There is yet another reason why Paul is confident that the preaching of the gospel of grace will not result in irresponsible living. Not only are we dead to sin, we are also alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11). Not only does sin no longer reign in death over us, now grace reigns through righteousness (Romans 5:21). Not only have we been rescued from the dominion of darkness, we have been brought into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Colossians 1:13).
What does it mean to be alive unto God? Earlier in this chapter I mentioned the two different aspects of our union with Christ: the federal or legal union, and the vital or spiritual union. So far we have looked at our legal union with Christ in His death and how that has freed us from the legal reign and consequent corrupting dominion of sin. But as we consider what it means to be alive unto God, we enter into the sphere of the vital or spiritual union.
The vital union is a spiritually organic union of the believer with Jesus Christ. By organic I refer to a living union. Jesus Himself gave us the best illustration of this organic union when He gave us the vine-and-branches illustration in John 15:1–5. It is quite obvious that the branches are joined to the vine by an organic or living union as opposed to simply being attached to the vine in some dead, mechanical fashion. In the same way, believers are united to Christ in such a way that, in the words of the apostle Peter, we “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). That is, just as the branches share in the life of the vine, so we share in the very life of Christ Himself. That is why being “in Christ” was so important to Paul. It was not just a theological concept to him. It was the very essence of his Christian life. It was much more than a close relationship such as two friends might have. It was his very life. Paul lived as a branch participating in the life of the vine. He lived every day as a person “in Christ.”
Not only are we in Christ, He is also in us (Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 3:17). Christ enters into our humanity through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit to renew us and to transform us more and more into His likeness. This presence of Christ within us to make us holy is another assurance that we as believers cannot continue in a life of sin or have a continued cavalier attitude toward sin. We will study our dependence on Christ in chapter 8. This dependence, however, is not like the dependence of a child on his or her father for support. The child is not “in” the father. Our dependence is like the dependence of the branches on the vine for both life and nourishment.
Our union with Christ is not only organic or living; it is a spiritual as opposed to a physical union. We need to keep in mind, however, that the spiritual dimension is just as real as the physical dimension. The fact that the spiritual dimension of our lives cannot be seen does not make it any less real. We really are participants in the very life of Christ. He really does dwell in us by His Spirit.
We should also note that the legal union discussed earlier in this chapter secures for us the vital union. Christ’s death to sin and His satisfaction of God’s justice opened the way for the reign of grace in our lives.
Paul opened Romans 6 with a resounding refutation of the notion that the gospel promotes irresponsible, sinful behavior. He showed not only that it does not, but that it is the very nature of the gospel to ensure that such a thing cannot happen. In addressing this issue, Paul very naturally transitioned from justification to sanctification, or the pursuit of holiness. We will begin to address the practical aspects of sanctification in the next chapter, but for now, I want to call our attention to the grace of God in sanctification.
All Christians believe that we are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8). But we have seen in this chapter that salvation includes both deliverance from the penalty of sin and freedom from the dominion of sin. We have seen that our legal union with Christ in His death and resurrection secures our vital union with Him by which we participate in His divine nature. It is through this vital union that we receive the enabling power to live the Christian life.
Please note that all this is from God. Deliverance from both the penalty and the dominion of sin is by His grace. We could not take one step in the pursuit of holiness if God in His grace had not first delivered us from the dominion of sin and brought us into union with His risen Son. Salvation is by grace and sanctification is by grace.