A Commentary by John Stott
A serious danger of this popular view is that it can easily lead to disillusion or self-deception. If we struggle to ‘reckon’ ourselves to be ‘dead to sin’ (i.e. unresponsive to it), when we know full well that we are not, we feel torn between Scripture and experience, and may then be tempted either to doubt God’s Word or, in order to maintain our interpretation of it to resort even to dishonesty about our experience. To sum up the objections to the popular view: Christ did not ‘die to sin’ in the sense of becoming insensitive to it, for he never was thus alive to it that he needed to die to it. And we have not died to sin in this sense either, because we *are* still alive to it, as Paul’s exhortations and our experience demonstrate. Indeed we are told to ‘put to death’ our fallen nature and its activities (e.g. 8:13). But how can we put to death what is already dead? There must be a better and more liberating interpretation of the death to sin which is true to Christ and of Christians – *all* Christians. So we turn now to *Paul’s true meaning*.
The popular misunderstanding well illustrates the danger of arguing from an analogy. In every analogy we need to consider at what point the parallel or similarity is being drawn; we must not press a resemblance at every point. For instance, when Jesus told us to become like little children, he did not mean that we were to copy every characteristic of children (including their immaturity, waywardness and selfishness), but only one, namely their humble dependence. In the same way, to say that we have ‘died’ to sin does not mean that we must exhibit every characteristic of dead people, including their insensibility to stimuli. We have to ask ourselves: at what point is the analogy of death to be made?
If we answer these questions from Scripture rather than from analogy, from biblical teaching about death rather than from the properties of dead people, we shall find immediate help. Death is represented in Scripture more in legal than in physical terms; not so much as a state of lying motionless but as the grim though just penalty for sin. Whenever sin and death are coupled in the Bible, from its second chapter (‘when you eat….(i.e. sin), you will surely die, Gn. 2:17.) to its last two chapters (where the fate of the impenitent is called ‘the second death’, Rev. 21-22), the essential nexus between them is that death is sin’s penalty. This is plain also in Romans, in which we read that those who sin ‘deserve death’ (1:32), that death entered the world through sin (5:12), and that ‘the wages of sin is death’ (6:23).
Take Christ first: ‘the death he died, he died to sin once for all’ (10). The natural and obvious meaning of this is that Christ bore sin’s condemnation, namely death. He met its claim, he paid its penalty, he accepted its reward, and he did it ‘once for all’ (*ephapax*), an adverb which is many times applied to his atoning death in the New Testament (e.g. Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 26, 28; 10:10; 1Pet. 3:18). In consequence , sin has no more claim or demand on him. So God raised him from the dead, in order to demonstrate the satisfactoriness of his sin-bearing, and he now lives for ever to God.
What is true of Christ is equally true of Christians who are united to Christ. We too have ‘died to sin’, in the same sense that through union with Christ we may be said to have borne its penalty. Some may object that we surely cannot speak of our bearing the penalty of our sins, even in Christ, since we cannot die for our own sins; he alone has done that. Is not the suggestion that we could a veiled form of justification by works? But no, it is nothing of the kind. Of course Christ’s sin-bearing sacrifice was altogether unique, and we cannot share in its offering. But we can and do share in its benefits by being united to Christ. So the New Testament tells us not only that Christ died instead of us, as our substitute, so that we will never need to die for our sins, but also that he died for us, as our representative, so that we may be said to have died in and through him. As Paul wrote elsewhere, for example, ‘we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died’ (2 Cor. 5:14). That is, by being united to him, his death became their death.
Among the commentators only Robert Haldane appears to understand Paul in this way. ‘To explain the expression “dead to sin” as meaning dead to the influence and love of sin’, he writes, ‘is entirely erroneous.’ Paul is referring not to a death to the *power* of sin, but to a death to its *guilt*, that is our justification.
Paul’s next step is to explain how we may be said to have *died to sin*, namely through our baptism by which we were united to Christ in his death.