To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Location: Mud Creek, Tennessee, United States

Monday, November 08, 2004

Slaves of Christ

Romans 6:12-23
Preached Sunday morning, November 7, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

“Freedom” is probably the most abused word in American politics. Whenever a politician throws out the word in a speech, my propaganda detector immediately swings into action. If the word freedom, however, means anything at all, it is certainly on the line in Iraq right now. Politically, the people of Iraq had practically no freedom under the former regime of the country’s inhumane dictator. As the continuing struggle to restore order demonstrates, freedom is “hard to attain, but harder to sustain” (1).

In that sense, what’s true in earthly politics is also true in the Kingdom of God. For Christians, many of the big questions have always been about freedom: Do I really have free will? Can I really be free from sin? Once I’m saved by grace, am I free to commit small sins every once in a while?

Let’s look at those last two questions, about sin. The book of Romans has a lot to say about sin—more about victory over sin than forgiveness of sin (2). Just like the Christians in Paul’s day, Christians today still struggle with sin. As a preacher once wisely noted, “Salvation brings immediate forgiveness for sin but not immediate freedom from sin” (3). In Rom. 6:1 Paul addresses sin as an ongoing process, a lifestyle. To the question, “Is it OK to keep sinning,” Paul responds, “No way!” Now, in verse 15, Paul looks at a slightly different but related question. We know it’s a different question because Paul uses a different verb tense. In verse 1 we have a progressive verb, “go on sinning.” Here in verse 15 we see a point-action verb, “to sin (once).” To paraphrase the question: “Since we’re under grace instead of law, is it OK to sin every now and then?”

Now if we’ll be honest, haven’t we asked this question ourselves? When a particularly attractive sin presents itself to us, do we ever say, “Why not give in to this one sin, since I’m saved anyway” (4). Now, of course, we probably don’t let these words actually pass through our minds, but isn’t that what we’re doing when we decide to go ahead and sin? We try to have both our salvation and our sin. I know I play this sad and dangerous game every time I eat an extra serving of food after I’ve already had my fill. The particular sins are different with each of us, but the temptation is the same—just one more drink, one joint, one more computer game, one incident of screaming at our children, one more TV show.

That is the question Paul is taking on in this section of Romans: the question of occasional sin. His words on the matter are a reminder and a warning—and also an encouragement. Let’s look at the passage.

In verse 12 we’re told, not to “let sin rule your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires.” Don’t give in to sin. That’s simple enough—“Just say no.” It’s the kind of advice any mother might give. But Paul is saying much more than that. At the beginning of this chapter he’s just reminded us that as Christians we are dead to sin.
How can we who died as far as sin is concerned go on living in it?
Or don't you know that all of us who were baptized into union with Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore, through baptism we were buried with him into his death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father's glory, we too may live an entirely new life (Rom 6:2-4).
See here what our faith is about? It’s not about giving this up, doing that a little better. It’s about a whole new life.

It helps to have a little bit of the first-century, pre-modern, poetic mind to appreciate Paul’s words here without trying to over-analyze them. Simply put, we don’t have to give in to sin anymore. We’re over it! We’re dead to it. We have a new life. What kind of new life? As Christians we are alive to God in Christ. That means that when we take on the new life in Christ we don’t go about our business as usual. It means we have come to life in righteousness, not in the sin that characterizes natural life on earth.

Because we are created by God and recreated in Christ, we are called to offer ourselves to God’s service. See verse 13: “Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life.” We do this yielding in our actions. When we sin, we yield our selves to wickedness—something that has no place in the life of a Christian. Being Christian doesn’t mean we can sin as long as it’s not a “sin unto death” (1 John 5:16). It means we don’t sin (1 John 2:1). Any sin is going back, yielding ourselves to wickedness. And yielding to sin is letting sin be our master. See how opposed sin is to the life of a Christian? Sin should have no control over us, “since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom. 6:14).

At this point a certain question raises its head again. If we’re under grace rather than law, does that mean we can go ahead and sin now and then? As far fetched as that seems when we state the question so baldly, isn’t that a temptation for all of us? I know it is for me. Christians eventually learn how to answer the question back in 6:1—“Is it OK to go on sinning?” Of course not. Our lifestyles are different as Christians. But once that lifestyle is in place, once we shine the light in our lives, we’re still tempted from time to time to do just a little sin—smoke a little weed, hit a certain web site, tell a little lie. Is that kind of thing OK? Paul answers, No! That kind of behavior makes us slaves again.

That may seem an awfully harsh assessment. It sounds pretty bad for us when we look at how short our own lives fall. There is some good news in here, however, as we’ll see in a moment. First, let’s look at a rather obvious consequence of Paul’s teaching here: for Christians, sin is not unavoidable. In other words, we can still sin even after we are converted, baptized, forgiven, and receive the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Some Christians don’t believe this. Some years ago I came across a group of young men at a hotel in Atlanta. As I walked past, something caught my attention. They were smoking cigarettes and cussing like sailors. But at the same time they were talking about faith in Jesus. I was so intrigued by this mixture, that I stopped to talk. It turns out they were part of an organization that tells its followers once they became Christians it was impossible to sin. This is an old but very persistent heresy. As we see in clearly in Romans, Christians can indeed still sin. As we see in our own lives, they often do. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we don’t have to. When we are reborn in Christ we are no longer slaves to sin. We’ve died to sin and have begun the process of sanctification. In fact, we are free from the slavery of sin and have taken on a new kind of slavery—to obedience, to righteousness, and to God: “and being made free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). Now we are called to yield our members “to righteousness for sanctification.” That means we’re being made holy, and it’s an ongoing process. Justification happens in a moment, but sanctification takes a lifetime. It also comes with a cost—dying to sin. As much as we’ve identified our lives with the sins of everyday life, that’s how much we have to die daily to sin—to lose our lives to save them (Mark 8:35).

It’s an either-or proposition. When we were slaves to sin, we were free from God, so to speak. Once we become free from sin at our baptism we become slaves to God. That’s what salvation comes down to—becoming slaves to God. And at this point, we have to ask ourselves: Is salvation worth that—becoming slaves, even to God? Are we willing to turn over all our possessions, all our time, all our wants to the Master? That’s costly salvation. Two millennia ago it cost Jesus his life on the cross. Today it costs us our lives one step at a time, one minute at a time, one act of service, one denial of our appetites at a time.

That’s the only path to holiness. For years we’ve talked about holiness here at New York Avenue. That’s very good, because God is calling us to be holy. But are we really willing to pursue it? Let’s not be confused. See here what holiness is? Slavery to God. It’s a pearl of great price, worthy of giving up everything else to have (Mt. 13:46). Why? Look at verse 22: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life.”

In one sense, eternal life begins at our baptism, at least in its infancy. But eternal life comes to maturity in holiness, and holiness comes only from making ourselves slaves to Jesus Christ. Do you have trouble with the idea of being a slave? I do, too. We’re Americans, after all. One of the most helpful teachings I’ve heard on the idea of slavery to God came from Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ. In addition to reaching out to millions of college students, that ministry founded the Jesus Film Project to bring the gospel in dramatic form to perhaps a billion souls in 812 languages. While I wish Mr. Bright had taught more firmly on baptism, I can find no fault at all in his thoughts on slavery to Christ. Once, when asked what he believed to be the source of his success in spreading Jesus, Mr. Bright replied that as a young man he decided to live the rest of his life as a slave to God.
"The Scripture clearly teaches we're not our own. We've been bought with a price, the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. So none of us, really have any rights and I'm simply acknowledging, when I say, 'Lord I want to be your slave' – I know I'm a son of God, an heir of God, a joint heir with Christ, I'm seated with him in the heavenlies, but by choice, like Paul, Peter, and others I have chosen to be a slave. And it's the most liberating thing you can imagine” (5).
How beautiful. How true.

Romans 6 concludes with words that are not only an often-quoted verse, but a cold, hard contrast. The Bible is good at this—boiling down life’s many shades of gray to pure black and white. That’s what we have in verse 23, a simple contrast on the choices we make in our lives: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Those are the only choices: death or life. The fallen side of us may like to have it both ways—eternal life with just a little sin, “All this and heaven, too.” But it doesn’t work that way. The choice is one or the other: Sin or righteousness? ‘Freedom’ from God or freedom from sin? Slavery to sin or slavery to God? Death or life?

Lest we misunderstand, Paul makes something clear here in verse 23. God does not require sinlessness after baptism in order for us to be saved. Eternal life is a free gift from God, not something we earn by not sinning. God gives us gifts out of the abundance of his love and his desire to be in communion with us. Still, sin for Christians is not a light matter. It’s playing with fire—the fire of hell.

So how much can we sin after our baptism and still be saved? That’s not my call, and it’s not our call. But each one of us is called not to sin. God wants us to be saved, to live eternally with him (1 Tim. 2:4). And he’s given us the power to live righteous lives: “My little children, I'm writing these things to you so that you might not sin. Yet if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, one who is righteous. It is he who is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world's” (1 John 1:1, 2).

1. Bob Deffinbaugh. “The Stupidity of Sin (Romans 6:12-23).” Online study at
2. Ibid
3. Ibid
4. Ray C. Stedman. From Guilt to Glory, vol. 1. Waco: Word, 1978.
5. “Campus Crusade Founder Lived as ‘Slave’ for God.” Online article at

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ


Anonymous Anonymous said...


5:19 PM  
Blogger Pastor Buzz said...

I tripped over to your blog from Doug Floyd's! Great to see your name! I take it you are serving at New York Avenue Church of Christ.
I'm still hanging out in The Meadow.
Grace and peace, my brother.

11:34 PM  
Anonymous Alan Lloyd / said...

your members - does that mean your faculties, or your soul and conscience, or maybe even differing peronsalities? I have always wondered why the shift from singular to plural?


4:46 PM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Good question. At first glance, at least, faculties, souls, and consciences would all seem to work. You've made me want to look into it further. What shift in tense, exactly, are you referring to?

8:32 AM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Buzz: Thanks for leaving a comment. Please forgive me for not replying sooner. But as I'm sure you know, I've been reading your blogs all this time. Peace.

6:17 PM  
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