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Victory over Sin?

“But God’s grace is always available,” protests the student. “And he is always ready and willing to forgive my sins no matter what I do!”

“Yes,” I respond.

“But wait,” another student chimes in, “God expects us to obey his commandments and to be holy. You can’t just do whatever you want and expect God to always forgive you.”

The first student is quick to respond: “Oh yes I can!”

Shaking his head, the other student’s response is just as quick, “No, you cannot!”

* * *

Such are the travails of religion professors who seek to inculcate within their students an understanding of the new life in Christ. The typical college-age Seventh-day Adventist struggles to understand the nature of the Christian walk. The fault doesn’t primarily lie with our college students, but with our families, pastors, and teachers, who’ve not taught with clarity the gospel’s majestic vision of how one grows “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18). [1]

Particularly lacking among our young people (and I would add our adults as well!), is the vision of Christian growth sketched in the Pauline epistolary units of Romans 5 – 8 and Galatians 5 – 6. In this brief essay, I can only speak to the nature of the new life in Christ through the lens of Romans 6.

Paul’s proclamation that the free gift of God’s righteousness is obtained “through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” (3:22) occasioned the charge that God’s saving righteousness might actually encourage sinful conduct. In the early stages of the letter to the Romans he asks rhetorically, “Why not do evil that good may come?” (Rom. 3:8). A few chapters later he declares, “Where sin increased, grace superabounded” (5:20b).

And so if grace overwhelms the increase of sin, some were inclined to think they might have the best of both worlds: salvation and license to sin! Hence the mischievous question, “are we to continue in sin that grace may abound”? (6:1). Paul’s response to this charge that his gospel incites sinful behavior is swift: “By no means!” (6:2a). A better translation of the Greek phrase (mē genoito) would be, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” And so the apostle must make his case that believers have been transferred into a new dominion and thus stand in a completely new relation to sin. Such is the topic of Romans 6.

A Life-Changing Transfer

The Christian experience involves a transfer from the dominion of sin and death (5:21a) into the dominion of grace and righteousness (5:21b). Christians have been delivered from the regime of sin and death, which was dominated by Adam (5:12-19), the power of sin and death, and the tyrannical reign of sin and the law (chap. 7).

Adventist theology has not adequately considered the negative effects of the Mosaic Law within salvation history, what I call the “dark side of the law.” This dark side of the law is initially disclosed in Romans by Paul’s startling statement, “Law came in, so that the trespass would increase” (Rom. 5:20a). While we typically acknowledge that the law condemns and cannot redeem (Gal. 2:21), we do not underscore the fact that the law is secondary to the promise (Gal. 3–4; Rom. 4); that the tyrannical and ghastly reign of sin and the law wreaks havoc upon humanity (Rom. 7:5, 8-11, 13); that the very potency of sin is the law (1 Cor. 15:56); and that without the law, sin is lifeless/dead (Rom. 7:8b). Sin’s collusion and appropriation of the law leads Paul to ask the almost blasphemous question, “What shall we say? That the law is sin?” (Rom. 7:7). No wonder, after having highlighting sin’s malevolent use of the law, that Paul is compelled to exclaim, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12). Indeed it is. But co-opted by sin, the law and sin play a dastardly role within salvation history. Thus, will our church ever grasp the true meaning of Rom. 7:5-6? “For while we were living in the flesh, the passions of sin aroused through the law, were at work in our members so as to bear fruit unto death. But now we have been released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in newness of Spirit and not oldness of letter” (cf., 2 Cor. 3:6). To repeat, Christians have been delivered from the regime of sin, death and the law.

This deliverance has incorporated believers into the regime of grace and righteousness, which is dominated by Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:12-21), righteousness (chap. 6), the Holy Spirit (chap. 8), grace (6:14-15); and life (5:12-21; 6:4; 8:1-13). [2]

The believers’ transference into this new realm is symbolically disclosed in the conversion/initiation experience of baptism. The rite of water baptism highlights the believers’ possession of authentic faith and identification with the death and burial of Jesus (6:3-4). Believers actually participate and experience themselves the death and burial of Jesus: “we have died with Christ” (6:8); “we were buried together with him” (6:4). And so “it is this actual union with these key redemptive events that gives to the Christian a new relationship with sin’s power.” [3] Just as Christ’s death itself was a “once and for all death to sin” (6:10), likewise, our identification with his death means that we also “have died to sin” (6:3). [4]

Life in the Dominion of Grace and Righteousness

What does the believers’ life look like in the dominion of grace and righteousness? To what extent is the dominion of grace a present reality? If believers “have died to sin and are alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11), does the power of sin no longer pose a threat to their Christian existence? Does being dead to sin mean believers are no longer subject to the allurements of sin? By no means!

Romans 6 reveals Paul’s carefully crafted, balanced perspective of believers living within the eschatological tension between the already and the not yet. The practical day-to-day outworking of the new life in Christ is one of tension; believers live in an aeon in which there is an overlap between two ages: the old age and the new age. Consequently, there is an ongoing vigorous engagement and warfare between the demonic powers of the old age and the kingdom of God powers of the new age. Alas, until the second coming of Christ, believers are caught in the middle of this “Great Controversy.”

Because the person of faith is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17) and is part of a new human race (Eph. 2:15-16), having entered into the dominion of grace and righteousness, that person has:

  • “Died to sin” (6:2)
  • “Been set free from sin, and has become enslaved to righteousness” (6:18; cf. 6:7, 22)
  • Through baptism, participated in Christ’s death and burial – “Or are you unaware that we who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? We were buried together with him through baptism into death . . . we have been united with him in the likeness of his death” (6:3-4, 5a)
  • Had its “old self crucified with him” (6:6)
  • “Been brought from death to life” (6:13)
  • Been delivered from being “under the law” and placed “under grace” (6:14)
  • “Become obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching to which you were committed” (6:17)

The foregoing redemptive realities reveal the believers’ new state of existence in the dominion of grace and righteousness. Nonetheless, while the situation of the believer has gone through a significant change, regrettably, it has not changed completely. Because the person of faith lives in an aeon where there is an ongoing warfare between the powers of the old age and those of the new age, that person is exhorted:

  • To consider himself/herself “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11)
  • “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal bodies, so as to obey its passions. Do not present your members as weapons of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as having been brought from death to life, and your members as weapons of righteousness to God” (6:12-13) [5]
  • “So now present your members as slaves to righteousness resulting in holiness/sanctification” (hagiasmon; 6:19).

These exhortations make abundantly clear that dwelling within the dominion of grace does not mean that believers no longer have to reckon with the powers of sin and death. Believers will at times disobey, and, barring the second coming, they will all die.

What then does it mean “to be dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”? (6:11). Basically, it means believers have been extricated from the regime of sin and death – where sin was their master and lord and their life was characterized by habitual sinning; this extrication entailed a placement into the regime of grace and righteousness – where Christ is their new Master and Lord, and their lives are characterized by “walking in newness of life” (6:4) – putting their new identity into effect by dethroning sin in their daily conduct. [6]

This walk in newness of life is distinguished by an ongoing struggle, fittingly captured in Rom. 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit, you habitually are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” [7] The believers’ experience of the new life in Christ within the dominion of grace, therefore, is not fully realized prior to the second coming of Jesus; the new life is only experienced proleptically. [8]

What does it mean for us?

Denominations invariably are challenged by the presence of persons who advocate either an antinomian or a legalistic ethic. It is no different for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. To the antinomians, Romans 6 proclaims that incorporation into the dominion of grace involves a deep-seated union with Christ’s death and burial (6:3-5); death to the habitual reign of sin in one’s life (6:14a); enslavement to righteousness and God (6:18, 22); a resolute commitment to an ethical code of teachings (6:17);[9] and the salient goal of holiness, which leads to eternal life (6:22). Paul’s rhetorical rejoinder to the antinomianly-inclined is quite appropriate: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (6:2)

At the same time, to the legalists, the exhortations of Romans 6 proclaim that transference into the dominion of grace involves a life of eschatological tension between the already and the not yet. Yes, “our old self was crucified”; but we must make a reality this crucifixion of the self; (6:6). Yes, “our old self was crucified”; but we must “do away with the body of sin” (6:6). Yes, “our old self was crucified”; but we must “no longer be enslaved to sin” (6:6). Yes, “we died to sin” (6:2); but “we must not let sin reign in our mortal bodies so as to obey its lusts” (6:12). Yes, “we died to sin” (6:2); but we must now “present yourselves to God . . . and your members as weapons of righteousness to God” (6:13). Thus, the Christian walk is one of continuing struggle with the power of sin and is by no means characterized by an obtainable state of sinlessness. To the legalistically-inclined, Paul’s declaration that believers “are not under the law but under grace” (6:14) is quite pertinent.

The title of our lesson for this week is “Victory over Sin.” Such a title not only fails to capture the overall contours of Romans 6, it also diminishes the conspicuous, carefully articulated and balanced eschatological vision of the Christian life. A far better title would be, “Life within the Wondrous Dominion of Grace.” Or perhaps, “To Become What You Are.” Or, if one wanted to underscore the ongoing redemptive work of God in our lives, the title could be, “Become What You Are Becoming.” [10]

Yes, much better.

* * *


1. Scripture translations are my own.

2. Douglas J. Moo, Romans, in The New Bible Commentary, ed. G. J. Wenham, et al, 21st century edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 1135.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid. Moo aptly states the nature of Christ’s death to sin: “Though sinless himself, Christ nevertheless was subject to sin’s power by virtue of his incarnation, and his death removed him for ever from that power” (Ibid, 1136).

5. The militaristic metaphor – “weapons of righteousness,” obscured by so many translations, highlights the believers’ continuing struggle and threat from sin.

6. Moo, 1136.

7. I’ve translated the present tense of the Greek verb, thanatoute, as a customary present, which denotes habitual, or customary action in the present time. Additionally, it is important to note that this eschatological tension of the Christian life is not disclosed in Romans 7. It is inconceivable Paul would depict the new life in Christ as one in which the believer “has died to sin and is alive to God, . . . having been enslaved to God” (6:11, 22) and at the same time say that the believer is “carnal, having been sold as a slave under sin . . . and has been taken captive by the law of sin which is in my members” (7:14, 23). Notwithstanding how much the struggle with indwelling sin appears to resonate with the struggles of our Christian walk, Romans 7 is best understood as a retrospective look at Israel’s predicament from the vantage point of faith in Christ: “Paul seems to be speaking in the first person as ‘Israel,’ and in passionate and powerful language highlights the plight of the Jews under the law, the struggle with sin they faced because of the law, and their inability to find salvation in the law” (Michael F. Bird, Introducing Paul: The Man, His Mission, and His Message [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008], 142).

8. Merriam Webster defines prolepsis as, “anticipation: as the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished”: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 1993), 932).

9. While it is difficult to ascertain the overall contours of this “pattern of teaching,” it is quite possible that for Paul, it involved four areas: 1) the example of Jesus; 2) the teaching of Jesus, particularly the “law of Christ”; 3) life in the Spirit; and 4) the law of love (Bird, 143-148).

10. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 391.

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