A Matter of Life and Death - Romans 6:1-2

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1-2)

 

As we come to Romans 6, we begin the third major section in the book of Romans. To remind you, the focus of the first section (Romans 1:18-3:20) was on the condemnation in sin of the entire human race. The apostle writes that the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Romans 1:18). In his presentation of the gospel, Paul began with the bad news that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). This reality of divine anger against all human rebellion reveals why all people desperately need the gospel.

 

Then we considered the second major section (Romans 3:21-5:21) on justification by faith alone. This is the divine act in which God declares the one who believes in Jesus Christ to be righteous. Such a standing before God has nothing to do with our practical life, but everything to do with what Jesus Christ has done on behalf of guilty, hell-bound sinners. On the basis of perfect, sinless life of Christ and His sin-bearing, substitutionary death, those who believe in Jesus Christ alone are given the imputed, perfect righteousness He achieved.

 

We now come to the third major section of Romans on sanctification (Romans 6:1-8:39). These three chapters contain Paul’s greatest discourse on sanctification in all of his thirteen epistles. In fact, this is the main doctrinal section on sanctification in the whole Bible. In Romans 12-15, Paul will get into the practical application on living the Christian life, but Romans 608 is the theological infrastructure for the Christian life. We need to understand the doctrine of sanctification and its application for our lives.

 

The Meaning of Sanctification

 

We will begin our investigation of sanctification with a basic definition of this truth. The root word for “sanctification” (hagiasmos) comes from the same root word as “holy” (hagios) and “saint” (hagion). All three of these words come from the Greek word that means ‘to separate.’ The idea is like cutting an object in half so that the result is it is cut in half and there are two separate sides. To be holy means one is being separated, or set apart, from something (sin) unto something (God).

 

In sanctification, the believer is being set apart from three evil powers. First, we are being set apart from sin, from the ruling, governing power of sin that was dominating our lives before we were converted. Second, we are being set apart from the world, from the evil world system. There is an invisible system in this world that is anti-God, anti-Christ, anti-purity, anti-family, anti-everything that is good and decent. We once were part of this wicked system, but now we have been set apart from its power and pollution. This includes every part of life – the world of entertainment, the world of music, the world of education, the world of government, every dimension within this world. The ruler of this world, the god of this age, is Satan. The devil is presiding over this evil world system under the sovereignty of the will of God. Third, we are being set apart from the influences of the devil himself. We were once held captive by the devil to do his will, but sanctification produces a radical break from these three sinister powers, from the world, the flesh, and the devil. That is the negative aspect of sanctification, what we have been set apart from.

 

There is also the positive part in which we are being set apart unto something that is glorious and good. We are being set apart unto the image of God, unto the likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ, and unto the purposes of the kingdom of God. So, sanctification involves a negative and a positive separation. These two aspects are the heads and tails of the same coin.

 

The word sanctification describes this internal activity of God in the believer in setting us apart. God has done more than declare believers to be righteous. Everyone whom God justifies, He immediately sanctifies. It is impossible for any believer to keep living our same sinfully driven lives. At the moment of conversion, God begins to work out our being set apart from the world, the flesh, and the devil unto the likeness of Jesus Christ. We are becoming increasingly more and more like Christ. God is tearing down the old, and He is building up the new.

 

The Contrasts with Justification

I want to contrast the work of sanctification with that of justification. This needs to be crystal clear in our minds. In order to do so, I am going to parallel the differences between justification and sanctification, showing you the marked differences between the two.

 

Justification involves our legal standing before God. It has nothing to do with our character, our walk, or how we live our lives. It has everything to do with our status in heaven. On the other hand, sanctification does not involve my standing before God, but with my daily walk with the Lord. It involves my internal spiritual condition – my heart, my mind, my affections, and my will. Sanctification deals with what God is doing in me to make me like His Son, Jesus Christ.

 

Justification is what God has done for me. Sanctification is what God is doing in me and through me.

 

Justification is righteousness imputed. Sanctification is righteousness imparted. Imputed means that the righteousness achieved by Jesus Christ is credited to my account in heaven. Imparted means that it is having an affect upon who I am and how I live. God is imparting something very real to the inside of me.

 

Justification happens only one time. You are only justified once before God. Sanctification is an ongoing process.

 

Justification is an act that involves God alone. Sanctification is an activity that involves both God and man. That is to say, justification is monergistic, which means that there is only one active agent, who is God. Justification was not a joint effort that involves both God and the believer. God alone justifies. Sanctification is synergistic, which means there are two active agents, God and me. Every believer bears enormous responsibility in his daily Christian life. This is a very important theological distinction.

 

Justification involves a heavenly courtroom scene. We stand before the judgment bar of God, the Judge of heaven and earth, who declares us to be the righteousness of Jesus Christ. By contrast, sanctification is an earthly scene, where we live in the nitty-gritty of life. Justification is an immediate pronouncement, where sanctification is a lifelong pursuit.

 

Justification is the same for every believer. No one is more justified than anyone else. We all have the same perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ imputed to our account. However, sanctification differs from one man to another. Some believers will grow into Christlikeness more than others. Some will lag behind more than others in their spiritual growth. These are some of the distinct contrasts between justification and sanctification. Some will resist temptation more than others. Some will discipline themselves for the purpose of godliness more. But others merely coast in their spiritual life. Yet with others, the Lord will accelerate their spiritual development.

 

The Connection with Justification

Still by way of introduction, the second thing I want to point out to you is the close connection between justification and sanctification. These two truths are inseparably connected and are never disconnected. Everyone whom God justifies, He also sanctifies. No one whom God justifies fails to be sanctified. At the moment of justification, God immediately begins the process of sanctification. There is not a time gap between the two. There is not a one-year intermediate period before a believer starts to pursue holiness. Sanctification starts the moment the one who trusts in Jesus Christ is justified.

 

To use a biblical analogy that Jesus used, when you enter the narrow gate, you immediately begin walking on the narrow path. It is described as a narrow path because it is tightly confined. There are set boundaries and guardrails that keep you on the narrow path. You can never walk through the narrow gate and then walk the broad path. The narrow gate leads down the narrow path. The broad gate always leads down the broad path. Everyone who is justified is immediately sanctified, and their new life in Christ begins.

 

Threefold Aspect of sanctification

 

As we begin this new section on sanctification, I want us to see the big picture of this doctrine. In order to do so, I want to clarify the three aspects of sanctification. We must understand these three dimensions, or Romans 6-8 will be a confusing fog to us. In simplest terms, these three aspects of sanctification are past, present, and future. But I want to be more specific than that. We will call them positional sanctification, progressive sanctification, and perfected sanctification.

 

Positional Sanctification

Another way to describe our past sanctification is to refer to it as our positional or definitive sanctification. This initial aspect begins the lifelong process of sanctification. It is an initial, radical, dramatic break from the power of sin. We continue to sin, but sin is no longer the governing, ruling, dominant power in our lives. Instead, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are now the dominant, driving power in the lives of those who have been justified by faith. At this initial, definitive, positional sanctification, there was an initial cleansing and washing away of the defilement of sin. That is why Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). In regeneration, there is the washing by the Spirit, who wipes the slate clean. The foul pollution of sin that had built up inside of us, God washes away. Paul writes, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

 

We will now consider some verses to show that there is an aspect of sanctification that is spoken of in the past tense. This initial aspect occurred the moment we were regenerated by the Spirit. God began the sanctification with this initial burst of energy. To be specific, the past tense in sanctification is in an aorist tense. Romans 6:2 says, “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” Do you see that “died” is translated in the past tense? AS a believer in Christ, you are now dead to the governing, ruling power of sin. Sin is still alive in you, but it is no longer the dominant driving force in your life. Sin no longer holds you captive to do what it dictates to you to do.

 

In Romans 6:6, Paul continues, “Knowing this, that our old self was crucified.” Note how the verb tense describes a past reality. In a mysterious way, when you were born again, God transported you back two thousand years and nailed you to the cross with Jesus. When Christ was crucified, you were crucified. When He was put to death for sin, you were put to death to death. How that works is known only to God, but it is a fact. You can read it for yourself in your own Bible.

 

In Romans 6:11, Paul says, “consider yourselves to be dead to sin.” You have already died to sin. That is, you have died to the ruling power of sin. 1 Corinthians 1:2 says the same, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus.” Everyone who is in Christ, they have been sanctified. It points back to the moment of their regeneration. There was a dramatic break with the ruling, governing power of sin in your life.

 

In 1 Corinthians 1:2, Paul writes, “To those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling.” This states that every believer is a saint. Everyone who is born again is a saint. If you are a Christian, you are a saint. If you are not a Christian, you are not a saint. The word “saint” has the same root word as being set apart unto holiness. This separation began the millisecond you were birthed into the kingdom of heaven.

 

According to Romans 6:2, no one can be a Christian for five years, and then become a saint. In that defining moment, God set you apart from the power of the world, your flesh, and the devil. You were crucified with Christ, and are now set apart. There could not have been a more dramatic change in your life. This is why it is hard to understand how someone can be unsure of their salvation. Sanctification is God’s renovation project of your life. It is a major construction project of which you should be aware in your life. It began in dramatic fashion when God blew up your old house of your life. That is the beginning of this sanctification.

 

In 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul writes, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified.” This points back to the time when God pulled the believers out of the foul pollution of sin and its wretched defilement. Paul asserted that God washed you, sanctified you, and set you apart to a totally different kingdom. It is the kingdom of God that is marked by holiness, righteousness, and purity. There was a break from their former lifestyle of fornication, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, stealing, covetousness, drunkenness, reviling, and swindling. There was a clean break with their past. You went from darkness to light, from death to life. That happened the moment they were regenerated. They were washed, sanctified, and set apart.

 

That is the positional sanctification. We must make careful distinctions to be good theologians. I can remember R.C. Sproul telling me, “Theologians make careful distinctions.” They slice the truths of the word of God very thinly, carefully, and distinctly. Those who rightly handle the word of God do not muddle everything together. Theologians section out the truth and carefully divide it.

 

Progressive Sanctification

The second aspect of sanctification is what we call progressive sanctification. This is the ongoing, daily walk with the Lord in which we, as believers, are becoming increasingly more and more holy, practically speaking. We are becoming more and more like the Lord Jesus Christ. We are not becoming more and more like the world. We are not becoming more and more like our old sinful flesh. To the contrary, we are becoming more and more like the Lord Jesus Christ. This is progressive sanctification that is always spoken of in the present tense.

 

In Romans 8:13, Paul writes, “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” In other words, if you are habitually living according to the flesh, your life will end in death. But if you are living according to the Spirit, you are a totally different person. The new you is not living by the flesh, but by the Spirit. This is the ongoing “putting to death” of sin in the believer’s life. You have died to sin, but there is also to be an ongoing putting to death of sin in your life.

 

Here are some cross-references to reinforce the idea of a present, ongoing sanctification. In Colossians 3:5, Paul states, “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead.” This reads, literally, “put to death the members which are upon the earth.” In other words, we must be putting to death the practice of sin in our lives. What God has already put to death is not the practice of sin, but the ruling power of sin in our lives. That is why Romans 12:2 says, you must be “transformed in the renewing our your mind.” That is, we must be continually being transformed as an ongoing daily process.

 

In Hebrews 12:14, the author writes that believers must “pursue holiness, without which no man will see the Lord.” This charge is in the present tense, indicating a present reality. True believers will be continually pursuing holiness. In Philippians 3:14, Paul says much the same, “I press on toward the goal,” meaning we have not yet arrived to full Christlikeness, but must keep pressing on. In Colossians 3:10, Paul says, “the new self is being renewed.” In progressive sanctification, we are being renewed day by day into the likeness of Jesus Christ. In 1 Peter 2:2 Peter writes, we must “grow in respect to salvation.” This aspect of salvation refers to our progressive sanctification into Christlikeness.

 

Perfected Sanctification

Perfected sanctification is synonymous with glorification. It is our being conformed into the image of Christ brought to final completion. There will be one day the eradication of our sinful flesh. All that will remain is the new man we were made in regeneration. We will instantly be made in perfect holiness, as much as a glorified sinner can be made holy. We will never attain to the full measure of the holiness of God that belongs to Him alone. In a lesser sense, we will be holy.

 

A Matter of Life and Death

What we have discussed to this point has been a necessary groundwork to lay in our understanding of sanctification. I want to point out one additional truth before we begin to consider Romans 6. As I was studying these verses, the words “life” and “death” or “live” and “died” leap off the page. I got out my pen and circled every time I saw the word “death,” “died,” and “live.” It became very obvious that verses 1-11 are all about life and death.

 

“Death” is mentioned fourteen times in verses 1-11. That is an extraordinary number of occurrences. It is mentioned sometimes multiple times per verse, in verses 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11. “Life” is mentioned seven times in verses 1-11. It is found in verses 2,4,8,10, and 11, also multiple times per verse. It is obvious that this matter of life and death are important. This is the metaphor that Paul uses to communicate what sanctification is all about. Being holy is about spiritual death and life. It is not physical death and life, but spiritual life and death.

 

I. the Anticipated Objection (6:1)

 

As we begin Romans 6, Paul begins with an anticipated objection mentioned in verse 1. Paul is anticipating the push back questions he will receive regarding sanctification. Sometimes as a preacher, I will address a subject in the pulpit just so that I will not have to deal with it in the lobby, parking lot, or my office. In such a case, I will speak to the issue before anyone can ask a question. That is what Paul is doing in verse 1. He knows what the questions will be, and he raises it with them at the forefront.

 

The apostle Paul asks, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (verses 1-2). The question of “what shall we say then?” connects us with the last two verses of Romans 5, when Paul said, “If sin increases, grace abounds all the more.” Two different conclusions could be drawn from that statement. One is that it does not matter how I live, because grace covers it all. In other words, I can sin all I want to because grace will increase all the more. I can live however I want to. That is called antinomianism, which means ‘against the law.’ Here, a believer presumes he can live contrary to the moral law of God. This is a disastrous position to assume.

 

The second conclusion to which some come is that we should sin more because it would glorify God more, so that He can show off His grace more by pouring out more and more grace. What a warped way of thinking, yet this is found within the church in every generation.

 

When Paul writes in Romans 6:1, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” the “we” refers to believers. “Continue” speaks of an intensive Greek word (epimeno) that conveys the idea of a person habitually living in sin. Paul is not referring to a one-time act of sin. Instead, this is a continuously living in sin. Paul asks, “Are we to continue going down this path of sin, so that grace may increase?” In other words, he is saying, “I know exactly where you are going with your thinking.” But is entirely wrong. That is the anticipated objection Paul is confronting.

 

II. The Emphatic Rejection (6:2)

 

At the beginning of verse two, Paul issues an emphatic rejection. The apostle comes down hard on any attempt like this to corrupt sound doctrine. He responds emphatically, “May it never be!” This phrase is two words in the Greek language (me genoito), and it is the strongest negative repudiation of someone’s thinking. It is another way to say, “No way.” Or “Not at all.” In fact, the response indicates a sense of outrage at raising the question. Paul uses this phrase, “May it never be!,” multiple times throughout the book of Romans (3:4,6,31; 6:2,15; 7:7; 9:14; 11:1,11). He keeps this hammer in his hand and when needed, he brings it down hard on the imaginary objector. Paul is saying that in no way is the abundance of God’s grace an encouragement to sin or to tolerate sin in one’s life. He says that such reasoning is off the table.

 

Paul could have left his statement from Romans 5:20-21 and moved on. But he is such a precise teacher that he wants to tell his readers why this cannot be so. At the end of verse two, he tells us why a Christian cannot continue to habitually live in sin. Certainly, we will sin as believers, but we are no longer swimming in a cesspool of iniquity like we once were. We are living in another kingdom.

 

“We Who Died to Sin”

Paul next addresses us in the form of another question. Notice how many times he uses questions in his argument. Twice in verse one he uses a question, as well as once in verse two, and once in verse three. Paul teaches by asking questions. The question in verse two is actually more of a statement than a question. “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” The “we” is very important. He is referring to all who are justified by faith alone in Christ alone. Notice the apostle’s use of the past tense, “who died to sin.” This is actually an aorist tense verb rightly translated as a past tense. The answer to Paul’s question is that we  who have died to sin cannot still live in it. Such is impossible, because you cannot live in that to which you have died. Practically speaking, your mouth cannot talk the same way. Your eyes cannot gaze upon to the same objects. Your hands and feet cannot handle or pursue what you once desired.

 

That is not to say there cannot be individual acts of sin. The fact is, there will still be individual acts of sin. But you are no longer waking up in the morning, putting one foot out of bed to go down the old path of living to sin. The new birth is that dramatic and positional sanctification is that powerful.

 

Salvation is more than just paperwork in heaven. Despite the fact that they were stamped “forgiven” or stamped “justified,” they can keep going down the same path, living the same way. Many today are saying that all a believer has to do is look back in the rear view mirror at their justification. However, you should be looking ahead through the windshield at the new path you are on. If you are not on a new path, then you are not forgiven. You are delusional or deceived.

 

“How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” The answer is, we cannot. What died at the moment of our salvation was not acts of sin. What died was not the penalty of sin. What died was the overruling power of sin that once had you in a death grip.

 

III. The Theological Distinctions

 

Before we proceed any further, I want us to take a closer look at the meaning of the believer’s death to sin. The following are nine words that describe the death that takes place in the life of a believer at salvation.

 

First, this death is a spiritual death. This does not refer to a physical death, but to a spiritual death that took place in one’s life the moment he was converted.

 

Second, it is a past death. This death in the life of a believer has already happened. It is an accomplished fact that took place in one’s life at the moment of regeneration.

 

Third, it is an immediate death. It occurred at one specific point in time. It did not happen over three months or the course of a year. It happened immediately, at the moment you were regenerated. There was a sudden break with a person’s past life of sin.

 

Fourth, it is a comprehensive death. It was not that a part of you died, and another part of you remained alive to it. Can you imagine someone in the funeral home visiting their loved one who just died, and the funeral director says the head is dead, but the arms are still moving? No, that is impossible. Conversion involves a comprehensive death in the entirety of your spiritual life. Your mind, affections, and will have died. From the top of your head to the bottom of your feet, you died to sin.

 

Fifth, it is a radical death. This death brought about a profound change in your life. You are no longer the same person. The old man has passed away and a new man is given life. This is a radical change in the life of a believer.

 

Sixth, it is an instantaneous death. This death happened once, never to be repeated again. You will never die twice in this manner. It is a one-time death.

 

Seventh, it is a noticeable death. People will see the fruit of this death in your life. You have gone from bad fruit to good fruit. You have gone from filthy rags to new rags. As you walk, talk, and live, people will see there has been a death in your life to sin.

 

Eighth, it is a permanent death. We normally say, “Once saved, always saved.” In this instance, it is once dead, always dead. The old life you once lived will never come back. It is a finished death. The old man has been buried.

 

Ninth, it is a vicarious death. When Jesus died, you died with Him. We will look at this in greater detail next time in Romans 6:3, when Paul writes, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” When Jesus died, you died. When He was raised, you were raised. This is an accomplished, finished fact.

 

You are baptized into Christ Jesus, so you were placed into Christ. Whatever is true of Jesus is true of you. There is no disconnect between Jesus and you. At the moment of your regeneration, God placed you into Jesus Christ and whatever happened to Him became the reality in your life. When you believed in Jesus Christ, God transported you back two thousand years and put you into His wounds and into His body as He hung upon the cross. When Jesus died, you died with Him. That spiritual death has already occurred. In that sense, you are a dead man walking.

 

However, it is not just that you died with Christ, but when He was raised, you were raised. There is a new life inside of you. There is a new force, a new energy, a new Spirit that is driving your Christian life. In the fullest sense, you have been made new. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17). As a believer, you are a new creation in Jesus Christ. You are not an old creation with a plus. You are not an old creation merely upgraded. Your old creation was crucified, dead, buried, and never to be resurrected.

 

What Paul is teaching is not idealistic, but a statement of fact. This does not mean that we will never have to deal with sin again. As we continue in Romans, Paul will tell us in chapter seven about the ongoing struggle we have with sin within us. The fact is, we still struggle with sin, but in a different relationship than when we came to faith in Christ. We must realize that we are not playing a losing game. We are playing a winning game, and we are headed in a new direction in Jesus Christ. These are important distinctions to make. Paul will continue to build upon this foundation as he teaches on sanctification.

 

Conclusion

If there has never been this spiritual death in your life, you are without Christ in your life and without hope. The only way for you to enter the kingdom of heaven is for this reality to take place in you. You must be born again, if this positional sanctification is to become reality within you. God calls you to look to Christ, and believe in Him. Confess your sin, and repent of it. Commit your life to Jesus Christ. You must deny yourself. You must die to yourself. You must take up a cross, an instrument of death, and follow Jesus Christ. You must turn away from your sin, and turn to Christ. You must take that decisive step and come through the narrow path. Start the brand new adventure down the narrow path that leads to life. May God give you grace to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. He is your only hope. Without Him, you are perishing. With Him, you have eternal life.

 

Let us close in a word of prayer.

 

Father, thank You for this study that we have had this morning. It is so important for us to understand the groundwork for the Christian life. Thank You that we have died to sin and we are alive to the Lord Jesus Christ. Give us the clarity that we need for these future studies to sort this out. This is only a means to an end, it is not just so that we can be smart, but so that we can live it out. So God, direct us now in our pursuit of holiness, even this day. In Jesus’ name, amen.

 

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.