Recently I was asked to give a presentation on Romans 6-8 under the title ‘New Life in Jesus’. As I read again these familiar chapters I realised that the first four verses of Romans 6 form a useful lens to look at all three chapters: for Paul our new life is rooted in baptism.
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (Rom 6.1-4)
Paul begins with a question: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (Rom 6.1) Amazingly there were some Christians in the church at Rome who said: “Let’s make the death of Jesus even more glorious – let’s sin all the more, so that God can forgive all the more. If God’s grace so abounded over sin, why shouldn’t we go on sinning, so as to give his grace the opportunity of abounding all the more?’ That’s the logic behind Rom 6:1: “What shall we say, then? Should we continue to live in sin so that God’s grace will increase?” (GNB). Or as JB Phillips put it in his version: “Shall we sin to our heart’s content and see how far we can exploit the grace of God?”. That was the view of Rasputin. the Russian monk and friend of the last Tsar of Russia, who was assassinated in 1916. He held that as those who sin most require most forgiveness, a sinner who continues to sin with abandon enjoys, each time he repents, more of God’s forgiving grace than any other.
To which Paul replies: “By no means” (Rom 6.2: also NIV). “Certainly not” (GNB & REB). In no way can we continue to sin – or at least not those who have been baptised. Paul goes on to liken baptism to a watery grave in which we are buried with Christ and then raised with Christ. As a result many churches in North Africa built their baptisteries in the shape of a coffin.
In baptism we identify ourselves with the Christ who died and rose with us. “We are buried with him” (Rom 6.3). The same thought appears in Col 2.12:
“When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead”.
Baptism is the moment when we give ourselves totally to Christ. It is the moment when effect we declare: ‘Yes, Lord, you died for me’’ ‘Yes, Lord, you rose for me’. From this moment there is no turning back.
However, for Paul baptism is not just a credal statement: it has also ethical implications. In baptism we die to our old sinful way of living, and we rise to Christ’s new way of life. In baptism we turn from sin and renounce evil, and commit ourselves to a new way of living. “Death and resurrection must appear in this life” (G.R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament, 133). Baptism has a moral dimension. We emerge from the waters of baptism. “so that we might walk in newness of life” (Rom 6.4). In the Old Testament the expression “walking” in God’s ways or according to God’s laws is a metaphor for living a life that is well-pleasing to God (see Ex 16.4; Deut 8.6; Ps 101.6; Prov 6.12; Dan 9.10).
I find it significant the Greek word which Paul uses to describe this radically new way of living, kainotes (“newness”), is found only in one other place in the New Testament, viz. Rom 7.6 where Paul ascribes the “newness” to the Spirit: “we are released from the Law, by dying to what held us captive, so that we serve in the newness of the Spirit not in the old service of a written code” (Revised New Jerusalem Bible). The noun kainotes is derived from the adjective kainos which denotes something which is new in nature and is superior to the old way of doing things. It is a life empowered by the Spirit, for says Paul, “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8.2). Or in the words of Peterson’s paraphrase: “A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death” (The Message).
We are set free by the Spirit to live Christlike lives. To use the lively imagery of Keith Warrington, a Pentecostal scholar: “Believers are no longer bound to the mangy dog of sin that rubs against them and sullies their lives, nor are they to be viewed as trying but failing in a constant, nervous fight that leaves them battered and bruised. Paul presents a much more victorious scenario, in which the Spirit enables them ‘to revolt against the usurper sin with a real measure of effectiveness’ (Cranfield)”(The Message of the Holy Spirit, 2000). This setting free begins in baptism. In the words of Paul Achtemeier, an American Presbyterian who became President of the Catholic Biblical Association: baptism “alters our future” – “a future leading no longer to death but to life, and a new relationship with God, through Christ’s resurrection, is ours. We are members of a new race, whose goal for the first time can be something other than rebellion against God and ensuring death. What a joyful situation! We can now hear, and obey, injunctions not to sin, not to rebel against God, not to establish ourselves as gods in his place” (Romans 105).