In chapter 6 of his letter to the Romans, Paul confronts the objection that if righteousness is matter of faith rather than works then there is no reason to be good.
The last few weeks as we have worked our way through the book of Romans we have learned that God declares us righteous for Christ’s sake when by faith we trust in his sacrificial death upon the cross.
What we may have done in the past does not matter. If we mess up and we sin again, it does not matter. The price and penalty of all of our sins have been laid upon Jesus Christ. The greater our sin, the greater God’s grace. Our sins cannot overwhelm God’s grace.
But such is the perversity of our human nature, that many people, when they hear this, hear it as permission to continue in sin. Recognizing that, others who are committed to the law as a means of salvation reject the Gospel and use that apparent permission to justify their unbelief.
Paul takes up this issue in Romans, chapter 6. He begins by asking the rhetorical question, “If God’s grace abounds where sin abounds, are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Paul answers that question by pointing to the effects of baptism, saying
“How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”Romans 6:2-3
How can we still live in sin if we have died with Christ? It’s a good question isn’t it? Dead men tell no tales and they do no wrong. Of course, they don’t do anything right, either. So, Paul’s thought must be a little deeper. The death we have died is a spiritual death, so it is only effective where there is faith. That is why Paul says a bit later,
“You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”Romans 6:11
This death then, like the righteousness that God grants as a gift to those who believe in his Son, is a judicial statement, a work of God that is in the process of becoming a tangible reality.
Likewise, the eternal life we have received is also gift of God and a work in process. Spiritually, we have it now, but physically we must await the resurrection. So, because these things (righteousness, death to sin, and eternal life with God) are spiritual gifts, they must be received and held by faith, but we may be confident that, like all the other works of God begun and completed by His divine word and power, these will also be fully realized.
Because our bodies still have their original physical life, we are presently caught between two worlds. Physically we Christians are descended from Adam and sin and death reign in all of his descendants. But Spiritually we are part of a new creation. We died and received a new life through our baptisms. We have been born again not of fleshly, perishable seed, but of eternal seed by the Word and command of God that were attached to the waters of our baptisms.
To understand this a little better, imagine for a moment that you woke up this morning as a slave in ancient Egypt or on a cotton plantation in the confederate states. You would have belonged entirely to another. Your wants and desires would matter little, if at all. You live only to fulfill the desires of your master. If necessary, you could be kept in line by fear of the lash or even death. And most likely your servitude would continue until the day you died. Then you would at last be free.
Paul says in this part of Romans, that until God declared us dead with Christ Jesus, we were enslaved and sin was our master. But now that we have been declared dead we are no longer subject to sin’s power.
Note that one of the things Paul is revealing to us is that sin is not just a series of bad choices or momentary lapses, it is a power that enslaves people. The devil, the world, and our sinful flesh conspire together to keep us doing wrong and they do it with some very common tools.
One is physical desires that have been corrupted by sin. Because we are physical we have bodily needs and desires. Because these have been corrupted by the sin that dwells within our flesh they can become so intense that we experience pain and suffering if they are not fulfilled. Consequently, while we live in these bodies that have not yet been transformed by death and resurrection, we must constantly struggle against them.
Another means of control is fear, especially the fear of death. Hebrews says that the devil uses it to enslave us. So, don’t let fear determine your actions. Walk by faith instead. Otherwise, the devil will soon be leading you around by the nose.
A third tool is deception. It was by deception that sin was introduced into the world. The forces of evil use these tools to manipulate people and keep them under their control.
As a result of this malicious manipulation, many people want the wrong things, fear to do the right things, and often confuse good and evil.
Just take a good look at the news and advertising that you see. Some of the most common persuaders are fear, uncertainty, and doubt. When you see a Facebook post or a political ad, ask yourself, what are they appealing to? Often the answer will be your fear. Or read the financial news. It alternates regularly between fear and greed. Has the market gone up? Lookout for the crash. Has the market gone down, buy, so you don’t miss out on the next rise. Or maybe you are a fan of Warren Buffet who said, “Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful.” Still fear and greed, isn’t it?
Fear and greed lead to nothing but sin and death. Even our hearts desires can destroy us. Jesus wasn’t blowing smoke when he said,
“From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and they defile a person.”Mark 7:20-23
So then, we were born into slavery to sin and death. But now that God has declared us dead with Christ Jesus and buried us with him in baptism we are free. The devil, the world, and sin within us no longer have the power to compel us to sin.
We are, therefore, free to struggle against sin. We should no sooner return to sin than an escaped slave would voluntarily return to his former master. After Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, slaves who escaped or who were liberated by union troops were free by law and had the option of joining black regiments in the Union Army to fight against those who had enslaved them. Many did so, as did many blacks who were already free. Together, they fought valiantly to free their southern brothers. Such a unit was formed here in Iowa by Alexander G. Clarke of Muscatine.
Instead of returning to the ways of the world around us, Paul tells us to present ourselves to God that we might serve him. Think of it as showing up for work. We get up and report for duty and God has good things for us to do. We don’t have to seek them out. They just appear right in front of us as we go about our lives, because God has prepared them for us. As we do these things we grow in righteousness and lay up treasure in heaven. That’s a much better result than we got from the things we did when we under the devil’s lash. Those things just led us deeper and deeper into sin. Paul says,
“Just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.”Romans 6:19
And the end result of going deeper and deeper into sin is death, for the wages of sin is death. But those who serve God in faith enjoy his gift of life. They haven’t earned it by their service. He simply gives it.
So then, there are several reasons why we don’t continue in sin. First, we have died to sin. Second, we have been set free from our bondage to sin. And third, we do not want to trade the life we have received for the death that comes to those who continue to serve sin. So, we struggle and fight and serve the God who gave us life.
For it is God who declared Christ’s sacrifice complete. It is God’s who declares us forgiven and dead to sin. It is God’s who speaks peace and eternal life into our souls, and God who that declares us righteous, that we might become righteous and live forever.
All of these things are declared by God and received by faith. To him be the glory forever. Amen.