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Sanctification and Becoming Like Jesus

Free from Sin, Slaves of Righteousness

You cannot receive Christ as your justification only, and then, later, decide to refuse or to accept Him as your sanctification. He is one and indivisible, and if you receive Him at all, at once He is made unto you “wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” You cannot receive Him as your Saviour only, and later decide to accept or refuse Him as your Lord; for the Saviour is the Lord who by His death has [bought] us and therefore owns us. Sanctification is nowhere taught or offered in the New Testament as some additional experience possible to the believer. It is represented rather as something which is already within the believer, something which he must realise more and more and in which he must grow increasingly.

      D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones

A dear friend of mine once ministered in a church where he encountered a retired layman who thought of himself as a Bible teacher. The fellow would seize every opportunity to teach or testify publicly, and his message was always the same. He would talk about how “positional truth” had given him new enthusiasm for the Christian faith.

The “positional truth” he spoke of included the perfect righteousness of Christ that is imputed to believers at justification. The man also loved to point out that all Christians are seated with Christ in heavenly places ( Eph. 2:6 ) and hidden with Christ in God ( Col. 3:3 ). He was eager to remind his fellow Christians that we all stand before God as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” ( 1 Pet. 2:9 ). Those “positional” realities are true of all genuine Christians, regardless of our level of spiritual maturity. Our unassailable standing in Christ is one of the most precious truths of Christian doctrine.

But this particular man, obsessed with “positional truth,” lived a deplorable life. He was a drunkard. He was addicted to cigarettes. He was ill tempered and arrogant. He was unloving to his wife. He had created division and strife in several churches over the years. He was completely undisciplined in almost every way. My friend once visited the man’s home, and signs of his ungodly lifestyle were all over the house.

To this man, “positional truth” evidently meant truth that has no practical ramifications. He had wrongly concluded that since our position in Christ isn’t altered by our practice, Christians really needn’t be bothered about their sins. He evidently believed he could be assured of the promises of the Christian life even though none of the practical fruits of faith were evident in his walk. In short, he loved the idea of justification but seemed to give scant attention to sanctification. My friend rightly encouraged him to examine whether he was truly in Christ ( 2 Cor. 13:5 ).

Nowhere in Scripture do we find positional righteousness set against righteous behavior, as if the two realities were innately disconnected. In fact, the apostle Paul’s teaching was diametrically opposed to the notion that “positional truth” means we are free to sin. After two and a half chapters of teaching about “positional” matters, Paul wrote, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be!” ( Rom. 6:1–2 ). In stark contrast to the man who concluded that sin must be OK since our practice doesn’t alter our position, Paul taught that our position does make a difference in our practice: “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (v. 2 ).

What is no-lordship theology but the teaching that those who have died to sin can indeed live in it? In that regard, no-lordship teaching rests on the same foundation as the doctrine of the “positional truth” zealot I have just described. It separates justification from sanctification.

Second-Blessing Spirituality?

No-lordship theology demands a two-level approach to the Christian experience. Because of the presupposition that faith has nothing to do with surrender, no-lordship teaching about obedience and spiritual maturity must begin with a postconversion experience of personal consecration to God. This is analogous to “deeper life” theology, which in turn echoes the Wesleyan idea of a “second blessing,” or second work of grace.

Charles Ryrie is candid about the no-lordship approach to spirituality:

Before any lasting progress can be made on the road of spiritual living, the believer must be a dedicated person. Although this is not a requirement for salvation, it is the basic foundation for sanctification. As we have pointed out, dedication is a complete, crisis commitment of self for all of the years of one’s life. Such dedication may be triggered by some problem or decision that has to be faced, but it concerns a person, the child of God, not an activity or ambition or plan for the future. A dedicated person will have dedicated plans and ambitions; but dedicated plans do not necessarily require or guarantee dedication of the planner.

Dedication is a break with one’s own control over his life and a giving of that control to the Lord. It does not solve all the problems immediately and automatically, but it does provide the basis for solution, growth and progress in the Christian life.

Dr. Ryrie includes a diagram that illustrates how he views typical progress in the Christian life. It is a line that rises and falls to show the peaks and valleys of the Christian life, always with an upward trend. What is significant about the diagram is that the line is flat—indicating no growth whatsoever—between the point of conversion and the “crisis” of dedication. Only after dedication does practical sanctification begin.

According to no-lordship theology, it seems, conversion alone does not “provide the basis for … growth and progress in the Christian life” or “the basic foundation for sanctification.” A second-level experience is necessary before practical sanctification can even begin. Thus no-lordship theology divides Christians into two groups—the haves and the have-nots. The terminology is slightly different, but this theology is nothing but a repackaging of second-blessing sanctification. It sends Christians on a futile quest for an experience to supply what they already possess—if they are truly believers.

More than a century ago J. C. Ryle correctly analyzed the chief fallacy of every two-step approach to spirituality:

Sudden, instantaneous leaps from conversion to consecration I fail to see in the Bible. I doubt, indeed, whether we have any warrant for saying that a man can possibly be converted without being consecrated to God! More consecrated he doubtless can be, and will be as his grace increases; but if he was not consecrated to God in the very day that he was converted and born again, I do not know what conversion means.…

I have sometimes thought, while reading the strong language used by many about “consecration” that those who use it must have had previously a singularly low and inadequate view of “conversion,” if indeed they knew anything about conversion at all. In short, I have almost suspected that when they were “consecrated,” they were in reality converted for the first time!

…By all means let us teach that there is more holiness to be attained and more of heaven to be enjoyed upon earth than most believers now experience. But I decline to tell any converted man that he needs a second conversion.

All no-lordship teaching hinges on a two-stage theory of the Christian life. Stage one, conversion, is receiving Christ as Savior. Stage two, consecration, is surrendering to Him as Lord. In between is usually a period of time during which the “carnal Christian” lives like a pagan before he or she makes the “decision” to become a “disciple.” One needs only to listen to testimonies to see how pervasive this teaching has become in American evangelicalism: “I received Christ as my Savior at age seven, and didn’t make Him Lord until I was in my thirties.”

I am convinced that such testimonies reflect people’s misinterpretation of their own experiences. There are many degrees of sanctification; hence many levels of commitment to Christ. But no one who truly has trusted Christ for salvation is un committed in principle to Christ’s lordship, and no one who perpetually lives in conscious and purposeful rebellion against Him can truly claim to trust Him.

As I have pointed out, God justifies no one whom He does not sanctify. No second work of grace is necessary for those who have been born again. The apostle Peter could not have stated it more clearly: “His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence” ( 2 Pet. 1:3 , emphasis added). Sanctification is not a second-level experience entered into sometime after conversion. Paul addressed the Corinthians as “ those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” ( 1 Cor. 1:2 , emphasis added). He reminded them, “By [God’s] doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (v. 30 ). He told the Thessalonians, “God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth” ( 2 Thess. 2:13 ).

If the positional aspects of God’s truth are applicable to a life, His practical sanctifying work will also be operative in that same life.

What Is Sanctification?

Sanctification is the continuous operation of the Holy Spirit in believers, making us holy by conforming our character, affections, and behavior to the image of Christ. Justification is a one-time event; sanctification is an ongoing process. Justification frees us from the guilt of sin, sanctification from the pollution of sin. As we are seeing, one is as much a necessary part of God’s saving work as the other.

Note this crucial distinction: At justification we surrender the principle of sin and self-rule. In sanctification we relinquish the practice of specific sins as we mature in Christ. Total surrender to Christ’s lordship does not mean that we make all of life’s decisions as a prerequisite to conversion (cf. SGS 49). It does not demand that we give up all our sins before we can be justified. It is not “the commitment of the years of one’s life on earth” ( SGS 118, cf. 106–7, 120, 123). It means that when we trust Christ for salvation we settle the issue of who is in charge. At salvation we surrender to Christ in principle, but as Christians we will surrender in practice again and again. This practical outworking of His lordship is the process of sanctification.

There is an immediate aspect of sanctification that is simultaneous with justification: “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God” ( 1 Cor. 6:11 ). This once-for-all aspect of sanctification is undoubtedly what the apostle had in view when he addressed the Corinthians as “those who have been sanctified” ( 1:2 ). This initial, immediate aspect is sometimes referred to as “positional sanctification” ( SGS 151).

But sanctification, unlike justification, is not a one-time, legal declaration. It is an experiential separation from sin that begins at salvation and continues in increasing degrees of practical holiness in one’s life and behavior. Sanctification may be observable in greater or lesser degrees from believer to believer. But it is not optional, nor is it separable from the other aspects of our salvation.

Perhaps the writer to the Hebrews stated the necessity of practical sanctification most succinctly: “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord” ( Heb. 12:14 ). The context shows that verse is speaking of holy behavior, practical righteousness, not just a positional or forensic holiness (vv. 11 , 12 , 13 , 15 , 16 ).

To Work, or Not to Work?

In Romans 4:5 (“But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness”) Paul’s point was that God’s righteousness is reckoned to people who believe, not to people who try to earn divine favor by religious ritual or self-righteous works. He was not suggesting, as many do today, that a believer who has been declared righteous might fail to produce good works. In no way does this verse erect a barrier—or even suggest a separation—between justification and sanctification.

In fact, following the progression of Paul’s argument in Romans 3–8 , we find he deals with precisely this issue. As we noted in chapter 6 , Romans 3 and 4 describe the legal aspect of justification, God’s reckoning by which a believing sinner is declared fully righteous. Romans 5 explains how guilt or righteousness can be imputed to one person because of the obedience or disobedience of another.

In Romans 6 the apostle turns to the practical aspect of God’s righteousness—sanctification. He is teaching that God’s righteousness, granted by faith to every believer, has both judicial and practical implications. There are not two kinds of righteousness—only two aspects of divine righteousness. Righteousness is a single package; God does not declare someone righteous whom He does not also make righteous. Having begun the process, He will continue it to ultimate glorification ( Rom. 8:29–30 ; cf. Phil. 1:6 ).

Dr. B. B. Warfield saw this as the whole point of Romans 6 :

The whole sixth chapter of Romans … was written for no other purpose than to assert and demonstrate that justification and sanctification are indissolubly bound together; that we cannot have the one without having the other; that, to use its own figurative language, dying with Christ and living with Christ are integral elements in one indisintegrable salvation. To wrest these two things apart and make separable gifts of grace of them evinces a confusion in the conception of Christ’s salvation which is nothing less than portentous. It forces from us the astonished cry, Is Christ divided? And it compels us to point afresh to the primary truth that we do not obtain the benefits of Christ apart from, but only in and with His Person; and that when we have Him we have all.

Sanctification is so much an essential part of salvation that the term is commonly used in Scripture as a synonym for salvation (cf. Acts 20:32 ; 26:18 ; 1 Cor. 1:2 , 30 ; 6:11 ; 2 Thess. 2:13 ; Heb. 2:11 ; 10:14 ; 1 Pet. 1:2 ).

A Closer Look at Romans 6

As Paul finished his discussion of justification, he extolled the grace of God. “The Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” ( Rom. 5:20–21 ). If the increased presence of sin means grace abounds all the more, an obvious question comes to mind: “Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” ( 6:1 ). After all, if justification means we are instantly declared perfectly righteous, what real difference does it make whether we sin or not? If our sin only accents the grace of God, why not sin even more?

Paul anticipated that such questions would be raised. He answers them in depth by making several key points about how sanctification operates.

Sanctification is inseparably linked to justification. Paul attacks the notion that justification is the sum of God’s work in salvation: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” ( Romans 6:1–4 ).

Evidently Paul had already encountered considerable opposition to the doctrine of justification by faith. Certainly his Jewish audiences would have been unable to conceive of pleasing God by any means other than strict adherence to the rabbinic law. In their system, legalism epitomized godliness (cf. Acts 15:1–29 ). To legalistic Jews, justification by faith sounded like antinomianism. To teach that salvation is God’s work, not ours, was an affront to their haughty egos. The notion that God’s grace abounds where sin thrives hit at the heart of their system (cf. Luke 18:11–12 ). Because they didn’t understand grace, they could think of only one alternative to legalism: antinomianism. They reasoned that if salvation is all by grace, and grace glorifies God, and God delights in justifying the ungodly, then why not sin more? After all, ungodliness only allows God to demonstrate His grace in greater measures.

That, by the way, was precisely the theology of Rasputin, religious adviser to the ruling family of Russia nearly a hundred years ago. He taught that man’s sin glorifies God. The greater man’s sin, the more God is glorified in giving grace. Therefore he encouraged people to sin with abandon. Those who suppress their sin suppress God’s ability to show His glory, according to Rasputin. His teaching contributed to the downfall of Russia.

In the mid-seventeenth century an English sect known as the Ranters taught a similar doctrine. They encouraged immorality and indulgence, believing God is glorified by showing grace. Puritan Richard Baxter opposed their teaching.

Paul himself had already confronted similar ideas. In Romans 3:5–6 he cited the argument of those who claimed God was unrighteous to punish sin since our unrighteousness demonstrates His righteousness. Then he condemned those who had accused the apostles of teaching pragmatic antinomianism (“Let us do evil that good may come” [ Rom. 3:8 ]).

We see that antinomianism has been a threat from the earliest days of the church. Jude wrote, “Certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” ( Jude 4 ). Jude was describing early antinomians.

In Romans 6 , Paul says justification by faith makes no place for antinomianism. He attacks the antinomians without yielding an inch of ground to the legalists. He would neither abandon God’s grace to accommodate legalism nor abandon God’s righteousness to accommodate libertinism. According to Paul, true holiness is as much a gift of God as is the new birth and the spiritual life it brings. The life that is void of holiness has no claim to justification.

“Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase?” The Greek word translated “continue” speaks of habitual persistence. Paul was not asking whether believers might fall into sin; he was ruling out intentional, willful, constant sinning as a routine of life.

Put in theological terms, this is the summary question: Can justification truly exist apart from sanctification? Paul’s answer is emphatically no.

To be alive in Christ is to be dead to sin. “May it never be!” ( 6:2 ) is an accurate translation. But the King James Version captures the force of Paul’s exclamation: “God forbid!” The very suggestion that sin in the Christian’s life might in any way glorify God was abhorrent to Paul. “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

Christians have died to sin. It is therefore inconceivable to Paul that we might continue to live in the sin from which we were delivered by death. Only a corrupt mind using perverted logic could argue that continuing in sin magnifies God’s grace. It is self-evident that death terminates life; it is equally obvious that death to sin must end a life of unbroken transgression.

“Died to sin” (Gk., apothnēskō ) speaks of a historical fact referring to our death in the death of Christ. Because we are “in Christ” ( 6:11 ; 8:1 ), and He died in our place ( 5:6–8 ), we are counted dead with Him. We are therefore dead to sin’s penalty and dominion. Death is permanent. Death and life are incompatible. So the person who has died to sin cannot continue living in iniquity. Certainly we can commit sins, but we do not live anymore in the dimension of sin and under sin’s rule (cf. 8:2–4 ). Sin is contrary to our new disposition. “No one who is born of God practices sin,” according to John, “because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God” ( 1 John 3:9 ). It is not merely that we should not continue to live in unbroken sin but that we cannot.

Dying to sin implies an abrupt, irreversible, wholesale break with the power of sin. This schism with sin is the immediate, once-for-all aspect of sanctification we spoke of earlier. It is the past tense of sanctification out of which all practical holiness proceeds.

The phrase “we who died to sin” does not describe an advanced class of Christians. Paul is speaking here of all believers. His point is that a justified life must be a sanctified life. Practical holiness is as much God’s work as any other element of redemption. When we are born again, God not only declares us righteous, but He also begins to cultivate righteousness in our lives. Thus salvation is not only a forensic declaration; it is a miracle of conversion, of transformation. There is no such thing as a true convert to Christ who is justified but who is not being sanctified. There is no gap between justification and sanctification. Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse wrote,

Although justification is not sanctification, justification is intended to produce sanctification. Holiness is to be the touchstone of the Christian life. Christ came in order to save his people from their sins ( Matt. 1:21 ); they were not to be saved in the midst of their sins and then lie down in them again. Though men seek to pervert the gospel, the Christian must not be drawn aside to any position other than that which demands holiness and which leads to holiness.…

Justification and sanctification are as inseparable as a torso and a head. You can’t have one without the other. God does not give “gratuitous righteousness” apart from newness of life. While justification, in its action, has nothing to do with sanctification, it does not follow that sanctification is not necessary. “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord” ( Heb. 12:14 ). Holiness starts where justification finishes, and if holiness does not start, we have the right to suspect that justification never started either.

As the sinful, unregenerate person cannot help manifesting his or her true character, neither can the regenerate person.

So it is impossible to be alive in Christ and still be alive to sin.

Our union with Christ guarantees a changed life. Death to sin is a result of the believer’s union with Christ. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection” (vv. 3–5 , emphasis added).

Elsewhere Paul says we become new creatures “in Christ” ( 2 Cor. 5:17 ). He means that our union with Christ is the basis of our sanctification. It spells both the end of the old and the start of the new.

“In Christ” is one of Paul’s favorite phrases (cf. Rom. 8:1 ; 12:5 ; 16:7 ; 1 Cor. 1:2 ; Col. 1:28 ). Because we are “in Christ Jesus” He has become to us “wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” ( 1 Cor. 1:30 ). Our life is hid with Christ in God ( Col. 3:3 ). We are buried with Him by baptism into death ( Rom. 6:4 ; Col. 2:12 ). We are one body in Him ( Rom. 12:5 ). Christ is our life ( Col. 3:4 ). Christ is in us, the hope of glory ( Col. 1:27 ). Those verses describe the absolute identification with Christ that is the essential characteristic of the elect. We are indivisibly linked in a spiritual sphere of new life.

That unfathomable truth is why Paul so strongly rebuked the sexual immorality of some in the Corinthian church: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be!” ( 1 Cor. 6:15 ).

To be “in Christ” is not only to believe some truths about Him, but rather to be united to Him inseparably as the source of our eternal life, as both the “author and perfecter of faith” ( Heb. 12:2 , emphasis added). To be “in Him” is to be in the process of sanctification.

We are united with Christ specifically in His death and resurrection ( Rom. 6:3–10 ). This truth is far too wonderful for us to comprehend fully, but the main idea Paul wants to convey here is that we died with Christ so that we might have life through Him and live like Him. Paul’s stress is not on the immorality of continuing to live the way we did before we were saved, but on the impossibility of it. The whole purpose of our union in Christ’s death and resurrection with Christ is so that “we too might walk in newness of life” (v. 4 ). How could we continue in the realm of sin?

So the certain consequence of our union in Christ’s death to sin and His resurrection to life is that we will share in His holy walk. “If we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection.” As our old self died, a new creation was born (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17 ). Bishop Handley Moule wrote, “It is a thing not to be thought of that the sinner should accept justification—and live to himself. It is a moral contradiction of the very deepest kind, and cannot be entertained without betraying an initial error in the man’s whole spiritual creed.”

In Christ we are not the same people we were before salvation. “Our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” ( Rom. 6:6 ). Elsewhere Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” ( Gal. 2:20 ). Our new life as Christians is not an amended old life but a divinely bestowed new life that is of the same nature as Christ’s very own. It is what our Lord spoke of when He promised abundant life ( John 10:10 ).

Nor is Paul describing a dualistic, schizophrenic Christian. The old man—the unregenerate person that was “in Adam” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:22 ; Rom. 5:14–15 )—is dead. We are to “lay aside” that crucified, dead, and corrupt old self ( Eph. 4:22 ), and “put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (v. 24 ). It is true of every genuine believer that our old self is dead. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” ( Gal. 5:24 ). If the old self isn’t dead, conversion hasn’t occurred. Paul reminded the Colossians that they had already “laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and … put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him” ( Col. 3:9–10 ).

As we shall note in chapter 8 , Christians sin because of the vestiges of sinful flesh, not because they have the same old active sinful nature. Certainly we sin, but when we sin it is contrary to our nature, not because we have two dispositions—one sinful and one not. “Our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with” ( Rom. 6:6 ).

That does not mean our sinful tendencies are annihilated. The Greek word translated “done away with” literally means “to render inoperative, invalidate.” Sin has lost its dominating control over us. Obviously we all struggle with sinful propensities. Death to the sinful self does not mean death to the flesh and its corrupted inclinations. Because of the pleasures of sin and the weakness of our remaining flesh, we often yield to sin.

The tyranny and penalty of sin have been nullified, but sin’s potential for expression has not yet been fully removed. Our human weaknesses and instincts make us capable of succumbing to temptation (as we shall see in chapter 8 when we study Romans 7:14–25 ). We are, in short, new creations—holy and redeemed but wrapped in grave clothes of unredeemed flesh. We are like Lazarus, who came forth from the grave still wrapped from head to foot in his burial garments. Jesus instructed those standing nearby to “unbind him, and let him go” ( John 11:44 ).

So the apostle admonishes believers, “we should no longer be slaves to sin” ( Rom. 6:6 ). The translation leaves the meaning somewhat ambiguous. Is Paul suggesting that it is optional as to whether we live as slaves to sin or not? Is he implying that we have a choice—that Christians can still be enslaved to sin? Verses 17–18 answer that question with no ambiguity: “Though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness ” (emphasis added). Every verb in those two verses underscores the truth that our slavery to sin is already broken by Christ and is henceforth a thing of the past. Verse 22 confirms it: “Having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit [lit., “fruit”], resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.”

So in verse 6 , the phrase “should no longer be slaves of sin” clearly means that believers can no longer be slaves of sin. No genuine Christian lives in bondage to sin. Those who have died in Christ are free from such slavery (v. 7 ). Paul even uses the analogy of marriage ( Rom. 7:1–4 ), making the point that the first husband has died, so we are no longer obligated to him, but we have been freed and joined to a new husband, namely Christ, “that we might bear fruit for God” (v. 4 ).

Peter taught precisely the same thing: “Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God” ( 1 Pet. 4:1–2 ).

Faith is the means by which we conquer sin. The series of verbs in Romans 6 —“know” (vv. 3 , 6 , 9 ), “reckon” (v. 11 , kjv ), and “yield” (v. 13 kjv )—speak of faith. In fact, they perfectly parallel the three essential elements of faith we listed in chapter 3 : know ( notitia ), reckon ( assensus ), and yield ( fiducia ). Paul is challenging the Romans to apply their faith more diligently, to take off the old grave clothes and live the new life to the fullness of Christ’s righteousness and glory: “Consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace” ( 6:11–14 ). That sums up the life of faith.

Our spiritual death to sin and resurrection into new life with Christ are the underpinning of our sanctification. We need to know and believe that we are not what we used to be. We must see that we are not remodeled sinners but reborn saints. We must grasp the truth that we are no longer under sin’s tyranny. The dawn of faith is knowledge of these spiritual realities. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you” ( Hos. 4:6 ).

Reckoning takes the believer’s response one step further: “Consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” ( Rom. 6:11 ). “Consider,” or “reckon” ( kjv ), in that verse comes from the same Greek term, logizomai , which we saw in Romans 4:3 (“Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness”). It is an accounting term meaning “calculate,” or “figure.” In this context it takes the believer’s faith beyond mere knowledge. To “reckon” here means to have unreserved confidence, to affirm a truth from the heart, as opposed to knowing it intellectually.

Yielding goes even beyond that and involves the believer’s will. Paul writes, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present [ yield, kjv ] yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” ( Rom. 6:12–13 ).

Sin is still a powerful force, but it is no longer master over the Christian. Sin is like a deposed but angry monarch, determined to reign again in our lives. It still occupies some territory, but not the capital city. Paul says we are not to yield to sin, but we must yield instead to God. This is an act of trust. “This is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” ( 1 John 5:4 ). So even our sanctification is by faith.

Grace guarantees victory over sin. Because salvation is forever, our immortal souls are eternally beyond sin’s reach. But sin can attack Christians in their mortal bodies. Even our bodies will someday be glorified and forever be out of sin’s reach, but as long as this life lasts we are subject to corruption and death. “This perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality” ( 1 Cor. 15:53 ). Until then our mortal bodies are still subject to sin. That is why “we … groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” ( Rom. 8:23 ).

Therefore Paul says, “Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” ( Rom. 6:13 ). This parallels Romans 12:1 : “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” ( Rom. 12:1 , emphasis added), and “I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” ( 1 Cor. 9:27 , emphasis added).

Many interpreters have been tripped up by the verb tenses in Romans 6:12–13. “Do not let sin reign” and “do not go on presenting” are present active imperative verbs. They are contrasted with an aorist imperative, “but present yourselves to God.” At first glance it seems the apostle could be saying “ Stop letting sin reign and stop yielding your members to sin, but submit yourselves to God” implying that these people were Christians who had never surrendered to Christ’s lordship.

But the context clearly indicates otherwise. Paul also reminds them, “you became obedient from the heart” (v. 17 ); “you became slaves of righteousness” (v. 18 ); and “[you were] freed from sin and enslaved to God.” These are not people who have never surrendered. Here, and in Romans 12:1–2 , Paul was simply encouraging them to keep surrendering in practice what they had already surrendered in principle. He was calling for decisive, deliberate surrender in their lives right now.

Is the outcome in doubt? Certainly not. In verse 14 Paul offers these assuring words: “Sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.” The Christian is no longer under the condemning power of God’s law but is now under the redeeming power of His grace. It is in the power of that grace, by faith, that the Lord now calls him to live.

Freedom from sin enslaves us to righteousness. Paul returns to the question of antinomianism:

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

      Romans 6:15–18

Freedom from the law means freedom from sin’s bondage and freedom from the law’s penalty—not freedom from moral restraint. Grace does not mean we have permission to do as we please; it means we have the power to do what pleases God. The mere suggestion that God’s grace gives us license to sin is self-contradictory, for the very purpose of grace is to free us from sin. How can we who are the recipients of grace continue in sin?

“May it never be!” is the same powerful and unequivocal denial Paul gave in verse 2 . This truth needs no proof; it is self-evident: “Do you not know?” implies that everyone should understand something so basic. What could be more obvious? When you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey! There are only two choices. If our lives are characterized by sin, then we are sin’s slaves. If we are characterized by obedience, then we are slaves of righteousness (vv. 16–18 ). Either way, we are not our own masters.

It is equally true that “no one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” ( Matt. 6:24 ). You cannot serve God and sin. Those who think they are Christians but are enslaved to sin are sadly deceived. We cannot have two contradictory natures at the same time. We cannot live in two opposing spiritual domains simultaneously. We cannot serve two masters. We are either slaves of sin by natural birth, or slaves of righteousness by regeneration. We can’t be both in the Spirit and in the flesh (cf. Rom. 8:5–9 ).

Paul is not teaching the Romans that they ought to be slaves of righteousness. He is reminding them that they are slaves of righteousness. He told the Colossians the same thing: “Although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” ( Col. 1:21–22 ). For the Christian, the life of unrighteousness and hostility toward God is in the past. No true believer will continue indefinitely in disobedience, because sin is diametrically opposed to our new and holy nature. Real Christians cannot endure perpetually sinful living.

Paul thus reminds the Romans that they are no longer enslaved to sin: “Thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed,” (v. 17 ). Paul is not speaking about a legalistic or mechanical show of righteousness: “You became obedient from the heart.” Grace transforms a person’s innermost being. A person whose heart has not been changed is not saved. The hallmark of grace is an obedient heart.

Again, we must be clear: Obedience does not produce or maintain salvation, but it is the inevitable characteristic of those who are saved. The desire to know and obey God’s truth is one of the surest marks of genuine salvation. Jesus made it clear that those who obey His word are the true believers (cf. John 8:31 ; 14:21 , 23 , 24 ; 15:10 ).

Slaves of sin—unbelievers—are free from righteousness ( Rom. 6:20 ). Christians, on the other hand, are free from sin and enslaved to God through faith in Jesus Christ (v. 22 ). The inevitable benefit is sanctification, and the ultimate outcome is eternal life (v. 22 ). This promise sums up the whole point of Romans 6 : God not only frees us from sin’s penalty (justification), but He frees us from sin’s tyranny as well (sanctification).

Nevertheless, though we are no longer subject to sin’s dominion, all of us struggle desperately with sin in our lives. How that can be and what we can do about it is the subject of chapter 8 .

John MacArthur, The Gospel According to the Apostles : The Role of Works in the Life of Faith, Originally Published: Faith Works. Dallas : Word Pub., c1993. (Nashville, TN: Word Pub., 2000).

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