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 begins the third major section in the book of Romans. To remind you, the first section (Romans 1:18-3:20) was all about condemnation. The wrath of God has been revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Romans 1:18). Paul began with the bad news that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). This reveals why we desperately need the gospel.


Then we finished the section (Romans 3:21-5:21) on justification, which is God declaring us to be righteous. It has nothing to do with our practical life and everything to do with our standing before God. That was a glorious section. We spent a lot of time in section two because Paul spends a lot of time in this section.


We now come to section on sanctification, which is found in Romans 6:1-8:?. This is Paul’s greatest discourse on sanctification in all of his 13 epistles. It is the major 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 this is the infrastructure, the wiring on the inside of the Christian life. We need to understand the doctrine of sanctification and its application for our lives.


I. The Meaning of Sanctification


We will begin with a basic definition of sanctification. The root word for “sanctification” (hagiasmos) is also the same root word for “holy” (hagios) and “saint” (hagion). All three words come from the same Greek word that means ‘to separate.’ It is like cutting something in half so that there are now two separate sides. To be holy means you have been separated, or set apart, from something unto something.


In sanctification, we have been set apart from three things. First, we have been set apart from the power of sin. From the ruling, governing power of sin that was dominating our lives before we were converted. Next, we have been set apart from the evil world system. There is an invisible system that is anti-God, anti-Christ, anti-purity, anti-family, anti-everything that is good and decent. We once were part of the system, but now we have been set apart. This affects 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 god of this age is Satan. He is presiding over this evil world system under the dominion of the sovereignty of the will of God. Third, we have been set apart from the devil himself. We were once held captive by the devil, but sanctification produces a radical break from the world, the flesh, and the devil. That is the negative part, what we have been set apart from.


The positive part is that we have been set apart unto something. We have been set apart unto God, unto the Lord Jesus Christ, and unto the kingdom of God. It is a negative and a positive, heads and tails of the same coin.


The word sanctification describes the activity of God in setting us apart. It is not just that God has declared us to be righteous, yet we keep living our same sinfully driven lives. Everyone whom God justifies, He immediately sanctifies and begins the outworking of 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

I want to contrast the work of sanctification with that of justification. I want this to be very clear in your mind. In my notes, I have two columns with the headings, “Justification” and “Sanctification.” I am going to parallel the differences between justification and sanctification, showing you the contrasts between the two.


Justification involves our legal standing before God, our status in heaven. It has nothing to do with our character, our walk, or how we live our lives. It has everything to do with our standing before God. Sanctification does not have to do with my standing, but with my daily walk with the Lord. It involves my internal condition – my heart, my mind, my affections, and my will. What we are beginning to look at is what God is doing in me.


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 it is credited to my account. Imparted means that it is having an affect upon who I am. 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. Sanctification is an activity.


Justification is monergistic. This means that there is only one active agent, who is God. Justification was not a joint effort with both God and me. God alone justifies. This is a very important theological distinction. Sanctification is synergistic, which means there are two active agents, God and me. You and I bear enormous responsibility in our daily Christian life.


Justification involves a heavenly courtroom scene. We stand before the judgment seat of God, who, as the Judge of heaven and earth, declares us to be righteous. Sanctification is an earthly scene, where we live our lives. This is where the nitty-gritty of life is lived out. This is as real as it gets, in the fast lane of our lives.


Justification is an immediate pronouncement. 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. Sanctification differs from one man to another. Some will grow more than others. Some will lag behind more than others. Some will resist temptation more. Some will discipline themselves for the purpose of godliness more. Others will coast through life, and at times the Lord will have to come in and accelerate the growth process.


Those are some of the contrasts between justification and sanctification. We have just crossed the bridge from the end of Romans 5 into the beginning of Romans 6. As you are standing on the bridge looking to the left and to the right, you see justification on one side and sanctification on the other. That is the contrast.


The Connection

The second thing I want to tell you by way of introduction is the connection between justification and sanctification. The two are inseparably connected, and are never disconnected. Everyone whom God justifies, He sanctifies. At the moment of justification, God immediately begins the process of sanctification. There is not a gap or honeymoon period. There is not a one-year probation period before you start to get serious about the Lord. Sanctification starts the moment you are justified.


To use a biblical analogy that Jesus used, when you enter the narrow gate, when you put one foot on the narrow path, you immediately begin walking on the narrow path. It is narrow because it is confined. There are boundaries and guardrails to keep you on the path. You can never walk through the narrow gate, only to later begin walking on the broad path. It is narrow gate, narrow path. Or else it is broad gate, broad path. Everyone who is justified is immediately sanctified, and their new life begins.


ii. Three Aspects of sanctification


I am laying everything out so that we do not get lost in the weeds with word studies, grammar, and syntax. We must first see the big picture of sanctification. I also want to clarify the three aspects of sanctification. We must understand these or Romans 6 will be a confusing fog to us. The three aspects of sanctification, in simplest terms, would be 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 say past sanctification is positional or definitive sanctification, which begins the process of sanctification. It is an initial, radical, dramatic break from the power of sin. Those wires were popped and disconnected. We continue to sin, but sin is no longer the governing, ruling, dominant power in our lives. Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are now the dominant, driving power in the life 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). There is a washing by the Spirit to wipe the slate clean. All the foul pollution that had built up inside of us God washes away.


We will now look at some verses to show that there is an aspect of sanctification that is always spoken of in the past tense. It happened in the moment you were regenerated. God began the sanctification with this initial burst of energy, just like the initial burst of energy to get a rocket ship off the ground.


To be specific, the past tense 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 in the past tense? There has already been a death in your family. 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 that held you captive to do what it dictated for you to do.


Next is Romans 6:6, “Knowing this, that our old self was crucified.” Note the verb tense for “was crucified.” In a mysterious way, when you were born again, it was as if God transported you back two thousand years and nailed you to the cross with Jesus. When He was crucified, you were crucified. When He was put to death, you were put to death. That is very real. How that works in God’s mind is known only to God, but it is a fact. You can read it for yourself in your own Bible. “Our old self was crucified.”


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


Look back at Romans 6:2, which says, “To those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling.” You are a saint. This does not mean you have gone through the process in the Catholic church to be made a saint. Every born again believer 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, to be set apart unto God. It began the millisecond you were birthed into the kingdom of heaven.


In Romans 6:2, there is a double teaching of this past aspect of sanctification. You are not a Christian for five years, and then you get to become a saint. God set you apart from the world, from the devil, and from the power of your flesh. You were crucified, and now you are set apart. There could not have been a more dramatic change in your life. This is why it is hard to understand those who are unsure of their salvation. This is God’s renovation project inside of you. It is a major construction project, and you should be aware that it is happening in your life. It began in dramatic fashion with God blowing up your old house. That is the beginning of this sanctification. We must be clear on this for Romans 6-8 to make sense to us.


Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:9, “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 speaks of when God pulled you out of the fowl pollution of sin and its wretched defilement. He washed you, sanctified you, and set you apart to a totally different kingdom, the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of holiness, righteousness, and purity. There was a break from your fornication, idolatry, adultery, homosexuality, stealing, covetousness, being dominated by drink, reviling, and swindling. There was a clean break. You went from darkness to light. From death to life. That happened in the moment you were regenerated. You were washed, sanctified, and set apart.


That is the positional sanctification. It is a subcategory all unto itself. We must make careful distinctions to be good theologians. I can still remember R.C. Sproul telling me, “theologians make careful distinctions.” They slice the word very thinly, and carefully, and distinctly. They do not muddle everything together. Theologians eat off divider plates with everything sectioned out and carefully divided. That is what we are doing as we look at the meaning of sanctification.


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 are increasingly becoming more and more practically holy. 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 flesh. We are becoming more and more like the Lord Jesus Christ. This is progressive sanctification. It will always be spoken of in the present tense.


Romans 8:13 says, “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die.” In other words, if you are habitually living according to the flesh, your life must end. “But if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” This is a totally different person. This person is not living by the flesh, but by the Spirit. This is an ongoing “putting to death.” You have died, and that is over, 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. Colossians 3:5 says, “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead.” The footnotes of the New American Standard translates this as, literally, “put to death the members which are upon the earth.” We must be putting to death  the practice of sin in our life. What has already been put to death is not the practice of sin, but the ruling power of sin in our lives. We must make careful distinctions. That is why Romans 12:2 says, you must be “transformed in the renewing our your mind.” That is a continually being transformed. It is an ongoing daily process.


Hebrews 12:14 says to “pursue holiness, without which no man will see the Lord.” It is all in the present tense. Be continually pursuing holiness. Philippians 3:14 says, “I press on toward the goal,” meaning we have not yet arrived. We must keep pumping our knees spiritually, pressing on. Colossians 3:10 says, “the new self is being renewed.” You are being renewed day by day. 1 Peter 2:2 says, “grow in respect to salvation.” That salvation refers to your progressive sanctification.


Perfected Sanctification

What we are seeing is the lifelong pursuit of holiness. It began with positional sanctification, it continues with present sanctification, and it will end with perfected sanctification. Perfected sanctification is synonymous with glorification. It is our being conformed into the image of Christ brought to final completion. There will one day be the eradication of our sinful flesh, and all that will be left behind is the new man we are made into be regeneration. We will instantly, fully, be made in perfect holiness, as much as a glorified sinner who has become a saint can be made holy. We will never attain to the measure of the holiness of God. No one will sing to us in heaven, “Holy, holy, holy.” That is God alone. But we will be holy.


A Matter of Life and Death

All of this has been necessary groundwork for us to lay in our understanding of sanctification. I want to point out one additional thing before we begin to look at Romans 6. As I was studying these verses, the words “life” and “death” or “live” and “died” began to jump off the page. I got out my pen and circled every time I saw the word “death” or “died” and the word “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 extraordinary. It is mentioned, sometimes multiple times, 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, sometimes multiple times. It is obvious that life and death are important. This is the metaphor that Paul uses to communicate what sanctification is all about. It is about death and life. Not physical death and life, but spiritual life and death.


III. the Anticipated Objection to sanctification (6:1)


As we now move into Romans 6, Paul begins with the anticipated objection in verse 1. Paul is anticipating all the push back questions he will get regarding sanctification. Sometimes as a preacher, I will deal with a subject in the pulpit just so that I will not have to deal with it in the lobby, the parking lot, or my den when I get home. I want to deal with it now before anyone can even ask a question. That is what Paul is doing in verse 1. He knows what the questions will be, and he deals with them at the forefront.


Paul says, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” 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. 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.’ The second conclusion some might come to is that we should sin more because it would glorify God more because He can show off by pouring out more and more grace. What a warped way of thinking, yet this is found within the church.


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 that has the idea of habitually living in sin. Do not think of this as a one-time act of sin. This is continuously living in sin. Paul asks, “Are we to continue going down this path of sin, so that grace may increase?” Paul is saying, “I know exactly where you are going with your thinking. I told you A and B, so you now assume Z is true.” But with your thinking, the train left the track. That is the anticipated objection.


IV. The Emphatic Rejection (6:2)


Notice at the beginning of verse two the emphatic rejection. Paul comes down hard on the corrupting of sound doctrine. He says, “May it never be!” This phrase is actually 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. Not at all.” In fact, there is a sense of outrage at the question. It is a strong stiff-arm. Paul uses this phrase throughout the book of Romans (3:4,6,31; 6:2,15; 7:7; 9:14; 11:1,11). It is as if he keeps the hammer in his hand, and every so often throughout the book of Romans, he brings it down hard. “May it never be!” Paul is saying that in no way is the abundance of God’s grace designed to encourage sin or to tolerate sin. That is off the table.


Paul could have left his statement from Romans 5:20-21 and moved on. But he is such a great teacher that he wants to tell us why this cannot be. He begins at the end of verse two to tell us why a Christian cannot continue to habitually live in sin. We will sin, but we are no longer swimming in it like we once were. We are headed in another direction.


“We Who Died to Sin”

Paul then addresses us in the form of another question. Notice how many times he uses questions. Twice in verse one, once in verse two, and another 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 (chapters 3-5). Notice the past tense “who died to sin.” This is actually an aorist tense translated as a past tense. The answer to Paul’s question is that we cannot still live in sin. It is impossible. You cannot live as you once lived. Your mouth cannot talk the same way. Your eyes cannot go to the same place. Your hands and feet are on a different path reaching for something different.


That is not to say there cannot be individual acts of sin, because 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. The new birth is that dramatic and positional sanctification is that powerful.


Too many Christians think that salvation is just paperwork in heaven. They were stamped “forgiven” or stamped “justified,” and so they can keep going down the same path living the same way because they think they are forgiven. Many teachers say that all you have to do is look back in the rear view mirror at your justification, and that is enough. However, you should be looking out 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.


V. What Does “Died to Sin” Mean?


We are going to stop and take a closer look at the meaning of this 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. We are not talking about a physical death, obviously. This is a spiritual death that took place in your life the moment you were converted.


Second, it is a past death. It has already happened. It is an accomplished fact that took place in your life at the moment of your 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 this break.


Fourth, it is a comprehensive death. It was not that a part of you died and the other part of you stayed alive. 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, it is a comprehensive death in your spiritual life. Your mind, affections, and will have died from the top of your head to the bottom of your feet.


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, this death happened once, meaning it will never 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.


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


Ninth, it is vicarious. When Jesus died, you died with Him. We will look at this in Romans 6:3, which says, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” When He died, you died. When He was raised, you were raised.


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


However, as we will see in these verses, 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 and I have been made new. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17). A new creation. Not an old creation with a plus. Not an old creation upgraded. Your old creation was crucified, dead, buried, never to be resurrected.


This is not idealistic, meaning we never have to deal with sin again. As we continue in Romans 7, Paul will talk about the ongoing struggle we have with sin. We still struggle with sin, but it is a whole different ballgame than before we came to faith in Christ. You need to realize that you are not playing a losing game. You are playing a winning game, and you are headed in a new direction. These are important distinctions to make. Paul will continue to build upon this foundation as he teaches on sanctification.



If there has never been this death in your life, if you have never been resurrected from the grave, then you are without Christ and without hope. The only way for you to enter the kingdom of heaven is for this reality to take place in your life. You need to be born again for this positional sanctification to take place. Look to Christ, believe in Christ, confess your sin, repent of your sin, and commit your life to Jesus Christ. There must be a death inside of you as you come into the kingdom. You must deny yourself and take up a cross, which is an instrument of death. You must deny yourself, repent, turn away from your sin, turn to Christ, and take that decisive step onto the narrow path. Come through the narrow gate. You will be starting a 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.