Paul asks his Roman readers the fundamental question, what next? He has discussed salvation in great detail, and now Paul goes on to ask the obvious question, does salvation make a real difference? Should we expect to see real change as a result of salvation, of repentance and forgiveness? It’s a fair question.
But really before we look at how Paul answers the question he has raised, we need to take a birds-eye view of the passage to understand what it is that he really has in mind. What kind of a difference, is Paul suggesting should take place? A difference in what way? What kind of change does Paul expect salvation to make? He appears to have something rather specific in mind.
There are some key terms in the passage that clue us in on what Paul means. His question is framed in terms of continuing in sin after repentance and forgiveness. He asks, should we continue in sin, where the verb is a present subjective, indicating continuing or persistent future action. Even more poignantly the verb has as its core meaning, to stay put or continue in something, meaning that Paul is asking if the believer should remain in the same relationship to sin as before he was saved. The passage goes on to argues that salvation has decisively freed us from sin and created a dramatic separation between us and it! What exactly does that mean? He talks about not allowing sin to dominate our physical bodies, so that we obey its evil desires (Rom. 11:12). And that we should not offer the various parts of our body to act as instruments to commit sin, but rather as instruments for doing righteousness (Rom. 11:13). Paul goes on to describe the correspondence between what we choose to do in terms of sin or righteousness and where our choice will end up in terms of purity or sinfulness in the yes of God, one leading to eternal life and the other to death (Rom. 6:22-23).

There are two factors that Paul seems to concerned with. One is how we act and behave after we are saved, whether our actions are sinful or righteous in God’s sight, and the other has to do with habitual practice or ongoing, persistent conduct, following salvation. The second of these has to do with the perpetuation of the first. Paul is concerned with what kind of enduring conduct following salvation will characterize the life of the believer. In other words, following salvation will there be a perpetual habit of sin or the persistent practice of righteousness to characterizes the believer’s lifestyle in terms of conduct. Another way to say it, is to ask what will our habits and ongoing conduct reflect with respect to our salvation? Will our future conduct reflect the life we have been saved from, indicating that we are not really free from the sin that dominated our former condition (Rom. 6:1) or will it reflect some dramatic departure from the life of sin in favor of a new life going forward? Paul’s answer in verse 2 to the hypothetical, is strongly put, God forbid that we should continue in the conduct of the former life of sin! How can we, he asks, continue in the same lifestyle since salvation has brought about the death to the old self, and therefore a separation from the old life. So from the beginning of this discussion, until he brings it to its conclusion in the middle of Romans 8, at the heart of Paul’s concern is behavior, the habitual practice and conduct of the believer going forward after repentance and forgiveness.

A word of warning is in order. Paul twice uses the word holiness in this passage (cf. Rom. 6:19, 22). If we seize the term holiness uncritically without seeing what goes before it, we will conclude that Paul is concerned mainly with inner purity of the heart (many have done this and have developed complex doctrines of holiness which border on legalism). To some extent Wesley wrestled with the relationship between inner purity and outward conduct, even after his heartwarming at Aldersgate. But in fact Paul is concerned with conduct! He almost assumes that the heart is right with God, that genuine inner purity is present as a result of repentance and forgiveness. This was the discussion that went before this. In this respect the therefore at the beginning of verse 1 is significant, and pins the proceeding discussion as consequent on the preceding. We will fail if we do not take the inference seriously that Paul is building on the discussion of justification, and extrapolating what must follow consequent on it in terms of conduct. In fact, the discussion of how we will live and conduct ourselves after we are saved, assumes repentance and forgiveness – a change of mind and disposition toward God, as well as a transformative cleansing from sin! Inner purity (holiness) as a result of salvation is assumed, and it is not the goal of this discussion! Paul is not seeking to establish a path to holiness, but to righteousness.
When we say Paul assumes holiness, to be sure we do not means not final spiritual perfection, but Paul does assume the inner moral transformation of the believer consequent on justification. Indeed, he raises the issue of what kind of conduct is appropriate subsequent to salvation, with a self-evident logic, that a change of disposition requires a change of behavior (Rom. 6:2-4). The point in Paul’s mind is that righteousness as the habitual practice of the transformed spiritual life, confirms inner purity and brings it to full and mature expression. Furthermore it does so in such away that it reflects the righteousness of God himself and ultimately conformity to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). In fact, in verse 22 Paul strongly implies that if sin is allowed to reassert itself, it will undermine holiness (inner purity) and destroy the gift of eternal life, posited at salvation, and ultimately lead back to death. The reassertion of sin will lead to death, is his point (Rom. 6:21). Eternal life and holiness (as a disposition of the heart toward God) cannot be secured by mere works of righteousness, it requires justification to establish that. But habitual sin, even unchecked acts of sin, can indeed undermine both and lead to spiritual failure and death (cf. Rom. 6:1, 12, 21). So from the start Paul is concerned with how the believer acts and behaves, as a matter of habitual lifestyle following salvation, and that the conduct of the justified person is commensurate with the experience of repentance (a change of disposition toward God), a personal spiritual transformation, and the inner purity of the heart brought about by the forgiveness of God.

If we approach this passage like this, we immediately perceive what Paul is about. A radical change of conduct is inevitable and required for the believer in Christ, because there has been a fundamental change in our nature and disposition as a result of salvation. Repentance and forgiveness have resulted in a dramatic change of certain fundamental aspects of our being, personalities and minds. In another place Paul said that anyone who is in Christ is a new creation altogether, the old has passed away, and everything has become new (2 Cor. 5:17). It is this earlier assertion (chronologically) that Paul is positing here for the Romans, that salvation equals transformation, and justification a dramatic change in conduct.
To illustrate this Paul uses the figure of baptism. First of all let’s briefly consider what baptism is and means. Kenneth Wuest discerns three usages of the Greek for baptize, “…‎a mechanical one, a ceremonial one, and a metaphorical (μεταφοριχαλ) one” (Wuest, K. S. (1997). Wuest’s word studies from the Greek New Testament: For the English reader. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans). The word itself means to dip or submerge something (cf. Luke 16:24) (Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans). The Greeks practiced sacred washings, and bathing, in connection with their own religious rites. Underlying these washings is the ideal that even moral imperfection could somehow be cleansed (Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans). Meaning that purification is integral to baptism. In the Old Testament, the Greek word for baptize is used to translate the Hebrew in connection with dipping the finger or other articles in the blood of sacrifices, and in connection with Levitical cleansings (‎Lev. 12–15)(Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans). In the Judaism of Jesus’ and John’s day, proselytes were baptized in rites of purification (Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans). In this sense ritual washings both effected and symbolized religious purity.
So the root of baptism is found in the idea of ceremonial cleansing and ritual washings. Since God is holy, anything associated with the ritual worship of God, or the devotional lives and practice of his people, must be purified or clean. The sacrifices and washings of the Old Testament law lay down the terms upon which objects and people are to be considered pure, and therefore may appropriately be engaged in the worship and service of God. Things, places and people that are contaminated must be either destroyed or cleansed before they can be engaged worship or service of God. The term holy has at its core the meaning of being separate, and therefore sacred and ritually pure, appropriate for use in the worship and service of God. Objects, places and people are set aside exclusively for use in connection with worship and service of God, and part of what is necessary is that they be dedicated and cleansed. There must be a separation from former uses and associations, and a consecration to exclusive use in connection with worship and service of God. This is the root of the idea holy or sanctified, even if these terms come to take on moral and ethical implications when applied to God’s people and their lives.

In the Jewish context of Jesus day, washings were a matter of religious compliance with the sacred bodies of rules, represented by the Tradition of the Elders (the historical hermeneutic of Jewish law). Some of these are referred to as baptisms (‎Mark 7:4, Luke 11:38; Heb. 9:10). There was a ceremonial aspect to washings, designed to confirm the standing of the worshiper in eyes of God, because of obedience and compliance to the law, thereby avoiding ritual uncleanness. It could also be argued that there was a very real practical element involved, in that the washing of dishes and hands would remove any unknown or unexpected contamination that would render the worshiper unclean. In any event, the ceremonial washings were mostly a matter of ritual compliance, implying the spiritual purity of the worshiper. The Qumran community had elaborate ceremonial washing tenets, and some have surmised that The Baptist took his cues from them, when he showed up in the wilderness near the Jordan. Jesus opposed the idea of the priority of ritual purity when there was no corresponding genuine moral purity of the heart and life (cf. Mark 7:1-8). Jesus had this discussion with the Pharisees when they accused he and his disciples of eating with unwashed hands (Matt. 15:1-10). Jesus was making the point that what counted with God was inner moral purity, not outward ritual purity. The latter could not make up for an absence of the former in the eyes of God (cf. Matt. 23:25-28).
John the Baptist made use of the practice of ritual cleansing and turned it into the sign of a genuine change of heart toward God. So as part of his preaching he demanded that those who would be baptized, should repent as a result of repentance, and their sins would be forgiven by God (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; 24:47). For John repentance led to pardon and forgiveness. Baptism did double duty as the symbolic representation of cleansing from sin, and as an outward sign of repentance (Wuest, K. S. (1997). Wuest’s word studies from the Greek New Testament: For the English reader. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans). For John the result of repentance was a change of disposition toward God, and a corresponding change in conduct from that point forward (Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:7-14). For John baptism was the primary significance of baptism was the outward confirmation of an inward change in disposition and attitude toward God. Jesus adopted the rite of baptism as a suitable way of outwardly testifying to repentance and a change of heart toward God as well, and but added faith to repentance for salvation (cf. Mark 1:15; 16:16; John 3:22; 4:1). He later instructed his disciples to baptize new believers, as a sign of their repentance and faith, their acceptance of the gospel and of salvation (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:16). In Acts, the apostles insist on baptism, as a sign of spiritual transformation, as a way of testifying to the world that the new converts had radically separated from the old life, to adopt faith in God for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12, 13, 16, 36, 38; 9:18; 10:47, 48; 16:15, 33; 18:18; 19:5; 22:16; cf. 1 Cor. 1:13-15; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 4:5; Col. 2:12; 1 Pet. 3:21). Baptism was well established in the church as a symbolic representation of inner cleansing, a sign of a changed disposition toward God, and of faith and the forgiveness of sins.

All of the components are there by the time Paul takes up the symbolism in Romans. What Paul does, however, is to take it a step further, to use baptism as an illustration of the rationale for an inward transformation that results in a radical outward change of behavior as a result of repentance, faith and forgiveness. Paul is not discussing the rite of baptism, but the significance of what it symbolizes with respect to salvation. To do this Paul breaks down the chief elements of the ritual of baptism to apply them to elements involved in salvation. Baptism requires a submerging of the believer beneath the water and the raising of the believer up again from the water. In this Paul saw a both a symbolic link to the death and resurrection of Christ, and a way of quantifying what occurred at salvation, when a believer identifies what has personally happened, with what has historically happened to Christ (Rom. 6:3-4). So by submerging the believer beneath the water, the old life (of sin) is identified with Christ’s death, testifying to the fact that through salvation, he his separated from the old life, because God has forgiven and justified him (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17). Similarly, by raising the believer out of the water, symbolically there is a resurrection to a new life, following repentance and forgiveness, which, as we stated earlier leads to a new disposition toward God. Just as Christ rose from the dead to a new and radically different life, than what he had before the cross, so the believer is raised to a radically new life, in which sin is no longer the dominant controlling element (Rom. 6:12, 14). By identifying the life of the believer after salvation with the resurrection of Christ, Paul is arguing for a radically new life dominated by the principle of righteousness (Rom. 6:18). So it is all about a change of conduct and behavior as a result of an inward change. Paul will argue that it is only by the power of the Spirit, that such a change has any chance of survival and consistent realization, but for right now, he is arguing logically for the necessity of such a change in conduct, as a result of the experience of salvation!


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