Dead to Sin and Alive to God
Dead to Sin and Alive to God
What does the resurrection of Jesus mean for us? We’ve been anticipating the good news of the empty tomb all week long—since we read the long Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday. Tonight and then tomorrow morning, again, we read the account of the disciples finding the empty tomb and discovering that Jesus had been raised from the dead. It’s part of the story. It’s part of the faith we confess in the Creed. But what does it mean for us? That’s the question our Epistle from Romans answers.
In Romans 6, St. Paul begins by telling us that if we’ve been baptised into Christ Jesus, we’ve been baptised into his death and that having been dead and buried with him in baptism, the Father has also raised us with him. Why? What’s the practical application of that? He says, so that we can walk in newness of life. And if that isn’t powerful enough, he closes the lesson by telling us that we mustconsider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Paul’s telling us that if we’ve been baptised into Jesus, we’ve been enabled to and should be living a new kind of life—a life that’s dead to sin.
Think of the prodigal son that Jesus tells us about in one of his parables. Think of that young, rebellious, and unappreciative young man. He talked his father into giving him his half of the inheritance and then he went off to a far country, squandered his inheritance on loose living, and ended up feeding slop to pigs. That was the lowest a point a Jew could reach: feeding unclean animals. When he finally came to his sense he decided to go back to his father. He knew that he’d blown it and could never expect his father to take him back, but at least he could ask his father for mercy and see if maybe—just maybe—his father would take him back as a hired hand. Of course, as we know from the story, his father was waiting for him to return, all was forgiven, he threw a feast in honour of his son, and he welcomed him back into the family. Jesus tells us the story to teach us something about grace.
But now imagine that young man a few years later. Things are back to normal and he starts to remember why he wanted to leave the farm in the first place. It was boring. And he remembers how much fun he had before his money ran out. So he starts thinking: What if I do it again. What if I slip out tonight with some of Dad’s money and go have fun for a few months. When the money runs out, I’ll just come back home, act very sorry about what I’ve done, and Dad will gush all over again about how glad he is to have me back and he’ll treat me special for a while again.
I think we all know enough about the real world to know that this isn’t as crazy a thing as we’d hope. We all know people with children who do this over and over. They go off, live it up, get into trouble and then call for Mom and Dad to bail them out and bring them home—not just once, but over and over. A lot of people do exactly the same thing with God. When I was in elementary school my mom left me home alone one afternoon. We were having company over and she’d just been to the store to buy food. There were cookies in the pantry and she specifically told me not to eat them; they were for the guests who were coming. Of course when she was gone I went straight to the cookies and thought to myself, “I can eat one and then ask God to forgive me and everything will be alright.” And so I ate a cookie. And as I asked God to forgive me, my hand was already going for another. If God would forgive me for the first, certainly he’d forgiven me for the second and third and so on. It was what I learned in Sunday School: God forgives. That’s his job.
Yes, God forgives, but in forgiving he also give us a new life and calls us to holiness. The Church increasingly seems to forget this. A friend of mine likes to emphasise in his preaching that God is a god of second chances. And to an extent this is true, but he’s also a god who gives us a second chance so that we can have the holiness we didn’t have the first time around.
If we read more of Romans we can gather that St. Paul ran into this problem all the time. Paul taught that where sin abounds, God’s grace abounds even more powerfully to overcome that sin. And some people seem to have thought that if God’s grace was such a good thing, maybe they should just keep sinning so that God would give them more grace. On the other side of the equation, some people object to the whole idea of grace because they think it will encourage just that kind of thing. Our mission in Portland rented worship space from an Adventist congregation for a while and in visiting with them one thing I heard a lot of was a condemnation of “free grace”. They insisted that if we teach that God’s grace is free, people will abuse it. And so they also taught that God’s grace comes in keeping the law.
Some people will abuse God’s grace just like some ne’er-do-well children abuse their parents’ love and generosity. But if that’s how we’re living, it means—or at least it strongly suggests—that we’ve never really experienced God’s grace at all or if we have, it’s been so misrepresented to us that we don’t understand it.
And this is where our Old Testament lessons give us some light and especially the lesson from Exodus about God delivering the Israelites at the Red Sea. The lessons take us from the story of creation, through the story of our rebellion, and then tells us about God’s redemptive acts with Israel and his promises to work out a redemption on an even bigger scale. But the Exodus is one of the major points in that story. Abraham’s children had gone down to Egypt to escape a famine in Jacob’s time, but several hundred years later they went from being honoured guests of Pharaoh to being his slaves. They cried out to God for deliverance and he heard them. He called Moses to be their leader and he sent ten plagues on the Egyptians, who finally allowed the Israelites to leave so that they could return to the land he’d promised to Abraham. In the Passover the Lord spared their lives. At the Red Sea, as he parted the waters so that they could cross on dry land, he “baptised” them—he gave them a new identity and made them his people. And then he led them to Mt. Sinai in the wilderness and gave them his law. That law was the charter or the constitution of the new nation that God had created and called to himself. God rescued them from slavery, he taught them what it looked like to follow him and to be his people, and he led them personally, as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire at night.
We all know the Exodus story and it’s this Exodus story that St. Paul picks up in Romans. He doesn’t say anything specifically about the Exodus, but this is these are the themes and the images that he draws on in Romans, especially in chapters 6-8. He starts out talking about our being baptised. The Israelites were baptised too, when they passed through the Red Sea. And Paul talks about our baptism into Christ, into the Messiah, being the means that God has used to rescue us from slavery and to lead us to freedom. Again, it was the Red Sea where God rescued the Israelites from their slavery. The only thing that could take them back to Egypt was the Egyptian army, but the army ended up drowned and washed away by the waters. That’s Romans 6. If we continued on—and we don’t have time for that tonight—but if we continued on, in Chapter 7 Paul writes about the struggle the Israelites had with keeping the law that God gave and how the problem is solved in Jesus. In Chapter 8 he writers about God being faithful to deliver us to our inheritance—to our restoration as his faithful servants in a renewed creation. And he warns us not to grumble along the way like the Israelites did. There they were, free from slavery, but because they only had manna to eat they grumbled and said that they wanted to go back to Egypt. Paul reminds us that we’ve been freed just as they were. Do we really want to go back to being slaves to sin?
That’s the answer to the people who criticised Paul for teaching about grace. It’s the answer to the objection some people had that grace would just lead people to sin and keep coming back for forgiveness like I did with the cookies. This is Paul’s answer to idea that if grace abounds wherever there is sin, then maybe we ought to sin a lot in order to get a lot of God’s grace.
The answer is that in our baptism, our state has changed. When we talk about “baptismal regeneration” this is what we’re talking about. We enter the waters out of covenant with God, but when we pass through in faith, we come out the other side in covenant with him, just as the Egyptians trusted in God and entered the Red Sea as slaves, but came out the other side free, so do we. We went in joined by natural birth to the first Adam and we came out adopted by God and supernaturally joined to the second Adam. Paul says that we have been baptised “into Christ”—into the Messiah. And the Messiah has fulfilled Israel’s calling. In him all the promises of God to Abraham have been fulfilled. And in his death and resurrection he has conquered our old enemies of sin and death. And this is why Paul can say that, being in him now, we too might walk in newness of life. He was crucified and we share in that crucifixion. Our old man is as dead as he was during the three days in the tomb. And as Jesus was raised so are we. We share in his resurrection. We are now dead to sin and alive to God.
A very real change has taken place in our lives, even if we don’t feel any different. We were dead slaves. Now we’re living freemen. And Paul exhorts us to get used to this new reality and to live out. It’s a bit like getting married. Aside from being overjoyed, I didn’t actually feel any different after the priest pronounced Veronica and me married than I did before, but there was a definite change. We had gone from being two independent people to being a single married couple. We made vows to each other and those vows can’t be broken. Our lives had changed, and it took a while for us to adjust the way we lived in accordance with those changes, but adjust to our new life we did.
Is it tempting to go back to our old ways? Of course. The Israelites grumbled against Moses and said they wanted to go back to Egypt. They forgot that God had freed them. And sometimes we forget that God has freed us. Sin is like a bully. Back in the late 90s I spent a year living in Vancouver and working in Bellingham. Everyday I had to drive back and forth across the border. One day I was pulled over by a US immigration officer. He didn’t have any reason to do it. He just did. And he bullied me. While I waited inside, he tore my car apart and made a mess. I had bottles of oil and brake fluid in the trunk that he opened and poured all over the carpet. And when he didn’t find anything, he came back into the office and threatened me and even pawed through my lunch, ruining it. I was scared. When you’re at the border you’re in a sort of Constitution-free no-man’s land where the border agents are a law unto themselves and where you have no recourse. But I realised by the time I got to work that these guys do answer to someone somewhere. So I contacted my senators and my representative. And they took care of the problem. I started carrying the business card of one of my senators in my glove box. And every once in a while that same agent would start to give me trouble when I rolled down my window. Immediately my heart would start to race and I’d begin sweating. I’d start to get scared again. And then I’d remember that business card. I’d reach over, pull it out, and ask the guy: “Do you want me to call her again?” And he’d quickly wave me through.
Sin bullies us—sometimes often. We’ve been freed, but sin still shows up, throws its weight around, and hopes we forget that we’re now free. It hopes that seeing it, we’ll just fall back into the old patterns of a slave. Brothers and sisters, that’s when we need to remember our baptism. That’s when the message of Good Friday and of Easter need to become for us more than stories and even more than theological doctrines; this is when they need to become our reality. When sin rears its head and tries to intimidate us, tries to get us to fall back into its slavery, we simply need to remember that we have been crucified with Christ—that we are now dead to sin—and that we have been raised with him to new life and are free in him.
Let us pray: Lord, into the death of whose dear Son our Saviour Jesus Christ we have been baptized, grant that we may continually put to death our sinful desires and be buried with him so that we may pass through the grave and gate of death to our joyful resurrection through the merits of him who died, was buried, and rose again for us, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.