The Fruitful Freedom of the Slaves of God
Scripture: Romans 6:12–6:23
12 Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. 13 Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. 14 For sin will have no dominion over you, sin’s you are not under law but under grace.
15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The sixth chapter of Romans, along with the fifth, moves us deeper into this central part of Romans and the application of what it means to be justified by faith in Christ. Paul started out this letter to the Romans by proclaiming that he is not ashamed of the gospel (Rom 1:16), that he is eager to proclaim it more and more not only to those who haven’t ever heard it but also to those who have heard it and are quite familiar with it. He is eager to proclaim it because he sees that it is the power of God for salvation.
Salvation. Many people today, hearing this word, tend to think of it in a limited sense of determining one’s destiny after death, but we should understand it much more holistically. It applies not only to what comes after life but to this life, to this world that God has made and to this world that God has come to redeem in Jesus Christ. If God is giving to us through the gospel his power for salvation, then this is good news for everyone and for everything. It is good news not just when you are old and on your death bed; it is good news for everyone, however young or old. The gospel is the power of God for salvation, so that there is hope for real change in our world and in our relationships. Everything that we see that is broken, God has come to redeem and restore—to make the world the way it was always meant to be.
Now the Bible unashamedly says that the root problem that needs to be resolved in order for salvation to be realized is the problem of sin. But again, we must not think of sin as just the great moral wrongs. Here in Romans 6, we are encouraged to see sin as a dominant power over all creation. And the incontrovertible evidence that sin dominants is death. Death is the undeniable evidence of sin’s strength.
Romans 6 is a chapter devoted to the question of the Christian’s relationship to sin. Having been justified, vindicated from sin’s condemnation, all by grace, entirely as a gift, does this mean that nothing is to be done to address sin’s power? We saw last week that the way in which we are justified and so freed from sin’s penalty is by our union with Christ so that his own victory over sin means that we, too, are victorious over sin. Christ died not only to free us from sin’s penalty but also to free us from sin’s power. We who have died with Christ, verse 7 says, have been set free from sin. So, to be a Christian means not only that sin can no longer condemn us; it also means that sin need no longer control us. We do not have to obey it.
Now in verse 11, where we ended last week, we can see that Paul has moved from the indicative to the imperative. He has told us what is true about us in our union with Christ in relation to sin, but now he urges his readers to appropriate this truth into their daily lives. Knowing who we are in Christ, we are encouraged to resist the power of sin. We are to fight against sin with a superior power, while serving a greater master, and expecting better fruit.
First, in verses 12 to 14, Christians are encouraged to fight against the power of sin, not in order to dethrone it, but because it has already been dethroned. Christians fight sin like victors, not like rebels. We possess a superior power than the power that sin yields over us.
Encouragement to Fight
Verse 12 is a command: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” But this command is not to be overwhelming to any Christian. It is a command of encouragement since it comes only after we have been reminded, in verse 5, that we have been united with Christ in his triumphant death and the invincible power of his resurrection. In this union with Christ, the Christian has died to sin as a prevailing power. So, the command goes like this: since sin has no power over you, don’t let it overpower you. It is a command, but not a command you are powerless to keep.
But it is a command. It requires action on the part of the Christian. What is expected of us? What must we do? We must fight sin. We must watch for it and refuse to give it any entry.
It must not be allowed to take command in our mortal bodies. In view here is not so much specific kinds of sins that we commit with our bodies. Rather, Paul wants to point out that the Christian already has the upper hand over sin even though we live in mortal bodies. We know that when we are raised from the dead, bodily, on the last day, we will be raised immortal, incorruptible (1 Cor 15:53-55). And on that day, it will be impossible for sin to take root. Its very presence will be obliterated. But we are still in our mortal bodies and therefore susceptible to sin’s intrusion. And yet, the power of that future resurrection has already come to us through our union with Christ. So, we must fight against sin like the victors we are in Christ. We must not let it rule over us, making us “obey its passions.”
Defense and Offense
How are we to fight sin? How are we to keep it from reigning over us? Temptation to sin you cannot prevent, but the command of verse 12 assumes that the Christian has the power to say, “No!” to sinful passions and desires.
Now, whatever you think of sin, or even however you might define it, consider that the ability to control desire, to not give in to every temptation or urge, is something that is a common quest for humanity. The Greek stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote that a person is not free “by a full enjoyment of what is desired, but by controlling the desire.” All kinds of secular and religious self-help manuals are created for this kind of fight. I just got a free book sent to me from a well-known pastor about how to make or break any habit in 30 days. Call it breaking a bad habit if you want, but it is sin as a power over us that we are really dealing with here. So we need a distinctively Christian way to fight it.
Verse 13 gives us the Christian way. “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” The twice repeated verb present tells us that we need both a defensive as well as an offensive strategy in our fight.
Defensively, you have to identify where it is that sin is getting in. If you are giving into porn, you need a filter and accountability software on your computer. If you are binge-watching Netflix, you need to cancel your subscription today. If you are raging on social media, or you are doom scrolling to see who else is, you need to quit Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. These are common sense strategies even if they aren’t easy.
But they also aren’t distinctively Christian, which is why the second verb present is given. It’s not enough to know what not to do. We need to know what we should do instead. We need an offensive strategy. The Christian fights sin not just by resisting, but by resting. Sin has no chance where God is cherished. It is in our union with Christ that we find a stronger power not just to say “no” to sin but to say “yes” to that which truly satisfies. We are to present ourselves to God, “as those who have been brought back from death to life.” Only in our identity as sharing in the resurrected power of Christ can we find a superior power to the allure of sin.
The Resurrection Power of Grace
The point is that it is only in Christ that we can prevail in this fight and not just hold our ground, shifting from one sinful impulse to another. We have a new ground in which to stand that is altogether different from anything else we can be offered. In Christ we now can live a new quality of life. In Christ we have a power that is altogether different than any popular or religious theory could ever give us.
What is this greater power? It is the power of resurrection. It is the power of a new creation that has already dawned upon you if you are in Christ. You can play defense against sin all day long, but until you know the offensive power of presenting yourself to God “as those who have been brought from death to life,” you will not stand a chance against sin. You may curb its uglier effects to some degree. You may be able to dress it up, make it more socially acceptable. You may be able to break a really bad habit, like laziness for example, but what good will that do if in its place you simply develop the more celebrated sin of being a workaholic, which is euphemized today as busyness?
Verse 14 says something astounding about this fight against sin. The reason why the Christian fights like a victor over sin, the reason why “sin will have no dominion over” us is not because we’ve mastered David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but because we “are not under law but under grace.” The power of resurrection is the power of grace. It is the only power greater than sin. Because where sin increases, we were told in Romans 5:20, grace abounds all the more.
A Greater Master
In verses 15 through 19, we find a second aspect to the way we as Christians fight sin. We fight sin as victors, yes, because the power of sin has been broken. But fight we must, because we are under a new and greater master.
Under Law and Under Grace
When Paul says, in verse 14, that we are no longer “under law but under grace,” he knows this can be misunderstood. So he says in verse 15, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” Back in verse 1, he addressed the question, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” The question there was whether or not God intended to leave us under the power of sin in order to magnify his grace. Was God’s purpose to just let sin keep wreaking havoc on us so he could keep applying the curative medicine of grace? No way! His purpose in abounding grace is to bring an end to sin. The question here is, “Does it really matter if we don’t fight sin?” In other words, given the promise of verse 14, why give any attention to fighting sin? It’s too difficult, perhaps, and it just makes me feel guilty and shameful and “Hey, we’re under grace, so who cares?” To this Paul again says, “God forbid!” It’s a false conclusion that Paul urges us not to come to.
Understand what it means to be “under law.” The law is the Jewish law, the Torah. To be “under law” is to be counted as a member of God’s covenant people in what we now call the old covenant, the Old Testament. It means to be Jewish, to be Israel, to be in covenant with God. And in that old covenant, obedience to the Torah is what marked one out as being in that covenant relationship with God. And that is a very good thing.
But not now, not after the new covenant, the New Testament, has been inaugurated. The gospel is the announcement that the promised new covenant has come, not as a replacement of the old covenant, but as its promised fulfillment. Accordingly, those who are truly God’s people cannot remain “under law,” under the old covenant, with Torah-keeping as its distinguishing mark. To do so is to be associated with sin and death as characterizing the dominant power over those who are “in Adam.” It is to reject the promise of God to save those who are in the new Adam, in Christ, in the Messiah.
But if this is so, if Torah observance no longer marks the people of God, then does this mean that we can just ignore the Torah with all its rules and regulations? Does this mean that we can just do whatever we please? Now just consider for a moment this question in our own context. How do we think of the gospel and its relation to Christian living? When we emphasize the radical grace and love of God, what effect does it have on you and me? We all know what it feels like to be in an environment that is too religious, where we feel like people look down on us, disapprove of us, despise us for not measuring up to their standards. I know I can be like that, self-righteous, judgmental, condescending. I know our church can feel like that. It can feal controlling. Harsh. Not accepting of people who are not like most of us. The gospel of grace is the antidote for such legalism.
But, in our quest to eliminate legalism, we will have shot ourselves in the foot if we seek to eliminate the law, or any kind of emphasis on obedience and sin killing and biblical morality and Christian ethics and righteous behavior.
Whom Will You Serve?
For Paul reminds us, in verse 16, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” In other words, while no one can serve two masters, as Jesus said, no one can serve no master either. If you obey sin—that is, if you do not fight it and resist it—then you are enslaved to it. The gospel of grace set you free from sin’s mastery, but it does so in order to put you in the service of another master. This master is called obedience, which seems a bit odd, but it seems Paul wants to stress that to be “under grace” means to be obligated to obey the God of grace.
So, we cannot do away with calling one another to be obedient to God. We cannot stop probing our hearts, discerning where sin has taken root, and helping each other fight with all we’ve got to eliminate it. Doing so would not be a way to highlight God’s grace, it would be a way of turning away from the liberating grace God has already showered upon us in Christ.
Set Free to Be Enslaved
You see, to be “under grace” is explained quite clearly in verses 17-19. Far from suggesting that it means anything like being careless about sin, Paul expresses thanks that his readers “have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” In other words, Paul can see in the lives of these Roman Christians that the promise of grace, the promise of the new covenant has been fulfilled. God promised in the new covenant that he would write his law on the hearts of his people (Jer 31:33). And these Christians have given evidence that the gospel of grace they received did not incite more and more disobedience to God but rather more and more obedience. But it was an obedience “from the heart,” the kind of willing, joyful obedience that gives evidence that they see themselves as happy slaves of God.
They were once slaves of sin, but, he says in verse 18, “having been set free from sin,” we “have become slaves of righteousness.” It is an ironic statement, to be sure. We were once slaves, but we were set free to be enslaved to another. We were set free by being enslaved to another. We are either enslaved to God or to sin, but only one of those enslavements is true freedom. Paul all but apologizes in verse 19 for speaking like this. Even in his day to frame the relationship between God and his people as being like the relationship between a master and a slave is not the best that can be done, but he does so in order to stress the total allegiance and obedience to God that necessarily correlates with one who is now under grace rather than under law.
Lurking underneath these verses is Israel’s story of the exodus in which they were freed from slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt by being enslaved to God in the land of promise. But what now? Verse 19 ends by saying that just as you once had all your energies employed to serve sin, so now use those same energies to serve righteousness. We’ve been set free by grace not to be passive, but to use every last bit of energy we’ve got to serve a new and greater master. Christian disciplines like daily prayer and meditation on Scripture, corporate worship and Christian community, are ways to do what verse 19 commands. Christian liturgy are habits that are centered on Christ, on living lives of obedience to Christ. Not because he demands it, like a cold, brutal taskmaster. But because he is worth it! He is a far greater master.
And the result of serving Christ, of serving a greater master than sin, is much better fruit than you could have ever had without him.
The Fruit of Death
After all, just consider what you had when you were a slave of sin, when you were free in regard to righteousness, Paul says in verse 20. What “fruit” were you getting at that time? Can you think back to what your life was like before Christ? If not, if you had the privilege of growing up as a Christian, surely you’ve heard the stories of those who have. Where were we destined to end up if we go it alone, without God and his grace? What hope do we have apart from Christ? What if Christ had never come? Where would he be? Where would we be? We could have no real hope because of the very real power of sin. We could not possibly hope to vanquish it once and for all. We could not fight it from a place of superior power. If you turn away from Christ, if you stop obeying him, where will you go? Where will you end up? Can you remember where you were before, when you were reaping the harvest of your shameful deeds? Was that leading you in a hopeful path? Or was its only possible outcome, well, death?
Consider the practical outcomes of the 4Gs we’ve come to know and love here at Crosstown, four truths about God that will set you free from the misery of seeking to control your own life or fearing other people or trying to earn God’s favor or seeking something that will satisfy you forever.
The Fruit of Life
There is better fruit to be had, better experiences and outcomes to be enjoyed, even now in these transitory lives we live. To be set free from sin and so to become a slave of God means that “the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” The fruit of a life under grace, that is, in total allegiance to Christ in whom grace is found, is that which leads progressively to sanctification, that is, to holiness. To be the happy slaves of Jesus the Messiah means that everything is working together for the good of being conformed to Christ himself (Rom 8:28-29). That’s what holiness is. It is not being conformed to the legalistic standards of other Christians; it is to be made more and more like the greatest human there ever was, to be made more and more the human God intends for you to be. It is a progression, to be sure. We are not promised lives of material prosperity and physical health prior to final resurrection. But the fruit that comes from living lives under the lordship of Christ is still better.
The gospel of grace, to be “under grace,” is not to be left to ourselves, to the false gospel of self-identity. It is simply misleading for us to convey that God accepts us just the way we are. No, he accepts us “despite the way we are,” receiving “us only in Christ and for Christ’s sake,” and not intending to leave us as we are, “but to transform us into the likeness of his Son.” And what would that lead us to? What would be the end result of holiness, of being conformed to Christ? The end of sanctification, verse 22 says, is eternal life. Not an endless existence in a disembodied heaven, but a resurrected, embodied life in a material universe, life the way God always meant for us to have—life where sin has no dominion—the life we can begin to enjoy now in our union with Jesus.
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