To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Monday, November 29, 2004

Heirs to Suffering and Glory

Romans 8:12-17
Preached Sunday Morning, November 28, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Several years ago a notorious publisher of pornography announced that he had become a Christian, that his life had changed. Soon after his “conversion,” the cover of his magazine appeared with only words describing how he had been “born again.” But inside, the magazine looked pretty much the same as it had always had. As time went on, it became clear that Larry Flynt was pretty much the same, too, based on his continued work in pornography and his generally outrageous behavior. Even those outside the church saw something wrong with the idea of a pornographer claiming to be a Christian. They were right, of course, because the redeemed of God should not go on living sinfully.

As we go through Romans, we see that living righteously as Christians is a major theme of the book. In Chapter 6 Paul reminded the Romans that Christians are no longer to be slaves to sin, but rather to present ourselves as slaves to God. In Chapter 7 we saw the futility, as illustrated in Paul’s own struggle, of trying to force ourselves to be righteous. The chapter ended with the question, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

The answer, the good news of God, is that Christians are delivered through Jesus Christ our Lord. Here in Chapter 8 we see what that deliverance looks like for those in Christ and no longer under condemnation. Here we begin to learn the way around both the errors of "faith only" & “works salvation” (1). That way, in brief, comes from giving up on our efforts to justify ourselves and instead allowing God’s Spirit to lead us into life and peace. Let’s look at three elements of living righteous, Christian lives: our calling, our condition, and our challenge.

We are offered a choice: to live according to the flesh and reap a reward of death, or to “put to death the deeds of the body” and live (Rom. 8:13). If we look at this idea of us putting to death our sinfulness, it is tempting to fall back into legalism. By the term legalism, I mean the idea of trying to make ourselves righteous by our own efforts of following the rules. Last week in Chapter 7 we saw the futility of trying to justify ourselves in that way. As one preacher has noted, trying to make ourselves right with God through our hard work is like trying to train a wolf to be a sheep dog, or making silicon chips in a garbage dump rather than a clean room (2).

The danger of legalism, and the reason you hear preachers saying so much about it, is that it’s such an easy trap to fall into. Some folks can fake righteousness well—so well, in fact, that we may convince others or even ourselves that we just don’t sin. What’s more, Christians who inside are struggling to be righteous may on the outside look like the most faithful workers in the church.

So what are we supposed to do? We can’t make ourselves righteous, yet right here in Romans 8 we see that for Christians life depends on putting to death the deeds of the body. How are we supposed to do that?

By the Spirit. The key to righteous living is not our efforts to be good boys and girls, but living according to the Spirit that dwells within us, that we receive at our baptism. Let’s go back a few verses for an explanation of life by the Spirit:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom. 8:1-4, ESV)

God’s Spirit is a gift to empower us, to purify us, to comfort us. By giving ourselves over to God’s Spirit we walk in the ways of righteousness—a righteousness we have not earned, but one given to us by God. “‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of Hosts” (Zech. 4:6). When we walk by the Spirit we no longer set our minds on the things of the flesh, because keeping our thoughts there will yield only death (Rom. 8:5-7). We may still sin in the body from time to time, but “if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).

So Christians are no longer debtors to the flesh—to follow the way of sin. We are debtors to God who redeems us from sin and death. And once we have been saved, once we have received forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit in our baptism, we still have a choice to make daily: Will we walk by the flesh or by the Spirit? If we want to live a life of righteousness and power, we must be led by the Spirit of God—the Spirit described in the Word, the Spirit with us in prayer, the Spirit who empowers us to practice obedience. Learning to walk in the Spirit, to be shaped more and more inside and out by that Spirit, is an ongoing process—a process we call sanctification (3).

The picture we see here of sanctification is really a very beautiful one. Paul would be remiss not to remind us that a life of the flesh is really death. But the tone of this whole section is not one of guilt or warning, but of joy (4). God has done something wonderful for Christians. He has spared no expense in taking sinful human beings and making us righteous through a precious gift. Here in Chapter 8 Paul reminds the Roman Christians just how wonderful that gift really is.

We see that gift explained beginning in verse 14: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Sons of God. Those words are so simple it’s easy to miss how awesome they really are. This is really one of the most wonderful promises of the Bible—that we can be children of God. You know, the term "child of God" is thrown around pretty loosely these days to refer to any human being. In the sense that we're all created in God's image, there is a degree of truth there. But for Christians, sonship is a special blessing. It is the pearl of great price, worth more than anything else. And because we're sons and daughters of God, we're also heirs—heirs to the kingdom of heaven itself (Lk. 12:32). That's an awesome promise, one worth taking some time to consider and meditate on.

In being heirs, Christians have a future hope for when we come into our inheritance. Looking ahead to verse 23 we see that "we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies." That promise encourages in us hope for a glorious future with God. The promise of sonship will be realized in the future, but it has the power to help us now.

We look at ourselves, of course, and don't see creatures worthy of the Kingdom of God. We still sin. We resist God's promises. We think small. Then again, we're children, and children sometimes live in ways unbecoming their true stature (5). Even at our best we struggle to live lives worthy of our adoption. Yet we know that with every fledgling step we have the love, the protection, the patience, and the nurturing care of a loving Father. In Chapter 6 we were urged to present our selves as slaves to righteousness. Here in Chapter 8 we find that in presenting ourselves as slaves we are lifted up as sons. As children who need extra guidance, of course, we may not look much different from slaves. But as sons and daughters God does not treat us as slaves, does not force or coerce us in obedience. He loves us and encourages us to remember who we really are—children of God. And knowing who we are is important for living as we should (6).

We are privileged to call out to God as Abba, a word usually translated "father." Notice that here in Romans Paul chose to write the word both in Greek (Pater) and Aramaic (Abba). There's something very child-like about the word Abba. It comes out of the mouth like the word of a little baby. And that, of course, is how we should come to God—as little children speaking to our Daddy.

New Testament Greek, along with older English translations of the Bible, conveys a sense of this familiar, loving relationship to God with the use of the pronouns thou, thee, and thine. Although most of us have forgotten the importance of these words today, when the King James Bible of 1611 came out, people understood perfectly the significance of these pronouns. When a person addressed a close friend or family member, he always used thou, thee or thine. Those were known as the familiar pronouns used with those closest to the speaker. When addressing a stranger, or someone above one's own station, a person would say you, your, or yours. Those were known as the formal pronouns. Today, most people have a totally inverted idea of these words as they are used to refer to God. We save the words thee and thou for the most "formal" things we do—addressing God in the assembly. In fact, thee and thou are the familiar words we should use when we're sitting in God's lap.

So that is the picture we have here of our relationship to God: God has given us the greatest gift, I believe, that even he can give—membership in his own family. And he longs for us to relate to him with all the love and affection that a little child shows for his Daddy.

And yet at the end of this passage we hear what may at first sound like a discordant note. We've been reading about being blessed children of God, heirs to the Kingdom, and all of a sudden Paul adds, "provided we suffer with him" (v. 17). Where does that come from?

For one thing, it comes from a man who knew suffering. In the cause of Christ, Paul had been rejected, slandered, whipped, beaten, and chained. He had gone up against the forces of the world—where the flesh rules supreme. Paul, like Jesus, knew the cost of being a member of God's family on the earth. That means that he also knew something vitally important about what it means to be a child of God, a disciple of Christ.

Suffering, you see, is at the very center of the gospel. Jesus came to earth and suffered for our sake and in our place. He loved the world, but the world didn't love him. He told the world the truth and as a result suffered the consequences: injustice, beating, and death. John knew also about suffering when he told us, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (Jn 1:10-12).

If we, as adopted children of God, expect to share in Jesus' glory, we should expect the same kind of treatment (if not the same intensity) that Jesus received. Jesus reminded us of this fact over and over and urged us to take up our crosses and follow him (Lk 9:23).

So how does that suffering relate to glory? They are intertwined, as Paul points out when he writes that "we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him" (v. 17). Peter said something very similar when he urged Christians to “Rejoice insofar as you share in Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pe 4:13)

I must admit: this close relationship between suffering and glory makes me a little nervous. I rarely if ever suffer for the gospel. As a preacher, the world for the most part treats me peacefully and with respect, especially here in the South. And that's not a bad thing. All through the New Testament we are called to cultivate peace with the world as much as we can. But let's never forget that the master of this world is not our master, and that we may be called at any moment to suffer for the sake of Christ.

That suffering comes with a promise: If we suffer with him, we will be glorified with him. Suffering is part of building us up to be what God wants us to be. Paul described this process in Chapter 5 when he wrote that "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame" (5:3-5).

Suffering has another benefit—it encourages us to choose. Pain and suffering open our eyes, get us out of the squishy middle of indecision. There's nothing like a bracing dose of pain to help us make up our minds and remember what's really important. Suffering, then, helps us face the ultimate choice of what's important to us: flesh or the Spirit? Do we try to save our life and lose it, or lose it for the sake of the Kingdom and find new life?

We're encouraged here in Romans 8 to walk in the Spirit of God. We're adopted children of God, heirs to the Kingdom. We will realize our inheritance when Jesus returns, but till then every Christian is called to walk in righteousness, not by our own strength, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. Our weakness, but his strength. And no matter how much we have to suffer here, we can take each step confident with the hope of God's glory in our own lives.

1. John Piper. "The Liberating Law of the Spirit of Life (Romans 8:1, 2)." Online sermon text at
2. Bob Deffinbaugh. "Siding With the Spirit (Romans 8:1-17)." Online study at
3. Thomas Constable. Dr. Constable's Notes on Romans, 2004 edition. Online copy at
4. Ibid. See also Deffinbaugh.
5. Ray C. Stedman. "The Sons of God Among Men." Online sermon text at
6. Ibid.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

Monday, November 22, 2004

Battle in the Flesh

Romans 7:13-25
Preached Sunday morning, November 21, 2004
New York Avenue Church of Christ

Several years ago a young Christian told our Bible study group that since becoming a Christian, she had had more trouble with sin than before her conversion. On the one hand, group members told her, the Devil had made life easy for her while she was lost, because she already belonged to him. At the same time, our friend had fallen into the trouble that every Christian has to face throughout our lives—sin after baptism.

Making sense of this sin in our lives is one of the biggest challenges we have as Christians. How can we be Christians and continue to sin? Another, related, problem we face is legalism. We can call this problem by different names: works righteousness, works salvation. Whatever we call it, it amounts to trying to save ourselves through our good works. This passage from Romans 7 gives us answers to both problems and hope for living lives of victory in Jesus.

Back in Chapter 6 of Romans we saw that Christians have died to sin (6:2). Chapter 7 begins with the good news that we’ve also died to the law (7:4). The law itself is holy and good (7:12), but sin used the law to bring about death (7:11). One of the purposes of the law, in fact, is to highlight our sin so that we see our need for grace (5:20). Baptism, by the way, symbolizes the death of Christians to both sin and the law [1].

One of the reasons this passage promises victory for the Christian is, ironically, that it affirms our flesh is weak and given over to sin. We may use different names for “the flesh” in a New Testament sense. We can call it the “old man” or, like the New International Version, the “sinful nature.” Whatever we call it, we see that Paul himself had trouble doing in his flesh what he wanted in his heart and mind [2]. At his conversion, Paul had received a miraculous vision from God, complete with blinding light and a voice from heaven. Still, years into his journey of faith, Paul struggled with sin in the flesh. Paul described this struggle elsewhere when he said, "For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you would" (Gal. 5:17).

Notice one thing about the struggle Paul describes here. The battle is not between the conflicting desires of our minds and hearts, but between the Spirit and the flesh. The Bible is very clear that we are not to be double minded. As the Apostle James told us, the double-minded man is “unstable in all his ways” (Jas. 1:7). No, the battle is between the Spirit and the flesh [3]. Now let’s be careful here. The Bible does not say that in every case the body is evil and the Spirit good. Yet somehow sin still dwells in our bodies even after our hearts receive the Spirit of God. Our culture today has inherited the legacy of modern psychology, which tries to find unconscious mental motivations for our actions. Even to psychological science, however, the relationship between mind and body is by no means completely understood. Notice Paul made no claim to understand it—in fact, he positively says he doesn’t understand his own actions when it comes to sin. The simple fact is this: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15).

Can’t every Christian say the same thing? As much as we try to do good, we sometimes find ourselves sinning anyway. If we try to judge our faithfulness based on our actions, how often do we throw up our hands and call ourselves wretched? As painful as the realization of our own wretchedness is for us, however, it is a key to a knowledge that liberates.

Knowing that even God’s apostles sinned, at least at times, can help liberate us. It frees us from trying to be good enough—good enough to qualify as a “true, obedient” Christian. Good enough to really be abiding in Christ. Good enough to earn God’s approval. Good enough to earn others’ approval. Good enough to feel free from guilt. Do you ever find yourself chasing after this futile effort to be good enough for God? Do you find yourself trying to obey God more out of guilt than from joy? I must admit that I do. Yet we are not called to focus on our shortcomings. We know this with certainty because even after his confession here in Chapter 7, Paul goes on twice to remind the Romans that, in the words of Isaiah, “no one who believes in him will be put to shame” (Rom 9:33, 10:11). Peter reminded Christians of the same thing: “For it stands in scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame’” (1 Pet. 2:6).

So facing our sin frees us from desperately striving to be good enough and from the shame of our inevitable failure. It also frees us from the hopelessness that comes from knowing and hiding from our own impurity. Knowledge and confession of our sin frees us from being snobs who look down our noses at brothers and sisters who have sins that do not tempt us. Facing the sin in our flesh frees us from worrying about our salvation—whether or not we are good enough to be saved.

Still, God does not want us simply to rest on his grace. We are called to fight the battle of righteousness. It is by no means acceptable for us simply to say, “Well, my flesh is going to sin anyway, so why worry about it?” Let’s be clear. Sin is incompatible with the Christian life. We are told, “ Sin shall not be your master, for you are not under law but under grace" (Rom.6:14). We know that Paul himself struggled to overcome sin and live a life worthy of his calling (1 Cor 9:27). Christians today are to do the same (Eph. 4:1), as Paul reminded Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). John also stressed the need for those who await Christ’s return to live holy lives: “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:3).

Very well, so Christians are called to live holy lives. But if right actions aren’t what it takes for justification before God, what is the basis of our justification? We can be certain it is not ourselves. That is the central problem of Rom. 7—the futility of trying to gain righteousness on our own [4]. We know this, of course, at least doctrinally. But aren’t we still tempted to try? If we do, it won’t work. No matter how hard we try to deserve God’s blessings of salvation, we will never succeed. No matter how hard we work at being good, we will never have anything to brag on about ourselves (Rom 3:27).

No, the only hope for righteousness in us or anyone else is Jesus Christ. He alone is “our wisdom and our righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30). Our righteousness is not of ourselves, “for Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4). Living that righteousness depends on our faith—an absolute conviction that Christ alone makes us right with God.

Putting that kind of faith into practice is not easy. It takes a new kind of thinking—a mind that doesn’t try to drive us to be good enough to please God. We must remember that Christ not only helps us to be righteous. He not only makes us righteous. In fact, Christ is our righteousness, to all of us who believe. We are made righteous not by our good works, but by the free gift of God in Jesus Christ. We call that gift grace, and God gives it to us because he loves us.

In Chapter 7 of Romans we’ve seen the futility of trying to relate to God through the law. If we relate to God through trying to live up to his standards, we will fail, because evil has infiltrated into the very cells of our bodies. Next week, in Chapter 8 we’ll see the victory that comes to be believer who relates to God through the Holy Spirit [5]. In both chapters we are offered relief from our striving to be good enough. Does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course not. But it does mean we have a righteousness far greater than anything we ourselves can achieve: Jesus Christ the righteous. Let’s take that righteousness up, to the glory of God.

1. Richard A. Batey. The Letter of Paul to the Romans. Austin: R. B. Sweet, 1969, p. 90.
2. F. F. Bruce. The Epistle of Paul to the Romans. London: Tyndale, 1963, p. 148.
3. Batey, 99-100.
4. Batey, 97.
5. Lawrence O. Richards. The Teacher's Commentary. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1987, pp. 820-25.

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

In Praise of the Ed McMahon Condition

Before there was such a show as Star Search, Ed McMahon made his name as a “professional sidekick” next to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. In that role, Mr. McMahon was the subject of an enormous amount of popular humor. Everyone, it seemed, from comedians to the man at work, loved to make fun of Johnny’s yes-man, the perpetual second fiddle. What talent did the man really have, people liked to ask, other than to laugh at Carson’s jokes and occasionally bellow out, “You are correct, sir!”

Despite being the subject of so many jokes, one very important quality redeemed the man who grew rich on Johnny Carson’s coattails. Ed McMahon knew where his little corner of fame came from: from hitching his wagon, so to speak, to Johnny Carson. His bow to Johnny at the beginning of each show, his gleeful laughter at Johnny’s humor—they were sincere appreciation from a man who had benefitted richly from Johnny Carson’s talent. How do we know it was sincere? Because Ed admitted that his success was not due to his own talent. On the second-to-last evening before Johnny Carson left as host of The Tonight Show, an emotional Ed McMahon told Johnny of his heart-felt appreciation for gaining so much fame and fortune through the years simply by being next to the man with the real talent.

Does Ed’s story resonate with you? In a sense, it should. As Christians, we have the ultimate “fortune and fame”— righteousness, the forgiveness of sins, peace with Almighty God who created the universe but knows every hair on our heads. And we didn’t earn any of it. Our salvation, our righteousness, our peace come not through our own goodness but through the gift of God through Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 1:9). It helps to remember that. If we do, then perhaps our relationship with God will be filled with joyful gratitude. Although we are nothing in ourselves (Rom 7:18), in Christ we are new creations (2 Cor. 5:17).

Copyright 2004, New York Avenue Church of Christ

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

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