The point of this study is difficult for most people to accept. The point is this: There is no such thing as absolute freedom for anyone. No human is free to do everything he or she may want to do. There is one being in the universe who is totally free, of course; that is God. But all others are limited by or enslaved by someone or something. As a result, the only meaningful question in this area is: Who or what are you serving? Since you and I are human beings and not God, we can never be autonomous. We must either be slaves to sin or slaves to Jesus Christ. But here is the wonderful and very striking thing: To be a slave of Jesus Christ is true freedom.
Paul was answering objections to the doctrine of salvation by grace that were coming from two sides, just as they come to us today. On one side were Jewish traditionalists with a commitment to the Law of Moses. They argued that if law is rejected as a way of salvation, which Paul obviously was doing, immorality and all other vices inevitably follow. Paul shows that it doesn’t work that way. In fact, he shows the opposite. He shows: (1) The law does not lead to righteousness, for the simple reason that it is unable to produce righteousness in anyone. The law can only condemn. (2) Paradoxically, it is only by being delivered from the law and its condemnation, through union with Jesus Christ, that we are empowered to do what the law requires. The other objection came not from Jewish legalists, but from those who reject the law not only as a way of salvation but even as an expression of proper conduct. They say, “Since we are free from law, we can do anything we please. We are free to go on sinning. In fact, we can wallow in it. Paul answers both of these errors in this chapter of Romans. Paul writes in verse 15: “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” We may ask, “Why not?”
Paul gives five sound reasons in this section: (1) Sin is slavery. The first reason Christians must not sin, even though they are not under law but under grace, is that sin is actually slavery, and it would be folly to be delivered from slavery only to return to it again. The difficulty here is that sin is rarely seen by us in this way, that is, in its true colors. Instead of being presented as slavery, it is usually described as the very essence of freedom (see Genesis 3). (2) Sin leads to death. The second reason we must not sin, even though we are not under law but under grace, is that sin leads to death. Paul says this several times in these verses (vv. 16, 21, 23). Again, this is not what we are usually told (again in Genesis 3). (3) Christians have been delivered from sin’s slavery. The third reason Christians are not to continue in sin, even though they are not under law but under grace, is that they have been delivered by Jesus from sin’s tyranny if they are truly Christians. This is so wonderful that Paul actually breaks into“praise to God” at this point (vv. 17-18). (4) The same work that has delivered Christians from sin’s slavery has also made them slaves of God, which is true freedom. The fourth of Paul’s arguments for why Christians cannot continue in sin, even though they are not under law but under grace, is that the same act of Christ that has delivered us from sin has also made us “slaves of God: (v. 22). By His act of redemption, Jesus has purchased men and women for Himself, that is, to serve Him. (5) The end of this second desirable slavery is righteousness. This leads to Paul’s last point, the fifth reason why Christians must not continue in sin, even though they have been freed from law and are under grace. It is that the end of this second, desirable slavery to God and Jesus Christ is righteousness. True Christianity can never lead to license, the accusation refuted by Paul in this passage. Since it is liberation from sin in order to become a servant of God and of Jesus Christ, Christianity must inevitably lead to what God desires, which is righteousness.
We need to look at one more word: obedience. It occurs in verse 16 and it is amplified by the verb obey, which occurs three more times in verses 16-17. The reason Paul uses the word obedience is that it carries through the image he has been developing, namely that of being a slave either to sin or of Jesus Christ. It is the function of a slave to obey his or her master. But the use of the term goes beyond this, since obedience is an essential requirement of all who would follow Christ, and not just afterward, as if we are called first to believe and then obey. Obedience is the very essence of believing. It’s what belief is all about. There is no escaping it. Either we obey sin, which leads to death, and are enslaved by it, or we have been freed from sin to serve God. If we have been freed from sin, we will serve God. There is just no other option.
Romans 6:15-18 Reflection Questions:
What’s involved in becoming a Christian, and then living the life of God’s renewed humanity, is a change of master. How can we present ourselves to God when we still seem to be under sway of the wrong master?
Paul continues with the idea of slavery here, but exhorts his readers that they are “enslaved to God’s covenant justice.” How do these terms explain a fuller understanding of the life of the faith?
What does it mean that believers are to “become obedient from the heart to the pattern of teaching to which you were committed” (v. 17)?