This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on June 25, 2017.
Romans 5 emphasizes the free gift of boundless grace through Jesus Christ available to any who place their trust in him. In just three verses (vss. 15-17) Paul mentions this “free gift” five times. Comparing Adam to Christ, we are reminded that the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift of grace that followed many trespasses brings justification. This discourse culminates with the promise, “but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” Left on its own, Romans 5 could be interpreted as a free pass to intentionally live in sin, so as not to diminish the full potential of grace in our lives and world. With that in mind, Paul follows his discourse on boundless grace in Romans 5, with a direct question in Romans: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”
This question posed by Paul to the first-century church resounds in our churches today. While many pastors are exceedingly comfortable preaching a sermon on grace, few tackle the realities of sin on a consistent basis for fear of sounding too harsh, too judgmental, or too impractical. We are more comfortable inviting folks to “come as you are because God’s grace is immense,” than we are challenging folks “not to dare leave unchanged because God makes us a new creation.” While the church is still into sinning, we are not really into talking about sinning. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous description of cheap grace, he says we have become masters at, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Bonhoeffer speaks into what Paul feared might happen. Because the grace of Jesus Christ is free and abounding, the people of Christ might be tempted to take it for granted. When the preacher introduces this text, it will first be necessary to remind the church that we do sin indeed, and that is indeed a big deal. Only then can delve into the relationship between sin and grace together.
In response to his own question, “Should we continue in sin so grace may abound?” Paul answers immediately and emphatically, “By no means!” The truth that the power of grace outweighs the power of sin is a gift to behold with gratitude and humility, not an excuse to do as we please. A parent tells a story of a child who spills milk on the floor. Initially, the child is upset. Tears and pleas for forgiveness ensue. The parent gently tells the child, “It’s okay. These things happen. Even as I wipe it up the kitchen floor is getting clean in the process! See- something bad turned into something pretty good.” If the child responds to the parent, “Oh, well then I will spill milk all the time!” the parent would say, “By no means!” Just because God in Christ Jesus has the power to make things right, this is not an invitation to intentionally do wrong. Though his grace is free to us, it is not cheap. There is a difference in the two, and the preacher may want to spend the entire sermon fleshing that out alone.
This text is also an opportunity to delve into the significance of baptism. As soon as Paul says, “By no means!” he reminds Christians of their baptism. In baptism, the old self is crucified with Christ on the cross, and that death breaks the power of sin over our lives. Just as we die with Christ and are buried with Christ, the baptized rise with Christ to “walk in newness of life.” (v. 4) For Paul, baptism is a type of exodus. Just as Israel was once in bondage to Pharaoh, humanity lives in bondage to sin. Pharaoh’s power was broken when Israel passed through the Red Sea. In the same way, sin’s power over us was broken when we passed through the waters of baptism. After the Red Sea experience, Israel wasn’t in the Promised Land yet. They landed in the wilderness- a place where Pharaoh had no power over them, and where God traveled with them, but still removed from where they ultimately hoped to be. Likewise, we pass through the waters of baptism and enter a new existence where sin no longer has dominion, where God is with us, and where the fullness of our resurrection lives is still to come. Baptism is not just a celebration of the waters of life. It is more like a drowning that renders us “dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.” (v. 11) Therefore, the baptized cannot remain in sin without betraying who he or she has become in Christ. Acts of sin are clearly still possible, but something more has happened. The people of Israel still longed for the things of Egypt at times. And yet, there was no going back. With baptism, a page has turned in the individual’s life and in the history of the world. By the grace of God, there is no going back. A sermon that leads the people to remember their baptisms would be very fitting on this Sunday.
Finally, these verses call the baptized to live into their new identity, and with that, their new way of living in this world. Paul says our baptisms have freed us “to walk in newness of life.” This does not say “to believe in a new way,” or “to think differently about God,” but “to walk” in a completely different way than we walked before. Modern Christians are masters at compartmentalization. What we believe does not necessarily impact what we do. Jesus can have our hearts, so long as we get to keep our checkbooks, votes, and relationships. Paul would say this is an impossible way to live. Baptism brings about a radical change in our identity that has implications for every aspect of our lives. This Sunday’s sermon might invite the congregation to embrace this truth not as a harsh, impossible demand, but as a glorious possibility to be fully alive to God.
Pastor of Belfair Community Church
Tags: sin, grace, baptism, new identity