A Commentary by John Stott
Paul lays down this fundamental truth as being in itself a sufficient answer to the antinomians. *They* say that believers may persist in sin; *He says* that they have died to it. So *how can we live in it any longer?* (2). The Greek verb is in the simple future tense (*zesomen*). So the sentence could be translated: ‘We died to sin (in the past); how then *shall* we live in it (in the future)?’ It is not the literal impossibility of sin in believers which Paul is declaring, but the moral incongruity of it. J.B.Phillips catches the point in his rendering: ‘We, who have died to sin – how *could* we live in sin any longer?’
Paul is drawing attention to the essential anomaly of living in sin when we have died to sin. What, then, does he mean by our having *died to sin?* Let us consider first *a popular misunderstanding*.
Soon after my own conversion, I was taught the following kind of reconstruction. When we die, our five senses will cease to operate. We will no longer be able to touch, taste, see, smell or hear. We will lose all ability to feel or respond to external stimuli. Just so, it is argued, to die to sin means to become insensitive to it. For example, if we see a dog or cat lying in the gutter, we cannot tell from a distance whether it is alive or dead. But touch it with our foot, and we will know at once. If it is alive, there will be an immediate reaction: it will jump up and run away. If it is dead, however, there will be no response at all. Just so, according to this popular view, having died to sin, we are as unresponsive to temptation as a corpse is to a physical stimulus. And the reason for this, we are assured from verse 6, is that our old nature was in some way crucified with Christ. For he bore not only our guilt but our ‘flesh’, our fallen nature. It was nailed to the cross and killed, and our task (however much evidence we may have to the contrary) is to reckon it dead (11).
Several commentators appear to hold this view. C.J.Vaughan, for example, wrote: ‘A dead man cannot sin. And you are dead…. Be in relation to all sin as impassive, as insensitive, as immovable, as is he who has really died.’ Similarly, H.P.Liddon wrote: ‘This *apothanein* (to have died) has presumably made the Christian as insensible to sin as a dead man is to the objects of the world of sense.’ Even Sanday and Headlam in their usually fine paraphrase write: ‘In like manner do you Christians regard yourselves as dead, inert and motionless as a corpse, in all that relates to sin.’ And J.B.Phillips writes that ‘a dead man can safely be said to be immune to the power of sin’ (7), and that we are to look upon ourselves as ‘dead to the appeal and power of sin’. (11)
There are, however, three fatal objections to this popular view. First, it is incompatible with the meaning of the death of Christ. The expression ‘died to sin’ or ‘dead to sin’ occur in this section twice of Christians (2, 11) and once of Christ (10). Since it is a right principle of interpretation that the same phrase occurring in the same context bears the same meaning, we must find an explanation of this death to sin which is both true of Christ and of Christians. What, then, did Paul mean when he stated that Christ ‘died to sin once for all’ (10)? It cannot mean that at some point he became unresponsive to it, since this would imply that previously he had been responsive to it. To be sure, his temptations were real. But was our Lord Jesus Christ earlier so continuously alive to sin that he needed on the cross to die to it decisively, once for all? That would be an intolerable slur on his character.
Secondly, this view is incompatible with Paul’s concluding exhortations. If our fallen nature has effectively died, or we have died to it, so that we are no longer responsive to temptation, it would be unnecessary for the apostle to exhort us not to let sin ‘reign’ in our body, lest we obey its ‘evil desires’ (12), and not to ‘offer’ our faculties to sin (13). Nor later in his letter could he have urged us to ‘put aside the deeds of darkness’ and not to think ‘how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature’ (13:12, 14). How could he have written these things if our fallen nature were dead and had no desires, or if we had a ‘sanctified disposition’ from which the inclination to sin had been removed?
Thirdly, it is incompatible with Christian experience. It is important to note that Paul is not referring in these verses to a minority of exceptionally holy Christians. He is describing all Christians, who have believed and been baptized into Christ (2-3). So, whatever the ‘death to sin’ may be it is common to all Christian people. But are all God’s people ‘dead to sin’ in the sense of being unresponsive to it? No; scriptural and historical biographies, together with own experience, combine to deny this. Far from being dead, in the sense of quiescent, our fallen nature is so alive and active that we are urged not to obey its desires, and are given the Holy Spirit to subdue and control them.