Epistle: Romans 6:1-11 (Epiphany 1: Series C)
Traditionally in the historic lectionary, Romans 6:1-11 appeared somewhere at the start of summer on Trinity 6. It was paired with Exodus 20:1-17 and Matthew 5:20-26, the giving of the Ten Commandments and Christ’s exposition of the commandments. Romans 6 was not intended to fit thematically with the OT and Gospel, but to counterbalance them as a proclamation of God’s saving grace and triumph over sin through Holy Baptism. Having Romans 6 as the Epistle for the Baptism of our Lord, and paired with Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism and Isaiah’s prophetically rich baptismal language in Isaiah 43, allows preaches to proclaim Romans 6 in a more appropriate liturgical context. It could only be better, were someone in your congregation to be baptized on this day. If that’s your situation, the sermon will almost write itself.
A few steps should be taken as you prepare to preach this text. Of course, do the Greek and slow down. Romans 6 is a familiar passage and it’s easy to think that you have the gist and know what Paul is saying. Especially pay attention to Paul’s prepositions, which help greatly in describing movement and agency in the text, such as, “living in sin” and “set free from sin” or “baptized into His death” and “into Christ” and “through baptism into death,” and so on. The other thing to keep in mind is Paul’s rhetoric. He and the apostles had been accused of teaching a kind of antinomianism: “Let us continue sinning so that grace may abound.” You should consider what kind of language brings about such a misunderstanding from Paul’s opponents and study Paul’s response. The accusation is ironically high praise for the gospel and God’s merciful nature. If God reveals His glory not in punishing sinners but in showing mercy, as Paul seems to argue, is it not to God’s glory that we go on sinning, so that He would be glorified in showing us mercy? Or if God is righteous, not in that He condemns the wicked, but that He justifies the ungodly, as Paul has argued in chapters 3-5, would not our sinning prove to the world that God is righteous, a just God and a Savior, who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? Well, in fact, it would. That is just the point. But Paul says, “Absolutely not! Das sei ferne!” But on what grounds does he say this?
We might expect here a defense of the law? “No, we uphold the law and try to do what it says, because God hates sin and we’re shouldn’t live in sin!” But this is not Paul’s argument. He makes the shocking argument in 6:3 that we “cannot sin.” Paul argues, “How can you possibly sin if you’re dead? You can’t. Or didn’t you know that baptism killed you? Baptism is baptism unto death. You and your sin have been buried with Christ through baptism, so that it’s not possible that you continue in sin.” My students, who are not alone in this, have the hardest time dealing with Paul’s language, because—they insist—we still sin. It appears to them that Baptism doesn’t work. Strangely, I have also run into a number of Lutheran pastors who believe that Paul is not being serious here. Hyperbolic, they say, as if Paul is using some sort of rhetorical strategy to get people to try harder in their obedience to God and live as baptized people should live. To be cynical about Paul’s language here is to miss the point entirely. Baptism is not about performance, but faith, faith that God has done in baptism exactly what He promised. Paul’s rhetoric is not to motivate us, but to invite us to believe what God has done through Baptism. If you are baptized into Christ, you really are dead to sin. Promise! You really will have that new life in the resurrection. Promise!
So here’s a bit of a sermon on this text from an old Lutheran pastor (whom I know and also know that he would not want me to share his name). It beautifully addresses the problem of why sin remains after baptism and extols God’s promise through Holy Baptism that I trust it will be of some use to you as you prepare this week:
… Everything we do in this life is tainted by sin. How can we do anything that could please Him? These bodies are, as Luther so gently put it, big ol’ “sacks of worms” with all sorts of sinful desires and lust. We find that it’s not just sin that’s STANDING AT THE DOOR, but the body itself is infested with sin, like a cancer that’s spread from head to toe. How can we present that to God? How can we set that apart as holy to God?
Actually, we can’t, and not just because unholy sinners can’t please a holy God. It’s more personal than that. It’s that the sinful nature, that OLD SELF in us won’t, in fact, refuses to please God, refuses to call on Him and trust in Him. It’s not just that sinful flesh avoids God and tries to do without God; it’s that the sinful flesh actually hates God and His Word, and despises His Gospel and His grace. EVERYONE WHO IS BORN OF FLESH IS FLESH and lives according to the flesh and does whatever the flesh wants to do, following its every lust and desire and producing death, not just of the body, but the soul, too. And until that flesh dies and something new emerges, there’s always going to be those sinful desires that control us like a bit in horse’s mouth. As long as the sinful heart is beating; it’s sinning. But if you can shut down the machine, you can shut down what it produces. If you severe the head the body dies, too. And that exactly what Christ did. He went to put sin to death. V. 10, FOR THE DEATH HE DIED, HE DIED TO SIN, ONCE FOR ALL. The Head died to sin, once for all, so that in Christ all died.
That’s the Good News for all those born of flesh. Christ has died for sin, once for all. And through Him, God has made a way to be born again; He’s given us a new birth, not earthly, but heavenly. He’s given us that incomprehensible and precious gift of Holy Baptism, so that we’d be born from above, like Christ—not of the flesh, but of the Spirit. We can’t ever consider enough how great a gift it is. Through Baptism, God has judged the sinful flesh and crucified it in us. He put it to death and buried it. How did He do that? It’s because Baptism literally plants us with Christ [v. 5 - σύμφυτος]. That is, it puts us in the ground with Christ. That inborn and original sin from Adam is buried with Christ in Baptism, along with the thing you did and the thing I did, and the thing you thought and the thing I said. All the lovelessness, all the wandering from Christ, all the half-hearted pledges we’ve made and half-hearted confessions we’ve confessed…It’s all been crucified, dead, and buried.
Christ says of Himself: UNLESS A GRAIN OF WHEAT FALLS INTO THE EARTH AND DIES, IT REMAINS ALONE; BUT IF IT DIES, IT BEARS MUCH FRUIT. And St. Paul says to us: DO YOU NOT KNOW THAT ALL OF US WHO HAVE BEEN BAPTIZED INTO CHRIST HAVE BEEN BAPTIZED INTO HIS DEATH? Beloved, WE WERE BURIED WITH HIM BY BAPTISM INTO DEATH. What does that mean except what he says in V. 7, FOR ANYONE WHO HAS DIED HAS BEEN SET FREE, that is declared innocent, OF SIN.
Our whole life on earth is baptized into Christ’s death, drenched in the blood of Jesus, so that the life of sin would be drowned in that sacred flood and buried. And if it’s buried, it has no more hold on us. Sin can’t control us. Beloved, if Christ is buried, so are our sins and so is the sinful life we’ve lived until right now, because we have been crucified to sin and to the world. And you say: “Yeah, but what about this body of sin that I still have to live with, with all these sinful desires pulling at me day and night?” Well, its days are numbered, because the Holy Spirit makes it clear that there are two deaths.
One is the spiritual death to sin, which, even if it hurts our pride and sinful flesh, is actually a gracious and comforting death, since it brings nothing but heavenly, perfect, and eternal life. The other death, physical death, is merciful too, but only because it follows the spiritual death. So, really, it shouldn’t be considered death at all. It’s more like a gentle or enchanted sleep, because anyone who’s already died to sin in Christ has already escaped death. The eternal death that we inherited from Adam through sin, that’s gone when we were planted with Christ in the watery grave of baptism. And since eternal death is dead, what’s left to harm us? Even if these bodies still have to be laid in the ground, because of sin, that death is death without sting. It’s become so harmless that the Holy Spirit calls it sleep.
As long as we live on the earth, the sinful nature remains. And when you feel your sins, and you see that you’ve deserved God’s eternal punishment, that is the time to let baptism have its way with you. Trust God’s gift that’s freed you from eternal death and damnation and put you mercifully to death in Christ through water and the Spirit. So now, as long as you live in this flesh, you have an escape from the power of sin through this merciful and holy death. This is the Christian life: to learn to put the desires of the flesh to death by the Spirit, by daily repenting of your sins and crawling back to your baptism to drown that old Adam in you. That’s what it means to live in your baptism. It’s to learn to die to sin and die to self and die to the world and all the things that would lure you away from your life in Christ, because if you’re in Christ, there is pure and everlasting life…
But we aren’t put into the grave or plunged into the water with our sin and our old sinful Adam to stay there. No. We’re with Christ now.  AND IF WE DIED WITH CHRIST, WE BELIEVE THAT WE ALSO WILL LIVE WITH HIM.  SINCE WE KNOW THAT CHRIST IS RAISED AND WON’T EVER DIE AGAIN; DEATH DOESN’T CONTROL HIM ANYMORE.  FOR THE DEATH HE DIED, HE DIED TO SIN, ONCE FOR ALL; BUT NOW THAT HE LIVES, HE LIVES TO GOD.  SO ALSO YOU, CONSIDER YOURSELVES DEAD TO SIN, BUT LIVING TO GOD IN CHRIST JESUS.
UNLESS A GRAIN OF WHEAT FALLS INTO THE EARTH AND DIES, IT REMAINS ALONE; BUT IF IT DIES, IT BEARS MUCH FRUIT. And CHRIST IS RISEN! He is the Firstfruit of them that died, because WE WERE BURIED WITH HIM THROUGH BAPTISM INTO DEATH, we were planted with Christ, so that we might sprout up and bloom with Him now in this desert where rocks spring forth with water and manna falls from heaven, SO THAT JUST AS CHRIST WAS RAISED FROM THE DEAD, WE TOO MIGHT WALK IN NEWNESS OF LIFE, so that we too might strip off the shroud and the linen that wrapped us in death and walk out of the tomb alive with Christ….
As you preach on Romans 6, remember that you are preaching to the baptized who have been buried with Christ already and raised to newness of life. The goal of your preaching should be to lead them to believe and confess that they are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (6:11), because that is exactly what they are.
Concordia Theology-Various helps to assist you in preaching Romans 6:1-11 from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO.
Kramer Chapel Sermon-Prof. John T Pless of Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne, IN (and Craft of Preaching fame!) preaches Romans 6:1-11.
FAQs on Baptism-The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod offers various answers to questions on baptism.
Luther’s Large Catechism-Here is Martin Luther’s explanation of the Sacrament of Baptism from his Large Catechism.