I have a confession to make. When it comes to personality tests, I’m a skeptic. I’m skeptical about these tests because, to me, they don’t seem to tell you very much but instead only seem to affirm what you already believe yourself to be. For example, if you’re one who enjoys quiet and books and you dislike crowds of people you’ll probably end up being an INTJ or an INTP on the Meyers Briggs scale, or a number 4 or 5 if you’re into Enneagram numbers. Or on the other hand if you’re one to enjoys crowds or big groups and you dislike being alone you’ll be an ESTJ for Meyers Briggs and a 2 or an 8 on the Enneagram scale. But I’m skeptical about all this. And being skeptical about these tests I often find myself doubting whether these are real results that reveal how someone is truly wired or that someone has just created an identity so well that they put down answers they intuitively know will get them the test results they desire, that will then serve to further entrench one’s already preconceived self-generated identity. But maybe I’m skeptical because Christians tend use the results of tests like this to justify sin and all kinds of disobedience to God. Or maybe I’m skeptical because all these tests are marketed to us with phrases like ‘Take this test, it’s the road back to you.’ Church, there’s only one ‘road back to you’, one mirror to look in to see who we truly are, and that’s the Scripture.

In this light, these past weeks in Romans 6 has been a timely and precious reminder of our true identity. Who we once were in Adam, who we now are in Christ; alive to sin and dead to God, but now dead to sin and alive to God. This is who we are, this is how we must view ourselves, this is our identity. We’ve deeply enjoyed seeing how Paul uses the image of a slave under a cruel taskmaster to explain our former life in sin. And rightly so! How refreshing it is to remember what’s happened to us in redemption! The moment we believe in Jesus we’re made one with Jesus. And since we’re united to Him, His death becomes our death and His resurrection becomes our resurrection, which means in the gospel Jesus has truly freed us from sin’s slavery over us, and in this freedom we’re to walk.

But then, as we continue on with Paul today through the end of Romans 6 he does something unexpected. He flips the slavery image on its head and gives us a new identity. He said we were once slaves of sin, but now he says we’re to think of ourselves as slaves of God. Does this offend you? Perhaps we should think back to Romans 1:1, “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…” This is clearly how Paul viewed himself, he owned this identity. Do we? We might justly have negative ideas of slavery from our nation’s history with it, but when we see this passage define us as slaves of God we shouldn’t throw out the idea. Rather, we should own it.

Now, that we are called slaves here might initially bring us to some wrong conclusions about who God is as Master over us, and about what our life in His service looks like. Thankfully, in Romans 6:15-23, Paul carefully and clearly describes this to us. So let’s follow him here and see what he says.

An Opening Question (v15)

“What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!”

As he did back in v1, Paul now begins this final section of Romans 6 with another question. The question he asked back in v1 was, ‘Should I sin to gain more grace?’ while this question being asked in v15 is, ‘Should I sin because I already have grace?’[1] Both of these questions come from Paul anticipating unhealthy responses to what he has said. In v1 Paul is addressing the unhealthy response to the grace he spoke about at the end of chapter 5. And similarly, here in v15 Paul is addressing the unhealthy response to the grace of God he spoke about in v14. So remember in v14 he said, “…you are not under law but under grace.” One might hear that and think, ‘Great! I can sin now without fear of consequence, because I’m no longer under the power or penalty of the Law.’ See the half-truth at work here? Yes one who is saved is no longer under law but is under grace. Does that mean we can live however we like? Not at all. Paul’s about to tell us that grace does indeed liberate us and free us, but grace also constrains us.[2]

Constrains us to what? A certain kind of slavery. He begins unfolding this to us in v16 where he calls us…

Slaves of Obedience (v16)

“Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”

In order to get at v16 we need to know something of the first century world Paul lived in.[3] Slavery was a basic part of the Roman Empire. According to historians, estimates say there were around 2-3 million slaves in Rome. This means 30-40% of Rome’s entire population was made up of slaves. Slavery then, was a normal part of Paul’s world. Everyone was familiar with it and everywhere you turned in Rome you’d find slaves at work doing everything from lowly tasks to holding key positions in various businesses, even positions within the government. While some might have been born into slavery, the majority of slaves in Rome became slaves in order to flee desperate circumstances.[4] So if you found yourself in hard spot one way to find stability and regular sustenance was to sell yourself into slavery. This is what Paul means here in v16 when he speaks of presenting yourself to another as slaves. Many of Paul’s readers would’ve understood his point here because they were not only familiar with slavery, many of them would’ve been slaves themselves.

See v16 then. Paul’s point in bringing up the image of slavery once again in the argument of chapter 6 is that there is no neutrality. All men are either slaves of sin which leads to death, both now and in the life to come. Or we’re slaves of obedience which leads to righteousness, both now and in the life to come.[5] Or to put it another way, there’s no man or woman in all of history who has ever been free of a master. We either present ourselves as obedient slaves to sin or to God. So the question then comes: who do you obey? There are only two options. On one hand, many in our own day unashamedly only obey themselves and do whatever they want to do in life. They call that freedom. You know what we call it? Slavery to sin. On the other hand, others do indeed obey God and seek to do His will in life. Ironically the world calls that slavery, but you know what we call it? Freedom.

Once again Romans 6 has reminded us of who we are. We once presented ourselves to sin and we’re slaves of sin, now we present ourselves to God and live as slaves of obedience. Perhaps hear it like this: Christians are not to use their freedom from sin as freedom to sin, no.[6] God frees us from sin so that we can find life in obedience to Him. That’s v16, slaves of obedience. Now let’s move on to v17-19 where Paul calls us…

Slaves of Righteousness (v17-19)

“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For 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.”

I love how v17 begins. It’s surprising isn’t it? Paul has been driving his point home now for 16 verses with some fairly challenging truth, and right here in the middle of it he bursts out and explodes in gratitude to God and praise to God. For what? For so powerfully working in our hearts that these things have become true of us. See that? Paul says, here in v17, that we’ve already done v16. That we, who were once slaves of sin have entirely changed and have become slaves of righteousness. So we could say, our slavery to sin began at our physical birth, and our slavery to God began at our new birth when we heard the gospel and believed.[7] We then recognized God to be our Master and presented ourselves to Him as slaves of righteousness.

But notice, what does Paul say about how this change occurred? He says we became obedient “…from the heart…” But is it just from the heart? No. It’s from a heart that’s been transformed by being given over to a certain teaching, gospel teaching together with all that the gospel brings about in our life. Church, this is beautiful. It’s one of those passages of Scripture you read and feel that you must pause and thank God for. Because here in v17-18 we learn how we came to be what we are now. At a moment God chose long ago, He worked in our cold stony hearts! He awoke them, He breathed His life into them and from His work and through His teaching we’ve been entirely changed.

This takes us back. You see, in the Old Testament there were promises of a coming redemption that had everything to do with the transformation and awakening of our hearts. Jeremiah 31:33-34 says, “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put My law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Similarly Ezekiel 36:24-27 says, “I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from fall your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules.”

Paul’s comment here in our passage that we became obedient from the heart tells us these promises God made are now promises God has kept. Thanks be to God! For so powerfully working in the dead sinners heart, and for so transforming the heart that it changes the life. So much so that the sinner who used to run from God’s gospel and God’s ways now embraces the gospel and treasures God’s ways. We who once viewed sinning as freedom now find slavery to righteousness liberation! Only God could do such a work, and He does this work in the heart, through the teaching of the gospel.

But then v19 comes and Paul tells us why he’s speaking the way he is. The dullness of our understanding makes it necessary for him to teach us the truth with images from our everyday life.[8] And so, as hard as the life of a slave can be, slavery shows us something beautiful about what the Christian life is. And using the picture of slavery once again Paul urges us on to keep pressing forward as v19 ends. He contrasts our slavery to sin and our zealous pursuit of sin with our slavery to God and the pursuit of righteousness. See his point in this contrast? If only we would now pursue holiness and righteousness with the zeal so many of us once pursued sin![9] When we we’re dead in sin we ran in sin, swam in sin, dove down deep into sin with a reckless abandon feeling no restraint! Why, now that we’ve been saved do we all of the sudden live as if a pursuit of God looks like an easy stroll? Why have we stopped running? Why have we grown idle? May we press on to know the Lord and may we commune with Him all our days! Tell me, is there anything else so worthy of our time and affection as He is? Is there anything else so stunning and beautiful as He is? Is there anything else as satisfying and pure as He is? Only an impoverished soul would prefer the sinful delicacies of this world over the feast the Lord lays out before us in the banquet of gospel grace.

Well, once again Romans 6 has reminded us of who we are. And it’s about to do so one more time. In v20-22 Paul sums up by calling us…

Slaves of God (v20-22)

“For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”

I think I could honestly say much here that I’ve already said this morning, so I’ll be brief in this section. Note that Paul speaks of freedom. That when we we’re dead in sin and in Adam we were free in regard to righteousness. I remember this. Before God saved me in college I remember enjoying how free my life was. I could do whatever I wanted to do, and I loved it. No boundaries, no restrictions, just utter freedom to do whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted to do it. But then a friend shared the gospel with me and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, if I believe that my entire life would have to change, because I won’t be free to do as I please anymore, but will have to obey God.’ Surprisingly, from that moment on God in His grace slowly began awakening my heart to that very thing and I started questioning the ‘freedom’ I so loved. I began to understand that I hadn’t used my freedom very well. Sure I was free but I had only used that freedom to pursue selfish and sinful ends, and I could really care less about anyone else. The love of self dominated my life. And as Paul says here in v21 I had a profound sense of shame, and my soul felt soaked in a sense of death. A question then came to me, ‘Am I truly free? Or am I bound to sin?’ Eventually, after the gospel was shared to me a few more times this inward struggle grew exponentially, until it dawned on me that God might just know what I need better than I do, and that He intended my soul to find true freedom by being bound to Him. And v22 then rang true. Redemption came in Christ, and fruit began to grow and blossom within that would one day result in life eternal. Thanks be to God indeed!

A Fitting Conclusion (v23)

Well, after all we’ve seen in Romans 6:1-22, when we come to v23, we come to a summary statement that serves as a fitting conclusion to the whole chapter. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” While slavery to sin looks like wages and death – slavery to God looks like a gift and eternal life.

Church, do not be duped. Romans 6 truly is a timely and precious reminder of our true identity. May you ever own it and live in light of it.

[1] Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2018), 424.

[2] Ibid.

[3] David J. Williams, Paul’s Metaphors: Their Character and Context (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1999) 111-140. This chapter is a great help to understanding slavery in Paul’s context.

[4] Moo, Romans, 424.

[5] John Murray, Romans, NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1968), 231.

[6] Moo, Romans, 422.

[7] Timothy Keller, Romans 1-7 For You, God’s Word For You (The Good Book Company, 2014), 152.

[8] Murray, Romans, 233.

[9] Moo, Romans, 430.

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