Text: Romans 6:12-23
Third Sunday After Pentecost, Series A
You can listen to the sermon here.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The story of the Prodigal Son is well known (Luke 15:11–32). The younger son tells his father to drop dead, and hand over the inheritance. Venturing off into the world, he spends the entire inheritance on his party life. Finally, he comes home, in what he thinks will be utter disgrace. Then, to his amazement, he finds his father running down the road to meet him, and throwing a huge party in his honour. He’s welcomed back as a son, even though he doesn’t deserve it (and despite his older brother’s complaints).
Now imagine it’s a year or two later. The young man has a unexpected thought. Life has resumed a normal routine again. His older brother tolerates having him around, more or less; his father is getting older. He remembers with a happy sigh all those parties. He also remembers how he felt that day he came up the road and his father came running to greet him … And he thinks, what if I did it again? Why not help myself to a little cash, run away for a few weeks, and then play the penitent and come back again? Maybe I’ll get another party!
Absurd? Unthinkable? Don’t think it’s that farfetched. It’s exactly what a lot of people think. “I like sinning. God likes forgiving. It’s the perfect arrangement!’” And many people today seem to believe that the church’s only message should be forgiveness and acceptance. The Apostle Paul ran into people who thought that he was teaching this very thing. They objected to Paul’s teaching that Christians are free from the Law. People were worried that this would cast off all moral restraint: ‘Paul, you can’t go around saying that Christians are free from the Law! People will get the idea that they can do whatever they want!’ Our epistle reading was written to answer that objection and to show us that the Gospel does not give us a license to sin.
Everybody Serves Someone
Paul uses the example slavery to help answer this question. (Now, Paul doesn’t approve of slavery, he’s merely using it as an example to make his point, as he notes in verse 19). Slaves obey their masters. That’s obvious enough. Some years ago a man was walking down the street of a major city with a sign on his shoulders. The front of it said, “I’m a slave for Christ.” The back of it read, “Whose slave are you?” That’s the point that Paul is getting at, because all of us are slaves to one of two masters—Sin or Righteousness. We have no other choices. What you cannot be is slave to no-one, your own autonomous self.
Sin is by nature the service of yourself. If serve yourself (and claim to be a slave of no-one), you show that you are actually a slave to sin! Sin is when you fear, love, and trust in yourself instead of the Creator. Sin is when you love yourself, and neglect loving your neighbour. It is one thing to claim to be a slave of Christ, but if I am actually obeying Sin, then it shows I am still the slave of sin. Our actions and choices are governed by the evil and perverse desires and feelings which we inherited from Adam. For this reason, we have no choice but to sin. It’s our master. Our hearts are so affected by evil desires that we want to and enjoy serving Sin. And this master compensates us with a vicious downward spiral of degradation, lawlessness, and finally, death.
Although we used to be slaves to sin, we have in fact, been set free, and now we are slaves to righteousness. How is one transferred from slavery to sin to slavery to God? Your freedom has been purchased for you by the death of your Lord, Jesus himself. The Gospel was proclaimed to you and you have heard (and you continue to hear) God’s declaration about you in Christ, that you are acquitted not condemned, that he has set you free from slavery to sin. We hear what God says about us, and receive it with our whole hearts as most certainly true. Jesus Christ, your master, “has redeemed you, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil. He did this not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, so that you may be His own, live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness” (SC II.2).
Set Free to Serve Righteousness
Many act as though once they became Christians, sin would vanish, and they’d just serve God automatically. Sure, there might be a struggle, but it isn’t a big deal. But God does not promise that sin will never be present in you; He exhorts you not to allow sin to reign in you (6:12). You see, if we go back to obeying sin’s desires, it means we allow it to reign, to become master again. The old desires will always be present, but we are no longer enslaved to them. The freedom from God is enticing and we are tempted to return to it. Our natural inclination is to fall back on our old patterns and re-enslave ourselves to sin. We have to fight against that. Pause and think back to your old life. Actions that you regret or look back on with shame—do you really miss them? Do you want to go back to that way of life? Do you want to return to a kind of life that will result in death?
Many people think that freedom means a person can do whatever they want. Is that really what freedom is? Paul knows that the freedom which the Christian enjoys is not that kind of thing. If you have ‘the freedom of the road’ it doesn’t mean that you are free to drive as fast as you like on the wrong side of the road, or to drive on railway tracks or across ploughed fields. Sometimes freedom has boundaries which are for our good. But we live in a world which thinks that true tolerance demands that we reject Biblical boundaries and morality. We must, as the phrase goes, be ‘inclusive’; which means we can’t tell people that certain behaviours and desires are wrong and evil, but instead we must tell people that God accepts them exactly as they are. So—the only thing to say to someone who sins is, ‘That’s fine, God loves you!’
Paul does not think that the Gospel means freedom from doing what is right. True freedom is the ability to do what’s right. To be truly free, we must have the power and ability to be obedient to God. Just like we used to offer ourselves to serve Sin, we must now offer ourselves to serve Righteousness. When sin calls to us, we must stop reporting for duty! Instead, we are to report for duty to God. This involves some effort. Paul challenges us to devote ourselves just as fully to pursuing righteousness as we used to devote ourselves to sin and lawlessness. “The old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (SC IV.4).
God has freed us, and we are given sanctification and eternal life. These are not things we achieve. It doesn’t come by our own efforts, although it does require our cooperation. Our Lord does not pay wages. No, he gives gifts. Slaves to God receive sanctification and eternal life, not as wages earned but as a free gift of undeserved kindness. All is given freely! Obedience, sanctification, and eternal life are God’s gifts to us. What he gives cannot be earned. Obedience is the directly result of God’s action in your life. The Gospel doesn’t give you a license to sin, because it’s the only thing that will enables you not to sin! We can only serve God freely because of God’s work in us. We desire to obey God and begin to do so only because we are transformed and renewed by the Holy Spirit through the Word. God gives us the desire and the ability to do what he wants. God gets the credit for the good works that we do.
Once we were slaves to sin; now we are slaves to righteousness. That is true freedom. It is a freedom from condemnation. The debt has been paid once and for all. Jesus bore the verdict “guilty” so that you might hear the verdict “not guilty.” You are free. But you do not have the freedom to sin. Just like we once freely offered our bodies to sin as instruments of evil; now we freely offer our baptised bodies to God as instruments of righteousness. Once we could do nothing but sin. Now we are free not to sin. We do so because we are freed from sin through Christ’s sacrifice. This life won’t be easy, but we have the promise that because we are slaves of God, bought with the very blood of Christ, he will sanctify us, he make us more like Himself, and he keep us to eternal life.
May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen