What does it mean to be dead to sin?

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Dead to Sin

That's the bad news. But Paul also delivers very good news. Remember that the only way to be free of sin is through death. Fortunately there is a way to die to sin without suffering physical death. Paul explains in Romans 6 that those who are in Christ, by faith and through baptism (v. 3), participate in his death on the cross. "For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin" (v. 6). In other words, because Christ died, those who are united with Christ have died, too. Moreover, Christ did not stay dead; God raised him from the dead. And just as we participate in Christ's death through faith, we also participate in his resurrection: "Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him" (v. 8).

This makes us "dead to sin" and "alive to God in Christ Jesus" (v. 11). Being dead to sin means that sin no longer has jurisdiction over us. Returning to the image of the dead branch, imagine that it has been grafted onto a live tree by a master gardener. Now its brittle limbs become limber again. It produces buds and leaves and fruit. Although it was previously characterized by death, now it is characterized by life. In Christ, all is made new. Though in our natural condition we are dead in sin, through Christ we are dead to sin.

Living Alive to Christ

Paul seems to prefer to use the more positive image and say that we are now "alive to God in Christ." And he insists that this transition from death to life has already taken place—really and truly—in the death and resurrection of Christ. It has happened in the spiritual realm, the "heavenlies." And that means, of course, that we can't witness this change with our naked eyes. If I become a Christian on Tuesday, I may not feel all that different on Wednesday. It's true that some new believers are immediately and radically delivered from previous sins. I grew up on a steady diet of conversion testimonies in which such stories were told: a man was an alcoholic and philanderer until one day—wham—just like that he makes a clean start. This wasn't my experience. For the rest of us, transition may be much less dramatic. But that makes it no less real.

Paul knew very well that his readers were likely converts of the less dramatic sort. In fact, that's the point of his entire discussion in this section of Romans. After explaining the metaphysical realities of our association with Christ in his death and resurrection, Paul brings the point home. "In the same way," he writes, "count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:11). In other words, it's not enough simply to know that we are new creations; we have to embrace the concept, and that means changing our behavior.

At this point Paul gives two commands in the active voice: "do not let sin reign" in your bodies and "Do not offer any part of yourself to sin" (vv. 12-13). To keep on sinning would be inconsistent with your new character as one who is "dead to sin." It would be a bit like speaking in a phony accent. To be dead to sin means sin is alien to us. It's out of character.

What Paul is getting at here is that we have to take active steps in order to stop sinning. The power of sin is broken, which means that we can have success in our striving against sin. Our shackles have been unlocked. But we have to take the steps to leave the dungeon. In other words, all our struggles and weaknesses don't vanish when we become Christians. The life of faith will always involve temptation. It will also likely include falling short. But we can struggle knowing that victory is secured in Christ.

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