Christ in His death and resurrection is the foundation for separation from sin and walking in newness of life.

Application Questions

  1. Why is the thought of licentiousness the litmus test of whether we correctly understand and present God’s grace?
  2. is it just a “mind game” to think, “I’m dead to sin” when you feel very much alive to it? What real difference does this make?
  3. Why is water baptism important? Why should it be practiced only on believers? What are the dangers of infant baptism?
  4. What specific aspect of the old life do you need to cast off so that you can now walk in newness of life?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life

Lesson 32: Dead to Sin, Alive to God (Romans 6:5-11)

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I read a rather unbelievable incident where a young married man forgot that he was married. After returning from their honeymoon, the husband was three hours late getting home from work one evening because he absentmindedly had gone to his mother’s house instead of going home to his new bride (reported in “Our Daily Bread,” June, 1982). A tip for young husbands: Do not forget that you are married!

While that sort of thing is rare in the realm of marriage, it is fairly common among those who are “married” to Christ. We are joined to Him as His bride so that we are now members of His body (Eph. 5:25-33). We are identified with Him in His death and resurrection, so that the power of sin has been broken (Rom. 6:1-4). But we forget this essential truth every time that we fall into sin.

Paul is rebutting the charge that his teaching that God justifies the ungodly by grace through faith alone, apart from any merit, will lead to licentiousness (6:1-2). He is proving that our union with Jesus Christ is completely opposed to a life of continuing sin. Rather, our identification with Christ in His death and resurrection frees us from slavery to sin and allows us to walk in newness of life. But Paul knows that we’re prone to forget our new position in Christ, which is the foundation for holy living. And so he hammers it home in these verses.

Here’s Paul’s flow of thought: In 6:4 he says that our baptism pictured the spiritual union that we have with Christ in His death and resurrection, with the practical result that we might now walk in newness of life. Verse 5 supports and explains verse 4, as the opening word (“For”) shows: “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.”

Then in 6:6-7 Paul expounds on the first half of 6:5, showing that we have become united with Christ in His death, so that we might no longer be slaves to sin. In 6:8-10 he expounds on the second half of 6:5, showing that we shall also live with Christ. He explains the implications of Christ’s death and resurrection, so that we will understand further what our union with Him means, namely, a decisive break with sin and a new life with God. Then in 6:11 he applies these truths: “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

I will say at the outset that this is not an easy text to grasp. The difficulty of Romans 6 & 7 was the major reason that I held off from preaching through Romans for 33 years of ministry. I wish I could say that I’ve had a breakthrough! I’ve been struggling with what Paul says here for about 45 years now, but I’m still not sure that I get it. There are all sorts of interpretive issues where commentators differ and I find much of what they say to be confusing. So I’m not so naïve as to think that this one message will make things crystal clear for you. But I hope that you will be motivated to dig deeper into these chapters on your own.

These verses are important because Paul’s aim is that we would live in victory over sin. Christ’s death and resurrection not only paid the penalty for our sin, but also provided the power that we need to overcome sin on a daily basis. So if this message leaves you somewhat confused, I urge you not to shrug your shoulders and walk away. Rather, chew on these verses like a dog with a bone, until you get the marrow of them into your soul. Paul’s idea is:

Living in light of our union with Christ is the key to overcoming sin.

To put it another way, don’t live in sin as you used to live because you aren’t the same person that you used to be. Before, you were in Adam. Now, you are in Christ. In Adam, you were dead in sin. In Christ, you are dead to sin and alive to God. So believe and act on the basis of your new identity, not your old identity.

1. To overcome sin, know that you are totally identified with Christ in the likeness of His death (6:5a, 6-7).

In the first part of verse 5, Paul states the fact that we (believers) have become united with Christ in the likeness of His death. The word “if” does not express doubt; it could be translated “since.” Verses 6 & 7 explain this further: “knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.” Paul is talking about the knowledge of what God has revealed, not the knowledge that we gain by personal experience. In other words, you will never feel crucified with Christ; it is something that you must believe because God’s Word says so. Let’s try to follow Paul’s train of thought:

A. We are completely united with Christ in the likeness of His death (6:5a).

When we trusted in Christ as Savior, we were united to Him. The word means, literally, to be grown together with, or grafted into Christ. An older commentary (William Sanday and Arthur Headlam, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T & T Clark], p. 157) says, “The word exactly expresses the process by which a graft becomes united with the life of a tree.” In other words, it points to our organic, living union with Christ, in which we share His resurrection life. But in the first half of verse 5 the focus is not on sharing His life, but rather in His death. We saw this in verses 3 & 4: When Christ died, we died in Him. The perfect tense in verse 5 means that this union was a past action with ongoing results.

But why does Paul say that we have become united with Him “in the likeness of His death,” not just “in His death”? While there is debate, I think that Calvin’s explanation makes sense (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker], p. 223), that Paul differentiates between Christ’s physical death and the spiritual implications of it. We have not yet died physically, as Christ did, but we are joined to Him in the spiritual benefits of His death. Our union with Christ is very close, as “united” implies, but it is not exact. Paul comments further on the implications of this union with the likeness of Christ’s death in 6:6-7 (plus in 6:9 & 10).

B. This union with Christ means that our unregenerate life is over so that we do not now need to obey our old nature (6:6-7).

Paul says (6:6), “our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with …” Things get confusing here in light of other texts where Paul talks about the “old man” and the “new man” (Eph. 2:14-16; 4:22-24; Col. 3:9-11) and texts where he tells us to put to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8:12-13; Col. 3:5). In the context here “the old man” represents what we were in Adam (5:12-19). We are no longer in Adam, but now we are in Christ, who is our life (Col. 3:4). So when Paul says that “our old man was crucified with Him,” he means that what we were before we were saved died with Christ. There is a complete severance between what we were under the reign of sin and death in Adam and what we have become under the reign of grace to eternal life in Christ. Our old life has ended, as “crucified” implies.

The problem is, if our old man has been crucified, then where does my strong propensity toward sin come from? Clearly, we still have an old sin nature (sometimes called “the flesh”) within us that wars against the indwelling Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:17). And Paul commands us to put off the old man and put on the new man (Eph. 4:22-24, where most commentators agree that the infinitives have imperatival force). Why do we need to put off the old man if it already has been crucified?

Reading most commentators as they try to sort this out is thoroughly confusing! I do not claim infallibility or complete understanding here! But it seems to me that Thomas Schreiner is on target when he says (Romans [Baker], p. 318),

What we have is the already-not-yet tension that informs all of Paul’s theology. The old person has been crucified with Christ and the new person (Col. 3:10) is a reality, and yet the old person still must be resisted and its desire (Eph. 4:22) thwarted. Believers must also choose to clothe themselves with the new person that is theirs in Christ.

Or, to put it another way, in Christ our old man was crucified positionally. It is a spiritual fact, just as the fact that I am raised up and seated with Christ in the heavenly places is true positionally. But in practice, I have to count it as true by believing it and resisting my indwelling old nature when it tempts me to sin. To say that the old man “was crucified” is a vivid way of saying that positionally, its power was broken. But, practically, I have to apply that truth in the daily battle against sin and temptation.

Then what does Paul mean when he says, “in order that our body of sin might be done away with”? Again, there is much confusing discussion. The Lord makes it clear that sin originates in our hearts (Mark 7:21-23). Our physical bodies are not inherently sinful, as some ascetics have maintained, so that we should deny any physical pleasure. Rather, Paul probably uses the expression, “body of sin,” “because the body is the means by which sin is concretely accomplished” (Schreiner, p. 316). Our bodies are the means by which the sins of our hearts eventually manifest themselves. The verb translated “done away with” means to “render powerless or inoperative.”

Thus when Paul says that our old man was crucified “in order that our body of sin might be done away with,” I understand him to mean that when we believe and act upon our new position in Christ, in which our old self was crucified, we will not fulfill or act out the sinful desires that tempt us. We will “no longer be slaves to sin” (6:6b). The power of sin to control us has been broken by virtue of our union with Christ.

Verse 7 adds a word of explanation, “for he who has died is freed from sin.” The literal translation is, “for he who has died has been justified from sin,” but almost all translations and commentators take it to mean “freed” in this context. Paul shifts from “we” to “he,” so he may be citing a general illustration to support verse 6. The idea is that when a person dies, obviously he’s done with sin. Since we died positionally in Christ, sin has no jurisdiction over us. We do not have to obey it any more.

While there are a lot of difficult details in these verses, Paul’s overall point is clear: In Christ, sin’s power over us has been broken. When you come to Christ, you cannot hang onto your sin with one hand while you take hold of Christ with your other hand. You must make a distinct break with the old life. As believers we have become united with Christ in His death so that we would no longer be slaves to sin, as we all were before we came to Christ. So if you claim to be a Christian and yet you are enslaved to sin, at the very least you do not understand your new position in which your old man was crucified with Christ. Paul would ask you (6:2), “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

Thus far we have looked at what it means to be united with Christ in the likeness of His death. But the second half of verse 5 says, “certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.” Paul expounds on this in 6:8-10.

2. To overcome sin, know that you are totally identified with Christ in the likeness of His resurrection (6:5b, 8-10).

Again, there is a lot of debate over the exact meaning of these verses. Let me try to explain my understanding under two headings:

A. To overcome sin, know and believe that in the future you will share fully in Christ’s resurrection victory over sin (6:5b, 8).

Some argue vigorously that Paul’s statements about being united with Christ in His resurrection and living with Him refer to the present. Other Scriptures show that we are presently raised up with Christ (Eph. 2:6; Col. 2:12; 3:1). Also, Paul’s command (6:11) to consider yourself “alive to God in Christ Jesus” lends weight to the present aspect of sharing in Christ’s resurrection.

But the problem is, Paul uses the future tense both in verse 5 and in verse 8. Those who argue that Paul is talking about our present sharing in Christ’s resurrection argue that it is future in reference to our death with Christ. But Paul could have used present tense verbs if that were his point. Instead he twice uses the future tense. Also, his words “we believe that we shall live with Him” seem to point more toward something that is not yet completely realized.

Thus while it’s true that we are presently risen with Christ and share His life, Paul’s emphasis here seems to be on the future resurrection of our bodies, when we will experience complete victory over sin (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], pp. 371, 377). So as Leon Morris puts it (The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 254), “Paul is saying that the believer lives with Christ now and that this union will be even more wonderful in the life to come.”

Here’s how this works when you face temptation. Perhaps you’re tempted to use drugs or to get drunk to escape from the pressures of life. Or, you’re tempted to go back to the sexual immorality of your old life. But you realize that in Christ, you have been crucified to that corrupt way of life. You now are united to Christ in both His death and resurrection. His new life is in you. And, someday soon, you will receive a new resurrection body that cannot sin. Since that is your certain future, why would you want to sin now? As Paul rhetorically asks (6:21), “What benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death.” So knowing and believing the truth of your present position of sharing in Christ’s death and the certain promise of living forever with Him will break the power of sin in your daily life.

B. To overcome sin, know that Christ’s resurrection represents His complete and final victory over sin and death (6:9-10).

Verse 9 gives the reason or basis that we believe that we will share in Christ’s resurrection. “Knowing” is a causal participle (Moo, p. 378). The thought is, “We believe that we will live with Christ because we know that He is now beyond the reach of death.” His resurrection signifies that He will never die again. “Death is no longer master over Him” (6:9).

Verse 10 explains the last phrase of verse 9: “For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.” When Jesus came to this earth, He submitted Himself to the reign of sin and death in the sense that He came to bear our sins on the cross. He had no sins of His own to bear. But death was master over Him during that time because He came to die for our sins. His death on the cross was a decisive, once and for all satisfaction of God’s wrath (Heb. 7:27; 9:12; 10:10). His victory over sin and death was complete. His resurrection put all of the terrors of sin and death behind Him once and for all.

Now, “the life He lives, He lives to God.” This does not imply that His life prior to His resurrection was not lived for God. Rather, as Leon Morris explains (p. 255), “His life is beyond the reach of death and every evil. It is a life lived positively in and for the glory of God (cf. John 17:5), no longer with the negative aspect of putting away sin.”

So the thought in verses 9 & 10 is that Christ’s death and resurrection completely and finally conquered sin and death. The promise that we will one day share completely in this victory gives us the desire and power to overcome sin right now. John Piper (“Justified to Break the Power of Sin,” on explains the practical benefit of verses 9 & 10: “Sin can’t enslave a person who is utterly confident and sure and hope-filled in the infinite happiness of life with Christ in the future.”

By this point, perhaps you’re either completely confused or you’re thinking, “All right, enough of this theoretical stuff. Let’s get to the practical side of things.” Paul does that in verse 11:

3. To overcome sin, continually count as true the fact of your being dead to sin and alive to God in Christ (6:11).

It is significant that verse 11 is the first command in Romans to this point. Paul felt it necessary to lay the extensive doctrinal foundation of chapters 1-6 before he finally says, “Now live in this way.” In other words, our Christian behavior must rest on solid doctrinal knowledge. Three times in chapter 6, Paul has mentioned knowledge: (6:3), “Or do you not know …” (6:6), “knowing this …” (6:9), “knowing that Christ …” Knowing who we are in Christ is the foundation for how we are to live in Christ.

So, Paul’s first command in Romans is (6:11), “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” “Even so” means, “Just as Christ died definitively and finally to sin, so you should count yourselves in Him to be done with sin. Just as Christ has risen from the dead and now lives in God’s presence far removed from sin, so should you live in Him, since in the future you will live forever with Him.” “Consider” is in the present tense and means, “keep on counting it to be true.” You don’t count it to be true because you feel dead to sin and alive to God, but rather because God says that it is true. And the truest thing about you is not what you feel, but what God declares to be true. Victory over sin begins with your mind, how you think.

This isn’t just a mind game, where you tell yourself over and over that it’s true until it actually becomes true. Paul isn’t saying to deny reality by thinking positive thoughts. He isn’t saying, “Visualize yourself as being dead to sin and then you’ll act that way.” Rather, he is saying, “This is the fact of who God has made you in Christ. You are no longer in Adam, alive to sin, but dead towards God. Rather, you are now in Christ Jesus [this is just Paul’s second use of that frequent phrase in Romans], dead to sin and alive to God. Think on that truth. As you think, so you will act. So consider it over and over as often as you face temptation.” Living in light of your union with Christ is the key to overcoming sin.


When she was young, Victoria, the future queen of England, was shielded from that fact so that the knowledge of it would not spoil her. When her teacher finally did let her discover for herself that she would one day rule as queen, Victoria’s response was, “Then I will be good!” Her life from that point was controlled by her future position. She would be the queen, so she acted as a queen should act. (Adapted from Warren Wiersbe, Be Rich [Victor Books], pp. 13-14.)

In the same way, the fact that we are united with Christ in His decisive death to sin and that one day we will be raised up to live with Him eternally should cause us to proclaim, “Then I will be holy.” Counting our union with Christ in His death and resurrection to be true is the key to overcoming sin.

Application Questions

  1. A Christian says, “I don’t feel dead toward sin, so isn’t reckoning it to be true just a mind game?” Your response?
  2. Some Christian writers argue that believers do not have an old sin nature. Why is this teaching dangerous? Where does it lead?
  3. What other Scriptures could you use to prove that our physical bodies are not sinful? Why is it important to affirm this?
  4. Can a genuine believer live enslaved to sin? Is such a condition evidence that he isn’t truly regenerate? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life

Lesson 33: It Ain’t Gonna Reign No More (Romans 6:12-14)

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Many of you have seen the hilarious Bob Newhart routine where he is a psychologist and a woman comes for counsel because she is afraid of being buried alive in a box. (If you haven’t seen it, watch it on You Tube when you need a good laugh.) Newhart’s counsel for her phobia, plus several other problems, consists of two words: “Stop it!” He screams it at her over and over, “Just stop it!” She tries to bring up how her mother treated her as a child, but Newhart says, “No, we don’t go there. Just stop it!”

In some ways, Paul’s command to those who are struggling with life-dominating sins sounds kind of like Bob Newhart’s counsel: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts” (6:12). In other words, “Stop it!” Then after telling us to obey God, he gives a blanket promise (6:14a): “For sin shall not be master over you ….” It’s pretty clear: “Stop sinning and obey God because sin shall not be master over you.” Got it?

But as all of us know, overcoming stubborn, life-dominating sins is not as easy as just stopping it. Even though we often can see that these sins are having a destructive effect in our lives, we keep falling into them. So how do we stop it? How do we experience on a consistent basis the promise that sin “ain’t gonna reign no more”?

As I said last week, I’ve been struggling to understand and apply the truths of Romans 6 for 45 years now, and it’s still not easy. So I’m not suggesting in this message, “Take these three Bible verses and you’ll feel fine in the morning.” You’re going to have to grapple with these truths until they become part of the fabric of your daily thinking and practice. My aim is to try to further your understanding and help direct you on the path. But you need actively to engage with this chapter because if you don’t, your sin will destroy you. It’s a life and death battle! In a nutshell, Paul says:

Don’t let sin reign by following your lusts, but give yourself to God to live righteously under His grace.

Let’s work through these verses under four headings:

1. To apply these commands, you must understand and apply the truths of Romans 1-6:11.

I am basing this observation on the opening word of verse 12, “Therefore.” Therefore shows that the commands in 6:12-13 rest on the truths that Paul has set forth in the first five and a half chapters of Romans. If you have not understood and personally applied those truths, it would be as futile to apply the commands of 6:12-13 as it was for the woman in Bob Newhart’s office to just stop it.

We’ve spent 32 messages in Romans so far, but let me recap Paul’s main points. First, the universal human problem is, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Thankfully, God did not leave us under His judgment. He provided a way to preserve His justice and yet to justify sinners. He sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, to bear the penalty that we deserved. God now graciously justifies the ungodly person who does not work for salvation, but rather believes in Jesus as his or her sin-bearer, thus reconciling us to God. Formerly, we were all identified with Adam in his sin. But now, having received God’s free gift, we are united to Christ in His death to sin and resurrection life, which we will fully experience when He returns. In the meanwhile, whenever we are tempted to sin, we must “consider [ourselves] to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11).

Thus, as John Murray explains (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerd­mans], p. 227), to say to a slave, “Don’t behave as a slave,” is to mock his slavery. But to say to a freed slave, “Don’t behave as a slave” is to encourage him to act in light of his new freedom. To say to a person outside of Christ, “Stop sinning” is futile. To say it to a person whom Christ has freed from sin is meaningful and helpful. The commands that Paul gives in 6:12-13 make no sense unless you are in Christ by virtue of being justified by faith alone.

2. Sin is a tyrant that will reign over us if we allow it to do so (6:12-13a).

Rom. 6:12-13a: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness ….” I’ll try to explain these verses under four headings:

A. Sin still has a strong appeal, even to those who are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s command in 6:12 shows that we were on target in 6:1-11 when we concluded that being identified with Christ in His death so that we are freed from sin does not mean that we are now sinlessly perfect or that we’re immune to sin. Believers still feel strong desires (“lusts”) for sin. When sin comes knocking, we don’t automatically slam the door and say, “I’m not interested!” If that were so, Paul would not have given the command, “Do not let sin reign.” Being dead to sin is not a feeling that you will achieve someday when you are spiritually mature. It is a spiritual truth that you must believe and act on, often in opposition to your feelings and lusts. It is true by virtue of your union or identification with Jesus Christ. But that union with Christ does not eradicate the lusts of the flesh.

B. Sin’s goal is not to assist you with your program for happiness and success.

We tend to think of sin as a benign force that we can manage and control. “If you eat the fruit, you will be like God.” “Well, I’ve always wanted to be like God. That’s a good personal goal, isn’t it?” Satan presented sin as if it were a good thing that would assist Eve in her quest for happiness. But Paul personifies sin as an evil tyrant that will reign over you and lead to death (6:21, 23) if you let it. It’s like living with a little bit of cancer. You can’t do it, because the cancer will spread and kill you. You’ve got to eradicate it all.

In the same way, you can’t tolerate a little bit of sin or think that you can use it safely to pursue your happiness. Men, you can’t tolerate a little bit of pornography. Jesus said that if you do, you will spend eternity in hell (Matt. 5:27-30). I wouldn’t have put it so strongly. That seems to go against my theology that we’re saved by grace through faith alone. But Jesus said that if you do not cut the lust out of your life, you’ll spend eternity in hell. And Paul seems to line up with Jesus here in Romans 6 when he says that if you are a slave of sin, the outcome will be death, which is opposed to eternal life (6:20-21, 23).

On the news this week, they showed a fisherman holding a small shark that he had caught that was still alive and squirming in his hand. Suddenly, it turned and took a chunk out of his shoulder. Sin is like that shark. As long as it’s still alive in you, its aim is not to help you, but to destroy you.

C. Sin seeks to dominate us through our bodies.

Paul commands, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body.” He adds that you should not present “the members of your body to sin.” Also, several times in chapter 7 (verses 5, 18, 23, 24) Paul makes it sound as if sin resides in our bodies.

But we need to be very careful here. An early heresy (Gnosticism) taught that the body and all matter are evil, whereas the spirit is good. This led to one of two extremes: Some treated the body harshly, denying themselves proper food, warmth, and other comforts of life. They advocated abstaining from all pleasure, including that of marital relations, as the path to spiritual growth. But others reasoned, “If my body is already evil, then it doesn’t matter what I do with it. It doesn’t touch my spirit.” So they indulged the flesh and justified it with their twisted logic.

The Bible, however, affirms that our bodies are good, that physical pleasure within the boundaries of God’s Word is to be enjoyed, and that we are to use our bodies to glorify God (Prov. 5:15-19; 1 Cor. 6:20; 10:31; 1 Tim. 4:3-4; 6:17). Harsh treatment of the body is “of no value against fleshly indulgence” (Col. 2:23).

Therefore, it is most likely that when Paul refers here to “your mortal body,” he is looking at the whole person in terms of his interaction with the world (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 383; Thomas Schreiner, Romans [Baker], p. 323). This is supported by the parallelism in verse 13, where Paul says not to present the members of your body to sin, but in the next line says to present yourselves to God. The “members of your body” seems to be synonymous with “yourselves.” And the “lusts” of verse 12 are not limited to bodily desires, such as the desires for food and sex. They also include sins of the heart, such as envy, jealousy, anger, greed, and pride.

So Paul uses the terms “mortal body” and “members of your body” because the way these lusts of the heart manifest themselves is through our physical bodies. Leon Morris (The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 257, italics his) explains, “Paul is not arguing that the body is the cause of sin, but that it is the organ through which sin manifests itself, so that believers obey it.”

Paul adds the word mortal to emphasize the fact that we all are going to die in a few short years. Sin is pleasurable for a season (Heb. 11:25), but it leads to eternal death (Rom. 6:23). The joy of being reconciled to God and the rewards of heaven are eternal. Thus it would be foolish to indulge the lusts of your mortal body for a few short years but lose the eternal joys of heaven. Rather, use your body to glorify God (1 Cor. 6:20).

D. For sin to reign, you must allow it to reign by giving your body to it as a weapon for unrighteousness.

“Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness” (6:13a). The word translated instruments can refer to tools or instruments, but elsewhere in the New Testament, it always means weapons (John 18:3; Rom. 13:12; 2 Cor. 6:7; 10:4). And so most likely here Paul had in mind either giving your bodily parts over to Satan to use for weapons of unrighteousness, or giving them to God as weapons of righteousness.

The picture, then, is that the struggle against sin is mortal combat against an enemy that seeks to destroy you (Eph. 6:10-20). Bishop Lightfoot (Notes on Epistles of St. Paul [Baker], p. 297; I changed his Greek into English) put it this way: “Sin is regarded as a sovereign (do not let it reign, ver. 12), who demands the military service of subjects (that you obey, ver. 12), levies their quota of arms (weapons of unrighteousness, ver. 13), and gives them their soldier’s-pay of death (wages, ver. 23).” Picture yourself in combat with an assailant who has broken into your house. As he wrestles with you, he drops his gun. You pick it up and hand it back to him. Duh! That’s how stupid it is when you give your body to sin as a weapon for unrighteousness!

Thus, to apply these commands, you must understand and personally apply the truths of Romans 1-6:11. Also, realize that sin is a tyrant that will reign over you if you let it do so.

3. In Christ, exercise your will to say no to sin and yes to God (6:13b).

In Romans 6:1-11, Paul has appealed to the mind (“knowing,” 6:3, 6, 9) and to the heart (“consider,” or “reckon,” 6:11, which depends on faith, which comes from the heart, Rom. 10:10). Now (in 6:12-13) he appeals to the will. He is saying, “Stop sinning and start obeying,” but this appeal to the will rests on the knowledge of who you now are in Christ and on believing that truth when you face temptation. Then you must choose to act on it. Three thoughts:

A. We have an active responsibility to stop the reign of sin.

Paul directs the command to us and he doesn’t say, “Just let go and let God.” Rather, to stop sinning you must take aggressive action to deny its attempt to rule your life. This is where “just say no” is a valid motto. “Stop it!” You can obey that command because in Christ, the power of sin has been broken.

Years ago, I read about a young man who professed to be a Christian, but he was enslaved to some sin. He had been to many counselors, and they spent hours trying to help him analyze his past and trying various techniques, but nothing had worked. He shared this tale of woe with a campus worker and finally asked, “What do you think I should do?” The campus worker replied, “I think you should stop doing it.” The young man was stunned. He said, “In all these years, no one told me to stop sinning.” He didn’t realize that that was an option!

But isn’t that what Paul is telling us when he says, “Flee immorality” (1 Cor. 6:18)? Or, “Flee from idolatry” (1 Cor. 10:14). Or, “Flee from youthful lusts” (2 Tim. 2:22). Fleeing is the opposite of hanging out with sin, let alone welcoming into your life. If movies defile you and put tempting thoughts in your brain, flee movies. If porn on the Internet tempts you, either put some big fences up so that you don’t go near the edge or flee the Internet. This isn’t rocket science!

B. Victory over sin begins by personally giving yourself to God.

“Present yourself to God.” The first use of that verb with regard to sin is in the present tense: “do not go on presenting.” But the second instance, with reference to God, is in the aorist tense, which leads some authors to emphasize that this is a once-for-all commitment. But Douglas Moo cautions against putting too much emphasis on the variation of verb tense here. He says (p. 385), “The aorist imperative often lacks any special force, being used simply to command that an action take place—without regard for the duration, urgency, or frequency of the action.” He suggests that since not giving ourselves to sin is constantly necessary, so giving ourselves to God as our rightful ruler must be repeated often.

The verb, present, does not have the passive meaning of yield, but the more active meaning of give in service to (Moo, p. 384, note 168). This implies that our main reason for wanting to overcome sin should not be just our own happiness, but rather the glory of the God who sent His Son to redeem us. He bought us with His blood; therefore, we must glorify Him with our bodies (1 Cor. 6:19-20). We now present ourselves to God as willing conscripts in His army for His purpose and glory. We will be happy when we give ourselves to God, but our primary aim is to glorify Him.

This is a big problem with the AA and 12-Step programs: they never dethrone self. God, “however you conceive Him to be,” is there to help you overcome your addictions so that you will be happy. But He is not presented as the Lord who loved you and bought you out of the slave-market of sin. Your motive for gaining the victory over sin should be to please the loving Lord who bought you with His blood. Give your bodily members to Him as weapons for righteousness.

C. Victory over sin is only possible for those who are spiritually alive from the dead.

Paul says (6:13b), “Present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead.” You were dead in your sins, alienated from God as His enemy. But He made you alive in Christ through the new birth. This goes back to our first point, that to apply these commands, you must first understand and apply the truth of the gospel of justification by faith alone, which Paul expounds on in chapters 1-5. You must no longer be in Adam, under the reign of sin and death, but rather be in Christ, having received new life by His grace.

Unbelievers can become more outwardly moral by self effort. But it’s like putting a tuxedo on a pig. It might look nice for a while, but you haven’t changed the pig’s nature. The first mud hole that it sees will be too tempting. To overcome the temptation, that pig needs a brand new nature. To overcome temptation on the heart level, so that it doesn’t work its way out through your bodily members, you must be alive from the dead through faith in Christ.

Thus, to apply these commands, you must understand and apply the truths of Romans 1-6:11. Sin is a tyrant that will reign over us if we let it do so. But in Christ, we now have the power to say no to sin and yes to God. Finally,

4. God promises victory over sin to those who are not under the law but under grace (6:14).

I could have devoted an entire message to verse 14, but I can only comment on it briefly. The subject of law and grace is one of the most difficult topics in all of Scripture. But Paul adds this verse to give us the encouragement and incentive to fulfill the commands of 6:12-13 (Murray, p. 228). The first part of the verse is a promise, not a command: “For sin shall not be master over you.” The second half explains the promise, “For you are not under law but under grace.”

The promise means that if you are not experiencing consistent victory over sin, either at worst you are not a genuine Christian or at best you do not understand the truths of Romans 6. While genuine Christians do fall into sin, sometimes into gross sins, they cannot remain there. They will be as unhappy in sin as a fish out of water. They will be miserable until they get right again with God. But there is no such thing as a Christian who lives consistently under the lordship of sin. Christians live under the lordship of Christ.

The explanation in the second half of 6:14 shows that grace has the power to conquer sin that the law lacks. This runs contrary to legalists who think that you’ve got to impose the law to keep people from sinning. Paul says just the opposite: the law brought the knowledge of sin (3:20; 7:7). “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase” (5:20). The Law arouses our sinful passions to bear fruit for death (7:5, 8-11). The law commands, but it contains no power to obey. But grace frees us from condemnation, motivates us by God’s undeserved love, and empowers us by His Spirit, whom He freely gives to all who trust in Christ.

When I was in high school, I was not walking very closely with the Lord. My friends were not believers and I had many temptations to get drunk or get involved in sex. But my parents loved me, trusted me, and gave me a lot of freedom. I remember thinking sometimes when I was tempted, “I can’t do that or I would hurt Mom and Dad.” That’s how God’s grace works—you want to please the One who loved you and gave Himself up for you (Gal. 2:20). How can you love the evil that put your Savior on the cross?


If you’ve never experienced God’s sin-conquering grace, He invites sinners to come to the cross and receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). When you receive God’s grace in Christ, the power of sin is broken. In Christ, you can just stop it! And you can present yourself to God as your new Master, who brought you from death to life. You can say no to sin and yes to the God who loved you and gave His Son to redeem you from your sins.

Application Questions

  1. Why is it essential to understand and apply the truth of Romans 1-6:11 before you apply
  2. Discuss: Can a truly born again person be enslaved to some sin for all of his/her life? Support your answer with Scripture.
  3. If we are dead to sin (6:3, 5, 6, 8), why does it have such a strong appeal, even years after we’ve been saved? What should we learn from this (1 Cor. 10:12-13)?
  4. Some would argue that it is futile to tell a Christian who is enslaved to sin just to stop sinning. Is this valid biblically?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Grace, Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life

Lesson 34: You Gotta Serve Somebody (Romans 6:15-18)

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Years ago Bob Dylan wrote a song, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” (© 1979, Special Rider Music) with the refrain,

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

I don’t know if Dylan was inspired by the words of Jesus or by our text, but his song certainly reflects the truth of our text. Paul says that either you are a slave of sin or you are a slave of obedience (6:16) or righteousness (6:18, 19) or God (6:22).

Unbelievers mistakenly think that they are free when they cast off God and follow their own lusts, but they are “slaves of corruption” (2 Pet. 2:19). God has freed us from sin (Rom. 6:18), but not to live as we please. Rather, He frees us from sin to make us “slaves of righteousness.” You gotta serve somebody!

C. H. Spurgeon observed (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 25:374), “Free will I have often heard of, but I have never seen it. I have met with will, and plenty of it, but it has either been led captive by sin or held in blessed bonds of grace.” So the choice is not, “Should I give up my freedom so that I can submit to God?” Rather, it is, “Should I serve sin or should I serve God?” (Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 399.) You gotta serve somebody! Paul is telling us:

Either you are a slave of sin, resulting in death, or you are a slave of obedience, resulting in righteousness.

Clearly, Paul’s theme is “slavery.” The words slave or enslaved occur eight times in 6:15-23 and in every verse except 15, 21, & 23. Also, obedience, obedient, and obey occur four times. And so the issue here is, whose slave are you? Do you obey sin or God? There are no other options. Let’s work through the text under three headings:

1. If you think that being under grace means that you are free to sin, you do not understand God’s grace (6:15).

Romans 6:15: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be!” This verse is similar in many ways, and yet different, from 6:1-2a, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be!” There Paul was responding to the possible logical conclusion to his statement (5:20), “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” The wrong conclusion would be, “So, let’s sin a lot so that we get a lot of grace!”

But in 6:15, Paul is responding to a potential critic who would abuse his statement (6:14), “you are not under law but under grace.” This critic would have said, “If we’re not under law but under grace, then we’re free to sin without any worry of condemnation!” So in this case we don’t sin so that grace may abound, but rather because grace has replaced the law. But Paul responds, as he did in verse 2, with the strongest possible condemnation: “May it never be!”

As I said last week, the subject of law and grace is one of the most difficult theological issues in the Bible and I cannot resolve all the issues here. But it has often been taken to two extremes that we must avoid. Some have feared that if we emphasize God’s grace too much, people will fall into sin and licentiousness. And so they virtually put people back under the law by emphasizing rules for what they consider to be holy living. Often these are not biblical commands, but rather conservative cultural norms or manmade rules propped up by Bible verses taken out of context. Invariably, legalists do not focus on sins of the heart, such as pride or a lack of love for God, but rather on outward “sins” that easily can be judged. The Pharisees and the Judaizers were the leading proponents of this false, superficial “spirituality” (Matt. 23; Gal. 6:13).

On the other end of the spectrum are those who have concluded, “If we’re under grace, then sin doesn’t matter.” These folks view God as a loving, tolerant, nice old guy in the sky who would never judge anyone. So they mistake grace to mean that God is not concerned about our sin. This leads to licentiousness.

It’s important to understand that God’s true grace is not the balance point between legalism and licentiousness. Rather, legalism and licentiousness are two sides of the same coin whose operating principle is the flesh. The legalist, acting in the flesh, takes pride in his religious practices. He condemns those who do not match up to his standards of righteousness, while he congratulates himself on his performance. He imagines that by keeping the law, he can commend himself to God. But he is operating in the flesh. He is not examining his heart before God. And it’s obvious that the licentious person is operating in the flesh, giving in to the lusts of the flesh and justifying it by equating grace with tolerance for sin. So both legalism and licentiousness stem from the sinful flesh.

God’s grace is opposed to both of these, not as their balance point, but as a completely different way of relating to God. As we’ve seen, preaching God’s grace always exposes us to the charge of licentiousness from the legalists. It happened to Jesus (Luke 5:29-32; Matt. 11:19) and to Paul (Rom. 3:8). It will happen to us. But those making the charge do not understand grace at all, as Paul’s strong reaction shows: “May it never be!”

If we have responded to the good news that God freely justifies the ungodly through faith alone, apart from works (Rom. 4:5), then we will hate the sin that put our Savior on the cross. We are now identified with Him in His death to sin and resurrection to new life. That new life of Christ within us manifests itself in obedience to God (1 John 3:9). As Paul shows in 6:19, lawlessness is the mark of the slave of sin. Righteousness is the mark of the one who has received God’s grace.

And so you can test yourself by this: If you think that being under grace means that you are free to sin or that you can just shrug off your sin as no big deal, you do not understand God’s grace. If, motivated by God’s love and grace in giving His Son, you now hate and fight your sin and strive to be more obedient, then you understand grace. God’s grace instructs or trains us “to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:11, 12). Paul wants to make sure that we understand that the proper result of God’s grace is to make us slaves of righteousness, not lawlessness.

2. The only options are: You give yourself to be a slave of sin, resulting in death; or, you give yourself to be a slave of obedience, resulting in righteousness (6:16).

Paul again appeals to knowledge, in this case the common knowledge of a general example (6:16): “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” In that culture, sometimes a man had to sell himself into slavery because of financial troubles. Once you did that, you were a slave of the one that you sold yourself to. You had to obey him as your master.

Paul’s point here, though, is not so much that a slave had to obey his master, but rather that the master you obey shows whose slave you are (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Apollos/Eerdmans], p. 261). If you obey sin, it shows that you’re a slave of sin, headed toward eternal death. If you obey God, it shows that you’re His slave, resulting in righteousness (although Paul doesn’t directly say that we are enslaved to God until 6:22). If there is a change of masters, you obey your new master. So the master you obey shows whose slave you now are.

Why does Paul contrast being a slave of sin with being a slave of obedience? We might have expected him here to say, “a slave of God.” He uses obedience because he wants to make it clear that not being under the law does not in any way imply that we are free to sin. Being under grace means that we present ourselves as slaves for obedience to God. This obedience is not the means to salvation, but rather the result of it. Thus, while slavery to sin leads to death, slavery to obedience leads to righteousness (not, life). We are not saved by our obedience, but rather we are saved by faith that results in a life of obedience (Eph. 2:8-10).

I have a hunch that if they had to describe themselves in terms of verse 16, many professing Christians would put themselves somewhere in the middle. They would say, “I’m not really a slave of sin, but it would probably be a stretch to say that I’m a slave of obedience. I’m kind of in both camps.”

But Paul doesn’t give us that option. It’s very clear: Either Christ is your master and you obey Him or sin is your master and you obey it. There is no middle ground. You can’t keep one foot on the dock and the other foot on the boat. Either you’re a slave of obedience to Christ or you’re a slave of sin. You can’t have both Christ and sin as your master.

If that sounds extreme, keep in mind that Paul is echoing the teaching of Jesus. Jesus said (Matt. 6:24), “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” In Matthew 7:13-14, Jesus said that there are two and only two gates: the narrow gate that leads to life and the broad gate that leads to destruction. There are two types of trees: the good tree that bears good fruit and the bad tree that bears bad fruit (Matt. 7:17-19). There are two kinds of builders who build two kinds of houses: Wise builders build on the rock; foolish builders build on the sand (Matt. 7:24-27). The wise builders represent those who hear Jesus’ words and obey them. The foolish builders hear Jesus’ words but do not obey.

Thus everybody serves somebody or something. You can tell who a person serves by his behavior or actions. Those who live in sin are the slaves of sin. Those who live in obedience are the slaves of Jesus Christ. Those who are the slaves of sin are not under grace and are heading for eternal death. Those who are slaves of Christ have tasted His grace, are growing in righteousness, and are heading for eternal life. Are you a slave of sin or a slave of Christ?

How does a person move from being a slave of sin to being a slave of God and righteousness?

3. The only way that you can change from being a slave of sin to being a slave of righteousness is for God to free you from sin by changing your heart (6:17-18).

Romans 6:17-18: “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”

Paul here describes the great change that came over the Roman believers when God saved them. These changes are true of everyone whom God has saved. They are radical changes, not minor. From being slaves of sin, they became obedient from the heart to sound teaching. From being in bondage to sin, they were freed to become slaves of righteousness. Thus there was a change of lordship, from Satan’s domain of sin to God’s domain of righteousness. There was a change of thinking, so that now they submit to biblical truth. There was a change of heart, so that they are now willing and glad slaves of God; they love Him and hate their former master. There was a change of will, so that now they obey God’s standards of righteousness, not sin. Four quick thoughts:

A. Salvation is neither a human project nor a joint human-divine project; rather, salvation is of the Lord (6:17-18).

Slaves of sin are not able to free themselves by their own efforts. In fact, slaves of sin often do not realize that they are slaves and they resent anyone telling them that they are. Jesus told the Jews who had [superficially] believed in Him (John 8:31-32), “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Their response was (8:33), “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?”

That’s incredible! Israel had been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. Repeatedly in their history, they had fallen under oppressive invaders (e.g., the Book of Judges). The northern tribes had fallen to Assyria. The southern tribes fell to Babylon. Later they came under the cruel reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. As they spoke, Israel was under the thumb of Rome. And yet they claimed that they had never been enslaved! But Jesus goes on to make it clear that He was talking about slavery to sin. To be freed from that cruel master, the Son would have to make them free.

In our text (6:18), Paul uses the passive verb, “freed from sin,” to show that God alone can free us. It’s not a joint project where He gives us a boost and we contribute our share. This is also seen in that Paul says (6:17), “Thanks be to God.” He did not say, “Thanks be to God, but you guys deserve some credit, too, for your part.” No, we were enslaved to sin and loving it. We hated the light because it exposed our evil deeds (John 3:19-20). So when God graciously freed us from sin, He gets all the thanks and glory. As Paul puts it (1 Cor. 1:26-31), we are saved because God chose us as foolish, weak, lowly, and despised sinners so that He might shame the world’s wise, mighty, and exalted, so that no one may boast before the Lord. Salvation is totally God’s doing, not ours.

B. The way God changes us is by bringing our mind, heart, and will into submission to His Word (6:17).

Martyn Lloyd-Jones has a chapter in his Romans series on verse 17 plus another chapter in Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure ([Eerdmans], pp. 51-62). I can only skim the surface, so I refer you to his many excellent insights that I have gleaned from.

First, note that God changes us by bringing our minds under the teaching of His Word. Scholars debate over why Paul says “form [example, pattern] of teaching,” rather than just “teaching.” We can’t be dogmatic, but my guess from the context is that he is contrasting his teaching of the gospel of grace with the false teaching of both the legalists and the antinomians. In other words, he is referring to the kind of teaching that he has set forth in Romans to this point, and especially to the bottom line test that sound doctrine leads to godly behavior.

But God does not just change our minds to conform to sound teaching. Also, He changes our hearts. Some scholars can study the Bible in the original languages and dissect it like a biologist dissects a specimen. But the truth has not affected their hearts. But as Jonathan Edwards soundly argues in his Treatise on Religious Affections, The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 1:236), “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” That is to say, God changes our hearts and our desires. We must understand the truth with our minds, but also our hearts must rejoice in and willingly embrace the truth.

The evidence of this change of mind and heart is that our wills gladly obey the truth. To be “obedient from the heart” is not grudging, outward obedience, but cheerful, inner obedience. It is obedience on the heart level, where God alone sees, not outward obedience to impress others with how spiritual we are.

C. The teaching is not committed to the Christians, but rather the Christians are committed to the teaching (6:17).

You would expect Paul to say that the teaching was committed to the Christians (the old King James Bible wrongly translated it that way). But the proper translation is, “to which you were committed.” This lines up with the slavery analogy that Paul uses here. The idea is that becoming a Christian means being put under the authority of God’s Word (Moo, p. 401). We don’t sit in judgment of the Word, but the Word sits in judgment on us. A person who has come under God’s grace in Christ submits to God’s Word. John Calvin, in a rare reference to his own conversion, described it as God “subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker reprint], preface to the Psalms, p. xl).

D. When God saves you, He frees you from sin and makes you a slave of righteousness (6:18).

Verse 18 is not an exhortation (that comes in 6:19), but a statement of fact: “And having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” Paul here sums up his argument from 6:16-17, which refutes the false charge of 6:15, that if we are not under law but under grace, we can shrug off our sin. As in verse 16, Paul makes it clear that there are two and only two options. Either you are enslaved to sin or you are enslaved to righteousness. Also, this is true of all Christians (Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The New Man [Zondervan], p. 222). It is not just true of some Christians who have had a dramatic spiritual experience to free them from sin. It is true of all who used to be in Adam, but now are in Christ. They have been freed from sin and became slaves of righteousness.

This does not mean (as Lloyd-Jones goes on to point out) that we have become sinlessly perfect. Neither does it mean that we are free from the old sin nature or that we will never be tempted by sin. Rather, it means that the power of sin over us has been broken, so that we no longer live under sin as our master. We do not obey sin as the normal course of our daily lives. Rather, we now obey righteousness. “That means,” says Lloyd-Jones (p. 225), “that we have come under the power and control and influence of righteousness.” Formerly, we served sin. We obeyed its desires and urges. But now, we serve righteousness. We obey God and His Word. The irony is that true freedom is not freedom to sin; rather, true freedom is slavery to God and His righteousness.


I intended to cover verse 19 in this message, but it will have to wait till next time. I close with a story and a question. The story is about a bazaar in a village in India. A farmer had brought in a covey of quail. Each bird had a string tied around its foot with the other end tied to a ring on an upright stick. The quail walked around and around in a circle, held captive by that string. No one wanted to buy any quail until a devout Hindu Brahman came along. His religious respect for all life and his compassion for these birds led him to ask the price of the quail. Then he said to the merchant, “I want to buy them all.” After he paid the money, he ordered the merchant, “Now, set them all free.” The merchant was surprised, but the Brahman insisted: “Cut the strings and set them all free.”

The farmer cut the strings, but the quail kept marching around and around in a circle. Finally, he had to shoo them off. But even then, they landed a short distance away and resumed marching in a circle, as they had done when they were tied to the stick.

God didn’t free you from sin so that you would keep going in circles as if you were still bound to it. He freed you from sin so that you would become a slave of obedience to Him, resulting in righteousness. You’ve gotta serve somebody. The question is: Who are you serving—sin or God?

Application Questions

  1. Many Christians think that being under grace means that God is tolerant of our sin. Besides this text, what other Scriptures refute this notion?
  2. By comparing 6:15 & 19 it is obvious that not being under the law does not mean being lawless. So what does it mean?
  3. Some Christians claim that they are “carnal,” that Jesus is their Savior, but not their Lord. How does our text relate to this? Why is this third option not possible?
  4. If salvation is totally of the Lord, where do repentance and faith fit in? Are these our responsibility? Do they originate with us or come from God? Use Scripture to support your answer.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life

Lesson 35: How to Win Over Sin (Romans 6:19-23)

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If you’re a Christian, you resolutely want to win over sin so that your life will glorify your Savior, who loved you enough to go to the cross while you were still an ungrateful rebel. Sin always dishonors the Lord. A holy life glorifies Him. Sin disrupts fellowship with the Lord. A holy life allows us to enjoy sweet communion with Him. Since the aim of all Christians is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever, all Christians want to win over sin.

The big question is, how do we gain consistent victory over the sin that so easily trips us up? Our text provides some solid answers to this crucial question. It’s not the complete answer, in that Paul does not mention the role of the Holy Spirit here. He will get to that in chapter 8. But he does give us some helpful strategies for the daily battle that we all face against temptation and sin.

The point of Romans 6 is to show that justification by grace through faith alone does not result in continuing sin, as Paul’s critics alleged, but rather in sanctification. From 6:15-23 Paul uses the analogy of slavery to respond to the charge that his teaching that we are not under law but under grace would lead to sin. In 6:19, he commands us to present our members as slaves to righteousness. Then (6:20-23) he gives the reasons why we should obey this command. When we were slaves of sin, we were free in regard to righteousness (6:20). But where did that get us? We had no benefit from our shameful deeds, which were only heading us toward death (6:21). But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, we gain the benefits of sanctification, with eternal life as the outcome (6:22). Verse 23 sums it up by contrasting the wages of sin, which is death, with God’s free gift of eternal life.

In these verses, Paul tells us…

To win over sin, give yourself as a slave to righteousness in view of your spiritual past, present, and future.

As we saw in 6:15-18, Paul gives two and only two options: Either you are enslaved to sin and free with regard to righteousness, resulting in death; or, you are freed from sin and enslaved to God, resulting in sanctification and eternal life. There is no middle ground. There is no place for a person who says, “Jesus is my Savior, but He isn’t my Lord.” There are two and only two masters and you must choose: Will you continue as a slave of sin (the default mode for all of us by birth)? Or, will you submit to Jesus as Lord and give yourself as a slave of righteousness?

1. To win over sin, give yourself as a slave to righteousness (6:19).

Romans 6:19: “I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.”

Before we consider Paul’s command, what does he mean when he says that he is “speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh”? In the context, he does not seem to be rebuking his readers. Rather, he is apologizing in the middle of his extended slavery analogy. He’s saying in effect, “As frail human beings, we need analogies and illustrations of spiritual truth, but often these are imperfect.” Paul realizes that many of his readers are slaves and that slavery is an imperfect analogy, in that there are many repugnant aspects of human slavery that do not apply to our relationship with the Lord. But in other ways, it’s a useful analogy, in that God has bought us with the blood of Christ and so we belong to Him and owe Him total, unquestioning obedience.

“For” goes on to explain the valid part of the analogy, namely, that just as formerly we presented ourselves as slaves to sin, so now we should present ourselves as slaves to righteousness. “Present” repeats Paul’s command in 6:13, “present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments [weapons] of righteousness to God.” The verb “present” means “to give oneself as a servant or slave.” Douglas Moo (The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans], p. 404) explains Paul’s point in 6:19: “He thus makes clear that Christians should serve righteousness with all the single-minded dedication that characterized their pre-Christian service of such ‘idols’ as self, money, lust, pleasure, and power.” Since we repeatedly gave ourselves to those false gods, so we now must repeatedly give ourselves to serve God and righteousness. (Moo, p. 385, argues that this is the force of the aorist tense here.)

Practically, there are two things to keep in mind as you learn to obey Paul’s command here. First, as we saw last time, you “gotta serve somebody,” so when you’re tempted, ask yourself, “Whose slave do I want to be?” There are only two options. Do you want to serve sin, which will drag you further and further into impurity, defilement, and ultimate destruction? Or, do you want to be a slave of God and righteousness?

If you go the slave of sin route, it heads toward death (6:21). Since Paul contrasts death with eternal life (6:23), he means that a life of enslavement to sin leads to eternal spiritual death, or hell (Rev. 20:14). Spiritual death is the justly earned wage of a life of slavery to sin. Eternal life, on the other hand, is not the wage earned by righteousness; it is God’s free gift. But believers who have received God’s free gift of eternal life are characterized by being slaves of righteousness. You can tell where they’re heading (eternal life) by their growing life of holiness (“sanctification,” 6:22). So when you’re tempted, ask yourself, “Whose slave do I want to be?”

Second, keep in mind that Paul is describing a process, not a once and for all decision that catapults you into a state of total sanctification, where sin no longer tempts you. Some wrongly teach that you should seek for a dramatic spiritual experience that will transport you beyond sin and temptation. They promise that those who experience this spiritual “secret” will be free from the battles with the flesh that the rest of us unenlightened Christians struggle with. If you will just learn the secret of “letting go and letting God,” your Christian life will be one of effortless, continual fellowship with Christ. So goes the pitch, but it is not the biblical picture. Sanctification is a lifelong process that requires a daily battle against sin and temptation.

Verse 19 shows that the process works in both directions. Either you turn down the fork in the road labeled “slaves of sin,” which leads you down into more and more impurity and lawlessness. Or you turn up the road marked “slaves of righteousness,” which causes you to grow more and more like Christ as you obey Him as your new Master. Frankly, neither path is a smooth, paved highway. Picture them both more like rough, four-wheel-drive roads, where you’re going over and around boulders and through rushing streams. But the road marked “slaves to impurity” doesn’t get you where you want to go, even after all the trouble of driving it. It leads to death. The road marked “slaves of righteousness” ends up in heaven.

This means that if you’re not moving in the direction of holiness, you need to examine whether you are truly saved. Do you love God more now than you used to? Do you hate your own sin more and more? Do you love others more, as seen in laying down your rights to serve them? Do you see the fruit of the Spirit more in your daily life? “Test yourself to see if you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5a). The first step in winning over sin is to present yourself as a slave to righteousness.

2. To win over sin, remember your shameful spiritual past as a slave of sin (6:20-21).

To show why you should present yourself as a slave of righteousness, Paul reminds us of the other option, which we all were following (6:20-21): “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death.”

Even if you were raised in a Christian family, there was a point in your life at which you were a slave of sin. Since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin, the entire human race is born enslaved to sin. Maybe you want to shout, “But that’s not fair! I didn’t choose to be born in sin!” But even though you were born as a slave to sin, it is not an unwilling enslavement. Unbelievers sin because they want to sin. They like sinning. Even when they know that they are addicted to drugs, alcohol, pornography, homosexuality, or whatever the sin may be, and even though they know that these sins are causing huge problems, they keep doing them because they like sinning. To be delivered from sin, God has to give you a new nature through the new birth. Otherwise, you will just keep doing what you’ve always liked doing, namely, sinning.

There seems to be a touch of humor or irony in 6:20. Those who do not want to submit to God claim that they are now free and they don’t want to give up their freedom. They protest, “I want to be free to have sex with whomever I choose! I want to be free to get drunk or use drugs! I want to be free to lust over sexy women! I don’t need religion taking away my fun and telling me how to live!” But Paul says, “Yes, such folks are free from righteousness all right! It doesn’t even blip across the radar screen to tell them which way to go! But don’t let it escape your attention that they are not free people. Rather, they are slaves of sin.”

When you gave yourself to impurity and lawlessness, it did not satisfy your needs. It only made you crave more, so you committed worse and worse sins. To feed your lust with a little bit of porn is like pouring gas on a raging fire. It doesn’t alleviate your lust; it only burns stronger. Slaves of sin do not manage their sin for their own enjoyment. Rather, it is a cruel tyrant that dominates and destroys them.

So in 6:21, Paul asks us before we yield to sin to stop and think about what benefits we got out of sin when we were its slaves. What did you gain from having sin as your master? His implied answer is, nothing at all. In fact, the evil tyrant of sin was destroying you and leading toward death. So why yield to sin now? I have read about pastors who got arrested for soliciting sex over the Internet with underage girls. What were they thinking that they would gain from that? If they had only stopped long enough to think about the “benefits” of sin, including the shame, maybe they would not have yielded to the temptation.

Before we leave verse 21, let me also say that every Christian has things from the past of which you are now ashamed. What should you do when those things pop into your mind? First, let the memory of those sins humble you so that you deal graciously with fellow sinners. You were once a slave of sin, so don’t be self-righteous and judgmental toward those who are still slaves of sin. Rather, point them to God’s abundant grace in Christ for sinners. Second, thank God for loving you in spite of your sin and for sending Christ to die for your sins. Third, be on guard against falling back into those old sins. We are not invulnerable! Once you have yielded to a sin, it will always hold a powerful attraction, even when you’re enjoying fellowship with Christ. So be on guard!

Thus to win over sin, present yourself to God as a slave to righteousness. Remember your shameful past as a slave of sin.

3. To win over sin, keep in mind your blessed spiritual present as a slave of God (6:22).

Romans 6:22: “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.” There are four things to note about verse 22, but I’ll save the fourth one for verse 23, where it’s repeated.

A. Your spiritual present is due to a great change that God has made in your life.

“But now”! Those words signal the great change that God brought about when he took you from the reign of sin and death and placed you in Christ, under the reign of grace through righteousness (5:21). You were a slave of sin, but now you have been freed from sin. Paul often draws this sharp contrast between our former life and what God has done for us in Christ. In Ephesians 2:12, he describes the sad former plight of the Gentiles: They were “excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” Verse 13 shows the great change: “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” He does the same thing in Ephesians 5:8: “For you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light.”

I read of an old black preacher who used to say, “We ain’t what we want to be. We ain’t what we gonna be. But, thank God, we ain’t what we was!” If you have met Christ as Savior, there is a huge “but now” in your life that God has made!

B. Your spiritual present rests on your new position in Christ.

The command of 6:19 rests on the fact of 6:18, which is repeated in 6:22: God freed you from sin and made you a slave of righteousness in Jesus Christ. This is your new position in Christ. God did it for you through His grace and power. It is true of all Christians, not just of some who have attained a higher level of spirituality. As Paul repeatedly states (6:2-8), in Christ we all have died to sin and have been raised to newness of life. Therefore, be what you now are. Live in light of your new position in Christ.

The illustration that we considered was a man who had been born a slave and lived as a slave for over 50 years. But then President Lincoln declared all slaves to be free men. This former slave’s new position is that he is free from his old master, but now he had to live each day like a free man. It required a radical refocusing of his mind and the will to believe this new truth about himself. Even so, God has declared us to be in Christ, identified with Him in His death to sin and resurrection to new life. Our present victory over sin depends on counting that to be true each time we’re faced with temptation.

C. Your spiritual present includes the many wonderful benefits of sanctification.

Satan often paints the picture that a life of sin is one of freedom and pleasure, whereas a life of holiness is one of bondage and misery. What a lie! A life of sin destroys fellowship with the gracious, kind, and loving Heavenly Father. Sin destroys loving human relationships, which can be the source of much comfort and encouragement. Sin tears apart generations of family members, who need each other. Sinful parents abuse their children, depriving them of the tender love and training that they need. Rebellious children cast off the wise guidance and experience of their parents. Selfish and greedy family members fight over the inheritance, tearing apart relationships for the sake of stuff that will soon perish. Sinful people abuse their bodies with alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and venereal disease. Sin is an all-purpose, all-around destroyer!

But holiness blesses those who walk in it and those around them. Holy people enjoy fellowship with the living God. Holy husbands sacrificially love their wives as Christ loved the church. They tenderly seek the blessing and benefit of their wives. Holy fathers show the grace and kindness of the Lord to their children, training them to love and follow the Lord for their own good. Holy young people walk in the ways of the Lord, avoiding the terrible scars that come from sexual immorality, drugs, alcohol, and abusive relationships. Holy church members care for one another, encouraging the fainthearted, helping the weak, being patient, kind, and loving toward one another (1 Thess. 5:14-15).

Matthew Henry, the well-known pastor and Bible commentator, was on his deathbed in 1714, at age 52. He had endured the loss of his first wife and of three children. He was relatively young. He could have complained about his early death. But he said to a friend, “You have been used to take notice of the sayings of dying men. This is mine—that a life spent in the service of God, and communion with Him, is the most comfortable and pleasant life that one can live in the present world” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible [Revell], p. 1:xiv). That is the benefit of being enslaved to God. When you’re tempted to sin, remember your spiritual present as a slave of God, including the benefits of a holy life.

4. To win over sin, look forward to your glorious spiritual future: eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (6:23).

The outcome of a present life of holiness is eternal life (6:22). Paul repeats this in 6:23, contrasting it starkly with the outcome of a life of sin: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Verse 23 begs for an entire sermon, but I’m trying to keep moving through Romans, so I’ll be brief. The sermon would note three contrasts: Working for wages versus receiving a free gift; serving sin versus serving God; and, the final outcome of death versus eternal life. The fourth point would be that God’s free gift comes to us “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Although this verse is often (and rightly) used in evangelism, in the context here Paul uses it to show why being under grace does not lead believers to sin: Believers know that sin pays a terrible wage: death. But receiving God’s free, gracious gift results in eternal life “in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We get to spend all of eternity in the presence of our loving Lord Jesus, who gave Himself to save us from hell. So why sin?

The word “wages” was used of a soldier’s pay. Picture a cruel dictator, who doesn’t care about his infantry. They are only pawns to preserve his luxurious lifestyle in the palace, while they’re on the front lines taking bullets and shrapnel, eating horrible rations, separated from all the comforts of home. Their wage is death. That’s the wage that sin pays its servants. If you continue in a life of sin, you’ll experience hardship now and eternal punishment as your final paycheck.

But God offers a free gift: freedom from sin and a joyous life of knowing the only true God through Jesus Christ. You begin enjoying the gift right now (John 17:3), and the final paycheck when you die is eternal life with this loving and gracious God. It seems like a no-brainer doesn’t it? Do you want to go on being a slave of sin, with the final paycheck of eternal death? Or do you want to receive God’s free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus the Lord?


So how do you win over sin? How do you experience consistent victory? First, receive the gift of eternal life. If you have never trusted in Christ, you are hopelessly, helplessly under the reign of sin and death. But Christ died and rose again to free you from sin. You must be born again in order to conquer sin.

Then, present yourself to God as a slave of righteousness. He is your new Master. You no longer have authority over your body. He does. Obey His Word. Remember your shameful past as a slave of sin before He redeemed you. Keep in mind your blessed present, enjoying all of the unfathomable riches of Christ. Look forward to your glorious spiritual future of eternal life free from all sin in the presence of the One who died to save you. You won’t be sinlessly perfect in this life, but you can grow in holiness and consistently win over sin.

Application Questions

  1. Why is the new birth essential in order to overcome sin (see John 3:19-21)? Can’t unbelievers improve without it?
  2. How often should we think about our past as slaves of sin? Where is the balance? (Cf. Rom. 3:20-21, Phil. 3:13-14.)
  3. Some folks seem quite happy in their sin. Does this contradict the teaching that sin results in destruction, whereas holiness results in blessing and peace? Why not? See Ps. 73.
  4. Will we ever be free from the tug of sin in this life? What does a life of consistent victory over sin look like? Describe it.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Hamartiology (Sin), Spiritual Life

Lesson 36: Free from the Law (Romans 7:1-6)

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In my judgment, one of the most difficult theological issues in the Bible is that of the believer’s relationship to the law of God. Since the word law is used 19 times in Romans 7, clearly that is Paul’s theme. I was hoping that the Lord might come before I got to this chapter! I still have some time to be rescued before I get to the most difficult part! In Romans 7 Paul expounds on his statement in Romans 6:14, “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.” In 6:15-23, he used the analogy of slavery to show that we will not sin under grace because we have become enslaved to God and righteousness. In chapter 7, he explains what it means to be free from the law and how this relates to breaking free from sin’s tyranny.

The theme in chapter 6 was sin; Paul uses that word 17 times there. In his mind, there was a direct correlation between sin and the law. In 1 Corinthians 15:56 he says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” So there are several parallels between chapters 6 & 7 (Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 270): Believers have died to sin (6:2) and they have died to the law (7:4). We have been freed from sin (6:18, 22) and we are released from the law (7:6). We walk in newness of life (6:4) and we serve in newness of the Spirit (7:6). Our victory over sin is tied to our union with Christ in His death and resurrection (6:8-11). Our release from the law and its sin-arousing power is because we are now joined to the crucified and risen Lord (7:4).

So if we want to gain consistent victory over sin, we have to wrestle with Romans 7 as Paul explains the purpose of God’s law and our relationship to it. His thinking was radically opposed to the common Jewish views of his day. They would have said that the law was given to make us holy, but Paul says that the Law served to arouse us to sin! In chapters 1-5 Paul shows that it is impossible to be justified by keeping the law. Here he shows that it is impossible to be sanctified by keeping the law. In fact, Paul argues that the law is actually a hindrance to sanctification (Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], p. 5).

The chapter falls into three sections. In 7:1-6, Paul shows that we are no longer married to the law. A death has taken place and now we are joined to Jesus Christ so that we might bear fruit for God. But that raises the question, “Then is the law sin?” Paul answers this in 7:7-12, showing that the law is holy and good. It is we who are the problem! When our sinful nature comes into contact with the law, it does not obey. Rather, it is aroused to sin. Then in 7:13-25, he shows the ensuing battle that sinners have with the law. This is a very difficult and controversial section, as debate rages over whether the person in view is an unbeliever or a believer. I do not want to raise your hopes that I will solve this puzzle for you, but we will try to work through it as best as we can.

In our text (7:1-6), Paul first makes a general statement about the law’s jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives (7:1). Then (7:2-3) he illustrates his point by showing that a woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. He is not giving comprehensive teaching here about divorce and remarriage. Rather, he uses an analogy to make a point: the law has jurisdiction over the living, not over the dead. If a person dies, he is no longer under the law. Then (7:4), he applies the point, showing that we died to the law through the death of Christ. We are now “remarried” to Christ so that we might bear fruit for God. Then (7:5-6) Paul explains verse 4 negatively (7:5) and positively (7:6). We need to die to the law because it aroused our sinful passions to bear fruit for death (7:5). But in Christ we have been released from bondage to the law so that we serve God in newness of the Spirit (7:6). To summarize:

Through our union with Christ, we have died to the law so that we are free to bear fruit for God in the Spirit.

1. Through our union with Christ, we have died to the law, which only produced sin and death.

Many books have been written on what it means for us not to be under the law, so I can only give some brief guidelines here. I offer one negative and three positive thoughts to clarify what Paul means when he says that we died to the law.

A. Dying to the law does not mean that we are free from specific moral commandments.

We need to understand that we did not die to the law so that we could live lawlessly, doing whatever we please. That was the false charge that Paul’s enemies leveled against him. But Paul makes it very clear that we died to the law so that we might be joined to Christ, under His authority. Just as a woman is under the authority of her husband (according to the Bible), so we were under the authority of God’s law. But when we died to the law, it was not so that we could become free spirits. Rather, it was so that we could now be joined to Christ as our husband.

Paul’s analogy is rather confusing if you try to make it say more than he intends. In 7:2-3, the woman’s husband dies so that she is free to remarry. But in the application (7:4), it is not the husband that dies, but rather the wife dies to the law through Christ. By implication she is raised from the dead so that she can marry Christ, who died and was raised from the dead. But Paul does not intend this to be a tight allegory, where one thing consistently represents another. Rather, he is making the main point that by being identified with Christ in His death and resurrection, we died to the law so that we’re legally free to be joined to Christ.

But, dying to the law does not mean that we no longer are obligated to keep specific moral commandments. As Paul states later (Rom. 8:4), the requirement of the law is now fulfilled in us as we walk according to the Spirit. Sometimes it is argued that the only command under the new covenant is love, since love is the fulfillment of the law (Rom. 13:8, 10; Gal. 5:14). But this is often misapplied in a simplistic way so that “love” means whatever the person wants it to mean. For example, couples argue that it is okay to have sexual relations outside of marriage because they “love” one another. But the New Testament is abundantly clear that the sexual relationship is restricted to heterosexual marriage (1 Cor. 6:9-10, 18; 7:1-9; 1 Thess. 4:2-8). Love does not mean that we are free to disregard the Bible’s moral standards.

In fact, the New Testament gives many detailed commands about love. Love speaks the truth. Love does not steal, but rather labors so as to be able to give. Love speaks wholesome, edifying words. Love is not bitter or angry. Love is kind and forgiving. Love does not engage in immorality or greed (see Eph. 4:25-5:4). Many more specific commands on other topics are given throughout the New Testament to believers who have died to the law (see Romans 12). So we would be mistaken to think that dying to the law frees us from the obligation to obey specific moral commandments. So what does it mean?

B. Dying to the law means that we are free from the demands of the law as an impersonal system for approaching God.

While salvation has always been by grace through faith, not by works, many who were under the Mosaic law wrongly thought that they could be right with God by keeping the law. It was true: Keep the law perfectly and you will live (Matt. 19:17; Gal. 3:12). The problem is, that system brought everyone who tried to live by it under a curse, because no one could keep the law perfectly (Gal. 3:10). As a Pharisee, Paul thought that he was blameless with regard to the law (Phil. 3:6), but at best he was “blameless” only in the sense of outward obedience to the ceremonies and rituals that the law prescribed. The truth was that in his heart, he was proud of his blameless obedience, and pride is the root of all sins before God. When he met Christ, Paul came to see that he was actually the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15).

So dying to the law means that we do not approach God by an impersonal system of performance, where we try to earn right standing with Him. That is the way of virtually every religion in the world, including many that go under the name of “Christian.” The good news is that God justifies sinners by grace through faith alone and that the core of saving faith is to know Jesus Christ (Rom. 4:5; Phil. 3:2-10). And, as I said, Paul’s point in Romans 7 is not only that we are justified by grace through faith alone, but also that we are sanctified in the same way (see Col. 2:6).

C. Dying to the law means that we are free from the condemnation of the law.

Paul says (Rom. 7:6) that the law held us in bondage. It did so by putting us under a curse because of our failure to obey it perfectly (Gal. 3:10). Peter refers to the law as “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). The law closes every mouth and makes us all accountable to God (Rom. 3:19). No one is able to be justified by keeping the law; rather, the law brings the knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20) and puts us under God’s wrath (Rom. 4:15). The law increased our transgressions and held us under the reign of sin and death (Rom. 5:20-21). Attempting to be right with God by law-keeping is doomed to failure. The only benefit of the law with regard to salvation is that it shows us God’s impossible standard of holiness and thus drives us to Christ as our only hope, so that we will be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24).

D. Dying to the law means that we are free from the inability of the law to produce obedience.

This is Paul’s primary focus in Romans 7:5: “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.” In this context, being “in the flesh” means, before we were saved, before we received the Holy Spirit. As Thomas Schreiner puts it (The Law and Its Fulfillment [Baker], p. 133), “The law apart from the Spirit does not produce obedience. The law apart from the Spirit does not save but kills.”

Paul will explain this further in 7:7-11, where he says that coveting was not a problem until he read, “You shall not covet.” That commandment triggered something in him that made him covet all over the place. The problem was not with the law, which is holy, but with his sinful flesh. We can all relate to what he is saying. I wouldn’t think about walking on the grass if it weren’t for that annoying sign that says, “Do not walk on the grass.” The commandment makes me want to walk on the grass!

So the law is not the answer to our sin problem. Trying to keep the law can never reconcile us to the holy God, because we’ve all violated His law many times over. Posting a list of God’s commandments on the refrigerator and trying to keep them by our own strength won’t work, either, because the law just incites our sinful passions. It does not quench the desire to sin. The oldness of the letter was a “ministry of death” (2 Cor. 3:6, 7). We need a more powerful solution, which Paul gives in 7:4 & 6.

Paul says that we were “made to die to the law through the body of Christ” (7:4). That’s an unusual phrase, referring to Christ’s physical body. Paul is calling attention to the fact that in His human body, Jesus satisfied the demands of the law on our behalf, so that He “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). So when Jesus died to the demands of the law, we died in Him. In summary, this means: We are free from the demands of the law as an impersonal system for approaching God. We are free from the condemnation of the law. The power of the law to arouse our sinful desires is broken, because being joined to Christ, we now have the Holy Spirit to give us the power to obey.

2. Having died to the law, we are now joined to Jesus Christ, which produces fruit for God in the Spirit.

As I said, God does not free us from the law so that we can live any way that we please. Rather, He frees us from the law (7:4) so that we “might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, that we might bear fruit for God.” Restating it in a slightly different way (7:6), this release from the law enables us to “serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” So our union with the risen Savior through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit works in us to bear fruit for God. Note six things about this union or marriage to Christ:

A. Our union with Christ is a transforming relationship.

In verse 6, Paul uses the same contrast that we saw in 6:22, “But now.” It points to the great change from before we met Christ to afterwards. Before we met Him, we were in the flesh, enslaved to sin, and under the condemnation and power of the law. “But now we have been released from the law, having died to that by which we were bound” (7:6). If I have broken the law and am facing a prison term, but before I go to prison I die, they aren’t going to take my corpse to prison! My death released me from the power of the law. It changed everything.

Also, our death to the law freed us to be joined in marriage to the risen Christ (7:4). This implies that we have new life in Him, because Jesus doesn’t marry a corpse. We have a new relationship of love with our Bridegroom, who gave Himself on the cross to secure us as His bride. (By the way, it’s difficult as a guy to think of myself as “married” to Jesus, but think of it corporately, not individually. The biblical analogy is that the church corporately is the bride of Christ.) Our new union with Christ changes everything.

There is one thing certain about marriage: it changes you forever! Suddenly, you are not your own. You have to think about your wife before you make plans. You have to think about what pleases her. You have to take her into account in every decision that you make. You have to work at staying close in your relationship to her. But in spite of these new responsibilities, I can say with gusto that marrying Marla changed me for the good! In the same way, being joined to Jesus Christ changes everything. It gives you new responsibilities, but it transforms you decidedly for the good.

B. Our union with Christ is a love relationship.

As I said, the phrase “through the body of Christ” points to the cross, where Jesus died a horrible death to secure us as His bride. He paid the price that the law demanded for our sin. “Christ … loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). So now we willingly submit to Him, not out of duty, but out of love.

Picture a woman married to a demanding, perfectionistic man. He’s the kind who takes a white glove and wipes it on the top of the door molding to see if it has been dusted. She lives in constant fear that she will not please him. But then (much to her relief) he dies. Sometime later, she meets a loving, kind, and caring man. They fall in love and get married. Now she still cleans the house and cooks the meals, but she does it joyfully out of love, not dutifully to meet the demands of an impossible tyrant.

The analogy breaks down, in that the law did not die. Rather, we died to it. But, we no longer have to strive in vain to meet its impossible demands as the grounds of our acceptance with God. Rather, Christ met those demands for us and we are joined to Him in love. We still live to please Him, but our whole motive has changed from duty that condemned us to love that accepts us.

C. Our union with Christ is a liberating relationship.

Before, we were bound by the law, but now we are released from its condemnation and domination (7:6). The picture is that of a prisoner who has been set free. I’ve never been in prison, but I got a feel for what it must be like when I was in boot camp. We were in captivity in every sense of the word. The Coast Guard determined our schedule, our activities, what we wore, how we looked, and what we ate. Boot camp was on an island in the Oakland Bay. From our upstairs barracks window, I could see cars stuck in rush hour traffic out on the Oakland freeway. I thought, “Those drivers are probably grumbling about the traffic, but if they only knew how free they are to be able to drive their own car wherever they want to go, they’d quit complaining!” Before Christ, we were bound by the law, but now we’re free.

D. Our union with Christ is a fruitful relationship.

The reason we are joined to Christ is so “that we might bear fruit for God” (7:4). When you compare that to 7:6, “so that we serve in newness of the Spirit,” it probably refers to the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), or “the fruit of the Light,” which is “all goodness and righteousness and truth, trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph. 5:9-10). If you’re not bearing fruit for God, you are not fulfilling the purpose for which He saved you.

E. Our union with Christ is a powerful relationship.

The law was impotent to help us obey, but Christ gives us the Holy Spirit to indwell us and empower us to overcome sin. To be under the law is to be “in the flesh” (7:5), which has no motivation or power to overcome sin. But the Spirit enables us to put to death the deeds of the body, so that we will live (8:13; Gal. 5:16-23).

F. Our union with Christ is a holy relationship.

I mentioned at the outset that being free from the law does not mean that we are free to disobey the moral commands of Scripture. But I mention it again as we close, because it is so often misunderstood or ignored. The word “serve” (7:6) is the same Greek word translated “enslaved to God” (6:22). So Christ frees us from the law to which we were bound, but not to do as we please. We’re freed from the law so that we can be enslaved to God in the newness of the Spirit. Being a slave of righteousness is true freedom!


Martyn Lloyd-Jones (p. 84) says, “You are either a Christian or not a Christian; you cannot be partly Christian. You are either ‘dead’ or ‘alive’; you are either ‘born’ or ‘not born’. Becoming a Christian is not a gradual process; there is nothing indeterminate about it; we either are, or we are not Christian.”

If you’re not a Christian, you are under the condemnation of the law. But if you put your trust in Christ, who bore the curse of the law, you are released from the law and joined to a loving husband so that you can bear fruit for God. That’s even better than the best of earthly marriages can be!

Application Questions

  1. Why is the notion that love is the only command for those under grace inadequate and misguided?
  2. If the law was impossible to keep and actually stimulated our sinful passions, why did God institute it?
  3. Can there be such a thing as an unfruitful Christian? Include John 15:1-8 in your discussion.
  4. Are Christians obligated to keep the Ten Commandments? What about the Sabbath command?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Law, Spiritual Life

Lesson 37: Why God Gave the Law (Romans 7:7-11)

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Almost a quarter century ago, philosopher Allan Bloom published his best-selling The Closing of the American Mind [Simon & Schuster, 1987]. He began (p. 25):

There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. These are things you don’t think about.

The chief virtue that this relativism seeks to inculcate is tolerance or openness. The main enemy of tolerance is the person who thinks that he has the truth or is right in his views. This only “led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point,” says Bloom (p. 26), “is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.”

Bloom later (p. 67) reports his students’ reaction to his question, “Who do you think is evil?” They immediately respond, “Hitler.” They rarely mention Stalin. A few in the early 80’s mentioned Nixon, but by the time Bloom wrote the book, Nixon was being rehabilitated. Bloom comments (ibid.),

And there it stops. They have no idea of evil; they doubt its existence. Hitler is just another abstraction, an item to fill up an empty category. Although they live in a world in which the most terrible deeds are being performed and they see brutal crime in the streets, they turn aside. Perhaps they believe that evil deeds are performed by persons who, if they got the proper therapy, would not do them again—that there are evil deeds, not evil people.

I cite Bloom because the worldview of the young people that he observed a quarter century ago is now pervasive in our society. And the worldly relativism that minimizes or even eliminates the concept of sin is not just “out there.” It has flooded into the church. Popular megachurches thrive by making the church “a safe place” for everyone, where no one will be judged and where various types of immorality are relabeled as personal preferences. The “gospel” gets retooled as a way that Jesus can help you succeed and reach your personal goals. If you want your church to grow, you should never mention anything negative, like sin. Rather, tell people how much God loves them because they are so lovable. Build their self-esteem, but never suggest that they are sinners!

But if we are not sinners, then we do not need a Savior who died to bear the penalty of our sin. More than a century ago, Charles Spurgeon lamented (C. H. Spurgeon Autobiography, The Early Years [Banner of Truth], p. 54), “Too many think lightly of sin, and therefore think lightly of the Saviour.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed (Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], p. 151), “The biblical doctrine of sin is absolutely crucial to an understanding of the biblical doctrine of salvation. Whatever we may think, we cannot be right and clear about the way of salvation unless we are right and clear about sin.” And since Romans 7 is one of the most penetrating analyses of sin in all of Scripture, we need to understand Paul’s thought here.

In our text, Paul defends the integrity and righteousness of God’s law against critics who argued that Paul’s teaching implied that the law is sin. “May it never be,” he exclaims (7:7). He exonerates God’s law as holy, righteous, and good (7:12), while showing why God gave the law:

God gave His law to convict us of our sin and bring us to the end of ourselves so that we would flee to Christ for salvation.

Our innate self-righteousness is so entrenched that until the law strips us of it and convicts us of our sin, we will not cast ourselves totally upon Christ. Our culture adds to this by telling us that we’re not sinners. We’re not worms, for goodness sake! We’re pretty good folks. We may want to bring Jesus into our lives as a useful coach or helper in our self-improvement program. But to trust Him as our Savior, we have to see the depth of our sin as God’s law exposes it for what it is. That’s what Paul describes here.

We come here to one of the most difficult and controversial sections of Romans. In verses 7-25, Paul dramatically shifts to the first person singular, dropping it again in chapter 8. In 7:7-13, he uses the past tense, but then in 7:14-25 he shifts to the present tense. Scholars debate whether Paul is speaking autobiographically or not. At the crux of this debate is when Paul possibly could have been “alive apart from the law” (7:9). There is also much controversy over whether verses 14-25 describe Paul before he was saved, Paul as a new believer, or Paul as a mature believer. So it’s a very difficult passage, with competent, godly scholars in every camp. I do not claim infallibility as we proceed (not that I ever do)!

Paul’s main concern in this chapter is not to share his personal experience, but rather to exonerate God’s law from any hint of being evil. He uses his own experience (as I understand it) to show how the law functions to bring conviction of sin, but also how it is powerless to deliver us from sin’s grip. Rather, it drives us to Christ, who alone has the power to save (7:25); and to the indwelling Holy Spirit, who gives us the power to overcome sin (8:2-4). So, let’s try to work through these verses.

1. The law is not sin, but it does reveal our sin (7:7).

Romans 7:7: “What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”

Paul is responding to the charge that critics would bring in reaction to 7:5: “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions, which were aroused by the Law, were at work in the members of our body to bear fruit for death.” The Jews believed that God gave the law to give us life and make us holy, but Paul claimed that the Law aroused us to sin, resulting in death. So now he answers this charge: “Is the Law sin?”

After strongly rejecting that slur against his teaching, Paul argues that the law functions to reveal our sin to us. He uses as a personal example the tenth commandment against coveting. This shows that by “the law” Paul mainly had in mind the Ten Commandments as the embodiment of God’s requirements for holy living. Probably he picked the tenth commandment because it is the only command that explicitly condemns evil on the heart level. Jesus pointed out that the commands against murder and adultery (and, by implication, all of the commands) go deeper than the outward action. If you’re angry at your brother, you have violated the command against murder. If you lust in your heart over a woman, you have committed adultery in God’s sight (Matt. 5:21-30). But the command against coveting explicitly goes right to the heart. Coveting concerns your heart’s desires, whether you ever act on those desires or not.

When Paul says, “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law,” he does not mean that he (or others) do not know sin at all apart from the law. He has already said (2:14-15) that Gentiles who do not have the law have the “work of the Law written in their hearts.” People sinned from Adam until Moses, even though they did not have the written law (5:12-14).

What Paul means is that the law, especially the tenth commandment focusing on the inward desires, nailed him so that he came to know sin as sin against God. Before his conversion, outwardly Paul was a self-righteous Pharisee. He thought that all of his deeds commended him to God. With regard to the law, he saw himself as “blameless” (Phil. 3:6). But when the Holy Spirit brought the tenth commandment about coveting home to his conscience, Paul realized that he had violated God’s holy law. At that point, he came to know sin. The commandment made it explicit: “Paul, you are a sinner!”

Like Paul before his conversion, most people think that they are basically good. Sure, they know they have their faults. Who doesn’t? They’re not perfect, but they are good. They excuse even their bad sins, just as Paul excused his violent persecution of the church. After all, it was justified because it was for a good cause.

So guys excuse a little pornography because, “After all, everyone looks at that stuff and I’m not hurting anyone. Besides, I’ve never cheated on my wife.” And they excuse their violent temper because that person had it coming and, “Hey, I didn’t hurt him; I just told him off!” People excuse all manner of sin and still think of themselves as basically good people because they have not come to know God’s law, especially the law as it confronts our evil desires. At the heart of coveting is the enthronement of self as lord.

Spurgeon (“The Soul’s Great Crisis,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 61:425) compares the sinner who thinks that he is basically good, but won’t look at God’s law, to a man who thinks he is rich and lives in a lavish manner, but refuses to look at his books. The guy lives in style. When he gets into a financial bind, he takes out a loan, and when that one comes due, he’ll meet it with another loan. He says he is all right and he convinces himself that he is all right. At the moment he’s living as if he’s all right. But does he ever get out his accounts and take stock of his real condition? No, that’s boring. We all know where that will end—the man will go bankrupt.

In the same way, Spurgeon says, we may convince ourselves that we are right with God by brushing over our faults as no big deal. We live as if we’re good people; all is well. But if we don’t examine our true condition in light of God’s law, we’re heading for eternal bankruptcy. The law reveals our sin. But Paul goes further:

2. The law provokes sinners to sin (7:8).

Romans 7:8: “But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law, sin is dead.”

Paul personifies sin as an active force that uses the law to provoke us to commit acts of sin. By sin, Paul means sin as a principle and power, not just acts of sin (Lloyd-Jones, p. 120). He repeats the phrase again (7:11), “sin, taking opportunity through the commandment.” Opportunity was a word used for a military base of operations from which the army launched its campaigns. So sin takes God’s holy commandments and uses them to tempt us to violate those commands. It stirs up the rebel in us and makes us want to assert our right to do as we please.

James Boice (Romans: The Reign of Grace [Baker], pp. 742-743) tells a story from when he was in sixth grade. The school principal came into his classroom just before lunch and said that he had heard that some students had been bringing firecrackers to school. He went on to warn about the dangers of firecrackers and to say that anyone caught with firecrackers at school would be expelled. Well, Boice didn’t own any firecrackers and he hadn’t even thought about firecrackers. But when you get to thinking about firecrackers, it’s an intriguing subject. He then remembered that one of his friends had some.

So during his lunch break, he and a friend went by this other friend’s house, got a firecracker and returned to school. They went into a cloakroom and planned to light it and pinch it out before it exploded. But the lit fuse burned the fingers of the boy holding it. He dropped it and it exploded with a horrific bang, echoing in that old building with its high ceilings, marble floors, and plaster walls. Before the boys could stagger out of the cloakroom, the principal was out of his office, down the hall, and standing there to greet them. As Boice later sat in the principal’s office with his parents, he remembers the principal saying over and over, “I had just told them not to bring any firecrackers to school. I just can’t believe it.”

But that’s how sin operates in the hearts of rebels. It takes God’s good and right commandments and entices us to violate them. Sometimes when you read about others sinning or you see it on TV or in a movie, you think, “I’ll bet that would be fun!” You know that God forbids it, but probably He just wants to deprive you of some fun. Besides, what will it hurt to try it once? It can’t be all that bad. And, I can always get forgiven later. So our sin nature springboards off the commandment to provoke us to sin.

What does Paul mean when he says, “For apart from the Law sin is dead”? Since the fall, everyone is born in sin and is prone to sin. Before the flood, before God gave the law to Moses, the world was so sinful that we read (Gen. 6:5), “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” So how can Paul say, “apart from the Law sin is dead”?

He must have meant, “Sin was comparatively dead; as far as his awareness was concerned it was dead” (Lloyd-Jones, p. 135). In other words, before God brought the law to bear on Paul’s conscience, as far as he knew, he wasn’t in sin. He saw himself as a good person. The law had not yet revived the sin that lay dormant in his heart. Apart from the law, sin seems to be dead as far as the sinner is concerned. Paul traces the process further:

3. The law, through our failures to keep it, brings us to the end of ourselves (7:9-11).

Romans 7:9-11: “I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died; and this commandment, which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me; for sin, taking an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.” (I will have to deal with the deceptive aspect of sin in our next study.)

What does Paul mean when he says that he was “once alive apart from the Law”? This is the same apostle who said that before salvation we all were dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1). How could he once be alive? And when was Paul ever “apart from the Law”? He was raised from his youth up in the strictest traditions of Judaism (Acts 22:3; 26:4-5; Phil. 3:5). And, when did sin “kill” him?

As with every verse in this text, there are many opinions. Some say that verse 9 refers to Adam, since he is the only one of whom it rightly could be said that he was once alive apart from the law. Others take it to refer to Israel before the law was given. But most likely, Paul is speaking in a relative sense about his own perception of himself. Once, he thought that he was alive and doing quite well in God’s sight. He saw himself as blameless with regard to the righteousness of the law (Phil. 3:6). Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, he would have prayed (Luke 18:11-12), “God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.” In that sense, Paul saw himself as once alive apart from the law. He was “apart from the law” in the sense that it had not yet bore down on his conscience to convict him on the heart level.

But then “the commandment came”—“You shall not covet.” He had memorized that commandment as a child. He had recited it many times. But the Holy Spirit had not nailed him with it. Lloyd-Jones (p. 134) illustrates this with the experience that we’ve all had, where we’ve read a verse many, many times, but we’ve skipped right over it and kept going. It didn’t say anything to us. But then suddenly, it hits you. You see it as you’ve never seen it before. The commandment came to you.

Then what happens? “Sin became alive and I died” (7:9). At first, Paul thought that he was alive and sin was dead. But then, God’s law hit him and he suddenly realized that his sin was very much alive and he was dead. He saw that he was not right with God, as he formerly had thought. Rather, he was alienated from God and under His judgment. He had thought that he would get into heaven because he was a zealous Jew, and even a notch above other Jews, because he was a Pharisee. But now he realized that he was a blasphemer, a persecutor of God’s church, a violent aggressor, and the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:13, 15).

The commandment promised life (7:10) to all who keep it (Lev. 18:5; Ezek. 20:11). Paul thought that he had been keeping it blamelessly. But God shot the arrow of the commandment, “You shall not covet.” It hit Paul in the heart and killed him. Spurgeon (61:427) says, “What died in Paul was that which ought never to have lived. It was that great ‘I’ in Paul … that ‘I’ that used to say, ‘I thank thee that I am not like other men’—that ‘I’ that folded its arms in satisfied security—that ‘I’ that bent its knee in prayer, but never bowed down the heart in penitence—that ‘I’ died.”

Spurgeon goes on (pp. 427-428) to show several other respects in which Paul died. He died in that he saw he was condemned to die. He stood guilty before God. He died in that all his hopes from his past life died. His good works that he had been relying on came crashing down as worthless. He died in that all his hopes as to the future died. He realized that if his salvation depended on his future keeping the law, he was doomed. His past showed that he would be sure to break it again in the future. And, he died in that all his powers seemed to die. Formerly, he thought that he could keep the law just fine by his own strength. But now he saw that every thought, word, and desire that did not meet God’s holy standard would condemn him. And so all his hope died. He felt condemned. The rope was around his neck, as Spurgeon says elsewhere (Autobiography, 1:54).


Can you identify with Paul’s experience? Has God’s holy law hit home to your conscience so that you died to all self-righteousness? Has the law killed all your hopes that your good works will get you into heaven? If so, that’s a good thing, because Jesus didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5:32). When you see God’s holy standard and how miserably you have violated it over and over, you then see your need for a Savior. And the best news ever is that Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners (1 Tim. 1:15)!

James Boice (p. 746) tells of a time when John Gerstner, who was then retired from teaching church history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, was at a church preaching from Romans. He expounded on the law and used it to expose sin. After the service, a woman came up to him. She held up her hand with her index finger and thumb about a half-inch apart and she said, “Dr. Gerstner, you make me feel this big.”

Dr. Gerstner replied, “But madam, that’s too big. That’s much too big. Don’t you know that that much self-righteousness will take you to hell?”

God gave His law to strip us of all self-righteousness and to convict us of our sin so that we would flee to Christ to save us. Make sure that your hope for eternal life is in Christ alone!

Application Questions

  1. Is there ever a proper place in evangelism to tell sinners that God loves them? If so, when?
  2. A popular author says that Christians should not view themselves as sinners, not even as sinners saved by grace, but as saints who occasionally sin. What’s wrong with this biblically?
  3. To what degree has moral relativism invaded the church? How can we counter and resist this trend?
  4. How can we know whether feelings of guilt are coming from the Holy Spirit or from the accuser (Rev. 12:10)?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Law, Soteriology (Salvation)

Lesson 38: The Utter Sinfulness of Sin (Romans 7:11-13)

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In 1973, psychiatrist Karl Menninger, founder of the famous Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, wrote a best-seller titled, Whatever Became of Sin? [Bantam Books]. I didn’t read that book, but the title, especially coming from a psychiatrist, who to my knowledge was not a Christian, is significant. Menninger realized almost 40 years ago that the concept of sin was vanishing from our culture. He argued (as summarized by James Boice, Romans: The Reign of Grace [Baker], 2:747),

In the lifetimes of many of us, sin has been redefined: first, as crime—that is, as transgression of the law of man rather than transgression of the law of God—and second, as symptoms. Since “symptoms” are caused by things external to the individual, they are seen as effects for which the offender is not responsible. Thus it happened that sin against God has been redefined (and dismissed) as the unfortunate effects of bad circumstances. And no one is to blame.

We now view many behaviors that the Bible calls “sin” as psychological or emotional issues for which therapy, not repentance, is the solution. I’ve read polls that show that even among evangelical Christians, many do not view premarital sex or homosexual behavior as sin. Churches offer anger management classes (not anger repentance classes) or groups to help you overcome your “addictions” (not sins). Sin has become a disease that we treat therapeutically, not a behavior for which we’re responsible.

Christians regularly watch Hollywood’s latest movies that are rife with filthy language, sexual scenes, and violence, without any concern that they are disobeying Scripture, which commands (Eph. 5:3-4), “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” So Dr. Menninger was quite right to ask, “Whatever became of sin?”

In our text, Paul is defending himself against critics who alleged that he taught that the law is sin. Paul has been teaching that if you try to gain right standing with God by keeping the law, you are doomed to fail. The law was not given to make us right before God. To the contrary, “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). “The Law brings about wrath” (4:15). “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase” (5:20). And so Paul shows (7:4) that through our union with Christ, we died to the law in order that we might bear fruit for God. We have been released from the law so that now “we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter” (7:6).

Paul knew that critics would react to this teaching by accusing him of saying that the law is sin. His response is (7:7), “May it never be!” The problem is not with the law. Rather, the problem is our sin. When you mix God’s holy law with our sin, it produces negative results, much like mixing two incompatible chemicals.

Verses 11 & 12 wrap up Paul’s argument that the law is not the problem; rather, sin is the problem. As we saw last time, he personifies sin as an active force. Verse 13 serves as a hinge verse, restating the argument from 7:7-12 while also introducing 7:14-25. We can sum up his thought in 7:11-13:

God’s law reveals the holiness of His commandments and the utter sinfulness of sin so that we will hate our sin.

1. God’s law reveals the holiness of His commandments.

Paul concludes (7:12), “So then, the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”

By “the Law,” Paul means the law as a whole. When he repeats, “the commandment,” he may be referring to the tenth commandment against coveting that he has just mentioned (7:7), or to the moral commands. But he means that the law as a whole and every single part of it is “holy and righteous and good.” He piles up these terms to emphasize his point (in 7:7) that the law is not in any way sinful. The reason that the law is holy, righteous, and good is that it was given to us by God who is holy, righteous, and good.

God’s law is holy. God’s holiness means that He is altogether separate from us and separate from sin. Christ’s aim for His church is that “she would be holy and blameless” (Eph. 5:27). Applied to us, God’s holy commandments show us how to live separately from this evil world, in a manner pleasing to the Lord.

That God’s law is righteous means that it is right or just. God Himself is the standard of what is right. Moses says of God (Deut. 32:4), “For all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He.” If we violate God’s moral commands, we are wrong because God is always right. His standards are not relative, changing with the culture or over time. We can’t persuade Him to bend His righteous commands to fit what we may think is right.

God’s commandments are also good because they come from God who is always good. As with righteousness, God is the final standard of what is good (Luke 18:19). This means that all of God’s commandments are for our good. To violate His commands is to bring trouble and hardship on ourselves. If we want to live the truly “good life,” then we must follow God’s good commands.

Since as new covenant believers we are not under the Law of Moses, we may wonder, “Which of the Old Testament commands apply to us? Are we obligated to keep the Ten Commandments, since Paul calls them a ‘ministry of death, in letters engraved on stones’” (2 Cor. 3:7)?

In the sense that the Ten Commandments serve as a summary of the two great commandments, to love God and love others, they are valid and binding for today. Also, all of the Ten Commandments, except for the Sabbath command, are repeated in the New Testament. The Sabbath command, as I understand it, was fulfilled in Christ (Heb. 4:1-11; Rom. 14:5; Col. 2:16). The exhortation to us is not to forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25), but we are not under that command in the legal sense of the Old Testament. (See my message, “God’s Day of Rest,” from Gen. 2:1-3, 12/17/95, on the church website for my further thoughts on this.)

So Paul wants us to be clear that God’s law is holy, righteous, and good. Being under grace does not mean living in a lawless manner (1 John 3:4; 1 Cor. 9:21).

2. God’s law reveals the utter sinfulness of sin.

Paul concludes (7:13c), “so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful.” As C. H. Spurgeon put it (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 59:469), “[The law] was not the cure of the disease, much less the creator of it, but it was the revealer of the disease that lurked in the constitution of man.” He goes on to show that when Paul wanted to come up with a word to describe how bad sin is, he didn’t call it exceedingly black or horrible or deadly. Rather, when he wanted to find the very worst word, he called sin by its own name—it is exceedingly sinful. There is nothing as evil as sin. God gave His law for our good (Deut. 10:13), and so when we deliberately throw it off and trample it under foot, that law exposes the utter sinfulness of our sin in at least four ways:

A. Sin is utterly sinful because it is rebellion against our loving and kind Heavenly Father.

When God gave Adam and Eve the command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, that command was for their good, to keep them from the consequence of death (Gen. 2:16-17). We can compare it to parents who tell their little children not to run into a busy street. That command is not to deprive the children of fun, but to protect them from death. So when we sin, we rebel against the God who is loving and kind towards us. He is never mean, harsh, or cruel. Rather, sin (as Spur­geon put it in another sermon) is the monster that this verse drags to light (ibid., 19:73). We need to see sin for what it is, rebellion against our loving and kind  Heavenly Father.

B. Sin is utterly sinful because it takes a good thing and uses it to kill us.

Sin takes the good law and turns it into an instrument of death. It would be like taking a scalpel and using it to murder someone. Is the scalpel bad? No! The scalpel is a good and useful tool in the hands of a skilled physician. The sinner who used the scalpel to murder someone is the culprit. Sin takes God’s holy commandments and uses them to kill us. (Paul mentions “death” or “killed” in 7:9, 10, 11, & 13.) He means that the law brings us under God’s righteous, eternal condemnation because we have deliberately violated it over and over. So we should fight against our sin with as much effort as we would struggle against an intruder who broke into our house and was attempting to murder us.

C. Sin is utterly sinful because it involves deliberate violation of God’s good and perfect will for us.

As Paul said (4:15), “Where there is no law, there also is no violation.” This is not to say that people did not sin before the law (5:13-14), but rather to say that the law heightens the sinfulness of sin by showing that we are deliberately going against what God has commanded for our good. Our conscience may nag at us that something is wrong. But when we read the explicit command in the Bible and then go against it, we’re just thumbing our nose at God. We’re saying, “God, You don’t know what is best for me! I know better than You do, and I’m going my own way.” The commandment shows sin to be utterly sinful.

D. Sin is utterly sinful because it uses deception to kill us.

In his book and film, “Peace Child,” missionary Don Richardson told about the wicked practice of the Sawi tribe before he brought the gospel to them. They extolled deception as a virtue. They would lure an outsider into their midst as a friend, who didn’t suspect their treachery. They would treat him as a king and feed him well, but they were literally fattening him for the slaughter. At the opportune time, when the victim thought that the Sawi tribal leaders were his friends, they would sadistically smile as they killed him, and then they would eat him. And so when Richardson first told them the story of Jesus, they thought that Judas was the real hero! He used deception to kill Jesus. In the same way, sin is utterly sinful because it uses deception to kill us.

In two other places (2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:14) Paul uses the same verb, “deceived” (Rom. 7:11) to describe the serpent’s deception of Eve in the garden. One commentator (C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans [T. & T. Clark], 1:352-353) shows three ways that the serpent deceived Eve. First, he distorted and misrepresented God’s commandment by drawing attention only to the negative part of it and ignoring the positive. Second, he made her believe that God would not punish disobedience with death, as He had warned. Third, he used the very commandment itself to insinuate doubts about God’s good will and to suggest the possibility that she and Adam could assert themselves in opposition to God. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Romans: The Law: Its Functions and Limits [Zondervan], pp. 155-160) lists nine ways that sin deceives us. I’ve incorporated his list into my own list of 15 ways that sin deceives us. I don’t expect you to remember all of these, but by piling them up without much comment, I want you to see how dangerous of an enemy sin really is.

(1). Sin deceives us into thinking that outward obedience alone pleases God, whereas we need to please Him on the heart level.

This was the downfall of the Pharisees. They thought that they were keeping all of God’s commandments, but Jesus rebuked them because their hearts were far from God (Mark 7:6-7; Matt. 23:25). Sin deceives us so that we congratulate ourselves for our outward obedience to God, but all the while our hearts are corrupt. “Sure, I look at some porn, but at least I’ve never cheated on my wife.” “Sure, I’m bitter over what he did to me, but I haven’t killed him.” But God looks on the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4:12).

(2). Sometimes sin changes its tactics and tells us that everything is hopeless, so we might as well keep on sinning.

We wrongly conclude, “I’ve failed again and again, so there is no hope for me. I might as well just give in and go on sinning.”

(3). Sin deceives us to presume on God’s grace.

Sin tells us that it doesn’t matter whether or not we are holy. It says, “Don’t worry about your sin. It’s not hurting anyone. Besides, you can always get forgiven later.”

(4). Sin deceives us into thinking that it will bring true and lasting happiness, while holiness will bring us misery.

This is such a common ploy that you would think that we’d see right through it. But it works over and over again. “An affair will bring happiness, but being faithful to your marriage vows will make you miserable.” Related to this is the next form of deception:

(5). Sin deceives us into thinking that we have a right to happiness, while we forget that we have a responsibility to holiness.

I’ve known Christians who walk away from their marriages with the excuse, “I deserve some happiness in my life. My marriage has only brought me misery. How can this new relationship be wrong when it makes me so happy?” That’s the defense of a well-known Christian singer who divorced her husband and married another singer who divorced his wife. I recently read an article that tried to convince the readers that this sinful behavior was all right, because now she and her new husband are so happy. But what about the biblical command to be holy?

(6). Sin deceives us by getting us to discount the consequences of willful disobedience.

Satan lied to Eve (Gen. 3:4), “You surely will not die!” God would not be so mean as to impose such harsh consequences for such a minor thing as eating a piece of fruit, would He? God is loving and gracious; He won’t punish your sin!

(7). Sin deceives us into thinking that we’ve earned some free passes to sin because of all that we’ve done to serve God.

This may have been what led to David’s downfall. He was the king—didn’t that give him some extra privileges? He had written many psalms. He had fought and won many battles. Didn’t he deserve a “break”? Several years ago, a well known pastor was exposed when it came out that he “relieved the stress” of his ministry responsibilities by going to a homosexual prostitute! Talk about being deceived!

(8). Sin deceives us by getting us to swap the labels and call it something much more acceptable.

It is not adultery; it’s an affair or a fling. It’s not perversion; it’s being gay. It’s not stealing; it’s just taking what the company owes me but doesn’t pay me. I’m not angry; I just have a short fuse. It’s not gossip; I just wanted to share a prayer concern.

(9). Sin deceives us by making us think that we’re normal when we sin and to think that holy people are weird.

We look around at the world and conclude that yielding to temptation is normal. The weirdoes are those holy people who obey God. Or, we think, “I’ll bet that they’re no different than I am. They probably engage in some secret sins, but they’re hypocrites. At least I’m honest about who I am.”

(10). Sin deceives us by working by degrees, so that eventually that which would have shocked us is now accepted as normal.

When I used to paint houses, the home owner would walk in and make a big deal about the smell of the paint. But I was so used to it that I didn’t even notice. The prophet Hosea chided “Ephraim,” or Israel (Hos.7:9): “Gray hairs are sprinkled on him, yet he does not know it.” Can you imagine someone going gray without being aware of it? But the prophet was using this humorous analogy to show how we drift spiritually without being aware of how far off course we really are. The first time you watch a sex scene in a movie, it shocks you. But after you’ve seen such filth a few dozen times, you just shrug it off as no big deal. When you first hear profanity, it jars you. But after being around it a while, you don’t even wince and you may even toss off a bad word or two yourself without being aware of it.

(11). Sin deceives us by making us angry at the law, feeling that God is against us when He prohibits something.

Sin gets us to believe that God and His law are unreasonable, impossible, and unjust. “Does He expect me to be perfect? Why doesn’t He give me a break now and then? He must not care about me or He wouldn’t give such unreasonable commands!”

(12). Sin deceives us by making us think very highly of ourselves.

“You’re smart enough to figure out what is best for you. You’re able to determine right and wrong without putting yourself under God’s legalistic standards. Think for yourself!”

(13). Sin tells us that the law is oppressive, keeping us from developing the gifts and talents we have within us.

“God’s moral standards are holding you back from reaching your full potential! Use the brain that God gave you! You don’t have to be restricted by that outdated book, the Bible!”

(14). Sin makes righteousness look drab and unattractive.

“You’ve only had sex with your marriage partner? How boring! You go to church every Sunday? How restrictive! What a way to mess up your weekend!”

(15). Sin deceives us by getting us to compare ourselves with other sinners, rather than to compare ourselves to God’s holy standard.

The psalmist says that sin flatters us in our own eyes (Ps. 36:2). It makes us think that we’re not so bad because we compare our relatively “minor faults” with the really bad things that others do. By comparison, we’re not so bad. But the standard is not what others do or what we do, but what God’s Word commands.

Thus God’s law reveals the holiness and goodness of His commands, along with the utter sinfulness of sin. What should our response be?

3. The practical result of understanding the holiness of God’s commands and the utter sinfulness of sin is that we should hate our own sin.

I am inferring this, since Paul doesn’t state it directly here, although he does go on (7:14-25) to show how much he hates his own propensity towards sin. But the Bible is clear: “Hate evil, you who love the Lord” (Ps. 97:10a). And we’re not just supposed to hate the evil in others, but first and foremost, we need to hate our own sin. Take the log out of your own eye first (Matt. 7:5). It was Paul’s hatred of his own sin that caused him to cry out (Rom. 7:24), “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”


Do you hate your own sin? Do you hate it enough to stop making excuses for it and to give serious thought and effort as to how not to sin? Sin is ugly, ugly, ugly! To watch a believer fall into sin is like watching a dog licking up its own vomit (2 Pet. 2:22). God’s Word shows us how walk in the light so that we do not fall into the mire of sin. Love the Word! Read it! Memorize it! Obey it! Don’t let sin kill you. Rather, hate your sin enough to kill it!

Application Questions

  1. Since we are not under the Law of Moses, how can we know which of the O.T. commands are binding on us?
  2. Why is it important to understand that God’s law is holy, righteous, and good? How does doubting God’s goodness set us up to yield to temptation (see Gen. 3:1-7)?
  3. Meditate on 2 Cor. 11:3. What does this verse teach about Satan’s deception and how to avoid it?
  4. What are some practical strategies for fighting against and killing sin? See Rom. 8:13; Gal. 5:16-23; Eph. 6:10-20.

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Hamartiology (Sin), Law