Romans 6- Become who God has declared you already are
Paul’s letter to the Romans is a fascinating letter. The church in Rome wasn’t a church that was founded by Paul, so this letter is a way of introducing himself, hoping that they will support his ministry. The first 8 chapters have often been considered a kind of outline of Christian theology.
Paul starts the letter talking about how both Jews and Gentiles are basically in the same boat. The Gentiles are lost without the Law. This is the way Jews would generally look down on Gentiles. They don’t have the Law, but they do have a conscience as a result of being created by God, but they even violate that.
Paul’s Jewish readers may well have been cheering Paul on as he speaks about the moral and spiritual shortcomings of the Gentiles, but then Paul turns on his fellow Jews, who have been given the Law.
They have the law, but they aren’t able to live according to it. The Law is a part of the Covenant, which is a bit like a contract. If you have an employment contract the violation of one of those points would be reason to be fired or written up. If you were pulled in front of your boss, it wouldn’t do to say that you keep most of the contract most of the time. And declaring that you have a contract is meaningless if you constantly violate it. This is the accusation Paul has against his fellow Jews. Don’t try to claim a special status because you have been given the covenant, when you can’t actually live it.
Paul says that instead of being accepted on the basis of the Law, both Jews and Gentiles would now be accepted on the basis of faith in Christ. God, who worked through the patriarchs, has now brought in a new era through Christ. It is through faith that righteousness would be received- by trusting in Christ and what God has done through Christ. This faith leads to peace with God, and to receiving grace that shapes our character. This faith also makes us hopeful for the future.
Christ trusted God and was obedient unto death. His death is a new beginning for humankind. Through Christ, we can change kingdoms. We can leave the reign of Sin and instead live under the power of the Spirit. … Paul talks about Sin as a kind of power in the world- like an empire. So, when we commit a sin it is because we are under the thrall of this power- we are showing our citizenship, in a way. In a sense, we are enslaved to this power. And the sins we commit are the evidence of our slavery. Paul sees Sin and Death both as powers. So, Sin is not something you can avoid, any more than you can choose not to die.
But there is an alternative power that we can live under now. Throughout the New Testament it is described in a variety of ways. Jesus mainly spoke about the Kingdom of God. Paul will often talk about life in the Spirit. God, through Christ, has brought the availability of the kingdom to us, especially through his work on the Cross.
In our reading from Romans Paul is addressing the question that if Christ has graciously saved us from the power of Sin- Christ has dealt with it on the cross- then maybe we can be free to sin as much as we want. Dallas Willard once said, “we tend to think that sin would be a lot of fun if God didn’t have such a thing about it”. This way of thinking shows that we are still being enticed by this power. We are not seeing sin as slavery and destruction.
Paul asks, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” The only way from the one power to the other is death. The old self, or the false self has to die. … This is how Paul understands baptism. In baptism we join Jesus Christ in his crucifixion and death. In that, our false self dies. As we rise from the waters of baptism, we are unified with Christ in his resurrection. We join him in resurrection, and we have new life as we are unified with Christ. We are his people, and, in a way, what is true of him is true of us. We receive the benefits of his death and resurrection. Through that death, the self that was a slave to sin is left behind, and the new self emerges who belongs to the life of God
Our baptism is a one-time event, so what Paul is saying seems to imply that if we have been baptized that we are done with sin. In a sense that is true, but from my own life and from observing other Christians, it seems like this is a reality we learn to live more and more. We have been given a new identity, but we have to learn to live in it. We have a number of names for this transformation into our new identity- discipleship, Spiritual formation, sanctification, apprenticeship to Jesus in Kingdom living. We learn to grow into unity with Christ. We learn to allow the false self to die more and more each day, so that our true self that we find in unity with Christ can live more and more.
According to Paul there are only two options that stand before humanity. You have to live either under the reign of Sin, or the reign of the Spirit. Because humanity is fallen, removed from the garden by the sinful choices of our ancestors, we are born under the reign of Sin. To live under either power will produce the appropriate consequences in our life. To live enslaved by the power of Sin will produce a life of sin. To live under the power of the Spirit will produce a life filled with the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5).
Life in the Spirit is brought into being by Christ and it is life that will never end. Life under reign of Sin will end when Christ comes again, and if our life is tied to the reign of Sin, then our life will go the way of Sin when it is destroyed. We live now in an in-between time when the fullness of the kingdom hasn’t arrived yet and both the reign of God and the reign of Sin exist side by side until Christ returns and God recreates the world. There is opportunity now for human beings to cross from one to the other.
I know this can be pretty abstract, so maybe an image will help. Bishop NT Wright, thinking about the question Paul is wrestling with here, thinks about the famous parable of the Prodigal Son. The son dishonours his father, wishing he was dead so he could have his inheritance. Amazingly, Instead of beating him and disowning him, the father gives him his inheritance which he then goes off and wastes partying off in a foreign country. When the money runs out, he is left trying to eek out an existence by feeding pigs. He decides he will come back to his father and ask to be one of his father’s servants, because even they eat better than he is eating. At the first sight of his son on the horizon, the father forgets all dignity due to a man of his status and runs out to his son, throwing his arms around him. He won’t even let him grovel, he barely gets out a sorry, and his father welcomes him back as a son and throws a feast for him.
Wright imagines the son a couple of years later. The son is a part of the family again, and he knows how forgiving his father is. Maybe he thinks, “suppose I did it again? Why not take a few things I can sell, and run away for a few weeks, and then come back and say sorry again? Maybe I’ll get another party!” This is the question Paul is dealing with in our reading.
Many people treat God this way. As if God has to forgive them, so they can really do what they like. What do we say to that Son? “That’s fine, God loves you”. The grace of God Paul has been speaking about could lead people to think that they can do what they like now that we don’t live under the Law, but by faith and God’s gracious forgiveness.
Wright uses another image. Christians are living in a kind of new Exodus story. Our baptism is like passing through the Red Sea, leaving slavery in Sin behind, and heading towards freedom. The Promised Land for us is when the creation will be made new at Jesus’ return, but we are seeing glimpses of it even now. … Just as the Hebrews grumbled against God in the wilderness, yearning for slavery in Egypt, so he sees a return to sin as a return to slavery. It is grumbling against God. It is rejecting the Freedom God wants for us and desiring slavery instead.
When we become a Christian, we move from one type of humanity to another, so we should not think of ourselves in ways that identify with an identity in Sin anymore. That person has died. That slave has died. You have risen with the Messiah as a new person. You are part of the new world he is in the process of creating. We are people under the banner of the Messiah. We no longer live under the banner of Sin. Christ has rescued us from that kingdom into his own kingdom. The Christian life is to now to bring our life into line with that new kingdom. We are to think in a new way. We are to see others in a new way. We are to behave in a new way. This is not surface stuff. We can’t fake it. This has to come from deep inside us as we are transformed from the inside, out. This is what Jesus is teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. You have become a citizen of the kingdom, and the Holy Spirit will work with you to help you become what you already are. Amen