This morning I want to try to answer some questions that may well have been lingering in your mind since last week. Last week, we looked at Romans 6:1-14, and we laid out a picture that Paul gives us for why we don’t have to and shouldn’t go on sinning, as believers. In those verses Paul reminded us that sin is not just some action we do, thought we have, or word we speak that is not in line with the character and commandment of God, but it is also an enslaving power. Thus, when our text ended last week with Paul saying in verse 14, “For sin will have no dominion over you . . .” it’s a reminder to us that sin once did exercise dominion over us, enslaving us, like an evil tyrant to do its will. And this is so universal that Paul doesn’t have to know any of the Ephesian believers individually, for example, in order to say to all of them in Ephesians 2:1-3 that he knew that they had once been followings of the prince of the power of the air (that is, the devil) and lived in the “passions of [their] flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
He didn’t have to know them individually because he knows that everyone born since Adam is born into the world in Adam and thus inherit guilt, condemnation, and a sinful nature that enslaves them. Therefore, all people at all times and in all places are carrying out the sinful desires of their hearts because they are enslaved to sin.
But the good news that we saw last week that Paul announced to the Roman believers in Romans 6:1-14 is that we have been set free from the slavery to sin. Specifically Paul tells us that when we believed, we were united with Jesus so that what he did counts for and affects us as well. Consequently, when he died, bearing the penalty of sin and breaking the power of sin, Paul can say that we died with him “so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6) and, therefore, we need to “consider [ourselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11). Therefore, we should turn from sin and begin to walk in righteousness. And that was the call I gave to us last week.
But, as I mentioned, you may well have had some questions that lingered in your mind and heart since then. For example, what does that actually look like? Or what actually takes place within you and me at the moment of faith so that we can be said to move from being enslaved to sin to being set free from that enslavement to sin? For example, if today, someone has walked in here as an unbeliever but (through hearing the preaching of the gospel that Jesus has lived a perfect life, died for our sins, and been raised from the dead so that we can believe in him and find salvation) comes to faith in the course of this sermon, then I could talk to that individual and say, “At 10:15 AM today you were enslaved to sin so that sin had dominion over you, like an evil taskmaster, but now, as you’ve been united with Christ by faith and have died to sin, you are free from that enslavement, sin has no dominion over you, and you can live a life of obedience to Jesus.” But why? What has actually happened to that individual or what has taken place in that individual so that he can now live in righteousness?
Moreover, for those of us who have been believers for a while but find ourselves continuing to return to a certain sin, you may have realized for the first time last week, “Wait a second, I don’t have to approach this as if this sin has me in its clutches. It doesn’t. I’m free from its enslavement.” But then you began to wonder, “What does that look like? How do I actually begin living this out? How do I keep from presenting the members of my body as instruments for unrighteousness,” as Paul says, “and present my members as instruments for righteousness?”
Those are some of the questions I hope to answer this morning as we look at Romans 6:15-23. And, as he did last week, Paul began with a question to set up the argument he wanted to make. So let me this morning try to explain that question and then I’ll start to outline Paul’s argument in this text as I understand it.
He begins by writing, “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (v. 15). This is similar to the question Paul asked at the beginning of this chapter and answered in verses 1-14. But it’s slightly different. Here’s the basis for asking the question. Before we believe, we are in a place where we are enslaved in sin and under the condemnation of God. And universally, all of us attempt to walk with an understanding that if we do enough of something (that something may well vary) then we can live. Some try to achieve this by carrying out terrorist attacks while others try to do this by visiting people in nursing homes or giving money to the homeless and on and on. But in the end, it doesn’t work. Try to be justified on the basis of doing enough just doesn’t work, and it leaves you condemned. So, basically, you struggle, find no hope, and walk under the condemnation of God. That’s being “under law.”
But when we believe, we’re transferred from being “under law” to being “under grace.” And this is radically different. Now, the condemnation that our sin merited no longer hangs over us. Christ has paid the penalty for our sin. God has also credited us with the perfect righteousness of Jesus, thereby declaring us righteous before him. Thus, God’s disposition toward us isn’t condemnation and judgment but grace and salvation. As we sang earlier, we can look at our sins but know in that moment that his mercy is more. That’s what it means to be under grace.
So Paul’s question is basically, if that’s true, then should we sin? I mean, why does it matter? If God is so gracious to us and has given us a gift of righteousness so that our standing isn’t tied to our performance but to what Christ has done, then does it really matter if we sin? That’s the question that Paul is asking and answering in our text, and it may well have been a charge that some of his opponents were making against him. What then is Paul’s answer? His short answer is, “By no means” (v. 15), but his longer answer is looking into the issue of the slavery of our hearts. What then does Paul want us to see? First, he wants us to see that:
We are slaves of whatever we obey; there is no middle ground.
In other words, Paul’s answer begins by noting that sin is no small matter, and the reason it’s no small matter is that we live our lives as slaves to some master. He asks, “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (v. 16).
Paul is saying, in essence, don’t think that you can live your life from some neutral or middle ground position. Don’t think that you can stand up here and reach to your right and obey Christ but then reach over to your left and pursue sin. That middle ground is an impossibility. You’re going to be an obedient slave to either sin or to obedience, righteousness, and God. You can’t do both.
Now, Paul recognizes that the imagery of slavery is an imperfect analogy. He writes in verse 19, “I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”
And we see what Paul is saying. Jesus himself says in John 15:15, “No longer do I call you servants [or slaves], for a servant does not known what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” And Paul knew that. Therefore, he’s saying, “I’m speaking with the limitations of using this imperfect analogy (of slavery) not to say that by following Christ we are like slaves in every way because Jesus pointed out clearly a way in which we are not like slaves.” But what he is saying is that we’re like slaves in that when we pursue sin, sin demands more and more so that, as Paul notes, lawless leads to more lawlessness, and when we follow Christ and obey him, he demands more and more obedience so that our righteousness leads to sanctification. Neither sin nor God say to us, “Feel free to dabble.” They both compel you to follow them more and more.
So, that’s Paul’s first point: there’s no middle ground, we are slaves to whatever we obey—whether sin or God. But now, I think Paul helps us see something that we may have missed and that helps us answer a question that may have been lingering in our hearts over the last week. He shows us that:
Our slavery takes place at the level of the heart (i.e. our desires).
Notice what Paul says in verses 17-18. He writes, “But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”
Now, this could be easy for us to miss, but I think it is key. Notice what Paul parallels in these verses. He says in verse 17 that we were “once slaves to sin” meaning that we no longer are. Why? Well, he answers in verse 18 because we have “been set free from sin.” Once slaves but now set free. But look at the other half of what he says. We who were once slaves to sin have become “obedient from the heart” to the teaching of Christ. What do you mean, Paul? I think he answers at the end of verse 18 when he says that we “have become slaves of righteousness.”
In other words, Paul is telling us, I believe, what he means by being enslaved—whether to sin or righteousness. And he shows us by unveiling what slavery to righteousness looks like. It looks like obeying Christ “from the heart.”
That is to say, we find ourselves slaves of God and slaves to obedience because the Lord takes hold of our hearts (or, we might say, our desires) and directs them toward him. Let me give you an example. There’s a story of a young man coming to Martin Luther because he’s struggling with assurance of his salvation. He just isn’t sure he is saved. So Luther tells him, “Okay, here’s what you need to do. Take tonight and just sin like crazy. Every sin you can think of, do it.” And the young man (more than a little caught off-guard by this response, I’m sure) answers, “I can’t do that!” And Luther responds, “Right. Now ask yourself why.”
What Luther was showing this young man was that his testimony that he couldn’t sin was testimony that God had taken him captive to himself, as his own, by taking hold of his heart. The Lord had captured his heart and his desires. He had been saved. And that’s what Paul is saying here. He’s showing these Roman believers that the way they show they are slaves of God and righteousness is that they are obeying “from the heart.” They’re actually fulfilling their deepest hearts’ desires when they obey. And they’re doing this because God has worked the miracle of giving them new hearts and changing their desires.
But, if we’re right in saying that, then we should see it on the other side of the equation, shouldn’t we? That is, if we’re enslaved to righteousness because God takes hold of our hearts (or, again, desires), then we should see testimony in the Scripture that the means by which we were enslaved to sin was by sin taking hold of and controlling our desires. And that is precisely what we do see. Notice what Paul said back in verse 12: “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions [or desires].”
Do you see? Sin is wielding its control over us through our desires, making you obey sinful desires. But are we sure? I mean we’re just seeing this in a couple of places in these verses. Well, notice what Paul says in Ephesians 4:22, “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires.” And it’s not isolated to Paul’s writings. Peter will exhort his hearers in 1 Peter 1:14, “Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance.”
Therefore, before we were converted, we were enslaved to sin through having corrupt, deceitful desires. We were enslaved from within, if you will. But then what happened? Well, remember the Lord’s new covenant promises. He said in Ezekiel 36:26-27, “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”
How is the Lord going to cause us to walk in his statutes and obey his rules? It’s not by some external means pressing on us but by changing us from within. He’s going to remove our old heart give us a new heart, a new spirit, and his own Spirit so that he alters our passions and desires. After all, that’s the enslaving power sin had on us. It held us captive through deceitful desires. But the Lord, as he justifies us, also changes us from within. That’s what Paul is saying when he tells the Roman believers that they were once slaves of sin but have now been set free from that slavery so that they’ve become obedient “from the heart.”
The Lord removes the penalty of sin in our justification, and he removes the power of sin over us by giving us new hearts, new spirits, and his own Spirit so that with new desires we are no longer enslaved to sin but can (and want to) submit ourselves as slaves of righteousness and slaves of God. And this brings us to thinking about some application.
Presenting ourselves as slaves to righteousness then means cultivating and feeding those new desires.
After Paul says in the first half of verse 19 that the analogy he’s using isn’t perfect, he goes on to say in the last half of verse 19, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”
That imagery of presenting ourselves is vivid, isn’t it? It’s like walking up to some master and saying, “Here. Fashion my heart and desires.” And that’s what we’re doing when we pursue sin. We’re saying to sin, “Cultivate my heart to crave sin more and more.” That’s why Paul says that lawlessness leads to more lawlessness. If you feed your heart sin, you’re actually cultivating a desire for sin. If you feed it pornographic images, you’ll crave pornographic images from your heart, and that’s just one of many examples we could use. And one time you were hopelessly enslaved to that. But no more. Now, you desire holiness, don’t you? So, stop presenting your heart and mind and body to be fashioned by sin and enslaved to it once more. Fast from and starve sin.
But there is another side. We not only work to fast from and starve sin, but we work to feed and cultivate our hearts desire for Christ and all that is in him. That is, do not say only, “I will turn away from drinking of the shallow nasty water in that broken cistern” (i.e. sin) but turn and begin drinking deep from the fountain of living water (i.e. the treasure that is Christ and all in him). Because as lawlessness leads to more lawlessness, so righteousness leads to sanctification.
You see, the Lord has given us new hearts, but until the resurrection we will not be glorified. Consequently, Paul can tell us we’re no longer enslaved to sin but also feel the need to exhort us: “Let not sin . . . reign” (v. 12). Yes, you can hear of a blessing that has come to another, and the desire to covet may leap up within you upon getting that news, but you must turn from it. Starve it. And turn and feed upon remembering and delighting in all that you have in Christ and obey him. When the temptation to lust pops up, fast from it, and feast upon Christ and the lasting pleasures that are at his right hand forever more. And cultivate that. That’s what presenting yourself to righteousness looks like so that your heart is more and more enslaved to righteousness. Put off and put on. Put to death and cultivate godly living. Starve and feed. Fast and feast. And you can do this because you’ve been united with one who died to sin and lives to God, and with him you’ve died to sin and have been raised to walk in newness of life.
And finally, one last word.
Don’t miss that this carries eternal weight and significance.
Paul ends by showing the consequences of our pursuit. He says, “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 20-23).
Brothers and sisters, don’t pursue sin or even trifle with it. It merely brings shame and in the end death and hell. You know that, don’t you? This is who you once were. You once were enslaved to sin and running toward God’s wrath. But you’re not enslaved to that anymore, so, turn from it. Repent and look to Christ in faith this morning and realize the forgiveness and righteousness you have in him. Delight in him. Walk with him. Treasure him. Remember his love for you and love him. And in that, obey him.
And let us begin that this morning as we come to the table, ironically, literally feeding ourselves as a tool of remembering that Christ lived for us, died for our sins, and was raised for our justification. And as we remember him, let us ask that he would help us to taste his goodness and cultivate a heart that loves him and longs to obey him more and more. Let us present ourselves as instruments for righteousness, leading to sanctification and life. Amen.