Who Do We Serve? (Romans 6:12-23)

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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!

Confession (Psalm 32)

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I love the look on my kids’ faces when I have caught them doing something wrong. On the one hand their guilt is obvious. On the other hand, though, they look at me with huge eyes, trying to convince me that they haven’t done anything wrong. Even though we both know they’re guilty, so many times they still try their best to hide what they’ve done and pretend there’s nothing wrong.

Most of the time I find it hard to get angry with them when they do that because their actions remind me of an important part of our natural human condition. We do wrong in lots of different ways. Yet we all try so hard to hide what we have done – from other people, from God and even from ourselves. Maybe we’re worried that people might think less of us or not love us anymore if they knew what we’ve done. Maybe we don’t want to face the guilt or shame that comes with doing wrong. Maybe we just don’t want to shatter the illusion that we really are good people.

Hiding the wrongs we have done can serious effect our well-being. I’ve known people who have carried guilt for something they had done for decades and seen the damage it can do. It can be like a cancer that we carry with us, eating us away from the inside, affecting our sense of self-worth and our relationships with other people.

There are lots of ways I’ve seen people try to hide from the guilt they carry. The most effective remedy I’ve seen, however, is forgiveness to help people find freedom from guilt and a greater sense of personal well-being. Confession and forgiveness was intended to be God’s gift to liberate us from guilt, not just an empty ritual. The act of confessing our wrongs and receiving forgiveness for them carries with it a power to heal our hearts, free our minds and give us a greater sense of well-being in our lives.

The writer of Psalm 32 knew the blessings that come with confessing sin and receiving forgiveness. He opens the psalm by stating that the person whose disobedience is forgiven and whose sin is covered is truly blessed (v1). This isn’t just a theological concept for the person writing this psalms but his lived reality! This person knew the joy that comes from having a record that’s been cleared of all guilt, and who can live in the honesty of their own flaws and failures (v2).

Especially as people who live in the light of the cross of Christ, we can find peace, hope and even joy in the forgiveness God gives us through the Holy Spirit. Jesus has embraced our humanity with all our flaws, failures and brokenness in his birth. Jesus has taken our sin from us and has put it to death in his crucifixion. Jesus has given us a new, guilt-free life through faith in his resurrection and his victory over sin, death and the devil’s power. Jesus came to free us from guilt, not to make us feel bad for the wrongs we have done.

So why do we continue to hide from our wrongs? Like the writer of this psalm, when we try to hide our guilt or hide from the wrongs we have done, we will continue to carry them and they will eat away at us and our relationships. When we confess them, however, our Father in heaven will only speak words of forgiveness, mercy and love because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. We have nothing to fear!

I hope that my kids will learn as they get older that they can tell me anything and all they will get from me is forgiveness and love. There will always be consequences for the wrongs we do because that’s how we learn about what is right and wrong. However, as we read in Hebrews 12:7-11, God disciplines his children because he loves us and wants what is best for us. He will never condemn us but will always freely forgive us because of the life, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus. So we don’t need to hide the wrongs we have done from him or from ourselves. When we confess our sin and guilt, God will always forgive us so we can find freedom from our sin, a greater well-being within ourselves, and the capacity to extend his forgiveness to everyone who wrongs us.

A Trustworthy Saying (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

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I haven’t met too many people over the years who like to be told they are sinners. In fact, talking about sin in our culture is something that is largely avoided because we tend to believe that people are essentially good. We might make mistakes from time to time, but the starting point for any discussion about the nature of human beings in our Western society is that we are basically good.

However, when I read the Bible, look at the state of the world in which we live, or examine my own life it seems clear that there is something fundamentally wrong with our human nature. No matter how much we try to do the right thing, too often we end up saying and doing what is wrong. This indicates to me that there is something wrong within us which we can’t fix ourselves. While we can think of sinners as being morally bad people, we can also think of ‘sinners’ as people who need to be saved because we find it impossible to get things right, no matter how hard we try.

I’m not saying this to make people feel bad about ourselves. Over the centuries, the church has done wrong by using language like this to burden people with guilt. However, we still need to be honest with ourselves about the reality of who we are. The trustworthy saying Paul passes on to Timothy, and to us, is that Jesus came to save sinners. If we do not identify as sinners, then how can we be saved? The writers of the Gospels wrote that Jesus often talked with sinners and even ate with them, something for which Jesus was criticized by the religious leaders of his day (see Luke 15:1,2). If we are not willing to sit with the sinners, then how can we be sitting with Jesus?

Recognizing that we are sinners can help us find freedom to be ourselves. When we acknowledge that we get things wrong, we can be honest with ourselves and with others about our flaws and failures. We don’t have to pretend to be better than we are, and we can more easily seek grace and forgiveness from each other. It also means that when other people do wrong, we can extend grace to them more easily. We can be more compassionate and understanding towards others because they get things wrong just like we do.

Paul’s intention in passing on this ‘trustworthy saying’ about Jesus coming to save sinners is to bring us good news. He continues,

… God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:16 NLT)

Paul is using his own life as an example to show us that if God can save him, then he can surely save us too. Paul had done some really bad things before he became a Christian. As he explains briefly in verse 13, he had blasphemed against God by trying to stop the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he had persecuted Jesus’ followers and had even been involved in some of their murders (see Acts 7:54-8:1; 9:1,2). Paul is arguing that if God can show mercy and patience to him after all the terrible thing he had done, then he will also show us mercy and patience. Paul wants us to understand that we get things wrong, but Christ Jesus came into the world to save us. Jesus’ death on the cross for us means that we can be forgiven, no matter what we might have done. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead gives us new life as children of God whom he loves and who bring our heavenly Father great joy (see Luke 3:22). If Paul can find grace and new life in Jesus after what he had done, then we can also find grace and new life in the love God show us through Christ.

This means that we can never be simplistic about our experience of Christian the life. One the one hand, we are sinners who need to be saved. However, we are also God’s saved children whom he loves and who bring him great joy. One of the great gifts Martin Luther gave to the church is the idea that we are both sinner and saint at the same time. There will be times in our lives when our sin will weigh us down and we will need to hear the liberating words of grace and forgiveness. There will also be times when we will need to be reminded that we get things wrong and we need Jesus to save us.

The main purpose of these words from Paul are to point us to Jesus. We all get it wrong in different ways and at different times in our lives because there is something wrong with us. We constantly need to be reminded that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. This becomes good news for us, though, because Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and to give us new life as God’s children whom he loves and who bring him great joy.

More to think about:

  •  What are some of your experiences, positive or negative, of talking about sin in the church? Do we talk about sin too much? Not enough?
  • What are some ways in which 1 Timothy 1:15 can be heard as a threat by people? How might people hear these same words as a promise?
  • Do you tend to hear these words more as a threat or a promise? Can you explain why you hear them that way?
  • When you hear or read about some of the things Paul did before he became a Christian, would you say you are as bad as he was? How can his self-description as ‘the worst of sinners’ help you find God’s grace in Jesus?
  • How might Paul’s words that ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’ help you in your relationships with other people when they do wrong to you?