“For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14, ESV). These words from Paul are challenging words for us Christians. Why are they challenging though? It is because of what we are in our natural state. In that state, we are sinners, children of wrath, disobedient people who love sin over the Creator. However, as Christians, we are new creations (2 Cor 5:17) who are seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Eph 2:6). We have been regenerated and called to live a new life that is not characterized as sinners, but as saints. It is this new life and how to live it that raises the question of sanctification. Some sectors of Christianity tend to view anyone who emphasizes sanctification as a legalist or any call to obedience as legalism. And yet, Paul continually exhorts believers to live in certain ways; ways that line up with what the law of God commands for his people to do. The question before us today is if obligatory obedience constitutes legalism in our sanctification. I do not believe that it does. I also believe that those what claim that it is legalism need to consider two major issues.
The first is what exactly we have been saved for, that is, what is God’s goal and purpose in regenerating us. The second is related to this: What is the relationship between the second and third uses of the law in the Christian life. I hope that after looking into these two issues we will understand why the call to obedience is not legalism, but is actually integral to not only the Gospel proclamation, but also the Gospel application to the individual believer’s life.
The quote from Romans 6 at the lead of this paper is the culmination of one of Paul’s arguments in his letter to the Romans. In this particular chapter, Paul is building upon the foundation that he has laid in the previous chapters, but especially his conclusions in chapter 5. At the end of the previous chapter, Paul declares that the foundation of salvation is the work of Christ, just as the foundation of condemnation is rooted in the work of Adam. Christ’s work is what brings life, which is in opposition to Adam’s work which brought death. Paul begins the sixth chapter by questioning if we should thus continue in sin that God’s grace might abound. Paul’s response to this question is quick and swift. It is an absolute no! We have died to sin because we have died with Christ and the way that we know that we have died to sin is through our baptism into Christ. This baptism is the objective marker of our death to sin. It is where we are to look when we are not sure if death has really occurred. But that is not all that baptism tells us. Because we have died with Christ in baptism, we are raised with Christ through his resurrection! In fact, these two are absolutely linked. Our baptism into death is for the purpose that, “just as Christ was raised from the dead...we might walk in the newness of life.” In other words, because Christ has been given new life, we have new life that we are to walk in. Because we are united to Christ’s death, we are united to his resurrection; the old self has died so that the new self might live.
This all leads us to the question: What is this new life for? Asking this question leads us to understand that salvation is not merely about not going to Hell. I believe that if God is only saving us so that we will not go to Hell, there would be no reason for us to be given new life; we would just be transported to Heaven because the new life would serve no purpose here on this earth. If that was true, then Paul’s questions and answers throughout chapter 6 would become superfluous! There would be no need to discuss our being slaves to righteousness as opposed to slaves to sin because there would be no arena for God to display his work of salvation, his killing and making alive so that we could walk in the newness of life. Because of the glorious work of Christ, Paul tells us that we are to “consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:11). Here Paul has immediately implied that there is a life of obedience that we are to live. This is the reason for “newness of life.” We are intended to live as though we are dead to sin and alive to God. This means that salvation is not simply about not going to Hell, but about living in the here and now before God, living in light of new obedience that was impossible before. Why was this new life impossible before? Paul goes on this chapter to tell us that we used to be slaves to sin which meant that we could not live for God, that we could not be slaves to righteousness.
What does this then mean for us in regard to “obligatory obedience?” First, it does not mean living a life of perfection. After all, Paul says we are to “consider ourselves dead to sin,” that is, you will still sin, but that is not what you are anymore before God, for, in Christ, you are alive to God. To consider oneself dead to sin does not mean that we will not sin anymore, but means that it is no longer our driving characteristic. Second, it does not mean obedience is a way to earn something from God. We have all that we are from God already, there is no more to that he can give to us. In Christ, we are freed completely from sin and given this new life freely. Our obedience, thus, does not cause God to make us more fully alive (though as we progress, we may feel “more alive” than we were, but that is akin to our feelings of stronger and weaker faith in that regardless of how we feel about our faith, before God it is either faith or no faith, thus, we are either alive or not). Lastly, new life means we are now called to live as “slaves of righteousness;” we are to obediently before God in the here and now, to stand out in opposition to the god of this world who wants us to live as “slaves of sin,” obeying him instead of God.
Thus, obligatory obedience flows out of the newness of life we have been given when God has laid the killing blow upon us. We are intended to live in obedience to him. We are not to live as sinners any longer. We are obliged by this new life to life righteously before God right now, not later on. This is the implication of this chapter and Paul’s teaching about new life received through our dying with Christ in baptism. This now leads us to the second issue I want to discuss.
What is the relationship between the second and third uses of the law? This question naturally arises from this context because we have to ask, “How does one now live in this newness of life?” I will start with the basic definitions of these uses of the law. The second use of the law is that use that condemns us as sinners, that points out how we do not live up to God’s standard, which is himself. It therefore drives us to Christ to seek our forgiveness before the Father. The third use of the law is the using of the law as a guide for the Christian life. This use reveals to us what the Christian life is to look like. I believe that these two uses are really two sides of the same coin. They are intimately connected to one another, distinct yet never separated and taken together show us the how of the Christian life. When these two uses are treated as separate categories we will end up either as antinomians (denying the third use completely) or as legalists (not taking seriously the second use and driving us to despair).
This relationship is important for us to understand in the midst of this debate. The second use of the law condemns us and drives us to Christ. As it does this, it implies that there is a Christian life that is to be lived, which the law describes and guides. Therefore, the second use as it condemns and drives pushes us into the third use of the very same law. We are pointed toward living according to the law. However, as we begin to look at the law from this perspective, we are continually confronted with our actual sin and that very third use becomes for us the second use, condemning us and driving us to Christ for forgiveness once again of our sins. This tension, this back-and-forth nature of the Christian life is necessary because as soon as we forget that we are sinners in need of forgiveness, Christ’s work has no application to us. The coin is continually turning over and over again and again. This view also keeps us from purely focusing upon ourselves and what we are doing because it constantly points us back to Christ and what he has done as the foundation of our new life in him.
How does this relate to “obligatory obedience?” Being called to the “obligatory obedience” will ultimately drive us back to Christ because we will always fail in that obedience. That obedience becomes legalism when it no longer drives us to Christ, but into ourselves to find the strength, the “gung-ho”, the “intestinal fortitude,” and that is a concern for us. However, a concern against sin does not mean that we avoid the topic of obedience. We must understand obedience in context of the Christian life founded upon Christ and his work for us and in us. That understanding is the point of this entire paper. Obedience does not constitute legalism because we have been given salvation that we might learn obedience and the way to learning that obedience is through this back-and-forth of the second and third uses of the law. That back-and-forth aspect of the law is what will drive us forward in our obedience, though we may not always see it, however it will be there. So this leads us to see that our sanctification is built on our confession and repentance that flows out of those second and third uses of the law. All of this means that “obligatory obedience” comes to rest upon our confession of sin and need for forgiveness which will always lead to works of sanctification even if we do not see them.