Gotta Serve Somebody (Romans 6:15-23)

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Good morning! Please turn in your Bibles to Romans chapter 6. It’s been a minute since we have been in the book or Romans. But I wanted us to jump back in this Sunday, and I think God’s timing on this is actually pretty amazing.

You know, last week, on June 19th, we celebrated Father’s Day. But we didn’t say much about another national holiday—Juneteenth.

Many of us, if not most of us, didn’t know much about Juneteenth until recently, and some of us may still not know. Because while Juneteenth is the oldest celebration of the end of slavery in the united states, it didn’t become a federal holiday until last year.

Juneteenth commemorates the day, June 19, 1865, when Major General Gordon Granger came riding into Galveston Texas and read General Order #3 to the people of Texas,

“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves…

Even though Lincoln issued the Emancipation proclamation on January 1, 1863, and Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, slaves in Texas hadn’t gotten the word yet. For more than two and a half years, they had still been living as slaves, never knowing that they were actually free people

And I would imagine that there were a lot of slaves that didn’t hear anything beyond “all slaves are free.” What an amazing word that must have been. Free! You could understand if all those men and women, who had never known anything other than fulfilling the whims of their often cruel masters, stopped listening at that point.

But if all they heard was “you’re free,” they would have missed the rest of General Order Number Three, which read,

The connection heretofore existing between [masters and slaves] becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes, and work for wages. They will not be allowed to [gather] at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.

Now, I’m bringing up this history lesson because I think it will help us understand today’s Scripture. What if those slaves who were freed on Juneteenth said to themselves, “Well, now that I’m free, I don’t have to do anything! I’ll never have to work again! I don’t have a Master anymore!”

And I’m afraid that a lot of people look at Christianity in the same way. They take verses like John 8:36

36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

And they think that because we are free in Christ, we are free to do whatever we want. We don’t have obligations to make any sort of change in our lives whatsoever. We can even go so far as to think that the only thing Christianity impacts is where we will spend eternity.

The people in the church in Rome had this misunderstanding as well. Last time we were in Romans, I introduced you to this big $5.00 word, antinomianism (it’s on the back of the listening guide). Antinomianism literally means “against the law,” and it’s the belief that because we are saved by grace, there aren’t any moral laws we are obligated to obey. We asked Jesus into our heart when we were five years old, so even though there is no evidence whatsoever that we belong to Jesus now, we know that we are going to heaven when we die.

So Paul deals with this In Romans 6. We talked about the first half of the chapter the last time we were in Romans. People had been saying, “well, if grace abounds because of our sin, then the more we sin, the more grace we get.” And Paul said, no, no—you’ve died to sin.

Now, in the second half of Romans 6, Paul shifts the metaphor. Instead of talking about being dead to sin and alive to Christ, he pivoted to talking about the difference between being a slave to sin and being a slave to righteousness. Let’s look at what he said together. I’m in Romans 6, verses 15-23. Please stand with me to honor the reading of God’s Word:

15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves,[c] you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 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, 18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. 19 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.

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 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. 22 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. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Please pray with me. 

[pray]

Now, the question in verse 15 looks very similar to the question in verse 1. In verse 1, Paul’s dealing with people who are wondering if they should sin in order to get more grace—that grace should abound. And his answer is, “By no means.”

But in verse 15, Paul deals with the question of whether or not it’s ok to sin, since we aren’t under the law anymore but under grace.

And I really think that’s where a lot of people are today. “I don’t have to obey the law, because I am saved by grace.”

And that is partially true. It is not the law that saves you. You are saved because of the finished work of Christ on the cross. But freedom in Christ doesn’t mean that you have no master, but that you have a new master. Look carefully at verse 16:

16 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?

Paul uses the word slave here. The Greek word is doulos, and there’s a definition for it on the back of your listening guide. A doulos was one who was in subjugation to another person’s will. One who was totally obligated to serving another, to the disregard of their own interests.  

And this was a term that would have been very easy for the people in the church in Rome to understand. Historians estimate that the population of first century Rome was about one-third slaves. There was also a significant population of free men who had at one time been enslaved. So there’s a very good chance that over half of the members of the church in Rome either were slaves or had been slaves.[1]  

So Paul used a metaphor this audience would understand. In fact, Paul refers to slavery eight times in these eight verses. And never once does he say that the people aren’t slaves anymore. Look at it with me:

  • Verse 16—you are either slaves of sin or slaves of obedience
  • Verse 18: You were slaves to sin, but now, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
  • Verse 19: We are to present the members of our bodies as slaves to righteousness, leading to sanctification.
  • Verse 20: When you were a slave to sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. What does that mean? It means that nothing you did as a slave to sin was working toward your righteousness before God, because sin was still your master. And I think this is really, really important for anyone who argues that “good people” go to heaven. As long as you are a slave to sin, the quote-unquote good things you do can’t count for anything, because sin is still your master.
  • Verse 22: you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God.

Be honest—are you surprised that the message of the gospel isn’t actually freedom? This may be the hardest thing to wrap our heads around about the gospel, and it is probably what puts us at odds with modern culture the most.

The message of culture is that you should be free to do whatever you want to do, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, and in some cases, even if it does. So I should be free to marry whomever I want. If I am a woman I should be free to decide whether or not I want to carry a baby to term or abort it. I should be free to end a marriage if my wife and I have just grown apart from each other.

And they look at Christianity and they say, no thanks. I don’t want any part of a religion that puts such limitations on my personal freedom. I want a religion that keeps me in the driver’s seat. It sounds like if I follow your religion I’m just exchanging one form of slavery for another.  

And the scandal of the gospel is that in Romans 6, Paul is basically saying, “Yup. That’s exactly what you are doing.

Write this down, because it’s going to bake your brain a little:

The call to follow Christ is the call to obedient slavery.

Look at verse 19:

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.

The language isn’t politically correct, and the message isn’t popular, but this is what the gospel boils down to.

Every human being is born into bondage to slavery. Jesus said in John 8:34 that everyone who sins is a slave to sin. And we know from Romans 3:23 that everyone has sinned.

And so Paul goes all in on this metaphor. Before someone turns their life over to Jesus, they are slaves to impurity. They present the members of their body—their hands, their feet, their eyes, their ears, their mouths—all the members of their body are given in the service of sin.

And I get it. You tell someone they are a slave to impurity and lawlessness, and you get a lot of pushback. They’ll say, “C’mon, man. I’m not a bad person. I’ve never killed anybody. I’m not a pedophile or a human trafficker or a drug dealer. I’ve never cheated on my wife.  I know the difference between right and wrong, and I don’t need god or church or your bible to judge me and tell me I’m going to hell because I don’t give my life to Jesus. I just want to be free to live my life the way I think is best, ok?

And that’s the human condition. Sin entered the world when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They decided they wanted to determine right and wrong for themselves, rather than trusting God to determine what is right and wrong. In the book of Judges, the author described that time in Israel’s history as everyone doing what was right in their own eyes.  

But here is where Satan has pulled the wool over our eyes. He’s convinced people all through history that this is where you find true freedom—following your bliss, pursuing whatever makes you happy.

Look again at verse 16:

16 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?

Here’s the most simple way to put it, the most basic definition of slavery: You are a slave to whatever you can’t say no to. In the modern world, we call that addiction. It could be a substance, like drugs or alcohol. It could be a habit, like gambling or porn. It could be a a compulsion, like shopping or hoarding or over eating or over working. But you are a slave to whatever you can’t say no to.

Anyone who has battled addiction, and we have several who are here this morning that have been there—they know addiction by its true name: slavery. And if you are a slave to sin, it leads to death.

So the gospel is simple: Go back to verse 19: once you presented your members as slaves to impurity. Now, present your members as slaves to righteousness. Once, every part of your body – arms, legs, hands, feet, eyes, ears, heart, mind, and mouth, was given to sin. And you were therefore slaves to sin.

Now, take all of those members—arms, legs, hands, feet, eyes, ears, heart, mind, and present them as slaves to righteousness.

Jesus desires to be the one thing you can’t say no to. In Matthew 11, Jesus offered this invitation to everyone who was tired and exhausted from trying to serve sin. He said,

28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

A yoke was what a farmer put over the neck of an ox in order to direct and guide the ox. A yoke was a symbol of slavery. And Jesus doesn’t say, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and take off your yoke of slavery. He says take my yoke. Learn from me.

My yoke is easy, because instead of saying yes to a thousand different masters and addictions and commitments and obligations, all you have to say yes to now is Me. I’ll direct your pursuits. I’ll set your schedule. I’ll help you break every other chain, and the only chain that remains is the one that connects you to me.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be confused about what it takes to follow him. Look what Paul says in verse 17:

17 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,

We don’t have to be in the dark about what Jesus expects of us. He’s given us His word—the standard of teaching to which we are committed.

And God’s Word tells us all that we need to know to live a life of godliness. 2 Peter 1:3 was the memory verse for VBS a few years ago. Since we just did VBS, probably a lot of you can still sing it with me, can’t you:

His divine power has given us everything required for life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.

Now, I want to bring this to a close by addressing what may be on a lot of your minds. And that is, why should I trade one slavery for another? You’re telling me this morning that freedom in Christ isn’t really freedom. It’s still slavery.

So let me leave you with this very offensive sounding, non politically correct statement:

There is a blessing to obedient slavery.

I know, I know. It sounds awful. But Bob Dylan was right. You’ve gotta serve somebody. It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody. So what is the blessing of being a slave to righteousness?

Well, first, there is better fruit. Verse 19 says that being a slave to impurity leads to more impurity. But being a slave to righteousness leads to sanctification. Sanctification is the process of a believer, over time, becoming more and more like Jesus.

Paul says in verse 20 that being a slave to sin means that you are “free” in regard to righteousness. You can continue on in your sinful patterns and have no obligation to follow God’s law. But then he asks,

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.

The fruit of being a slave to sin is death. But look at the better fruit of being a slave to righteousness. And not just better fruit, a better ending. A better destination: Look at verse 22: Paul has just said that when we were slaves to sin we were “free” in regard to righteousness. And then he flips it:

22 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. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There are really only two options:

Slave to sin, Free from righteousness, fruit is death

Slave to God, free from sin, fruit is eternal life.


[1] Hughes, R. Kent. Romans: Righteousness From Heaevn. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Press, 1991, p. 124.

Author: James

I pastor Glynwood Baptist Church in Prattville, Alabama. I read a lot, write a little, and drink lots of coffee. I have three callings in life: surrender to Christ, be a husband to Trish, and be the best father/grandfather I can be. Everything else is an assignment, because everything else can be done by someone else.

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