25 Aug 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
The apostle has been painting an idyllic picture of the people of God. Having been justified by faith, they are standing in grace and rejoicing in glory. Having formerly belonged to Adam, the author of sin and death, they now belong to Christ, the author of salvation and life. Although at one point in the history of Israel the law was added to increase sin (5:20a), yet ‘grace increased all the more’ (5:20b), so that ‘grace might reign’ (5:21). It is a splendid vision of the triumph of grace. Against the grim background of human guilt, Paul depicts grace increasing and grace reigning.
But is his picture not unbalanced? In his concentration on the secure status of the people of God, he has said little or nothing about the Christian life or growth or discipleship. He seems to have jumped straight from justification to glorification, without any intervening stage of sanctification. By this omission (so far) he has exposed himself to misrepresentation by his critics. Already they have ‘slanderously’ misquoted him as saying, ‘Let us do evil that good may result’ (3:8). At that point he dismissed their charge, but he did not answer it. Now, however, as they rally to the attack, he refutes their slander. This is the topic of Romans 6.
What was their criticism? Is was not just that Paul’s gospel of justification by grace through faith without works seemed to make the doing of good works otiose. Worse than that, it seemed to stimulate people to sin more than ever. For if, in his understanding of Israel’s story, the law led to an increase of sin, and sin led to an increase of grace (5:20f), then logically, in our story too, we should increase our sinning in order to give God the chance to increase his gracious forgiving. They put it in the form of a question: *Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?* (1). They were implying that Paul’s gospel of free grace actually encouraged lawlessness and put a premium on sin, because it promised sinners the best of both worlds: they could indulge themselves freely in this world, without any fear of forfeiting the next.
The technical term for people who argue like this is ‘antinomians’, since they set themselves against the moral law (*nomos*) and imagine that they can dispense with it. Antinomianism has had a long history in the church. We meet it already in the New Testament, in the false teachers Jude described as ‘godless men, who change the grace of our God into a licence for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord’ (Jude 4). While recognising antinomianism in others, however, we must not be allowed to conceal its ugly presence in ourselves. Have we never caught ourselves making light of our failures on the ground that God will excuse and forgive them?
Incidentally, it is highly significant both that Paul’s critics lodged the charge of antinomianism against him, and that he took time, trouble and space to answer them, without withdrawing or even modifying his message. For this shows conclusively that he did preach the gospel of grace without works. Otherwise, if he did not teach this, the objection would never have been raised. It is the same today. If we are proclaiming Paul’s gospel, with its emphasis on the freeness of grace and the impossibility of self-salvation, we are sure to provoke the charge of antinomianism. If we do not arouse this criticism, the likelihood is that we are not preaching Paul’s gospel.
Paul’s answer to his critics is that God’s grace not only forgives sins, but also delivers us from sinning. For grace does more than justify: it also sanctifies. It unites us to Christ (1-14), and it initiates us into a new slavery to righteousness (15-23). These two halves of Romans 6 are closely parallel to one another in at least five respects.
First, both are prompted by the same exaltation of God’s grace, verses 1-14 by the statement that ‘grace increased…so that…grace might reign’ (5:20f.), and verses 15-23 by the statement that ‘we are not under law but under grace’ (15).
Secondly, both ask the same probing question about sin in relation to grace. Verse 1: ‘What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? And verse 15: ‘What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?’ In other words, does grace undermine ethical responsibility and promote reckless sinning?
Thirdly, both react to the question with the same indignant, outraged, even horrified, expostulation: ‘God forbid!’ (2, 15, AV). ‘By no means!’ (RSV, NIV). ‘No, no!’ (NEB). ‘Certainly not!’ (REB). ‘What a ghastly thought!’ (JBP).
Fourthly, both diagnose the same reason for the antinomian question. They trace it to ignorance, especially with regard to Christian beginnings. Verse 3: ‘Don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?’ Verse 16: ‘Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey…?’ If they had understood the meaning of their baptism and their conversion, they would never have asked their question.
Fifthly, both teach the same radical discontinuity between our old, pre-conversion, pre-baptism life and our new, post-conversion, post-baptism life, and therefore the total incongruity of sin in converted and baptised believers. Both express this by a counter-question. Verse2: ‘We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?’ Verse 16: (paraphrased): ‘We offered ourselves as slaves to obedience; how can we repudiate our commitment?’
Having noted these five similarities between the two halves of Romans 6 (1-14 and 15-23), we are ready to examine in greater detail the text of each.