License to Sin

About: this paper was presented to Dr. Barth Campbell at Simpson University during my junior year in a class on the Life and Letters of Paul.


James Bond brings to mind the phrase, “license to kill.” He was given the freedom to kill and it was perfectly acceptable; it would not be held against him. Sometimes it seems that Christians feel that they have been given a “license to sin,” having been set free from the bondage of sin. Although it is true that Christians have been freed from the bondage of sin, this does not give them free reign to sin at will, but rather should drive them to rid themselves of sin. This by no means says they become perfect instantly; it is a working out of salvation toward perfection—a gradual process. It all begins by dying: Christians believe in Christ and as a result they die with Christ thus freeing them from sin. The only solution to being freed from sin is death. However, the result of death in Christ is new life. Therefore, the true Christian finds that dying is living, and in this death there is a release from the bondage of sin and a beginning of the process of sanctification. Romans 6:1-14 addresses this paradox of dying to live, however, in order to extract any chunk of theology from this passage, its own historical context must first be understood.

It is commonly known that the author of Romans was Paul. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans from Corinth in about 58 CE with the dream of going to Spain to proclaim the gospel to those who had never heard it, but he realized that in order to do so he would need some sort of headquarters, and what better headquarters than Rome. Therefore, the purpose of this letter was to gain the support of the Romans in order that they might help send him to Spain (Barclay 1975, 4). Keep in mind that Paul had never met the church in Rome, nor was it likely that he was acquanited with any of the believers in Rome. Therefore, if he were to use Rome as his headquarters, he would need to gain their trust and approval first and foremost. Paul was writing to the Church in Rome, “the greatest city in the world, the capital of the greatest Empire the world had ever seen” (Barclay 1975, 1). Although he had never been there, he did have dreams of going there. Paul wrote this letter at the time of Nero’s reign, during the last leg of his third missionary trip, right before his imprisonment in Caesarea (Ryrie 1995, 1788). Paul was also writing to a church that had no apparent founder, but was probably started by converts from the Day of Pentecost who then “carried the gospel back to the imperial city” (Ryrie 1995, 1786). This church’s membership was vastly Gentile (Ryrie 1995, 1786). Now that a basic foundation has been laid for the historical context of the letter to the Romans, it is now necessary to explore the literary context of chapter six within the letter.

The main theme of Romans is justification by faith. Romans six should be read in the light of this theme. It is because we are justified that the working out of our sanctification is necessary. The grace of God is one of the themes that unfolds justification by faith in 3:21-8:39 (Stott 1994, 37). It is within this theme that Romans six lies. Indeed, it is by the grace of God that we are saved, and the result is death to sin and the working out of our sanctification. In closer context to Romans six, Pastor Ray Johnston of Bayside Church reveals that chapter five testifies of the results of being justified by faith. Pastor Ray, as he prefers, summarized these results into seven points: we have peace with God (v. 1), we have access to God (v. 2a), we have a secure future (v. 2b), we have a positive perspective (v. 3), we have God’s unconditional love (v. 8), we have friendship with God (v. 11), and we have a powerful inheritance (v. 21). Immediately, in Romans 6:12-23, we see that sin binds (v. 20), brings shame (v. 21), and kills (v. 23), and in chapter seven we see that the believer is not under the Law but under grace. Therefore the immediate context shows the result of justification as well as its purpose, and the wider context within the entire letter shows Paul’s main focus is justification by faith itself. The greater context of the New Testament holds to this idea of justification by faith as well, but that works also follow this faith. And even wider in context, the Law was set in place in the Old Testament to show the Hebrews how to live in order to please God. No matter how hard they tried, however, it could not be done, but Jesus came and fulfilled the Law so that they, and all else who believe, could please God. This is the literary context by which Romans six is placed and should be noted when this passage is studied.

The Roman audience of Paul’s letter would have understood Romans 6:1-11 and regarded it as authoritative because it was from Paul the Apostle. Though they had not yet met him personally, they would have understood this passage through the lense of justification by faith, both its purpose result. Having now grasped the way the biblical audience would have understood Romans 6:1-14, we must now turn to this chapter and see what it says.

Romans 6 starts off with an important question: “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (v. 1b). This question is in response to his statement in Romans 5, that the result of justification by faith is grace abounds where sin is present in the believer (v. 20). For many, the logical response to this idea is that if grace will abound when they sin, why not keep sinning if it will be covered? Paul expresses that this is in no way what he is trying to illustrate. Paul is saying that it is impossible for those who have died to sin to continue in it. In order to demonstrate why, Paul turns to the symbol of baptism. Baptism is symbolic of “dying and rising again. The man died to one kind of life and rose to another; he died to the old life of sin and rose to the new life of grace” (Barclay 1975, 84). How then can a man live in a life which he has previously died to after he has been made alive in a new life (v. 2)? It is not possible. Paul is saying that Christians should never continue to live in sin because in Christ’s death they have died to sin and have been raised to a new life in Christ’s resurrection (vv. 3-4), for they “have been united with him in the likeness of His death” (v. 5), meaning that their death is “equal to the same death that [Christ] died” (Bauer 2000, 707).

It is important for Christians to realize their position in Christ: their old self was crucified with Christ, in order that their body of sin might be done away with, so that they would no longer be slaves to sin (v. 6). This body of sin which Paul wrote about “has a concrete existence, a sphere of influence, a basis of operation, a persistent material; it exists, progresses, acts, with vigorous independence, and possesses substance in the world of time and of things and of men” (Barth 1953, 199). And yet, this body of sin was crucified so as to be thrown away or burried for the purpose that the Christian might be freed from the bondage of sin. This is to say that “the power of sin has been done away” (Barth 1953, 200), and the believer can now say of himself: “Since I am not identified with the old man who is wholly and irrevocably bound to this body, I can no longer be in bondage to sin” (Barth 1953, 200).

The Greek word for “be done away with” is katarge÷w, literally meaning “to cause something to come to an end or to be no longer in existence” (Bauer 2000, 525). The Christian in Christ is dead to sin. In other words, sin is abolished in their body, and being abolished, sin is no longer the Christian’s master. Sin is abolished for this reason: that the Christian might not be a slave to sin any longer (v. 6). The Greek word, douleu/w, is used in verse seven to show that Christians no longer conduct themselves as being “in total service to [sin]” (Bauer 2000, 259). Christians are no longer slaves to sin; therefore their services to sin are obsolete. This is what Paul is saying, that those that have died to sin are not slaves to it, for they have been freed from sin and their services to sin are no longer required of them.

Those that died with Christ will also live with Christ (v. 8). Christians need to bear in mind that Christ raised from the dead, “never to die again” (v. 9). Christ conquered the grave; he is victorious. According to Paul’s argument, if we died with Christ then we are also victorious with Christ, for when “we are identified with Christ in His death, then likewise we are identified with Him in His resurrection” (Phillips 1969, 105). To identify oneself with Christ’s death and resurrection is to be in Christ. To be in Christ is a requirement, for “We cannot live our physical life unless we are in the air and the air is in us; unless we are in Christ, and Christ is in us, we cannot live the life of God” (Barclay 1975, 86). Christians fully rely on Christ just as much as they do on air—without Christ they could not live.

Jesus Christ died to death once and for all, and He died to sin in the same way (v. 10). However, He still lives, and He lives for God. Since we have been made alive in Christ, we too are to live for God, just as Christ does (v. 11). In verse 11, Paul uses the word logi÷zomai, literally meaning “to determine by mathematical process” (Bauer 2000, 597). In other words, Paul is exhorting Christians to hold and to realize that the process of dying to sin and being made alive in Christ is “already true of our position or status” (Lloyd-Jones 1976, 120). As Christians, their position is in Christ; it is a fact. The truth is, Christians “are already in an entirely new position and standing with respect to sin” (Lloyd-Jones 1976, 121), that is, they are in Christ—the Victor over death and sin—thereby making Christians victorious over both as well.

Because of this new position, Paul exhorts Christians to a certain lifestyle. He says “to not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness” (vv. 12, 13a). Paul is commanding that no believer is to offer his or her body to sin because he or she has died to it (Stott 1994, 180). It is important to note that “Sin expresses itself through the organs of the body and through this channel reigns in both the natural man and the carnal man” (Phillips 1969, 107). Paul is encouraging the believers to make every effort against sin in the body so that it will not take over; he is saying that “There has to be an act of the will in this regard, for as amoral agents we are responsible for the use to which we put our bodily members” ( Phillips 1969, 107). When Paul is negative in exhortation, he is also positive: “but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God” (v. 13b). Paul is exhorting the believers to offer their bodies to God because they have been raised to live for his glory (Stott 1994, 180). In addition, “It is only as we give in to God that we have the victory” (Phillips 1969, 107).

Paul sums up the purpose for such a lifestyle in verse 14. He states, “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.” William Barclay related verse 14 to a spirutal battle between God and sin. He said, “It is as if Paul was saying: ‘In this world there is an eternal battle between sin and God; choose your side.’ We are faced with the tremendous alternative of making ourselves weapons in the hand of God or weapons in the hand of sin” (1975, 87). In answer to the question from verse one, Paul says in verse 14, “grace discourages and even outlaws sin” (Stott 1994, 181). Therefore, Christians have no business being weapons in the hand of sin but belong in the hand of God.

Paul is saying, in Romans 6:1-11, that we are not to sin freely because of grace, for we are dead to sin and alive in Christ. This is the basic theological principle of the passage. Justification by faith brings life, but it also brings obedience to God. Indeed, all Christians are not under sin’s reign but under God’s; God is their master. As slaves of God, how can we disobey him and try to remain as slaves of sin? The truth is we have died to sin and sin has no authority over us whatsoever, but in Christ we live again under the full authority of God. Therefore, the basic theological principle is made up of three facts about believers in Christ: one, they are dead to sin (v. 11a); two, they are alive to God in Christ (v. 11b); and three, they are instruments of righteousness (v. 13).

You may be saying to yourself, “What does all this talk about being dead to sin, alive in Christ, and instruments of righteousness have to do with me? I live a good life, is that not enough?” The reality is that even Christians sin. No Christian is perfect. Although Christians are dead to sin, they still commit sins even while being alive in Christ. There was a minister, not long ago, with a wife and three kids. This minister got involved in adultery. He justified it to himself by arguing that since he was under grace he would be forgiven. Out of this adultery he began to do more sinful acts. He was constantly lying to his wife in order to keep her off his trail. He was stealing money from his minstry to help pay for all sorts of possessions for his mistress. And before long, this minster—a man of the cloth—began conspiring in his head how he could kill his wife so that he could be with his mistress exclusively, but also cash in on his wife’s health insurance policy. Sin was controlling him; sin was taking over his thoughts.

The time came when this minister attempted to kill his wife, not once, not twice, but thrice he tried. He tried poisoning, he tried drowning, but the worst of all, he tried beating his wife to death with a bat. He had gotten away with the first two attempts, but the third took a turn for the worse.

The minister had made plans to take his family to Hawaii for the first time, but the morning that he was to take his family to the airport he did not leave in their van. Instead, he left his house in the back of a police cruiser, handcuffs and all. That morning, the minister had staged a scene outside his bathroom window. He made it look as if a bumb had used their back yard for a safe place to sleep for the night, a problem which they had encountered in the past. After the minister’s wife had gotten up and was getting ready in the bathroom, the minister took a bat to her head several times, splitting her head wide open. To his demise she did not go unconscious, but rather began screaming for help from her kids. At once, all three children ran into the room: one began screaming, one began questioning the minister, and the other began to call 911.

The police came and arrested the minister while an ambulence took the mother away to the hospital to receive medical care. Fortunately for the mother, she did not receive severe head trama, and she is perfectly well today. Unfortunately for the minister, he is in jail and will be there for the next several years on an account of attempted murder. Sin, when given the tiniest allowance, can do great and terrible things. Sin can have devistating effects even among Christians. This is why Paul commands that all Christians choose to be slaves of God—instruments of righteousness—and to choose to die to sin and do away with the sinful life style. When they do not follow through with this, sin begins to become their master. The minister started with one sin and began using other sins to cover up his previous sins; he found himself trapped in a mess of sin from which he could not break free. Sin had become his master.

We have a responsibility, as believers, to stop sinning. We are to be dead to sin. This means that we are to be lifeless and non-responsive to sin’s every beckoning. We are to embrace God, not sin, for grace drives us and motivates us to pursue righteousness. As seen with the case of the minister, “It is a terrible thing to seek to trade on the mercy of God and to make it an excuse for sinning” (Barclay 1975, 85). How then can we apply this principle that we are dead to sin but alive to God in Christ?

As believers in Christ, we should, as Paul put it, be instruments of righteousness. Instead of giving into sin, Christians should give into righteousness. An instrument is a tool that advances the work of someone or something. Paul is calling for all Christians to be the tool that advances the work of righteousness. There was a woman who chose to be a blessing to the minister’s broken family. Instead of shrugging it off, the woman came to that family’s aid. Instead of overlooking the matter and minding her own business, and instead of going her own separate way, she decided to be an instrument of righteousness by helping the minister’s wife and her children. She helped encourage and support the wife with small financial blessings. She helped the wife and kids move out of their current house. She helped the wife with a yard sale to help get rid of any unnecesary possessions. She even demonstrated care and support for the wife by going with her to court for the minister’s trial. This woman chose to be a tool to advance the morally upright. She chose to be a weapon in the hand of God. This is the calling of the Christian that forces them to choose to either be a weapon for sin or be a weapon for God, not both.

Paul was clear that even though we are under grace, this in no way means that we are to continue sinning freely; we do not have a license to sin. Instead, we are to be careful how we live, casting off sin and its lusts, not allowing ourselves to be used for unrighteousness, but engaging ourselves in righteousness. Christians walk in a new life. They are dead to sin, alive in Christ, and instruments of righteousness. This is the principle result of justification. As justified believers, Christians cannot allow any room for sin, for they have been commanded not to let sin reign in their mortal bodies (v. 12). Christians are the people who have died with Christ, who have have been crucified with Christ, who are alive unto God, who have the Spirit working in them, and who have God’s purpose moving in them (Lloyd-Jones 1976, 160). You do not have a license to sin if you are a believer, but rather you are God’s instrument of righteousness—you are God’s weapon. Remember, Christians are no longer under law but under grace; Christians no longer regard God as the strict judge but they regard him “as the lover of the souls of men. There is no inspiration in all the world like love” (Barclay 1975, 87). When it all comes down to it, the life of the believer “is no longer a burden to be borne; it is a privilege to be lived up to. As Denney put it: ‘It is not restraint but inspiration which liberates from sin; not Mount Sinai but Mount Calvary which makes saints’” (Barclay 1975, 87). Christians do not live according to the Law out of fear that they must please God, rather they live according to the Law because God loves them. In other words, “The inspiration of the Christian comes, not from the fear of what God will do to him, but from the inspiration of what God has done for him” (Barclay 1975, 87).


Barclay, William. 1975. The Letter to the Romans. Rev. ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster



Barth, Karl. 1953. The Epistle to the Romans. 6th ed. Translated by Edwyn C. Hoskyns.

London: Oxford University Press.


Bauer, Walter. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian

Literature. 3rd ed. Revised and edited by Frederick William Danker. Chicago:

University of Chicago.


Lloyd-Jones, D. M. 1976. Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 6; The New Man. 4th ed. Grand

Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.


Phillips, John. 1969. Exploring Romans. Chicago: The Moody Bible Institute


Ryrie, Charles C. 1995. Ryrie Study Bible: Expanded Edition. Chicago: Moddy Press.


Stott, John. 1994. The Message of Romans. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press.