The Bible study this week in Romans focuses on the first part of chapter 6 of Romans, a pretty well-known piece of scripture if memory serves. (It was one of the parts of Romans I could quote before I really started getting into the New Testament, which is the best barometer I have for such things.)
It contains an interaction Paul had with a hypothetical question in response to the closing of the previous parts of the letter to the Romans, in what we see as chapter 5, in which Paul says that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” (Romans 5:20, ESV).
You see this a lot in Christian circles, especially in affluent circles, where people point out the spirituality of oppressed people in third world countries: “They trust in God and see His work among them! Even in their oppression, they are blessed!”
The problem with this expression isn’t that it’s not true – it’s that it tends to engender a question of why the one offering that expression hasn’t gone to be oppressed themselves, such that they can experience God more authentically.
“Should we not also consider ourselves oppressed, such that we can force ourselves to depend on God all the more?”
…except the answer is, typically, “No, of course not.” We might want the hand of God in our lives, but we are rarely willing to offer ourselves suffering in order to see that hand.
Is that proper? I don’t think so – I think the key is to remember to thank God for our circumstances, even in our pleasant circumstances. We feel guilty that we do little to alleviate the suffering of others, and that’s probably a good thing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are to punish ourselves for the riches that God has granted us… as long as we remember that God has granted us those riches.
So: back to Romans 6! Paul offered a statement that where sin was multiplied, grace was multiplied also, creating the question of whether one should sin more such that grace would grow even that much more. (“Grace is a good thing; if sin increases grace, is sin therefore not ‘good’ as well?”)
We don’t know if Paul was literally asked this question or not. He may have been, but the form of Romans is as a letter, not as a series of responsum. Paul was a thorough and rather nitpicky thinker (I don’t have any experience with this, personally! Oh, wait…) and more likely anticipated the question as a logical extension of his previous wording, so responded to the potential question.
And what was the response? The response goes back to a condition, a status. Paul says in the first part of Romans 6 that we are dead and raised with Christ:
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:5-7, ESV)
We are united with Christ in His resurrection, and united with Him in His death as well.
The metaphor is one of baptism: baptism, or the mikveh (מִקְוֶה), is given as a picture of death to what wasis.
It’s a transition: the mikveh is a transition from impurity to purity. Baptism is a transition from a former state to a new, pure state. We enter the water as Yona did, in defiance of God and dying in our sin, to enter the great fish, the דג גדול, which symbolizes death. We leave death behind, and enter a new life of obedience.
(A crucial difference is that a mikveh is a continual immersion; an Orthodox adherent to Judaism undergoes a mikveh regularly, and women use it based on their menstrual cycle, as it’s part of the purification post-menses. Few Christians undergo repeated and/or constant baptism. Your mileage may vary on the metaphor’s appropriateness; personally, I see the mikveh as part of repentance.)
So Paul constructs the picture of death and life, with life freeing us from the bonds that held us before our deaths to our old selves: as those bonds are sin and the result of sin, we are to act as if we are no longer held to our sinful natures.
Does that mean we never sin? No. Yet it means our master is Christ, and we should strive to let Him lead our lives, repenting our trespasses and living in such a way that we honor Him, and not sin.