Romans 6:2-7: Dead to Sin?

The basic dilemma expressed in this question and answer is the relationship between our new life in Christ--a life freed from sin--and our actual day-to-day living, where sin in fact is all too often present. In order to grasp Paul in this matter, we must first attempt to understand his language about the nature of the believer's relationship to Christ.

The theme of Romans 6 is the contrast between an existence characterized by death and one characterized by life. The former is in view when Christians permit their new life in Christ to be infiltrated by the forces of sin, by their former life "in Adam." The latter is in view when Christians increasingly yield to the claims that Christ has upon them.

The way of belonging to the new humanity, established in Christ, is expressed by Paul in very mystical language. He speaks of believers as those who have been "crucified" and "buried" with Christ; as having "died" and been "raised" with him. These phrases suggest an intense union between the believer and Christ that we, who have been thoroughly conditioned by rationalistic, scientific and technological thinking, have difficulty grasping. Perhaps Eastern mysticism and various cults with their meditation and inwardness prove so attractive because our civilized, acculturated form of Christianity fails to provide people with a sense of the mysterious, a sense of the "otherness" of the divine.

Paul's idea of being in Christ, or being united with Christ, has often been referred to as "Pauline mysticism," where "mysticism" designates a particularly intense relationship between the human and the divine. What was Paul's understanding of the nature of the mystical relationship between the believer and the Lord?

In Romans 6:1-10, Paul tells us that entrance into the new humanity is by means of an intense union with Christ that he presents by use of baptismal imagery of immersion: going into the waters of baptism and emerging from them symbolizes one's dying and rising with Christ. Further, the way of belonging to the new humanity is expressed in two ways:

1. By way of negation: we are dead to sin (Rom 6:2), no longer enslaved by sin (Rom 6:6), freed from sin (Rom 6:7) because the old self was crucified (Rom 6:6).

2. By way of affirmation: there is newness of life (Rom 6:4), union with Christ (Rom 6:5) and life with him (Rom 6:8) because a new self emerged in our being raised with him (Rom 6:4).

Now in these images what is extremely interesting, as well as puzzling, is that Paul presents them as statements of both fact and possibility. In the Greek language the indicative mood is employed to make factual assertions. In the context of this passage, Paul uses the indicative mood to assert without equivocation the fact that believers are dead to sin, freed from sin, crucified with Christ and so forth. Side by side with these assertions, Paul uses the subjunctive mood, which in Greek is used to express possibility, to express the hope that believers, as a result of being crucified and risen with Christ, might no longer be enslaved by sin (Rom 6:6) and might walk in newness of life (Rom 6:4).

There is a real tension between the affirmation that we died to sin and are therefore free from its bondage, and the assertion that such freedom is always and only present as a possibility that must be actualized.

How are we to understand this paradoxical juxtaposition of both fact and possibility? Perhaps another look at the baptismal imagery can help us, since Paul clearly associates baptism with the death and resurrection of Christ and with our dying to sin and rising to newness of life.

Baptism has been understood in the various Christian traditions as sacramental or mystical-spiritual or symbolic. In the first, the event is seen as actually mediating the saving qualities of the death and resurrection of Christ. In the second, the event is understood to signal the real presence of the crucified and risen Christ and an inner, spiritual union between Christ and the baptized person. In the third, the event is seen as an external symbol of movement from death to life, resulting from personal decision, commitment and faith.

This is not the place to argue the merits or demerits of these major positions and their variations. All of them have been supported with weighty theological arguments. But it may be possible to combine the deepest truths expressed in these various understandings in a way which also sheds new light on the paradox between fact and possibility in the life of the believer.

In Romans, Paul teaches that the work of God, accomplished in Christ and received by faith, leads to our justification or restored relationship with God. Since the sign of that transaction or restoration is baptism, it may be possible to view baptism in relational terms. In baptism we affirm that the life of the one who is baptized is henceforth to be determined by the fact that Christ died and was raised, that in relationship with him as justified persons, we are delivered from the dominion of sin and freed for life.

The dynamic of such a relational understanding allows us to deal with the paradoxical nature of new life in Christ, expressed so strongly in the indicative "He who has died is freed from sin" (Rom 6:7 RSV) and the imperative "Let not sin therefore reign . . ." (Rom 6:12 RSV).

New life, says Paul, has become both a reality and a possibility. How do we know that? Paul's answer is given in Romans 6:9-10. Christ is alive; death no longer has dominion over him. Therefore, according to Romans 6:11, we affirm that in relationship with him we are dead to sin and alive to God. The following passage (Rom 6:12-23) then speaks about the practical outworking of this life-giving relationship.

Let me illustrate this point from ordinary human experience. The relationship between a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage exists on two levels. There is that reality which exists on the basis of their mutual commitment in love and interdependence. On the second level is the practical incarnation of that reality, that commitment in concrete acts in everyday living.

Now it is clear that the relational reality, existing on the level of commitment, does not translate automatically or inevitably into the incarnational reality of everyday life. As C. S. Lewis put it, "[There is the possibility] of disappointment . . . on the threshold of every human endeavor. . . . It occurs when lovers get married and begin the real task of learning to live together. . . . [There is] the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing."

In every relationship, there must constantly be movement from affirmation to incarnation, or else it is in difficulty. There are all sorts of threats and temptations that must be rejected again and again. To be married means that our lives are governed by the continual affirmation and incarnation of the commitments in that covenant. To be "in Christ," to be united with him in death and resurrection, means that our lives are determined by the continual affirmation and incarnation of the commitments in that relationship. In our relationship with Christ we are free from the bondage to sin; yet it is possible even for the Christian to "let sin reign" (Rom 6:12).

What does our life look like when affirmation is not translated into incarnation? When our relationship with Christ does not impinge on our everyday living, then other relationships will certainly fill this vacuum. If it is not the Lord Christ whose mind is being brought to bear upon our human relationships, then other lords will most certainly bring their minds to bear upon them.

Parents are models for their children, whether they like it or not. Our children sense very quickly who we are and what gods we serve. So the questions for me as a father are these: Do my children sense that my life is ruled by a higher kind of authority than tomorrow's paycheck, the expectations of my neighbors, the priority of things over persons? Do they sense, as they observe my relations with their mother, that we share a real love, that we are truly there for one another, that we keep pace, in that relationship, with a "different drummer"? To the extent that they sense these things, my life is an incarnation of my relationship with Christ. To the extent that they do not observe these, my life is an incarnation of other relationships.

Christian life is lived between the indicative ("you are raised with Christ") and the imperative ("let not sin reign in your mortal body"). Only by the empowering presence of God's Spirit can the imperative find realization in our living.