For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. 22 But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.
Focusing on Sin in My Own Life, not Somebody Else's
The big picture of Romans 6 is that the reality of justification by faith does not produce Christians who are cavalier about their own sin. In other words, Paul writes this chapter to show why believing in the righteousness of Christ as the ground of our acceptance with God does not make us indifferent to sin, but dead-set against sin in our own lives.
And let me stress that – our own lives. There's not a word in this chapter about getting bent out of shape because of the sin in other people against us. Paul will talk about how to handle sin in other people in chapter 12, but for now, the big issue is my sin against God and against you, not your sin against me. So let's not be pointing fingers. Let's be standing before the mirror of the Word of God.
So the big purpose of Romans 6 is to show why justification by faith always brings sanctification with it. Or as the old-time teachers used to say: this chapter teaches why the faith that alone justifies, is never alone, but always brings a holiness of life with it. Or another way to say it would be that even though justifying faith does not produce perfection in this age, it always produces a new direction in this age. It dethrones sin, enthrones God, and makes war on sin in our own hearts and bodies.
God's Work, Justification, Sanctification and Eternal Life
As the chapter comes toward a close, three things become increasingly clear. It becomes clearer and clearer that our condition as humans is not just that we are guilty for sinning and need forgiveness and the righteousness of Christ to commend us to God, but also that we are in slavery to sin and need to be freed from its power as well as its punishment.
And it becomes increasingly clear, as we saw last week, that this deliverance (this "sanctification") is decisively the work of God, and then, dependently, our work. We must do it. But we cannot do it unless God enables us to do it.
And thirdly, it becomes increasingly clear that our eternal life depends not only justification, but also on sanctification. In other words, if a person says, "Oh, I am justified by faith and therefore I don't need to renounce sin and pursue holiness," that person is probably not saved. And without being freed from that slavery to sin, he will not inherit eternal life.
Those three things are in today's text, Romans 6:20-22: 1) All of us are by nature enslaved to sin – we don't rule sin; sin rules us. 2) God alone is the decisive deliverer from this slavery, and our part – which is real and crucial – is dependent on his. 3) Without this deliverance from the rule and slavery of sin – without a new direction of righteousness and holiness in our lives – we will not inherit eternal life.
Now this is why all of Christian ministry is so serious. What we do here on Sunday morning in worship and in Sunday School, and what you do in your small groups and what you do in your family devotions and times of teaching the children, and what you do in your personal times of prayer and meditation over the Word – all these things are utterly serious matters because they are the means that God appoints for the triumph of faith over sin. If a person begins to fall away from these precious means of grace, nobody should take it lightly. What is at stake is eternal life. Paul said to Timothy in 1 Timothy 6:12, "Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called." The fight of faith is a laying hold on eternal life. Not to fight for faith and against sin, is to let go of eternal life. Who knows but that you may find in the end that it was never yours. And if by the Spirit you fight on (Romans 8:13), it is yours.
Let's see these three points in Romans 6:20-22.
1. All of us are by nature enslaved to sin – we don't rule sin; sin rules us.
Verse 20: "For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness." Notice, Paul lumps us all together in this. We were all once slaves of sin. Not some of us. All of us. That is, we were not neutral, self-determining creatures standing before sin and righteousness, able to make our sovereign choice. We were slaves to sin from the beginning. Sin was master; we were not. Our wills were in bondage to the allurements of sin. Because of our corruption – the distortion of our values – we saw sin as more attractive than righteousness. So we were free, Paul says, in regard to righteousness. That is, it had no power to sway us. Righteousness didn't look attractive or rewarding. And so its appeals were powerless. That's the first point, and Paul will confirm it in verse 22 when he speaks of being "freed from sin and enslaved to God."
2. God alone is the decisive deliverer from this slavery, and our part – which is real and crucial – is dependent on his.
The second point is that God alone is the decisive deliverer from this slavery, and our part – which is real and crucial – is dependent on his. You can see this in verse 22 when Paul says, "But having been freed from sin and enslaved to God . . ." Notice, ultimately we don't free ourselves; we have "been freed." And ultimately we don't make ourselves slaves of God, we have been "enslaved" to God. Behind these passive verbs, as we saw last week, is the work of God. This is what happens "under grace." When Christ is our righteousness by faith, the grace of God enters us mightily, and breaks the power of cancelled sin, and transforms us in the renewing of our minds, and writes the law upon our hearts, and gives us a new spirit, and inclines us to the Word of God, and causes us to see the beauty of Christ and his ways as the treasure of our lives.
Becoming a Christian is not like standing neutral between two possible slave masters and having the power of ultimate self-determination, and then deciding, from outside any slavery, which we will serve. There are no neutral people. There are only slaves of sin and slaves of God. Becoming a Christian is to have the sovereign captain of the battleship of righteousness commandeer the slave ship of unrighteousness; put the ship-captain, sin, in irons; break the chains of the slaves; and give them such a spiritual sight of grace and glory that they freely serve the new sovereign forever as the irresistible joy and treasure of their lives. That's how we got saved. God freed us from one master and enslaved us to himself by the compelling power of a superior promise. So embrace this work of God. Receive Christ and his promise as the treasure of your life.
In passing, I should mention that if the imagery of slavery bothers you – as it should in part – especially in America where the history of slavery is rooted in the most demeaning kind of racism, you will be encouraged to know that the imagery bothered Paul too. Verse 18 is parallel to verse 22 in saying, "Having been freed from sin, you became slaves of [were enslaved to] righteousness." But then notice how he pauses to apologize, in a way, for the inadequacy of the imagery. Verse 19: "I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh."
In other words, as humans we grope in our weakness and finiteness for language that is sufficient for great and glorious and complex realities, and have to settle for words and images that are partially helpful and partially misleading. Paul knows good and well that there were aspects of slavery that he would not want us to attribute to our relation to righteousness or to God, even though he says that we are "enslaved" to righteousness (verse 18) and "enslaved" to God (verse 22).
Jesus, you recall, did the same thing in John 15:15 "No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you." So there are some aspects of slavery that we should apply to our relationship to God and some that we should not. And there are some aspects of friendship that we should apply and some we should not. We judge from the context what aspect of an image we are to focus on.
Slavery in Romans 6:6, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 22 does not imply mainly being forced against our will to do something. It mainly implies that our wills are enslaved. They are bound to do sin or bound to do righteousness because by nature we either see the rewards of sin or the beauty of righteousness as more attractive. So in both cases we do what we want most to do. (This is true, we will see, even though chapter 7 will reveal that we can have a divided will, sometimes doing what we don't want to do.) But we are bound to do it – enslaved to do it – because our hearts are either so corrupt or so renewed in Christ that we see sin or righteousness as compelling. We are either enslaved to sin or enslaved to God in that sense.
3. Without this deliverance from the rule and slavery of sin – without a new direction of righteousness and holiness in our lives – we will not inherit eternal life.
Finally, the third point is that eternal life depends on this freedom from sin and this slavery to God. That is the point of verse 22: "But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit [literally, "fruit"], resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life."
Eternal life is in contrast with the "death" in verse 21: "What benefit [literally, "fruit"] were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death." In other words, the result of living in slavery to sin is death. But, he says, by contrast in verse 22, the result of being freed from sin and being enslaved to God and then bearing the fruit unto sanctification is eternal life. These steps are not optional. This is the only path that leads to eternal life: being freed from the slavery to sin, enslaved to God, bearing fruit in a life of holiness, and finally eternal life. That is why holiness and the fight against sin in this chapter is so serious. We are not playing games. Eternal life is in the balance.
In other words, eternal life comes to the person whose faith in Christ is real – who receives Christ not just as a truth but as a treasure. And the reality of that faith shows itself in two ways, not just one way.
- It shows itself real by leading to justification,
- and then it shows itself real by leading to sanctification.
- The justification is our legal righteous standing with God because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ;
- the sanctification is the practical, progressive, moral outworking of that perfect righteousness in a changed life of holiness. Real faith leads to both.
- So justification is necessary for eternal life as the legal ground or basis of it, which we obtain by faith;.
- and sanctification is necessary for eternal life as the public evidence that our faith is real.
He Rules the World
And what we will hear next week is that all of this is a gift of God. At every moment we are utterly dependent on him. So I urge you: look away from yourself this Christmas. Look away from man, and look to God. Look to Christ. Look to the cross, the capstone of a life of obedience and love. Look at the resurrection. Look at the rule of Christ over the kings of the earth. And there may you see his infinite worth, and receive him as the treasure of your life!
He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
And wonders of his love.