Walking Corpse: What does it mean that we “died to sin” (Romans 6)?

About a year ago I preached a message at our church entitled “Walking Corpse: Living as One Who is Dead to Sin.” The purpose of the sermon was to explain what Paul meant in Romans 6 when he wrote that Christians have “died to sin.”

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:1-11)

Paul’s Pressing Question (Romans 6:1)

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”

The context helps us to understand why Paul asking this question.

  • Up to this point in Romans, Paul had made clear that the whole human race, Jew and Greek alike, is under the wrath of God because of the rebellion of sin. We are all depraved.
  • But Paul ends chapter 5, saying, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners”—that is by Adam’s sin we all became sinners—“so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (5:19). Jesus is the second Adam, the one who begins a new human race: not a race drowning in sin and guilt, but a new human race clothed in righteousness. When we are united to Christ, He makes us righteous again.
  • Then Paul makes the amazing statement in 5:20, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” The Greek words behind “increased” and “abounded” are different words, and many translators and commentators try to bring out this difference. “Where sin increased, grace overflowed.” “Where sin multiplied, grace immeasurably exceeded it.” “Where sin rose up, grace engulfed it.” Just when you think our sin has brought us to the tipping point where God is unwilling to save us, God’s grace overflows through Christ.

Paul is asking the question in Romans 6:1 as a way to anticipate the reader’s possible objection. “Wait a second, Paul, you’re saying that God’s grace is so great, that it covers even the greatest sins? And you’re saying it’s a gift? We don’t merit this grace at all? We don’t earn it? Are you really saying that God’s grace is that big? Paul, you can’t go around saying things like this, because now there’s no motivation to obey Him. If God delights in pouring out more grace when there is more sin, then why don’t we just keep on sinning? Paul, you are building a church that is doomed from the start with this kind of theology.”

Paul’s Pointed Answer (Romans 6:2)

“By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

But Paul’s pointed answer to this question is emphatic. In the original language, this was the strongest possible way to say no. It would be like saying, “It is unthinkable!” “May it never be!” “Certainly not!” “God forbid.”

Then, in his next breath he gives the basic reason why: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” In the Greek language the “we” here is emphatic. It is as if Paul is putting this statement in bold or italics: How can we who died to sin still live in it? We, being who we are, belonging to Christ, unlike the rest of the world that has not died to sin, how can we still live in sin?

The word “died” is in the past tense just as you see it translated here. It is an accomplished thing. We have died. It is done. Paul is not saying we are dying to sin, nor is he saying we should die to sin. No. We have died to sin.

John Murray rightly says that this is Paul’s fundamental premise in this chapter. This is his short answer to the question, and then he spends the rest of the chapter unpacking it and explaining it. What does it mean that we died to sin?

Paul’s Persuasive Explanation (Romans 6:3-10)

There are a number of themes and phrases we need to observe if we are going to grasp Paul’s meaning.

First, Paul uses vivid expressions describe our spiritual union with Christ.

  • Verse 3: We were baptized into his death.
  • Verse 4: We were buried with him.
  • Verse 4: Just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too walk in newness of life.
  • Verse 5: We have been united with him in a death like His.
  • Verse 6: Our old self was crucified with him.
  • Verse 8: We have died with Christ.
  • Verse 8: We will also live with him.

This is one premise behind Paul’s answer. Right now, if you belong to Jesus, you are vitally united to Him, so much so that we can say we are united to Jesus in his whole death and resurrection experience: we died with him, we were buried with him, we rose with him. In Paul’s mind, our union with Christ in his death is so real he could use the dramatic expression, “Our old self was crucified with him” (6:6). Our old life bled to death on the wood of the cross 2000 years ago. Paul is drawing a vivid picture for us here of a crucified man, not a man dying, gasping for breath, but completely dead, no sign of life in him, hanging limp like a scarecrow on a blood-stained cross. That is our old life.

Obviously Paul is not talking about our physical life. Death is Paul’s way of talking about a radical separation from this world. Paul’s main point is that we are spiritually united to Christ. The moment we were born again, the Spirit of Christ entered us and we became new creatures. According to Romans 5, before you were a Christian the fundamental relationship that defined you was your relationship to Adam. He is father of us all, and connected to him we carry within us corruption and guilt. But after being united to Christ, the most fundamental relationship that defines us in our union with Him.

Second, Paul says Christ “died to sin.”

The expression, “died to sin,” is used three times in the text.

  • In verse 2 he states his initial answer to the question by saying, “How can we who died to sin still live in it.”
  • In verse 11 he says we must consider ourselves dead to sin.
  • In verse 10 he says, speaking of Christ, “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.”

What does it mean that Christ died to sin? In what sense was Jesus alive to sin in the first place?

There are a couple things we know Paul is not saying here.

  • We know Paul is not saying that Jesus in his earthly life was a sinner. Jesus never succumbed to any temptation. Paul makes this clear in 2 Corinthians 5:21 when he says Christ “knew no sin.” So when Christ died to sin this does not mean he ceased sinning, because he never sinned to begin with.
  • Second, we know he’s not talking about Jesus taking our punishment for sin. Of course, Paul believes Jesus died for us. When Jesus was on the cross our sins were placed on him, and he bore all the holy anger of God in our place. But that is not what Paul is talking about here. He does not say Jesus died for sin, he says Jesus died to sin.

To understand what Paul means here we have to understand what he means by sin. Throughout the book of Romans, you get the impression that when Paul uses the word “sin,” he is not just talking about something we do. Sin is more than this.

  • In 5:12 he likens sin to an invader: it came into the world and brought death with him.
  • In 5:21 he talks about sin like it is a tyrant king. He says since Adam’s first disobedience “sin reigned in death.” (He uses the same language in 6:12.)
  • In 6:14 he talks about sin having dominion.
  • In 7:23, he likens sin to a slave master whom we serve. And just like any slave master, sin gives out his wages for our work: his wage is death.

Paul is tapping into his deep Jewish roots here, likening sin to Pharaoh. Like the Israelites long ago, we are enslaved. But we are not enslaved to an earthly king, we are enslaved to sin. This world of sin is our Egypt. We are all under sin’s iron rule. He is our master.

But the Jewish prophets prophesied that a day was coming when the tyranny of sin would be over. They foretold of a new exodus, not an exodus from an earthly Pharaoh, but an exodus from Pharaoh Sin. The Jewish people divided time between this age and the age to come. In this age there is sin, death, and the decay of living in a sinful world. But in the age to come all of that would change. A new Moses would come to set God’s people free. He would do more than conquer hostile earthly powers. He would totally conquer sin in the hearts of God’s people. He would even put death to death. God’s people would never die, and those who had died would be resurrected to live in a renewed world forever and ever.

So when Paul mentions sin in this passage, he isn’t talking about sin as an action, but sin as a dominion, a kingdom.

Jesus, the new Moses, entered the dominion of sin as one of us, and while he never gave into any temptation, he experienced all the temptations you and I face. He experienced the fullest range of our sinful environment. He was born into a poor family where he lived an obscure life. He experienced the aches and pains of life: he got tired, hungry, and thirsty. He lived for decades in sinful human culture, full of all its injustices and mistreatments. He endured friendships and relationships with sinful people. He rubbed shoulders with the human race, people who were totally captive to sin, and instead of distancing himself from them, he felt deep compassion for them. He felt the pains of people dealing with sickness, demonic torment, and death. Then finally, at the end of it all, he experienced the curse of sin itself on the cross.

With this background we can read Romans 6:10 with new eyes. When Jesus died, he died to this sinful realm once for all. The tyrant sin no longer has sway in his life. His relationship to the sin realm is over. Now he is a part of a totally new realm: the age to come.

Jesus “died to sin,” but “the life he lives he lives to God.” Paul is talking here about Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the grave. This is the kind of life Jesus lives now. He doesn’t just live as a spirit in some heavenly realm. He physically rose from the dead and experiences now the full blessings of the age to come.

Because of the resurrection of Jesus, it is as if the age to come, the age of the resurrection, has broken into the present age. Yes, we still look forward to the day when we will rise from the dead, but in very real sense, the age to come as already begun. The new creation has broken into the old. And right now this is the life Jesus enjoys: He lives in a kingdom where sin and death have no presence.

This leads to Paul’s conclusion: Because we are united to the one who is dead to sin, we are also dead to sin.

Paul is not saying Christ died to sin, therefore you should die to sin. He is not saying, Christ died to sin, therefore you are dying to sin. Rather, he is saying you are united to the resurrected Christ who is dead to the enslaving tyranny of sin, and you therefore are dead to sin, too.

Paul is not saying sin has no presence in our lives. If that were true, Paul wouldn’t even be writing the letter. Remember, when Paul uses the word “sin” he is not primarily talking about our behavior. He is talking about sin as tyrant king, as a dominion. Before we met Christ, we could do nothing but sin. There was no other option. But being united to Christ, resurrection life now flows in our veins. We are no longer defined by our relationship to Adam and the old human race. Now we have moved into a new kingdom.

As Puritan pastor John Owen put it, we are still in the presence of sin, but we are no longer under the dominion of sin.

I think John MacArthur’s illustration is very helpful here. Before Christ we were enslaved by sin. He was our slave master. He owned us and held us captive. But after we became a Christian we are bought by a new master, by Christ Himself. We live in his kingdom now. These two kingdoms are right next to each other, overlapping each other. Now, the old slave master, sin, is a very persuasive master and he has a very loud voice. He will often stand in his own territory and shout across the street at those who have been bought by Christ and bark orders at us, acting like he still owns us. Because we still live in imperfect bodies with imperfect minds, when we hear him barking orders at us, it is as if we fall back into old habits all over again. We forget who we are. We forget who owns us. We gravitate toward the familiarity of that voice.

Paul’s Practical Application (Romans 6:11)

“So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Learning to live in our new kingdom is what the Bible calls sanctification. This is the process where we become more and more obedient to God in our hearts, our minds, and our actions. It is as if we have moved from one country to another and we now need to learn the language. In letter to the Romans, Paul is teaching us the language. He is helping us think like the new creations that we are.

God wants to change the way we think and feel first, because when this happens, our character and actions will follow.

First, note Paul’s emphasis on remembering the basics of our faith.

  • Verse 3: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”
  • Verse 6: “We know that our old self was crucified with him.”
  • Verse 8: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”
  • Verse 9: “We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.”

Paul’s point is to draw on what the Roman Christians already know and believe. He’s saying, “You already know this. If you are a Christian, this is basic to what you already know. You know Christ was crucified. You believe he rose from the dead. You know he can never die again. You also know you were baptized into Christ and you belong to Him now. You know you were united to Christ.” This is Christianity 101.

Paul is merely unpacking the basics of the gospel and applying them to our sanctification. He is helping his readers and listeners take a fresh look at gospel truth, helping them remember the glorious message they heard many years before. He’s helping them apply these basics to their current life of obedience to God.

The first application for us it is simply to remember what Jesus’ resurrection signifies. The resurrection wasn’t just some great miracle that happened to Jesus. It is far more than that. Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of the age to come. Jesus’ resurrection is a sign to us and the rest of the world that this age is coming to an end, that there is a time coming when all of sin and death will be vanquished forever.

The second application is to remember that what our baptism signifies: being united to Him. We belong to Him. Who we are is defined more by the coming age than by the one we are in.

We can see now why the opening question, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” sounds so unfathomable to Paul. “What! Don’t you believe in the resurrection? Aren’t you a Christian? If the resurrection is true, then the tyrants of sin and death have been dethroned. Pharaoh has been crushed. You have left the land of your slavery behind. You have passed through the Red Sea of death. You are on a journey to the Promised Land of the kingdom of God, and sure enough, one day you will arrive.”

This age is coming to an end. Sin and death are standing on their last leg. The Spirit of Christ has been given to you as a down-payment of the world to come, and you can be sure that one day you will live in a world where sin is gone forever.

Second, note Paul’s first imperative in the letter: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

The word “consider” means to “count over again,” to take stock of something. Other translations say, “count,” or “reckon.”

It is an accounting term. It would be like me telling my son to go find his piggy bank and count up all the change he has is there. Once he’s done counting, nothing has changed about the amount of money in his possession. He has the same amount he had before. What has changed is his knowledge of how much he has. He now has an accurate count in his head and he didn’t before.

That’s what this word means. We already know Christ is dead to sin and alive to God. We already believe we are united to Christ in a supernatural way. We already know we are dead to this sinful age. Now we must “consider” or reckon it to be true in our minds. We must tally up these basic gospel truths in our minds.

So our first act of obedience is not really an action as much as it is a fresh movement of our faith. It is wholeheartedly affirming in our minds of what we already believe about the significance of the resurrection of Christ.

The summary of Paul’s thinking here is that of course we shouldn’t continue in sin. We do obey God. But the foundation of our obedience is different. We don’t obey out of an effort to reform ourselves. We obey because of who we already are. We don’t try changing our behavior so we can change our identity. Our identity has changed already, so therefore we change our behavior.

The radical message Paul brings us here is regardless of my condition, my condition does not define me. Who I really am is hidden to my eyes. But there will be a day when it will not be hidden. I will see myself as Christ has really made me to be.

Listen to the whole sermon: “Walking Corpse: Living as One Who is Dead to Sin.”

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