When last we left off at Romans chapter 6 verse 14, Paul made this statement, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” Paul will define what he means in chapter seven, but before he does so, he know he has just introduced a can of worms-a can he will deal with immediately because it is one of those criticisms of grace that is still thrown around today.
Basically, the question raised is this: if we are not under the law, then what incentive do we have for doing good? If we are saved completely and totally by what God has done and by nothing that we do, is there any obligation to live a holy and upright life? The law is supposed to keep us in check. It’s supposed to be a deterrent for behavior. What if you knew you never had to worry about getting another traffic ticket? Does that give you licence to drive all over the road, run over pedestrians, and cause general mayhem?
Paul’s response is swift, “God forbid that you think this!”
Paul then goes into his next argument to show why a Christian is still obligated to live a holy and just life seeking to please God by following His will as it is revealed in the law. He begins with these words in verse 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?”
Now, what I am about to say, you are not going to like. You are going to kind of be like the woman in this joke:
For months Bill had been Lynn’s devoted admirer. Now, at long last, he had collected up sufficient courage to ask her the most momentous of all questions.
“There are quite a lot of advantages to being a bachelor,” Bill began, “but there comes a time when one longs for the companionship of another being, a being who will regard one as perfect, as an idol; whom one can treat as one’s absolute own; who will be kind and faithful when times are hard; who will share one’s delights and sorrows.”
To his delight, Bill saw a sympathetic gleam in Lynn’s eyes. Then she nodded in agreement. Finally, Lynn responded, “I think it’s a great idea! Can I help you choose which puppy to buy?”
I know it’s funny, but Lynn saw something in Bill’s comments that were not thrilling to her. She saw in Bill’s comments a form of slavery. She was not happy with that, and it captures what St. Paul is actually saying here. He is saying that when we commit to something, we become a slave to it.
As I said before, this is not something we like to hear. We like to think of ourselves as being free; without constraint. And to an extent we are. We do have freedom to choose who we will serve. You may tell me, “But I don’t serve anyone or anything.” That’s not true. I can prove it. You are a citizen of the United States of America. You are also a citizen of the state of Texas. By virtue of becoming a citizen of the U.S. and of the state of Texas, you have submitted yourself to their authority and have agreed to follow their laws. You serve them both. If you want to say that you are free within both of these entities, I encourage you not to file your federal income taxes or refuse to pay your property taxes. See? You are not totally free. You have submitted to their rule.
The same can be said for whatever you choose to be involved in. I am somewhat dreading the day when my kids want to participate in sports. Of course, Dawna and I will agree to support them, but then we will be enslaved to them. We will have to make sure we get the kids to practice. We will have to make sure we get them to their games and to cheer them on. Our schedules will no longer be our own. We will be enslaved to our choice to support our children. Do you see how this works? Whatever you commit to will become your master.
Reflecting upon what he has just written about our representatives, Paul then says our choice basically boils down to two things: sin or God. Either one of these things will ultimately be our master. I will show you how in just a moment, but let me point out that Paul recognizes that this is not a perfect analogy. He says, “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations.” It’s tough to get our heads around God, God’s grace, how we are free from the demands of the law and yet called to be obedient to it all at the same time. It’s quite head spinning.
Add this to how loaded the term slavery has become in the U.S., and you have another problem. When we hear the word slavery, we think back to the times before the Civil War. We think back to the times before the Civil Right’s Movement. If I had been born back then, my family would not look like it does right now. Slavery connotes racism; human ownership; thinking of people as less than human. We abhor it. Folks in biblical times didn’t like it either, but it wasn’t quite as ugly as it was in America’s history. Oftentimes people would sell themselves into slavery to pay off their debts. Through working, they could earn their freedom. Paul’s audience would have known this. Those who were slaves would understand what he was saying. Those who had been slaves would understand as well. They wouldn’t necessarily be happy about it, but they would get it. I think many of us can also relate–even though it is an imperfect analogy.
Now, let’s return to Paul’s argument. Again, Paul says that we are slaves to either sin or to God. There’s no in between ground. You may scratch your head and think, “Sure there is. There is plenty of gray areas in life.” Let me try and show you why in this case, there isn’t, and I will use some of what Paul says to show it.
Paul makes an intriguing comment, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death.” What does this mean? First off, Paul says there is a sense of freedom when we reject God’s mastery over our lives. You no longer feel obligated to live a holy life. You no longer feel obligated to try and follow the Ten Commandments. You feel as though a burden is lifted. But, you are not truly free.
Remember what I said before: you are free to choose what you serve. You are free to choose your commitments. Let’s say you choose to attend a football game on Sunday instead of going to church. Why? Let’s not kid ourselves. “Because I enjoy the football game much more than I enjoy church.” Whose interests are you looking out for? Your own. If you decide to become a health nut and exercise; get in shape; eat the right foods; drink the right drinks, why are you doing this? For the benefit of your health. Whose interests are you looking out for? Again, your own.
At this point, you may say, “I see your point, but what about working for justice in the world? What about feeding the hungry? What about caring for those in need? Those are not about my self interest. I am working for the sake of others.” Indeed, you are, but here is a critical test for you to see if you are indeed working for others or for your own desire: how do you feel toward those who do not share your passion for justice; feeding the hungry; and caring for others? Do you become angry and upset with them? Do you hold them in contempt? If you do, your self is still wrapped up in the process, and you are not working for the pure joy of doing what is right in helping others. You are still serving your self-interest.
With all of these choices, your self-interest and desires are dominating. You are serving them. And going all the way back to chapter five, we see that such selfishness is rooted and grounded with our first representative–Adam. We are simply following in the footsteps of the one who wanted his own desires met and didn’t want to be dependent upon God. We are in our sin, and Paul says, this will lead to death. Most scholars believe that when Paul uses this term, he means eternal separation from God. It’s not a pleasant thought.
However, Paul says, when you have a change of heart, things change drastically. Verse 17, “Thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves to sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you having been set free from sin have become slaves of righteousness.” Verse 22, “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage that you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life.”
What Paul says is that when we shift allegiances, when we choose God as our master, we find a different kind of freedom. We do not find a demanding master who tries to whip us into submission. We do not find a master who sucks the life out of us with giving nothing in return. No. Instead, we find a master who is willing to die for us. We find a master who is willing to pour his life into us. We find a master who is willing to go the extra mile to shower us with love and every thing that we need for life. This is the heart of the Gospel that says, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him; all those who trust Him; all those who submit to Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.
And when you have a Master who is willing to do this for you; when you have a Master who has already died for you and loved you when you were unlovable, you seek to please that Master. You seek to love that Master. You seek to offer yourself to God and do the things that He loves. You seek to love your neighbor because you know that pleases God. You seek to do justice because you know that pleases God. You seek to be kind because you know that pleases God. You seek to live honest and upright because you know that pleases God. You know that you do not have to follow the law to be saved, but you know that in following the law, you are pleasing the Master who was willing to die for you.
Let’s go back to Lynn and Bill for a moment. Let’s pretend that the conversation went this way. Bill, looks into Lynn’s eyes and says, “You know, there comes a time in a person’s life when one finds another who he is willing to die for; one whom he will cherish, love, honor and care for until he has no breath left. You are that one for me. I would gladly die for you, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” What do you think Lynn would have said to that? What about you?
Paul shows us this today: we are free to choose our Master. We are free to choose who we will become enslaved to. Only one Master will lead not only to eternal life but a life filled with joy, peace, understanding, and hope. The other masters will ensnare you, bring you grief, anger, frustration, and sadness. By grace, you are now free to choose sin or God. Choose wisely. Amen.