There are many sermons I've listened to several times. That sometimes means I've found one that's helpful, sometimes it means I've found one that's appalling.
There's one that was recorded about ten years ago, where the speaker said the first command in Romans is in Romans 12:1. When I first heard that, I was surprised. By my count, there are five commands in Romans 6. That means Romans 12:1 is at best the sixth command in Romans.
Ten years ago, I was amused by the speaker's statement, and assumed it was just oversight that led him to make it. But thinking back on it now, it seems more likely it's a result of really missing the point.
People like to read Paul's epistles starting in the middle. How many sermons have we heard on Ephesians 4–6, compared to the number we've heard on Ephesians 1–3? Or how many times have we heard people talking about Colossians 3:5 ff., compared to Colossians 1:1–3:4? The fact is that these epistles are written as a single argument: Colossians 3:5 depends on Colossians 1:1–3:4. Ephesians 4 depends on chapters 1–3. Similarly, Romans 12 builds on chapters 1–11. It assumes we've learned the lessons of the first eleven chapters before we start on the twelfth.
So let's consider the five commands in Romans 6:
- So also *ye*, reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:11)
- Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body to obey its lusts. (Romans 6:12)
- Neither yield your members instruments of unrighteousness to sin (Romans 6:13)
- yield yourselves to God as alive from among [the] dead, and your members instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:13)
- yield your members in bondage to righteousness unto holiness (Romans 6:19)
So also *ye*, reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:11) This is probably the most import step in the Christian life: to think of ourselves as dead to sin and alive to God. It's interesting how people react to this verse. I remember talking to people about being dead with Christ (Galatians 2:19) who would respond, "Well that's true positionally", as though that meant it's not actually true. Regardless of whether it's true "positionally" or "judicially" (or by any other "-ally"), we have the plain and explicit command to consider it to be true. If we add caveats to it, we're not obeying the first command of Romans.
When Scripture tells us to "reckon" something as true, it's not saying we should explain it away. It's not saying we should try to convince ourselves it's true, or spend hours trying to make ourselves believe it's true. It means this is God's assessment, and we should accept what He has said.
Scripture commands us to think of ourselves this way: we are dead to sin and alive to God. We don't always feel like it's true, we often don't really think it's true. But Scripture tells us we are to think of ourselves in those terms. That's supposed to be my self-image: I am dead to sin and alive to God.
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body to obey its lusts. (Romans 6:12) The second command in Romans follows closely on the first, with our favorite word "therefore". So we understand we can't actually obey the second until we obey the first. It's because we consider ourselves to be dead to sin that we can not let sin reign in our mortal bodies. We can't experience Romans 6:12 until we obey Romans 6:11.
Notice the battle ground here is our mortal bodies. We haven't risen up to the level of Ephesians 6:12 yet. This isn't a struggle with spiritual wickedness in heavenly places. We're to deny sin the place of rule because we realize we are dead to it. I used to be a man under sin, now I am a man dead to sin and alive to God. That sort of man doesn't need to have sin reigning in his mortal body (see Romans 8:11–13).
Neither yield your members instruments of unrighteousness to sin (Romans 6:13) This one's subtly different from the previous. It's not now talking about sin reigning, but about allowing it to use our "members". I take this to be referring to our physical bodies (see Romans 7:23). This is less about our being ruled by sin, and more about our dabbling in various sins. We aren't to use our mortal bodies to do what sin wants (see Ephesians 2:3).
We understand that there is this thing we call "indwelling sin": a principle of sin living in my mortal body (Romans 7:17, 23; Romans 8:3, 10). Someday Christ will come to change my mortal body to be like His, and I'll be free from its presence (Romans 8:23, Philippians 3:20–21). Until then, there is sin living in this body. But Romans 6:12 tells me it's not my ruler, and Romans 6:13 says I shouldn't use this mortal body on its behalf.
Yield yourselves to God as alive from among [the] dead, and your members instruments of righteousness to God (Romans 6:13) What's the solution? it's to yield ourselves and our members (physical bodies) to God. Notice the phrase "as alive from among the dead". Once again, the entire argument is based on the first command.
Sometimes we hear a preacher say that we need to yield ourselves to God, which is really only half the truth. We need to yield ourselves to God as those alive from the dead. If we haven't come to the place where we recognize we have died with Christ, then we can't yield ourselves to God. At least, not in the way He wants.
Yield your members in bondage to righteousness unto holiness (Romans 6:19). Again, we have the command to yield. This time it's yielding our members to righteousness. We found earlier that we aren't to yield those members to sin, now we find we are to yield them to righteousness. I suppose it's unnecessary to point out this is based on our death with Christ: when we were alive to sin, we were its slaves. We were freed from that by death, and now we're alive to God. So now, just like we used to yield our members to sin, we yield them to righteousness.
So those are the first five commands in Romans. I suppose some might think I've lumped some together (for example, #4 might really be two commands), so maybe those are the first six commands in Romans. Either way, there are several commands in Romans before chapter 12.
In Romans, man is guilty and lost: man's guilt is the subject of the first four chapters, man's lostness is the subject of the next four. It's essential to address both those problems before it's possible to live the Christian life. Our guilt is addressed in Romans 4:5 – God justifies (acquits) the one who does not work but believes. Romans 6:4 deals with our lostness – we were slaves to sin, but now that we've died with Christ we're free.
Any attempt to live the Christian life (yes, even attempts to live obey Romans 12:1–2) without first accepting these two truths is futile.
And please believe me when I say it's a constant struggle for me to get my hands around this. I'm not writing as one who has arrived, but as one who's plodding very slowly along the path.