If you listen closely to the vows couples exchange during a wedding ceremony (whether they are traditional or ones they have written), they all have the same intent and purpose and say the same thing. They are promises that each will commit themselves to the attitudes and actions conducive to happy, healthy marriage. No one walks away from a wedding thinking that the ceremony promoted anti-marriage behavior!
In his exposition of God’s saving grace through Jesus in Romans, Paul writes about how “where sin increased, grace increased all the more” (5:20). He previously argued that faith in Jesus didn’t nullify the law of God but rather established it (3:31). Taken out of context, these two points appear to be at odds. If God’s grace increases where sins does—how does that promote the godly living the law was after? Paul’s opponents apparently were to quick to object that this encouraged a life of sin rather than a life of holiness/wholeness.
This is what Paul is addressing in chapter six—the chapter is a systemic look at how the good news of Jesus that brings us salvation relates to living a life devoted to God and against sin. He begins by stating the objection that his opponents were raising (v. 1). He has an instinctive response to it (“By no means!”) and then quickly moves on to expose the fallacy of such thinking by asking, “We are those who 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?” (v. 2-3).
Just as no one would argue that a wedding ceremony promotes anti-marriage behavior, Paul wants his opponents and the disciples at Rome to see it is equally baseless to suggest that the gospel of grace encourages a sinful lifestyle. Why? He points to the act of baptism.
Baptism is the defining act in becoming a follower of Jesus. The New Testament writers never bothers to argue this, they simply assume it (see the book of Acts). Lots of things happen at baptism: our sins are forgiven (Colossians 2:11-14), we receive the Spirit (Acts 2:38), we become children of God (Galatians 3:26-27), we become part of the church/the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13) and from the passage we are looking at, we participate in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus (Romans 6:2-10).
To understand this, we must recognize a distinction I came across in a little booklet called, The New Life (by the World English Institute). It made the point that Jesus not only died for sin, He also died to sin. The second part is precisely what Paul is saying in the early verses of Romans 6. Jesus’ death (and subsequent resurrection) resulted in a new life for Him—one that was different from His earthly life where He was connected with sin (i.e., He came to be a sacrifice for it). In His new, resurrected life that relationship no longer exists (v. 10; Hebrews 9:28). In this sense, He died to sin. In the same way, when we were baptized, we were “united with Him in a death like His” (v. 5) in that we also severed our connection with sin (“We are those who have died to sin” – v. 2). We were then raised from the dead as Jesus was to live a new life for God (v. 4,10).
If this is what we did when we came to Christ, there are no grounds for the assertion that the message bringing us to Christ promotes sin. The call to receive God’s grace is at the same time a call to holiness. “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).