5 Sept 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Verse 15 (*Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?*) is clearly parallel to verse 1 (‘Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?’). True there are differences between sinning and persisting in sin, and between sinning *so that* grace may increase and sinning *because* we are under grace. But these are minor. Substantially the same question is being asked in both verses, namely whether grace sanctions sin, and even encourages it. And in both cases it calls forth from the apostle the same vehement protest: *By no means!*. (2,15).
We might say that Paul has rewound the tape, and will now replay it, although with two significant shifts of emphasis. First, although he develops the same argument that freedom to sin is fundamentally incompatible with our Christian reality, he describes this in terms of our being united to Christ in verses 3-14 and of our being enslaved to God in verses 16-23. It is not only the figure of speech which is different, however, namely ‘dead to sin but alive to God’ (11) and ‘free from sin and…slaves to God’ (22). It is also and secondly how these radical changes came about. The emphasis of the former is on what was done to us (we were united to Christ), while the emphasis of the latter is on what we did (we offered ourselves to God to obey him). The passive statement alludes to our baptism (we were baptised), whereas the active is properly called conversion (we turned from sin to God), although of course only grace enabled us to do it.
What Paul does in the second half of Romans 6 is to draw out the logic of our conversion, as in the first half he has drawn out the logic of our baptism. In both cases his argument begins with the same astonished question, ‘Don’t you know?’ (3, 16), and continues by probing our understanding of our Christian beginnings. Since through baptism we were united to Christ, and in consequence are dead to sin and alive to God, how can we possibly live in sin? Since through conversion we offered ourselves to God to be his slaves, and in consequence are committed to obedience, how can we possibly claim freedom to sin?
(i). The principle: self-surrender leads to slavery (16)
The apostle’s basic question to his readers is this: *Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey?* (16a). The concept may surprise us because we tend to think of Romans slaves as having been either captured in war or bought in the marketplace, not as having offered themselves. But there is such a thing as voluntary slavery. ‘People in dire poverty could offer themselves as slaves to someone simply in order to be fed and housed’. Paul’s point is that those who thus offered themselves invariably had their offer accepted. They could not expect to give themselves to a slave-master and simultaneously retain their freedom. It is the same with spiritual slavery. Self-surrender leads invariably to slavery, *whether* we thus become *slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness* (16b). The notion of slavery to sin is readily intelligible (not least because Jesus spoke of it), (Jn. 8:34), and so is the fact that it leads to death (separation from God both here and hereafter), since at the end of the chapter Paul will refer to death as the ‘wages’ which sin pays (23). It is less easy, however, to understand his apparent inexact parallels. As the alternative to being ‘slaves to sin’ one might have expected ‘slaves to Christ’ rather than slaves to obedience’, and as the alternative to ‘death’ the expectation would be ‘life’ rather than righteousness’. Yet the idea of being ‘obedient to obedience’ is a dramatic way of emphasising that obedience is the very essence of slavery, and ‘righteousness’ in the sense of justification is almost a synonym of life (cf. 5:18). At least Paul’s general meaning is beyond doubt. Conversion is an act of self-surrender; self-surrender leads invariably to slavery; and slavery demands a total, radical, exclusive obedience. For no-one can be the slave of two masters, as Jesus said (Mt. 6:24). So, once we have offered ourselves to him as his slaves, we are permanently and unconditionally at his disposal. There is no possibility of going back on this. Having chosen our master, we have no further choice but to obey him.