Sermon preached on Romans 6:15-23 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/09/2012 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“God Be Thanked”
Today’s passage is a great complement to last week’s passage. They both are dealing with the subject of our sanctification. That doctrine that says we are progressively growing us in this life in our holy living. We are putting off sin more and more in our life, and putting on righteousness in its place. That was what last week’s passage was about, and its what this week’s passage is about. Our sanctification.
Maybe you noticed the similar way in which both started out? They both asked some kind of hypothetical question about does the gospel give someone license to sin? I’m referring to verses 1 and 15. In both questions, the answer was the same: Certainly not! There is a bit of a nuance in each question though. Last passage, in verse 1, the question was about the abundance of grace Christians get in light of sin. In light of the fact that grace abounds when we sin, does that mean we should look to continue to sin so that grace would keep abounding? Well, certainly not! And so there the nuance was on how grace abounds amidst sin. But here now in verse 15, the nuance is on our relationship to the law. He’s working on the point we saw in last week’s passage that we are no longer under the dominion of sin, death, or the law. We under grace. So, the question then comes, if we are no longer under the law, does that mean we can just sin? Again, Paul says certainly not!
Now, there is a truth behind this question. It’s a truth helpful to point out. We are not under the law as a covenant of works. That’s the sense here in which we are not under the law. That is true. It’s implied in the question because it’s the point Paul had already made in the previous verse, verse 14. That means that when we commit a sin as a Christian, we won’t go to hell because of it. The truth of our justification means that the law can’t condemn us any longer. Christ paid the penalty for that sin on the cross. And so the law is no longer held out over us as the way to get into heaven or to have eternal life. That’s the sense in which the law is not over us. And yet, even though that’s true, there is still a sense in which we are under God’s law. This is the sense Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 9:20-21, where he refers to those under the law in distinction from Christians, and says Christians are not under the law. But then he goes on to say that Christians are not without law to God, but are under the law to Christ. Sound confusing? Well, he’s simply acknowledging that there is a sense in which we are not under the law, and there is a sense in which we are under law.
We’ve already said that the sense we are not under it is in terms of a covenant of works. Our standing before God is not won or lost by lawkeeping. And yet we are still under divine law. We are under it in the sense of obligation. We have an obligation of righteousness. Christians are not saved by grace and then told that they can live any way they want. No, they are saved by grace and told to go and sin no more. You see, you can be obligated to keep the law as a Christian, even if the sting of eternal condemnation is removed as a threat for not keeping it. In the same way, you can keep the law, even if the promise of eternal life is not won by doing so. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there is not still blessings for obeying God’s law. Surely there are various blessigns that come along with obedience. And this doesn’t mean that God won’t chastise you when you don’t keep the law – no he loves you, so he will. But none of that bears on whether we go to heaven or hell when we die. And so we are not under the law in one sense, and yet that doesn’t mean God does not call us to keep the law. No, in fact he does. This then is what Paul is flushing out in today’s passage.
And so he flushes this out with the analogy of slavery. In verse 19, he says he’s speaking in human terms. In other words, he’s using an earthly analogy to talk about some spiritual truths. And so he talked about slavery, and dominion, and freedom. Essentially the overarching point is this. No matter what, you will have a master. You will serve someone. We might want to think that we can be totally free from any servitude, but that’s not reality. This passage shows we’ll either serve God or we’ll serve sin. Let’s see this in verse 16:
Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?
And so the point of verse 16 is that whomever you obey, that’s whose slave you are. When we hear of freedom in the Bible, this qualifies the freedom. Verse 18 says that if you are set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. Similarly, verse 22 says that if you are set free from sin, it’s to become slaves of God. Verse 20 then puts it in reverse. When we were slaves of sin in the past, we were free in regard to righteousness. Slavery and freedom has a relative sense then. If you are a slave to sin, then you have freedom from righteousness. In other words, you aren’t righteous, and have none of the benefits of being righteous. And when you are a slave to God, that means you had to have been set free from slavery to sin. And thus freedom from the negatives of sinfulness. These go hand in hand. You can’t be both a slave to God and to sin. And you can’t be free from both sin and free from righteousness.
And so this is like what Jesus taught in Luke 16:13. No one can serve two masters, he said. You’ll either hate the one and love the other, or loyal to the one and despise the other. This passage in Romans puts that idea in contrast to being under law versus under grace. Those under the law are those non-Christians who’ve not been set free from it by grace. And so, if someone is under the law as described here, they are those left condemned by it. Through the law, people show themselves enslaved to sin. The law actually points that out. It is clear that humans in their natural state, are then slaves to unrighteousness, verse 19. That’s their master. But for the Christian we are now under grace. Our master then is grace, and God, and righteousenss, per this passage. This passage begs the question then, ”Who is your master?” The answer for the readers is supposed to be God. This is a letter addressed to Christians. And yet this proves Paul’s original point. This is why the Christian doesn’t look to serve sin just because they are under grace now and not the law. That would be like trying to serve two masters. That would be to miss the point. Freedom from sin and the law means service to God.
But that is okay. At first that thought might sting a bit. You might ask, ”I thought I was being given freedom as a Chrsitian, but have I really just replaced one form of slavery with another?” Well, to do justice to that question, you jut have to compare the two kinds of slavery. Slavery to sin is horrible. Slavery to God is wonderful. Just think of what its like to be enslaved to sin. Think of some of the besetting sins someone might face in this life, as examples. They are clear examples of being enslaved. Think of drug addiction. Think of the slavery to various fleshly lusts you might have. We can be slaves to overeating. Lots of examples could come to mind. These besetting sins will take their toll on us over time. They bring destruction into our lives. On the other hand, serving God may not always seem easy in this life, but he is growing us to see the beauty in his ways. His laws are ultimately the path of blessing and prosperity. I don’t mean that in a simplistic sense. Not a prosperity theology sense. But God’s knows how we operate the best. Paul, for sake of analogy, can use the language of servitude toward God, but it’s the kind of service that is the best kind. Think of an example. When you get married to someone, you are giving up a lot of freedoms you otherwise would have. You have bound yourself in many ways. But two people do that because they think life better with less freedoms in that case. How much more so, when we have God as our master. He is the best master!
Well, that leads us then to our next point. To compare the logical outcomes of these two masters. This is what Paul has us to consider. Notice the question in verse 21, ”What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed?” He’s asking about our former life before becoming a Christian. Before we repented of our sins and turned to Christ, we were under the law and slaves to sin. What fruit came of that slavery to sin? What good came out of our former lives, that lives we are now ashamed of? Did anything good come out of it? Well, he uses the same fruit language in verse 22 to talk about our new life. There he mentions that there is the good fruit of holiness that comes from our new life. So it’s the same question then raised here for those who are under grace and serving God. What fruit comes of that? What good comes out of our new lives in Christ?
Well, when asking about the fruit of these two paths of service, the difference couldn’t be more stark. For those who serve sin, verse 16 says that it’s destination is death. Verse 21 says it again, those former things of sin, the end of those things is death. Verse 23 says that this is the wages of sin, what’s paid out for you sin. You get the payment of death. But that’s just the two ends of the spectrum. Sin leads to death, but in between there’s lots of bad results along the way too. Just look at verse 19. It talks about uncleanness and lawlessness. To be a slave of sin, is to be a slave of uncleanness. Sin is pictured as somethign that dirties. It’s the opposite of purity. And serving such filthifying sin means we engage in lawlessness. But it says there in verse 19 that this lawlessness leads to more lawlessness. One transgression leads to another. When you serve sin, you don’t just get filthy morally, you get more and more filthy. Again, it’s easy to think of examples. Like when you tell a lie, you end up having to tell another lie, and another lie, to keep covering your tracks from your first lie. Or with drug addiction, again. You take the first hit, and say you are just experimenting. But then you have an urge to take another, and so you do. And then another, and another. And then you have to take a bigger and bigger dose of the drug to satisfie your urge. Next thing you know you are enslaved by that drug in such a deep way, that it will not be easy to get out of that addition.
And then think about your heart in all that downward spiral in sin. When you tell that first lie, you might have your conscience pricked pretty hard. But as you do the next lie, maybe it’s not as bad. Lie, after lie, and you find yourself even less jaded to your lying. This is true for sin in general. The more you do that same sin, you can find yourself calloused to it. Again, this is the picture Paul gives in verse 19 when he says that the lawlessness leads to more lawlessness. And so this is the logical outworking of serving sin. Sin leads to more and more moral filth and lawbreaking. The end result of it all is death. And so this is Paul’s answer to his question. Does any good come out of our formery slavery to sin? No, not at all.
Well, on the other hand, we see the wonderful opposite outcome when we serve God. Verse 16 says that obedience to God leads to righteousness. Verse 19 says that righteousness leads to holiness. Verse 22 then says that the fruit of holiness ultimately leads to eternal life. And so you see the opposite here when we serve God. Serving God leads ultimately to eternal life. Not death, like sin, but to life, everlasting life. And along the way we grow in good fruit. Righteousness and holiness is what is being developed in us. By the way, the word for holiness in verse 19 and 22 is where we get the word sanctification. Some translations even translate it as such. It’s the idea of being consecrated or set apart for special service unto God. And so not only do we see here the final outcome of eternal life for serving God. We see the fruits of righteousness and holiness being developed in us over time. Unlike sin that leads to more and more transgression, serving God should make us more and more looking like God who is holy and righteous himself.
And I love how verse 19 gives a truth we don’t want to miss about how this happens. It says in light of all what we are talking about, we have a duty to perform. We are called to present our members as slaves of righteousness for holiness. In other words, there’s something we’re called to do in order to advance our sanctification. Now, this doesn’t discount grace in the process, but it does calls us to action or activity. We are called to actively strive to use our minds, and bodies, and thoughts for righteous living. This is why then the Bible is so full of exhortation to godliness.
And so to summarize the bigger point here, we see two different outcomes when you compare these two masters. If sin is your master, you will go on a bad path that will get worse. It will end in destruction. If God is your master, you will go on a good path that will get even better. God will take you on a path of righteousness and holiness that ends in blessed eternal life. This passage isn’t calling you to set God as your master. It’s speaking to Christians and telling you that this is the case. He is your master. Therefore, serve him, instead of serving sin. That’s why we serve God and not sin, even though we are not under law as a covenant of works. That is what this passage calls us to do, in light of the change that has taken place in our lives when we became a Christian.
Well, as much as we see the call to holiness, I’d like to make sure we remember grace in all of this. This leads then to our third point. I’d like to turn to verse 23 and see how grace is highlighted in all of this. You see, it’d be easy to think that our justification is all about grace through faith, but our sanctification was then something we have to earn. That it’s our own efforts and no longer grace that’s operating when it comes to our sanctification. Verse 23, especially calls us to see otherwise. Verse 23 reminds us again that grace cannot be overlooked even with our sanctification.
And so verse 23 says, ”For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Remember the two ways we’ve said today. The way of being under law, and under grace. If we are under the law, we’ll find that we are sinners. The wages of that is death. That’s what we’ve said. And if instead we are under grace, then we find that we now look to obey God, and the ulimate end of that is eternal life. And so, the gift of God is eternal life. Verse 23, in other words, has these same ideas in mind here. And yet the idea of the wage is pitted against the gift. The wage is what’s earned. This is literally the word for a soldier’s rations. That’s the soldiers renumeration for their labors. That’s what they’ve earned. For us, our sin when we were under law earned us death. On the other hand, when we come to being under grace, we don’t earn eternal life. It’s given to us. That’s the lanuage of grace. In the Greek, the word for gift and the word for grace share the same root. They are interrelated concepts.
And so how we get eternal life is a gift. Not a wage. Not earned. Now, you might reply that verse 23 is talking about our justification, not our sanctification. Well, I can agree that verse 23 has in mind our justification. But I would not want to remove the concept of sanctification from it as well. I can’t help but see our justification here in verse 23. But I can’t help but see the same themes that have been running throughout this passage, to see them here as well. The themes that have been talking about our sanctification. How we’ve said that the Christian seeks obedienece, and that yields a progressive holiness that culminates in eternal life. But here it says that we get eternal life by a gift!
Well, the resolution here is clear. It is ultimately all about grace. Justification and sanctification come together in grace. They come together in the final outcome of eternal life. These concepts are more closely connected than we sometimes talk about. But remember, we started this passage off saying that we are under grace. Grace is over us! That’s why God is now our master, and not sin. That is why! Not because you tried hard enough to not present your bodies to sin. No, we do that, but that’s not why God is our master. God is our master, because we are under grace. And that’s his free gift, absolutely not what we’ve earned. And so grace is here too even in our pursuit of holiness.
I think what we have here is none other than what we see Paul saying in Philippians 2:12-13. Paul tells us there to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure. In other words, in our sanctification, we’re call to good works. We’re called to live righteously. But at the same time, God’s grace is still working. We are still God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works. He’s still the potter and we’re still the clay. He’s still molding and shaping us. And so we take the exhoration from this passage. We do look to serve God and obey righteousness. It becomes our delight to call ourselves bondservants of the Most High. And yet we have the humility to know that God is behind the scenes growing us in these things. Even through our humble efforts to live godly.
A good example of this is with the heart. Verse 17 talks about the Christian as one who follows God from the heart. Surely we do that. But surely it’s God who works on hearts. It’s God who softens hearts and directs our hearts. So that we can begin to live out this call for holiness in the right way. Not like the Pharisees who tried to look holy from an external perspective. But that we are growing to truly love God and serving him. We see the value in his laws, because by his grace he’s opened our eyes to see this.
And so then brothers and sisters, my concluding exhortation is to point us a final time to verse 17. To the start of it. But God be thanked! In our justification and in our sanctification, let God be thanked! Since God is at work in it all by his grace, let us thank him indeed! That is what you do when you get a gift. You send a thank you letter. Well, we have received this great gift of grace. A gift that ends in eternal life. And so, let God be thanked! That is my parting urge to us all. Let us truly thank God for all that he has done, and is doing, and will do, in our lives. Amen.
Copyright © 2012 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.