A sermon on Romans 6:1-14 by Richard Keith on 13 November 2022
I like to believe that there are no such things as stupid questions. We use questions to find out information, to clarify a point or to resolve a misunderstanding? What do you mean? we ask. Why did you do that? Could you explain that again? They are not stupid questions. In fact, it would be stupid not to ask them. As I like to say, the only stupid question is the question that is never asked.
But if there was such a thing as a stupid question, Romans chapter 6, verse 1 could come close. Shall we go on sinning? I mean, think about it. To sin is to go wrong, to do wrong. To sin is to err, to make a mistake. To sin is to harm, to wound. So shall we go on doing wrong? Shall we keep on making the same mistake? Shall we harm people rather than help them? Who in their right mind would want to do wrong rather than right and, worse, to keep on doing it? There is no rational justification for such behaviour.
The question sounds stupid, but it isn’t. Human behaviour is not motivated so much by what is good and what is right as by what people want and by what they are afraid of. We want what other people have. We want other people to do what we say. We are afraid of taking responsibility. We are afraid of those who are different or unusual. Although there is no rational justification for doing wrong, people keep on doing it. Shall we go on sinning? the apostle Paul asks. It’s not a stupid question because many people behave like the answer is yes.
It’s also important to understand the reason that Paul is asking this question. In this letter to the Christians at Rome, he is trying to talk to them about the obedience that comes from faith. He mentioned that back in chapter 1. And another way of talking about this obedience of faith is to call it, as Paul does in chapter 3, “the righteousness from God that comes through faith” or, in chapter 4, “the righteousness which God credits to us apart from the law”.
You see, if the heart of the gospel is that Jesus Christ is Lord, then faith in this Lord, faith in this one good, truly human being will lead to a life transformed in his image. Not only right with God but doing right. We will want to love as he loved us. We will forgive others as we’ve been forgiven. We will want to do to people what we want them to do to us.
It’s a way of life that legalism and the law can’t bring about. Because the law can make you afraid of being caught, but it can’t make you want to do what is right. So what legalism and the law creates is a bunch of hypocrites, who pretend to be good but don’t want to do it in their hearts.
But the gospel changes us from the inside out, transforming our motivations before it transforms our behaviour. So what the gospel creates is forgiven sinners, who know the love of God for them in Jesus, whose hearts are filled with God’s love by the Spirit but who still struggle to put that love into practice. We don’t obey in order to be saved. We are saved in order to obey.
If this is the heart of Paul’s message that he calls the gospel and if this is the result that it should have in our lives, then Paul must be able to answer the question, Is it true? Is it true that obedience comes from faith and not from legalism? Is it the case that righteousness comes as a gift from God and not from obeying the law? That is why Paul must ask the question in Romans chapter 6 that sounds so stupid but isn’t.
Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
Because if he can’t answer that question then nothing that he has said is true. Instead, it will all collapse like a house of cards. Remove one key card and the rest will fall.
And in this case the key card is the sentence Paul wrote at the end of chapter 5.
Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.
We looked at it last week. And you might remember that I said that that’s actually a pretty good summary of the message of the Bible. The people in the Bible are not superheroes of faith. They grumble. They are impatient. They look after themselves instead of others and they suffer the consequences. But God is patient with them. Whatever they do, however they let go of him, the Lord will not let go of them, because he will not let their sin, their mistakes, frustrate his purposes. Instead he will see them fulfilled.
And so we see that in the darkest chapters of human history the light of God’s glory and grace only shines even brighter. Because “where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” That’s what we see in the cross of Jesus. Humanity’s darkest hour. The son of God rejected. The one truly good human being condemned to death like a criminal. Cast away like rubbish.
But in this evil, wicked deed we see the love of God revealed. Jesus chose the cross. And on his cross he chose you. The nails did not restrain him. Only his love for us could hold him there. So that where sin increased, the grace of God, his underserved kindness, increased all the more.
So it’s actually a very good question.
Shall we keep on sinning that grace may increase?
If humanity’s darkness makes God’s glory shine all the more, why not keep it dark? Why not shut the curtains of our hearts to all pity and to all remorse? Why not turn off all the lights of human kindness and goodness? Why not shut our eyes to our neighbours needs and concerns? Why not summon the darkness into our hearts that God may shine all the brighter?
This is what Paul’s opponents were accusing him of saying. Paul’s opponents complained that by preaching a righteousness apart from the law Paul was getting rid of the only thing that made people behave. The law. With its commandments and penalties. Without those dreadful consequences, they complained, people will do whatever they like. So that the gospel ends up giving people a license to sin. Permission to sin because it will all be forgiven. As German poet, Heinrich Heine, said,
God will forgive me. It’s his job.
But Paul denied the accusation.
Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
Paul is describing here something that is objectively true even if you don’t feel it. Like gravity. People pay good money to go up in an aeroplane to feel what it is like to float in space. For a few seconds it feels like there is no gravity. But there is. What’s happened is that they’ve switched off the aeroplane’s engines and they are all falling. Falling 10 metres per second faster every second. The reason the people don’t feel it and feel like they are floating is because the aeroplane’s falling at exactly the same speed. Like floating in a river with the current and not being able to feel it until you see the trees on the bank rushing past. I mean, they have to switch the engines back on after a few seconds or they will crash to earth.
So here is something true even if you don’t feel it. If you have faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died for you, as Lord and Saviour, you have died to sin. We died to sin. We are dead to it and it is dead to us. It is no longer a controlling force in our life. It is a thing of the past. It does not control our present and it does not determine our future.
This is what baptism means as it was practiced in the early church and as Jesus experienced himself in the Jordan River. Just as the Lord’s Supper is a ritual feast of food and drink so in baptism the believer is plunged below the water and then resurfaces in a ritual death and resurrection. It symbolises not just the washing away of sin in forgiveness, but that an old way of life is dead and gone, and that a new life with a new way of life has begun.
All of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death.
United by faith with him we have died with Christ. He died to sin. He did it once for all so that he didn’t have to do it over and over again. Sin died with Christ but when he rose to life, sin remained dead and buried. So that the life that Christ now lives he lives to God. He has set us free from sin’s penalty and power.
And if we have been united with Christ in his death, we will also be united with him in his resurrection.
Our old way of life has been crucified, put to death with him so that we may live free from sin. So that just as in his new life, Christ lives to God, we can too.
Now later in Romans chapter 8, Paul will explain how we experience the transforming power of the gospel in the gift of the Spirit, in the leading of the Spirit, in keeping in step with the Spirit, in the reassuring presence of the Spirit in our lives, in the Spirit’s work to conform us to the likeness of Jesus. Like a potter taking a lump of clay and making something useful and beautiful. Not against our will but by renewing our will first so that we love what God loves.
But all those things are down the track in later chapters of Romans. Because what Paul is telling us in chapter 6 is not true because we feel it, because we experience it in the Spirit. But rather, the other way round. We can feel it, we can experience it, because it is true, even if we don’t always feel it.
We are dead to sin. And it is dead to us. It no longer controls our present or determines our future, but it is a thing of the past. An old way of life that must be shrugged off like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon and giving up all its caterpillar ways. It no longer crawls around like a grub, but it flies like a bird.
Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means. Instead, Paul says in verses 11 to 14,
Count yourselves 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 evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.
In other words, Paul means that we should be who we are meant to be. We are not the spawn of the devil, we are the children of God. We are not hopeless cases, we are works in progress. We are not damned to hell, we are the saints called to be holy with a heavenly inheritance. We are not the miserable slaves of sin, we are the joyful servants of God.
If that is who you are, if you believe it in your heart and you know it is true, then start acting like it. Make the conscious, active decision not to let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. That’s our old caterpillar life. Crawling around in grubby little sins. Be the butterfly that Christ died and rose again to transform you into.
And that’s not about floating above all worldly concerns as if sin can no longer touch you. Sin remains in our life like a bad relationship we had in the past, a toxic boyfriend or girlfriend that we have cut out of our life. Sin can try to contact us, it can try to get our attention, but it doesn’t have to be a part of our new life in Christ anymore. So that we do not offer ourselves as instruments of wickedness but as instruments of righteousness. Sin was our master. It ruled us like a cruel tyrant, like an abusive parent, like a controlling person that we thought was our friend. But it is not our master anymore and it won’t be ever again.
So then don’t let sin master you. Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? It’s not a stupid question, but it only has one right answer. By no means! We are dead to sin and it is dead to us. It died with Christ and he rose to life without it. We died with Christ but we rose to life with him too. And he rose to life to live with God so that we might too. It’s a thing of the past. It does not control our present or determine our future. Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. It’s true. And in your heart you know it is. So start acting like it. Live for God. Live for Jesus who lives for you.