Romans 6:15-23

Romans 6:15-23

SERIES: The Book of Romans

You Gotta Serve Somebody!  

Introduction:  What happens in our civilized American society when, for one reason or another, the laws of the land are temporarily unenforceable?  It should embarrass all optimistic secular humanists that the answer to that question is usually flagrant and shameless crime.  One need only recall the endless line of people running away from department stores in Los Angeles with all they could carry in the looting that followed the Rodney King verdict.  Some seemed even unconcerned that their faces would be captured for a national audience.  It was as if they knew that anyone in their shoes would do the same thing.  Shamefully, it seems that law and its consistent enforcement is often the sole factor in keeping modern civilization civilized.  When people are free from the law and its consequences, the result is usually chaos.

But the fact is, Paul has been telling us that when we are saved, we are freed from the Law as a means to salvation, having been declared not guilty by the free gift of God’s grace in Christ.  Won’t this freedom from the Law lead to moral chaos?  Aren’t Christians free to sin since they are no longer condemned by the Law?  These are exactly the questions that Paul has to answer.

Reading between the lines here, Paul must respond to two groups.  First the Jews challenged that if people were freed from the Law they would just go on a sinning binge.  Second, certain others actually fulfilled the worst nightmare of the first group, claiming that if God’s grace frees us from the Law, why shouldn’t we sin freely, since there is no penalty?

It is in Romans 6 that Paul answers these challenges.  In last Sunday’s passage, Paul asked the question “Should Christians sin so grace might increase?”, to which he answered, “May it never be!”  In today’s passage, Paul asks the same question from a different angle—”Does freedom from the Law mean we are free to sin?”  His answer speaks powerfully to us concerning what it means to be truly Christian.  Listen to the Word of God, as found in Romans 6:15-23:

“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! {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? {17} 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. 

{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. {20} When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. {21} What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! {22} 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.”

As a child of the sixties, when I read this passage I am reminded of a line from a song by counter-culture icon Bob Dylan.  At the time in Dylan’s life when he claimed to be a Christian, he wrote an insightful song that may have been inspired by this passage.  It was called “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”  I can still hear that nasal voice proclaim “Now it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord.  But you gotta serve somebody.”  I don’t know where Dylan’s faith is today, but his words could not be more true.  

The inescapability of slavery (16)

Paul begins his argument against a believer being free to sin by affirming that there is no such thing as absolute freedom for a human being.  Everyone is a slave to something or someone.  

The illusion of freedom.  What most people seem to long for, the absolute freedom to do whatever they please without negative consequences, is a foolish illusion.  Such a freedom is impossible in the physical world.  One is not free to jump off a skyscraper without splattering his brains all over the sidewalk.  Such freedom is impossible also in the world of relationships.  The free love so highly touted in the late sixties proved not to be free at all.  The price included unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, and shattered relationships.

So it is that Paul tells us that this kind of freedom is not an option in one’s relationship with God.  In fact, as one commentator has noted, it is the desire for such freedom to do one’s own thing without consequence, to exercise complete independence, that is the essence of sin.  Think about it.  Lucifer’s desire was to be independent of God and to rule on his own.  Adam was dissatisfied with having every good thing as long as it had to be sullied by that one symbol of dependence on God.  

Now most of us would surely not take this idea of freedom to the extreme that Paul suggests, feeling the freedom to sin all we want since God’s grace has made us free of the eternal consequences.  I suggest that for most of us this improper sense of freedom comes in a more subtle form.  How often do we say in our hearts, “I know this is sin, but God will forgive me.”  Or “I know this is wrong, but it’s not that big a deal.”  To such a sentiment Paul would loudly exclaim, “No, you do not have that freedom.”  When we choose voluntarily to sin, we are not acting as free beings, we are offering ourselves as slaves to sin.  What Paul is telling us is that we do not have the choice of freedom or slavery; we only have the choice of who will be our master, sin or God.  

The choice of a master.  When we choose to sin it often feels like such a free choice, usually because it goes against tradition or rules and regulations.  It often seems like we’re making such an independent move and we can even come up with stunningly logical reasons.  Eve thought she was making a good independent choice based on her best understanding of the information.  But she was deceived.  She simply chose to serve Satan rather than God and became enslaved by the never-ending consequences.

Sin is never a free choice made in a vacuum.  Sin is an addicting reality that deceives and then captures us.  If we choose to sin, we choose to be obedient servants of sin.  It is a ruthless taskmaster that will drive us mercilessly to death.  The only other choice, Paul tells us, is to offer ourselves as slaves to another master, God himself.  Paul uses the phrase “slaves to obedience” here to emphasize the fact that God has not purchased us out of slavery to the Law so we can be without a master, but so that he can be our master and we might live in obedience to him.  This kind of slavery, says Paul, can never lead to the freedom to sin, but only leads to righteousness.

So, we have seen that this idea that freedom from the Law makes us free and independent beings is an illusion.  The only choice we have is who will be our master, sin or God.  Where Paul is leading here is to help his readers understand that to be free from the Law and under God’s grace is to be under obligation to serve him rather than to be a slave to sin.  He reminds them that they used to be slaves to sin but have now become slaves to righteousness, indicating that both of those slaveries have certain implications.

The implications of slavery (17-19)

For the slave to sin.  He must keep on offering himself to the service of sin in ever increasing intensity.  Like the drug addict, the one who offers himself to sin can never find final satisfaction in it, but must keep searching, burying himself deeper into destruction.  Listen to the words of the great 5th century saint, Augustine, as he recalls his slavery to sin:

I will now call to mind my past foulness, and the carnal corruptions of my soul… I was torn piecemeal, while turned from You, the One Good, I lost myself among a multiplicity of things.  For I even burned in my youth to be satiated in things below … with these various and shadowy loves: my beauty consumed away, and I stank in Your eyes …. I was grown deaf by the clanking of the chain of my mortality, the punishment of the pride of my soul, and I strayed further from You and You let me alone, and I was tossed about and wasted … and You held Your peace, and I wandered further and further from You into more and more fruitless seed-plots of sorrows, with a proud dejectedness, and a restless weariness.[i]

Do you think this guy understood what it meant to be a slave to sin?  I love that statement, “I was grown deaf by the clanking of the chain of my mortality.”  When we are serving sin, we can only be thinking about satisfying our needs in this life.  Yet knowing this life hangs by a thread forces us to get as much satisfaction from sin as possible and deafens us to the call of God.  Sin is the Lay’s Potato Chip of life.  When it is done willfully it is not sampled, it is indulged.  Freedom to sin means slavery to sin, says Paul.  This is not the way of those who have been touched by the grace of God.  No!  Believers have become slaves to righteousness, and this means a very different kind of life for them.

For the slave to righteousness.  When someone has been freed from the Law by God’s grace, they have not become independent; they have become a slave to righteousness.  What this means for them is that they must reject sin and embrace a life of righteousness, a life lived according to God’s moral character.  Why is this so?  The text gives us several reasons.  First, Paul makes it clear that obedience to God is an essential component of faith.  Look at verse 17 where Paul refers to their conversion experience.  He says, “Thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly believed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.”  Is that what it says?  No.  It’s what we would expect, since Paul has pounded into us that salvation cannot be earned but is by faith in Christ.  But it is not what he says.  He says they obeyed the teaching about Christ.  

If we go back to verse 5 of chapter 1, we find obedience linked with faith when Paul says God has given him grace to call people to the“obedience of faith.”  The very faith that frees us from the condemnation of the Law, which we could never perfectly keep, simply assumes a total commitment to obey God.  And notice here, this is not just legalistic external law keeping.  Paul calls it an obedience of the heart, which is at the very center of why true believers will never throw their freedom from the Law in God’s face by disobedience.  The person who has been truly touched by God’s forgiving grace has been so radically changed that at the core of his being he wants nothing more than to honor and glorify the Lord Jesus Christ with his life.  This is a mark of a true Christian.

Next, the slave to righteousness must live a life of righteousness because he has been freed from slavery to sin.  We have been bought out of slavery to sin by the precious blood of Christ.  To return to the service of our former master would be to repudiate Christ’s work—an impossible consideration for a true Christian.  

Third, not only have we been freed from slavery to sin, we have a new master.  In the early church, the faith of the believers was often summed up in their motto, “Jesus is Lord.”  This was no trite statement of cosmic fact, but a confession that Jesus was the ruler of their lives.  Further, the baptismal formula of the early church also reflected this change of masters.  In the process every candidate for baptism, when he or she was in the water, would face the East, the traditional direction representing God, thus turning his back on Satan.  He would then, just before baptism, publicly renounce Satan and all his works. 

This is what faith meant to the first believers.  No mere cognitive assent to forgiveness from sin and freedom from Law, true faith in Christ was to say, “I am turning my back on sin, I renounce its practice, and I have decided to follow Jesus.”  The desire of the heart of true believers is to serve the Lord Jesus, for he is their master.  So strong is Paul’s conviction here that a true believer will seek a life of righteousness rather than indulge in sin that one commentator is moved to remark, 

The Bible says that if you are living a sinful life, your conduct is inconsistent with any Christian profession you might have made.  If you claim to be a Christian, you must therefore straighten your life out, or you dare not long assume you are a true believer ….  God forbid that any of us should continue sinning, thinking that grace will abound.[ii]  

He doesn’t say you aren’t a believer.  But he denies you have the right to claim to be a believer.

So far in this passage, Paul has argued that it is ridiculous to think that one who is freed from the Law as a way to earn his way into God’s favor will then naturally be free to indulge in sin.  He has demonstrated that such freedom is impossible, that the one who sins in not free, but a slave to sin.  And the one who has been freed from the condemnation of the Law by God’s grace has become a slave of God with the implication that he will seek a life of righteousness.  

Finally, Paul comments on the relative benefits of these two kinds of slavery.  

The benefits of slavery

For the slave to sin.  Paul laments in verse 20 that they are free from the control of righteousness.  What this means is that righteousness, the moral character of God, no longer has any effect on the behavior of the one who is enslaved to sin.  In our family, Robin and I work hard in shaping our children to teach them that we forbid them to do certain things not just because they are harmful to self or others, but because they are simply wrong; they violate the character of God.  But when one is a slave to sin, he can be confronted with a righteousness that tells him what he is doing is wrong and still respond, “I know that.  But I’m going to do it anyway.  My needs are of more value than obedience to God.”

Paul says to his readers, “Remember, this is the way you were before you were believers!  So what did you benefit from such a life?”  The benefit, he says, was death.  Now what kind of death is he talking about?  He certainly must mean something more that physical death, for his readers are still living.  They did not die when they were slaves to sin.  

Here in verse 23, one of the most well-known verses of the Bible, we are given insight into the manner of death Paul speaks about.  The word “wages” here is a word which does not mean a lump sum distribution but a daily wage, called the “fish wage,” given to Roman soldiers.  It was a per diem.  The implication here is that to the one who is enslaved to sin will be doled out just a little bit of death every day.  Think of the death dispensed by a few of the traditional seven deadly sins.  Pride leads to the death of relationships through exploitation and control.  Lust leads to the death of integrity through the corruption of one’s personality.  Anger leads to the death of others, either immediately by violence or slowly by words and attitudes.  Envy leads to the death of contentment.  These are the daily wages paid out to those who become slaves of sin.

Finally, Paul describes the benefits that come to the one who becomes a slave to God.  

For the slave to God.  Now I want you to think very carefully about this final issue in the text.  A natural question for people who are confronted with Christianity and realize its true nature is, “Why should I switch from slavery from one master, to slavery under another?  What are the benefits for me?”  Friends, this is a logical question.  The problem, as I see it, comes with the fact that too often people are looking for all the wrong benefits.

Thursday night I watched Peter Jennings’ documentary on the fastest growing segments of Christianity in America today, many of which are essentially consumer oriented or charismatic.  I’m sure many of you saw it.  Now I believe God is at work in some of these churches and doing great things in spite of their flaws.  But one of the problems is that some of these churches have fostered the idea that if Christianity does not give people what they want, they won’t come.  

I have great respect for John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard movement.  And you never can tell how true a picture you’re getting from sound bites.  But when he described his disappointment with the church right after his conversion, he recalled that he went to the church leadership one Sunday and asked “When do you do the stuff in the Bible?  When do you do the multiplying of the bread and the healing of the sick and the miracles?  I gave up drugs for this.”  

I wanted to say, “John, if you gave up drugs simply to find a greater high in miracles, maybe you should go back.”  Even Herod, the murderous puppet king of Judea was pleased to serve as judge at Jesus’ trial because he hoped to see him perform a miracle.  Now I believe John Wimber is much deeper than that, but many professing Christians are not.  

As our church has grown larger over the years, Jerry Rich, who teaches our newcomers class, has shared with me that his greatest disappointment is the number of newcomers to our church whose main agenda seems to be “What do you have to offer me?”  Christianity in America has been inundated with a consumer mentality.  Now is there anything wrong with hoping to find physical or emotional healing, miracles, or even entertainment in the Church?  Of course not, but those things must never be sought as the main benefits of Christianity; they must always be the frosting on the cake when they happen.  

Some of the pastors in the documentary lamented that church was boring and in some cases they are right.  The Church must always seek to express its message with excellence and relevance.  God forbid that many of you would find this place dull on Sunday mornings.  We work to bring you music that lifts your spirits to worship God and pray that in our teaching we will never bore you with the Word of God.  

Sure, the Church must give people what they need, but people’s greatest need is to find forgiveness for their sin, to worship God, and to become servants of Jesus Christ, not to be healed from illness or to be entertained.  When people wondered what Jesus had to offer them, he did not offer much in human terms.  “The foxes have dens and the birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”  Jesus couldn’t even offer a blanket and a pillow; instead he offered a life of service and self-sacrifice.

Excuse me for a moment while I climb down off my soap box.  Let me get back to what Paul tells us are the actual benefits of being a slave to God.  The first benefit is spiritual growth.  In verse 22 we see that because we have been set free from sin, because it no longer must control us, we are free to live lives that honor God.  The benefit of this freedom is that we grow to be more like Christ, which is what we theologians commonly call sanctification.  Now your Bible, like mine, may say “holiness.”  The better translation is “sanctification” which suggests a process rather than a state and is clearly what Paul is getting at.  

Why is this a benefit?  Well, it’s a benefit for our families who would much rather be around someone who is growing to be more like Christ than like Attila the Hun.  But it is also a benefit to us because slavery to God frees us to fulfill the destiny for which we were created by God.  At the depths of our being as humans, we were created to love God and enjoy him forever.  We can only do this as we grow more like him, for otherwise we would hate him.

Finally, the greatest benefit of being a slave to Christ is eternal life.  One aspect of this has to do with spending eternity in the presence of God.  But I believe Paul is focusing here on a more present reality.  For he contrasts eternal life with the daily wages of death that comes to the slave of sin.  Remember in John 17, when Jesus said, “Now this is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”?  Eternal life is the abundant life Jesus promised to all who would follow him.  It means knowing and talking daily with the one who died to forgive my sins, who assures me of his presence with me and love for me in a world that will never miss me when I’m gone, and who has every minute of my future in his hands.

And don’t miss this point friends.  Where you would expect to see “the wages of righteousness” as the opposite of “the wages of sin,” instead you see “the gift of God.”  The one who is a slave to God does not earn eternal life; that is impossible.  It can only be received as a free gift based on the work of Christ for us.  

So how can we summarize all of this?  Perhaps the essence of this passage is best summed up in Jesus’ invitation to the crowd in Mt. 11.  He said,

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my load is light.

To whom was Jesus calling?  To those who carried great physical, emotional, relational, and financial burdens?  No.  He was calling to those who were under the teaching of the Pharisees, trying to be saved by obeying the Law of Moses.  They were failing and were discouraged.  Did he offer to relieve these poor souls of any burden at all?  No, he just told them to take the unbearable weight of the Law off their backs and take his much lighter burden instead.  Does this mean Jesus demanded less obedience than the Law?  On the contrary, in the Sermon on the Mount he demanded even more?  

So what’s the deal?  The difference is that for those who have been justified by the blood of Christ, obedience is no longer the way to God’s grace, but the result of it.  True Christians are people who have understood the unspeakable cost and the unmatchable joy of God’s gift of forgiveness of our sins in the death of his Son.  Because of that gift, they have turned from sin and offered themselves as slaves to a new master, Jesus Christ, that by the power of his Spirit, they might become more like him and experience a daily allowance of eternal life.  

If asked today if you are a Christian, perhaps all of you would answer, “Of course.”  But if the question is instead, “Have you decided to turn from sin and follow Jesus?”, would your answer be the same?

DATE: March 19, 1995




Charismatic movement

[i] Augustine, Confessions, 27.

[ii] James Montgomery Boice, Romans, Vol. 2, The Reign of Grace, Romans 5-8, 703.