11. The Stupidity of Sin (Romans 6:12-23)
Most Americans find it easy to rejoice as we observe many nations throwing off the shackles of totalitarianism and dictatorship and moving toward democracy. We are elated to see some European nations, formerly held captive by a Communist dictatorship, cast off the shackles of slavery. But all is not well with these newly liberated nations. Freedom is difficult to obtain and even more difficult to maintain. Political liberation neither immediately nor automatically leads to democracy. Once a dictator is overthrown and his government toppled, the newly liberated people often find they are not equipped to handle freedom nor the governing of themselves. And so all too often, one dictatorship may fall, followed by anarchy, and later by yet another dictatorship.
The Christian life is something like this. Salvation brings immediate forgiveness for sin but not immediate freedom from sin. When a person is “born again,” or justified by faith in Jesus Christ, they are loosed from the bondage of sin. And yet sin soon seems to gain the upper hand once again. Sometimes a saint plunges headlong into sin, supposing that their salvation is a kind of sanction to sin. This appears to be the case with those whose questions Paul raises in Romans (see 3:5-8; 6:1, 15). Others struggle with sin, hating it and yet falling victim to its pull and its power, even as Paul will describe in Romans 7 (see verses 15-25).
In Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the apostle spends more time dealing with the Christian’s victory over sin than he does with the forgiveness of his sins. While Romans 5-8 deals with the subject of sanctification (the lifelong process of our growth in grace, to God’s glory), its teaching is much broader. These chapters are rooted in our justification by faith (chapters 3b-4). Chapter 5 begins with the blessing of peace with God and the confidence of exulting in the “glory of God” in eternity (5:1-2), and chapter 8 ends with the complete restoration of this fallen and chaotic world. Romans 5-8 describes the roots of sin and the restoration of the creation from the ravages of sin.
Romans 6:1–7:6 provides the believer with a biblical basis for turning from sin to godly living, from the practice of sin to the pursuit of righteousness. In this text, Paul provides three lines of evidence in support of godliness. In Romans 6:1-14, Paul calls the Christian’s attention to their “baptism into Christ,” which unites them with both His death and His resurrection. Our union with Christ prohibits us from living in sin, because this would be inconsistent with and contrary to the work of Christ on the cross. In Christ we died to sin, and thus we must not continue to live in sin. In Christ, we were raised to newness of life, and thus we must live a new and different life in and through Him.
In Romans 6:15–7:6 Paul continues to drive home the truth that justification leads to sanctification. Paul uses two analogies in these verses to articulate and illustrate his point. He first turns to the analogy of slavery in 6:16-23. He then uses the analogy of marriage to show that our union with Christ frees us from our bondage to sin, which the text sustains and supports (7:1-6). We will seek in this lesson to understand the meaning and the message of Paul’s words in Romans 6:15–7:6 as it relates to our own practice of our justification by faith. In our next lesson we will concentrate upon the goodness of the Law and the ultimate source of our struggle with sin as we study Romans 7:7-25.
A Transitional Text
12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.
Paul’s words in Romans 6:12-14 serve a dual purpose: they serve as a conclusion to Paul’s teaching in 6:1-11 and as an introduction to Romans 6:15–7:6.146 Because we have died to sin and have been raised to newness of life in Christ, we must not let sin reign in our bodies. Rather than to present our bodies as servants of sin, we must present our bodies as instruments of righteousness.
As a conclusion to Paul’s teaching in Romans 6:1-11, verses 12-14 inform us that we are obliged to live in the light of our union with Christ. As an introduction to Paul’s teaching in Romans 6:15–7:6, Paul’s words in verses 12-14 lay the foundation for what he will teach next. Verses 12-13 prepare the way for 6:15-23. Verse 14 introduces the subject which Paul will take up in 7:1-6. For this reason, I have begun our study here, to remind us that what Paul is teaching in verse 15 of chapter 6, he has prepared us for in the immediately preceding verses.
Sanctification and Slavery
15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! 16 Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, 18 and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. 19 I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. 22 But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
In verse 14, Paul assumes the fact that the believer’s union with Christ takes him from one domain and places him in another. Justification by faith removes one from the dominion of sin and places him under the dominion of grace. In verse 14, the word “under” implies authority and power. That is why Paul speaks of sin no longer “reigning” in the body of the believer (6:12). The believer has been freed from the Law and now lives by grace. Because of this, sin shall no longer be our master (6:14).
Some may be tempted to take this truth and twist it into an excuse for sin. If sin is no longer my master, they challenge, can I master sin? If sin can no longer use me, can I use sin? Is the overthrow of sin an excuse to sin? Most definitely not! Paul again responds with horror to such a thought. “God forbid! May it never be!”
Verse 16 sums up Paul’s argument in verses 16-23. Several fundamental truths are implied or stated in verse 16 which are more fully expounded by Paul in verses 17-23. Consider these foundational truths which forcefully explain why a Christian should not sin.
(1) Sin is stupid. My words may seem to be a bit strong, but I am convinced they are no stronger than those of Paul. When he begins, “Do you not know?” he is saying the same thing. In Paul’s world and in ours, sin is not thought of as stupid but as sophisticated. Put differently, the unbelieving world thinks that righteousness is stupid, not that sin is stupid. When men reject the revelation of God in nature, they become fools but they think of themselves as wise (Romans 1:22). No wonder Paul puts the matter strongly. Paul’s words which follow this statement give us some of the reasons why sin is stupid.
(2) Sin is enslaving. Sin is like using crack cocaine: it only takes one dose, and you are hooked by it. We cannot master sin, but sin can master us when we choose to obey it. Paul traces a carefully thought-out argument in these verses. He bases his conclusion that sin is enslaving upon these premises:
- We become the slave of the one whom we choose to obey (verse 16)
- All men are the slaves of sin or of righteousness147
(3) Salvation is liberating, breaking the believer’s enslavement to sin. The Romans were once enslaved by sin, but that all changed when they came to faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. They once were slaves to sin, but no longer was this so. Their bondage to sin was broken in Christ (see verse 17).
(4) The salvation of the saints in Rome was the beginning of an obedience to teaching which condemned sin. The conversion of the Romans to faith in Christ was an act of obedience. They became obedient to Christ and to His Word. Their conversion was an act of renouncing their allegiance and servitude to sin and a commitment to obey God. The demands of discipleship were no surprise to these saints. They knew what they were getting into at the time of their conversion.
I wish I could say the same for the saints today. The gospel which is often proclaimed today is watered down. It minimizes commitment and repentance which requires a drastic change of lifestyle. It speaks of God as though He wishes to serve men, rather than to men, urging them to submit to God and to serve Him. When the demands of discipleship are later discovered by the new believer, they are often taken aback and sometimes even angry. What a sad commentary on the gospel we preach. Paul’s gospel, and that which the Romans received, was no such gospel. Our Lord and His apostles let men know where salvation leads. They did not play down the cost of discipleship.
(5) Turning back to sin is stupid, because in so doing we return to that slavery to sin from which we were liberated in Christ. If salvation liberated men from their bondage and enslavement to sin, the practice of sin is a return to that very bondage. Returning to sin, rather than resisting sin, is like “A DOG [THAT] RETURNS TO ITS OWN VOMIT” or a pig that returns to “wallowing in the mire” (see 2 Peter 2:22; Proverbs 26:11).148
(6) To turn back to sin is to turn away from grace. Sin is stepping out of the realm of grace. Sin rejects God’s grace and incites God’s righteous wrath. Sin removes one from that realm where mercy and forgiveness may be found and leaves one in that realm in which condemnation and death are meted out. Sin, like circumcision, according to Paul, is “falling from grace” (see Galatians 5:4). This is not to say that the Christian who sins can lose his salvation, but he can and does place himself in a position where he is dealt with more severely. Paul does not want the Christian to doubt his salvation or to think he will lose his salvation, but he does wish the believer to take sin seriously.
(7) To turn back to sin is to walk in the way which leads to death, rather than to life. Returning to sin is especially stupid in the light of where sin always leads. “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). To leave the path of righteousness and to turn back to the path of sin is to leave the path which leads to life and to return to the path which leads to death. If we accept the premises of the Bible, the consequences of sin are such that sin is stupid, and only living in righteousness makes sense.
I want to pause at Romans 6:23 for just a moment. How often we use this text evangelistically, applying it to the unbeliever. This is well and good, for the principle is true and surely applies to the unbeliever. For the sinner to stay on the path of sin is fatal and foolish. But let us not overlook the fact that Paul is here applying the principle to the saint, not the sinner. He is applying the principle to the Christian who may be toying with sin, not the unbeliever who is living in sin.
It may be that the question raised in Romans 6:1 refers to a contemplated or proposed lifestyle of sin, while the question of 6:15 is less sweeping, referring to an occasional departure into sin. Most Christians know better than to try to excuse a heathen lifestyle. But most of us also find it very easy to excuse intermittent sin. We do not try to lapse back into our heathen lifestyle, but we do want to dabble with it once and awhile. If this is the case, Paul is telling us here that one little sin is like one fix with crack cocaine. One dose is addictive and enslaving. Thus, we must not surrender to sin at all. It is lethal! It is addictive! It is stupid!
The application of Paul’s teaching in this section is found in verse 19. Just as they had formerly presented their bodies149 in service to sin, now they were to present themselves as slaves of righteousness, the result of which is sanctification.
As we conclude this lesson, let us look back over some of the lessons Paul has taught here and reflect upon some of the implications of his teaching.
(1) Biblical doctrine is meant to be practical. The questions which Paul raises in Romans 6 (“What shall we say then?” verse 6; “What then?” verse 15) imply that we should say something in response to his teaching. Furthermore, both major sections of Romans 6 include a clear command to put this teaching to practice. Verses 1-11 are applied by Paul in verses 12-14, and verses 15-23 have a clear command in verse 19.
(2) It is often at the point of application that Christian heresy surfaces. Paul would not ask the questions he does in Romans if he did not expect Christians to misapply truth. Paul’s questions in chapter 6, along with his response to them, strongly suggest that there are Christians who will be orthodox in what they believe, but heretical in what they do. The statement, “May it never be!” found twice in chapter 6, suggests that Christians will take truth to sinful conclusions. Often, right doctrine is twisted to justify sin. Our practice, Paul insists, must be consistent with biblical doctrine.
Perhaps an additional comment should be made here. Just because one’s application of the truth is wrong, we cannot automatically conclude that their doctrine is wrong. If truth can be misapplied, then misapplication does not prove one’s beliefs are wrong. Those beliefs must be subject to scrutiny, but we dare not jump to the conclusion that wrong application always proves wrong doctrine.
(3) Romans 6 teaches us a great deal about sanctification—the lifelong process of spiritual growth which takes place in the life of the Christian, resulting in the glorification of God. By inference, our text teaches us that sanctification is surely not automatic. Once we have been saved, we are not predisposed to always do God’s will. Growth does not occur by accident. The Christian is faced with decisions and choices. While there is boasting and great confidence, there is also agony and struggle. The struggles and tribulations are a part of the process.
Sanctification is not immediate, and it is not easy, but it is remarkably simple. Paul’s words in Romans 5-8 are not that scholarly nor are his points difficult to grasp. We do not struggle with sanctification because it is so hard to understand, but because it is so hard to do. The reason for this struggle will be explained in Romans 7. The means for living righteously are yet to be expounded in Romans 8.
Sanctification is rooted in the cross of Jesus Christ. We were saved from sin and unto righteousness. Our sanctification is grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He died not only for sin, but to sin. Since we have been baptized into Christ, we must not live in sin; we must die to sin. Our lifestyle must radically change as a result of our union with Him and His work at Calvary. Our sanctification is necessitated by the cross, and it is provided for by the cross. The cross of Christ is the key to our salvation and our sanctification.
(4) In our text, Paul teaches us a great deal about sin. As we have seen, sin is stupid. It is stupid because it leads to slavery, slavery to a cruel taskmaster. To choose to obey sin is to turn back to the dominion of sin from which we were delivered in Jesus Christ. It is like a dog returning to its vomit and a pig to its mire. It is returning to that path which inevitably leads to death rather than to life.
Sin is stupid only when it is viewed from a biblical perspective. Our world invites and encourages us to view sin very differently—as a great delight and an act of sophistication and wisdom. We will never see sin as stupid unless we see it from God’s point of view.
Sin is an addiction. I must admit that this realization has come hard to me. I have tended to react to this truth because it is one that has been a prominent theme in contemporary psychology. Every human malady seems to be the result of an addiction. People are now viewed not only in terms of their addiction to chemicals and other substances but also to other people (co-dependency).
According to Paul’s words in our text, sin is an addiction. While modern psychology may be right in drawing our attention to our addictions, it fails in many ways to deal with sin as it should. First, psychology tends to avoid the fact that addiction is sin. Often, the label of addiction serves as an excuse for sin and not as an identification of sin.
Psychology is also wrong in the way it seeks to deal with addiction. Its “cure” for addiction is really a curse. Jesus Christ is the only cure for our addiction to sin, any sin. The many “Twelve Step” programs which seek to deal with addiction refer to a “higher power,” but they do not point to Jesus Christ and the cross of Calvary alone as the means of deliverance. Man’s help comes from a “higher power,” a “god” of our own definition. Man will find no deliverance here.
Deliverance from the addiction of sin comes only from our Lord Jesus Christ, and His death, burial, and resurrection. Whatever your bondage or addiction might be, it is rooted in sin, and its only resolution is the cross of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died for sin, bearing the penalty of God’s wrath for sin. He also died to sin, delivering men from the power of sin. Have you trusted in the work of Jesus Christ? Here is the only deliverance from the addiction of sin God has provided for men. Jesus Christ is not a way; He is the way, the only way:
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6).
The secular means by which men and women are told they can rid themselves of addiction is to “take responsibility and control of your own life.” This is not God’s way. Man can never get control of sin, because it is bigger and more powerful than we are (see Romans 7 for a dramatic example). Deliverance from sin does not come by our mastering sin, but by a change in our master. In our sin and unbelief, sin, and ultimately Satan, is our master. We cannot master sin, but we can submit to Jesus Christ as our Master. When we do so, we not only die to sin in Christ, but God’s power and victory over sin becomes ours.
There is a contemporary slogan which expresses the best “deliverance” the world can offer from addiction: “Just say no.” This is no different than the legalism of the Judaizers. As Paul will make clear, we are not able to say no. Adding rules does not remedy sin; it even promotes sin. The only remedy to the addiction of sin is “Just say yes,” to the offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. Have you received God’s deliverance from sin’s penalty and power? I pray that you will.
(5) Slavery is not the only picture of salvation. Paul does not leave us with slavery as the only analogy of salvation. Paul has employed this particular analogy because of the weakness of his readers (see verse 19). Our relationship to God through Jesus Christ does involve servanthood (or slavery—Paul uses this imagery often), but many other dimensions are also involved. In Romans 7:1-6, Paul speaks of our deliverance through the imagery of marriage, a much more intimate and tender relationship. Later, in Romans 8 he will describe our relationship to God in terms of sonship. It is a great privilege to be a slave of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul often uses this expression for his own apostleship. But we are also the bride of Christ and the sons of God. To God be the glory, great things He has done!
146 Because of this dual purpose of Romans 6:12-14, one must deal with these verses twice. They must be dealt with as the conclusion of verses 1-11, and again as the introduction to 6:15–7:6. This is true of many other transitional portions of Scripture as well. In preaching and teaching the Scriptures, it is therefore difficult to present a neat package which deals with each text but once.
149 I understand the expression “your members” (verse 19, see also 6:13) to refer to the members of the physical body. “Members” is simply a way of referring to our body, in terms of its individual parts, many of which have different roles to play in the service of sin. It is no wonder that Paul will exhort his readers to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” in Romans 12:1.