Before the Council of Trent, Augustine, Chrysostom, and others had no problem elucidating ideas most clearly represented today by Reformed theologians. In Chapter 6, Paul answers everyone’s big question: if we are really saved by faith alone, irrespective of works of the Law or any good works, why not just sin?
Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.
6:1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?
This rhetorical question asked by an imaginary (probably Jewish) audience makes perfect sense in light of the discussion in chapters four and five. If following the Law or any good works does not make one righteous (Rom 4:3-6), and if the Law was added to make sin more apparent (Rom 5:20, Rom 7:13), why not sin? Doesn’t it magnify God’s grace? Doesn’t it not make a difference in the end if all sins are paid for on the cross? Why not sin so grace may abound?
It is a valid question in light of the fact that Paul just clearly demonstrated to us that a Christian’s justification has already been achieved by faith before any works have been done. If our righteousness is a present reality divorced from the necessity to do anything good to keep it that way, then what incentive do we have to live faithfully?
The obvious answer is living faithlessly is not faithful at all.
When Paul admonishes the Philippians that they should “not look out for” their “own personal interests, but also the interest of others” (Phil 2:4), he does not say “or you will not maintain your salvation” or “you will fall short from doing the works needed for salvation.” Rather, he gives the example of Christ who instead of looking to His own interests “did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant” (Phil 2:6-7). Christ looked out for the interest of others by dying on the cross in their place. Christ did not take advantage of His position, just as we ought not to take advantage of our position (that we are saved by faith and not by obedience to works). After saying this Paul says:
So then, [i.e. in light of what was just said] my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil 2:12-13).
So, we work out our salvation not because we might not be saved if we do not, but because the Holy Spirit that works in us both to will and to work for His good pleasure will put it in our minds to “have this attitude in” ourselves “which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). To Paul, it is a metaphysical impossibility for a real Christian, who actually lives by faith, not to work out one’s salvation with the humility that Christ Himself shown us by dying for us.
Immediately after verse 13 of Philippians, Paul writes:
Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world (Phil 2:14-15).
Finally, we get the point of Paul’s admonishment starting in verse four of that letter. What we can see is that Paul is not encouraging us to be like Christ because it plays a role in our justification, but rather it proves our faith to others. It can even be useful for proving it to oneself because we ought to examine ourselves to see if we are in the faith (2 Cor 13:5).
It should not surprise us that when adding additional moral admonishments in the same Epistle Paul writes, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained” (Phil 3:15-16). Perfection is a status which we have already attained. Having attained this status, let us therefore live in accordance with it. Our motivation to do good works should relate to the fact that it corresponds to an reality that already exists, not so that we can make it exist or maintain its existence.
Think about it. How is it possible for the Philippians to already be perfect? How can those who live imperfectly, though faithful, actually be perfect? For our perfection does not rely upon the fruit of our faith, but the metaphysical and invisible reality that our deficient fruits of faith reflect: the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Where the Spirit is, there is the imputation of God’s own righteousness in His Son. It is a final, finished act. The fruit are witnesses of the existence of the Holy Spirit and the metaphysical perfection we have attained already.
Proof of this can be seen in Gal 3:13-14:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
As many as are perfect are indwelt with the Holy Spirit and this perfection is attained by faith:
This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh (Gal 3:2-3)?
No, we are not being perfected by works done in the flesh. We are perfected by the work of the Spirit which we receive by faith.
This led Marius Victornius to claim that those of us who have faith in Christ actually are Jesus Christ, presumably by union with Him:
Now, because you are one with the reception of the Spirit from Christ, you are Christ. You are therefore sons of God in Christ (Commentary on Galatians, Gal 3:29).
But you have been baptized in Christ Jesus, you have received Christ, and you are Christ; you are therefore the seed of Abraham. If an inheritance was promised to the seed, the inheritance was given to you as well, and you are heirs according to the promise (Commentary on Galatians, Gal 3:30).
2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?
If we “are Christ” in the sense Marius Victorinus teaches, and Christ died on the cross and all our sins were nailed to it, then we have been resurrected with Christ to new life. And if that is the case, we are already dead to our sin and alive in Christ. How is it then possible to continue living in sin? Paul asserts that it is literally a metaphysical impossibility for the person in Christ to continue in Adam, living in accordance to the sinful nature that hates God.
On a more practical level Aquinas comments, “If we are dead to sin, we ought not live in sin.” How does the practical align with the metaphysical? There is a profound reason for this, as Paul now details:
3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
As we can see, Paul gives the answer that we have anticipated based upon our exegesis of Galatians 3 and its ramifications as said to us by Marius Victorinus. Those baptized by the Holy Spirit have in a true sense died with Christ, so just as Christ literally died so has sin in us.
Wherefore he does not say…‘but in the likeness of His Death.’ For both the one [death of Christ’s body] and the other [death of our sin] is a death, but not of the same subject; since the one is of the Flesh, that of Christ; the other of sin, which is our own. As then that is real, so is this.
5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection,
In the same way, we too might if we are indeed faithful in Christ, walk in newness of life as certainly as Christ did when He resurrected.
6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; 7 for he who has died is freed from sin.
Here comes the application: We are dead to sin by virtue of our union with Christ, with our sins imputed to Him and nailed to the cross. Therefore, our body of sin has been already “done away with.” “Knowing this” present spiritual reality that “he who has died is freed from sin,” we ought not to sin.
The reason we should do this is two fold: First, if we do sin it conveys that we do not believe the reality of what Christ has done for us. Second, those who are truly dead to sin are also truly alive and therefore live according to the Holy Spirit (Rom 8). So, the Spirit will see to it that we do not sin.
8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.
If we have faith in Christ and thereby believe that we really died with Him, then we must also believe that we shall live resurrected lives as surely as He is resurrected. We must remind ourselves that death can never reclaim Christ, so therefore sin cannot reclaim us. If we are truly in Christ we cannot continue in sin, or we were never in Christ to begin with. Remember, the Scripture says that the righteous shall live by faith, not the righteous shall talk about their faith.
11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
By our works, we in a sense consider the reality we have already achieved by living it out.
12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts,13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.
So, living by faith one does not commit deeds of faithlessness (a life typified by sin and death instead of obedience and life). If one lives in sin, then sin is one’s master and not Christ. This would make one’s faith in Christ nominal and imaginary.
To the contrary, if one lives with Christ as his master and does not sin, then it is evident he is indeed faithful. If this be the case, then he is under grace and not under the curse of the Law. Works act as the mirror that we may look at to see if Christ is really in our lives.
15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! 16 Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?
Paul essentially answers the same objection, the one posed in verse 1, a second time here. The first time he responds that those dead to sin cannot continue living in it. In other words, one proves to be faithless and their baptism false if one does not live according to the understanding that his sin is dead now as a consequence that Christ, who is in his body, was once dead.
This time, Paul’s response is a little less esoteric: if you continue in sin, you present yourself as a servant of sin. This is inconsistent with one’s profession of faith in God. Hence, being a slave to obedience does result in righteousness, not because the works themselves merit the righteousness (“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy,” Titus 3:5), but because the slavery to obedience is the outworking of living by faith. Indeed, living by faith is what credits one with righteousness.
Hence, by one’s actions we can see who one’s master really is.
17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.
Paul commends the Romans, and thereby us, if we live as slaves of righteousness because it is proof that in Christ we have been freed from sin. It is important to say again, Paul does not assert that obedience is the cause of our being freed from sin. Rather, faith in Christ has accomplished the reality for the Roman Christians of being freed from sin and as a result they “became slaves of righteousness.”
19 I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness.21 Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. 22 But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul recapitulates what he said in simpler “human terms.” The result of sin and what its wages clearly deserve is death, while the result of obedience (the living of true faith) is righteousness, resulting in sanctification.
Sanctification according to most Protestants occurs after the moment of justification and it continues as a process. The Scripture does not speak of sanctification in this sense. Paul writes, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). Sanctification refers to God setting us apart upon repentance and belief, not to a process in which we increase in holiness after belief.
Therefore, in Rom 6:19 and 22, sanctification occurs simultaneously upon belief in Christ. Why? All those who have faith are justified. Further, all those who have been justified have likewise been sanctified. “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb 10:14). So, sanctification is not an increase in holiness but a state that is achieved for Christians by Christ’s finished work on the cross. After the attaining of “perfection” (i.e. justification) Christians may increase in holiness of living regardless.
On a side note, another debated term is “regeneration.” The term regeneration, according to Reformed Theologians, refers to the working of the Holy Spirit upon a believer so he is now enabled to accept Christ (Acts 16:14, Ezek 36:26-27). The word itself is only used in a relevant context once, in Titus 3:5.
Here is the whole context of the idea in question:
But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7).
Unlike the term sanctification, it appears that the term regeneration has been properly applied from its biblical meaning amongst the Reformed. Our salvation is indeed not on the basis of deeds “done in righteousness.” Paul does not say “righteousness done apart from faith” or “self-righteousness.” He simply says “not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness.”
So on what basis are we saved? “According to His mercy.” How is this done? “By the washing and renewing by the Holy Spirit…so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs.” There is not a single verse in the Bible where the term “justification” is said to be attained by anything other than faith. So, when Catholic critics point out judgement is by works, they are correct in this, but we cannot conflate judgement with justification. They are clearly two different things.
We may surmise in Titus 3:5-7 that justification and regeneration are conflated. Paul does not say “by the washing and renewing by the Holy Spirit…so that being baptized into His grace,” but rather he says “justified by His grace.” So, the passage is not about baptism, it is about justification.
If justification is by faith, and the washing and the renewing of the Holy Spirit is concurrent with justification, then we must conclude that with regeneration there is faith. The Scripture does not speak of infants that are regenerate from baptism, but not old enough to have faith.
In fact, verse 8 of Titus takes for granted that those mentioned in verses 5 through 7 are faithful adults that he encourages to do good works: “This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds.”
Obviously, infants cannot take care to engage in good deeds.
So, taken as a whole, in verse 5 we are made just before God apart from deeds of righteousness. Rather, it is by regeneration which is concurrent with our faith. So, the washing and renewing of the Holy Spirit, and not what we literally do, is what makes us righteous in God’s eyes. This being the case, it is a trustworthy statement that even though you are saved by grace and justified through faith, you ought to be careful to engage in good deeds!
To shoehorn in an interpretation about baptismal regeneration, when the context of the passage speaks nothing about it makes us miss the whole message: even though our salvation does not depend upon our good works, we should still do them.