‘What shall we say, then?’ These are the opening words of Romans chapter 6 which we are considering now; one of Paul’s “what … then’s” which keep recurring in Romans and which remind us that he is following a carefully thought out and constructed argument. Indeed, as we have seen previously, Paul’s imaginary contestant is putting himself up as what is sometimes called ‘devil’s advocate’. ‘Shall we go on sinning that grace may increase?’ What? This perverse argument again? Oh, yes, indeed! It is a very attractive one to human nature, but as the apostle roundly declares again, one unworthy of a moment’s consideration. ‘By no means!’ or in the expressive language of older Bible versions, ‘God forbid.’ And why so, we may ask? It is at this point that the Holy Spirit, through Paul’s writing to the church in Rome, introduces us to truth about the Christian life which is profound in its symbolism and powerful in its practical outworking.
The Romans epistle consists mainly of important doctrinal teaching up to the end of chapter 11. From chapter 12 onwards the main thrust is practical instruction for the Christian life. But here in chapter 6, right in the middle of the section on doctrine, Paul draws out something intensely practical. It is about the believer’s fundamental attitude to sin, and the place to which sin should be relegated in his life. And that place is the grave; death. So Paul speaks of Christian baptism which was then, and should always be today, baptism by total immersion in water. What authority, we might well ask, is there in the New Testament for any other? The answer is, ‘none’. But it is the deep meaning of Christian baptism that Paul is concerned with here; not only the Lord’s command in Matthew 28 that it should take place.
Paul knew that all in the Church of God in Rome were baptized believers. They would understand. He knew that there, as in all the churches of God, that was how Christians found their way into a church of God. We read about the steps in Acts 2:41,42. They received the Word, the gospel. They were baptized and they were added to the church. The symbolism of burial in baptism is no accident. ‘We were therefore buried with him (that is Christ) through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.’
‘Our old self was crucified with him,’ Paul goes on, ‘so that … we should no longer be slaves to sin’. As in other parts of Romans, here in chapter 6 the argument calls for concentrated attention if it is to be followed. But as also in other parts of the letter, Paul has a happy knack of summing up his case in a few succinct words, and leaving no doubt about the main thrust intended. So here, ‘count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus’ (v.11). ‘We died with Christ,’ says the apostle and, furthermore it is true that ‘the death he died, he died to sin once for all.’ This is not the same as saying, ‘Christ died for our sins.’ Truly He did that, as our divine substitute. But he also died to sin, putting everything to do with sin, such as His sufferings under its temptations, behind Him for ever.
As far as we are concerned, this means consigning sin to death in our baptism; seeing it just as God sees it. It is a solemn declaration of intent which we need to follow up by obeying the command for the victorious Christian life, ‘do not let sin reign in your mortal body.’ Sin is still there, oh yes, and Paul has more to say in chapter 8, as we shall see, about the enabling power of the Holy Spirit to help us to daily victory, so that indeed, ‘sin shall not be your master.’
The second part of chapter 6 re-emphasises the same truth using the uncompromising language of the slave market. ‘You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.’ The old sins led to death but as slaves to God, ‘the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.’ And then, a final brilliant flash of gospel truth to end this part of Paul’s discourse, the words, ‘For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Is a hard and cruel taskmaster any bargain to be compared with a large-hearted God who so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life?