QUESTION. What does Paul mean by the phrase “body of sin” in Romans 6:6? Is he referring to the physical body? And if so, in what sense is it a body “of sin”?
ANSWER. You have raised a question of crucial importance for our understanding of human nature as such, and especially for our understanding of the nature of salvation. In my answer I will draw from the entire section of Romans that includes chapters six through eight. When I wrote my commentary on Romans for College Press (2 volumes, 1996 & 1998; one volume condensed, 2005), I was surprised at some of the conclusions about this section to which my exegesis led. One such point is the attention Paul gives here to the body, and to the effect sin has had upon it.
I will begin by stressing how clearly Paul represents human nature as dualistic, i.e., as being composed of two distinct parts: the spiritual and the physical. In Scripture as a whole the spiritual nature is called (e.g.) the soul, the spirit, the mind, the heart, and the inner man. The physical nature is called (e.g.) the body, the flesh, and the outer man. That Paul is here assuming that human beings are a body-soul dualism is crucial for a proper understanding of sin and salvation as described in Romans 6-8.
How does Paul represent the spiritual side of our nature in these chapters? These phrases (using my own literal translations) are intended to refer to the spirit: “our old man” (6:6); “yourselves” (6:11, 13); “from the heart” (6:17); “according to the inner man” (7:22); “the law of my mind” (7:23); “I myself” (7:25); “with the mind” (7:25); “the spirit is alive” (8:10).
On the other hand, there are more than twice this many phrases referring to the physical side of our nature. These include several references to the flesh (Greek, sarx). Many have accepted the false idea that Paul does not use this word to refer to the physical body; they interpret it as referring to the old pre-Christian sinful self as a whole, sometimes translating it as “sinful nature.” This is incorrect. The sarx is the body.
Here are the phrases that refer to the body in Romans 6-8: “the body of sin” (6:6); “your mortal body” (6:12); “your members” (Greek, melos, “body part”; 6:13, twice); “your flesh” (6:19); “your members” (6:19, twice); “in the flesh” (7:5); “in our members” (7:5); “in my flesh” (7:18); “in my members” (7:23, twice); “the body of this death” (7:24); “with the flesh” (7:25); “the body is dead” (8:10); “to the flesh” (8:12); “according to flesh” (8:12, 13); “the practices of the body” (8:13); “the redemption of our body” (8:23). Remember: contrary to a common view, in these texts sarx, “flesh,” refers to the fleshly body and is a synonym for the body. It does NOT refer to our “sinful nature,” or the continuing vestiges of our sinful pre-Christian state.
The second point that Paul is stressing here is one I had never noticed until I was writing my commentary on Romans. It is this: sin has affected and infected both our souls and our bodies. It has invaded both, and has brought both into a state of spiritual corruption. This truth is generally accepted by most Christians with regard to the soul or spirit (unless you are a diehard Pelagian). I.e., we see that Scripture describes sinners as sinful, as (partially, not totally) depraved, as spiritually sick, as spiritually dead. Also, it is generally accepted that sin has had physical effects on the body: disease, defects, death. My understanding of Paul now, though, is that sin has affected our bodies not just physically, but in some SPIRITUAL way. Sin has taken control of the body, and it uses the body as an instrument for evil. This is why it is called “the body of sin.”
One of Paul’s main points throughout this section of Romans is this: at conversion, via the baptismal act of regeneration (death to sin and resurrection to new life), the Holy Spirit heals the sin-corrupted spirit, but not the sin-corrupted body. This is seen especially in 6:6 (my translation): “Knowing this, that our old man was crucified with [him], in order that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” Here are the main points of this statement:
1. “Our old man.” Many translations say “our old self,” but it is literally “our old man” (anthrōpos). Here it refers specifically to the INNER man, the soul/spirit. It does not refer to the whole person; it does not here include the body.
2. “was crucified with Him.” The verb is the compound “crucified with”; the “Him” is understood. This is the same as the death that happened in our baptism as described in vv. 2-4.
3. “in order that.” I.e., here is the PURPOSE of that death to sin in the inner man (soul).
4. “the body of sin.” This is important: this phrase refers to our literal body, the body of flesh and blood, as distinct from the soul or spirit. Why is it called “the body of sin”? This is Paul’s main point: the body is infested with and controlled by the indwelling presence of sin. The body is a beachhead or staging point for all sorts of temptations and lusts (see 6:12).
5. “might be rendered powerless.” The verb here is the Greek katergeō, which can have a strong meaning such as “destroy, do away with,” or it can have a more limited meaning, “render powerless.” Many Bible versions give it the strong meaning here, such as “destroy, do away with, bring to nothing.” This is a mistake, since in regeneration the body does not cease to exist. But what happens there does do away with the sinful body’s power over our souls! As far as its sinful influence is concerned it is rendered powerless! (This Greek word is also used in Hebrews 2:14, which says that Christ’s death has this same effect on the devil! It does not destroy him, but renders him powerless!) Now, in what sense is the “body of sin” rendered powerless by what happens in baptism?
6. “so that we would no longer be slaves to sin.” The body of sin is rendered powerless because our souls (spirits) have been infused with new spiritual life and spiritual power. This is the result of regeneration, or being born again. Now we—our souls—can take control of our bodies with all their sinful lusts and desires. We—our souls, or spirits—are in charge, not our bodies. We are now empowered to rule over our bodies, rather than be slaves to our bodies. This is the purpose for the divine act of death and resurrection that is performed on us in our baptism: it gives us power over sin! Now we CAN overcome sin and do good works (see Eph. 2:10)! We “died to sin” (6:2) “so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” (6:6). “For he who has died is freed from sin” (6:7).
Thus in baptism our SOULS (spirits) were raised and renewed, even though our bodies are not yet redeemed and are still permeated with the power of sin. (Remember: we are twofold in nature.) Nevertheless, the “body of sin” has been rendered powerless because our renewed spirit is now able to take control of our body. This establishes the POSSIBILITY of holy living.
It is not, however, a guarantee of holy living; we are still free-will beings. We CAN do good works, and we OUGHT to do so. We have the ability to overcome sin, and we have the moral responsibility to do so. Romans 6:12 is the “so what” of this teaching: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts”! (This is the first command in the Romans letter.) Verse 13 continues, “And do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves [your spirits] to God as those alive from the dead, and your members [your bodies] as instruments of righteousness to God.”
The question is this: WHO IS IN CHARGE HERE? Your new self, or your old body? The pressures and temptations of sin are still present in our bodies, but our renewed spirits are able to overcome them! (As an illustration, think of the arcade game, “Whac-a-mole.” Every time a temptation raises its ugly head, WHACK IT! You can do it!)