Answering Questions

Introduction:  In a recent interview with Books & Culture magazine, author Christian Smith discussed some of his findings from his book Saul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press, 2005). The basic religion, of most American teens, Smith calls, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Unpacking this, Smith suggests that the basic religious assumption is, “God exists…God wants me to be nice…wants me to get along with people. That’s teen morality. The purpose of life is to be happy and feel good, and good people go to heaven. And nearly everyone’s good.” In his book, Smith challenges the implications of these findings. He states, “This God is not Trinitarian; he did not speak through the Torah or the prophets of Israel, was never resurrected from the dead, and does not fill and transform people through his Spirit. This God is not demanding. He actually can’t be, since his job is to solve our problems and make people feel good. In short, God is something like a combination of Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist.” When asked whether this view was common even among evangelical teens, Smith replied, “It’s unbelievable the proportion of conservative Protestant teens do not seem to grasp elementary concepts of the gospel concerning grace and justification. Their view is: be a good person.” Smith found this attitude across all religious traditions and backgrounds, whether Mormon, Catholic, mainline or conservative Protestant.[1] This appalling state of affairs is to be traced back to the lack of sound doctrinal teaching in our churches, especially those who claim to be evangelical but who have adopted a church-growth model of being seeker-sensitive/user-friendly as a way to numerically “grow” a church. Without a biblical (and theological) understanding of the nature of the gospel, justification, and grace, there can be no corresponding appreciation or understanding for what constitutes the Christian life. The doctrinal foundation is absolutely necessary before there can be any real practical appreciation to life. The late Jim Boice accurately stated the matter this way, “this is the first section of Romans in which Paul begins to talk about the Christian life specifically, that is, about living a life of holiness that is pleasing to God. If Romans 6:2 is the key to understanding this section, it is therefore also obviously the key to understanding the doctrine of sanctification. To understand this statement is to understand how to live a holy life. And because it is the key to sanctification, I would go so far as to say that Romans 6:2 is the most important verse in the Bible for believers in evangelical churches to understand today.”[2]

I.          What is Sanctification? – Some Corrections:  Down through the history of Christianity, people (too many to even list) have put forward all kinds of notions of sanctification. So-called “keys” to victory in the Christian life have been advanced as guaranteeing results (like TV infomercials promoting the latest diet fad or piece of exercise equipment.

A.        Sanctification Is Not Mere Morality

B.        Sanctification Is Not Withdrawal

C.        Sanctification Is Not Simply A Matter Of Avoiding Certain Things

D.        Sanctification Is Not A Matter Of Adopting A Positive, Mental Outlook

E.        Sanctification Is Not Developed By Becoming Involved In Religious Activities

II.         What Does “We Died To Sin” Mean – Five Misinterpretations:  Since this verse is so critical to our understanding of why and how we are to live a holy life, we must proceed very deliberately. To do that, we must begin by eliminating some of the misinterpretations. James Boice highlights the five most common ones:[3]

A.        The Christian Is No Longer Responsive To Sin:  This is a very popular view, though a harmful one. It is an argument from analogy, and it usually goes like this: What is it that most characterizes a dead body? It is that its senses cease to operate. It can no longer respond to stimuli. If you are walking along the street and see a dog lying by the curb and you are uncertain whether or not it is alive, all you have to do to find out is nudge it with your foot. If it immediately jumps up and runs away, it is alive. If it only lies there, it is dead. In the same way (so this argument goes), the one who has died to sin is unresponsive to it. Sin does not touch such a person. When temptation comes, the true believer neither feels nor responds to the temptation. J. B. Phillips, the translator of one of the most popular New Testament paraphrases, seems to have held this view. I say this because his rendering of verse 7 reads, “a dead man can safely be said to be immune to the power of sin” and of verse 11, that we are to look upon ourselves as “dead to the appeal and power of sin.”[4] What should we say about this? The one thing in its favor is that it takes the tense of the Greek verb translated “died” at face value. It says that Christians have literally died to sin’s appeal. But the problem with this interpretation is that it is patently untrue. There is no one like this, and anyone who is persuaded by this interpretation to think he or she is like this id due to be severely disillusioned. Moreover, it makes nonsense of Paul’s appeal to Christians in verses 11-13, where he says to “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body. . . Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness. . .” You do not urge one who is as unresponsive to sin as a corpse is to physical stimuli not to be responsive to it. We can dismiss this interpretation, even though (unfortunately) it is held by many people.

B.        The Christian Should Die To Sin:  This view has been common in a certain type of holiness meeting, where Christians are urged to die to sin. They are to “crucify the old man,” which, they are told, is the secret to a “victorious” Christian life. The best thing that can be said for this view is that it is obviously correct to urge Christians not to sin. Indeed, that is what Paul himself will do later: “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body” (v. 12) and “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin” (v. 13). But aside from that, everything else about this view is in error. The starting point is wrong; it begins with man rather than with God. The image is wrong; one thing nobody can do is crucify himself. Above all, the tense of the verb is wrong; for Paul is not saying that we ought to crucify ourselves (or die) but rather that we have died. He is telling us something that is already true of us if we are Christians.

C.        The Christian Is Dying To Sin Day By Sin:  All this view means to say is that the one who is united to Christ will grow in holiness, and this is true. But it is not by increasingly dying to sin. It would be true to say that we will have to be as much on guard against sin’s temptations at the very end of our lives as we need to be now, though we will do so more consistently and effectively then. To look at the verse that way, though it touches on something true, nevertheless gets us away from the proper and only effective way of dealing with sin. And what is equally important, the tense of the Greek verb for “died” is again wrong. This interpretation takes “died” as if it is an imperfect tense (“are dying”), rather than as an aorist (“have died”), which is what Paul actually says. This is an important point, one that we are going to see again as we move through the chapter. I put it in this way: The secret of sanctification is not our present experience or emotions, however meaningful or intense they may be, but rather something that has already happened to us.

D.        The Christian Cannot Continue In Sin:  because he has renounced it. This view carries no less weighty a name in its favor that that of Charles Hodge, and it is to be respected for that reason, if for not any other. To begin with, the great former professor at Princeton Theological Seminary notes the full aorist tense of the verb died, saying rightly that “it refers to a specific act in our past history.” But what was that act? Hodge answers that it was “our accepting of Christ as our Savior.” That act involved our firm renunciation of sin, since “no man can apply to Christ to be delivered from sin, in order that he may live in it.” It is “a contradiction. . . to say that gratuitous justification is a license to sin, as much as to say that death is life, or that dying to a thing is living in it.”[5] This is a good interpretation for two reasons: (1) it recognizes the full force of the aorist verb died, and (2) what it argues is true. Coming to Christ as Savior really does include a renunciation of sin, and to renounce sin and at the same time continue in it is a real contradiction. If we had no other possible interpretations to go on, this would be an attractive explanation. But I cannot help but feel that D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones is correct when he rejects this as being other than Paul’s meaning. Why? Because in Hodge’s interpretation “dying to sin” is something we do. It is our act, the act of accepting Christ. However, in Paul’s development of the idea, “dying to sin” is not something we do or have done but is something that has been done to us. It is the same as our being joined to Jesus Christ, which Paul is going to talk about in a moment under the figure of baptism. We did not join ourselves to Christ. Rather, we were in Adam, and the God by his grace took us from that position and transformed us into the kingdom of his Son. It is because of what has happened to us that we are now no longer to continue in sin. It is because of God’s work that our continuing in sin is unthinkable.

E.        The Christian Has Died To Sin’s Guilt:  This last and, in my view, inadequate understanding of the phrase “we died to sin” is by Robert Haldane. He sees it has having nothing whatever to do with sanctification but rather as another way of talking about justification or one result of it. Haldane says, “It exclusively indicates the justification of believers and their freedom from the guilt of sin.”[6] The problem with that statement is the word exclusively. I put it that way because what Haldane says is undoubtedly true as far as it goes. The justification of the believer has certainly freed him or her from the guilt of sin, and it is true that in this sense the person has indeed died to it. As far as the guilt of sin and its resulting condemnation are concerned, sin no longer touches the Christian. He has nothing to do with it. But that does not go far enough. True, we have died to sin’s guilt. But what Paul is dealing with in this chapter is why we can no longer live in sin. If all he is saying is that we are free from sin’s condemnation, the question of verse 1 is unanswered: “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” At the end of chapter 5 the apostle spoke of the inevitable reign of grace; now (in chapter 6) we must be told why this is so.

Conclusion:  How then are we to understand this phrase “we died to sin”? Note carefully that it is not sin but the sinner who has actually “died”—in other words, what Paul is affirming here is not some form of sinless perfection; but freedom from the reign and domination of sin. As Morris observes, “The emphasis falls on the act rather than the continuing state. There is, of course, a sense in which Christians die to sin every day; they constantly commit themselves to God and become dead to all evil. There is also an eschatological sense; after this life sin will be over; believers will be raised up to live without sin in God’s presence. But it is not such senses that Paul’s language evokes here. He is referring rather to the death to sin that marks the beginning of the characteristic Christian life. It is the end of the reign of sin and beginning of the reign of grace (5:21).”[7]



[1] As cited in Modern Reformation (vol. 14, No. 2, Mar/Apr 2005), p. 8.


[2] J. M. Boice, Romans” An Expositional Commentary II (Baker, 1992), p. 650.


[3] This entire section is taken from Boice, op. cit., pp. 651-653.


[4] John R. W. Stott cites two other contemporary expressions of it. C. J. Vaughan wrote, “A dead man cannot sin. And you are dead. . . Be in relation to all sin as impassive, as insensible, as immoveable as is He who has already died.” Similarly, H. P. Liddon comments, “This [death] has presumably made the Christian as insensible to sin as a dead man is to the objects of the world of sense.” See Men Made New: An Exposition of Romans 5-8 (Baker Book House, 1984), pp. 38, 39.


[5] Charles Hodge, A Commentary on Roman (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1972), p. 192. (Original edition 1935)


[6] Robert Haldane, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Romans (MacDonald Publishing, 1958), p. 239.


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


Redemption: Accomplished and Applied

by John Murray

Murray explores the biblical passages dealing with the necessity, nature, perfection, and extent of the atonement, and goes on to identify the distinct steps in the Bible’s presentation of how the redemption accomplished by Christ is applied progressively to the life of the redeemed.

The atonement lies at the very center of the Christian faith. The free and sovereign love of God is the source of the accomplishment of redemption, as the Bible’s most familiar text (John 3:16) makes clear. For thoughtful Christians since the time of the Apostle Paul, this text has started, not ended, the discussion of redemption. Yet few recent interpreters have explored in depth the biblical passages dealing with the atonement as penetratingly or precisely as John Murray, who, until his death in 1975, was regarded by many as the foremost conservative theologian in the English-speaking world.

In this enduring study of the atonement, Murray systematically explains the two sides of redemption: its accomplishment by Christ and its application to the life of the redeemed. In Part 1, Murray considers the necessity, nature, perfection, and extent of the atonement. In Part 2, he offers careful expositions of the scriptural teaching about calling, regeneration, faith and repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, union with Christ, and glorification. Includes both a subject and a Scripture index.

About the author: John Murray (1898-1975) was born in Scotland and educated in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Princeton. He spent most of his distinguished career teaching systematic theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. He also wrote Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics and the volume on Romans in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series.

Paperback; 192 pages




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