“For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under law but under grace. What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! Don’t you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of that one you obey — either of sin leading to death or of obedience leading to righteousness? But thank God that, although you used to be slaves of sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were transferred to, and having been liberated from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. I am using a human analogy because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you offered the parts of yourselves as slaves to moral impurity, and to greater and greater lawlessness, so now offer them as slaves to righteousness, which results in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free from allegiance to righteousness. So what fruit was produced then from the things you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. But now, since you have been liberated from sin and have become enslaved to God, you have your fruit, which results in sanctification — and the end is eternal life! For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:14-23 HCSB)
Happy New Year. As I look out my dining room window, snow swirls in the air and blankets the ground with a dazzling white landscape. The snow is beautiful but a little deceiving because beneath it lies a half-inch layer of dangerous ice. Overnight, we had a winter storm deposit an initial layer of freezing rain and ice but then the storm transitioned to all snow. So, what we see is beautiful and dazzling but it hides the real danger of the storm, a thick layer of ice. If you’ve never experienced a storm like this, trust me, it is no fun. Snow can be fun but ice is just dangerous and damaging.
You might wonder why I started my weekly post with a weather report, but I have a purpose. Sin is a bit like Oklahoma winter weather – deceptive – it hides the real dangers underneath a layer of dazzlingly deceptive beauty and fun. Sin always appears to be fun and enticing, but it hides the real dangers under its veneer of alluring beauty and fun. In fact, Paul tells the Corinthian church that even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light so it is no real surprise that his servants disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. They’ll get what they’ve earned. (2 Cor 11:14-15).
In today’s focal passage, Paul tells us that we are all slaves to someone or something. I mentioned last week that Jesus confronted a group of Jews, who claimed to believe Him, about their enslavement and the freedom they would find in Him. They simply couldn’t see or acknowledge their enslavement, but they aren’t the only ones with that problem (see John 8:30-47). Jesus pointed out in His Sermon on the Mount that you can’t serve two masters, God and money. He says that when you try, you end up serving one and “despising” the other – but which one (see Matt. 6:24)? Paul puts it in similar terms in our focal passage, you are slaves of the one you obey – sin, which leads to death or obedience, which leads to righteousness.
Like them, we often overlook our enslavement to the things, people and false gods in our lives. This isn’t just true of Americans but I would argue that it is especially true of Americans. While I have visited and experienced other cultures, I am a child of my own culture. I know it and its people best and am familiar with the false gods who lurk in the dark corners of our hearts. Like our Jewish brothers of John 8, we like to boast in our freedoms, our religious heritage and our Constitutional rights while ignoring the chains of slavery that hang from our hands, waist and ankles. We have become slaves to our personal rights, obedient to our desires and driven by our pursuit of the ever elusive gods of happiness, satisfaction, achievement, and possessions. We have the freedom to become enslaved by our pursuit of the American Dream.
Some of you may think that I’ve gone crazy, left wing, liberal on you but I beg you, hear me out. Paul says in this passage that we are either the slaves of sin, which leads to death, or we are slaves to obedience, which leads to righteousness and results in life. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity or culture you belong to, what political state you live under, what personal rights you possess or are deprived of, what level of power or authority you believe you exert or is being exerted upon you, we are all slaves to either sin or obedience. You can be politically free to exercise your personal rights and still be enslaved to your sin, driven by your desires, pursued by your pursuits, and completely controlled by your need for achievement and recognition. Which is better, to be living the American Dream in a Martha’s Vineyard mansion but dead in our sin or sitting in a cold, dank Chinese prison cell thanking God for His grace and forgiveness? Your answer will indicate who or what you’re enslaved to.
I know, I know… some of you are saying, I want both. Why can’t I have both? But I would caution and remind you, you can’t serve two masters. Not my words, His. Jesus said, pursue God and His kingdom and let Him take care of these other things – those needs and desires that tend to dominate our attention, change our focus and determine our direction (see Matt. 6:19-34). Let me state this very, very clearly… it DOESN’T matter what culture, country or political state you live in, obedience to Christ will ALWAYS be in conflict with the world. Yes, American culture is at odds with Christ’s authority in our lives just as much as Chinese culture is at odds with His authority in our lives. This will shock and infuriate some of you, but Heaven is NOT a democracy or a federal republic. You DON’T have personal rights in God’s kingdom. Some will respond with, but we have “God given rights” and I would say, exactly! If you didn’t get that, go back and read it, again, and note my emphasis in bold letters.
We like to stress our “right” to choose obedience to God, but when we do we elevate our rights or our obedience above His worthiness. Maybe this will help, the root word or thought to our word “worship” is “worth ship” or worthiness. We worship and express love to God because of who He is and because He is worthy of it and obedience is the direct result of our worship and His worthiness. When we start interjecting and introducing our “rights” or choices into this mix then the focus moves from being about God’s worthiness to our worthiness. When that happens, we cease to worship God and begin to worship ourselves. Isn’t that exactly what happened to Adam and Eve in the garden?
So, let me ask you a simple question… can you exist independent from God? Is your existence dependent upon God’s existence and His desire and will for your existence? Scripture speaks to that question, “all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together.” (Col. 16b-17) If He is the source of our existence and the only source of each breath, then should our rights or His worthiness be the focus of our obedience?
But Paul clarifies this for us, “thank God that… you became enslaved to righteousness.” Free? When we expressed our “right” to choose Christ then we chose to relinquish our freedom in order to be enslaved to Him and the pursuit of righteousness. But how did all of this change and to what have we become enslaved? Paul says that the Roman church “obeyed from the heart” this pattern of teaching that they have embraced or trusted. This implies that the church had a body of beliefs or teachings that was being passed among them that was based on Jesus’ words. In other words, they had written down what Jesus taught and were using His Word(s) as the source of their beliefs, actions, and expectations for one another. Sound familiar? It should, we have been doing the same. Their source of authority for teaching, preaching, and obedience was the Word of God, specifically as expressed and recorded in the life and teachings of Jesus, His Son.
Our source of authority for the church, obedience and accountability among her members is the same, God’s Word. Is it yours? If you embrace Him as Lord and strive to live in obedience to Him, it must be. The real issue here is not whether you agree with or even like what scripture says, it is an issue of authority.
One of the issues facing our culture is this issue of authority. This is often stated in a manner that uses the term “power.” It has been, most recently, tied to the issue of racism and sexism. Those who “have power” exercise it over those “without power.” While I cannot deny that there is certainly truth in their claims, this is also being applied to religion and, more specifically, the Christian church. In some very tragic ways, there is also truth in these claims as seen in the racial/ethnic disparity and sexual abuse that has been harbored by, hidden by, and even denied by the church – both Catholic and Protestant. But again, let me be very, very clear here… the core issue is NOT the absolute authority of Jesus Christ, but the abuse of authority and “perceived power” by fake followers of Christ but also by disobedient disciples. Some who exercised this “power” do NOT belong to Christ, they have seen an opportunity and exploited it. But sadly, some real disciples have been enticed, allured and listened to the lies of the deceiver and brought shame upon the name of Christ through their actions, but even their lack of action.
Our obedience should be defined by action, not a lack of it. Following Christ is not passive belief, it is active obedience. Liberated from sin, but enslaved to righteousness. Paul apologizes for needing to use an analogy, but he does so because of the weakness of the flesh or their inability (and, honestly, our inability) to understand deep spiritual matters with sinful (hindered, faulty, unreliable) human logic and thought. He tells them (and us), in the same manner that you offered yourselves as slaves to moral impurity and even greater and greater lawlessness, so now do the same as slaves of righteousness. Do you get it? In the same manner, with the same reckless abandon that you gave to your sinful actions, do that with regards to obedience to Christ! Paul says this same thing in a slightly different way to the Ephesian church, instead of being drunk or full of wine be “full of” the Holy Spirit! Let God’s power and Spirit so influence and empower you that you can’t help but show others through your actions and words. It isn’t hard to tell when someone is drunk, it shouldn’t be hard to tell when someone is empowered by God’s Spirit.
Finally, Paul tells us why this is so important – the results are ETERNAL LIFE. The wages of sin is death, but God’s gift to believers is eternal life in Christ. The contrast could not be greater – we earn death because of our sin, but God gifts us eternal life in, through or because of Jesus, our Lord. Why is Jesus the ONLY way? Because He’s the only one who gave Himself as the sinless, perfect sacrifice as the Passover Lamb of God for all mankind. He’s the only one able. He’s the only one worthy. He IS the way. He IS the truth. He IS the life. No one comes to the Father except through the Son (see John 14:6).
As I’ve stated before, eternal life is not just about longevity – it is also about quality. Eternal life is life that is transformed by the truth, empowered by His grace, demonstrated by His love, obedient to His Word and focused on His kingdom. He doesn’t save you to sit. He doesn’t save you and leave you in your sin. He doesn’t save you and then walk away leaving you powerless and pointless. No, He saves you to walk alongside Him in obedience, following His example of self sacrifice and love.
As we observed last week, we die to our old self and we live through His resurrection power to impact our culture, to love our neighbors, to proclaim truth, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to pursue Him and His kingdom, to deny ourselves and to take up our cross on a daily basis as we follow Him in absolute obedience. That, my friends, is a life that obeys from the heart that pattern of teaching we’ve embraced, liberated from sin and enslaved to righteousness. A life that results in sanctification – and the end is eternal life!
That’s my prayer for you, this week and this New Year! Now, get up and get busy – be OBEDIENT!