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Romans 6:12-23

In Romans 6, we find Paul dealing with the struggle of life in the overlap between two ages, two modes of existence. Christ died and has risen: New life in a new age has begun. Yet, the old life in the old age continues. As followers of Christ, we must live in both ages at once, and often we struggle to live the new life in the old age. We struggle with temptation; we struggle with sin. In Christ, God has brought us a great distance, but we have not quite arrived. Reflections on this struggle sometimes emphasize comfort for the believer who has stumbled, perhaps repeatedly, and feels guilty or helpless. Such comfort is present in Paul’s words, but it is not where Paul’s emphasis lies. Paul emphasizes not comfort, but calling. Unwilling to allow believers to settle for a repeating pattern of sinning and celebrating forgiveness, Paul calls the Roman believers, and us, to live above sin.

When discussing Paul, one often faces the challenge of determining how far to back up in order to situate the passage at hand in the apostle’s train of thought. Here, though the passage at hand is Romans 6:12-23, backing up to the beginning of chapter 6 does not seem quite enough. At the end of chapter 5, Paul says, “20 . . . Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (5:20b-21[1]). This statement is in mind when Paul continues in 6:1-2 with, “1What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?”

The importance of this question and its answer to Paul is underscored by his repeating the sequence in 6:15: “What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” It may be that Paul knows of people who claim the name of Christ but twist the gospel into a justification for libertinism, saying, “God will not hold our sin against us, so let’s just sin all we want.” On the other hand, Paul may simply be using the rhetorical form known as diatribe, anticipating and responding to a possible objection to his argument. In either case, Paul seems to want to make it very clear that believers must take sin quite seriously.

In 6:3-11, Paul portrays the status of believers in relation to sin. Christ died to sin, and we have died with him. Christ has been raised, and we will be raised (vv. 7-8). We are now “dead to sin and alive to God” (v.11), “freed from sin” (vv.6-7). Still, our resurrection lies in the future; for the present, our transformation is real and powerful, but incomplete. That is why in verse 12, the beginning of the passage at hand, Paul must say, “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” We must not see in Paul’s words any sort of gnostic denigration of the physical body. The body is God’s good creation; nevertheless, as long as we remain mortal we remain susceptible to temptation, in danger of falling into sin. Danger, however, does not equal inevitability. Paul calls believers to choose to serve God rather than sin (vv. 13, 19).

6:13 states the call starkly: “No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” The word ‘members’ (Gr. melos) has given rise to some discussion. N. T. Wright suggests that it refers here to “the varied parts of personality, mind, or body.”[2] NIV translates, “Do not offer any part of yourself to sin.” Perhaps the term stands in contrast to the reflexive pronoun (“present yourselves to God”). We are to present no part of the self to sin, and we are to present the whole self to God. Then again, the last part of verse 13 says, “Present your members to God.” So perhaps we should simply understand ‘your members’ and ‘yourselves’ as synonyms.  Verse 14 provides the basis for the command in verse 13 and the reason for Paul’s adamant “by no means” in verses 2 and 15. “Sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (v. 14). “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (v. 1). Of course not! It is because grace abounds that we can avoid sin. God’s grace not only facilitates forgiveness when we sin; it gives us victory over sin and enables us to live above sin. In vv. 16-19 Paul, as he often does, reminds believers of who they are (“You, having once been slaves of sin, . . . have become slaves of righteousness” [vv. 17-18]) and calls them to live out their identity (“now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification” [v.19]).

In verse, 23, this part of Paul’s discussion comes to a climax in one of the most profound statements in all of Scripture: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul has already made it clear that all have sinned (3:23); therefore, 6:23 demands the conclusion that all have earned death. All we can ever earn for ourselves is death—not just physical death, which all human beings[3] must experience, but ultimate death. What we can earn, however, is not what is really important. What is really important is what God wants to give us: “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our natural tendency is to go to great lengths to avoid the reality of sin. We ignore it; we make excuses for it; we find ways to blame it on circumstances or other people. Paul would say, on the one hand, that such efforts are futile. Sin is real, it exerts power in this world, and through it we have all earned death. On the other hand, Paul would say that these efforts are completely unnecessary. God has provided the solution to the problem of sin (3:24-25). We do not need to hide from sin. We can face it in all of its horror and ugliness and receive the gift that God wants to give us: eternal life—a life of freedom from sin fellowship with God.


[1] All Scriptural quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from NRSV.

[2] N. T. Wright, “Romans” (New Interpreter’s Bible 10; Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), “Romans 6:12-14, The End of Sin’s Reign,”

[3] All except, of course, those believers who are alive when Christ returns (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).