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  • Writer's pictureEric Cline

Romans Chapter 6—A Commentary

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Introduction

As we have seen in the previous chapter, in chapter 5, Paul declared that the righteous are justified by faith. He did this in Romans chapter 5, verse one. They are reconciled to God in verse 10, are living in the abundance of God's grace, in verses 17 and 18, and are assured of eternal life, in verse 21. Back in chapter 3, verse 20, Paul insists that no human is justified by works of the law, and in the next verse, verse 21, the righteousness of God has been revealed to us apart from the law.[1] The overall content of Romans chapter five is that “grace has swamped sin.” We’re under God’s grace, which leads us to Romans 6.

Romans 6:1-6

The righteousness of God has been revealed to us apart from the law. The overall content of Romans chapter five is that “grace has swamped sin.” In Chapter 6, We’re under God’s grace, freed from sin and self. Let’s contemplate a bit more how we are under God’s grace, freed from sin and self.

Discussion Question

What does it mean to be “under God’s grace?” Is Paul dismissing the Old Testament? Does being under God’s grace mean that we can continue in a sinful lifestyle? If the old law is a preparation for the gospel, is the new law the grace of the Holy Spirit? Are we justified by God’s grace? I’ve heard it said that Christians are like tea bags——you get a taste of them when they get into hot water.

I guess we just don’t need the law

So, since we are under God’s grace and not the law, I guess we just don’t need the law. We can ignore the law and live like heathens—To this, Paul answers emphatically, "Certainly not!" In Greek “certainly not!” reads (mega noyta) mē genoito, or "death to that idea!" There are over 70 occurrences in 20 translations of this expression of shocked repudiation in the Bible.2 The NIV and the RSV use “by no means,” and the KJV uses “God forbid.” It is also often translated as “shall not.” In plain language, Paul just means what he says, "Certainly not!"

Paul is not saying that the believer is free from the obligation to keep the law’s demands. In fact, in Romans 13:8, Paul tells his audience, “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law” and Paul follows by reminding us of the Commandments. The controlling principle in the life of the believer is the reign of grace that sets him free from the reign of sin.

We cannot out-sin God's grace and forgiveness.

To live like heathens keeps us as slaves to sin. We are saved by grace, by faith alone,[1] but not faith that is alone. Good works are followed by and are evidence of our faith. James 2 tells us that faith without works is dead.

This is God’s word. Works do not save us; nor, strictly speaking, does our faith. We are saved by grace, yes? By God’s grace, our hearts beat over 86,000 times a day. By God’s grace and patience, the hearts of the unrepentant continue to beat. God’s grace is love in action.

Consider the infant, having no cognition of faith, receiving saving grace. John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Ghost from his mother's womb. We read something similar about Jeremiah: In Jeremiah 1:5 God says, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; before you were born, I sanctified you; and I ordained you a prophet to the nations.”

The same is recorded about Samuel, while yet a babe the Lord called him. It only makes sense, brothers, and sisters, that even before the intellect can work, God, who worketh not by the will of man, nor by blood, but by the mysterious agency of his Holy Spirit, creates the infant soul a new creature in Christ Jesus. What greater message can we offer those parents grieving the loss of a baby?

Faith is the instrument means by which we appropriate God’s salvation. When we live out our faith, we are dead to sin. We no longer must live under the power of sin. Baptized believers are united with Christ through his death and resurrection. Paul tells us in verse 6 that our old man was crucified with him and in verse 8 that we will live with him. New Testament scholar Dr. Eckhard Schnabel sums it up nicely, “Those joined to Christ have died to sin and therefore cannot continue to live in sin because they have been absorbed into a divine spiritual reality that overcomes the spiritual reality of sin and death.”[3]

In chapter 3 Paul writes that he was slandered. He is accused of teaching the falsehood of “doing evil in order that good would come” (3:8). Make no mistake, sin and its co-conspirator, death, still rule if one thinks doing evil is going to bring good (Eph 2:8).

“Justification by faith does not boil down to justification for sinning.”[4]

God gifts us grace without any prior conditions. His grace precedes faith. Before there was a sinner, there was a savior. God’s grace is unmerited. It is not something we earn.

But God’s grace is transformative. God expects changed behavior. We know this because the Bible tells us that God will assess our behavior in the final judgment.[2]

Paul begins chapter 6 with indicatives to describe the believer’s situation and how God brings one unto Christ. He then issues imperatives, something that needs to be done or not done. But he doesn’t tell Christians to stop sinning. Instead, he argues that continuing to sin is incompatible with their new status in Christ.

Baptized

In Romans 6:3-4, Paul assumes about those in Rome, “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, we were buried with him through baptism into death. That just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, Even so we also should walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4).

Indeed, Paul had no relationship with the community in Rome prior to the drafting of his epistle. He neither established the church at Rome nor, in fact, had he ever yet visited the illustrious city. Remember, this is Paul of Tarsus of Turkey, a Roman citizen and Israelite from the lineage of Benjamin. The letter concerns not specific issues within the Roman church per se, but rather Paul's articulation of his own gospel.

Discussion Question

How is Baptism typically defined? Is baptism the sign and seal of being engrafted into Christ and of regeneration, remission of sins, and adoption? Is baptism the sacramental sign of the New Covenant? Does the validity of baptism rest upon the character of the minister who performs it or the character of the person who receives it?

Death has a baptismal sense.

Paul writes in verses 6,7 and 11,Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Likewise, you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul’s reference to death helps explain the previous slide about us being baptized into Christ's death.

The "old man" is used in Rom. 6:6 and Col. 3:9. In each context, it refers to the sinful nature inherited from Adam's sin. Because of the surrounding context of identity with Adam and then with Christ, it appears that the understanding here is that Adam is the "old man”, and Christ is the "new man," representing the entire human race. Romans chapter 5 shows a cosmic contrast between the one man (Adam) and the one man (Jesus Christ) which both affected humanity.

While it may appear that this death to sin would result in a sin-free life, Romans 6:12-23 indicates that the believer can still choose to obey the "old man" even though he is a slave to him no longer. We cannot totally separate from the “old man” on this side of glory. This is another good example of the “already and not yet” concept: We are already God’s children, adopted into his family, but we are not his children fully.

Augustine said that we still have free will, but we have lost our liberty. We have nature freedom (the power to act according to our desires) but have lost moral freedom, the desire of the soul toward righteousness.

We are not free to choose our own nature. For example, we cannot choose to change our nature to always do only good (therefore, never evil) or always do only evil (therefore, never good). This is where our freedom stops. Even after the fall, our will is intact for choosing and we continue to choose to sin or choose to do good.

Not a Sacramental Baptism

Paul is not referring to a sacramental theology of baptism. The verb “to baptize” in English, however, is not a translation of the Greek word Baptism but a transliteration. In Hellenistic Greek, the verb commonly means to immerse, to plunge, or to dip, into a substance such as water. It could also be used figuratively to mean “being overcome or overpowered.” Paul uses the noun baptism in Romans 6:4 with a metaphorical nuance, such as how John the Baptist used it in Matthew 3:11, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The initiation into the Christian life, the baptism by which we die and rise again with Christ, is the baptism of the Spirit. The whole being in the Spirit of Christ is the true baptism of which the immersion in water is only the effectual sign.

Again, it’s essential for us to realize that Paul is not talking about sacramental baptism. In this context, the death of the believer is a present reality. The believer’s resurrection is a future event. Rising out of baptismal waters is not what Paul means by resurrection. Our Catholic friends see baptism as salvation, followed by more works of salvation. The ultimate victory over sin awaits our physical death and resurrection, and that dying with Christ is a life-long process.[6] Second Corinthians 4:7-11 tells us, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us. We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”

Too often we inappropriately treat transliterated words as technical terms when they were not used as such by the original audience.

What we typically understand about Baptism: Christian “initiation” (technical).

What a Greek speaker understood about Baptism in this context is like the metaphorical usage in Mark 10:38-39 (non-technical, not a Christian initiation):

“But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ So, Jesus said to them, ‘You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with, you will be baptized’” (Mark 10:38-39). Other examples include Mark 7:3-4; Hebrews 6:2; 9:10; and Mark 7:3-4.

βαπτισμα

The figurative usage of the word Baptism best fits Paul's meaning in this context rather than in reference to the rite of baptism. For example, the statement “we have been buried with him” affirms three things. First, the passive voice means that God is the agent behind the action of being buried with Christ. Second, being placed in the tomb with Christ means that our old Adamic way of life presided over by sin, death, and estrangement, has been put out of its misery and laid to rest. Third, it means that the believer has been transported symbolically to the state of existence that Christ entered through his death on the cross.

Romans 6:13-14

In Romans 6:12-14, “Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not have dominion over you, [that’s an indicative statement], for you are not under law, but under grace.” The freedom of grace is freedom for obedience, not license for moral carelessness.

Since the reign of sin has been broken, all attempts on sin’s part to recover dominion can and must be resisted. I think to think of sin as “cosmic treason” or “temporary insanity.” The body, once ruled by sinful desires, must no longer be yielded to them. Paul sees the secret of sanctification to lie in giving the whole person to God, which follows the offering of the various parts of the body to him in devotion and in allegiance, as warriors. In this context, “instruments” have military overtones and is translated elsewhere as “armor” or “weapons.”

In verse 12, what is the “therefore” there for? It marks the shift from the indicative (the believer’s situation in the previous verses, 1-11) to the imperative,[1] the something that believers need to do, and that is for believers to present their members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. We will see this in verses 15-23.

Romans 6:15-16

In Romans 6:15-16, we once again read the question and diatribe style of verse 1: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?”

Death is an interesting word, one that can be used in a variety of contexts. We can say, “The battery is dead, the internet is dead, or the Denver Nuggets’ chance of winning the NBA finals is dead.” Well, that didn’t happen! All that means is there has been a disconnection; there was something connected, and it has gotten disconnected. That’s also what happens when a relationship dies, we are disconnected from the relationship. We cease to have intimate fellowship with them. If we are slaves to sin, we are disconnected from God. When God made the fish he spoke to the sea, when he made the tree, he spoke to the soil. When he made man, he spoke to himself. The fish away from the sea dies, and the tree dies away from the soil. We die away from God.

Romans 6:6, 18

“Our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin” (Romans 6:6). And now in Romans 6:18, “and having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”

A third of a city like Corinth consisted of slaves and another third of freed ex-slaves. Within Roman law there was a set of practices for freeing trusted slaves, granting them a limited form of Roman Citizenship. People in urban centers might sell themselves into slavery to survive.[8] Two-thirds of the community in Rome were likely slaves or freed persons.[9]

From Slaves of Sin to Slaves of God

Therefore, Paul's audience certainly understood the concept of slavery. But notice the imagery changes from slavery to freedom: slaves of sin to slaves of God. According to Garland, “it is estimated that one in five persons in Rome was a slave, so it is more likely that Paul intends to conjure up for the original audience images from their familiarity with slavery rather than from their knowledge of the term’s use in Scripture.”

At The Feet of Gamaliel

Luke records in Acts 22:3 Paul’s speech to the Jews, “I am indeed a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers’ law, and was zealous toward God as you all are today.” Paul’s teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel not only accepted slavery but was a slave owner himself.[10]

First-Century Slavery

Patterson, an author on slavery, defines slavery during the time of Romans as an “institution that is created and maintained by violence. Enslaved persons are separated from family and ethnic ties to the extent that they ‘died’ socially.”[11]

Discussion Question

How did Rome acquire so many slaves?

The short answer is that Rome acquired many slaves through military conquests.

The history of the Roman Empire can be divided into three distinct periods: The Period of Kings (625-510 BC), Republican Rome (510-31 BC), and Imperial Rome (31 BC–AD 476).

· The foundation of the Roman Republic occurred 500 years before Christ.

· In 390 BC, Rome is sacked in the “Gallic Catastrophe.”

· Julius Caesar is the founder of the Roman Empire from 100 BC to 44 BC.

· Mithraism, a sect of Zoroastrianism, spread in the Roman empire before the acceptance of Christianity.

· Paul the Apostle goes on missionary journeys across Asia Minor, Greece, and Rome from 42 AD to 62 AD.

· The Colosseum of Rome is damaged by an earthquake in 422 AD. [12]

All the while, Roman society had slaves and never developed an industrial economy, nor did it evolve any general theory of economic progress. It lacked the financial instruments necessary for industrial investment and was without such notions as productivity and consumer demand. It was not that the Romans were deficient in technical inventiveness or failed to supply it when the explicit need was perceived and understood. In military technology, for example, ballistic and siege warfare reached a high level of sophistication and effectiveness. Romans could produce stunning theatrical effects, and their achievement in building and in water management speaks for itself. Yet manufacture continues to be pursued on a small scale, on the level of craft, tradecraft, rather than industry. This failure to develop an industrial technology is sometimes ascribed to the presence of slavery, which is argued to have removed the incentive to reduce labor costs by mechanization. After all, why automate when there is an abundance of slaves? Rome's military effectiveness and expertise which resulted in an increase in territory, wealth in the form of taxes, and booty, included slaves. The Romans believed themselves entitled to these rewards.

God be Thanked

But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.

When discussing moral judgments about first-century slavery, Patterson outlines that one must first ascertain whether slavery in the text is operating on a personal, institutional, or systematic level. It looks to me that Paul is addressing slavery on a personal level in verse 19, “I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanliness and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness.” The slavery metaphor, however unpleasant it might be to our moral sensitivities, gets the point across. Note that Paul did not call for the abolition of slavery. Perhaps it was because this would involve a moral judgment against the institution that the ancients took for granted.[13] In that regard, slavery in this chapter of Romans would seem to be more on the institutional level.

In his book, The Roman Law of Slavery, Buckland writes that slavery persisted in antiquity even though the Romans understood it as being contrary to the natural law. The enslaved individual is on the one hand a person, but on the other hand, is a piece of property subject to all ordinary transactions.[14]

For us, reading this, and from reading Scripture, we can see for ourselves that the Roman slavery system was by nature oppressive and was maintained for the benefit of the privileged only. And I think that we can all agree that Paul’s audience understood the implications of slavery and that of being a slave to sin.

British historian, K. R. Bradley, argues that it is necessary to understand slavery primarily as a social institution. Paul and Peter, as well as other Christian authors[15] of the first two centuries, understood the relationships between husband and wife, father and son, masters and the enslaved.[16] And we can see this in Ephesians 5:22 through 6:9, where Paul outlines the household codes between family members, Christ, and the church, and between bondservant and masters. Paul writes, “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters . . . masters, do the same things to [your slaves] . . . your own master also is in heaven” (Eph 6: 5-9).

Tertullian, that early Christian apologist from the 1st and 2nd centuries, also saw that social relationships make up the basic structure of society.[17]

The Gospels Receive Little

In my research on slavery in the Pauline material, the epistles attributed to the Apostle Paul, I learned that the subject of slavery in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John receives comparatively little consideration. Matthew’s gospel contains considerably more material on slavery and the enslaved than does Mark, and most of that in Matthew is in parable material.[18] Although not a strong reference, Matthew 6:24 reads, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” Mammon is a biblical term for riches, often used to describe the debasing influence of material wealth. The term was used by Jesus in his famous Sermon on the Mount and appears in the Gospel according to Luke. Medieval writers commonly interpreted mammon as an evil demon or god.

We Don’t Yet Know

In my quest to find an explanation for why the Gospels receive comparatively little consideration, I learned from Jonathan Hatter’s book that “there is more room for modern scholarly works on slavery in ancient Roman and Jewish contexts to be brought to the study of the Synoptic Gospels in a more complete way.” [19] In other words, we don’t yet know. But we do know that the slaves to sin were free —regarding righteousness.

Paul ends chapter 6 with, “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now, having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:20-23).

God’s Deliverance of Israel

The gift of eternal life is imparted through allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. Attaching the title Lord in this context has biblical resonances that are related to God's deliverance of Israel from their slavery in Egypt. Exodus 20 verse 2 reads, ”I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the House of slavery.[21] Freedom from the bondage of sin comes only from being in Christ.” Paul reminds us that we do not have the freedom to be our own masters. Adam and Eve wanted to be their own masters and the result was catastrophic. We have the freedom to choose which master we will serve.

NOTES

[1] David E. Garland, Romans: An Introduction and Commentary (Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 43.

[2] https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/phrases/Certainly-Not

[3] Eckhard J. Schnabel, Jesus, Paul, and the Early Church: Missionary Realities in Historical Contexts; Collected Essays, WUNT 406 (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018), 277.

God cares about the raven (Luke 12:24), the ox (1 Corinthians 9:8-10), and the sparrow (Luke 12:6).

[4] James L. Price, ‘Romans 6:1-14’ Int 34, 65.

[5] Romans 14:10; 1 Cor 4:5; and 2 Cor 5:10.

[6] James D. G. Dunn “Salvation Proclaimed: VI Romans 6:1-11: Dead and Alive” Expository Times 93 (1982), 263.

[7] James D. G. Dunn & John W. Rogerson, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible: Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company 2003), 1294.

[8] J. Fitzmyer Romans Anchor Bible 33 (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1993), 448.

[9] B. Byrne Romans Sacra Pagina 6 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, Liturgical Press, 1996), 200.

[10] M. Mishlei 9; Sukkah 20b:11; Berakhot 16b:6, as quoted by Jonathan J. Hatter, “Currents in Biblical Research Slavery and the Enslaved in the Roman World, the Jewish World, and the Synoptic Gospels.” Currents in Biblical Research 20 (1): 99.

[11] Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 5, 28.

[12] Tim Cornell & John Matthews, Atlas of the Roman World (Oxfordshire, England: Andromeda Oxford Limited, 1982), 39, 42, 51, 55, 57,63, 66, 68, 184.

[13] Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 5, 28.

[14] W. W. Buckland, The Roman Law of Slavery: The Condition of the Slave in Private Law from Augustus to Justinian (New York: AMS Press, 1969), 1-11.

[15] See Ephesians 5:22-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1; and 1 Peter 2:13-3:7.

[16] K. R. Bradley, Slavery and Society at Rome (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 4.

[17] Apologeticus 3.4.

[18] The commentaries most relevant for this observation are Craig A. Evans in NCBC (2012), R. T. France in NICNT (2007), Craig S. Keener (1999), Ulrich Luz in Hermeneia (2007), John Nolland in NIGTC (2005), Rudolf Schnackenburg (2002), Charles H. Talbert in Paideia (2010), and David L. Turner in BECNT (2008).

[19] Jonathan J. Hatter, “Currents in Biblical Research Slavery and the Enslaved in the Roman World, the Jewish World, and the Synoptic Gospels.” Currents in Biblical Research 20 (1): 121.

[20] See Exodus 20:2; cf. Exodus 6:6-7; 13:3; Deuteronomy 6:12-13; and Psalm 81:10.

[21] Exodus 20:2


Bibliography

Beauchamp, Lance T. "The Old and New Man in Ephesians 4:17-24." Faith and Mission 24, no. 3 (2007): 30-45.

Bradley, K. R. Slavery and Society at Rome. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Byrne, B. Romans. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996.

Cornell, Tim, and John Matthews. Atlas of the Roman World. The Vineyard, Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England: Andromeda Oxford Limited, 1982.

Dunn, James D. G. "Salvation Proclaimed." Expository Times 93 (1982): 259-264.

Dunn, James D.G., and John W. Rogerson. Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible: Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003.

Ejenodo, D. T. "Union with Christ: A Critique of Romans 6:1-11." Asia Journal of Theology 22, no. 2 (2008): 309-23.

Fitzmyer, J. Romans. New York, New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Garland, David E. Romans: An Introduction and Commentary. Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021.

Hatter, Jonathan J. "Currents in Biblical Research Slavery and the Enslaved in the Roman World, the Jewish World, and the Synoptic Gospels." Currents in Biblical Research 20, no. 1 (2021): 97-127.

Patterson, Orlando. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, MA: MA, 1982.

Price, James L. "Romans 6:1-14." Int 34 (2004): 65.

Schnabel, Eckhard J. Jesus, Paul, and the Early Church: Missionary Realities in Historical Contexts; Collected Essays, WUNT 406. Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018.

Snyder, Benjamin J. "Technical Term or Technical Foul? Baptizo and the Problem of Transliteration as Translation." Stone-Campbell Journal 21, no. 1 (2018): 91-113.

W.W.Buckland. The Roman Law of Slavery: The Condition of the Slave in Private Law from Augustus to Justinian. New York, NY: AMS Press, 1969.



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