A sermon on Romans 6:15-23 by Richard Keith on Sunday 20 November 2022
The world has changed a lot in the last 150 years. In our great grandparents’ day, most people lived in a village and not in a city. Most people never travelled more than 10 kilometres from home in their lives, although they called them “miles”. People worked six days a week and went to church twice on Sundays. Most men grew up to do the same job as their father. And they worked till they died or were too sick to keep going. Most women stayed home and did the cooking and cleaning and child rearing. People’s lives were controlled by their father at home, by the minister at church and by the village elders. People did what they were told or suffered the consequences.
Times have changed and most people enjoy a lot more freedom today. People moved to live in cities for work. No one knew them. Nobody checked up on what was going on behind the front door. Compulsory education gave them more options for work. People bought cars which could take them anywhere they wanted to. Some bright spark invented the weekend. Two days off every week for some people. Eight hours of work a day. Four weeks off a year and retirement at 65. In the 1960s the pill became freely available and young people could have sex without having a baby. In the 1990s the internet came along and made information readily available. It became easy for everyone to say what they really thought without suffering the consequences.
None of these changes are bad in themselves. I don’t want to give away my car or my phone. And I don’t want to be a shepherd on some windswept island like my great grandfather. No one wants to go back to a life that was controlled from cradle to grave by other people who thought they knew better. But put together these changes have led to the rise of personal autonomy. The belief that I can do whatever I want. I can go wherever I want, whenever I want to. I can be whoever I want to be. And no one has the right to tell me otherwise, because I’m the boss of me and no one else. And the great sin of today, the greatest evil one could commit is to restrict someone’s freedom as if you had any right.
Our modern life offers a kind of freedom. And it certainly offers many more options than the controlled life that our great grandparents lived. But it is not the freedom that the gospel promises. Compared to the freedom that Jesus offers, it is just a different kind of slavery. A slavery to self. A slavery to sin. An existence that is alienated from the life we were created to live.
The title of our message today is Perfect Freedom. It comes from a line in the Anglican Prayer Book.
O God, in whose service is perfect freedom …
which in turn was inspired by the prayer of St Augustine
God, whom to know is to live, whom to serve is to reign, and whom to praise is the health and joy of the soul…
These prayers make the same claim that the apostle Paul did in chapter 6 of his letter to the Romans. That true life is found in the service of God and that everything else is just a different kind of bondage. A slavery to sin.
In chapter 6 verse 15 of his letter to the church at Rome Paul asked the question,
Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?
It’s like the question we looked at last week, in chapter 6 verse 1,
Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?
In these two questions Paul is answering the complaints of his critics. Paul’s critics were saying to him, “You are a bad man, Paul. You say that people are righteous apart from the law. You say that people are justified before God by faith in Jesus rather than by the law. By saying these things you are taking away the only thing that makes people behave, the law. People only do the right thing because the law tells them that they should and because the law warns them about the bad things that will happen to them if they don’t obey the law. Take the law away and you are printing people a license to sin. You are giving them permission to do anything they want.”
These are criticism that Paul must answer if people are going to believe that the gospel of Jesus is true.
Paul considers these complaints by asking his questions and then answering them. Last week we looked at the question, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” We saw that Paul’s answer was, “By no means! We are dead to sin so that we may live for God.” Today we will look at the question, “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” And we will see that Paul’s answer is again, “By no means! We have been set free from sin so we may serve God.”
In verse 16 Paul wrote,
Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey – whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness.
Paul makes the point here that we serve the thing that we love most in our heart. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. If we love our family, we will serve them. If we love our community, we will do whatever we need to to help it. If we love our church, we will volunteer to go on rosters and put ourselves out for the other members.
By this reckoning, some people have sold themselves to their work. Some people are in bondage to gambling. Some people are slaves to themselves. By our actions and choices, by the priorities we make and the decisions we take, we show what it is that is most important to us. And whatever that thing is, whatever is your deepest, greatest love in your heart, you offer ourselves to that thing as its servant. We are willing slaves to the thing we love the most.
Like the person in the Old Testament law in Exodus chapter 21. They had sold themselves as a slave in order to repay a debt that they cannot afford. As it was practiced in Israel this slavery was more like an indentured servitude. They had to do what they were told, but it was only temporary. Seven years. Seven years is a long temporary but it didn’t last forever. And at the end of that term they were free to go.
But a man was allowed to stay if he really loved it where he was working. He wasn’t forced to go. He and his master had to go to the judges to formalise the decision and the servant’s ear was pierced. And he was allowed to stay. He still had to do what he was told, but his service was willing, and the piercing of his ear was a visible sign that he wasn’t being forced to stay any longer than he wanted to.
So when Paul talks about slavery in Romans chapter 6 that’s the sort of thing he means. Whether he’s talking about a slavery to sin or to impurity or to wickedness on the one hand, or a slavery to God or to righteousness on the other hand, he’s talking about that kind of willing servitude. Whatever you offer yourselves to, whatever you serve, whatever you obey, you are a kind of slave to what you obey. Of course, Paul doesn’t say, “kind of slave”. He says “slaves”. But that’s what he means. You love something most in your heart. You put yourself out for that thing or cause or person. You serve that thing. You obey it needs and demands. Some people love God and with their whole heart they do his will. Some people only love themselves. It’s a willing servitude and you can tell it’s a kind of slavery because if you tell people to stop doing it, they can’t.
But just because it’s a willing servitude doesn’t mean it makes people happy or leads to good consequences. Some people are slaves to gambling and they are facing financial ruin. Some people are slaves to smoking and it is destroying their health. And some people are slaves to sin and it is leading to death.
Paul wrote in verses 20 and 21
When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!
The life of slavery to sin results in death both as a natural consequence and as a punishment. God made us for life. He knows what is best for us and doing his will brings us joy and life. Sin ruins what God made good. It twists what God made straight. It destroys and brings harm wherever it goes. Sin is a force that wages war against God’s purposes and it only leaves devastation in its wake. The natural consequence of sin is death. It brings death and those who serve it are dying bit by bit, day by day from the inside out. They are hollow men, empty of life.
But death is also the punishment for a life of sin. The willing servants of sin face God’s judgment. Nothing is hidden from his gaze and they are justly excluded from God’s eternal blessing. It’s not a decision that you can make about someone else, because we must all give an account of our own lives to our creator and judge and only saviour. But just because we don’t have the right to make that decision doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have the right. What you love most in your life matters most because it determines your eternal destiny.
But just because this willing servitude can lead to disastrous results doesn’t mean it has to. If we serve what is good, it will lead to good results. And if we serve the greatest good we will enjoy the greatest blessing. Paul wrote in verse 22,
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.
We have been set free from sin. We have been saved. Christ died for our sin and was raised to life for our justification. Through faith in him we are forgiven and put right with God. We enjoy peace with God with our neighbour and with ourselves. We have an abiding joy in this life and eternal life in the next. We are free from sin. It is a thing of the past. It does not control our present or determine our future.
We have been set free from sin in order to become the willing servants of God. Not saved by obeying the law, but saved for obeying the law. In this life we reap a growing and deepening holiness as we follow the example of Jesus and as we learn to love what God loves. And the natural result is eternal life. The life that God made us for and saved us for. Free from sin’s penalty and power and presence forever.
The whole passage is nicely summarised in verse 23.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The whole idea of wages only works if Paul has been talking about a willing servitude. A wage isn’t just our just deserts. It is a reward for willing work. It’s just that sin’s reward, sin’s wage is death. For if what we love most has caused harm to others, it is only fair and right that it should result in causing harm to ourselves.
And the sad thing is that many people around us have sold themselves, their lives and their eternal destiny to their own personal autonomy. They can do whatever they want. No one has the right to tell them what to do. But this determined freedom from all restraint has only led them to a willing servitude, a slavery to themselves. It is a way of life that will result in death.
But the gift of God – not our just deserts, but what we don’t deserve, what is ours only by grace and not as a reward – is eternal life. Not by the law, nor by our own personal autonomy, but in Christ Jesus. Because he lives for us, true lasting life is in his hands and the hope that guides us in all our troubles is to live with him forever. This is perfect freedom. To be free from anything that stops us from fulfilling our true purpose in the willing service of God. Whom to know is to live. Whom to serve is to reign as the children in the kingdom of the heavenly king. Whom to praise is life and joy for our souls.
What we love most in our heart matters most. Put God first in your heart. Learn to love what he loves. Obey his will. Enjoy his gift of life in Jesus now and forever. For true life and perfect freedom are only found in the willing service of God.