Lesson Focus: Paul calls us to choose which master we will serve, sin, and death or life in God through Jesus. We make this choice by presenting ourselves instruments of righteousness.
Lesson Outcomes: Through this lesson, students should:
Understand that God has freed us from the domination of sin so that we might serve God instead.
Understand that freedom from sin does not grant freedom to do as we please.
Be encouraged to present themselves as instruments of righteousness.
Catching up on the Story… In the previous section, Paul noted how our lives are bound up with Christ in both his death and his resurrection. The image he uses is agricultural. In the same way that a tree branch is grafted into the trunk of a tree, we have been grafted into Christ. The life-giving sap that we receive from being entwined with Christ kills off our old self, granting us a newness of life. Sin and the death that it brings no longer has dominion over us.
At the same time, however, that does not mean that we are now immune to sin. We are no longer dominated by sin. The trajectory of our lives is not fated to end in death, spiritual and physical. Consequently, Paul encourages us to present our bodies no longer to sin as instruments of wickedness. It seems that any time we would like, we can unentangle ourselves from Christ and slip back into our old way of life. The call, then, is to continually offer ourselves to Christ to be used as instruments of righteousness. If we are entwined with Christ, then the life-giving sap that begins to feed us will give us the strength to continue to present ourselves to God in righteousness. We are not under the law but under God’s good grace.
The Text: Similarly, Paul begins this last section of chapter six. He does so with a rhetorical question, the answer to which is a very strong no. Paul is anticipating this question. “What then? Should we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?” The answer is a resounding no!
But what is the question getting at? The question could be a way of asserting the following: “It is grace that saves, not the way we live. Therefore, the odd sin is neither her nor there. Once we have put our trust in Christ, it does not matter whether we slip into sin or not.” (Morris, 261). In other words, do what you’d like because God’s grace will cover it!
I think this drives us to the real crux of Paul’s argument, freedom. In America, we love freedom. We’re the land of the free and the home of the brave! It seems like every national holiday we celebrate somehow ties back to the freedom we enjoy in this great country. In fact, in just a few days we’ll celebrate our grandest holiday, Independence Day, the 4th of July. And we celebrate our freedom by lighting things on fire and blowing things up! Oh, and also with a barbecue.
I’m afraid the American notion of freedom gets in the way of us understanding the nature of the freedom about which Paul often talks, the freedom we have in Christ. Mind you, I’m not denigrating America or the freedom we enjoy, or those who have sacrificed so much for it. I’m only saying that our cultural assumptions about freedom don’t help us any as we seek to read Paul’s letter to the Romans faithfully.
What exactly is Paul saying? He’s saying that you and I have a choice, a freedom in itself, to choose to whom or to what we will be a slave. We can present ourselves as obedient slaves to sin, or we can give ourselves as slaves to righteousness. It is a zero-sum game. You have to choose one side, and in Paul’s mind, there is only one correct choice.
Let’s unpack a bit what Paul is saying. Paul’s argument is based on what would have been universally accepted in his day, the idea that you could only serve one master. Several weeks ago, we talked a bit about slavery and noted that, at times, slavery was a condition that was entered into voluntarily. If you needed employment, citizenship, or if you needed to advance your status in the community, you could present yourselves to a master and pledge to live as an obedient slave. In doing so, all of your other commitments fall away, and your loyalty is only to your new master.
“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey…” You can either be a slave of sin, which leads to death. Or, you can be a slave of obedience to Christ, which leads to righteousness.
Now, Paul isn’t trying to convince his friends in Rome that they should go ahead and make this choice for the first time. He’s not writing to unbelievers. Instead, he’s addressing a specific problem where some in the community of faith has begun to believe the greatness of grace will cover their sins, so there is no point in seeking to live any different than before. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who was executed by the Nazis, calls this “cheap grace.”
Yes, Paul says, you have been freed from the dominance of sin, but that does not make you completely and utterly free. You have merely traded one master for another. Again, I think this might rub us Americans the wrong way. We did not rid ourselves of the tyranny of King George III and the British Empire only to become servants and slaves to someone or something else! We did not then invite the French, who helped us win our independence, to serve as our rulers. We set up a system of government where we would have a voice, where we would be free to rule ourselves. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. I’m not sure exactly what Paul would say about American independence, but I think he might argue that we aren’t as free as we’d like to think we are. We’ve only traded one master for another.
And that’s Paul’s point. When we begin to follow Christ, when we are baptized into his death and resurrection, we have left the old master, sin, behind and have now presented ourselves to Christ in obedience. Paul thinks this is a fantastic move because of where service to each of these masters leads.
Slavery to sin only has one end, and that is death. We have to expand our understanding of death beyond just physical death. Indeed, sin leads to death, and sometimes premature death at that. The death to which sin leads is the loss of anything and everything that could possibly be considered life.
Think about that for a moment, and I think you’ll find it true. If we just think about the big sins that people might commit, things like murder or theft, the consequences of those actions lead toward the loss of the quality of the life God intended for us. Even “smaller” sins do the same thing. If we’re created to experience unbroken and intimate relationships with others, then lying always degrades those relationships. Selfishness degrades all of our relationships. Racism not only degrades the lives of others, but it degrades our lives by not allowing us to see, appreciate, and be enriched by the diversity inherent in the life of someone who is always created in the image of God. Sin continuously degrades the life that we were intended to live, and it ultimately leads toward true and everlasting death.
On the other hand, when we present ourselves as slaves to obedience and righteousness, the end is not death, but our sanctification. Now, that’s an excellent churchy word, and a lot of folks in our theological tradition tend to misunderstand it. In its simplest form, sanctification is setting something apart for holy use, to consecrate it. Its deeper meaning is the process of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives to help us become more and more like Christ. It is the process of becoming holy or Christlike. Paul says in verse 22 that this is the advantage that we receive by presenting ourselves as slaves to Christ. The end, or the goal of our sanctification, is enteral life.
Perhaps this analogy will help. When we serve something, we do so as apprentices. We learn the ways of the master, be it sin or righteousness. We pick up our master’s ways, doing things in the way that our master would appreciate and value. As time goes by, we become more and more proficient at the skills the master teaches us until, one day, we have been thoroughly shaped into the image of our master. We will either look like sin, which is death or, we will look like Jesus, acting and loving like him, sharing in his resurrection to eternal life.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is enteral life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So What? In the beginning, we said that Paul isn’t writing to nonbelievers. He’s not trying to convince anyone to convert. What Paul is trying to do is to encourage his friends in Rome to live into the great gift of grace they have been given by continually presenting themselves as slaves of righteousness.
Freedom from the dominance of sin does not mean we are free to do as we please. The freedom we receive is the ability to offer ourselves fully to a new master where we will learn a new way of life, a way of life that does not end in death. The catch is this presenting ourselves as slaves to righteousness is a continual endeavor. Each day we must continually give ourselves over to service to the master, learning how to live and act and love like him. If we do not, then we will inevitably fall back into our old way of life. We will switch masters once again.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Why would Paul ask the question he does in verse 15?
Give a short definition of freedom. What does freedom mean to you? What does it mean for Americans?
Does our American understanding get in the way of understanding what Paul is talking about in this text?
Paul believes that we have a choice in which master we will serve. We will serve sin, or we will serve Christ. Are there any other choices in masters we might serve? If so, what are they?
Paul believes that choosing to serve Jesus is the best choice. What does it mean to serve Jesus instead of sin? What does serving sin look like?
What is the advantage/reward of serving Christ? What is the advantage/reward of serving sin?
Do you think that choosing which master you will serve is a one-time choice or a continual choosing? Can you choose to serve Christ and then turn and serve sin again?
Works Cited: Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1988).