If you are reading this it is likely because your experience with sin doesn’t make sense to you. This is the case for many of us. We read passages like Romans 6:18 (“and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”) and we are confused. We wonder how it is that we, who Christ has set free from sin, still have such strong urges to keep on sinning. Shouldn’t it be easy for those who have freedom from sin to stop sinning? The answer is, no, and Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 6, makes sense of our struggle.
Sin is a master
Paul speaks of sin as if it is a king or a master who cruelly reigns over people. He uses the words “dominion” (v. 9, 14) and “reign” (v. 12) to talk about sin’s power over people and likewise the words “slaves” (v. 20) and “enslaved” (v. 6) to talk about people’s experience living under the reign of sin.
We are born under sin’s enslavement and sin totally dominates us (v. 14). Being enslaved to sin does not mean that we are as sinful as we could be but it does mean that prior to personal salvation sin taints even our good and moral behavior. This imagery is important to consider if we want to understand why it is those of us who are free from sin still sin.
In Christ we have a new Master
The two most significant words in the New Testament are: in Christ. Being in Christ is more than just letters added after our names signaling our credentials (i.e. MD, PhD, MA, MDiv), it is a transformation of who we once were. These words speak of the identity we take on at our personal salvation.
God miraculously brings us into Christ when we place our faith in Christ. When God brings us into Christ it marks a spiritual union with Christ. When Paul says we have been “baptized into Christ” (v.3) he means that we have been spiritually “united with Christ” (v.5). The result of this spiritual union is that we are made new creatures and old things pass away (2 Corinthians 5:17). To use the language of Romans 6:18 we have become “slaves of righteousness.” Before being in Christ our master was sin but in Christ we have a new master and that master is Jesus. No longer does sin totally dominate us. We now have the choice to not sin.
Why do we still struggle with sin?
For those of us in Christ we have a new master reigning over us and the claim of our old master, sin, has been broken. But why do we still desire to sin and participate in sin? The answer is that our old master, sin, is in a fight till the bitter end. We still feel the presence of sin long after its rule and reign has concluded because sin refuses to acknowledge defeat.
Even though you are in Christ (if you have placed your faith in Christ) sin is continuing to compete for the throne of your heart. Sin still gives orders for you to follow and is in a massive marketing campaign trying to convince you to submit yourself again to its cruel reign. Often times its commands, pleas, and promises are unfortunately successful and we sin.
My six year old daughter loves to play with putty. It molds and takes shape as she desires and commands. The thing about putty is that long after my daughter releases her grip it maintains the markings and impressions of her hands. The reign of sin is like this. Although sin’s powerful grip has been broken, we feel its impression, contours, and indents long after the fact.
Romans 6 and Juneteenth
Trip Barefield (Trip Lee) preached a sermon at Capitol Hill Baptist Church titled The Living Dead where he likens Paul’s message in Romans chapter 6 to something known as Juneteenth (do yourself a favor and go listen to his sermon). He explains that in January 1863 Abraham Lincoln brought into effect the Emancipation Proclamation formally ending slavery but that, sadly, the news of this freedom did not initially reach slaves in Texas. It was not until almost two and a half years later that slaves in Texas became aware of the status of freedom they already had. This day was June 19th, 1865 and became known as Juneteenth.
Paul is writing to believers set free from sin. Romans chapter 6 serves as an announcement of that Good News. What Paul knows is that in order for us to “consider [ourselves] dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” we must be reminded of who we are in Christ and what we are to be in Christ.
As we look back again at the phrase in v. 18, “have become slaves of righteousness”, there are two observations I want to make in closing. First, becoming a slave of righteousness is an identity bestowed upon us immediately at our conversion. At the moment we place our faith in Christ we are “freed (lit. ‘justified’) from sin” (v. 7) and we have a new master reigning over us. Second, becoming a slave of righteousness is something we grow into throughout our lives in Christ. This becoming a slave of righteousness is a progressive work of God (Philippians 2:12-13) as you refuse to let sin “reign in your mortal body” and instead you “present” yourself as an instrument of righteousness to God (v. 13).
May God be gracious to us as we “so now present [our] members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (v. 19).
The sermon titled The Living Dead by Trip Barefield can be found here.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Psalm 24 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.