At my home church in Colorado, East Boulder Baptist, I recently had the chance to preach on a fascinating passage from Romans that helps shed some light on how we are to approach living the Christian life. Working in campus ministry at CU-Boulder, one of my main focuses is in the area of discipleship. It really represents the proverbial “other side of the coin” in relation to evangelism. Because after someone has heard the good news of the Gospel and made a decision to follow Christ, the real process of the Christian life begins—which is living out a personal relationship with Christ on a daily basis. In Romans 6:15-23, Paul talks about how the Christian should live in light of the law on one hand, and the freedom that we have in Christ on the other. This is such an important passage, and so rich in theological detail, but it’s not just of historical interest. Because I believe that today in 2016, as much as in the 1st century AD when Paul was writing, Christians are still struggling to not fall into the ditches on either side of the road when it comes to how they should embody their faith. On one side, there exists legalism, where people get confused into thinking that if they just do the right things, they can earn God’s favor and be a good Christian through sheer determination and force of will. This is a profound misunderstanding of what it means to trust in and follow Jesus. Paul himself was once embroiled in this type of thinking, as he reveals in Philippians 3:4-7. But then he gradually realized that the law, and adherence to its principles couldn’t save him. Yet on the opposite extreme, Paul is also dealing with people who say that since we’re Christians, and we’re no longer bound by the Old Testament laws, and so we can just do whatever we please. This is a heretical doctrine technically known as antinomianism, and it’s summed up in that first verse of the passage. Romans 6:15—“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not!”
So here is the challenge that Paul faces in writing this letter for the church’s instruction, and that we as Christians still face today. How can we understand that we don’t have to judge ourselves according to our works, or by how well our actions correlate to a standard of ethics and morality—of religious rules?? That’s trying to earn God’s favor through human efforts—and that’s the essence of legalism. A few months back, I had the opportunity to participate in a simulcast of David Platt’s “Secret Church” at East Boulder Baptist. It proved to be a wonderful and informative evening, and the title of Platt’s talk was “A Global Gospel in a world of religions.” He discussed the principal belief systems around the world other than Christianity, including Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Animism. And what all of these systems of belief have in common is that they to some extent or another all teach a means of achieving spiritual favor through human effort—in effect what we might call various forms of legalism.
But if we strive to avoid legalism, on the other hand, how can we also understand that freedom from the law doesn’t mean that sin doesn’t count, or isn’t to be taken seriously?? That’s the problem with antinomianism. And the answer to how to navigate down that faith road and not end up in either ditch is to embrace the love and grace that Christ offers us. To live the Christian life is to enter into a love relationship with our Savior Jesus. And that love Christ offers, and the grace to cover our sins and shortcomings overrides a legalistic, fear-based view of Christianity that’s all about rules and the penalties that come from breaking them. Then at the same time, a love for Christ is stronger than any reckless desires which might lead us to abuse our freedom from the law and needlessly indulge in sin. Between the two extremes then of legalism, and an overly-casual attitude towards sin—I believe that love can guide us safely. When I think of the power of love to affect change, I’m reminded of a timeless children’s story I first read ages ago. It’s one of Aesop’s fables–“The North Wind and the Sun.” The mighty North Wind decides to challenge the Sun to a test of strength. Their object will be to compel a passing traveler to remove his cloak. The wind thinks this will be a fairly easy matter, and begins to blow with all its force, intending to rip the coat right off the traveler’s back. But of course the harder the gusts come, the more the traveler hangs on to his coat, and grips it tight to his body. Then it’s the Sun’s turn, and after a few minutes of its loving, gentle warmth, the traveler happily removes his cloak. That fable illustrates the power of love to win out over any other type of force. The power of Christ’s love and grace can ultimately help safeguard against either legalism or antinomianism.
But to better understand the dangers of both these positions, let’s proceed further into the passage. Verse 16 reveals a somewhat unflattering truth about the human condition, but one that is accurate nonetheless. Because even as Americans, living in an open, democratic society, with all of the civil rights and liberties that we enjoy—we are still all slaves. Listen to Romans 6:16—“Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness?” In other words, we will all serve something—either our sinful desires, or the righteous model that’s offered to us through Christ. Now I know that’s not what anyone really wishes to hear, or believe about themselves. It was the same way with the Israelites—they were incredulous, and indignant even to say the least when Jesus, speaking in John 8, tells them much the same thing. John 8:35—“Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.”
So the question at hand here is who do you wish to serve?? Martin Luther, the great German theologian, and father of the Protestant Reformation envisioned it this way—he talked about all humans being like horses that would be ridden either by God or the devil. So in Luther’s estimation we are each made to serve someone. Now there are some people who have a little stronger conception of human free will. Such persons might say—“I make my own choices”, whereas the image of a slave would seem to suggest someone who doesn’t have much agency or decision-making ability. But consider this little poem from R. Lee Sharpe. It’s one that I quite like—since I first heard it quoted by my pastor back in Alabama several years ago. “Isn’t it strange how princes and kings, and clowns that caper in sawdust rings, and common people, like you and me, are builders for eternity? Each is given a list of rules; a shapeless mass; a bag of tools. And each must fashion, ere life is flown, a stumbling block, or a Stepping-Stone.” Sharpe’s brief poem captures essentially the same idea that Luther was trying to convey, just from a somewhat different viewpoint. Because even if we focus more on the idea of our ability to choose and exercise our free will, we still have to make decisions about what we are going to value and seek to accomplish with the limited time we are allotted in this life. And if we end up serving our own selfish, and sinful desires, there’s a good chance that our life’s legacy will prove to be more of a stumbling block for those who come after. However, if we live to serve God, and then by extension others, we can hope that our legacy may be an encouragement, a stepping stone to those who’ll follow. So back to Paul’s central question—will we be slaves to sin, or to righteousness?? Next, he’s going to show us what the results of each decision look like.
Romans 6:19-21 illustrates the final consequences of being slaves to sin. Paul doesn’t mince words here, but instead wants to clearly demonstrate what our patterns of sin will culminate in if they remain unchecked. Romans 6:21—“What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death.” Then consider James 1:14-15, which in equally stark terms lays out the result if we follow through with what might be termed the “life-cycle” of sin. “Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death.” Sin ultimately leads to death—you really can’t put it in much simpler terms, can you?? That noted Evangelical pastor, writer, and theologian, Francis Schaeffer once observed: “Every man has built a roof over his head to shield himself at the point of tension…The Christian lovingly, must remove the shelter and allow the truth of the external world and of what man is to beat upon him. When the roof is off, each man must stand naked and wounded before the truth of what is…He must come to know that his roof is a false protection from the storm of what is.” Sin, and its consequences cannot be sugar-coated. We have to understand what the ugly end result, the fearful final product will be if we give ourselves over to sinfulness, and become its slaves. So Schaeffer’s efforts to “remove people’s roofs” is just another attempt to get them to see the flaws and potential problems in their non-Christian worldviews. C.S. Lewis, in his classic work The Screwtape Letters gives us an ingenious series of dialogues between two devils in hell as they try to tempt a man termed “the patient” towards his own damnation. There’s a great line in there which pretty much sums up how Satan attempts to ensnare us in sin, and what the end result is: “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula…To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens our Father’s heart”
Well now that we have a bleak picture of what it means to be a slave to sin, let’s turn to the positive kind of slavery that Paul wants us to embrace—to be a slave to righteousness. This is described in the passage in verses 17 and 18. Now first of all, we must understand that there is only one way to be set free from the power of sin. We’ve just discussed how destructive sin can be, how it leads ultimately to death, and so how can we hope to escape its power? We can’t do it through the law alone—you can read through the whole narrative of the Old Testament and witness how the Children of Israel tried that approach and failed. Or look at the life of Paul himself—a man who was profoundly obedient to the law, and yet found that it couldn’t change his heart. We can’t escape sin through our own determination or will-power. Indeed many of us could probably identify with the profound frustration that Paul expressed in Romans 7:19—“For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil that I will not to do, that I practice.” Relying on the law and our own human efforts to save us from sin is the essence of the problem with legalism, as we’ve already discussed. It is a flaw that many other world religions possess too. Yet on the other hand, some people try to escape sin by pretending in essence that it doesn’t really exist. They profess a kind of sloppy idealism, where if we just do whatever we want, and wish all other problems away, then we don’t have to face consequences, and live by any particular standards. We’ve already given a name to this behavior—antinomianism. To put it in slightly less theological, and more contemporary terms, these are the kind of people who might cite the phrase “all you need is love” in response to all the world’s problems. As a big of a Beatles fan as I am, I have to say that this quote from one of their most famous songs isn’t quite sufficient. Yes, we do need love—but what kind of love? And as unpopular as it is to say, love is meaningless if it’s directed indiscriminately towards everything—if it is not accompanied by standards, even by judgment. We love the idea of standing up for human rights, but that then means we should hate other things, like human trafficking. Or we can love a friend, but hate the bad choices they are making, the addictions that are ruining their lives. But in a world where people have rejected the idea of universal or absolute standards, how can we then turn around and judge certain practices or customs? To what authority will we appeal to? If all we need is love—to whose standard and idea of love are we turning towards?
I say all this to bring us to a clear conclusion—only through the love, and atoning work of Christ, and Christ alone, can we be saved from the power of sin. We simply cannot do it by ourselves!! Then, as Paul says in Romans 6:18—“Having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.” So how do we pursue such a life of righteousness? Well maybe a story, a literary anecdote, will help to illustrate for us. O. Henry was perhaps the greatest short story writer in American literature, and he became particularly known for crafting stories with unexpected, surprise endings. One of his finest, which I still remember from the time I first came across it as a high school student, was entitled “A Retrieved Reformation”, first published in 1903. It concerns the story of one Jimmy Valentine who at the beginning of the narrative, is just about to be released from prison via a special pardon from the governor. The warden suggests that he try to live a straight life from here on out, but hardly has he been released from the penitentiary than Valentine resumes his old habits as a thief, one who specializes in safe-cracking to be exact. He pulls of a few heists but then, as in many a good story, love intervenes. Jimmy falls in love with a girl in the small town of Elmore, Arkansas, and he’s motivated to begin pursuing the honest life of a shoe salesman. His love, Annabelle, is ironically enough the daughter of the town’s banker. Anyways, Jimmy changes his name to Ralph Spencer, as symbolic of this new start in life. And he writes a letter to an old friend, planning to give away his old set of custom made burglar’s tools to signify a clean break with his criminal past. In the letter he says: “I want to make you a present of my kit of tools. I know you’ll be glad to get them—you couldn’t duplicate the lot for a thousand dollars. Say, Billy, I’ve quit the old business—a year ago. I’ve got a nice store. I’m making an honest living, and I’m going to marry the finest girl on earth two weeks from now. It’s the only life, Billy—the straight one. I wouldn’t touch a dollar of another man’s money now for a million. After I get married I’m going to sell out and go West, where there won’t be so much danger of having old scores brought up against me. I tell you, Billy, she’s an angel. She believes in me; and I wouldn’t do another crooked thing for the whole world.” Now so far so good—it seems that the newly christened Ralph Spencer truly is on his way to a second chance in life. But our pasts have a way of pursuing and even overtaking us, and so it is with Ralph Spencer. For you see there is a detective named Ben Price, who helped to arrest the former Jimmy Valentine, and has been back on his trail since. He’s hoping this time to put Valentine away for a good, long sentence.
Right after Ralph writes the letter, planning to give away his burglary tools, he and Annabelle are visiting her father’s bank, and at that very moment, Ben Price has arrived in town, and is simply waiting for the most opportune time to arrest the real Jimmy Valentine, alias Ralph Spencer. Then, one of Annabelle’s young nieces is accidentally locked into the big bank vault. The combination hasn’t been set yet, and no one can open it. No one, that is, but Ralph Spencer. He knows what is at stake. He realizes fully that if he opens the safe to rescue the young girl, with Ben Price there watching, he will fully reveal the truth—that Ralph Spencer is nothing more than Jimmy Valentine, the former bank robber. Everything, his new life, his impending marriage to Annabelle, his attempt at repentance and reformation, will be over. Yet he doesn’t hesitate. Using the set of tools he was preparing to give away, Ralph cracks the safe in a matter of minutes to rescue the young girl. He then turns to the figure of Ben Price, who’s been looming in the bank doorway the whole time, watching, and prepares to turn himself in. But then, Ben looks him over and simply announces “Don’t believe I recognize you. Your buggy’s waiting for you, ain’t it?” In a remarkable turn of events, Jimmy has been forgiven by this man who’d come to arrest him. Because Ben Price sees through the selfless act of Jimmy cracking the safe to save the girl that this man really has changed, and has been redeemed. Just as the love of a woman helps to redeem Jimmy Valentine from a life of crime, we all have the opportunity to also be redeemed by love—but by the infinitely greater love of God. If we can experience freedom from sin, and the promise of eternal life through the sacrifice made by Christ, then that should provide all of the motivation, all of the encouragement we need to pursue a life of obedient service to righteousness, rather than to our sinful desires.
The last verse in our passage, Romans 6:23, is effectively a summary of everything we’ve already talked about. It lays out the stark truth about sin, but then offers us the unimaginable hope that comes through the gift of salvation in Christ. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Each of us today has this priceless opportunity to experience life in the “State of Grace.” We don’t have to live under the pressure of a legalistic, performance-driven vision of trying to please God with our actions. We also can avoid the fallacy of simply indulging in sinfulness, which is a destructive path that will ultimately lead us to death. Now is maintaining this balance always going to be easy?? Of course not, but that is why we have the Holy Spirit living in us, to guide, to teach, and to mold us ever more into a pattern of Christ-likeness. That is why we have Christian communities, churches, where we can hold one another accountable, and encourage each other in this pilgrimage of faith. And that’s why we have God’s Word, to store away in our hearts, so that we may live according to its principles. We should all strive to seek after the model presented to us by Christ in Matthew 20:27-28. Here Jesus says “Whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave, just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” The Word of God tells us plainly that we will serve something—either our sinful natures, or the way of righteousness as exemplified by Christ. So let us pursue lives that are oriented to the love and service of God and others. God has served us—so we should each also take up that role. And in doing so, we can find the same joy and purpose as Paul by pursuing the path of Christlikeness no longer as slaves to sin, but as faithful servants in obedience to righteousness. Amen!