Two weeks ago, we looked at Romans 6:14 where Paul says, “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace.” One reason we are out from under the oppressive tyranny of sin is because we are no longer under the law, but under grace. We said that for Paul to be “under the law” was to try to be found pleasing in God’s sight by our performance of His moral requirements, the law. If a person is attempting to be found righteous before God by what they do for him, they are under the law. Even though the law is holy and pure, it is not, nor was it ever the vehicle through which God made people acceptable or righteous in his sight. That’s not the purpose of the law. The degree to which we are trying to be righteous or pleasing to God by our performance of the standard is the degree to which we are allowing sin to reign over us. To be under the law is to place ourselves under the ruthless control of the power of sin.
One reason for this is when we try to please God by what we do, we are ultimately assuming that we are, in our own ability ABLE to please God and this is the height of arrogance. For a sinner to think they could do anything on their own to please a holy God is to greatly diminish either their own sinfulness or God’s holiness. In fact, we know that the law is in place to show us that we could NEVER be pleasing to God. To use it as a manual to tell us “how to be good enough for God” is to completely distort its purpose and place us under the oppressive rule of sin. Sincere people who are trying to be acceptable to God on the basis of what they do are most miserable because they are using the law (which is designed to bring death to our own self efforts) to instead bring them life. And that which is intended to bring death can never bring life.
That is what it means to be under the law. Let’s read verses 15-19. Paul has just said that we are free from sin’s control because we are not under the law, but grace. In verse 15, he counters that statement with a possible misunderstanding of it. He says, “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey--whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. 18You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. 19I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.”
Verse 14 introduces what it means to be under law. These verses tell us what it means to be under grace. What does it mean to live a life under the grace of God? What is characteristic of a person who lives under grace? If you were to ask most evangelicals what it means to be under grace, they would probably respond that to be under grace means to be forgiven of your sins and that is certainly part of what it means. But it is telling that here in verses 14-15 (which is the only text in all of Paul where he uses the phrase “under grace”) Paul doesn’t even mention forgiveness of sins. Instead, he focuses on a different and I would argue more prominent aspect of what it is to live under grace. Paul’s emphatic point in these verses about being under grace is not forgiveness, but obedience. Paul’s answer to the question “what does it mean to live under grace” is this: A life lived under grace is characterized by obedience to God.
Paul’s over riding emphasis here in this context of grace is obedience. The only imperative or command he gives in verses 15-19 is the one in verse 19 where he tells us to offer the parts of our bodies in slavery to righteousness—obey God. For so many evangelicals, grace is limited to and synonymous with forgiveness. Here, Paul sticks a knife in that superficial understanding of grace by focussing on obedience. To be under grace means to obey God. The irony of God’s economy is this: people who try to be pleasing to God by meeting his moral norms—(i.e. obeying the law) will never find life. But (and this is the often overlooked “but”) so called believers who do not, under grace fulfill the law will also not find life.
We see this so clearly in Romans 8:3-4. “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature [or, “flesh’], God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.” This is a mammoth text. Paul is saying that because the law could not enable us to live lives which meet the moral norms of the law, God met the moral norms of the law in Christ who was presented as the spotless Lamb to atone for sin. But that offering for sin not only purchased forgiveness for us, it also destroyed the power of sin to rule over us so that now, through the Spirit, we might fulfill the moral norms of the law. Paul’s point here is that just because we are not under the law, that gives us no freedom to be lawless. Indeed, we are to fulfill the law.
There is for Paul, no dichotomy between our imputed righteousness and our lived out holiness. There is no gulf which separates, on the one hand, what God has given us by declaring us righteous in his sight and on the other, the moral, ethical life we are to live before God in holiness. This text supports that truth in at least three ways. Paul makes three points about this obedience which we manifest as we live under grace. First, this obedience which comes from being under grace is absolutely necessary for entrance into heaven. We see this in verse 16. Paul says, “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether as slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness.” Paul says when you offer yourself to sin you are a slave of sin and the end result of that slavery is death. He doesn’t mean primarily physical death, he is talking about spiritual condemnation. Death is synonymous for spiritual death in hell. He contrasts sin which leads to spiritual condemnation with obedience which leads to righteousness. Paul uses righteousness here NOT to refer to our imputed status before God. Here, in light of the parallel, Paul is contrasting spiritual death with spiritual life, which is righteousness. We see this use of righteousness in Galatians 5:5 where Paul says, “But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit, the righteousness for which we hope.” Clearly he is talking about being spiritually vindicated before God in heaven.
Paul again draws this ultimate bottom line—the difference between eternal life and death in verse 23. Most Christians know verse 23 by heart, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Most believers see that verse as contrasting a pagan who is outside the church who needs to be evangelized with the person inside the church who is saved. The problem with seeing that text that way is that Paul is talking to the church and nowhere in this context does he mention those pagans who are outside the church. The context is people who go to church and read Romans. To THOSE people he says, “the wages of sin in death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What Paul is contrasting here are those so called Christians who live under the control of sin with those who, by the grace of God in Christ Jesus have truly received eternal life.
Now remember, we said eternal life was defined in John 17:3 where Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Eternal life is being in a true relationship with God and Paul indicates that life is characterized by obedience. This teaching is perfectly consistent with Hebrews 12:14 which says, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Clearly he is talking NOT about imputed righteousness, but moral, ethical holiness. You don’t make every effort to be declared righteous, that is done for us. Without this moral, ethical holiness, we will not see the Lord. This is consistent with Matthew 25 where Jesus teaches on the judgment.
He says to the condemned, “depart from me, you who are cursed into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. [WHY? Because you were not declared righteous, because you didn’t pray a prayer at your momma’s knee? NO!!] For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” The reason for the eternal condemnation of these people was not the presence of gross immorality (that goes without saying) the reason these people are condemned is the absence of the law-fulfilling acts of loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Paul’s point in verse 16 and echoed throughout the Bible is a life lived under grace is a life characterized by obedience and that obedience is necessary for entrance into heaven. This is not works righteousness, it is a righteousness that works its way out from the heart to others. It is not sinless perfectionism, but it is an increasingly obedient life lived under the grace of God.
If Paul were to conclude his teaching on obedience with verse 16, people could misunderstand him. In verse 16 Paul presents the two options, slavery to sin and slavery to obedience. The misunderstanding could be that the believer in Jesus Christ is left with a dilemma of a choice between two equally strong options. The option of obedience is there and has a certain appeal to it, but equally strong is the desire to sin and become a slave of sin. To make sure that people DO NOT see this as two equally compelling options, Paul writes in verse 17, “But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.” The idea that a born again Christian is a person who feels an equal pull toward sin as he does toward righteousness is not part of Paul’s theology. There is something about this obedience under grace which renders that impossible.
Paul’s second point about obedience is this obedience is characterized by a God-imparted, heartfelt desire to follow God. There are two components to this obedience, here. First, this desire to obey is God imparted. This desire comes from God. Its not as if God simply forgives our sin but then allows sin to remain as enticing to us as godliness is. NO! This text is clear that God plants the desire to obey Him within the heart of every true believer. In verse 18, the verbs are passive. Literally, the verse should read, “Having been set free from sin, you have been enslaved to righteousness.” The meaning is clear. God has broken the controlling power of sin so that it does not overwhelmingly compel us. We don’t have to sin those sins any more. God has emancipated us from that slavery. He has broken the chains which tied us to sin. We are free from its power to coerce us, to manipulate us, to dictate to us.
But God has not only set us free from that cruel master, he has enslaved us to righteousness. Isn’t that beautiful? We have been enslaved by God to righteousness. Righteousness is the controlling power in our lives and it wasn’t accomplished because we simply decided it would be that way. NO. We have been enslaved (joyously enslaved) to righteousness by God. Do you hear how that shatters the myth that so many Christians live under? That is, that the power of sin is just as powerful in their lives to get them to rebel as the power of righteousness is to compel them to obey. There is a blessed imbalance in our lives in favor of obedience according to Paul. This desire to obey is God imparted.
The second component of this obedience is that it comes from the heart. It is internal. It is NOT an obedience which is rooted in shoulda’, oughta’ or gotta’. Its not grounded in some sort of external force that tells us what to do and we do it mainly so we will not get into trouble. No, it comes from an internal desire. Literally translated, it is “you became obedient from the heart.” This obedience is sincere, it is heartfelt. This is impassioned obedience, not superficial obedience. This a strong desire to obey, not an obedience of convenience. We’ve already seen the explanation for this internal desire to obey. The reason, we saw from Ezekiel and Jeremiah is because we have been given new hearts that want to obey. The reason we obey from the heart is because God has given us a heart that by nature WANTS to obey. Again, we see the God initiated focus here.
The question becomes, “if my heart is strongly weighted in favor of a desire to obey over against a desire to sin, why is it that sin seems to be pulling me so much stronger than God?” There are many answers to that question and frankly, Romans seven and eight provide several answers to that question. For this morning, let me just briefly give two reasons. First, some people in church see sin as being much more powerful than the pull to righteousness because they have never been truly saved. Of course the power of sin is stronger and the reason is because the power of sin has never been broken by Christ in their life. That is one reason some so called Christians see the pull of sin as being much stronger than the pull to obey.
Another reason which can justly be taken from this verse is because many Christians do not know or believe in their hearts this truth. Many Christians experience this liberty over sin when they are first saved, but over time it seems like the balance of power between sin and righteousness shifts. The temptation to live in sins like apathy, lust, indifference are mountains compared with the desire to be self controlled and love each other. What has happened in many cases is the enemy comes in and loudly barks at them with temptation and he convinces them of the lie that the power of sin is greater than the pull toward righteousness. If we were all injected with truth serum, and were to answer the question, “Which seems stronger to you the temptation to sin or the desire to obey God” many, if not most people in this room would say, the temptation to sin—that is so strong.
We have believed the lie and forgotten the truth about the kind of heart God has given us. When the temptation to sin comes, we often buckle under it because we don’t exercise the faith to believe what Paul says here about us being delivered by God from the power of sin and enslaved to righteousness. Let me ask you, do you see yourself as a person in whose life sin’s power has been broken and who has been enslaved by God to righteousness? Do you see yourself that way? Is that the way you conceive of yourself? If you are a believer in Jesus Christ, a true born again person, that is precisely what God has done for you. You have been positionally placed over the power of sin—it is under your feet. The character of your heart is to desire to obey God. That’s who you are. Our problem is, we listen to the enemy who wants to keep us from believing the truth about what God has done for us in Christ. When the temptations to sin seems overwhelming we need to say, “Hey, wait a minute. Why am I feeling like I am a helpless victim to the power of sin, when in fact I have not only been set free from it, but I have actually been given a stronger, God placed desire to obey?” Do we respond to temptation that way? No, we often just give in to it and that is often rooted in the lie, “it is just too strong for me—my desire to obey is not strong enough.” The enemy has so many Christians thoroughly hoodwinked and they exist in spiritual mediocrity instead of impassioned, heartfelt, enslaved-to- righteousness-obedience.
We need to reject his lie and start placing our faith in the truth about who we are in Christ. Jesus says, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” John says, “This is the victory, even our faith.” If we refuse to allow the loud voice of temptation to drown out the truth about what God has done for us in Christ we will find victory. This obedience God calls us to is a God imparted, heartfelt desire to follow Him. A third point about this obedience found in this text is: This obedience is manifest through the willful choices we make. After Paul makes these glorious, liberating statements about what Christ has done for us in the gospel, in verse 19 he says, “…just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.”
This structure is so typical of Paul. He gives truth after truth in the indicative mood. Then he follows with this imperative, this command. He wants to make sure that we know that even though God has done all these things for us in giving us grace over sin, we still must plug that power in through our choices. In fact, the only reason we CAN make the repeated choices to obey is because of what God has done for us. God has provided us with the power over sin and the desire to follow him in obedience, but we must still follow through and make the right choices. There is an element of the will here that is indispensable. We are not robots or puppets. We must engage this power over sin through our willful choices to follow God. To illustrate, its as if God has spiritually equipped us like an Abrams tank which will roll right over sin. God has put the gas in the tank and the key in the ignition, but we have to put the thing into gear by the choice of our will. If we do not, then the onslaught of sin will envelop us and we sit here in these divinely equipped sin crushers, parked and covered with moss and rust. So many Christians live like that and the darkness counts on it. If the army of God would get off its collective duffs and begin to engage its God-desiring will, look out! Sins would be crushed at will because God has equipped us through the gospel to do just that.
This is terribly exciting and yet convicting at the same time. Its exciting because to live under grace is to live a life characterized by obedience. Its convicting because many, many of us who have access to this life of grace are not obeying God anything close to consistently. Instead, we are allowing the power of sin to reach into our lives and dominate us when it has no business doing that. We are denying who we are in Christ and we are telling the Father, “Its very nice that you sent your Son to die to break the power of sin and to give me a heart that longs to obey you, but it was a wasted effort on your part because I am not utilizing hardly any of what he did for me.” Think how you would respond if you, as a parent gave your child on their 18th birthday a bar of 24 carat gold to fund their education. Instead of using it to pay for school, they use it as a door stop in their bedroom. We have, through the gospel been given freedom from sin’s control and a new heart to obey God. Do our lives indicate that? Are we utilizing what God has given us through the blood of his Son, or are we putting it on the shelf and willfully choosing to serve sin. Are we rejecting the partner of righteousness God has so sacrificially provided for us and going off with the prostitute of sin? What do we suppose God thinks of that? God has given us the grace to live lives under grace which are characterized by obedience. Lets choose to do that.
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