But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It’s Christmas Eve. And reverberating in our hearts is the reality of 2 Corinthians 9:15. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” Christmas is about giving, because Jesus is a gift. It is not hard to make Romans 6:23 a Christmas text. “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The first Christmas was the gift of Christ coming into the world to purchase for us eternal life by dying in our place and rising again. And this Christmas — as every Christmas — is a time when God is still giving. The incarnation is past, once for all. It will never be repeated. But sanctification is present. And all true believers are experiencing it in some measure. And this too is a gift. That is what I want to talk about this morning. Our text is Romans 6:22–23.
If (1) eternal life is a free gift, as Romans 6:23 says it is (“the free gift of God is eternal life”) and is not a wage — not something you earn, not something you deserve — and if (2) this eternal life is the outcome (not the wage) of sanctification, as verse 22 says it is, then the sanctification must be a free gift too.
Let me try to show you this more closely from the very wording of Romans 6:22 and its connection with verse 23. Verse 22 says, “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.” So eternal life is the outcome or the end of sanctification. Or to turn it around, sanctification is the process of becoming more Christlike from one degree to the next (as 2 Corinthians 3:18 says), which ends in eternal life. You can say it either way. You can say eternal life is the outcome of sanctification. Or you can say sanctification is the path that leads to eternal life.
Because Eternal Life Is a Free Gift
Now notice the relationship between verse 22 and 23. Verse 23 begins with “for” or “because.” That is a crucial word for understanding how sanctification and eternal life relate to each other. So what is the argument in verse 23 about eternal life? It’s the second half of the verse: “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So let’s put the two verses together with this connector that Paul used: eternal life is the outcome of being freed from sin and enslaved to God and bearing fruit in sanctification, “for” — because — “eternal life is a free gift.”
Do you see what that is saying? Verse 23 does not stand alone. It is the ground, the basis, the argument, the foundation of verse 22. The statement that eternal life is a free gift and not a wage is the basis for saying that eternal life is the outcome of sanctification.
“Eternal life is the outcome of being freed from sin.”
Verse 22: eternal life is the outcome of sanctification “because,” verse 23: eternal life is a free gift. What that means is that sanctification too is a free gift. “Being freed from sin” is a gift of God. “Being enslaved to God” is a gift of God. “Deriving your benefit” (or “having your fruit”) is a gift of God. Its result, “sanctification,” is a gift of God. Why? Because eternal life, which is the outcome of these things, is a gift of God.
If the holiness you must have to inherit eternal life is not a gift of God, then eternal life is not a gift of God. That would be like saying: I will give you a free ride on the Amtrak Empire Builder to Seattle. It’s a free gift. But you have to hand in a ticket when you get on, and I’m not going to give you the money for the ticket. Well then, the train ride is not a free gift.
So it is with verse 22. If eternal life is the outcome of sanctification (the ticket for the train) and sanctification is not a free gift, then eternal life is not a free gift. But verse 23 says that eternal life is a free gift. And so the ticket will be paid for. That too will be a gift.
We saw this truth just as clearly in verse 17: “Thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart.” Thanks should be to God that we became obedient to the teaching of the Bible, because our obedience to the Bible is a gift of God. That is, sanctification is a free gift, just as eternal life is. And what a precious gift it is! And O how thankful and humble we should be (1 Corinthians 4:7)!
What About Our Own Choices?
Now let’s deal with two practical applications of this teaching.
First, what about your own obedience — your own choices to do what Romans 6 calls you to do? Just as clearly as Romans 6 teaches that sanctification is a gift, it also teaches that it is our act of obedience. Sanctification is something we do. We will it. You can see this clearly in at least four verses.
Verse 11: “Consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” This is a command to do something with your mind: to consider, and to think a certain way. It is a command not to be passive.
Verse 12: “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts.” This is a command to fight against sin and defeat its deceitful desires.
Verse 13: “Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” This is a command to take the parts of your body and put them in the service of God, for righteousness. It is a call against passivity. We must act. We must choose. We must prefer one path over another. This is sanctification.
Verse 19b essentially repeats verse 13: “Just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.” This is a command. We obey. We act. We choose. We prefer. And the effect is sanctification.
Our Acting and Choosing Is the Gift of God
So how shall we put these two truths together? (1) Sanctification is a free gift of God, and (2) sanctification is something you do, something you choose. It is a series of preferences you have and express.
“God’s gift is your doing and choosing and preferring God.”
The answer is that your doing is the gift of God. Your choosing is the gift of God. Your preferring God over sin is the gift of God. Let’s be careful how we think about this. What if someone says, “Since sanctification is the gift of God, I don’t need to do anything”? Well, that would be like saying, “Since my doing something is the gift of God, I don’t need to do something.” God’s gift of sanctification is not instead of your doing and choosing and preferring God. God’s gift is your doing and choosing and preferring God. So don’t slip into that way of talking or thinking.
There are two classic places in the New Testament outside Romans 6 that capture this truth: that we act and we choose, and this acting and choosing is the gift of God. It is really our act and it is really his gift. It is really our choice and it is really his gift. One is Philippians 2:12–13:
So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Here we are commanded to “obey” — “as you have always obeyed . . . much more now.” And this obedience is described in terms of “working out our salvation.” We obey and we work. It is our act and our choice. But beneath our doing and our willing is God giving the willing and giving the doing. “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” It is really our work and really his gift. It is really our willing and really his gift.
The other text is Philippians 3:12: “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.”
Here, Paul models for us how to think about the efforts — the choices and the actions — of sanctification. I am not perfect, he says. But I press on. I act. I am not passive. I am reaching out to take hold something. And what is that? “To lay hold of that for which I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.” His reaching out to possess Christ is because Christ has reached out and taken hold of him.
So if someone says, “Well, if Christ has already taken hold of me, I don’t need to press on and obey and choose righteousness,” that person shows that he probably has not been laid hold of by Christ. Why? Because Paul teaches that Christ’s laying hold of us is why we are able to lay hold of him. If you don’t want more of Christ and more likeness to Christ, day after day, and week after week, you probably don’t have Christ in you. Christ’s laying hold of us does not replace our laying hold of him. It inspires and enables our laying hold of him.
So let’s be biblically obedient. Sanctification is our work and our work is God’s gift. Sanctification is our willing and our willing is God’s gift. We are accountable for our actions, and God is sovereign over our actions. So let us will and let us act with all our might in the cause of righteousness and love, because our will and our act and our might are the gift of God. And the more energy we expend in this way, in this way, the more glory God will get in our holiness and the more holy we become. “Let him who serves serve in the strength that God supplies so that in everything God may be glorified” (1 Peter 4:11; also see 2 Thessalonians 1:11–12).
Two Ways to Approach Questions
This leads to the second practical application of these two truths that sanctification is our work and God’s gift. There is a spiritual response to these truths and a natural response. The natural man, apart from the Spirit of God, does not welcome the things of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:14). If he takes them into his head, he is like a blind man carrying an eight-foot-long two by four through a china shop. The two by four was meant to be very useful and hold up some beams in the back room. But in the hands of unspiritual people, it breaks things.
So people take these truths and only see problems. If faith and holiness are God’s gifts, what about the people who don’t have faith? What about us Christians who don’t have as much holiness as we should? What about motivation and accountability? How can I really be motivated to act, if my act is God’s gift? How can I be held accountable for my acts if my acts are God’s gifts?
This is all that the natural man can do with these truths. They are in his head, but he doesn’t feel desperate for them; he doesn’t see any fitness between his condition and these realities; he doesn’t see beauty in them; he doesn’t feel gratitude for them. He just keeps banging his two by four around in the china shop. And every time he breaks another crystal he feels more justified in thinking that this is a stupid board, these are foolish teachings.
There is another kind of response — a spiritual response. Spiritual people — people who are led by the Spirit of Christ — are also people with brains. They too see the problems that these truths cause for finite, fallen minds. They patiently work to solve those problems, but that is not their main response to treasures like these. Mainly they receive them as bread for their hunger and drink for their thirst and salve for their spiritual eyes and treasure for their spiritual bankruptcy.
Perhaps I can sum up the spiritual response and call you to it by using the old acronym, APTAT.
A — Admit your need. Spiritual people feel desperate as the slaves of sin and admit that they are. They can’t do anything without the free gifts of God. So these truths fit their own self-assessment. Which is why the proud cannot receive these things. The truths just don’t fit the way they see things. So admit that you are helpless this morning without the gifts of God to do everything you need to do.
P — Pray for the gift of God. Ask him for it. When a spiritual person hears that God has a free gift, his main response is not to start listing the intellectual problems that this gift creates. His response is to feel need for the gift and to want the gift and to pray for the gift. So pray for the gift of sanctification. And don’t pray once. Pray without ceasing.
T — Trust in the promises of God. All acceptable obedience to God in the Bible is obedience from faith. If the choice you face between sin and God is one about money, take a particular promise in hand, and say it and bank on it. “My God will supply all your needs” (Philippians 4:19). Admit your desperate need without God’s gifts. Pray for the free gift of faith and holiness. Trust a superior promise.
“Humble and thankful people will inherit eternal life.”
A — Act in obedience to the commands of God. Do what he says. Actively resist sin. Direct your mind to holy things. Present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. This is your doing. You must will it and you must do it. Getting out of bed. Opening your Bible. Getting the exercise you need. Saying you’re sorry to your spouse. Turning off the TV. These are your choices and your acts. And God’s gifts. So trust his gift, and act your obedience.
T — Thank him for his gifts. When you have obeyed, thank God. Join Paul in Romans 6:17, “Thanks be to God that you became obedient from the heart.” Which means, give God the glory for every good and perfect gift in your life. Be humbled by your failures, and be thankful for your successes. Humble and thankful people will inherit eternal life. Because humility and gratitude are the gift of God.
May God give us especially these this Christmas: humility and gratitude. That is what I feel in some good measure as the year comes to an end: humbled at the weaknesses and failures of my leadership and thankful to God for every blessing we have received. Amen.