I've written about this so many times that I'm afraid anything I write here will merely be a repeat of something I've said before. But perhaps it's worth going over again, and perhaps we might find something new and worthy of our time.
Having grown up very evangelical, it was a turning point in my life when I discovered Romans 6:1–11. For the first time, I realized that Christianity is not about my efforts to please God. The Christian life begins not with "Do!" but with "Done!" And that's not just a statement about justification or redemption – Colossians 2:6 tells us we are to walk with Christ in the same way we received Him. Both are by grace, through faith. Both are resting in what God says about His Son.
The first mention of "salvation" in scripture is Genesis 49:18, "I wait for thy salvation". We next see it in Exodus 14:13, "stand still and see the salvation of Jehovah." Exodus 14 goes on to describe what salvation looks like: "Thus Jehovah saved Israel that day out of the hand of the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the sea-shore" (Exodus 14:30–31).
I know I've said this too many times, but it bears repeating here. We tend to see words like "salvation," "redemption," and "justification" as synonyms; they are not. They are very closely related, but they don't at all mean the same thing. These words describe very different things. Sometimes they occur very closely together (sometimes they do not), but they're still very distinct things.
Exodus 14 teaches us two very important facts about salvation:
- it is God's work – we need to "stand still" to see it (Exodus 14:13)
- it results in our seeing the enemy dead (Exodus 14:30)
Romans 6 invites us to see the enemy – our own fallen and lost selves – lying dead. There isn't merely some psychological trick the scripture plays on us, it's an act of faith. When I accept what God has said as the truth, I that is faith. Romans 6 doesn't make any sense except as an act of faith. God has said I have died with Christ, therefore it must be true.
Now, Romans 6 doesn't teach annihilation – it's not that I have ceased to exist. But it does teach that that man I was has died. I was once a lost sinner, but having died with Christ, I am not that man any more. And having been raised with Him from the dead (Colossians 3:1), I am now in a place to walk in newness of life.
And notice, it doesn't say sin has died. It says I have died.
But it's of the first importance (or, as J. N. Darby would say, "of the last importance") that we do what Romans 6:1–11 invites us to do, what the Israelites did in Exodus 14:30. We need to pause and look at the dead enemy. Churches are full of people who are trying to walk in the newness of life, who haven't ever really believed or accepted that their old life has ended, that they have died with Christ. They haven't looked at the bodies on the shore.
And this is the problem I have with so many evangelicals when they start to discuss baptism: they make it out to be an act by which we promise to walk in newness of life. That's not it at all! It's not that we promise something to God, but that we are accepting what He has already done for us. Urging people who have never accepted that they have died with Christ to live in newness of life doesn't result in godliness, it results in hypocrisy.
Let me just add here, that our having died with Christ doesn't empower us. It frees us, but it doesn't empower us. It's the Holy Spirit that empowers us, and He's not the subject of Romans 6, but Romans 8. Having died with Christ, we are now in a place to walk in newness of life. But we find that being in that position isn't actually enough: we need the power of the Holy Spirit. But that's perhaps a subject for another time.
At one point, I applied Romans 6 to various sins. I might have thought to myself, "Remember, you have died to anger," or "you have died to lust." I don't believe that's what Romans 6 is teaching at all. It's talking about sin, not sins. And it's not even talking sin in the most abstract sense, although I thought that for a while too. The context of Romans 6 – the discussion that starts in Romans 6:1 and ends in Romans 8:17 – leads me to believe it's talking about the sin that dwells in me (Romans 7:17).
But again, it's not that sin has died. Indeed, Romans 8:3–4 indicates that sin, having been condemned, is still very active. But I have died. I have died with Christ, and so I am free from sin (Romans 6:7, NASB). Not from its presence (at least not yet, Romans 8:23), but from its power.
We are, indeed, called to newness of life (Romans 6:4). But we get into trouble when we try and skip steps, and trying to walk in newness of life without recognizing our death with Christ, is definitely skipping a step.
The result of our having died with Christ is glorifying God in our bodies (Romans 6:12–14). This is unique to Christianity. We await the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23, Philippians 3:20–21) when the Son of God comes from Heaven to make them like His. But we're not just supposed to sit here and wait. We're to glorify God now, in fallen bodies. We're to live out in this creation a life that really belongs in the next (2 Peter 3:13). That doesn't mean we don't hope for the new heavens and new earth, and it doesn't mean we just write this one off. We glorify God here and now, patiently waiting for His time to bring us into the new one. Keeping both of these things in focus, erring neither to the right hand nor to the left, is very difficult for me.
So seeing myself as having died to sin isn't an excuse for inaction in this world. But it's necessary to glorify God here and now.