Text: Romans 6:3ff

This week begins the lion’s share of our Trinitytide journey, in which the Epistle readings give us an overview of seven of St. Paul’s letters in canonical order, beginning with Romans, and continuing through Colossians. If you’ve been attending our adult class between services or catching the recordings later in the week, you may recall that Romans can be summed up with a thesis statement from Chapter 1:16-17:

I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

Romans can be described as St. Paul’s core teaching on the gospel. In this letter, he wants us to understand the power of God unto salvation. He wants us to understand that salvation is for all those who believe in Christ, both Jew and Gentile. And he wants us to understand that it is indeed by faith rather than by works.

Paul accomplishes this by spending the first two-and-a-half chapters describing the problem: each and every one of us sin and are thus sinners. Because of this, God’s wrath and condemnation is the just sentence all of us deserve. Those who have the Scriptures are convicted by God’s very Law, which shows God to be righteous, but us to be unrighteous and disobedient. Those who don’t have the Scriptures still have all of nature and their own consciences to convict them of right and wrong and thus also are guilty before God and his Law. No one has an excuse. No one can plead ignorance. As St. Paul says in chapter 3,

[I]t is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one.

But after two-and-a-half chapters of bad news, St. Paul brings in the gospel. He brings in the good news: 3:21 (ESV)

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

God maintains his justice and righteousness by applying Christ’s sacrificial blood to those who trust in Jesus. He freely justifies us (that is, he declares us righteous, legally speaking) by grace. Christ has redeemed us. He has paid the price for our sins. God is thus both just and the justifier for all who believe in Jesus.

St. Paul goes on, then in chapters 4 and 5, to prove the point with an illustration of Abraham being justified, being declared righteous, by his faith in God. Abraham believes and trusts in God before he is obedient to God. He trusts God and is declared righteous even before he formally enters into covenant with God via the Old Testament sacrament of circumcision! Similarly, our access to God is not a reward for our obedience but is rather a gift of God for any who would trust in Jesus. Faith (that is, trust in God), rather than obedience, is the key to being declared righteous before God.

But like any good teacher, St. Paul anticipates his students’ objections, particularly when the teaching is so counterintuitive and radical as is this Gospel of grace! Chapter 6 begins: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue to sin, that grace may abound?” If our status before God is based on his gift of grace which we obtain by trust, which we grasp by faith, does that mean that we can just do whatever we want? Does that mean that it’s OK to sin? Why should I care about God’s Law if I’m not justified by it? I like to sin, and God likes to forgive; it sounds like a great deal to me! Is this what the Gospel is about? St. Paul answers, “God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (6:2). If we’re dead to sin, how can we live in sin? This brings us to today’s Epistle (verse 3):

Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

If the gospel sounds too good to be true, if grace sounds like it will lead to willy-nilly sinning, St. Paul’s answer is “remember your baptism.” Your baptism is the pledge from God that you are dead to sin. Your baptism is the deed of God’s ownership of your life. Your baptism is the wedding ring that signifies you are one with Christ. Your baptism means that you have died with Christ and are now raised with him in newness of life.

Verse 5:

For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall also be in the likeness of his resurrection: knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: knowing that Christ being raised from the dead deith no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise recon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

“Planted together” with Christ into a death like his is such great imagery. I’m reminded of the 6th century Passiontide hymn, Pange Lingua Gloriosi which compares the cross to a tree, alluding to an old legend that wood from the Tree of Knowledge in Eden was planted in Golgotha when Adam died.

Faithful cross! Above all other, One and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom, None in fruit thy peer may be;
Sweetest wood and sweetest iron! Sweetest weight is hung on thee.

Bend thy boughs, O tree of glory! Thy relaxing sinews bend;
For a while the ancient rigor That thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of heavenly beauty On thy bosom gently tend!

Where the King James speaks of us being “panted together” with Christ in death, the ESV and many other modern translations prefer a less poetic “united” with Christ in death. The idea in the Greek is being so closely associated that it is as if we are growing together. I’m no gardener, but I’ve read about a practice called “intercropping,” where you plant different kinds of seeds close together so that you can more efficiently use limited space as well as take advantage of one plant’s strengths to help out a more vulnerable plant. Growing sweet corn and squash together is apparently a classic example.

When we are “planted” with Christ into death in our baptism, we receive the propitiatory benefits of his death. We are raised with him into new life. Indeed, this is why we declare in our Baptismal liturgy that the baptized person is indeed regenerate. He has new life because he has been buried with Christ and raised again.

The call to new life means that the old life, the “old man” as St. Paul says, must die. This is why part of our baptismal liturgy has always included renouncing the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Jesus puts it this way in John 12: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (24-25).

Specifically, when we are united to Christ in our baptism, when we are planted with him, we die to sin. Regeneration, new life, means death to sin. This is indeed a true spiritual change that happens to us. This is where we can speak of Christ’s external righteousness that is applied or imputed to us as also resulting in an infusion of his righteousness! By God’s grace, sin is put to death, and we are given a new nature, a restored and righteous nature. By our union with Christ in baptism, God changes our “want-tos.” We do indeed begin to walk righteously because we have been given Christ’s righteousness.

Yes, we can and should speak of Romans as teaching that grace alone saves us. And that grace is grasped by faith alone. Such is indeed the Epistle’s central and essential theme. But, as our Reformers always pointed out, a true, living faith is never alone. It is always accompanied by our good works. I’m reminded of one of the final scenes in the film version of The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo is leaving the rest of the Fellowship to seek the Ring’s destruction, but Sam catches him sneaking off. “Go back, Sam!” Frodo cries, “I’m going to Mordor alone.” “Of course you are,” Sam calls back. “And I’m going with you!” Our good works tag along as we cling to Christ by faith. Our trust in Christ and in God’s grace to save us is always accompanied by good works and holiness.

Indeed, as baptized Christians who have been united to Christ by faith, we no longer serve sin. We are not slaves to sin. We have been set free by God for God. We live for God, not for sin. Death doesn’t rule over the risen Christ; sin doesn’t rule over the regenerate Christian.

But what do we do about the reality that we still sin? This is an area where the Bible’s honest depiction of the heroes of the faith is so helpful. Abraham, who is the exemplar of faith in Romans, we see him lying about his wife to save his skin. We see his son Isaac following in his same footsteps. We see Isaac’s son Jacob lying at his mother’s instigation to get a blessing. We see Jacob’s sons doing all sorts of terrible things. Moses misses out on the Promised Land because of his temper. David arranges for a faithful subordinate to die so that he can have his wife. Moving into the New Testament, we see the Apostles jockeying for position. We see Peter denying the Lord at his arrest. Later he flirts with legalism to make the Jewish believers happy. Mark gets scared and abandons the mission in the face of persecution. This leads to Paul and Barnabas having the first church split. The list could go on. But in each and every one of these cases, the person repents. He admits his sin and seeks to turn away from it. He returns to God. And if even the heroes of the Bible need to repent, we can certainly follow their examples. Let us avoid sin by all means! But when we do sin, let us reprint.

Indeed, our catechism tells us that we need both faith and repentance in order for our baptism to be effectively applied. We cannot have the benefits of new life without repentance and faith. We must turn from our sins and trust in God.

The good news is that God always accepts our repentance. He delights in us turning from our sins. This is part of what it means that the “body of sin might be destroyed that henceforth we should not serve sin.” Your sins don’t have a claim on you. They don’t own you. Even when we fall, as our Articles of Religion say, “by the grace of God we may arise again and amend our lives.” Repentance does indeed come by the grace of God. Our baptisms are the pledge of this fact. They are the pledge, the down-payment, of the eternal life to come, when we will no longer be pulled towards sin, when we will be glorified, just as our Lord Jesus has been glorified. Let us close, then with our Collect. Let us pray:

O God, who hast prepared for those who love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding; Pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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