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16. Study and Exposition of Romans 6:15-23

A. Introduction

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) “fought” for the freedom of enslaved and oppressed peoples for over thirty years and is rightly recognized as one of the world’s great leaders in this regard. He protested racial legislation in South Africa and led civil disobedience campaigns in his native India in order to secure home rule. He was especially noted for his commitment to non-violent ways, his self-discipline and denial, as well as his championing of the underclass within the caste system. It has been said that the theme of his life revolved around the question: “How can people know freedom from slavery—politically, socially, or internally within themselves?”50

Christian, this too should be your theme. Not freedom from political institutions per se, but freedom from sin, on the one hand, and enslavement to God, righteousness, sanctification, and eternal life, on the other. Again, we should ask how can I, as a believer in Jesus Christ, be freed from the reigning power of sin in my daily life? Gandhi was quoted as saying, “the moment the slave resolves that he will no longer be a slave, his fetters fall.”51 The gospel has made every provision for this reality in your life. Have you resolved that sin will no longer have dominion over you? Paul says in Romans 6:15-23 that a proper understanding of grace (and the fact that the Christian is not under law) should lead to freedom from sin and enslavement to obedience.

Near the end of Gandhi’s life he made the following comment:

What I want to achieve—what I have been striving and pining to achieve these thirty years—is self realization, to see God face to face, to attain Moksha (spiritual deliverance)…I have not yet found Him, but I am seeking after Him…For it is an unbroken fortune to me that I am still so far from Him…I have not seen Him, neither have I known Him.52

But according to Jesus Christ, the Christian knows God and has been spiritually delivered from sin. Therefore, Christian, live like it is so, for the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

B. Translation of Passage in NET

6:15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! 6:16 Do you not know that if you present yourselves as obedient slaves, you are slaves to the one you obey, either to sin resulting in death, or obedience resulting in righteousness? 6:17 But thanks be to God that though you were slaves to sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching you were entrusted to, 6:18 and having been freed from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness. 6:19 (I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh.) For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. 6:20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness.

6:21 So what benefit did you then reap from those things that you are now ashamed of? For the end of those things is death. 6:22 But now, freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your benefit leading to sanctification, and the end is eternal life. 6:23 For the payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

C. Full Exegetical Outline

Idea: The reason Christians who are no longer the law, but under grace should not sin is because it leads to slavery to sin and death, whereas slavery to righteousness leads to eternal life.

I. Should Christians who are no longer under law, but under grace, continue in sin? Absolutely not! (6:15)

II. A person is a slave to the one whom he obeys, whether sin resulting in death or obedience resulting in righteousness (6:16)

A. A person is a slave to the one whom he obeys (6:16a-b)

B. Sin results in death (6:16c)

C. Obedience (to God) results in righteousness (6:16d)

III. Paul gives thanks for the Roman Christians because they had become obedient to righteousness which leads to sanctification and he encourages them to continue to offer themselves as slaves to righteousness (6:17-20)

A. The Romans were salves to sin, but they obeyed from the heart the teaching to which they were entrusted with the result that they have become freed from sin and enslaved to righteousness (6:17)

1. Paul gives thanks for the Roman Christians (6:17a)

2. The Roman Christians were slaves to sin (6:17a)

3. The Roman Christians obeyed from the heart the pattern of teaching to which they were entrusted (6:17c)

4. The Roman Christians have been freed from sin and enslaved to righteousness (6:18)

B. Paul, through the illustration from slavery, encourages the Roman Christians to present their members, not to sin leading to greater and greater lawlessness, but to righteousness, leading to sanctification, because they are now slaves to righteousness (6:19-20)

1. Paul is using the illustration of slavery in order to help the Romans better comprehend what he’s saying since people have limited abilities to understand (6:19a)

2. The Roman Christians, at one time, presented their members to impurity and lawlessness, leading to more lawlessness (6:19b)

3. The Roman Christians are now to present their members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification (6:19c)

4. When the Roman Christians were slaves to sin they were free with regard to righteousness (6:20)

IV. Paul reminds the Roman Christians that their previous way of life reaped shame and death whereas now, having been freed from sin, they are reaping sanctification, the end of which is eternal life (6:21-22)

A. The Romans Christians did not reap any good thing from those things which they are now ashamed of (6:21a)

B. The end of those things is death (6:21b)

C. The Roman Christians have been freed from sin and enslaved to God (6:22a)

D. The Roman Christians have their benefit from enslavement to God, namely, sanctification and eternal life (6:22b)

V. The payoff of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life (6:23)

A. The payoff of sin is death (6:23a)

B. The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (6:23b)

D. Simple Point Outline

Idea: Sin leads to death, but obedience leads to righteousness and eternal life.

I. The Question: Shall Christians who are not under the law, therefore, have freedom to sin? (6:15)

II. The Fruit of Sin

A. It Leads to Enslavement (6:16, 17)

B. It Leads to Death (6:16, 21)

C. It Involves Enslavement to Impurity and Lawlessness (6:19)

D. It Leads to Further Enslavement and Lawlessness (6:19)

E. It Is A Condition in Which A Person Is Free with Regard to Righteousness (6:20)

F. It Leads to Shame (6:21)

G. It Deceives: It’s Wages Is Death (6:23)

III. The Fruit of Obedience

A. Obedience is Not An Option (6:15)

B. It Leads to Righteousness (6:16, 18)

C. It Comes from the Heart and Realizes an External Standard (6:17)

D. It Leads to Freedom from Sin (6:18)

E. It Leads to Sanctification (6:19)

F. It Involves No Shame (6:21)

G. It Leads to the Enjoyment of Eternal Life (6:22)

IV. The Conclusion of the Matter (6:23)

A. Sin Leads to Death

B. The Gift of God Is Eternal Life

E. Exposition Proper

In 6:14 Paul summarizes 6:1-13 saying that Christians are under grace and are no longer under law. This statement, however, could be misunderstood to mean that Christians are free to be lawless. Paul anticipates such a ludicrous misreading of his gospel, that he surfaces the question and deals with it in 6:15-23. There is always the danger that the doctrine of grace might be misunderstood to mean license (Rom 3:8), but Paul’s gospel will have none of it. If a person gives themselves to sin, under the pretense of grace, they will soon find themselves a slave to sin and all that goes with that, i.e., death in all its aspects. In 6:1-14  Christians are to refrain from sin and live a righteous life because they have been united with Christ in his death to sin and resurrection to new life. In 6:15-23 the Pauline gospel teaches that Christians are to refrain from sinning and live a righteous life because those who sin will become slaves to sin leading to death whereas those who live for righteousness will increase in holiness and enjoy the gift of eternal life, even now.

6:15 Paul begins in 6:15 with a question: He says, “What then” (τι οὖν, ti oun)? Shall we sin (ἁμαρτήσωμεν, hamartēsōmen) because (ὅτι, hoti) we are not under law (ὑπὸ νόμον, hupo nomon) but (ἀλλὰ, alla) under grace (ὑπὸ χάριν, hupo charin)? The question is similar to that in 6:1, but with a different twist. In 6:1 the question anticipates the false inference that if grace increases where sin increases, then why not continue in sin? In 6:15 Paul’s question anticipates another false inference, namely, that if Christians are no longer under the law, but under grace (Rom 5:20), then why not sin freely? After all, it was Paul who just finished saying that where there is no law, sin is not taken into account, i.e., there is no punishment (Rom 5:13). So then, if the demands of the law have been set aside and no longer have any real application to the Christian, then why not sin to our heart’s content? Again Paul’s response is an emphatic denial of such nonsense: Absolutely not (μή γένοιτο, mē genoito)! Contrary to the opinion of some expositors, Paul is deeply concerned in Romans 6:15ff that Christians not become enslaved to sin through a misunderstanding of the role of the law in their present experience of salvation. The fact that Christians are not under law, does not mean that it no longer has any validity in the life of the Christian. See Romans 13:8-10. 

This is the last occurrence of the verb “to sin” (ἁμαρτήσωμεν, hamartēsōmen) in this chapter and indeed the entire book. It means, as it has done in every previous occurrence in Romans, responsible acts of disobedience to God whether there is a law in place to point it out or not (Rom 2:14-15; 3:23).53 The idea of being under law is not to be equated strictly with simply being Jewish, but rather being under the situation of law in comparison to things under grace in Christ. That is, “under law” refers to a situation in which there is limited resources available for the performance of the demands of the law. Being “under grace” is to be united to Christ in his death and resurrection and to possess the Spirit (to be discussed in chapter 8) as key resources for the overthrow of the reign of sin in one's experience (see esp. Galatians 5:18).54 While believing Israelites certainly experienced the salvific and sanctifying grace of God (cf. Rom 2:28-29), the new age inaugurated with the death and resurrection of Christ and the coming of the Spirit is vastly superior in its new covenant resources (cf. John 14:17; 2 Cor 3:1-18). The righteous demands of the law remain for the Christian (Rom 13:8-10), especially as it is fulfilled, properly interpreted and applied by Christ and the apostles, and lived out according to the leading of the indwelling Spirit—that great, eschatological sign of being a true Christian (Rom 8:4, 9).

6:16 Having emphatically denied that being “under grace” and not “under law” leads to license, Paul begins to set up a stark contrast between slavery, sin, and death, and obedience, righteousness, and eternal life. For Paul there is no middle ground. Everyone is a slave. The question is not, “Are you a slave?” but “to whom are you enslaved?” If it's to sin, the result will be death. If it's to obedience (to God), the result will be righteousness and eternal life.

The expression Do you not know (οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι, ouk oidate hoti) doesn’t indicate that these Roman Christians did not yet understand apostolic teaching about sin and righteousness. In fact, Paul’s statement in 6:17 clearly indicates that they did understand “how to live so as to please God” (cf. 1 Thess 4:1-2). The expression is simply rhetorical and sets up what follows as a reminder of that which they already knew and were committed to (cf. 1 Cor 3:16; 6:19-20).

Paul says that if you present (παριστάνετε, paristanete) yourselves as obedient slaves (δούλους εἰς ὑπακοήν, doulous eis hupakoēn), you are slaves to the one you obey, either to sin (ἁμαρτίας, hamartias) resulting in death (εἰς θάνατον, eis thanaton), or obedience (ὑπακοῆς, hupakoēs) resulting in righteousness (εἰς δικαιοσύνην, eis dikaiosunēn). The idea of slavery to sin echoes the words of Jesus in John 8:34: “I tell you the solemn truth, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” The illustration from slavery would have been readily understood by all who lived in Rome, since a large number of people in the city and also in the church, were either slaves or freedmen.

Thus Paul casts life into an “either-or” category. There is no half-way house. A person is either serving God or serving the flesh with its lusts. Jesus said, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24).55 We are reminded of the saying popular in some Christian circles, claiming that the most miserable person in the world is the Christian who tries to live in both worlds, in two kingdoms simultaneously. Undoubtedly this has some truth in it. In Christ we have made a decisive break with our old ways in Adam and have been called to both renounce sin as Master and daily foster allegiance to the risen Son.

We have been called to “obedience”, that is, adherence to the gospel in faith and life. As we sow to please the Spirit (Gal 5:16; 6:8-10), the result is a transformation; we are changed into the likeness of Christ. The result of heartfelt obedience to Christ is righteousness in our character and conduct. On the other hand, service to sin leads to “death.” The meaning of the term “death” here probably includes, as several commentators point out, the ideas of physical death, as well as spiritual and eternal death. Sin leads to death in every sense, though the grace of Christ is strong enough to keep the Christian who sins (Rom 8:38-39), though loss of fellowship with the Lord is a consequence.

6:17 The Roman Christians knew that sin led to death and obedience to righteousness and eternal life. Indeed, Paul gives thanks to God that though these people were once, as he was, enslaved to sin (Eph 2:1-3), they had through the gospel obeyed Christian teaching. But they obeyed from the heart (ἐκ καρδίας, ek kardias), or wholeheartedly that pattern of teaching (τύπον διδαχῆς, tupon didachēs) to which they were entrusted (παρεδόθητε, paredothēte). The “pattern of teaching” probably refers to teaching regarding salvation through Christ and a lifestyle commensurate with the claim to have become a follower of Jesus. Though it undoubtedly has an ethical focus, we may reasonably assume that Christ is at the center and therefore it rests on an explicit theological foundation. Thus new Christians came to understand what they believed and why they were to live a certain way. Three things can be noted from Paul's statement: (1) there was by this time a fixed “form” of teaching which was approved by apostolic witness. Thus there is such a thing as objective truth to which all Christians must respond; (2) these Christians were handed over to it, it was not handed over to them! This fact enhances the idea of their obedience “from the heart”; they were totally given over to the teaching they had received. They were not trying to change, alter, or amend it in any way, they were trying to obey it through Christ. We could go a long way following their example (James 1:22); (3) the notion that they were “entrusted” to it suggests both the intrinsic value of the teaching and therefore its importance in the process of sanctification. By comparison today, how many evangelicals read and study their Bibles daily, weekly, monthly?

6:18 The result of having given themselves over to Christian teaching was that they had been freed (ἐλευθερωθέντες, eleutherōthentes) from sin, and become enslaved (ἐδουλώθητε, edoulōthēte) to righteousness (τῇ δικαιοσύνῃ, tē dikaiosunē). By obeying from the heart that form of Christian teaching to which they had been entrusted, the Roman Christians were experientially realizing freedom in their lives from the power of indwelling sin and freedom, on the other hand, to live for righteousness. They were set free from sins such as lust, impurity, idolatry, malice, anger, hatred, and the like and were constantly growing in Christlikeness (cf. Gal 5:16-24).

6:19 Verse 19 begins with a parenthetical comment in which Paul explains why he has been using the imagery of “slavery” throughout this paragraph. He says: (I am speaking in human terms [᾿Ανθρώπινον, anthrōpinon] because of the weakness [ἀσθένειαν, astheneian] of their flesh [σαρκὸς, sarkos]). Thus the reason Paul is using the concept of slavery, which he refers to as “speaking in human terms,” is because of the weakness of their flesh, that is, because they are unable to grasp spiritual truth very easily and illustration affords a modest way of clarifying otherwise complex spiritual truths. Paul does not mean that he has lowered God's righteous standard so that they can now attain it. Again, slavery was well understood by his brothers and sisters in Rome and thus a suitable vehicle through which to communicate the nature of life under sin or righteousness.

Paul begins the next sentence with For (γάρ, gar) which indicates that what follows in the rest of the sentence is a basic explanation/summary of his comments in vv.15-18. The point of this second part to the verse is to encourage the Roman Christians to continue in their obedience to apostolic doctrine.

The construction just as (ὡσπερ, hōsper)…so now (οὕτως νῦν, houtōs nun) suggests a comparison between the way they once lived and the way they now live as Christians. They are to show the same zeal for righteousness that they once had for sin. In the past they presented (παρεστήσατε, parestēsate) themselves and their bodies as slaves to impurity (ἀκαθαρσίᾳ, akatharsia) and lawlessness (ἀνομίᾳ, anomia). The term “impurity” refers literally to dirt or refuse, but figuratively to immorality and viciousness (see 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; Eph 4:19; 5:3; Col 3:5). “Lawlessness” is the way John describes all sin in its essential character (1 John 3:4). It is an affront to the holiness of God as it constantly transgresses his holy law and invokes his wrath. Our lawlessness is never satisfied with its current state, but always seeks, always strives to go further into greater acts of lawlessness. As time progresses our condition worsens and we are in the end, as Paul said in Ephesians 2:3, “by our very nature objects of wrath.”

Therefore, the zeal we once had for sin should now be brought to bear in moving in the direction of righteousness. As we do this we are embarking on a new course toward greater and greater sanctification (ἁγιασμόν, hagiasmon) which will culminate in glorification (Rom 8:30). The term “sanctification” means “holiness” or “consecration” and refers here to a spiritual and moral transformation in the believer ultimately brought about by the Spirit himself (2 Cor 3:18). The Spirit uses the word of God, the people of God, and circumstances to change us into the image of Christ (Rom 8:29). Thus the term refers to both a state as well as a process.

6:20-22 Verses 20-22 gives further explanation to this theme of slavery to sin and slavery to righteousness. First, a person who sins may think they are free, but in reality they are slaves to an evil, accusing conscience and can never have the “glorious freedom” God envisions for his children (cf. Rom 2:14-16; 8:21). They reap (καρπὸν εἴχετε, karpon eichete)—a common (with Paul) agrarian metaphor describing moral and spiritual realities (e.g., Gal 6:7-8)—no benefit from the sin they commit. It is a lie to think they do. Indeed, the opposite is true. They reap ruined lives and estrangement from God—the source of life, righteousness, and freedom. In the end they are ashamed (ἐπαισχύνεσθε, epaischunesthe) of what they have done. They are disgraced for having lived a lawless lifestyle; God cannot be mocked. In the case of these Roman Christians, their shame led to repentance. In the end we reap death when we sin; indeed the end or result of all sin is death. Here again death (θάνατος, thanatos) is to be read in its broadest sense with a possible emphasis on eternal death after an unrepentant person dies physically (cf. Matt 25:46).

Second, since the Romans Christians had now been set free from sin, and were enslaved to God “the benefit they received” (lit. “the fruit you have”) is sanctification and the pure conscience which accompanies love for God and service to him.  Paul says their enslavement to God leads to sanctification, viewed as both a process and a state, with the end result being eternal life (ζωὴν αἰώνιον, zōēn aiōnion). Eternal life refers to knowing God, as Jesus said (John 17:3). Thus it has both a present aspect to it and its enjoyment by the Christian is bound up with growing in holiness (cf. Heb 13:14). There is also a future aspect to it when our knowing God will not be hindered by even the presence of sin.

6:23 For (γάρ, gar) the payoff (ὀψώνια, opsōnia) of sin is death, but the gift (χάρισμα, charisma) of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. This last verse further explains vv. 20-22 and closes out the entire paragraph by way of summary. The summary does have a new element, however, for God and sin are now contrasted, not as slave owners, but as different generals. The term “payoff” alludes to compensation paid to a soldier for services rendered.56 So sin promises to pay a wage to its soldiers, to take care of their needs, but in the end it is a lie and death is the payment, not provision for life. Eternal life, however, is not earned, but comes as the radically free gift of God. The gracious nature of God's provision is similar to that which we found in 4:4-5 in which Paul was talking about imputed righteousness. Eternal life is completely according to the grace of God; he has not asked us to try and earn it and only curses any so-called arrogant efforts in that direction. 

F. Homiletical Idea and Outline

Idea: Choose you this day whom you will serve…whether sin leading to death or righteousness leading to life! (cf. Joshua 24:15)

I. The Question (6:15)

II. Choice Number One: To Enjoy the Pleasures of Sin… But…

A. It Leads to Enslavement and Death (6:16, 17)

B. Is Never Satisfied (6:19)

C. It Leads to Shame (6:21)

D. It Deceives: It’s Payoff Is Death (6:23)

III. Choice Number Two…Heartfelt Obedience to God…Because It

A. Is Not An Option (6:15)

B. Leads to Righteousness (6:16, 18)

C. Realizes an External Standard (6:17)

D. Leads to Freedom from Sin (6:18)

E. Leads to Sanctification (6:19)

F. Leads to A Clear Conscience (6:21)

G. Leads to the Enjoyment of Eternal Life (6:22)

IV. The Conclusion of the Matter (6:23)

A. Sin Leads to Death

B. The Gift of God Is Eternal Life

G. Contribution of Passage to Systematic Theology

In Romans 6:1-14 we learned that we should not offer the parts of our bodies as instruments of unrighteousness because it is inconsistent with who we are now as those who have died to sin with Christ and resurrected to new life with him. Here in Romans 6:15-23 Paul gives another reason, namely, sin leads to enslavement and death whereas obedience to God leads to righteousness, sanctification, and eternal life. Thus this passages teaches us that we are to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12-13). It teaches us that grace does not give rise to license, but ushers in obedience (Titus 2:12-13). This passages teaches us that justification leads to sanctification and that the two should not be separated to the point where people miss the obvious connections.

H. Contribution of Passage to Discipleship and Church Mission

50 See Richard Bewes, Great Quotations of the Twentieth Century (Great Britain: Christian Focus, 1999), 115-16, 125.

51 Bewes, Great Quotations, 116.

52 As cited in Bewes, Great Quotations, 125.

53 See Dunn, Romans, in loc.

54 In Galatians 5:18 the text says that the opposite of being under law is to possess and be led by the Spirit.

55 See Murray, Romans, NICNT, 231.

56 BAGD, s.v. ὀψώνια.

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