Last time I surveyed what I believe is the correct understanding of this pregnant phrase from Romans 6. My conclusion was that it refers to our justification and it teaches us that the old identity in Adam is dead and it is replaced by our new identity in Christ. Therefore, we now have the great privilege of entering into our new life in Christ, free from the condemnation and guilt of sin and rejoicing in our new relationship with God through Jesus, our substitute and representative.
But there is an alternative view that suggests that by this phrase Paul is teaching that our human nature is dead. It suggests that when we place our faith in Jesus, or in a subsequent experience of a second work of grace, the old nature dies and only the new nature remains. Therefore, as we progress in disciplining our mind to accept this truth, we will progress to a life that is free from behavioral sin. But there are two problems and an unnecessary consequence with this view.
First, there is a theological problem – it does not seem to fit the biblical evidence. Dozens of times the Bible instructs us not to respond to sin. But if our human nature is dead and we, by nature, are not responsive to sin, why would God tell us not to respond to sin? Colossians 3:5-11 specifically tells us to put to death the deeds of the human nature. Why would Paul tell us to do that if there are no deeds of the human nature? In Galatians 5:16-26, Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is at war with the human nature. We are commanded, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to resist the deeds of the human nature. Why would Paul give this command if the human nature was dead?
The second problem is an experiential problem – it does not fit the reality of the Christian experience. I realize that there has been a significant amount of ink spilled over whether Romans 7 is Paul’s present personal testimony as a believer or whether it refers to his testimony of his experience as an unbelieving Pharisee. My view is that it refers to his Christian experience, which then seems to reflect the experience of all Christians. (Although I do not hold this view because it fits experience – that is backwards hermeneutics. But that exegetical quagmire is for another post. To understand the view that it refers to his pre-Christian experience, see Romans by Douglas Moo. For evidence that it fits his present experience, see Romans by John Stott.) Listen to Paul’s testimony:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Rom 7:14-15 ESV)
Is that your experience? It certainly is mine. But if one holds that the human nature is dead, there is the unfortunate consequence of discouragement and even doubt. Discouragement comes when we cry out to God for this second work of grace whereby our human nature dies, and it doesn’t come and doesn’t come. When we continue to be confronted with sinful impulses and works of the human nature, we feel defeated, even a complete failure as a believer. The ultimate consequence is that we might even doubt our salvation and give up on the Christian life altogether.
But this is not what the phrase “dead to sin” means at all. It means that we are justified and that our relationship with sin has changed. Rather than be discouraged, we rejoice in the grace of God that declares us not guilty and clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, not because our human nature is now dead, but because the death of Jesus has paid our debt and we are free from the condemnation and guilt that sin brings!!
So what do we do with the sinful impulses that are our daily experience? Every true believer wants to be free from sin, wants to obey God, wants to walk in the newness of his life “in Christ.” But it is a constant battle to live that way. How do we gain that freedom from behavioral sin? I’ll begin that discussion in my next post.