Dead to Sin? Romans 6 and New Life in Christ
By Stephen Chester
Mar 06, 2023
We live in a time of repeated scandals in which prominent church leaders turn out to be hiding egregious sinful behaviour. We all know what it is to be tempted and to fail, but so often what is revealed are not such lapses but instead ingrained, habitual sinful behaviors repeated across many years without any apparent desire for repentance and forgiveness until caught out and exposed. Such episodes demonstrate the depth of our sin and the extent of our need for reconciliation with God provided in Christ Jesus, but they also prompt soul-searching as to why the gospel seems to have made so little difference to behaviour. Why have those who should have been most able to bear witness to the transforming power of the gospel turned out to be so little changed?
One of the reasons may be that we have ceased paying enough attention in our theology and practice to conversion and to what Scripture says it involves. A remarkable text that can help us with this is Romans 6, where Paul takes us into the paradoxical heart of the good news of God in Jesus Christ: newness of life results from dying with Christ in baptism, and freedom from sin is expressed in slavery to righteousness. The second half especially of this way of expressing the truth of the gospel has vexed many. Paul’s usual procedure is to emphasize the freedom that the gospel brings (see Gal 4:3–7, 4:21–5:1; Rom 8:15). Here instead he says that having been set free from sin believers have become slaves to righteousness (6:18). How can Paul use the language of slavery in this apparently positive way? On this side of the horrors of slavery in the modern world in particular, such imagery can (understandably) seem shocking and even offensive.
Yet Paul has strong reasons for what he says. The first is to strip away our illusion of autonomy. In the argument of Romans either a person is under the dominion of sin exercised in death (5:21), or a person is released from that dominion and is under grace (6:14, 15) – a release which is itself expressed as slavery to righteousness and to God (6:19, 22). Sin is an enslaving power that holds in its grip humanity outside of Christ, and it and grace are locked in combat. Paul gives no hint of a place in life where human beings can stand outside that battle. The only question is under whose rule we will live. Is part of our difficulty in living the Christian life that, under the impact of the individualism of our culture and its emphasis on self-determination, we refuse to recognize that precisely this is our situation? Are we often looking for a corner of life that we keep for ourselves, where we can indulge our desires without being under the lordship either of Christ or of sin? Do we delude ourselves that we can sup with the devil with a long spoon, when in fact our only possibilities are either slavery to sin or slavery to righteousness (6:18)?
Certainly, Paul emphasizes very strongly the importance of considering ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11). As Samuli Siikavirta puts it, in justification and in baptism “God has identified and reckoned them [believers] to be righteous and buried and crucified with Christ. What is left for baptized believers to do is the self-reckoning and self-identification that is in accordance with the God-given state they already enjoy.” To reckon the self as God reckons the self is essential to conversion, and Paul insists that this right self-understanding must not remain a cognitive act but be expressed in bodily obedience (6:12–14). “Service which does not include the body is imaginary,” and such obedience is an anticipation of the resurrection of the body “and sign of the already present reality of its power.”
The second reason why Paul speaks of slavery to righteousness is therefore to highlight the significance of such bodily obedience, for the unending and unlimited obligation of bodily labour lies at the heart of slavery. And yet it is here that Paul’s imagery also departs in significant ways from the reality of slavery. For in actual slavery this labour is compelled, whereas here Paul stresses repeatedly that believers are to “offer” or “present” their bodies as slaves to righteousness (6:13, 16, 19). His readers “have become obedient from the heart” (6:17). This is a joyful, voluntary servitude which results in the free gift of eternal life (6:23). Paul is well aware here that he is both having his cake and eating it, for things that are contradictions in a fallen, sinful world are perfectly resolved in the kingdom. Our only possibilities are slavery to sin or slavery to righteousness – but in slavery to righteousness lies true freedom. Although our indebtedness for the enormity of God’s grace in Christ is infinite, it is only sin that truly has wages (6:23); in God’s economy, to be God’s slave is in fact to be showered with priceless gifts. The more our living and doing are aligned with and shaped by God our maker, the more we are truly ourselves.
Often our issues with obedience reflect a loss of any sense of this joy of grace. We lack the motivation to exercise the renewed will that is ours in Christ and to engage in the struggle necessary to consider ourselves dead to sin and to act on that basis. We often seem to lack the array of new “orientations, allegiances, and dispositions” of which Romans 6 speaks and which Paul argues should shape our behaviour. The reality, of course, is that how we understand ourselves and how we behave exist together in a reciprocal relationship. If how we understand our identity in Christ is essential to transformed behaviour, then in turn “the refashioning of the self cannot take effect without refashioning the practices of the body.”
It really matters therefore that we think about who we are in Christ in ways that shape our behaviour and behave in ways that shape and sustain that identity. At Wycliffe College we will be thinking more about these issues on our Preaching Day: Tuesday, May 9, under the theme, “Romans 6: Walking in Newness of Life.” Distinguished New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass will join me in exploring this crucial passage – both for the preacher and the community – as we seek to live out our new life in Christ. Please consider attending either in-person or online as we consider what it means truly to be changed by the good news of Jesus.
 Samuli Siikavirta, Baptism and Cognition in Romans 6–8, WUNT 2.407 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2015), 167–68.
 Ernst Käsemann, Commentary on Romans, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 224, 167.
 John M. G. Barclay, “Under Grace: The Christ-Gift and the Construction of a Christian Habitus,” in Apocalyptic Paul: Cosmos and Anthropos in Romans 5–8, ed. Beverly Gaventa (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013), 69.
 Barclay, “Under Grace,” 73.