Let’s skip to Romans 6, where Paul takes up the question again.
But realize that in chapter 4, Paul explains in detail how salvation by faith is based on God’s covenant with Abraham. In chapter 5, Paul explains how we’re “much more” saved after our initial conversion and then considers how it is that the more we know of God’s will we know, the more accountable we become. This ultimately sets up chapter 7, in which Paul declares that the more he wants to obey, the more he fails — leading to chapter 8, which explains the solution.
Therefore, chapters 4 – 7 all recapitulate in much more detail themes introduced in chapters 1 – 3, especially chapter 3. Hence, chapter 6 is not the answer in its fullness, but a step toward understanding the answer — which shows up in chapter 8 and is further expanded in chapters 12 – 15. And chapter 8 assumes you’ve paid attention to chapters 1 – 7.
Our traditional verse-by-verse teaching often loses the larger context — and indeed Paul’s writing can be difficult to follow, just because he thinks we’re used to thinking about Abraham and David etc. as exemplars of faith and salvation. It takes a lot of practice.
(Rom 6:1-2 ESV) What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
In my upbringing, baptism was emphasized as the moment sins were forgiven, which is quite true. But we never really talked about baptism being the moment when we died to sin.
After all, we all still sin after baptism, so what’s really changed? In the theology of my childhood, Paul could only have been talking about trying harder, which is obviously not really his point — per chapter 7.
This is the first time Paul speaks in these terms in Romans. And so he explains himself somewhat —
(Rom 6:3-8 ESV) 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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. 5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know 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. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
So baptism is crucifixion with Christ? A death to sin? We are somehow mystically “united with him in a death like his.” How? What happens?
V. 6 declares that our “old self” was crucified with Jesus. What’s an “old self”? Is there a “new self”?
This verse looks forward to —
(Rom 8:10 ESV) 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
Indeed, a major theme of Romans 8 is the contrast between the flesh/sin/death and the Spirit/life. But if Paul is talking about a transformation performed by the Spirit, as he’ll explain in chapter 8, why not say so already? Why only hint at the Spirit’s role?
Well, in Paul’s mind, he’s already explained this chapters and chapters ago when he wrote one of the linchpin verses in Romans —
(Rom 2:28-29 ESV) 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.
This is a key to unlocking much of the book. Assume that this is, in Paul’s mind, obvious to any First Century Jew or God-fearing Gentile who grew up attending synagogue and reading Torah.
I’ve covered this several times, but it’s so important to understanding Paul — not just Romans — that I’ll cover the material in an abbreviated format. But here’s the key: the coming of the Spirit was not an obscure idea in Paul’s day. It had been prophesied by Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (and thereafter) was a momentous event in the minds of First Century Christians.
Therefore, when Paul refers to the ancient texts about the Spirit, he does so understanding that his readers know, understand, and savor these texts. Just as you or I might refer to “the crucifixion” and fully expect our readers to know much of the massive theological content of the word, Paul could do the same regarding “circumcision … of the heart.” We miss it because (a) the Spirit has largely been ignored in our tradition and (b) we don’t really study the Torah. Paul’s tradition was very different from ours.
We begin in —
(Deu 10:12-16 ESV) 12 “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. 15 Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. 16 Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.
As the Jews were preparing to enter and conquer the Promised Land, God reminds them of the Greatest Command (v. 12, recapitulating Deut. 6:5), and then tells them that Judaism is all about the heart. Therefore, they must “circumcise” their hearts — that is, dedicate their hearts to God.
Near the end of Deuteronomy, God pronounces curses on the Jews if they disobey and blessings if they obey. He then promises that, even if they disobey, he’ll redeem them — if they repent.
(Deu 30:3 ESV) 3 then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you.
But this time, his relationship with his children will change. Instead of being responsible to circumcise their own hearts — to try even harder — God will take on that responsibility —
(Deu 30:6 ESV) 6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
Thus, after being exiled, and repenting, God will restore them so that they can truly obey the Greatest Command — and God himself will reshape their hearts so that this will happen!
Thus, when Jeremiah speaks of the need to repent — before the Exile — he says,
(Jer 4:4 ESV) 4 Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem; lest my wrath go forth like fire, and burn with none to quench it, because of the evil of your deeds.”
The Exile hadn’t happened yet. God had not yet fulfilled his promise to circumcise their hearts himself. It was up to the Jews — and they failed.
In chapter 31, however, Jeremiah looks ahead to the time when the Jews are restored after the Exile. Then things will be very different —
(Jer 31:31-34 ESV) 31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
God himself will transform the hearts of his people! He’ll fulfill the promise of Deuteronomy 30:6.
Another obvious parallel is —
(Eze 36:26-27 ESV) 26 And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.
And here we see the Spirit explicitly credited with being the means by which God honors his promise.
In a parallel series of prophecies, the Spirit is promised at the end of the Exile —
(Isa 44:3 ESV) 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.
In one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture, Ezekiel sees God giving life back to the dead by the Spirit —
(Eze 37:1-14 NIV) The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD. ‘”
7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.
9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live.'”
10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet–a vast army.
11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD. ‘”
I never get tired of reading that passage.
Now, add to this David’s Psalms about his sin with Bathsheba (which Paul repeatedly quotes in Romans) —
(Psa 51:10-11 NIV) 10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
This sure seems to associate a transformed heart with the presence of the Spirit!
Therefore, every single time Paul refers to our hearts being changed or transformed or circumcised or given life, he’s thinking of these passages.
Are we being transformed from death to life? Well, obviously, that’s Ezekiel 37’s vision of dry bones! Are our hearts being circumcised? Well, yes, just as God promised in Deuteronomy. By the Spirit? Yes, just as Ezekiel promised. And that means we’re being transformed from dead bones to an army reshaped by God to be God’s own.
Do we need our hearts re-formed to overcome sin — as David did? Then God will do that by the Spirit — once we have the Spirit. That’s what the Spirit does.
Why don’t we have pages and pages of detail about the Spirit’s work in Romans? Because Paul assumes we’re read the Scriptures. Why teach what his students already know? His job was to tie it all together and connect it to Jesus.