Romans 6:12-14

Do not let sin reign. You are not under law. The truth will set you free.

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"12Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires, 13and do not present your members to sin as instruments to be used for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who are alive from the dead and your members to God as instruments to be used for righteousness. (Romans 6:12-13)

Conventional understanding

The verses mentioned above are among the most frequently preached from pulpits. We felt a sense of harmony in Paul’s theology of justification by faith in our Sunday School class from the beginning of Romans until we encountered these verses. The majority of us felt uneasy. Though the verses do not explicitly state justification by works, they have the potential to be interpreted as such.

Let us take what is written in verses 12 and 13 at face value for the time being: “do not let sin reign in your mortal body… do not present your members to sin.” With these statements, we immediately think of a few problems.

First and foremost, no one under the sun can even come close to meeting these requirements. It’s simply an impossibility. What is the point of advising someone to do something they are unable to do? Isn’t this just setting them up for failure? What effect will this have on their assurance of salvation? One could argue that these verses are not prerequisites for salvation, but rather exhortations to believers to live godly lives. The reality is that constant failures will cause anyone to question whether they are saved at all, or they may become numb and cover their ears entirely.

But don’t take it from me. In Romans chapter 7, verses 18 and 25, which we will study later, we read:

For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. (Romans 7:18)

So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:25)

If “I want to do the good, but I cannot do it,” and “with my flesh I serve the law of sin,” what is my chance of success in fulfilling “do not let sin reign in your mortal body… do not present your members to sin?”

What are your thoughts on this apparent contradiction within the same letter by the same author? Or is it possible that the conventional interpretation of Romans 6:12-13 is incorrect, and that Paul is not referring to the typical law-based teaching of doing good and avoiding bad? This is something I am certain of.

New Covenant understanding

According to the New Covenant, the only reason sin cannot “reign in my mortal body” is that I am no longer under the law, as stated in Romans 7:8: “For sin is dead apart from the law.” You may then wonder, am I permitted to live apart from the law? Yes, you are, according to Romans 7:6: “But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code.”

God frees believers from the law so that they can serve him in a new way of the Spirit of life rather than the old way of commandment obedience.

The theologically correct understanding

There was a time when God used the Old Covenant, which used the law and its commandments to display man’s depravity, and then he ushered in a new era with the New Covenant, which provided them with a sure path to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.

Under the New Covenant, you overcome sin not by fighting flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), but by faith in Christ, who fulfilled all the requirements of the law through his death on the cross. It was his obedience, not yours, that saved you.

Sin can no longer reign in your life because Jesus did it all and you believed in him, not because of your ability to resist its onslaught. This truth must be repeated until its roots penetrate deep into the soil of our faith. As a result, we can stand firm against doctrines and practices that appear spiritual but are in fact ineffective.


14For sin will have no mastery over you, because you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:14)

This verse clarifies the true meaning of verses 12 and 13. Living under the law demonstrates that sin still has dominion over you. As a result, the only way to overcome sin is to live in grace.


Verses 12 and 13 of Paul are almost like parables with hidden meaning, similar to Jesus’ parables. Those who only have a cursory understanding will be unable to comprehend its true meaning. A faulty interpretation will lead to faulty doctrines and applications, with disastrous results.

Hopefully, this study gives you a sense of relief as you learn that all the lofty expectations you’ve been subjected to over the years may have been part of God’s plan for you before grace is revealed. I’m sure there was value in the heavy emphasis on the law, which is why you’re now here reveling in God’s grace as you sing, “How can it be, that thou my God shouldst die for me?” But, ultimately, you’re meant to be freed from the law so that you can truly live for God by trusting in His Son, Jesus Christ.

Only by relying on Christ’s finished work can you fulfill the expectation of Romans 6:12-13. That’s all there is to it. This is genuine submission to the new law of the Spirit of Life. Obeying Old Covenant law is disobedience to a New Covenant believer.

You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! (Galatians 5:4)

Nghi Nguyen

- Scripture quoted by permission. All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2006 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: This is my own opinion on the topic, which does not necessarily reflect the church's theology, or beliefs of the individuals in it — Nghi Nguyen

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