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Romans 6:12-23 Biblical Commentary:
ROMANS 6: AN OVERVIEW
In the first half of this chapter (vv. 1-11), Paul established that, in our baptism, we became new creatures—died with Christ and were resurrected to new life with him. We therefore must consider ourselves “dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 11).
In the rest of this chapter (vv. 12-23), Paul spells out the ethical implications of our new birth. We need to act in accord with our new nature. It is inappropriate for us to give sin dominion over our lives—to be slaves to sin—now that we have been resurrected with Christ. We need, instead, to give God dominion—to be slaves to God. Paul does not entertain the possibility that we can be free in the sense that we have no master. We will serve either sin or God. There is no other possibility.
ROMANS 6:12-14. DON’T LET SIN REIGN
12Therefore don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts (Greek: epithumiais—passions or lusts). 13Neither present your members to sin as instruments (Greek: hopla—weapons, tools) of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God, as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments (hopla) of righteousness to God. 14For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace.
“Therefore” (v. 12a) links what follows with what Paul said earlier. He has established that we are new people in Christ (vv. 1-11). Now he establishes what that means in terms of our conduct (vv. 12-23).
“don’t let sin reign in your mortal body” (Greek: soma) (v. 12a). Our bodies provide opportunity for temptation to rule us. Our physical appetites (hunger, thirst, sex) cry out for satisfaction. “The battle is a spiritual one, but it is fought, and won or lost, in the daily decisions the believer makes about how to use his body” (Moo, 383).
Paul has just said that “Christ, being raised from the dead, dies no more.” He followed that with a call to “consider yourselves also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 9, 11). Given that they have the promise of immortality, they must not allow the mortal to rule their lives.
“that you should obey it in its lusts” (epithumiais—lusts) (v. 12). Our baptism does not insure that we will do the right thing. While it is true that we have been baptized into Christ’s death so that we might walk in newness of life (vv. 3-4), it is also true that we live with a foot in both worlds. We have begun our resurrection walk with Christ, but we still inhabit mortal bodies subject to various lusts and passions—pride, anger, sexual lust, greed, gluttony, drunkenness, etc., etc., etc.
We can be sure that the tempter will tailor the bait especially for us, probing our defenses at their weakest point. We should also understand that succumbing to temptation once makes it more difficult to resist the next time. The person who pads his/her expense account today will find it even more tempting to embezzle or to adopt questionable accounting practices tomorrow. The married person who encourages an office flirtation will find it increasingly difficult to avoid infidelity. Sin is a slippery slope. The tempter is determined to become our master, and has patience to entice us one small step at a time.
But God gives us the means to resist temptation. First, God gave us a new nature at our baptism. Also, we also have scripture to guide us. It is instructive that Jesus countered each of his temptations with a verse from scripture, suggesting that a proactive defense against temptation is to learn scripture. Prayer, worship, and other spiritual disciplines are helpful. But it is also important—urgently important—for us to say, “I am a Christian, and I am not going to do that.” That is Paul’s point in this text. We became new people at our baptism, and must act the part. If we will keep in mind who we are—whose we are—that will help us to avoid the tempter’s trap.
“Neither present your members to sin as instruments (hopla—weapons, tools) of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God, as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments (hopla) of righteousness to God“ (v. 13). The word, hopla, can be translated weapons, and might best be translated that way here. Paul tells us not to present any of our members—any part of our bodies—to be used by sin as a weapon. Instead we are to present our whole selves and all of our parts to be used by God as weapons of righteousness. In the great contest between good and evil, Paul calls us to get on the right side—God’s side. The irony, of course, is that if we surrender our power to sin, Satan turns it against us. To give our power to Satan is to arm a mortal enemy committed to our destruction. To use our power for God insures that it will be used for eternal purposes—and, in the end, for our own eternal benefit.
“For sin will not have dominion over you. For you are not under law, but under grace” (v. 14). It is interesting that Paul, a Jewish Pharisee, would say that sin no longer has dominion over us because we are not under the law. Jews believed that the law protected them from sin by showing what to do and what to avoid. There is a sense in which that was true—the law serves as a helpful guide.
There were, however, two problems associated with the law. (1) When observance of law becomes paramount, it is possible to lose sight of the intent of the law—to consider rote observance as sufficient. (2) It proved impossible to observe the law completely, so every person “under law” was bound to fail. That is the reason that sin has dominion over those who are “under law.” But we are “under grace”—a situation in which we cannot fail, because God forgives our sins. We can live secure in the faith that God’s grace is greater than our sins.
ROMANS 6:15-19. SHALL WE SIN, BECAUSE WE ARE NOT UNDER LAW?
15What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? May it never be! 16Don’t you know that to whom you present yourselves as servants to obedience, his servants you are whom you obey; whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness? 17But thanks be to God, that, whereas you were bondservants of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto you were delivered (Greek: paredothete—from paradidomi). 18Being made free from sin, you became bondservants of righteousness. 19 I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh (Greek: ten astheneian tes sarkos humon—the weakness of your flesh), for as you presented your members as servants to uncleanness and to wickedness upon wickedness, even so now present your members as servants to righteousness for sanctification (Greek: hagiasmon—from hagios).
“What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? May it never be!” (v. 15). This is similar to the question that Paul asked in 6:1, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” His answer, “May it never be,” is the same in both instances.
“Don’t you know that to whom you present yourselves as servants to obedience, his servants you are whom you obey; whether of sin to death, or of obedience to righteousness?” (v. 16). Modern readers might object to Paul’s use of slavery to illustrate a spiritual principle, but Paul is not defending the institution of slavery. Instead, he is using something familiar to illustrate that we have no choice but to serve one of two spiritual masters—sin or obedience. We cannot choose to be independent of these competing powers, but can only choose which one we will serve. Our choice of masters will determine our end. Sin leads to death, but obedience leads to righteousness.
Our righteousness cannot be the kind of righteousness that comes from obedience to law, because we are not under law but under grace (v. 15). If we were to strive for the righteousness that comes from keeping the law, we would be frustrated, because it is not possible to keep the law without fail. However, since God’s grace is greater than our sins (see above on v. 14), righteousness becomes possible. God grants us righteous standing and eternal fellowship based on our allegiance to obedience rather than to sin. God does not require perfect obedience, but instead looks for our allegiance to God rather than sin (v. 13)—allegiance to obedience rather than sin (v. 16)—allegiance to righteousness rather than impurity and iniquity (v. 19). If we ally ourselves to God, we will find ourselves in God’s camp where grace reigns and will therefore be counted as righteous. If we choose sin, we will find ourselves in sin’s camp where death reigns.
“But thanks be to God, that, whereas you were bondservants of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto you were delivered” (v. 17). Until now, Paul has explained what it means to be a Christian and has exhorted Roman Christians to live up to their calling. Now he thanks God that they have already made the right choice. They were once slaves to sin, but have now become “obedient from the heart to that form of teaching whereunto you were delivered.”
The phrase, “obedient from the heart,” is significant, because Jesus emphasized “heart” religion. Search the Gospels for the words “heart” and “hearts,” and you will find dozens of verses where Jesus speaks of “heart” religion. “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8). “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” (Matthew 9:4). The list goes on and on. Jesus’ problem with the religious leaders of his day was their rote observance of the law—observance that no longer came from their hearts. For Paul to tell Roman Christians that they have become “obedient from the heart” is high praise, because it means that their religious observance wells up from their hearts and is therefore pleasing to God.
“to that form of teaching whereunto you were delivered (paredothete—from paradidomi—handed over)” (v. 17b). It is interesting that Paul says that they have been faithful “to the form of teaching whereunto you were delivered” instead of saying that they have been faithful “to God.” We might get a clue to his intent from the word paradidomi. The Gospel of John uses that word several times to speak of Jesus being “handed over” to his enemies, so it seems appropriate to translate it that way here. These Roman Christians are being faithful to the “form of teaching”—authoritative Christian doctrine—that was “handed over” to them. That “form of teaching” stands in contrast to alternative forms of teaching that they might have followed.
“Being made free from sin, you became bondservants of righteousness” (v. 18). When they became Christians, God emancipated them from one form of slavery so that they might embrace another—set them free from slavery to sin so that they might become “bondservants of righteousness.” There is no third option—no autonomy. We live in a world ruled by spiritual powers, God and Satan. We will serve one or the other.
“bondservants of righteousness” (v. 18b). The fact that we have been “being made free from sin” does not give us license to engage in any form of conduct that we might desire, but simply represents a change of masters from sin to righteousness—and a change of destiny from death to life.
“I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh” (Greek: ten astheneian tes sarkos humon—the weakness of your flesh)” (v. 19a). It sounds almost as if Paul is apologizing here, perhaps for using slavery as a metaphor. However, that seems unlikely, given that he continues to use the slavery metaphor (vv. 19, 20, 22). Instead, he is simply saying that he must acknowledge “the weakness of your (their) flesh” and that he must use familiar things that they understand to illustrate spiritual things that they need to learn. Otherwise he would just confuse them by preaching over their heads.
“for as you presented your members as servants to uncleanness and to wickedness upon wickedness, even so now present your members as servants to righteousness for sanctification” (v. 19b). In verses 17-18, Paul thanked God that these Christians had shifted their allegiance from sin to righteousness—had moved from death to life. Now he reminds them once again that they must bring their conduct in line with their new allegiance. Just as they once served faithfully their old master, sin, so now they must serve their new master, righteousness, with equal fidelity.
“for sanctification” (hagiasmon) (v. 19b). Sanctification is one of those five-dollar words that causes people’s eyes to glaze over. Few people understand what sanctification means, and its many syllables discourage them from wanting to learn. We must help them. The Greek word is hagiasmon, which has hagios as its root. Hagios means “set apart for God” or “holy” or “morally pure.” In its plural form, hagioi, it means “the people of God.”
Sanctification, then, is what happens when God sets us free from sin and starts us on our journey toward holiness. In this life, sanctification remains a journey rather than a destination. The purpose of the journey is to be restored to the beauty for which God created us—to lose the scars and disfigurements brought on by sin. In this life, we never become wholly holy (sorry, I couldn’t resist), but by God’s grace grow in holiness. We will realize our full potential for holiness in the resurrection, but can rejoice in the progress that Christ makes possible during this life.
ROMANS 6:20-23: THE FREE GIFT OF GOD IS ETERNAL LIFE
20For when you were servants of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21So what advantage (Greek: karpon—fruit) did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. 22But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage (Greek: karpon—fruit) you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. 23For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
“For when you were servants of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness” (v. 20). The only freedom that their previous slavery gave them was freedom from righteousness—freedom from doing the right thing. The Roman world was rife with sin. For example, parents preferred male children, and would leave unwanted baby girls to die from exposure. Brothels would collect these baby girls and raise them as prostitutes. The Christian Justin Martyr highlighted this evil, warning Roman men that, when they visited a brothel, there was a very real possibility that they would engage in sex with their own daughter (Barclay, 90). When one is surrounded by this sort of evil, it begins to seem commonplace—natural—easy to defend. People living by such standards are “servants of sin” and “free in regard to righteousness.”
“So what advantage (karpon—fruit) did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death” (v. 21). Unfortunately, many translations (including this one) obscure the word karpon—fruit. Paul is asking, What is the fruit of sin? A gardener can predict the fruit that will grow from the seeds that he or she plants. Tomato seeds will yield tomato fruit. A kernel of corn will yield more corn. So also, we can predict that the fruit borne by slavery to sin will be death, by which Paul means spiritual death—eternal separation from God.
These Roman Christians were once slaves to sin and did things “of which you (they) now are ashamed” (v. 21). They were not ashamed at the time, because their evil deeds seemed commonplace—natural—easy to defend. Now, seeing their past sins from a redeemed perspective, they are ashamed of their earlier conduct.
“But now, being made free from sin, and having become servants of God, you have your fruit (karpon—fruit) of sanctification, and the result of eternal life“ (v. 22). In verses 20-21, Paul has been speaking about their old lives lived in slavery to sin. “But now” (v. 22) signals a shift—Paul will now speak of their new lives lived in slavery to God.
If the fruit of sin-seed is death, then the fruit of God-seed is sanctification and eternal life (see above on v. 19 for a discussion of sanctification). Eternal life involves both quantity and quality of life—life without end lived in the presence of God. We begin to experience eternal life at our baptism, but must await our resurrection to experience its full potential.
“For the wages of sin is death” (v. 23a). Paul continues to contrast sin and God, but shifts from an agricultural metaphor (fruit) to a financial metaphor (wages). The person who stands in the “sin” payroll line will open his/her envelope to find a check marked “Death.” No redress is possible, because the payment is just—death is the natural product of sin. The person who plants “sin” seed should expect to reap “death” fruit. The person who works on a “sin” assembly line should expect a “death” product.
While it is not always obvious in this life (some rapacious people live long, financially prosperous lives), it is easy enough to see that sin does, indeed, lead to death. The cause and effect relationship is most obvious in the degradation brought about by drug abuse, drunkenness, prostitution, and other blatant behaviors, but sin is more than bad behavior. Sin is the kingdom over which Satan reigns, and it is our decision to live in that kingdom and to serve that master that leads to sinful behavior—and ultimately to our death.
Of course, we could rightly claim to be the victims of deceptive advertising. As the Scottish proverb says, “The Devil’s boots don’t creak”—he gives no warning. Nor does he “shock a saint into alertness by suggesting whopping crimes, (but instead) starts off with little, almost inoffensive things to which even the heart of a saint would make only mild protests” (Walter Farrell). The tempter advertises sin as glamorous and exciting—disguises lust as love—persuades us that Godly people are stuffy and boring—and tells us that, contrary to God’s warning, we will not die if we eat the forbidden fruit.
Unfortunately, our claim that we have been deceived does not constitute an acceptable defense. God’s warning that we will die if we eat the forbidden fruit trumps the tempter’s promise that we will not. If we plant sin-seed, we will reap death-fruit. If we work in the sin-workshop, we can expect a death-paycheck. If we spend our life feeding the sin monster, we can expect that it will consume us.
“but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (v. 23b). Having heard that the wages of sin is death, we expect to hear that the wages of Godly service is life. That is not, however, what Paul says. He emphasizes throughout this epistle that we cannot earn eternal life, but must receive it as God’s gift. Here he tells us once again that eternal life is “the free gift of God.”
That is Good News, especially for those who have spent many years in service to sin. It means that it does not matter how deep a hole we dug for ourselves or how little time we have remaining to redeem ourselves. Once we move from the sin-camp to the God-camp, God writes the required check, however large, to redeem us. Christ has, in fact, done that at the cross. He has paid the price. No further payment is required.
But the free gift is also Good News for those of us who were raised in the church and have known Christ all our lives. Throughout our lives, we can count on Christ to help us to avoid the potholes and hellholes of sin. And when the tempter does get the better of us, we have the assurance that Christ will redeem us.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible: The Letter to the Romans (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Dunn, James D. G., Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1-8, Vol. 38A (Dallas: Word Books, 1988)
Gaventa, Beverly R. in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Hunsinger, George, in Van Harn, Roger E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001)
Moo, Douglas, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Romans (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996)
Morris, Leon, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 1988)
Mounce, Robert H., The New American Commentary: Romans, (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995)
Wright, N. Thomas, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
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