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8. The Necessity of Sanctification (Romans 6)


This sixth chapter of Romans and its proper interpretation is not only imperative for your sanctification, but also for your sanity. Several years ago I visited a young woman in the psychiatric ward of a Dallas hospital. As we sat at a table behind the locked doors under the scrutiny of professional attendants, I asked this young woman what her problem was. She acknowledged that she was totally frustrated in her attempt to follow the teaching of Romans 6. She had been striving to follow the formula which many have suggested from this chapter: know, reckon, yield. She said that she knew that she had died in Christ to sin, and she was trying as hard as possible to reckon it to be so and to yield herself to God. But somehow it always resulted in failure. Her frustration had finally led to a complete nervous breakdown. Much of her problem, I believe, was in failing to understand this chapter in proper relationship to chapters 7 and 8. And so, as we begin to study Romans 6, I urge you to study it carefully, not only for the sake of your sanctification but also for your sanity.

When I recall cases such as this young woman’s, even though it may be extreme, I am reminded of the tremendous burden of responsibility on the teacher of the Scriptures. Some people really do listen to what I say and attempt to practice it. Anyone who interprets chapter 6 as the method for experiencing the normal Christian life is bound for trouble in my opinion, for this sixth chapter is the introduction to Paul’s section on the process of sanctification. It does not give us the full solution to the problem of sanctification; it merely presents the need for sanctification. To put this in different words, it does not deal with the method of sanctification (know, reckon, yield), but with the motive for sanctification.

So in this sixth chapter of Romans we turn to the matter of the revelation of God’s righteousness in the life of the Christian, with the spotlight not on the ‘How’ of the spiritual life, but on the ‘Why.’

A Definition of Sanctification

Since we are speaking of sanctification in chapters 6, 7, and 8 and will not have a full view of it in chapter 6 alone, it would be wise to pause briefly to define sanctification. Justification is the Process whereby God declares a person to be righteous on the basis of faith in the Person and work of Christ. Justification is the activity of God which liberates a person from the guilt of sin. Sanctification is the activity of God which liberates the Christian from the power of sin. Justification imputes the righteousness of God to man. Sanctification imparts the righteousness of God through man.

Traditionally, sanctification is categorized into three aspects.

(1) Positional sanctification is that state of holiness imputed to the Christian at the moment of their conversion to Christ. It denotes not so much one’s spiritual condition as his spiritual position. The Corinthian believers could thus be called ‘saints’ even though they were in a carnal state (1 Corinthians 1:2).

(2) Progressive sanctification refers to the process in our daily lives by which we are being conformed to the image of Christ. It is the process of becoming what we are in Christ. This involves the putting off of the old habits of lying, stealing, backbiting, etc., and putting on the Christ-like qualities of honesty, mercy, and love (cf. Colossians 3:1-10ff.).

(3) Ultimate sanctification is that state of holiness that we will not attain to in this life, but will realize when we are finally in the presence of God: “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). Sanctification, the putting off of the old man, and the putting on of the righteousness of Christ, is three dimensional: positional, progressive, and ultimate. The argument of the apostle Paul in Romans 6 is that we are obligated to experience progressive sanctification because of our positional sanctification accomplished on the cross of Calvary.

The Question Raised

The sixth chapter begins with a question: “What shall we say, then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” (Romans 6:1). This question is somewhat prompted by Paul’s statement in chapter 5: “… but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20b). This question probably is best understood as arising out of the entire preceding section on justification by faith alone. This question would surely occur to the opponents of Paul’s gospel: “If salvation is all of God, all of grace, and appropriated on the basis of faith alone, without any human effort; if all of our sins necessitate and promote the grace of God—then why not continue to live as we always have (in sin), so that God’s grace may continue to abound?”

Paul’s summary answer is contained in verse 2: “May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2). When the expression “May it never be” occurs in Romans, it is Paul’s vehement response to an improper conclusion based upon a proper premise. God’s grace does superabound man’s sin. Man’s sin does occasion the manifestation of grace. But we are not to continue the life characterized by sin at the time prior to our conversion. The reason is because such a practice would be inconsistent with our position in Christ. In Christ we are dead to sin. How, then, could we continue to live in sin? Such a practice would deny our position.

Living in Sin—A Positional Prohibition

If you have come to Romans 6 looking for water, you will be disappointed, for Paul appeals to the position of the Christian as it is achieved by Spirit baptism as a reason why the Christian cannot live in sin as he formerly did. Paul begins, “or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” (Romans 6:3). We should not expect to find water every time the word baptism occurs, for there are numerous examples of ‘waterless baptism.’

John the Baptist declared, “As for me, I baptize you in water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not even fit to remove His sandals; He Himself will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

Paul wrote, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).

In secular Greek, the verb ‘ baptizo’ meant not only ‘to immerse’ or ‘to dip’ but also to “cause to perish (as by drowning a man or sinking a ship).”23 The baptizing work of the Holy Spirit joins us to the Person and work of Christ in such a way that we participate in His work on the cross. We died with Him.

So far as our justification is concerned we were joined to the Person and work of Christ so that we participated in the death of Christ for our sins. He died in our place as our substitute. But with reference to our sanctification, Christ died to sin. In Christ’s work of justification, He delivered us from the penalty of sin; but in the death of Christ was also accomplished our sanctification whereby He delivered us from the power of sin. This is the point Paul is making in verses 3-11.

Water baptism does not secure either justification or sanctification, but it does symbolize it. When we are submerged into the baptismal water, we symbolize the fact that we died and were buried with Christ. Just as we participated in the sin of Adam and its consequences many years ago, so by the baptism of the Holy Spirit we have participated in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

Our old self, what we were as a son of Adam, died to sin. That is, sin no longer has any claim or authority over us. Just as the Law has no authority over a dead man, just as collection agencies do not harass a corpse, so sin no longer has a claim on the one who has died.

As the sin-bearer of the world, sin had a just claim on Jesus Christ. Sin had a debt to collect. But when our Lord was crucified, He died to sin. Since sin has no claim on Christ, sin has no claim on those of us who have died to sin in Christ. Thus, our participation in the death of Christ to sin abolishes all claim sin once had on us.

But our identification with Christ does not end in death to sin; it extends to our participation in His resurrection to a new kind of life. Not only does sin have no claim on us, but in our union with Christ we have been raised to a newness of life. Sin no longer has dominion over us and we now have a new kind of life, a life which is capable of manifesting the righteousness of Christ. Positionally, we are dead to sin and alive to God. Practically we dare not fall back under the dominion of sin, but must manifest a newness of life (cf. Colossians 3:1-13).

On the basis of our position in Christ, Paul can not only cast aside any talk of continuing in sin, but can exhort us to demonstrate our position by the practice of personal righteousness:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:12-13).

As Paul will illustrate in the first verses of chapter 7 sin shall not rule over us, because we are no longer under the Law, but under grace (v. 14).

Living in Sin—A Practical Prohibition

Not only are there theological or positional reasons why the Christian cannot continue to live in sin—there are practical reasons as well. One such reason is discussed in verses 15-23. The question is essentially the same as that in verse 1: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under Law but under grace? May it never be!” (Romans 6:15).

Paul lays down a very significant principle in verse 16, and that is that we become the slaves of whatever we choose to obey. If we give in to sin and submit to it, we are the slaves of sin. If we submit to God and serve Him, we become His slaves.

While we were unsaved we had no choice, but were by our very nature the slaves of sin. The fruit of such service was hardly praiseworthy, for of the things we once did we are now deeply ashamed (v. 21). When we turned to God by faith in Christ and accepted the gospel, we were freed from servitude to sin and made servants of God.

We should not deceive ourselves by supposing that these two alternatives—slavery to sin, or slavery to God—are only two of many options for the Christian. In reality, we must be one or the other. We are never truly free, but are only free to choose whether we will be the slaves of sin or the slaves of God.

Lest we should give even a moment’s thought about serving sin, Paul contrasts the two kinds of servitude. There is the servitude of God and there is service to sin. While servitude to sin produces unrighteousness and that which causes shame, servitude to God produces the fruit of righteousness and sanctification. The end result of sin is death, while the outcome of righteousness is eternal life.

So not only does continuing to live in sin contradict our position in Christ as dead to sin and alive to God, and our profession of this at baptism, it violates every principle of common sense, since it constitutes us as slaves of sin, accomplishing shameful unrighteousness, and following the path which leads to death.

What we see in chapter 6 is not so much the method of sanctification as the motive for it. We must leave the life of sin behind and seek to offer our bodies to God so that His righteousness may be lived out in us.

We do learn from chapter 6 that the basis for our sanctification is to be found at the same place as we found the provision for our justification—at the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as our Lord died for sin and was raised for our justification, so our Lord died to sin and was raised to live His life to God.

There is no work which you or I can perform which can earn our salvation. That work has been accomplished on the cross of Calvary. There is no work which you or I can perform to attain to sanctification. Our sanctification is accomplished only by our identification with Christ in His death to sin and in His resurrection to newness of life.

What troubles me is the interpretation of this chapter that sees it as the method of attaining sanctification, rather than as our motivation for sanctification. What we shall learn from chapter 7 is that although sanctification is absolutely necessary, so it is also absolutely impossible to accomplish through human striving and effort. Sanctification cannot be produced through revivals, consecrations and dedications. The beautiful message of Romans 8 is that what we cannot do in and of ourselves, God has already accomplished through the work of His Son, and this is appropriated through the Holy Spirit by faith.


Surely we must recognize first of all the necessity of sanctification for the Christian. All too often we present the gospel as though it were some insignificant modification or addition to the life of an individual. It is like another investment we add to our portfolio, or additional insurance in case our other policies fail.

The message of the gospel calls for a radical transformation of life. The call of the gospel is the call to repentance—to change. Acceptance of God’s provision of righteousness in Christ demands the outworking of righteousness in our lives and the putting away of sin. The great blemish on the testimony of Christianity has been the lives of those who have failed to realize that the gospel calls for radical change. Not a change which we initiate, but a change with which we co-operate.

Second, we should recognize the error of those who understand this chapter to teach that once a person has been united with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection, he or she is incapable of sinning. Not only does chapter 7 and much of the Scriptures refute this, but so does our experience. The consistent challenge of the New Testament is that our practice should conform to our position.

Finally, let us not seek some kind of formula—know, reckon, yield,—which all too easily is perverted into a kind of work which we perform in order to be sanctified. This chapter does not focus our attention on the how of sanctification so much as it does the why. Herein, we find not the method of sanctification, but the motive for it.

23 Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), Vol. I, p. 144.

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

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