In verses 1 to 15 of Romans 6 Paul has been responding to an objection that what he has been teaching about God’s grace towards sinners only encourages sinners to keep on sinning. You know: Since God is willing to pardon us for the sake of Christ who died for us, then we should keep on sinning, because our sinning will only magnify the Lord’s kindness and it will make his grace towards sinners — his willingness to pardon us — seem all the more glorious.
And Paul responded to that objection with a firm no. ‘By no means!’ he said in verse 2. And then he went on to explain that whenever a person first believes, and is united with Christ, then it’s as if our old life of sin died and we were raised to begin a new life. Since Christ our Saviour died, it’s as if we too died with him. And since Christ our Saviour was raised, it’s as if we too were raised with him. So, by no means are we to go on sinning, because that old life of sin is dead and buried; and we have been raised with Christ to live a new life of obedience to God. So, in verse 11, Paul wrote:
In the same way [that is, in the same way as Christ died to sin and lives for the glory of God], count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
This is how we’re to view ourselves. This is how we’re to regard ourselves every day. Sin once ruled over us, but we’re to regard ourselves as having been released from its power over us. And we’re to regard ourselves every day as those who live for God and his glory.
In today’s passage — verses 15 to 23 — Paul answers another objection which is similar to the objection in verse 1. So, take a look at verse 15. Paul wrote:
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?
He’s picking up something he said in verse 14 where he wrote that we’re not under law but under grace. Before we believed, the law only condemned us. It showed us how we have fallen short of doing God’s will and keeping his commandments. But when we believed, we moved from a life where the law ruled over us to a life where God’s grace now reigns supreme.
Now, if that’s true — and it is — then does that mean we can go on sinning, because God is bound to forgive us?
And once again, Paul answers with a firm no. ‘By no means!’ he says in verse 15. And then, in the following verses, he goes on to offer another explanation for why believers must not give in to sin.
And first of all, in verse 16, he states a general principle which any of his readers would be familiar with. Look what he says:
Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one you obey.
His readers would be familiar with this, because in those days, someone in poverty who couldn’t afford to live could become someone’s slave in order to be fed and housed. And, if you did that, if you became someone’s slave, then from that time on, you had to obey your new master.
Paul goes on in the rest of verse 16 to apply that general principle to the spiritual life. And he makes clear that we all have to serve someone. We’re either a slave to sin or we’re a slave to obedience. It’s one or the other. And that’s interesting because unbelievers like to think they’re free. They don’t want to have to serve God and be bound to his commandments. They want to be free and to do as they please. But, according to the Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, they’re not free, because, in fact, they’re slaves to sin. Sin has become their master and he makes them do his bidding.
And look at the outcome: serving sin leads to death. And when Paul refers to death in verse 16, he’s probably thinking of the eternal punishment which unbelievers will face after the Day of Judgment.
That’s what serving sin ultimately leads to. But being a slave to obedience leads to righteousness. Now, it’s not entirely clear what Paul means here. Let me mention some of the options.
Perhaps Paul is thinking about the Day of Judgement when believers will be openly declared to be right with God and cleared of every charge against us. So, if we serve the Lord now, we can look forward to the day when God will publicly acknowledge us to be right with him. In that case, when Paul refers to righteousness here, he’s referring to the final verdict which God will announce about his people on the Day of Judgment that they are right with him.
However, that’s not what Paul normally means when he refer to righteousness. So, perhaps Paul means that those who are slaves to obedience will be declared right with God in this life. In other words, they will be justified: pardoned by God and accepted by him.
However, it would be odd for Paul to say that obedience leads to justification, because everywhere else he teaches us that we’re justified through faith alone. So, perhaps what he means here is that being a slave to obedience leads to living a righteous life, one that is pleasing to God.
As I said, it’s not entirely clear. However the main point of verse 16 is clear. Paul is clear that we’re always someone’s slave. We’re either a slave to sin or we’re a slave to obedience. We’ve got to serve someone.
Verses 17 and 18
In verse 17 Paul says to his readers that though they used to be slaves to sin, the time came when they wholeheartedly obeyed. He’s talking about the time of their conversion to faith in Christ when they first submitted themselves to Christ the Lord. But Paul doesn’t say that they wholeheartedly obeyed the Lord. He says they wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which they were entrusted. Or better: they wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were handed over. It’s not that a form of teaching was handed over to them, the way a teacher might hand over some class notes to a pupil. No, they were handed over to the teaching. In other words, they were handed over to its authority and rule so that, from the time of their conversion on, they were bound to it, to keep it.
And how did this change come about? Well, at the beginning of verse 17, Paul gives thanks to God. He’s the one who converted them from slavery to sin to faith in Christ and obedience to him. He’s the one who handed them over and entrusted them to this teaching. Once again, Paul is ascribing our salvation to God. He’s the one who deserves the thanks and praise for what he’s done in our life.
And the result of our conversion is set out in verse 18: We have been set free from sin and its power over us; and we have becomes slaves to righteousness. Once we obeyed the demands of sin to do wrong. Now, we’re able to obey the demands of righteousness to do what’s right.
So, going back to the objection in verse 15: Shall we go on sinning because we’re under grace? No! We were once slaves to sin. But when we were converted to faith in Christ, sin’s power over us was broken so that we should no longer listen to its demands. And instead of being slaves to sin, we’re now slaves to obedience and to righteousness. That’s how we’re to regard ourselves every day.
Verses 19 and 20
In verse 19, Paul states that he has to use the imagery of slaves and slavery because of the weakness of our natural selves. In other words, because of our natural limitations and the way we so often misunderstand spiritual things, he needs to use these analogies or pictures to help us to understand spiritual things. And every preacher will know, just as every teacher will know, that very often we need to use pictures and illustrations to convey the point we want to make. And that’s what Paul is doing here. He’s using the picture of a slave to teach us about the Christian life. And he develops the image in the remainder of verse 19. He says to his readers: Once you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness. When he mentions ‘the parts of your body’ we’re not to think only of our hands and feet and arms and legs and so on, but to all our mental faculties and abilities as well. Paul is really saying that we used to offer the whole of our being to serve impurity and ever-increasing wickedness. And the phrase ‘ever-increasing wickedness’ is so true, isn’t it? One small sin leads on to a greater sin, which leads on to a still greater sin. That’s why we ought to have a zero tolerance attitude towards every sin in our lives. We mustn’t ignore small sins, because small sins lead to ever-increasing wickedness.
Well, says Paul, just as you used to do that, so now offer the parts of your body — your whole being — in slavery to righteousness. You should take the commitment and dedication and zeal you once had for sin, and apply it now to righteousness. And that leads to what? To holiness, Paul says. In other words, instead of becoming more and more wicked, we’ll become more and more like the Lord. Instead of becoming more and more disobedient, we’ll become more and more obedient.
And notice before we move on that this is a command. It’s an imperative. Before verse 19, Paul has been giving us the doctrine. He was saying: You used to be slaves to sin, but God has converted you to faith in Christ and he’s freed you from sin’s power and you’ve now become slaves to righteousness. That’s the doctrine. Next comes the application. Given what I’ve just been saying to you, this is what you’re to do now. And so, after the doctrine, comes the application. After the doctrine, there comes the command, something for us to do.
So, offer the whole of your being to righteousness. When you wake up in the morning, say to yourself:
Today I’m going to serve righteousness and not wickedness.
And throughout the day, in whatever you’re doing, say to yourself:
I’m going to serve righteousness and not wickedness.
Verses 20 to 23
Paul has already made clear that we’ve got to serve someone. We’re either a slave to sin and wickedness or we’re a slave to obedience and righteousness. But in verse 20 he says that those who are slaves to sin are in one sense free. But it’s not a good freedom. Those who are slaves to sin are free from the control of righteousness. But that’s not a good thing, because look at verse 21 where Paul refers his readers to the things they once did which they’re now ashamed of. Being free from the control of righteousness only leads to shame. And the end result is death. Do you see that at the end of verse 21? And again, Paul is probably thinking about eternal punishment away from the presence of the Lord. So, being free from the control of righteousness is not a good thing.
But, verse 22, now that you have been set free from sin and its power over you, you have become slaves to God. In the previous verses, he’s said that believers are slaves to obedience and slaves to righteousness. We’re to serve obedience and righteousness. And being a slave to obedience and righteousness really means that we’re slaves to God. So, instead of serving sin, we’re to serve the Lord. And where serving sin leads to shame and death, serving the Lord leads to holiness and eternal life in the presence of God.
And so, we have the conclusion in verse 23:
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ our Lord.
Martin Lloyd-Jones highlights the three contrasts in this one verse: There are two possible masters: we’re either serving sin or we’re serving the Lord. And there are two possible outcomes: Serving sin leads to death whereas serving God leads to life. And then there’s the contrast between wages and a free gift. Sin earns us nothing but death. But God graciously gives us eternal life as a free gift; and we receive it by faith in Jesus Christ who loved us and who gave up his life for us.
So, the truth of the matter is, if we believe in the Lord Jesus, we’re no longer slaves to sin, but we’re slaves to obedience and to righteousness and to God. Therefore, if you’re a believer, if you’re trusting in Christ for justification, trusting in him for peace with God, then you shouldn’t offer yourself to sin to serve it, but you’re to offer yourself every day to God, to serve him. And lest we think we can earn our salvation, we’re reminded right at the end of this chapter, that our salvation — eternal life in the presence of God — is God’s gift to all who are united with Christ through faith.