Sunday Evening Bible Study: Romans 6:15-19 “New Standing, New Service”

19 Dec

We’ve been looking for the past couple of weeks at the aspect of our salvation we call sanctification. Salvation includes our past forgiveness of sin, our present growth in holiness and our future perfection. Romans 1-4 covers our justification in depth while the focus of Romans 5-8 is on our sanctification. It is of course vital to understand as best we can what Jesus has done on the cross and in the resurrection so that we can have assurance of faith and so that we can understand how we are to live in the here and now.
So far we have concluded that we are to live as those who have been forgiven and who are being transformed. In other words, we are in our daily experience to be becoming what we already are. We do that by counting ourselves forgiven through faith in Christ and by not yielding ourselves to sin. What Paul has already begun to explain he now brings out even more clearly through an example which seems strange to us but which would have been very clear to his readers: the example of slavery.

Paul doesn’t begin this passage with slavery though. He begins with another rhetorical question.
Romans 6:15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!
Remember back to verse 1? “Are we to sin that grace may abound?” Since where sin increased, grace increased all the more, some thought or feared that others would think that we should go on and live any way we want because God would bring glory to Himself by forgiving our sin. Paul answered that question with the strong negative, me genoito, “No way!” “May it never be!” “By no means!” Don’t misunderstand me. Grace is not a license to sin. Now here in verse 15 he takes up a similar argument. Should we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? Since we are not under the law as verse 14 said but under grace, will we not be more tempted to sin, since being under those commands no longer reigns us in and keeps us in line? This, I think, is the line of reasoning he imagines from his opponents. And what is his answer again? Me genoito, “by no means!”
Verse 15 reads almost exactly the same in every English translation and the reason for this is that the Greek text is very straightforward and about the only difference I can see in the translations is the KJV, which inserts the word “the” before law. The purpose for that insertion seems to be to clarify that we are talking about the law of Moses, the Old Testament law. But it is clear from the rest of the passage that we are talking about that law, so the extra word is unnecessary.
Paul is again dealing with the objection that living under grace is a license to sin. And just as he did earlier in chapter 6, he will take the same pattern in the end of the chapter. In 5:21, Paul proclaimed grace. In 6:1 he raised the objection and in 6:2-14 he answered the objection. So here in 6:14 he proclaimed grace. In 6:15 he raises the objection and in 6:16-23 he will answer the objection. The biggest distinction in his answers is probably that Paul’s answer to the first question was very theological and his second is more of an illustration. Whereas for the last couple of weeks we went into great detail, with word studies and the like, now we will focus more on concepts and the illustrations Paul is seeking to bring.
Like a good preacher of teacher, Paul doesn’t avoid deep theology but he also seeks to illustrate it in a way his hearers will understand. Depth with clarity is a good goal for any teacher of the Word.

16 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?
So Paul begins to try to illustrate his teaching about sanctification by talking about slavery. Now slavery is present in our world in much more profound ways than most of us know but the majority of us are not touched directly by slavery. For most Americans, slavery is something they associate with the Civil War era and they think of it in particular connection to the enslavement of those of African descent. Slavery is simply far away from most of our minds. So at best Paul’s argument is something most people in our day can barely relate to and at worst Paul’s argument is one which would be offensive to many in our culture.
But in Paul’s everyone in the Greco-Roman world would have known about and been personally impacted by slavery. There were different kinds of slavery. Some people sold themselves into slavery as a way to survive. Some were put into slavery as a punishment and sometimes slavery happened when one people was conquered by another. So the institution of slavery in Paul’s day was diverse, but widespread. Some studies estimate that up to one third of the population of Corinth were slaves.
Slavery was also central in the life of Rome. There were at least as high a percentage of slaves in Rome as in Corinth and many studies say there were more slaves in Rome. It is almost a certainty that many believers in the church in Rome were slaves, whether against their will or voluntarily.
The key word here seems to be the word “offer.” Paul has in mind here the voluntary slavery not of a conquered soldier but of a person who offers themselves to another because they see it as a path to survival. But to be a slave to sin does not lead to survival, it leads to death. So often sin promises good but its promises fall short. The great church father John Chrysostom said, “Do not then run into such a pit, or willingly give thyself up. For in the case of wars, soldiers are often given up even against their will. But in this case, unless thou desertest of thyself, there is no one who will get the better of thee.”
We are slaves to the one we serve. Now since the earlier part of the chapter said we have died to sin, we see that submitting ourselves to sin is pure nonsense. Why would we serve that which through Christ we have died to? We show what has our heart by what we submit our heart to. Here it is either sin or obedience and the result is either death or righteousness. We might expect the result to be life here but it is not. There are many times in Paul’s writings when he sets death and life next to each other but here it is death and righteousness. The reason I think Paul wrote it this way is because he is trying to show that grace does result in a righteous life. When one is living by faith in what Jesus has done, he or she will seek to submit their lives to Jesus and this submission to Him and not to sin will result in a righteous life, a holy way of living. So again, free grace is not a pathway to sin but is a doorway to righteous living.
Now that is Paul’s main point in verse 16, but I think there is another point here which is very helpful for our culture to recognize. It was a point Bob Dylan made in a song from years ago in his stage where he said he was a Christian. He had a song called, “You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody.” This is the reality for every human being. This is something Adam and Eve didn’t like and it’s something we don’t like especially in our country. All of us are either servants of God or of sin. There no absolute freedom from being under authority. Sometimes unbelievers give the excuse that they can not come to Jesus because they would have to give up their freedom. This is a place where we can engage them to say, “You are not free right now. You are a slave to sin. In trusting Jesus, you are not giving up your freedom, you are moving from a ruthless, evil master to a good master.” The master we obey reveals who we really serve. This verse blows away the notion that freedom from authority is real and that we can have a life where we are calling the shots.

17 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,
But thanks be to God. Yes. The Greek is very clear that this is not just, “thank God” or “praise the Lord” but it is “thanks be to God.” So the emphasis here is on what God has done. What has he done? He has changed the believers so that they who were once slaves of sin are now obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which they were committed. How can we get a new heart? Only by God’s grace. We can serve sin from the heart before we are saved because our hearts are darkened and hardened. But after conversion God, as Jeremiah says, takes away our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh, so that we can obey from the heart. But now what is it we obey? Is it the law? No. Paul tells us that the law makes us conscious of sin but he does not point to the law as that which we now follow. No, Paul points them to the standard or form of teaching to which they had been committed. I like the KJV and NAS which say form and I like the new NIV even better which says “pattern.” The word here comes from a Greek word for a mold. You pour the liquid into the mold or the pattern and it hardens to make the object. Remember that these early believers did not yet have the New Testament. They were depending on the teaching of the apostles and on passing down truth from one to another.
The way this verse is written is very instructive, because while not taking away from us all responsibility, it puts the power clearly in God’s hands. The second aspect of this verse which points to this truth is the last phrase, where Paul says, the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. Not, which was entrusted to you, but to which you were entrusted. Paul had been entrusted with the gospel, as he wrote in 1 Ti. 1:11 and now he entrusts it to co-workers in the ministry. But he entrusts the Romans to it. The great commentator C. K. Barrett captures this most effectively when he writes, “One expects the doctrine to be handed over to the hearers, not the hearers to the doctrine. But Christians are not (like the Rabbis) masters of a tradition; they are themselves created by the word of God, and remain in subjection to it” (Barrett, p. 124). Matt Chandler has a new book about the church called Creature of the Word and I think that is something of what Paul is saying here in Romans. We as a people are formed by the truth about Jesus. This means that the church, though filled with people of different ages and backgrounds, is shaped through its attention to the truth about Jesus.

18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
Having been set free from sin, we become slaves of righteousness. So again, we don’t move from under the authority of sin to under no authority, we move from the authority of sin to the authority of Christ. We trade one kind of slavery for another but again, it is the transition from an evil master to a good master. Grace doesn’t leave us under no master but puts us under a good, new master. NT Wright gives a good example of what Paul is saying in verse 18. “Paul knows that the freedom which the Christian enjoys is not that kind of thing—just as the freedom you enjoy when you pass your driving test and have ‘the freedom of the road’ does not mean that you are free to drive as fast as you like through towns and villages, or to drive on the wrong side of the road, or to drive on railway tracks or across ploughed fields. With new freedoms, you always get new frameworks; the frameworks constrict one kind of freedom (the freedom to do anything at all) in order to enhance another kind (if everybody drove wherever they pleased nobody would be free to drive anywhere very much).”
Robert Mounce says it well when he says, “Freedom is not the lack of all restraint but deliverance from everything that would keep a person from becoming what God intended that person to be.”
Bob Utley adds, “The goal of free grace is a godly life. Justification is both a legal pronouncement and an impetus for personal righteousness. God wants to save us and change us so as to reach others! Grace does not stop with us!”

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 to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.
Paul tells us he is speaking in human terms because of the natural limitations of his readers. Paul has to use illustrations because we are not able to easily grasp the truth of Paul’s words when he speaks theologically. These illustrations are given to help us understand but Paul seems to be saying to some degree that these illustrations are limited. In this case the illustration is only partially right because we are not only slaves but also sons and daughters. The language of Romans 8 is going to strongly pick up this idea of sonship but here the word is about slavery. Both of these things are true, we are slaves and sons. We are free from bondage but free to serve.
So again the contrast is made in verse 19, this time with even more detail. You once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness and it was just a greater spiral down into lawlessness, so now the command is to present ourselves to righteousness with the result that we will grow in holiness. In both cases a status produced a way of life. Notice the word members, which we looked at last time. In the individual elements of our lives as we submit to impurity we move toward lawlessness but when we submit to righteousness we grow in holiness.
Much of what the third-century Church father Origen wrote is not trustworthy, but he powerfully describes the essence of this verse in the ancient world. “Paul … requires the same zeal from the convert as was present in him as a sinner. Once your feet ran to the temples of demons; now they run to the church of God. Once they ran to spill blood; now they run to set it free. Once your hands were stretched out to steal what belonged to others; now they are stretched out for you to be generous with what is your own. Once your eyes looked at women or at something which was not yours with lust in them; but now they look at the poor, the weak and the helpless with pity in them. Your ears used to delight in hearing empty talk or in attacking good people; now they have turned to hearing the Word of God, to the exposition of the law and to the learning of the knowledge of wisdom. Your tongue, which was accustomed to bad language, cursing and swearing has now turned to praising the Lord at all times; it produces healthy and honest speech, in order to give grace to the hearers and speak the truth to its neighbor. (Origen, cited in Bray, p. 170) ”
Righteousness leads to holiness; sin as a master promotes wickedness. Righteousness reverses the moral direction taken by sin and leads to sanctification. In both cases a process is under way. Christians who entertain sin find themselves in an ethical tug-of-war they are bound to lose. The answer to this conflict is practical; surrender your body to those activities that are good and pure rather than to those that defile.
Bob Utley says, “So what we have is both a gift and a command! It is a position (objective) and an activity (subjective)! It is an INDICATIVE (a statement) and an IMPERATIVE (a command)! It comes at the beginning, but does not mature until the end (cf. Phil. 1:6; 2:12–13).”

NT Wright says, There is a sharp challenge there for Christians in every age and generation, not least those who have come to faith as adults. Think of the ways in which, in your former life, you employed a lot of energy in going after things which you now regard as wrong. Are you using that same energy, imagination and initiative in working for God’s kingdom, in extending his covenant purposes in the world?

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