Just as Paul has taken his readers through a look at how unrighteous we are in chapters 1-3, he is now taking us through a journey of what impact grace should have on our lives in chapters 6-8 and beyond. He asked the question in 6:1, if sinning brings out the grace of God then more sinning should bring out more grace shouldn’t it? That is, let’s make God look really gracious!
Romans 6:15 asks a similar question but from a different perspective: if we are only saved by the righteousness of Jesus and not our own, then there is really no point even trying to be righteous. The point is something like: working at being good is hard work that we can’t succeed in anyway, so let’s just relax and let Jesus’ righteousness be ours by faith.
In isolation, verses 15-23 appear to be Paul preaching a pursuit of holiness in order to receive eternal life: obedience leads to righteousness which leads to eternal life! But context, context context is so important! Not only does verse 23 tell us or remind us that eternal life is a free gift, as opposed to being wages earned – but verse 22 reminds us that we have been set free from sin. Also, we cannot forget the previous 5 chapters which teach us that it is not by our works that we are saved but by the grace of God.
So, what is this passage saying if it is not about works righteousness? Verse 17 gives us a good capture of what the message is. Let me try and paraphrase that verse…
“Once upon a time it was sin and impurity and lawlessness that claimed your heart – but now, by the grace and mercy of God, you have fallen in love with His way of life.”
Now, Paul contrasts the difference between life under sin and life under God.
Life under sin which may feel like having a free spirit contains these elements: it leads to death (v16, 21, 23), makes you a slave to impurity and ever-increasing wickedness (v19), and yet free from the control of righteousness (v20).
Life under God which is described as being slaves to obedience contains these elements: it leads to righteousness (v16), it has claimed the Christians allegiance (v17), sets us free from sin (v18,22), makes us slaves to righteousness (18, 19), leads to holiness (v19, 22), makes us aware and ashamed of the life of sin (v21), results in eternal life (v22), which is a free gift (v23).
So, the positive argument is that a life of sin leads to death. And the life of someone serving God is a life with eternity in mind and with eternity as the promise.
Is there a negative? Being under sin is described in verse 20 as freedom and the life of obedience is described as slavery to righteousness (v18, 19). Well, notice that these are also both flipped around so that what appears to be freedom at first is actually also slavery to sin – so that sin has it’s rule over you. And that this righteousness that is described as slavery is actually an appealing state to someone who has died to Christ (6:4, 21). The burden of righteousness becomes the gift of freedom from sin! Where sin no longer has control over us.
What does it mean to have sin rule over us and therefore that humans are slaves to sin? Compare verse 17 and verse 19 – prior to coming to Christ, pleasing the flesh (our human desire and passions and cravings) was normal and the enjoyment of it leads to more and more sin. But once Christ has stolen your heart and your allegiance, you are free to learn what it means to live a righteous life – experiencing the liberty of holy living. See verse 21 how it describes the rejection of that past life? A vegetarian friend of mine described what it was like to give up eating meat – at first it was hard to walk past burger shops and smell what used to be so lovely to them but after a time of abstaining from meat, their bodies stopped wanting it. A single bite of a piece of flesh could be almost felt going all the way through their body. This may be the same with all foods and habits that we want to get rid of.
To those who are outside of Christ, the problem is not that they need to reform their immoral lives, the issue is that they need to hear the good news of Jesus – that his righteousness imparted to us provides more than just an eternal inheritance, it sets us free from being slaves to sin. To the outsider, being a Christian means being a good person. But to the Christian, being in Christ means experiencing the joy of obeying God, not because we need his approval, but because he has our heart and our allegiance.
The last but not least important point of the passage is the one that Paul puts plainly: which master will pay you the best results at the end of the day? Will sin? No, that leads to death. Will listening to God and responding to his word through Christ? Yes, because by grace he has set us free from the bondage of sin and death!
I am a slave to Christ. Whose slave are you?