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? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace (Romans 6:1-14).
Romans 6 is all about believers becoming authentic, Christlike people. The Apostle Paul is laying very deep foundations for our lives. So come with me to Romans 6.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1). That is, are we to go on in the pattern of sin because forgiveness is guaranteed and we have right standing with God by faith alone?
Paul’s answer in Romans 6:2 is, “May it never be!” Absolutely not! Don’t go on sinning that grace may increase.
Why not? His answer comes in a question: “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2). That is, since you have died to sin, you can’t go on living in it.
Now, this poses two questions that I want to try to answer. First, what does “You have died to sin” mean? Second, what does “You can’t go on living in it” mean?
The first question: What does Paul mean in verse 2 by “we died to sin”? The “we” here is Christians—that is, believers. We know that because in verse 3, the “we” is those who have been “baptized into Christ Jesus.”
Probably the most important verse to explain this is verse 5: “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.”
For believers, there is a union with Christ. Note the words, “we have become united with him in the likeness of his death.” His death is our death. First Corinthians 1:30 says, “But by [God’s] doing you are in Christ Jesus.” God establishes a union between believers and Christ, in a way that makes it fitting for Him to count Christ’s death as our death.
So when verse 2 asks, “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” it is referring to our death with Christ when He died. Since we were united with Him in His death, our death happened, in God’s way of seeing things, on the day Christ died.
Let’s confirm this with a few other verses. Verse 6: “Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him.” This is another way of saying that we died or that “we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death.” The “old self” is the me that was rebellious against God, insubordinate to God’s law, blind to God’s glory and unbelieving toward His promises. When Christ died, God counted the old sinful me as dying with Him.
For another confirmation, look at verse 8: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.”
That’s Paul’s answer to the first question: What death does Paul refer to when he says, “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” It was our death with Christ because of our union with him.
You Can’t Go on Living in Sin
The second question is: What does Paul mean when he says, “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”
If you have died to sin, you can’t go on living in sin. But is Paul teaching perfectionism—that once you are converted, you never sin anymore?
Several reasons from the context make me think Paul does not mean that.
1) What Paul denies is not that you can never commit a sin, but that you cannot “live in it.” The phrase living in it corresponds to the question in verse 1: “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” The idea in these two phrases, continue in and live in is that when we have become united with Christ in his death, we cannot go on with an unchanged pattern of sin in our lives.
2) Another pointer to Paul’s meaning is in verse 6, “Our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” Here the effect of being crucified with Christ is that we are not “slaves to sin.” It is possible to fall into sinful attitudes and actions without sin being your overarching slave master. As verse 14 says, “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” Being freed from the mastery or enslavement or dominion of sin is not the same as being sinlessly perfect.
3) In verse 11 Paul says, “Even so, consider yourselves to be dead to sin.” In verse 12 he says, “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body.” And in verse 13 he says, “Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness.” If there is no ongoing battle with sin in the Christian life, then why these commands? I think they clearly imply that, even though we have died to sin and therefore cannot “live in” or “continue in” sin, we can sin, and we do sin. We must lay hold on the reality of what has happened to us in our union with Christ and confirm it in our daily lives. Reckon yourselves dead. Don’t let sin reign. Don’t present your members to sin.
Our Death with Christ, Our Freedom from Sin
So here is my conclusion on our death with Christ and our freedom from sin.
First, in Christ—that is, in our union with Christ that God established, according to verse 5—we are dead to sin, meaning that in our truest position and our truest identity, we are completely and finally dead to sin—both its guilt and its power. This is decisive, unrepeatable and unchangeable. This is the foundation for all our warfare against sin and for all our progress in holiness.
Second, the Christian life is an already and a not-yet experience of this sinless position and identity in union with Christ. What happened to Christ Jesus—and to us in Him—is applied to us not all at once in its fullness, but some now completely, some now progressively, and all fully in the age to come. We are already fully forgiven and acquitted and declared righteous and justified in our union with Christ by faith alone. And we are already delivered from the slavery to sin, that is, from the power of sin as the defining direction of our lives. And we are already able by faith to grow more and more triumphant over sin in our daily life.
But we are not yet perfected in our daily, earthly experience. We must fight the fight of faith and become in experience, by faith, what we are perfectly in our union with Christ.
If you are a Christian, God created a union between you and Christ. Because of this union, you died with Christ when He died. Because you died, you are now free from the guilt and power of sin in your fullest and truest identity—that is, in your union with Christ. And because of this unshakable position and identity, you are already justified, and you are most certainly being sanctified. But you are not yet perfected. Therefore, confirm this great transaction by reckoning yourself to be what you really are in Christ. ©2000 Desiring God
Scripture quotations are taken from The New American Standard Bible 1995, ©1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. All rights reserved.
This message is adapted from “United With Christ in Death and Life, Part 1,” at DesiringGod.org.
John Piper is the founder of Desiring God and the author of more than 50 books. He served for 33 years as senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Above: A man places a cross atop a church in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan in 2008.
Photo: Paul Sherar/©2008 Samaritan's Purse