What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that 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—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
—Romans 6:1-11, NIV
If we can imagine the entire human race as a sort of disadvantaged minority group, then we can understand Paul’s concept of the sinfulness of human race.
Our ancestor Adam sinned and created thereby a vicious circle of sin: sin distorts personal, social, and cultural values, and they lead again to sin. Each succeeding generation is infected and influenced by its environment, and falls into sin afresh. Thus the sinfulness of the human race is passed down from generation to generation; it is inherited in much the same way that hard-core poverty is inherited, and we are locked into the ghetto of sin without hope of escape.
As an oppressed people, we lack the hope, vision, and values to lift ourselves out. Our standards are skewed so that even our best efforts to escape our fate only serve to seal it even tighter. Everything we do is uninformed and self-defeating. If, for example, we place a street-wise youth from a broken home, who has known and witnessed violence as an every-day reality, into a preppy boarding school, we will soon find that the very skills that ensured his survival on the streets will destroy him when he uses them in his new social context. He used to resolve disputes with a switchblade and a threat; his instinctive reactions to adversity land him into deeper and deeper trouble.
From the standpoint of God’s righteousness, we are all street-wise punks with self-defeating survival skills. Sure, some of us are nicer than others, some are more honest, but from a distance these ethical differences are academic. We need a liberator to give us what we lack, to lift us from our shame, and to set our feet on the right path. We need a mentor to infuse us with new values and proper priorities, and to urge us on as we learn to function in what is for us a whole new world and a whole new life. We need a guidance counselor who can understand us when we revert to our old ways and who can guide us to amend our lives.
Our liberator is Jesus Christ. Our mentor and guidance counselor is the Holy Spirit.
Calvin was a lawyer, so many of us are used to a systematic theology that is modeled on a legal code. So let me explain how Jesus saves us in terms of a television courtroom drama.
During the opening credits, the legal system confronts you with your sins and finds you guilty. The show begins with you sitting in a bare cell, awaiting execution for your offenses. You are not alone; all the rest of us are in there with you, too. Some of us sit with our faces in our hands, lamenting our hopeless fate; others of us rail against the authorities, pointlessly shouting out threats and taunts at the guard.
Then Jesus enters the cell. He is the public defender and He comes with a legal deal for everyone there.
“Plead guilty,” He advises. That causes quite a stir! “No, hear me out!” He shouts over the din, “When you are sentenced to death, I will stage a funeral for you that will satisfy the legal requirement for your execution. Then, you will be legally dead and the law won’t be able to touch you.”
“That sounds great,” you say suspiciously from the back, “but what’s the catch?”
“The catch is, you will be totally dependent on me for all things. Dead people cannot enter contracts, buy food, or do any other thing. You will have to do everything in my name.”
“I get it.” You push through the prisoners to the front, looking ready for a street fight. Your voice drips cynicism as you say, “You mean that we become your slaves. We have to do everything you say.”
“That’s right,” comes the penetrating reply. “But I am a loving master. I will treat you kindly.”
“Yea, and how can I be sure of that?” you sneer.
“You’ll just have to take me at my word, each of you,” Jesus says, speaking to all of us. “It’s either this or a real execution. There is no other way out.”
And so some of us choose Jesus. We undergo our legal funeral, where we are declared legally dead and are buried beneath the water of baptism. Then we rise again to a new life of total reliance on Jesus Christ. We can do nothing without Him, we must do all things in His name, we must constantly be on the alert to be on His good side.
However, He is a loving Master; He treats us kindly. His burden is easy, His discipline is fair, and His yoke is light.
That example helps us understand salvation and the Christian life, and what it means to do things in Jesus’ name, but it is a flawed example, if for no other reason that in a real television show, we’d have to break for commercials! The main flaw is the use of a legal metaphor. When you base your theology on a legal model, you end up formulating rules that God has to obey, which makes no sense, because God is sovereign and can do whatever He likes. There are no natural laws or spiritual laws at all, there is just God’s will. We are not captive in a jail with a guard to keep us there, we voluntarily wrap ourselves up in our own impulses and urges. We are not saved by resigning ourselves resentfully to Jesus’ demands, as in my example, but by falling in love with Him. We do not obey Him because we have no other choice, we obey Him because—even though we do have other choices—we’d much rather choose to please Him.
We begin our upward climb out of the snake pit of our former world. Supported by His providence, we become spiritually mature by relying on His grace in all our times of adversity and trial. Pleasing Him becomes our greatest joy.
Thus in Adam we all sinned, and fall short of the glory of God, beyond any hope of redeeming ourselves. We are sinful, and according to the law we must die. Jesus comes as our redeemer. On His advice, we plead guilty, and are declared dead. Accordingly, we are buried in the water of our baptism, but we rise up again to a new life. Since we have no legal existence, we rely solely on Jesus Christ, whom we love deeply. We can only act with the authority He gives us, and we delight in pleasing Him in every way.
Jesus is a kind master, whose burden is easy, whose yoke is light. He disciplines those whom He purchased at a great price, so that they may become transformed beyond any of their aspirations, hopes, or dreams. Through Him we shall arrive at greater heights than we ourselves could reach.