Choose Your Master!
Scripture: Romans 6:15–6:23
Today we are looking at Romans 6:15-23. This is the third of three messages from Romans 6. In this entire chapter, Paul has been dealing with the same question or objection to the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. That is the question: Does justification by faith encourage us to continue in a life of sin?
As we look at this final section, we might ask: Is this simply a repetition of what Paul has said in the first half of the chapter, or is Paul introducing something new? I think it is actually both.
As I said, he is dealing with the same basic question of justification by faith and its effects; does the outrageous and radical nature of free grace encourage us to continue in sin?
Secondly, we shall find that Paul will make the same application and challenge to us as Christ’s followers when he urges us to present the members of our bodies as servants to God.
Thirdly, I would make the point that because the second half of the chapter is repetitious in many respects, we should keep in that that the Bible often repeats things for the sake of emphasis. It is one way of saying “THIS IS IMPORTANT! DON’T MISS IT!”
But I would also point out that while there is much about the second half of this chapter that is repetitious there are some subtle differences; slight changes in nuance and language which enhance our understanding of the overall message of the chapter.
The first subtle difference I want to highlight is in the way the question in verse 15 is worded. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? At first glance, this may look like a simple repetition of verse 1: What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? But there is a slight difference in nuance. The form of the verb for “sinning” is different. In verse 1 it is present, continuous action; continual sinning as a pattern and lifestyle. In verse 15, it is in a form that describes occasional acts of sin. In verse 1, Paul is asking the question whether continuing in sin were actually somehow meritorious. Won’t we be doing God a favor because we are giving him more scope to demonstrate grace? In verse 15, Paul is reflecting instead the attitude that sin is no big deal. Since we are under grace and not under law, what is the harm in the occasional sin now and then? After all, we can always confess it afterwards, right?
So, the form of the question is slightly different. Secondly, I would point out that there is a slightly different metaphor underlying Paul’s choice of words in this section. In the first half of the chapter, Paul used the language of kings and kingdoms and ruling authority. Who is king? Who is the emperor in your life? Is sin still reigning? Or have you presented yourself in service to your new King?
In this last paragraph, Paul uses a slightly different word picture. He uses the language of slaves and slavery. Once again, it was a picture that would have had a vivid impact on his readers. Historians estimate that over half of the population of the Roman empire consisted of slaves. There were many different classes of slaves, from common laborers to household slaves to well-educated slaves who served as tutors and mentors for the children of wealthy households. But regardless of their classification, a slave was still a slave and owed absolute allegiance and obedience to his or her master. So while the first half of Romans 6 calls us to allegiance to a new king, the second half calls us to obedience to a new master.
With that overview and comparison between the two sections of the chapter, let’s take a closer look at how Paul develops his thought. After raising the question in verse 15, Paul answers it with the same vehement negative he used in verse 2. By no means! God forbid! No way!
Paul then goes on to state a universal principle in verse 16. Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?
This verse is really the heart of this section. If you get nothing else out of this section, hear what Paul is saying in this verse. The point that Paul is making is that there is no middle ground. There is no third option. There is no neutral position. We are either slaves to sin, which leads to death, or we are slaves to obedience to God, which leads to righteousness.
It is my observation that many in the world, even many Christians, are not really convinced of this fact. We want to believe there is a third alternative. Imagine that life is a multiple choice question on an exam.
I want to be…
a. A slave to sin
b. A slave to God
We don’t like the way that question is made up. We want more choices. But what Paul is saying is very clear. There are only two choices. You are a slave of one or the other. Make your choice. We might ask if Paul is the only one who puts the alternatives in such stark terms. How about Jesus himself? In John 8:34, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” That is pretty black and white, isn’t it?
We must understand this. Sin is not a benign, harmless, leisure time activity. It is a tyrant, and when we yield to sin, we are obeying it. We are serving it. We do not choose whether to be a slave or not. We only choose which master we wish to serve. Having laid out this basic principle, Paul then goes on to contrast the two masters and the consequence of the two paths.
Let’s consider first the description of the person who is a slave to sin. Paul has this to say in verse 20: When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. You weren’t bothered by trying to live up to God’s standards. You didn’t struggle against sin. You just let it happen. Do what feels good. Do what everyone else is doing. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But that is not the whole story. Look at what he adds in verse 21: What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!
What Paul is telling us is basic truth. Every path leads somewhere. Before you choose a path, choose a destination. That path of being “free from the control of righteousness” leads somewhere. There is fruit or consequences of choosing that path. One of them is shame. “Things you are now ashamed of!” That’s where serving sin ends up. A fruitless life of shame. And the final result? Death. Before you choose your path, look ahead and see where the path ends.
In contrast to being a slave to sin, Paul lays down the alternative; a slave to righteousness, a slave to God. This is what he describes in verses 22-23. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What a difference in paths and in destinations! Slaves to God; fruit or benefits that lead to holiness (or sanctification) and the end result of eternal life. What a contrast between the two masters!
This the basic reality which Paul is laying down. There are but two masters. We are slaves of one or we are slaves of the other. We are either slaves of sin, or we are slaves to God. Before you make your choice, carefully consider the two options and where they lead. Let’s look now at how Paul applies this basic reality in the heart of this section, in verses 17-18:
But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
I want to point out something here. Paul did not know these people to whom he was writing. He had no first-hand knowledge of their everyday lives. He could not say this based on personal observation of their behavior. Yet he says, with all confidence, “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”
How did Paul know this? He knew it because it is true of every true believer, every true child of God. Because this is, first and foremost, a positional truth. It is something that is true because we are “in Christ” as we learned in the first part of the chapter.
Let’s turn to a parallel passage in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20: Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own. You were bought at a price. In these verses, Paul is not telling us what we act like. He is telling us who we are and who we belong to. Only at the very end of verse 20 does he tell us how to behave: Therefore, honor God with your body.
Paul is doing the same thing in the passage in front of us in Romans 6. You were a slave to sin. But God redeemed you and set you free from sin. This is what God has done from you. Now here is the application in verse 19: I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.
We are slaves of righteousness and of God. Now it is time to start acting like one. It is time to start serving him, to start presenting our members to him as slaves to righteousness.
Should we go on sinning because we are not under law, but under grace? No way! How could we even ask such a question? Don’t we realize who we are? Don’t we realize who our new master is? Don’t we realize where the two paths ultimately lead?
A couple of questions and I close. Who is your master? Remember, there are only two options. If you are a follower of Christ, if you have been justified by faith, if you have been born again into the family of God, then the answer to that question is clear. God is your Master.
But that leads to the follow-up question. Have you lived this past week as though God were your master? Remember, last week we talked about our hands and our tongues as examples of members of our body that we can use to either serve sin or to serve God. What have you done with your hand this week? What about your tongue? Or let’s extend the thought. What about your eyes? How have you used them this week? How about your ears? What have you deliberately chosen to put into your ears? We have a choice. We can offer the members of our bodies in slavery to impurity and ever increasing wickedness. Or we can offer them in slavery to God and to righteousness leading to holiness and sanctification.
As I was preparing for this sermon this week, I also happened to be reading in my devotions in the Book of Deuteronomy. In that book, there is the record of the final words of God through Moses, prior to Israel’s entry into the Promised Land. There are many wonderful promises of blessings they can expect from God under their covenant agreement with God. But then there is a warning in Deuteronomy 29:19: When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.” This will bring disaster…
The words brought me up short. Was this not the Old Testament equivalent of a believer today who says, “Shall I sin because I am not under law but under grace?” “I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.” Is that what you’ve been saying to yourself? Is that the lie you’ve been telling yourself? God warned, “This will bring disaster.” In Paul’s words in Romans 6, there is also an implied warning. Let us not abuse the covenant of grace. We have been set free from sin. Why serve the old slave master any longer? Why keep doing the things that led to shame and eventually to death. We have been saved to serve our new Master, the Lord Jesus Christ.
And lest you chafe against the language of slave and master, I offer you the words of Thomas Cranmer, the English Reformer who died in the flames as a martyr for his faith who described God as the one “whose service is perfect freedom.”
It is almost Christmas time, so Christmas music has been running through my head. One particular song began to resonate in my mind as I was writing the conclusion to this sermon. It is actually the one we sang for the Advent hymn last Friday. Come, Thou long expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free. Set us free from what? The next line answers the question: From our fears and sins release us. Jesus didn’t come to set us free to sin. He came to set us free from sin. The second verse also echoes themes from Romans 6. Born Thy people to deliver, Born a Child, and yet a King; Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring. By Thine own eternal Spirit, Rule in all our hearts alone; By Thine all-sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious Throne.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Imagine this multiple choice question on an exam: I want to be…
a. a slave to sin, or b. a slave to God
- Do you like the way that question is worded? What are some possible options (c or d) that people (yourself included!) might like to add? Read Romans 6:16. Are these really the only two options? (Discuss)
- If there are only two options, what are the implications for the choices we make every day?
- How does this address the question Paul raises in Romans 6:15.
- Reread the entire chapter 6 of Romans. What are you taking away from this chapter?