Who Do We Serve? (Romans 6:12-23)

romans 6v14 grace 04

What do you think would be the best job in the world?

Sometimes I like to ask younger people what they want to do when they grow up or leave school. They sometimes give answers like a police officer, ballet dancer, secret agent, footballer, or a whole range of other things. I wonder, though, no matter how old we are, what your ideal job would be. What do you reckon would be the best job in the world?

I am also curious what you think the worst job in the world might be. There used to be a television show called Dirty Jobs where the show’s presenter would talk to people who had some of the most disgusting work you could imagine, and then gave that job a try. Some of the worst jobs he looked at included a sewer inspector, a cow inseminator, a concrete chipper, and a snake researcher who would squeeze out the contents of a snake’s stomach to examine their diet. What is the worst job you can think of?

Now, imagine your life if this was your job. Every day you would get out of bed to go to the worst work you can think of. What would that be like for you? Would you continue doing that job because that is all you know? What if someone offered you the best job you can think of? Would you decide that the job offer must be too good to be true? Would you not want to risk giving up your old job in case it didn’t work out? Would you continue to go back, day after day, to the same dirty, gross work? Or would you take the opportunity and accept the job that had been offered to you?

We can react negatively to Paul’s use of the word slave in Romans 6:12-23, but we need to remember that Paul was writing in a different social context. We reject slavery because it abuses people’s fundamental human rights. We condemn it because it exploits and devalues people who have been made in God’s image and for whom Jesus gave his life. When Paul refers to slavery in the New Testament, I do not believe he is arguing that slavery is an acceptable practice. In Paul’s time it was part of their culture. Today, thankfully, we know better. As we read Romans 6:12-23, we can still learn something from what Paul wrote because, as he explains in verse 19, he uses the practice of slavery as an illustration to teach us something about what it means to live in the reality of God’s grace.

One important difference between slavery in Paul’s time and the way we work today is that slaves didn’t have regular working hours. They weren’t casual, part-time or even full-time employees who could go home at the end of their working day. Slaves were in their situation all day, every day, often for their entire lives. When Paul writes about slavery, he is referring to something that impacted people’s entire existence and defined their identity, belonging and purpose. He wasn’t just talking about a job – he was referring to a way of life.

Paul draws a sharp contrast between two ways of living which is even more dramatic that the contrast between the best and worst jobs we can imagine. On the one hand is a life that is dominated and controlled by sin. Paul doesn’t just think of ‘sin’ as doing something wrong, the way we sometimes do. Instead, he uses words like ‘impurity’ and ‘lawlessness’ (v19 NLT), ‘ashamed’ and ‘death’ (v21 NIV). This gives us a broader understanding of sin as those things in our lives that make us unclean or dirty, that bring shame on us and ultimately take life from us emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, or physically.

In sharp contrast Paul also describes what it means to be a slave to righteousness (v18). This sounds like a contradiction, because when Paul writes about being set free from slavery to sin (vv18,22 NLT) we would assume that people who have been liberated are no longer slaves. This is where we need to remember that Paul seems to be thinking of something that is part of our lives every hour of every day, not just a casual or part-time job. When we become ‘slaves to righteous living’ (v18 NLT), this righteousness becomes part of our being in which we constantly live. ‘Righteous living’ isn’t just about our behaviours or actions. It is who we are as people who have been made right through faith in Jesus.

In the same way that I asked you if you would accept the best job in the world if you had been working in the worst job in the world, Paul is asking his readers if they want to give themselves to righteousness if they had up to that point been working in sin’s household. As we have seen, Paul connects sin with shame, being unclean or dirty, and death. He then describes the qualities of righteous living as holiness and eternal life (vv19,22). This holiness is a big concept and carries with it a range of different meanings. It means to be pure, clean, uncontaminated, set apart for God, or sanctified. It means receiving God’s holiness as a gift and growing to be more like God because one of God’s essential characteristics is holiness. Becoming slaves to righteous living isn’t about following a set of rules or trying harder to be a ‘good’ or ‘nice’ person. Righteous living that leads to holiness is more like having all the filth washed off us when we have spent our working lives as a sewer inspector, and being made clean from all the shame and dirt we used to live in as slaves to sin. The righteousness that leads to holiness is, in Paul’s thinking, living our entire lives in the goodness of God which is reflected through our lives in everything we do and say.

We can live in this righteousness because Jesus has set us free from sin. When Paul writes, ‘now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you’ (v17 NLT) he is talking about faith in the gospel of Jesus (see Romans 1:5). We are only able to ‘choose to obey God’ (v16 NLT) or ‘offer’ ourselves to the ‘obedience’ of faith (v16 NIV) because Jesus has liberated us from slavery to sin through his life, death and resurrection for us. Slaves had no choice about who they served. They were bought and sold like cattle. As people who have been set free from slavery to sin when Jesus redeemed us or bought us back by giving his life for us on the cross, now we are free to give ourselves and our lives to either sin or righteousness.

We were trapped in shame, dirt, and death because of the debt of our sin. Jesus paid our debt in full by his death on the cross, so now we are free to choose. Do we want to go back to the worst job in the world? Or do we want to step in faith into our most ideal job? Will we go back to slavery to sin with the shame, dirt, and death that it brings? Or will we walk in the obedience of faith into a new reality which gives us holiness and a life that is stronger than death?

More to think about & discuss:

  • What do you think would be the best job in the world? Why do you think it would be so good?
  • What do you think would be the worst job in the world? Why do you think it would be so bad?
  • If you were working in the worst job in the world and someone offered you the best job in the world, would you accept it? Explain why you would do that…
  • Why do you think Paul used the illustration of ‘slavery’ for living in either sin or righteous living? What might be some of the problems with this illustration in our cultural context? What might be another way that Paul could illustrate the same idea to people of our time?
  • Paul contrasts a life of sin with shame, dirt, and death, with righteous living that brings holiness and eternal life. Which sounds better to you? Do you think it might be easier to live in one or the other? Can you explain why you think that…?
  • Why might people find it hard to leave a bad job for a better one? What does that tell us about why some people might find it hard to leave a life of sin for a life of righteousness?
  • What do you imagine a life of righteous living might look like?
  • We are able to live in either sin or righteousness because Jesus has redeemed and liberated us through his life, death and resurrection for us. Why do you think this message of freedom can be such an important part of the gospel of Jesus?
  • As a community of faith, how can we help each other live in righteousness that leads to holiness and eternal life? How might you be able to help someone do that this week?

You can also find a video version of this message by following this link: https://youtu.be/wclr5JQBBc0

God bless!

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