We come now to Paul’s treatment of the great theme of true liberty and freedom. What is the nature of freedom? We need to be especially careful with this because as Americans we are trained to believe that we understand liberty in some special way, while it appears that we have really lost an understanding of the foundation of all liberty.
“What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid . . .” (Rom. 6:15-23).
Summary of the Text
Paul begins by returning to the question that began this chapter (6:1). He asks if we should therefore sin because we are under grace. Is that what grace means (v. 15)? God forbid. Grace is liberation from sin, not liberation in sin. Sin is a dungeon, and a set of chains bolted into the wall. Paul then turns to instruct us so that we won’t fall for this elementary mistake. “Know ye not . . .?” he asks. The word in this passage rendered servant is doulos, meaning slave. The direction of obedience establishes the nature of the servitude. You are either a slave of slave, leading to death, or a slave of righteousness (v. 16). Those are the two options. But thanks to God, the Roman Christians, who used to be slaves of sin, had transfered their allegiance by obeying “the form of doctrine” they had heard (v. 17). The gospel is obeyed. They were as a consequence freed from one slavery by means of enslavement to another (v. 18). Paul is using a rudimentary illustration because we are slow to get it (v. 19). Just as we used to yield our bodies to iniquity, producing lots more iniquity, so now we are to do the same thing to righteousness, producing holiness (v. 19). Freedom from one is attachment to the other. When the Romans were slaves of sin, they were “free” from holiness (v. 20). But what was the fruit of that way? They were now ashamed of what they used to freel free to do. And the result is death (v. 21). But now they were free from sin, and were slaves of God—with the fruit being holy, and the result everlasting life (v. 22). For wages of sin is death, and the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus (v. 23).
The illustration of marriage is not explicit for a few more verses yet (7:1-5), but Paul appears to be anticipating something like this already. Even though he is speaking of slaves and not wives, the language of v. 19 appears to have some sort of sexual connotation. A verb form of the same word for fruit is found in 7:5, in the context of marriage. So when you yield your members as slaves to uncleanness, the result is that iniquity produces more iniquity—a perverse kind of “increase and multiply.”
You present your members to iniquity, and the result is lots of ugly babies. But when you leave that behind in repentance, the results of the gospel union are holy. In the spiritual realm, the babies always look like the father. If the unbelieving Jews had been children of Abraham, they would have looked like him (John 8:39). Also keep in mind that tolerating sin in your life, especially hidden, secret sin, is like trying to be a little bit pregnant. The reason your sin will find you out (Num. 32:23) is that sin grows and multiplies.
Freedom From, Freedom To
In our individualistic tradition, we have very unwisely truncated our definition of freedom. We tend to think of it as “freedom from” restraint, because this leaves room, as we like to imagine, for a pretended autonomy. But this definition is only partially true, and when it is taken for the whole truth, the results are routinely disastrous. “Freedom from” liberty is entirely incapable of sustaining any concept of civil or political liberty unless we ground it in the Pauline concept of the “freedom to” be virtuous, which is nothing other than the freedom to obey Christ. Notice what Paul does here. If you are at the bottom of the sea, you are free from being dry. If you are in the desert, you are free from being wet. That, by itself, is as far as “freedom from” will get you. This is because Paul takes it as axiomatic that you will be someone’s servant. As Dylan put it in one of his moments of lucidity, “ya gotta serve somebody.” You will either be wet or dry. You will either serve iniquity or you will serve righteousness. If you are a slave to the wrong one, then the result is death—you will be a dead slave. If you become a slave to the righteous one, then the result is life, everlasting life, and at the end of the story, the slave will be adopted as a true son.
How does this matter? It matters because modern secularists want to pretend that they can establish a “freedom from tyranny” kind of liberty without serving Christ. But that is impossible. If you take that route, the result will only be an ever-increasing iniquity. But if we as a people “obey from the heart the form of doctrine” that faithful gospel preachers declare, the result will be holiness, righteousness, and life. Part of that fruit will be every legitimate kind of “freedom from” liberty. Spiritual freedom is the necessary precondition to every other kind of freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), and spiritual freedom always begins with slavery to Christ. Notice how Paul reasons from spiritual freedom to what we think is the only freedom (1 Cor. 7:22-23). Never forget that political and economic liberty is gospel fruit. Do you really think that God will permit us to grow that glorious fruit in our orchards of death?
Form of Doctrine
Many Christians today, for the sake of what they call grace, react away from the word obedience. But Paul is not of their mind. Liberty is obedience. Grace and obedience are not contrary because grace demands to be obeyed. What was the form of doctrine that the Romans had delivered to them? The book of Romans would be as good as summary of that gospel as we could find anywhere. What did they do with it? They obeyed. In Paul’s mind, we may obey in this direction or that one, but we are creatures and we will obey. The only question is whether we will obey words of life or words of death.
Wages and Gifts
Life and death are opposite one another, but they are not symetrical. Paul does not contrast the wages of sin and the wages of righteousness. Neither does he contrast the gift of death and the gift of life. These two destinations are not symetrical at all. The death and the life are opposed, but so are the forms in which they come. One comes as a wage, a payment, a pay check. The other comes as a present, as a gift. Connect this with everything that has gone before and we see that the servitude that leads to death is a servitude of strict justice, and the servitude that brings liberty is a servitude of grace.
You are the people of God. Hear then thewords of the gospel. “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil” (Dt. 30:15). Which will you have?