Romans 6:15-23

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The next paragraph is effectively an illustration of the point that Paul made in vv. 1-14, viz. that in Jesus Christ we receive not only the forgiveness of our sins but the renewal or renovation of our lives. Salvation is both a change of status – acceptance with God – and a transformation of nature, a transformation that must and will result in a change of behavior.

Paul uses the institution of slavery – very familiar to all his readers, no doubt many were slaves themselves – to make his point. A slave is bound to his master as long as he lives, but when he dies the master loses all authority over him. He can continue to give orders to the corpse, give orders until he is blue in the face, but the corpse will pay no attention. Well, so with a Christian. Sin was his master, but he has died to sin in the death Jesus died for him. And so sin no longer has any authority over him.

Or, think of it in another way. The slave ceases to owe allegiance to a master if he becomes the property of another master. And that is what has happened to a Christian. He has become the slave of someone else; he has become God’s slave. He has been, as the Scripture says, “bought with the price,” and the price was Christ’s death on the cross. So his former master has lost all authority over him. The Christian has passed from the service of sin into the service of God. The Christian’s duty is to serve his new master and that new master has very different interests than did his former master. Both masters pay wages. Sin’s wages, however, are death. God’s wages are eternal life. [Bruce, 140]

The first 14 verses of Romans chapter 6 are designed to change our attitude to the problem of sin. Because we participate in Christ’s victory over sin, it has lost its mastery, its control of us. We are now able to say “No!” to sin and make it stick. Paul’s argument is intended to give us confidence. The Lord has freed us from sin’s power. We share in his victory. Now it is ours to live out that victory in our daily battle with temptation. The rest of the chapter is designed simply to enforce that lesson.

Text Comment

v.15     The rhetorical question repeats the argument of v. 1 in a slightly different form of words suggested by v. 14. It is absurd to think that God’s gift to us, our union with Christ in his victory over sin and death, should be turned into an excuse for sinning.

v.17     The Bible’s picture of humanity, as Paul has painted it himself in the early chapters of Romans, is one of bondage. All human beings are conceived as the children of wrath and the slaves of sin. The question is not whether one was ever a slave of sin; all men begin their existence in such slavery. The question is whether a person will ever exchange that cruel bondage for another kind of slavery, a much happier slavery. The nicest, most polite, most moral person is nevertheless a slave of sin. If his slavery does not appear in the form of addiction to the baser forms of vice, it will show itself in other forms: pride, selfish motives, indifference to God, and every form of polite and respectable vice.

That bondage is broken when the truth dawns in a sinner’s mind, when he or she realizes the errors of his or her thinking. The whole grand scheme of gospel truth, when truly believed, has the power to liberate because it is, after all, simply the report of what Christ has already done. People, of course, do not like to be told that they are slaves of sin. They resent the very suggestion. But once they realize the truth of it, and of Christ’s victory over sin on their behalf, and of the prospect of a new life lived in the power of Christ’s victory, well, then everything changes. Suddenly one rejoices to be Christ’s slave; he or she is proud of his or her slavery. Slavery of this kind is, paradoxically, perfect freedom.

v.18     In keeping with his metaphor, Paul points out that everyone is a slave, either to sin or to God. What we are not, what we never can be, are independent beings, sovereign over our own affairs, free to offer our service to whomever we please or to offer it to no one. Men and women may indulge the illusion, but we are not the captains of our fate. We are slaves: that is what we are. So all that matters is to whom we owe our service; who is our master?

v.19     In other words, “I’m using a human analogy to help you understand this.” Perhaps he also means something like this: don’t press the analogy too far. We are talking about a Christian being a slave, but it is a form of slavery utterly different from any slavery that you see in this world. Slavery is almost always a negative condition of life. No one wishes to be a slave. It may serve the purposes of my argument to refer to Christians as slaves of God and of righteousness, but don’t forget that these slaves are also much beloved children. It is only in one sense that Christians are slaves. [Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 6, The New Man, 244-245]

Notice also, once again, as before in vv. 11-14, the shift from the indicative to the imperative. Christ has in grace and love delivered you from the slavery of sin and made you his own slave. Well, then, offer him your service. You didn’t offer your service to sin passively. You gave yourself to sin. You involved yourself in it. Well, in the same way, offer the parts of your body to God and to his service. Employ your powers and your faculties; put them to work on your master’s behalf.

v.22     Many slaves have suffered terribly under their masters. But some slaves find they have a master who is kindness and goodness themselves. Christian slaves have a master who cares more for them than they care for themselves, who sees to turning their lives into goodness and to ensuring that they live forever.

I read a fascinating article a few weeks ago that came popping back into my mind as I read through Romans 6:15-23. It came popping back into my mind particular when I read this remark of the Apostle Paul:

“What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?

In other words, Paul asks: what was your slavery to sin like before you exchanged it for slavery to God and slavery to righteousness? The article was a review of several major articles in various important organs of American opinion and commentary over the past number of months concerning the state of marriage in America. The common theme was that marriage is not simply in trouble. We hear that all the time. But the point of this article was that more and more people, and especially, perhaps surprisingly, more and more women, are fed up with the entire institution and despair of ever finding any happiness in it. As one of the authors concluded in a piece in the Atlanticentitled “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”:

“Avoid marriage – or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.” [M. Eberstadt, “What Does Woman Want: the War between the Sexless,” First Things 196 (October 2009), 22]

The persistent subtext in these articles about marriage by women is that marriage has been for untold numbers of women an immense disappointment. What was supposed to prove an island of tranquility and affection and security in an uncertain world has become for many modern women a dreary desert, barren of deep feeling, and, strangely in such a world as ours – saturated with sex as it is – largely sexless. The feminist revolution was, of course, supposed to liberate women, to make their lives more interesting, happier because more fulfilled. But the fact is they are working harder with less to show for it than was the case in the days before the feminist revolution. And shot through this commentary is the bitter recognition that along the way, somehow, romance was another casualty of the revolution.

Two Wharton School economists, both women, recently published a study that produced a great deal of comment and general hand-wringing among the social elite. Using 35 years of data from the General Social Survey they observed that, “given the many social and economic transformations of modernity that would appear to benefit women – a closing gender wage gap, an educational attainment that now tops that of men, the sexual freedom conveyed by artificial contraception, and more – one would reasonably expect to see those who are the beneficiaries of these trends registering increased happiness.”

Instead the reverse is true. Over the past 35 years women’s happiness – so the authors conclude – has fallen both absolutely and relative to men in a pervasive way. What is more this shift has occurred through much of the industrialized world. Certainly one reason for this is the disappointment that women feel in the men in their lives. Husbands are, much more commonly in our day than in days past, not a source of real happiness for their wives. Perhaps the most fascinating observation in the article, not an observation made in the articles being surveyed and written by modern women, but noticed by the author of this article was that pornography plays a  role in all of this displeasure with marriage. The women writing these articles, of course, belong to a culture that has mainstreamed pornography. Their husbands use it openly. The women writers of these articles do not themselves blame the pornography; they mention it in passing but do not reflect of what connection it might have to their marital misery. It falls to the author of the review article to point out the connection. The female authors cannot bring themselves to admit that their husband’s use of pornography is crippling the romantic and sexual dimensions of their relationship. Feminism does not permit them to admit that. To make such an argument is to admit that there is something vitally important to the old-fashioned values of chastity, of manly honor toward women, and of a woman’s need for her husband to be a man to her, which is to say the  absolute importance of recognizing the essential difference between men and women. They cannot do that. Their philosophy of life forbids them to admit such things.

But, at least one of the modern feminist writers seems to grasp the destructive role of pornography in modern romance and married love. She observed: “the onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as porn-worthy.” [25] Good grief, even Dr. Phil is cited in the article as a spokesman for the obvious. Commenting on pornography he said,

“It is a perverse and ridiculous intrusion into your relationship… It is an insult, it is disloyal, and it is cheating…. You need to tell your partner [“partner”? You need to tell your boyfriend or your husband] that viewing pornography is absolutely, unequivocally unacceptable in your relationship.”

Among other things the pornography that has engulfed and transformed modern life, in other words, has turned many marriages into sexual deserts, in which men and women find themselves “alone and apart, far from the reach of one another.” [26] As the author of the article summarizes the situation:

“It wasn’t supposed to happen that way, but it has. Enlightened people only meant to take the small-s sex out of marriage: the unwanted gender division. Along the way, capital-s Sex headed for the exits as well.”

But few modern women can see or will say that. Rather they turn their wrath on marriage itself, on the institution, and so, sadly, turn their back on what is, in human life, the one social institution that holds promise of lasting love, of deep fulfillment, and of secure and mutual satisfaction in life for men and for women. What is more, they are turning their backs on an institution essential for the welfare of children.

Back to Paul’s rhetorical question: “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?” How well did you enjoy your slavery to sin? How free did you really feel as you fed your lusts and as you used other people and as you isolated yourself from others as you must when self-love is the principle of your life? As the Roman historian Livy described the gradual descent of Roman life into debauchery until people were openly ruining their lives but were so inured to their sins that they were unable to see their folly, so we can describe today the same descent. Nothing works any longer. Marriages fail at unprecedented rates, the family, as a result, is falling apart, many of our children – 40% of whom are now born out of wedlock – never enjoy the security of a happy and stable home, and they and many others are suffering openly for the sins of their parents, and, notwithstanding all of the perfectly obvious carnage of our selfish, foolish living, we can no longer as a people admit our fault. Our political life grinds to a halt under the pressure of every constituency’s selfish desire. “No, please; don’t give us anymore help; give it instead to those who need it more.” When did you last hear that? We have become a people who in our private and our public life have no self-control. We cannot control our appetites and so we borrow money at alarming rates. We want what we want and refuse to discipline ourselves to wait for it until we can afford it. We spend an unprecedented amount of time entertaining ourselves and yet are so bored and restless that our entertainment must become increasingly debauched to satisfy us. We live in the age of porn, of gambling, of slasher films and of hyper-violent video games and yet comparatively few can be brought to realize that there is something deeply sick and destructive and deadly about all of this.

Now, what is the response of the unbelieving world to what I have said? It is very likely to be this: well, that doesn’t describe me! I’m happy; I’m living a good life. Much of the time that response is simply a damned lie. But I certainly am not suggesting that everyone’s life is a perfect illustration of the misery it is to be a slave of sin. Far from it. And even those whose lives are plenty miserable, are far from admitting that it is the result of their own sin and their slavery to sin.

There are, as I said, a great many women whose marriages have failed them who will not admit the damage caused by their own political and moral philosophy, by the convictions they have come to hold as modern Western women, or by the changes that have come to pass as a result of the sexual revolution. They remain unrepentant advocates of all those changes even while they rail against the carnage they brought in their wake. They are deeply, profoundly unhappy with their lives but determined to believe that their unhappiness must be someone else’s fault.

But notice what Paul says. “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of?” Paul knows very well that unbelievers will not see this. They will not admit they are slaves to sin. They will never agree that they are in bondage to the worst elements of human nature. It is part of their slavery that they cannot see and will not admit that they are slaves. But a Christian who used to think just like them and live just like them knows better. He or she looks back and is ashamed. He knows what an absolute revolution in his moral and ethical viewpoint has come to pass because Christ has given him a new nature and a new life.

The Christian man and the Christian woman are ashamed at the way they treated people; they are ashamed that they were so much in thrall to their lusts, to the basest and most animal-like aspects of their being. They were ashamed that they devoted their lives to so little and made so little of the powers and abilities that the Lord had given them. They are ashamed of how foolish they were in their thinking. They have learned from Jesus Christ and from the taste of a new life what that old life was really like. It was boring, flat, and ignoble. Man is restless in his slavery to sin. Put a cow in clover and it is and remains content. But place a man in a material paradise and he is content only for a short time. This is an amazing fact of life and a revealing fact of human experience. A beautiful wife, beautiful children, a good job, material prosperity; it somehow begins to cloy. It isn’t enough. We’ve seen countless times people throw away what should have been a wonderful life and exchange it for what proves to be nothing. Life does not satisfy because man was never made to be satisfied as a slave of sin. It never satisfies him. He tries one thing and then another. But if, in Christ, he is made a new man, he looks back and immediately sees the futility and the shamefulness of his past life. How could I have believed that was any way to live my life?

And what of the Christian’s life now? What does he think of it? How does he view his life? Now his only shame is that he doesn’t live it as thoroughly and as passionately as he knows he should and as he very much wants to. He is ashamed only when he has not abandoned himself completely and without hesitation to this new slavery to righteousness. That is, there is a life, a way of life of which someone never needs to be ashamed!

The Christian knows that in slavery to Christ there is perfect goodness. He knows that if he could only be at once all that Christ has saved him to be his life would be perfectly satisfying to him and a blessing to others. And being a blessing to others is now of the greatest importance to him. He cares deeply to be what a human being ought to be. There is no shame in that. Live this life, the life Christ saved you to live, and your wife or husband will love you for it; your children also; your friends and neighbors will love you and admire you. Live this life and you will enjoy the smile of the Living God! Live this life and you will be an engine of good wherever you are, wherever you go. There is nothing to be ashamed of – ever – in living for Jesus Christ and in his service.

What would the modern feminist critic of marriage think if her husband was so devoted to her that it was a matter of honor to him that he never share his ardor for her with a picture of a woman on a computer screen? What would she think of marriage if he made it for her an island of peace and love in this dark and uncertain world? What would she think of marriage if her husband worshipped her no matter her failings? What would she think of marriage if her own marriage was full of sexual fulfillment, romantic love, and cheerful human companionship? There is a life which no one needs to be ashamed of; and that life Christ died to produce in the experience of his people. To call it slavery is powerful irony. If this is slavery, what pray tell could freedom be? To be in bondage to good, to love, to purity, to honesty; to be in bondage to a life lived for others and not just yourself; to the life of Jesus Christ is freedom indeed!

Do you remember Hopeful, John Bunyan’s character in Pilgrim’s Progress? Hopeful tells Christian at some length the story of his life as they go along their way. Hopeful had been a citizen of Vanity Fair and was when Christian and Faithful stopped in the town on their way to the Celestial City. He had been entirely at home in Vanity Fair. He liked his life there. He had no plans to change it. He never thought seriously about it. All the things that made Vanity Fair such an ugly place were perfectly acceptable to him. He was an ordinary citizen of the town living the life everyone else was living. Even when he first heard of the judgment that awaited his present life, of the existence of another and entirely better life, of God’s love for sinners; even then he resisted. He liked his sins and didn’t believe that he would have to give them up or even that he could if he had to.

But then, as Paul puts it here, by the Spirit of God he came to “obey the form of teaching” that Christian and Faithful had given to him. He realized the enormity of his sins, how bad his life had really been – that life with which he had been so content for so long – and he entrusted himself to Jesus Christ the Son of God. And what was the result of that. Here is Hopeful in his own words.

“It made me greatly ashamed of the vileness of my former life, and confounded me with the sense of my own ignorance… It made me love a holy life, and long to do something for Jesus; yea, I thought that had I now a thousand gallons of blood in my body, I could spill it all for the sake of the Lord Jesus.” [Works, vol. iii, 156]

That says Paul is what is invariably true of a Christian. He looks back on the sinful life – even if he has been a Christian from infancy he knows by looking within himself what that life would be; there is still plenty of the remnants of it in his own life – he looks back on that sinful life and is disgusted by it and ashamed of it. He hates and wants to be rid of every last vestige of it. And he looks forward to his new life, the life the Lord Jesus has given him, and wants more and more of it and cannot wait until he has it all.

Sin always pays a wage and that wage is always death. Many people are dying who think themselves healthy. We are well aware of that in this day of medical sophistication. There are people who think themselves healthy who are, in fact carrying in their bodies a deadly disease. They are unaware of the fact that death is stalking them; there has as yet been no blood test or unexpected pain. And so it is in the spiritual realm. People have no idea that the life they are living must end in spiritual death. Their opinion of the matter, however, is of no consequence. You may believe you are healthy; it matters not if in fact you are dying. It matters even less if the symptoms of your terminal disease have already begun to appear and can be seen by any honest person looking at you. But there are also many who once were living that dying life who, as soon as they were made alive in Christ, realized that the life they had been so content with and confident of was shameful and unworthy and that God would be absolutely just to condemn them for it. Two kinds of lives, two kinds of slavery, and only two.

Paul is writing to Christians. His purpose is to encourage them to take to heart the blessing and freedom of the new life they have from Jesus Christ. They were slaves to sin and death; but no more. They are now free to live the life of God. Well, if they are free to live it, and it is a wonderful life – the life we were made to live, the life God promises to bless forever – then why not live it to the full. Like a convict who has served his time, walking out of the prison, hearing the gate clang shut behind him! Take a deep breath, feel the free air go down into your lungs, square your shoulders, and step out; press on. The Lord Christ has given you a life to live of which no one ever needs to be ashamed. That’s Paul’s argument and it is as sound as ever an argument can be!