You know reverse psychology, right? I tell my kids they can’t do something in order to get them to try. “There’s no way you can get dressed all by yourself.” You tell your teenager they can’t date someone; they’ll pursue that relationship all the more.
My sinful nature, what Paul calls “the flesh” throughout Romans, does it too. When I hear what God demands and what God forbids, I get this urge to do what’s forbidden and not do what’s commanded. Likewise, when I hear the good news that “where sin increased, grace increased all the more,” I get an urge to sin it up: “Shouldn’t I go on sinning so that grace may increase?”
It makes sense. I want abundant grace. I need abundant grace. I know what makes God pour out grace. Let the sin begin.
Paul didn’t say, “Sin all the more.” Paul said that he upholds God’s law. God’s grace doesn’t nullify God’s law, the rights and wrongs of the universe best summed up in the Ten Commandments. Paul upholds that law. Luther certainly does as you read his explanations in the catechisms. Doing so, and wanting to do so, doesn’t automatically make you a legalistic seeker after do-it-yourself salvation. God says, “Be holy and perfect.”
Except my flesh keeps me from doing what God wants me to do, even though I, as a Christian, know and desire what God wants. A world of difference and a vast improvement over the situation when I was an unbeliever; during which time, as Paul says, I hated God, neither submitting nor wishing to submit to his Word.
And my flesh does this on both sides of the fence. As an unbeliever, my flesh keeps me dead in sins. Listen to how Paul describes us without faith in Christ: dead in sin, enemies of God, ignorant. I can hear God’s words, but I can’t understand them. This adds up to Paul’s dreadful word in Ephesians 2: “Like the rest we were by nature objects of wrath.” God’s wrath.
As Romans 7 points out, it doesn’t feel all that different on the believing side of the fence. “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do….I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.”
It doesn’t seem like there’s any difference between the believer and the unbeliever. Both do terrible things: acting out against God, disobeying God. Because both have this in common: the sinful nature, Paul’s “flesh”.
An apt word, no? We still call some sins, especially sexual sins, “sins of the flesh,” because we get that there’s something corrupt leading to our depravities, that when we sin sexually we cave in to the flesh. Jesus says the same. He says that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. The disciples didn’t just sleep in the Garden because they were tired. Their flesh put them to sleep.
Paul doesn’t just talk about the flesh in Romans 6. In fact, he actually avoids that word in our verses, not mentioning “flesh” (in the Greek) until verse 19: “You are weak in your natural selves.” He uses some other terms, synonymous terms. He talks about our “old self”, literally the “old man.” And another one, “the body of sin.” And another one: “slaves to sin.”
Those fit. My flesh fails. Sometimes my whole body sins. I feel bound. And if I don’t feel it, I act like it sometimes. Something else owns me. That’s even my excuse, “The devil made me do it.” “I couldn’t help it.” “I had to.” We claim to belong to someone else.
Notice, though, both in Romans 6 and 7, there’s a difference between the believer and the unbeliever. In Romans 7, Paul wants to do good. He knows good. He doesn’t want to do evil. He deplores evil. In Romans 6, Paul says things like, “We died to sin.” “Our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”
There is a difference between the believer and the unbeliever. A vast difference. A nearly unbridgeable gulf. It’s death. Dead to sin, Paul said. Crucified. Done away with. Abolished Executed. You have to die to get there.
But death is final. You die and you’re, well, dead. Wouldn’t we rather live it up now and pray that God pours out enough grace to cover it? Don’t we say, “Sin now; ask for forgiveness later.”
No. You can’t live in sin, walk in sin, remain in sin, continue in sin, wallow in sin, and expect God to just kindasortalike look past it. If you live in, remain in, and wallow in sin, that’s what you are, a sinning unbeliever, letting the flesh reign. The devil is your lord and master. You will end up with him, an “object of wrath.”
So, it’s back to this death thing. I have to die to sin. This flesh must die. And we say, “Ok, how can I do that?” Here’s where the desire to be holy turns into legalism. Because now people think dying to sin means being chaste or celibate, or taking vows of poverty or obedience. “If I sell everything I own and give it to the poor, then I’ve killed the flesh, right?” Legalism and works-righteousness isn’t the attempt to be holy. Legalism and works-righteousness is when you pin salvation on your deeds and holiness. “All these I have kept since I was a boy.” “I thank you that I am not like other men.” “I devoted my life to you.”
None of those things kill you. None of them do away with the body of sin. They come after death, in the new life, Paul describes. “Are you kidding me? I have to die…and rise from the dead?! How do I do that!?”
There’s the problem. We think “I” and “me.” It’s not I and me. It’s God. Notice how Paul uses passive tenses in Romans 6. We were buried. We have been united with him in his death. We will be united with him in resurrection. Our old self was crucified. The body of sin was done away with. The dead have been freed from sin. It all emanates from Paul’s first passive verb: You were baptized.
Baptism is no simple ceremony. It doesn’t symbolize some commitment you made. It doesn’t represent some promise. It is the promise. It is the commitment. God’s. In Baptism God promises to do what needed doing: to kill and raise to life. He delivers to you personally what Christ did universally at cross and tomb. In Paul’s words, God unites you to that, he incorporates you into that.
The death that happened after “it is finished”, the death that separated Jesus from death, the death that didn’t remove Jesus’ body, but our flesh that he took upon himself – baptism unites you to that death. Notice Paul’s instrumental word: “through Baptism.”
And not just death. It’s the whole nine yards. Baptism doesn’t just kill, it buries, and then parallels Christ’s own experience: to raise you to a new life. A novel experience: death followed by life; rather than the usual: life, followed by death.
This is no random act of kindness. The Son was all the things that we aren’t. He came saddled with no “flesh,” or “old man.” He was no slave to sin. Yet he took on the likeness of sinful man and became the sin offering. And then exploded out of the tomb alive. He walked about in a newness of life himself, still truly a man, still truly God, now no longer hiding, now no longer having upon himself any of that likeness of sinful man, of the flesh.
So too Baptism gives us a new life. I used the word “novel”. Something new and differing comes down from the font. Just as much as Christ’s resurrection resulted in something new and different for him – a fully exalted flesh – so too our emerging from immersion in the death and burial of Christ, our being raised from lifelessness, results in something new and different for us: no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to God, happily serving a new master, a master who baptized his Son into death and raised him up from the dead for us. In Baptism God removes us from the devil’s kingdom and makes Jesus Christ our Lord.
And the essence of this newness is the forgiveness of sins. In Colossians when Paul talks about what Baptism does he says, “God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” This takes us from lifelessness – all die because all sin – to new life, to resurrection: God makes us alive! He hides us in Christ! He clothes us in Christ! He makes the dead in sins alive!
This is the mercy of God which Paul says, in Romans 12, we live “in view of.” God killed, buried, and raised to life this flesh, this body, this slave. God did this thing on a cross in Judea and through his Word and the waters of a font in America.
Look at the certainty with which Paul speaks throughout Romans 6. He never hedges his bets. He never says “maybe.” He says, “This is most certainly true.” If you were baptized into Christ, you died with him. If you died with him, you were buried with him. If buried, you will rise with him; the old man crucified and done away with. Death frees you from him. And if we died, we also live with Christ – because he rose, death can’t touch him anymore.
Neither can it touch us. God through the Word he connected to Baptism brought you to life, eternal life, now: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” In John 5 and Revelation 20, Jesus and John talk about coming to faith as the first resurrection. Death resulted in life, which means freedom: “anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” When God kills you at the font, when he does his work, he removes sin’s claim. He declares you sin free and righteous.
By the simple fact that Christ died and rose first. You can count yourself dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ. You can go about your new life, reveling in the words God speaks, bearing the fruits of faith that come from touching yourself and realizing that, after the best shots the devil could take, you’re alive.
You’re alive…in Christ. And you will, through God’s gift of Baptism, remain alive forever, until heaven drowning and re-drowning that wily swimmer, the old man, because, as is true with Jesus, so it’s true for you: death has no mastery over you. You’re baptized forever! Amen.