What Is a Christian?

by Deryck Barson April 27, 2014 Scripture: Romans 6:1-14

Do turn in your bibles to Romans chapter 6 and verse 1. We find ourselves a third of the way through Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, and in the opening verse of chapter 6, Paul addresses a troubling conclusion that some Christians had reached on hearing the gospel. They had rightly understood that when the Law of Moses was given, the seriousness of sin was more clearly seen. And so, where sin increased, grace as seen in the saving work of Christ, increased all the more. The troubling part was that these Christians had then inferred that if grace increased because of sin, should they not continue in sin so that grace would increase all the more?

And Paul cries out, “God forbid!” (μὴ γένοιτο) From the depths of his being he protests, “By no means!” He states, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (1b), and Paul’s instinctive reaction is, “May it never be!” This strong reaction is grounded in his understanding of the gospel, of what it is that God has done in Christ. What Paul is really saying is, “do you not know what it means to be a Christian, to be in Christ?”

Being united to Christ is what it means to be a Christian

There are three occasions in the NT when the word Christian is used (Acts 11:26, 26:28; 1 Pe. 4:16). It appears to have been an antagonistic term that was first used by non-believers in Antioch; we see also that Jews who were hostile to the faith had earlier called followers of Christ, “Nazarenes.” But for Paul, it doesn’t appear that he ever used the term Christian in any of his writings or sermons. But, what he does use is a little phrase, over and over again; one that he uses of himself. He says in 2 Corinthians 12 (vs.2) that “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.” He speaks of being chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4), of being united with Christ at the time of his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:6), and of being in Christ by faith. Yet Paul also mentions a time when he was outside of Christ, at the end of his letter to the Romans (16:7) Paul speaks of Andronicus and Junia, names that are probably not going to make the list of most popular baby names in America for 2014, but he speaks of them as those who “were in Christ before me” (ESV, NASB) or “in Christ before I was” (NIV).

This language of being “in Christ” is the language of union, union with Christ. In our text this evening Paul speaks of those (vs3) “who have been baptized into Christ”; (vs4) “who were buried with him”; (vs5) who “have been united with him”; (vs6) that “our old self was crucified with him”; (vs8) who “died with Christ”. This language of union with Christ is very easy to miss on the pages of the NT and to gloss over without realizing its rich theological significance. But when you see Paul’s emphasis of the believer being united to Christ, you start to see this language of union on every page, in every text, and even if Paul does not specifically mention the particular words “in Christ” or “with Christ”, his understanding of union with Christ informs everything he writes.

The way in which Paul addresses the outlandish thought of “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” is by highlighting the believer’s union with the exalted Christ. He says in verse 2, “How can we who died to sin still live in it? (vs2b), we were united with Christ in his death.

A two-Adam anthropology

Paul’s letters are not written in the format of extensive 1000 page theological works, they are letters that were often occasioned by particular situations that arose in a church or a region—be that relational problems, theological error, or difficulties experienced. And it’s in dealing with these real life issues that Paul’s profound theological insights are seen. This is very apparent with our text tonight. Now, in the previous chapter, Romans 5:12ff, he explains how God deals with all of humanity. He says that, “sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). God had covenanted with Adam in the Garden of Eden, “not for himself [Adam] only, but for his posterity, all mankind descending from him by ordinary generation, sinned in him, and fell with him in that first transgression” (WSC Q.22). Paul sees Adam to be acting as a federal head, a representative before God for all humanity. Having shown Adam’s representative character, Paul goes on in chapter five to contrast two men, two representatives, two federal heads, two Adams. These are the two Adams Paul discusses in 1 Cor. 15—the first Adam of the Garden of Eden, and the second and last Adam, Christ. There are no persons before the first Adam, and there is no one after the second and last Adam, who is Christ. This is how God deals with humanity, and within this representative structure, our own individuality, responsibility and choices are still affirmed.

Paul does not distinguish humanity as it stands before God in terms of race, language, age, gender, upbringing, education, political alliances, or any other socio-economic category. This representative structure, what we could call a two-Adam anthropology, transcends all boundaries and is enduring. And so what Paul is saying is that all people are comprehended as being either in Adam or in Christ, and therefore united to Adam and his disobedience and so death, or united to Christ and his obedience and so resurrection life.

It is exceptionally helpful to understand the big picture story seen in Scripture, to see how God’s redemptive purposes are unfolded in history; how from the foundation of the world, from creation forward, as Lane Tipton helpfully notes, “God has ordained to give himself (and all of his benefits) to a holy people in a holy realm through an obedient federal head,” a representative. Adam, our representative, did not obey God and his covenant, but sinned and so died. And thus Adam did not come to inherit the promises of God to him and his posterity; that which had been held out to him was life beyond the threat of death, to live forever in a realm where there is no sin and no serpent, and there would be an unbreakable union with the living God. But because of his sin, Adam and all in him lost that which was promised, and they have no hope without a redeemer, without a mediator between man and God.

The wonder of the gospel is this: what was lost by the first Adam in his sin has been secured by the second and last Adam, Christ, in his life, death, resurrection and ascension! Christ’s perfect obedience to God’s covenant is climactically seen in his death on the cross—as a sin-bearing substitute, bearing not his own sins, for he perfectly fulfilled the Law of God, but bearing the sins of his people with all of their guilt, he bore the full wrath and curse of God upon the cross, and died to redeem his people by his blood, that they might no longer be in Adam, but be united to him, Christ. All of Scripture centers upon Christ and what he has done.

Dying and rising with Christ: no longer under the enslaving power of sin, but walk in newness of life

Now, for Paul, the representative character of these two Adams is the background of his response to the question, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (6:1) And his answer to these Roman Christians is that we cannot continue in sin, because we died to sin when we died with Christ. Three times he reminds these believers of the implications of them being in Christ by faith. He says,

  1. Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? (vs.3)

  2. We know that our old self was crucified with Him (vs.6)

  3. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. (vs.9)

In verses 3 and 4, we find Paul using the language of baptism and burial for the first time in his letter to the Romans, he uses the language of baptism and burial to further underscore the reality of this union to either Adam or to Christ. The last three verses of Matthew 28, some of the final words of Christ before he ascends into heaven, concern what has come to be known as the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” One aspect of our baptism, as Sinclair Ferguson so wonderfully describes, is it functions as a naming ceremony. We are baptized out of the name of Adam and into the name that gives you access to the one Triune God of Scripture. It is a visible sign, not meant for all humanity, but like circumcision in the Old Testament, baptism is a distinguishing mark of the covenant people of God, the church. Paul is saying to these Christians, “do you not grasp what it means to be baptized into Christ—that you “were baptized into his death,” that you “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” (6:4).

Paul says that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). You see, if we have died with him, we shall live with him. He says that “our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing” (6:6). This old self is not simply a reference to my life before Christ, what I used to be like before I cleaned up my act—got a few skeletons out the closet. No, this old self is the old man, the man seen in Romans 5 who is united to first Adam in his sin, death, and condemnation; the man without God, without hope. Paul is saying something very radical: that when Adam sinned, we sinned; when he died, we died in him; and that when he was condemned, we were condemned in him. This is the old man that Paul says was crucified with Christ, in order that the body of sin, that old man, “might be brought to nothing” (6:6), THAT “we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (6:6). What Adam didn’t realize in the Garden of Eden is that his self-declared independence of God would not result in true autonomy, but rather in servitude to a new master, the serpent. When we died to sin, we died to sin as a controlling power; there has been a definitive breach with sin. We died to sin as a master over us that we would no longer be enslaved to sin, under its reign and dominion, for the body of sin has died with Christ, and we have been transferred from one realm to another, from death to life, from being under the yoke of slavery to sin, to rising and walking in newness of life, from being in Adam, to being united by the Holy Spirit to the resurrected and ascended Christ.

And so, all that I was in Adam has been brought to an end, I died. To be a Christian is to be one who is no longer in Adam; you are now in Christ, and Christ is in you.

Union with Christ explained—sinner as trespass and as enslaving power

Paul views sin as having two primary characteristics: (1) Sin is rebellion against God and violation of his law such that man is guilty as he stands before God; (2) but also, sin as we’ve already seen is an enslaving power, it corrupts the core of man’s being.

Paul says in 1 Cor. 15:3 that “Christ died for our sins.” Meaning that he died not only for our guilt but also our slavery to sin. And so, what Paul is getting at is that he who has died with Christ has been freed from sin to rise and walk in newness of life.

Friends, we have hope, hope for our struggle with sin, our wrestle with temptation—all of salvation is a work of God, not only your justification, but your sanctification too. In Christ, we are being transformed into the likeness of Christ, our new master and Lord. Man was first created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), and yet because of his sin, man fell. But now, because of the gospel, those in Christ are being remade, are being transformed into the likeness of him who is the very image of God, Christ himself. Paul notes in Romans 6 that this transformative work is both the gift and work of God, and the work of those who are in Christ. This working out your salvation is grounded in what God has done in you, and what he continues to work in you. In Romans 6, Paul says, “you have died to sin” (6:2); and then later says, “do not let sin reign in your mortal body” (6:12). In Galatians 5, Paul says, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (5:25).

Therefore do not let sin reign

He is saying that because Christians are those who have been baptized into Christ’s death, because we have been buried with him, crucified with him, as those whose body and soul have been united to Christ, Paul says in verse 11, “you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Now Paul is not talking about sin as guilt in our Romans 6 text, he did that earlier in the letter, he’s talking about sin as power, the reign of sin.

As those who died to sin (6:2), “consider yourselves dead to sin” (6:11). As those who are no longer under the reign of sin, do not let sin reign in your mortal body. Paul is not saying that those in Christ never sin, but rather that those in Christ are those who are no longer under the mastery and enslaving power of sin. We must not think that sin is no longer present or that it does not tempt us or even indwell the believer, but rather we who are in Christ no longer belong to sin, but to Christ. Paul is not saying that Christians do not feel the lure of sinful desires, but those in Christ are no longer sin’s slave.

Friends, in Christ we have hope, we have been united to the one who became for us “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ became wisdom from God for us. Wisdom that transcends this age has broken into this world from God, and is seen most clearly on the cross, Christ himself. What appears to be such foolishness, the second person of the Trinity taking on flesh, living a blameless life, and then the God-man being crucified on the cross, is the very of wisdom of God broken into this age. Christ has become righteousness, sanctification (Jn. 17:19; Heb. 2:10-11) and redemption for us, his people. In your wrestle with sin, there is no aspect of salvation that is found outside of Christ. Calvin says, “If we seek redemption, it lies in his [Christ] passion; if acquittal, in his condemnation; if remission of the curse, in his cross [Gal. 3:13]; if satisfaction, in his sacrifice; if purification, in his blood; if reconciliation, in his descent into hell; if mortification of the flesh, in his tomb; if newness of life, in his resurrection; if immortality, in the same; if inheritance of the Heavenly Kingdom, in his entrance into heaven” (Institutes II.xvi.19).

Conclusion

All that we need is found in Christ, in Christ alone. And if we are separated from him, we are separated from all that he accomplished in his death and resurrection. In believing upon Christ, we receive Christ himself. If you have received Christ, you are in Christ and he is in you. You are his and he is yours. All that is in Christ is yours, and all that was yours has been transferred to him. It is with our whole person, body and soul, is united to Christ, and though our outer man, our body, is decaying, our inner man is being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16). And there will come a day when every last vestige of addiction to sin will be thoroughly abolished in the resurrection body. Christ has come once, and he will come a second and final time. With him will be all those saints who have died and gone ahead to glory. And together with them, all the believers will at once receive their glorified resurrect bodies.

The kingdom of God has both come, and we await its consummate coming in Christ’s return, “how can we who died to sin still live in it?” I urge you to look to Christ, believe upon him, trust him—the Lamb that was slain, the heavenly High Priest—forsake sin, consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ, and present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life” (vs13). May we echo Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s prayer, “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be made.”

Friends, God will give you grace and see you to the end, holding you until your faith gives way to sight, and until union becomes communion with God Most High. What a marvelous gospel, what an incredible God. 

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