The Letter to the Romans
Slavery and Freedom, Law and Grace: Romans 6:12-23
In the previous article, we discussed what it means to have died to sin. We have died to the claims of one master, who no longer has any authority to rule over us, and have risen to the claims of another master. But the fact that another master, Christ, now rules over us does not mean that we are immune to appeals from our former master. It is as though we changed our citizenship and became subject to the laws of another country. But although we changed citizenship, we are still in the boundaries of the old country, which keeps trying to impose its laws on us and keeps appealing to us to obey them as if it were the true authority over us.
Yet although we are in this world, we are not of it and do not belong to it. We are not subject to the law of sin and death which prevails here, no matter how strongly it may appeal to us through our thoughts and feelings. As long as we are in this world, which is Satan’s realm by theft only, he can attempt to lure us away from the truth and try to deceive us that we are still subject to his rule and authority.
So we have to reckon or count our-selves dead to sin by faith, for it is only by faith that the invisible reality of God’s word becomes real in our lives. Faith grabs hold of and lays hold of the invisible and makes it substance in the world of time and space (see Hebrews 11:1). It is not that faith has any magical power of its own, for faith is merely a receptive faculty; it cannot produce anything by itself. Rather faith lays hold of the substance that is already and always present but only visible to those who have the eyes to see it. Faith operates in the realm of a fourth dimension beyond the three dimensional realm of time and space, and is aware of and lives on the basis of realities not perceived by ordinary human senses.
So by faith we lay hold of what God has provided in the eternal invisible realm. The infinite supply is always present, we merely need to perceive it and appropriate it for ourselves in the moment that we need it. For our need in the moment of temptation does not take God by surprise. Rather every temptation that we face is God’s perfect plan for us, and He has already provided the solution or the way out before we ever have to face the temptation (1 Cor. 10:13). And what is the way out, unless it is our confession by faith that we truly died with Christ to sin’s continuing authority over us?
Because we can consider ourselves dead to sin in Christ’s death, Paul there-fore concludes in verse twelve that we are not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies so that we obey its evil desires. Notice that the command not to let sin reign is based upon God’s prior provision of the means to fulfill the command. God doesn’t just leave us hanging with "Just say no to sin." When we were slaves to sin, we had no option to just say no; after all, we were powerless and needed to be saved. For if we were not powerless, what reason had we to be saved? Only those who are helpless need a Savior. Those who are not helpless can save themselves. So God does not present us with a command (Do not let sin reign in your mortal body) for which He has not provided the means to keep it.
We also need to notice Paul distinguishes between sin and the human self. Sin is not a natural part of us but is an alien invader with evil desires of its own. In John 8:44, we do the desires of our father the devil. And just as righteousness is really the Spirit of Christ acting in and through us expressing His desires in our actions (for Christ is our righteousness–1Cor. 1:30), so sin is really a spirit, namely Satan, expressing his rebellion against God through our bodies as his instruments or vessels.
Our bodies are instruments or vessels which we can hand over to one of two masters, sin or righteousness, Satan or the Spirit of Christ. Now Paul uses the term mortal bodies to refer to our whole self here, because the body is that aspect of ourselves through which the invisible spirit or heart of a person manifests itself in the visible form of actions. In other words, it is only through the body that we can do anything. Spirit requires the physical body to manifest its character in the form of deeds and actions. So sin and righteousness, Satan or Christ, manifest them-selves through our actions in the body.
But why the mortal body? The term mortal means "subject to death." Although we have died spiritually with Christ and have appropriated that death for ourselves through faith, nevertheless we are still very much present within this world and very much affected by the powers operative within this realm. On the physical level, we shall all die some day, unless Christ returns first. On the spiritual level, we are still within Satan’s realm or sphere of influence and are therefore still subject to his attacks and temptations, though not his domination unless we let him. Our continuing mortality emphasizes that although Christ has saved us completely through his death, resurrection and exaltation, there are nevertheless aspects of that deliverance that are not yet fully manifested. We are delivered from Satan’s total domination of us but not yet immune to his influence and his attempts to regain control of our actions.
Our Only Choice
So verses twelve and thirteen pre-sent us with a choice. It is not the choice to do some particular action or not, nor is it the choice to sin or not. Nor can we even choose what desires we have. Such choices are not open to us. We do not have such power to operate ourselves, but are ruled over by the spirit which reigns or rules within us. In other words, the only choice we ever make is to choose which spirit will reign within us and manifest itself in our actions. We cannot control our actions or desires directly, we can only choose our opera-tor, who then reproduces his own desires in us, desires which then express themselves directly in our actions.
Desire is an attribute of spirit and is spirit’s desire to fulfill itself and express itself. Even though we have as created spirits the capacity to desire, the specific nature and direction of our desires is determined by the spirit which indwells and operates us. Once having given ourselves over as lovers to the spirit of righteousness or the spirit of sin, their desires conceive and give birth in us to acts of sin or acts of righteousness (see James 1:14-15).
In verse thirteen, then we offer ourselves up to a power which then takes us over and operates us. When you offer something to someone, you lose control over it because the thing is no longer your possession to do with as you please, but instead the object now belongs to another and is subject to the will and desires of the other person. So, when we offer ourselves and not a mere thing to a power greater than ourselves, namely Satan or God, then we lose control over our very selves and become subject to that power’s will and desires. But human freedom is not thereby compromised. It is still by our own choice that we offer ourselves either to sin or to righteousness, to Satan or to God.
Weapons In The Hand Of A Master
Now when we so offer ourselves to a master, we become instruments or, better yet, weapons in the hands of that master. No one has ever seen a tool use itself or a weapon wield itself, as if a tool or weapon could have purposes of their own independent of the person who uses them. Rather the tool or weapon serve the purpose of the one who uses them. So it is with human beings. We are weapons in the hands of our spiritual masters, for Satan and God are engaged in a spiritual battle that has spanned all of human history and the battlefield is the human heart. In this battle, human beings in physical bodies are the means by which these two spirits express themselves, so that human persons become the weapons in their hands, the means by which the warfare is fought. For spirit cannot express itself without body–the means by which the invisible becomes visible. So that means that every time I offer myself over to sin or Satan, I become a weapon in his hand for the destruction of others, for tearing down others spiritually and for leading them away from their true destiny in God. I may not intend this consciously, but Satan does, and I am responsible for all that he does through me, every consequence of my sinful choice to allow Satan to use me as His weapon against God’s kingdom and God’s people. On the other hand, every time I offer myself to God, to be an instrument or vessel for Him to express Himself through, then I become a weapon of righteousness for the tearing down of Satanic strongholds in the lives of others, even if I am not conscious of the effect I am having.
Notice, it is not that we are soldiers of righteousness who actively defeat Satan, but rather we are weapons wielded by God. We contribute nothing except our availability to be used by Him at the point of’ conflict. But who knows what major spiritual conquest God will accomplish through us just because we are available at the right moment to be used. And who knows how much spiritual damage we could cause because we gave in to Satan on an apparently trivial little point, an act that made us unavailable to he used by God at a critical moment!
We Have a Choice
In verse fourteen Paul gives the reason why it is that we have a choice to offer ourselves to a new master. Sin shall not be our master because we are not under Law, but under grace. What does Paul mean by the phrases "under Law" and "under grace," and why is it that not being under Law but under grace means that sin shall not he our master’? First of all, to be under something is to be under its authority and administration, subject to its rules or to the way that things operate and work under its administration.
So to be under Law is to be under the authority and administration of the old covenant established by God through Moses at Mount Sinai as recorded in Exodus 19-20 and Deuteronomy. To be under Law is to be subject to the conditions which prevailed in that covenant or agreement between Israel and God. In the Sinai Covenant or the Law, God established how things would work between Himself and Israel. But Paul seems to imply here that being under Law resulted in sin being our master. What was wrong with the old covenant that resulted in this terrible fate? For the answer to that question we must turn to the prophet Jeremiah, who spoke just before the Israelites were sent into exile for breaking the covenant with God and disobeying His Law. Jeremiah prophesied that a time would come when a new covenant would be made with Israel that was not like the covenant made at Sinai, since the people broke that covenant. Rather in this covenant God would put his Law in the minds and write it on the hearts of His people so that they would keep His Law (Jer. 31:31-34). So the problem with the Law or the old covenant is that it was external to the people’s hearts. It could merely give a picture of the life that God demanded of us, but it was power-less to produce it, because it was writ-ten on mere tablets of stone rather than on human hearts (2 Cor. 3:3).
There is nothing wrong with the Law as such, for it is a record of God’s holy demand for a righteous life, but it is only an external record and changes no one. In fact no law can produce a change in the human heart, because external law cannot cast out the spirit of error which indwells us from the beginning of our personhood. Only the Cross could effect such a mighty deliverance. Only the Cross could bring us under a new administration, a new reigning lord and master, which Paul calls grace (see Rom. 5:21).
But exactly what Paul means by grace he has not yet made fully clear. Grace essentially means a free gift. So God’s grace is his free gift to us. Now we know that grace at least includes the forgiveness of sins and justification from sin at the final judgment so that we no longer face the well-deserved fate of eternal destruction, but here grace seems to have to do with sin not being our master in daily living. In this context grace is God’s provision in Christ to overcome the domination of sin (or Satan) over us. But grace is not a thing–it is a person, God’s character of love in manifestation toward humanity. God does not give us blessings–He Himself is the blessing which He gives.
Now Jeremiah prophesied that in the new covenant that God would write his Law upon the people’s hearts. Ezekiel, also prophesying about the time of the new covenant, said that the Lord would put a new spirit within the people and cause them to walk in his ways (Ezek. 36:26-28). In other words, in the new covenant God Himself would keep the Law in and through the people, causing them to walk in His ways. The Law is the external record of God’s ways, a blueprint of how God Himself works, an external description of the divine character, but the indwelling Spirit is the original of which the Law is only a copy. The Spirit is the real thing. So to be under grace is to receive this new spirit, which means by definition that the old spirit no longer has mastery. To be under the external Law is to be under satanic mastery, to be in the Spirit or under grace is freedom indeed!
Misunderstanding Law and Grace
But Paul’s opponents do not understand what Paul means by grace, so that they conclude that the inevitable result of Paul’s theology is more sinning. After all, if we jettison external Law, what will keep people from going out and doing as they please? What will keep them from committing heinous crimes? And what is worse, they can use Paul’s theology to justify them-selves! But Paul’s opponents have completely misunderstood both Law and grace. They think of the Law as having the power to restrain people from sinning, that it actually has some kind of sanctifying power that enables people to live holy lives. So for Paul to say that we are no longer under Law is to utter blasphemy to his opponents, an encouragement for people to go out and sin as much as they please. Paul, on the other hand, views the external Law as intrinsically powerless to produce righteous behavior, having only the negative function of condemning our sinful behavior.
Paul’s opponents fail to see how radically powerless we are to resist sin or Satan and how powerless we are to keep the Law. They think we are independent slaves with the capacity and choice to keep the Law on our own by means of self-effort. They do not understand that we are only salves to a master with only the capacity to choose our operator, not the capacity to choose what that operator will do through us. We do not control our actions directly, rather our actions are the expression of the indwelling spirit who operates us. We can only choose our master. This is why we can say that we are slaves and yet also say we have free will. We have freedom, but freedom must commit itself in a certain direction by making a choice, after which it is no longer free but enslaved to the choice it has made.
We are persons who possess freedom, and as persons we must be expressors of a moral nature or character. We must become a particular kind of person in order for us to express ourselves. But since we possess no moral nature of our own, we must express the moral nature of another, namely the nature of God (love) or that of Satan (self-for-self at any cost). In making this choice between God and Satan, between selflessness and selfishness, we lose our freedom and commit our-selves to the spirit, to the lifestyle we have chosen. And what we choose takes us over and expresses itself through us. The human will is power-less, but that does not mean that there is no freedom. We always have that freedom to choose our spiritual operator.
In addition to misunderstanding the Law and the powerlessness of the human will, Paul’s opponents also misunderstand what grace is. They think Paul’s view of grace is merely a cheap offer of salvation without regard to how a person lives life from that point on. But Paul is very clear that when we offer ourselves to someone to obey as slaves, whether Christ or Satan, we become slaves to the one whom we obey, a choice which has inevitable consequences of eternal life or death. If we choose to obey Satan as our master so that he lives his self-for-self lifestyle in and through us, then the consequence will be eternal death for us. If, on the other hand, we choose to offer ourselves to Christ so that He lives His life of obedience through us, then the result will be eternal life. Paul is very clear that we cannot escape the consequences of the lifestyle which we choose, for the wages of a sinful lifestyle are death (Rom. 6:23), and those who live according to the flesh shall reap eternal destruction (Gal 6:8).
So in verse nineteen Paul urges his readers: "just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity leading to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness." Why is holiness necessary? Because we reap what we sow. In verse twenty one, the benefit we reaped from doing the sinful actions of which we are now ashamed was death, eternal separation from experiencing God’s love, whereas now that we have been set free from sin as our master and have become slaves to God, the benefit we reap is the holiness that leads to and results in eternal life.
So for Paul there is an intrinsic connection between the way we live and the eternal consequences of eternal life and death. If the life that we live is really Satan’s self-for-self nature being expressed through us, we can only expect eternal destruction. But if we repent, and offer ourselves to Christ so that He may live His life of love through us, we may expect the consequence of eternal life enjoying and expressing the love of God forever. In no case can a life of holiness be separated from the consequence of eternal life as if one could enjoy the consequence without doing what is necessary to bring about that consequence. This does not mean, however, that we earn the consequence of eternal life, as if we were independent selves who could do righteous works of our own that could impress God enough to give us eternal life. Absolutely not! The only thing we have earned and deserve is death, for the wages of sin are death. Rather the consequence of eternal life is the result of Christ living his life through us, producing the righteousness of God in our lives, so that we receive as a gift what Christ deserves as a result of the holiness He produces in us (Rom. 6:23).
More Articles from The Intercessor, Vol 12 No 1
- Editor’s Note
- Moments with Meryl
- Excerpt from The Intercession of Rees Howells
- Weekend in New York 1995
- The Letter to the Romans
- The Mailbox
- God’s Promises
- A Look at a Book
- Questions & Answers
- The Walk Through The Bible
- God’s Wonderful Plan
- New Light on the Twelve Steps
- Excerpt from After C.T. Studd
- Tape Talk
- Words to Live By