In 2004, Beverly Gaventa published an influential article titled “The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul’s Letter to the Romans: Toward a Widescreen Edition,” where she argued that in Romans, sin is Sin—“not a lower-case transgression, not even a human disposition or flaw in human nature, but an upper-case Power that enslaves humankind and stands over against God.” Most scholars now read Paul’s hamartiological language in Romans 6 as primarily describing a power or master rather than an action. While I agree that Paul conceives of sin as a powerful agent later in Romans 6, this personification of sin is often mistakenly read back into Romans 6:1–2.
In this paper, I argue that in the opening verses of Romans 6, Paul conceives of believers’ relationship with sin not with the language of agents and their actions but with the metaphorical language of individuals in a specific locus of existence. I argue that, through the metaphor SIN IS A CONTAINER evoked by the ἐν preposition, Paul conceives of this relationship in metaphorical spatial terms. In other words, in Romans 6:1–2, believers’ relationship with sin is primarily a function of where they are rather than a matter of what they do or who they’re enslaved to. My paper draws heavily from insights from cognitive linguistics and conceptual metaphor theory specifically. The CONTAINER image schema employed in 6:1–2 here gives conceptual grounding to the various spatial categories used to explain the proposed syntax and grammar of phrases like ἐπιμένωμεν τῇ ἁμαρτίᾳ, ζήσομεν ἐν αὐτῇ (e.g., dative of sphere) and even sheds light on what the apostle means when he says ἀπεθάνομεν τῇ ἁμαρτίᾳ. Furthermore, the spatial binaries of being in or out (of sin) frame Paul’s ethical argument for the remainder of that section in Romans.
Ultimately, my paper suggests that the metaphor SIN IS A CONTAINER is the conceptual foundation for Paul’s ethical argument in Romans 6. Though in the subsequent verses, Paul will develop this metaphor and ultimately personify sin, being attentive to Paul’s spatial language in these opening verses reveals the important relationship between one’s locus of existence and one’s moral conduct. Paul’s fundamental ethical argument is that believers’ conduct is determined by a particular location. Furthermore, this way of reasoning about a specific kind of moral conduct based on one’s location might provide an alternative framework to the “indicative-imperative” for understanding Paul’s ethical thought.