In Romans 6:1, the apostle Paul asks believers a rhetorical question, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (ESV). This question reflects a common criticism of Paul’s teaching, both in his time and ours. Critics argue that preaching about boundless grace could inadvertently provide a license to sin.
Paul argues, however, that those who have died to sin cannot continue in it: “By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:2, ESV). This does not mean that believers are sinless. Rather, it means that sin is no longer our master: “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (verses 17–18, ESV).
In verses 3–4 of Romans 6, Paul reminds believers that they have been baptized into Christ: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (ESV). Through the work of the Holy Spirit, we have been united with Christ. Now, we can walk in newness of life.
The reason that we can walk in newness of life is that “our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For the one who has died has been set free from sin” (Romans 6:6–7, ESV). The death of the old self is not a metaphor or figure of speech; instead, it is a spiritual reality that changes how we live.
Freedom from the power of sin is not an end but a means to righteous living. For this reason, Paul writes, “Let not sin reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness but present yourself to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you since you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:12–14, ESV). The proper response to God’s grace is to commit ourselves to righteousness rather than sin.
Romans 6 is emphatically against the idea that grace is a license to sin. Instead of continuing to sin, we ought to yield to the power of the Holy Spirit: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25).
The practical implications of Romans 6 are numerous. First, we must understand who we are in Christ: “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). This new identity should be reflected in our thoughts, words, and actions.
Second, living under grace does not suggest antinomianism (the rejection of laws or moral rules). To the contrary, grace enables and empowers believers to fulfill the righteous requirement of the law (Romans 8:4). In other words, the grace that saves is also the grace that sanctifies.
Last, the Christian life is marked by a continuous struggle against sin. In Romans 7, Paul acknowledges this struggle but points to the victory available in Christ. The “victory” is not to sin that grace may abound, but to overcome sin by the power of the Holy Spirit.