If you were to turn your Bible to Romans 6.1, more than likely your translation would start the verse reading as: “What then are we to say? Should we continue to sin so that grace may abound?” This verse is commonly read as a question of moral permission: is it okay to sin so that we may have an increase of grace. Lurking in interpretation is a tension that many of us experience between grace and sin: the feeling that the implication of God’s forgiveness that we can do whatever we wish. While most of us recognize the fundamental absurdity of this question, the plausibility of the idea leaves us fearing the ideas of cheap grace, licentiousness, and antinomianism used as a pretext for sin and evil. So, when we approach a passage like Romans 6.1, we are inclined to think that Paul is presenting a hypothetical question about the permissive of sin to which Paul emphatically responds “MAY IT NEVER BE!”
However, what if this interpretation is more so a consequence of (a) our working definition of grace and (b) our moral fears about how people might misconstrue this idea of grace than it is anything Paul is actually arguing in the immediate context. What if in Romans 5 and 6 Paul is giving a causal account and explanation of how sin and righteousness begin to charachterize human beings? Put differently, what is the question of Romans 6 is a question about reality and not about permissibility? I would suggest it might help us to restructure how we see Paul’s argument in Romans 6.
At stake in this question is the grammatical function of the aorist subjunctive ἐπιμένωμεν.1 In Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Daniel Wallace classifies this usage of the subjunctive as deliberative rhetorical subjunctive that asks a type of question that addresses questions of oughtness.2 However, Wallace also catalogs a similar usage of the Deliberative Subjunctive in the form of the deliberative real subjunctive, which addresses matters such as ‘”possibility, means, and location.”3
As both uses are more or less indistinguishable from each other syntactically, that means we would need to rely upon the content and context of the specific discourse to determine whether a deliberate subjunctive is engaging with matters of ontic possibility of ‘is-ness’ vs. ethical permission of ‘ought-ness.’ Offhand, we might be inclined to attribute a question about sin as immediately an ethical question. On the other hand, the rational Paul gives for rejecting the implication of the question in 6.2-3 focuses on an ontic question of the baptized believer’s relation to Jesus’ death. So, we have reason to consider Paul’s question to be a question about ‘is-ness.”
And yet, it is certainly possible that discussions about is-ness and ought-ness can intermingle, so that the rhetorical question is concerned about permissibility to which Paul responds with a response about ontology that determines one’s ethical behaviors, essentially rendering the question a non sequitur. In other words, the question about the permissibility of continuing to sin has no real merit because the ontological reality of the baptized believer is that they cease to sin.
Nevertheless, we should be leery of this interpretation. As stake in the question of Romans 6.1 is not simply about continuing in sin, but that it pertains to the idea that grace increases. The Greek word use for “increase” is πλεονάζω, which Paul just used previously in 5.20 to describe how sin increases in response to the Torah. Meanwhile, grace far exceeds (ὑπερπερισσεύω) the increase of sin. So, ion talking about grace increasing in Romans 6.1, the question seems to be an attempt to present a logical implication that a hypothetical individual might derive from what Paul says in 5.20. Given that 5.18-21 is Paul’s argumentative conclusion derived from his comparison and contrast between Adam and Jesus in 5.12-17, the question of Romans 6.1 should be taken as a hypothetical interlocuter’s attempts to understand the implications of what Paul has said in 5.20.
As 5.12-21 is addressing matters of the is-ness behind the realities of sin, death, life, and righteousness, it is perhaps better suited to read the question of Romans 6.1 as asking a question about the logical implications of Paul argument: since the giving of the Torah lead to the increase of sin, are the people of Israel fated to continue to sin so that God’s grace may increase? We see this implicit idea about Israel being locked in disobedience come up again in Romans 9.19-24 and 11.7-32, to which Paul’s response to this possible reality is that it emerges from a mixture of God’s partial hardening that is also joined with the people’s own ignorance (Romans 9.30-10.4). If this is the case, Romans 6.1 is a question asked to address the ethical reality of those who live under the Torah.
Paul’s response in Romans 6 is to describe two truths that would be paradoxical from perspective of Judaism: (1) the Torah leads to the increase of sin and (2) people can be freed from sin. For the good, faithful Jew, obedience to the Torah would have been seen as a source of moral formation. The hearing of the Torah would have been a moral influence and then the doing of the Torah would have been even more formative. Among the most zealous observers of the Torah, it wouldn’t have been simply that the Torah was one way among many to live obediently to God, but it would have been the one and only way to be righteous. The Torah was fundamentally necessary to the moral fabric of human life. To people with such a mindset, to suggest that the Torah leads to an increase of sin while suggesting righteousness reigns through Jesus Christ would have seen down-right contradictory to their moral ontology.4
In response to this perceived paradox, if not contradiction, Paul carefully explains this alternative moral ontology. Jesus’ own righteous behavior that brings life and justification to everyone (Romans 5.18) comes to fruition through the baptismal union with Christ (Romans 6.2-11). At the same time, Paul careful nuances how the Torah can not free people from the Adamic pattern (Romans 7). Instead, it is the Spirit who inspired the Torah (Romans 7.14) that allows the experience of Christ’s death and resurrection to become to realization in people’s lives (Romans 8.1-17). In other words, it is the revelation and presence of God that is responsible for human redemption and righteousness, not the Torah.
This reflects a different understanding of Paul’s understanding of God’s grace. Rather than mistaking God’s grace as simply a form of personal favoritism towards a specific people that some Jews would have thought God to almost exclusively have for them (cf. Romans 2.3-5, 11), God’s grace is objectively realized in people’s lives through their own experiences that are brought into conformity to Christ’s death and resurrection through the Spirit. In other words, God’s grace is phenomenologically realized in people’s own experiences and life, such as the cry to God as Abba and Father (Romans 8.16), rather than simply an ideological assumption about one’s standing before God. However, to the Jew who has understood God’s mercy and grace as a form of personal favoritism, they would not have been apt to understand Paul’s description of God’s grace exceeding that of sin as something experienced in the present life, but more so as an expectation of a future exoneration at the judgment. The question of Romans 6.1 reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of Paul’s doctrine of grace as favoritism in the future, rather than a phenomenological experience of the death and resurrection of Christ in the present life through the Holy Spirit.
Consequently, when we understand Paul’s meaning about grace to be reduced to simply some sense of favoritism as representing in forgiveness, we are at risk at falling into a similar type of mindset to that which Paul is arguing against. Like the hypothetical Jew Paul portrays, we risk misunderstanding Paul’s argument in Romans. Many modern readers today tend to differ from this hypothetical Jew in that we don’t struggle with the deeply ingrained assumption that the Torah IS the means of righteousness, which causes Romans 6.1 to be construed to pertaining to moral permissibility rather than moral ontology. Nevertheless, I would invite you as a reader to consider Paul’s question in Romans 6.1 as a question of moral ontology, with the implication that Paul is portraying God’s grace as having ontological and phenomonological implications in the present rather than entirely reducing grace to an ideological presumption of favoritism through the giving of a forgiveness that exonerates from punishment. Romans 6.1-14 is about the divine reality in Jesus Christ that frees us from the power of sin so that we are empowered to live as God calls us to live.