All I have said about our union with Christ in His death may seem like a digression, but it is necessary in order for us to finally address what Paul meant when he said we died to sin. To answer the question, we need to go back to his statement in Romans 5:21, that “sin reigned in death.” Sin is personified by Paul and viewed by him as reigning over us in a kingdom of death. Why did sin reign? The answer is because of our guilt in Adam. The penal consequence of our guilt was to be delivered over unto sin as a legal reign, and the result of that was to be brought under the dominion of sin. The penal reign of sin and its corrupting dominion in our lives are inseparable and equal in extent.
David spoke of this legal reign and consequent dominion of sin in our lives when he said, Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Psalm 51:5)
The only reason David would say he was sinful at birth, before he had actually committed any sin, was because he realized he was born under Adam’s guilt and so experienced the dominion of sin in his life.
To die to sin then means, first of all, to die to its legal or penal reign and, secondly, as a necessary result, to die to its dominion over us. We speak of the total depravity of a person who is outside of Christ. We do not mean the person is as wicked as he or she can possibly be, but that sin has corrupted the person’s entire being. Guilt, and its penal consequence, is the source and ongoing cause of this depravity. Therefore, deliverance from guilt and its penal consequences brings deliverance from sin’s dominion. In God’s plan of salvation these two deliverances are necessarily connected. There is no such thing as salvation from sin’s penalty without an accompanying deliverance from sin’s dominion. This obviously does not mean we no longer sin, but that sin no longer reigns in our lives.
How did we die to sin? We have already noted that we died to sin through our union with Christ. Paul said in Romans 6:10 that Christ died to sin, and in verse 8 he said we died with Christ. That Christ died to sin is a rather startling but wonderful statement. Christ did not die to the dominion of sin, as He was never under it. However, when He was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21)—that is, when He was charged with our sin—He did come under its legal reign and was made subject to its penalty.
When Jesus died, He died to the legal reign of sin. Through our federal union with Him in His death, we, too, died to the legal reign of sin. But because the legal reign and the practical dominion of sin in our lives are inseparable, we died not only to its legal reign but also to its corrupting dominion over us. Hallelujah! What a Savior we have who was able to not only free us from sin’s penalty but also from its dominion.
The question arises, however, “If we died to sin’s dominion, why do we still struggle with sin in our daily lives?” When Paul wrote, “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” he was referring, not to the activity of committing sins, but to continuing to live under the dominion of sin. The word live means to continue in or abide in. It connotes a settled course of life. To use Paul’s words from Romans 8:7, “The sinful mind [one under sin’s dominion] is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” But the believer who has died to sin’s reign and dominion delights in God’s law. The believer approves of it as holy, righteous, and good (Romans 7:12), even though he or she may struggle to obey it.
We must distinguish between the activity of sin, which is true in all believers, and the dominion of sin, which is true of all unbelievers. Sinclair Ferguson has written, “Sin is not primarily an activity of man’s will so much as a captivity which man suffers, as an alien power grips his soul. It is an axiom for [John] Owen [whose teaching Ferguson is summarizing] that while the presence of sin can never be abolished in this life, nor the influence of sin altered (its tendency is always the same), its dominion can, indeed, must be destroyed if a man is to be a Christian.”
Therefore a believer cannot continue in sin. We no longer live in the realm of sin, under its reign and practical dominion. We have, to use Paul’s words, died to sin. We indeed do sin and even our best deeds are stained with sin, but our attitude toward it is essentially different from that of an unbeliever. We succumb to temptations, either from our own evil desires (James 1:13), or from the world or the Devil (Ephesians 2:1–3), but this is different from a settled disposition. Further, to paraphrase from Ferguson on John Owen, our sin is a burden that afflicts us rather than a pleasure that delights us.
The late Scottish theologian John Murray wrote on Romans 6:2, “What the apostle has in view is the once-for-all definitive breach with sin which constitutes the identity of the believer. A believer cannot therefore live in sin; if a man lives in sin he is not a believer. If we view sin as a realm or sphere then the believer no longer lives in that realm or sphere.”
My perception of present-day Christendom is that most believers have little understanding of what Dr. Murray calls the “once-for-all definitive breach with sin.” But it is this decisive deliverance from the dominion of sin through union with Christ in His death that ensures that a true believer will not have the cavalier attitude, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” If a person does have such an attitude, it is a likely indication that the person is not a true believer, however much he or she professes to have trusted in Christ for salvation.