Theme: From Death Row to Freedom
1. All people are prisoners of sin
2. Only through Christ is there a “Means” of freedom
Romans 6:1-6 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? 3 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.
As I was reading through news headlines this week I saw an article about a photographer who re-created the last meals of death row inmates. Every individual who receives capital punishment is almost always given a choice in determining their final meal. The photographer remarked that he found it fascinating that a person’s meal choice was so indicative of their personality. Whenever think of “last meals” I can’t help but feel sad. Who would want to gorge themselves before impending death? Could you really enjoy it knowing that this is it? If placed in the same situation I think I would lost my appetite entirely.
It’s also not uncommon to hear death row inmates called “dead men walking.” This title is a constant reminder that their days are numbered. There is no escape from the punishment of the crimes they committed. They will have to suffer the ultimate price, it is only a matter of time.
But, doesn’t that title apply to us all? All people are really “dead men walking.” Whether a person has committed a heinous enough crime to warrant capital punishment or not doesn’t matter. Death is a reality for us all. And even more than that, death is an experience that we have all been through. I’m not talking about physical death, but any kind of separation from life – which is really what all death is. Spiritual separation, or death, occurs long before physical death. Paul said it simply a few verses after our text, “The wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23) He wrote elsewhere to the Ephesians, “…you were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience. (Ephesians 2:1-2).
The story of death row inmates should resonate with us, because God reveals in His Word that as it pertains to our spiritual lives, we are very much in the same situation. We’re living but without escape from death. We are dead men walking.
This prospect is inescapably startling of you truly think about it and take it heart. So startlingly, in fact, that many ignore it and are even offended that you would suggest it. It’s much easier to digest man’s opinion, that while we may not be perfect, there is certainly a host of things that set apart a person on death row from someone who is ordinary. And certainly that difference has to count before God, even if He will require an account of my life when I stand before Him. But, there’s a problem with that line of reasoning because it suggests that God will base His ruling by comparing people with each other. The Bible says the comparison will actually be between the you and God. How you compare with someone else’s merits means very little before God. He is concerned with your righteousness as He is righteous. Given such a comparison, there’s no escaping a sentence of death, of separation from God. Rather, it is a reality that we all must come to grips with.
What connection, then, do the Sacraments and the gospel have to this reality of death? The answer is that they are the means by which God extends forgiveness, or in other words, they free us from death. These means do not circumvent the obligation of death under God’s law. The means of grace are not cheap tricks to escape God’s punishment. They are not “get out jail free cards” that allow us to do whatever we want and have a guaranteed pass from God. Essentially, they do not escape the necessity of death and yet they make us free.
Paul explains as it pertains to baptism. How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? 3 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Baptism is meant to be one of God’s greatest and most comforting blessings and yet Paul says that it causes death. Once again, let us return to the basic meaning of death to help us understand. Baptism causes a separation, a death in that sense. This is not a separation from God, but a separation from sin.
We didn’t have to do anything to die spiritually from God. That death has been the fate for all people since our very first ancestors sinned in the Garden. That death, in a rational way of thinking, is extremely simple. No effort required on our part – we are all sinners. This very first death then leads to the many ways in which we die through sins in our lives. Obviously, as it pertains to our responsibility before God these latter sins are quite damning.
Paul then takes this haunting reality, that we are on death row, and uses it to explain what Christ did. When Jesus came to earth to secure our salvation, He didn’t shortchange His Father’s demands. Jesus died. He suffered the just penalty that we deserved. So often people complain against God and ask why He doesn’t just intervene and stop evil if He is all-powerful. Furthermore, if sin is so bad, why doesn’t God just fix everything and be done with it? It’s a logical argument in a sense, but most people don’t follow it to its logical end. Suppose that God just mystically snapped His fingers and did away with everything evil. Suppose He changes this instantly, in the blink of an eye. On the surface this sounds nice because we would then be back to perfection. But, two other good things would also be radically changed.
1. We would no longer be free. God specifically created people as free creatures. He gave us a mind and senses to think for ourselves. He designed us to serve Him of our own will, not be forced into it as the animals were created. While this freedom today is corrupted by sin, it is still a blessing and is meant to enrich our relationship with God by faith. Simply changing everything would eliminate this freedom.
2. The second thing that would change is the nature of God. If God supernaturally intervened to change everything in the world through His sheer power He would cease being God. This example is parallel to a skeptical question you’ve probably heard before. Can God create an object so big that He can’t move it? On the surface this question sounds good to the unbeliever because in their minds it shows the limitation that even an all-powerful God can have. But, in reality, it is a useless question, because although God is all-powerful he would never do anything that contradicts who He is. Therefore, God would never solve the problem of sin in a way that betrayed another part of His nature. Here we focus on God’s justice. It would certainly be a loving thing to take care sin with a flash of His magical wand, but it wouldn’t be just. Justice means doing what is right, what is perfect. From the very beginning God has clearly said that sin demands a punishment. The height of that punishment is where we are led in our text, death. God could not eradicate sin without dealing with the penalty for that sin. If He did He would not be God and it wouldn’t matter what else happened because there would be nothing left for us.
This is why what Jesus did is so important. God intervened in our affairs by sending His Son in our place, not by doing some supernatural reversal of sin. For this mode of salvation to work Jesus would have to uphold every attribute of God while He was in our place. All of these attributes could be narrowed down to love and justice. The way in which Jesus secured salvation had to perfectly satisfy God’s nature of being all-loving, but also being completely righteous. Therefore, to be a sinless Savior Jesus had to keep all of God’s commandments and He had to pay our penalty for not.
Jesus did it. He died on the cross. He was buried in the tomb. He walked our path on death row and received, in His own body, the ultimate price for our sins. Every step He took in this manner was absolutely necessary. It was the only way we could be saved. The fruit of this sacrifice was the resurrection. Because Jesus did it all perfectly, death had no claim on Him. He defeated it and paved the way for all who believe in Him to likewise be rescued from it.
The Sacraments and the gospel Word are important for us because they flow from this work of Jesus. Just as God could not circumvent the means that were necessary for obtaining our salvation, so also we cannot circumvent the means necessary for receiving salvation. The two go hand in hand and so Paul appropriately fleshes out the illustration: Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.
When someone is baptized, God wants us to recognize that they have died and been raised in the same manner as His own Son. It’s a continual testament to the fact that God did not just overlook the problem of sin. It is also a continual reminder of everything Jesus has defeated for us to get to heaven. The same can be applied to the Lord’s Supper, when Jesus promises, “This is my body given for you, and my blood shed for the forgiveness of sins.” In both instances, God does not ignore the reality of death – rather He purposely embraces it both in His justice and in His love.
I believe there is a connection in our culture between the popular attitude of calling for only love, not justice, and also diminishing the means by which God brings His grace and forgiveness to us. And why wouldn’t there be? If people ignore the tragedy and reality of death there is no need for divine justice. If people want God to miraculously intervene in life and immediately make everything better they won’t want to receive His blessings by His methods. But, to ignore the separation that sin has caused is like death row inmate ignoring the impending future. We are all trapped in that dire reality. But, as Jesus Himself said, “Be of good cheer.” For our death has been defeated by His death.
Be confident that through baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the gospel Word, you are united in your Savior’s death and resurrection. Your sins of past and present are buried and gone. Your loving Father’s righteous justice has been met and you will be able to stand before Him. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.