How Shall We Then Live?

Text: Romans 6:1-2

Introduction:  Biblical preaching has fallen on hard times, especially in the pulpits (the pulpit as such, is quickly disappearing in our churches today) of self-professed evangelical churches. There’s certainly no lack of speaking and sharing and shouting. Nowadays, with all the bells and whistles that technology places at our fingertips, dramatic presentations and video clips are prevalent in pulpits across America. But there is precious little biblical preaching. The Bible makes a token appearance here and there, but rarely to be explained and expounded and acknowledged as authoritative for how we think and live. The church growth crowd, always anxious to appear relevant and up to date on the latest cultural fad, applaud these changes, seeing them in a much-needed shift from the logocentricity (or word-centeredness) of traditional evangelicalism to what they perceive as a more holistic approach to Christian ministry. “I can’t tell you,” writes Sam Storms, “how many times I’ve asked people all across America, ‘Tell me about the strengths and weaknesses of your church,’ only to hear something like this in response, ‘Well, we’ve got a great youth program. And there’s plenty of parking space. We seem to have moved beyond the worship wars and it’s a pretty friendly place. But honestly, it doesn’t seem like our pastor spends much time in the Word. He’ll read a passage here and there, but he never goes very deep into its meaning. I get the feeling he doesn’t think it’s very relevant to our lives today. He shows some interesting video clips from recent movies and he’s up to date on political events. But Scripture doesn’t play a huge role in our services. I’ve even stopped bringing my Bible to church. I never seem to need it.’”[1]

What I’ve just described is not an exaggeration, or an isolated incident. This is the sad state of affairs in the vast majority of evangelical churches. Simply look at the kind of books that evangelicals consumed (especially pastors). This is particularly the case when we turn our attention to questions that pertain to the Christian life. When the emphasis falls simply upon matters of practicality without regard for the underlying basis for theological truth, we are well on our way to substituting what works (or makes us feel good) for what is true. In other words, we run the risk of having our hearts and minds shaped by something other than the Word of God (Contra Rom.12:1-2). David Wells observes, “The task of shaping the Church’s mind has therefore been left to the purveyors and makers of popular theology. Popularizing theology –that is, making truth accessible to a wide number of people—is an honorable undertaking. What comes to mind when the words, popular theology, are heard, though, is usually something different. Popular theology is a hybrid in which what is popular so often eclipses what is theological, because what is popular typically owes far more to the habits and mental conventions of modernity than it does to biblical truth. The result is that the evangelical Church, whose taste for what is popular appears to be insatiable, is in danger of being destabilized by the cultural captivity of some of its popular ‘thinkers,’ as well as by the academic captivity of some of its scholars.”[2]

Voltaire, the notorious French cynic and ardent critic of Christianity, once flippantly declared, “God will forgive; that is His business!”[3] Such sentiments are still widespread. Regrettably, Christians have at times fallen prey to the same line of reasoning. The temptation (and it is a very real one) to abuse the grace of God by becoming complacent about sin has plagued the church down through the centuries. The Apostle Paul addresses this issue in some detail in Romans 6. He is dealing with the objection that would naturally arise in response to his teaching that the Law did not have the authority or power to quell sin; only the grace of justification through faith alone, through Christ alone, can do that (cf. 5:20). The question then comes, “Will not the grace teaching simply encourage more sinning?” What shall we say then, shall we indeed remain in sin in order that grace may abound? There appear to be three possible responses.

(1)       There is what is known as antinomianism (from the Greek preposition ANTI, meaning “against,” and NOMOS, meaning, “law”). Antinomianism comes in different sizes and with different emphases, but they all have this in common: They have a very low view of the law of God.[4] As such this position is out of step with the teachings of Scripture (1 John 3:4-9).

(2)       There is what has been called perfectionism. Like antinomianism, this too comes in various shades. Some perfectionists advocated out-and-out sinless perfection, while others use the word in a relative sense.[5] All forms of perfectionism are accompanied by a weak and inadequate understanding of sin.[6]

(3)       The final position sees the Christian life as one that has been set free from the bondage of sin but must continually wage an on-going warfare with sin’s pollution.

I.          The Apostolic Prescription – Understanding the Gospel:

A.        The Inference (6:1):  Sometimes the obvious is not so obvious. The opening questions of this chapter are inferences that are drawn from Paul’s closing remarks in the last chapter. His point is quite clear—salvation is solely on the basis of grace through faith alone. If salvation depends upon works, then the objection Paul is forced to address would never have been offered. Yet there are supposedly “Christian” groups today running around ringing people’s door bells, insisting that salvation is to be had by faith in what Christ did plus the doing of good works that merit God’s grace.

 

NOTE: What does the expression, “Shall we go on sinning,” mean? The NIV is at this point somewhat off the mark. The verb Paul uses here (MĒNO) means “to remain, abide.” “He is thinking of sinners staying where they are, declining to budge from their habitual sin.”[7] In other words, the “state of sin,”(TĒ HAMARTIA) is something that characterizes the unregenerate. It does not and cannot be said to be characteristic of the regenerate.

B.        The Answer (6:2):  The Apostle responds with an emphatic negative. God forbid! is how the KJV captures the meaning of MĒ GENOITO. Literally this means, “May such a thing never, ever occur.”[8] Why does the Apostle say this? Because, as Murray puts it, “This is the identity of the believer—he died to sin.”[9] The KJV has rendered this, “we that are dead to sin.” This is incorrect. The Greek verb here (APETHANOMEN) is in the aorist tense and points to an action (not a state). A better translation would be “we who died.” Paul’s point is that there has been a decisive separation from sin. Not that sin has died but rather the sinner has (cf. Col. 3:3). Therefore, the believer cannot go on living in sin. As T.S. Schreiner aptly puts it, “When Paul says we have died to sin, he is not exhorting believers to cease from sin (a command in the imperative mood); he is proclaiming to them good news that they have died to sin (a statement of fact in the indicative mood).”[10] “To live in sin means more than to ‘continue in sin.’ It is to have sin for the element in which we live, the moral atmosphere which our souls breathe.”[11] In light of what happened at the cross—believers died in their representative head, the Lord Jesus Christ (note the important contrast between Adam and Christ in Rom. 5:12-21). He died not only for sin but he also died to sin—and to die to sin means to die with respect to sin. The late James Boice makes these helpful observations: “Where do we go from here? And I posed what seemed like two alternatives: Do we continue in a life of sin so that, as some might piously choose to put it, grace may increase? Or do we choose the other path, the path of God-like conduct? By now you should be able to see that there is no possible alternative to God’s path, for those who are truly saved. The life of sin is what we have died to. There is no going back for us, any more than there could be a going back to suffer and die for sin again by our Lord. If there is no going back—if that possibility has been eliminated—there is no direction for us to go but forward! This is why I say that a right understanding of Romans 6:2 is the key to sanctification. Some people try to find the key in an intense emotional experience, thinking that if only they can make themselves feel close to God they will become holy. Others try to find sanctification through a special methodology. They think that if they do certain things or follow a prescribed ritual they will be sanctified. Godliness does not come in that fashion; in fact, approaches like these are deceiving. A holy life comes from knowing—I stress that word—knowing that you can’t go back, that you have died to sin and been made alive to God.”[12]

Conclusion:  Do Christians still sin? Yes, they do, as all Christians will plainly admit. Paul knew this. Later on he will exhort believers to reckon themselves dead unto sin and charge them not to allow sin to reign in their mortal bodies (6:11,12). He certainly would not have made such statements if He thought Christians could not fall into sin. The Apostle did not advocate sinless perfection. What he is saying, as Lloyd-Jones comments, is that “we are out of the territory, out of the Kingdom, out of the realm, out of the rule and the reign of sin.”[13] Trust in Christ’s atoning death is completely incompatible with indifference to sin, or as S. Lewis Johnson has said, “justification is incompatible with non-sanctification.”[14] Having said that, however, we must remind ourselves that it is possible to hold these theological truths in suspended animation. We may affirm the form but deny the substance of what they teach. Again, listen to the concerns of Keyes: “The pressure on the Christian to compromise with the therapeutic mindset comes in two places. First, when we think in therapeutic categories we are less likely to offend others steeped in them. And second, we begin to view these techniques as offering the power to change ourselves and others. So what is the problem? Truth becomes marginalized. What begins to matter is less what is true than what seems to help for healing, wholeness, and above all, self-esteem. If Christ is part of that, fine. But if Buddha helps, that’s okay too. Or maybe we would feel much better about ourselves if we drove a Porsche and spent long weekends at exotic places. Christian truth is relegated to the background where it won’t interfere with psychological well-being. Sin treated as a serious problem is seen as therapeutically unhelpful. In historic Christianity, sin is something for which we are held responsible, even inexcusable, and for which we ourselves have no cure. This truth jars against optimistic therapeutic sensibilities that emphasize human goodness and competence in dealing with all of life’s challenges…. If the main problem to be addressed is low self-esteem, then Christ need not have come to live on earth, much less die on the cross. Ideas like sin, repentance, and self-sacrifice sound pretty negative to therapeutic ears. They could spread self-doubt or even guilt and shame rather than promote self-esteem.”[15]

References:

 


[1] “An Appeal to All Pastors” Apr. 2005. Enjoying God Ministries. Sam, a long time friend of mine moves in different circles (he is a charismatic), but gives the same bleak analysis that I’ve heard from David Wells and Ligon Duncan.

 

[2] D. F. Wells, Losing Our Virtue: Why The Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Eerdmans, 1998) p. 11.

 

[3] Regarding this remark, the Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner, rightly wrote, “There is no more impious saying. But it only expresses the thought of all who have been influenced by the Enlightenment: ‘Of course God will do it…. How could He do otherwise, since He is so kindly!’ As soon as anyone regards the forgiveness of God as matter of course he is as audacious as Voltaire. This impiety is not modified if we say: ‘God forgives if we repent,’ for this simply amounts to a denial of guilt. What has my present repentance to do with my previous guilt? And it so amounts to a denial of sin, for the sinner can never repent in proportion to his sin. There are no human conditions in which we have the right to expect that God will forgive us as a matter of course.” The Mediator (Westminster Press, 1957), p. 447.

 

[4] Michael Horton writes that the essence of antinomianism is that “it denies the validity of the law.” Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Salvation (Baker, 1992), p. 32.

 

[5] Melvin E. Dieter, for instance, advocates a type of perfectionism known as entire sanctification, “a personal, definitive work of God’s sanctifying grace by which the war within oneself might cease and the heart be fully released from rebellion into wholehearted love for God and others. This relationship of perfect love could be accomplished, not by excellence of any moral achievements, but by the same faith in the merits of Christ’s sacrifice for sin that initially had brought justification and the new life in Christ. It was a total death to sin and an entire renewal in the image of God.” “The Wesleyan View” Five Views On Sanctification (Zondervan, 1987), p. 17.

 

[6] B. B. Warfield, in his masterful study on the subject observed: “The historical source from which the main streams of Perfectionist doctrine that have invaded modern Protestantism take their origin, is the teaching of John Wesley. But John Wesley did not first introduce Perfectionism into Protestantism, nor can all the Perfectionist tendencies, which have shown themselves in Protestantism since his had, be traced to him. Such tendencies appear constantly along the courses of two fundamental streams of thought. Wherever Mysticism intrudes, it carries a tendency to Perfectionism with it. On Mystic ground—as, for example, among the Quakers—a Perfectionism has been developed to which that taught by Wesley shows such similarity, even in details and modes of expression, that a mistaken attempt has been made to discover an immediate genetic connection between them. Wherever again men lapse into an essentially Pelagian mode of thinking concerning the endowments of human of human nature and the condition of human action, a Perfectionism similar to that taught by Pelagius himself tends to repeat itself.” The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield VII (rpt. Baker, 1981), p. 3.

 

[7] L. Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Eerdmans, 1988), p. 245.

 

[8] With the exception of Luke 20:16, this expression is used only by Paul in the New Testament—ten times in Romans, three times in Galatians and once in 1 Corinthians. A variety of English expressions have been used to capture its meaning, e.g.,  “Let it not be!” “Certainly not!” and most recently the contemporary phrase, “Get real!”

 

[9] J. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans. (Eerdmans, 1965) p. 213.

 

[10] T.S. Schreiner, Romans: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Baker, 1998) p. 305.

 

[11] E. H. Gifford, The Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans (rpt. James Family, 1997), p. 125

 

[12] J. M. Boice, Romans: The Reign of Grace 5-8 (Baker, 1982) p. 655.

 

[13] M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 6  (Zondervan, 1972), p. 25.

 

[14] S. L. Johnson, Believers Bible Bulletin: Romans (Believer’s Chapel, 1980), p. 3.

 

[15] Keyes, op. cit. p. 31.

Sketches from Church History

by Sidney Houghton

This book outlines the thrilling story of the onward march of the Church of Christ from the earliest times to the end of the nineteenth century. It is not a dry-as-dust account of long-forgotten events and controversies, but rather a moving record of those who undertook the adventure of faith before us and, through their courage and steadfastness, left an example for the church in every age. Reading of the exploits of those who have gone before us, through times of prosperity and times of persecution, should stimulate, warn and encourage the church in our own age to persevere in the same path, and obtain the same everlasting reward.

Paperback; 256 pages

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