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The Good News of Slavery? (Gospel Motivations)

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One of the oddest cases of Paul using gospel motivations to inspire the Romans to greater obedience is in his use of slavery. He wrote

What then? Should we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? Absolutely not! (Rom 6:15).

When you hear that salvation does not depend on being good or following the law but is entirely by grace through faith in Christ, you might be tempted to ask whether that means we should continue to sin. In other words, if obedience doesn’t matter for salvation, should we have a sin party? Paul’s answer is an unequivocal “No!” But why not? Why shouldn’t we sin?

For one thing, because of slavery.

Don’t you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of that one you obey—either of sin leading to death or of obedience leading to righteousness? (Rom 6:16).

In the ancient world, no one wanted to be a slave. (Of course, neither does anyone today!) But Paul is saying everyone is a slave whether they like it or not. The only question is: what are you a slave to? You’re a slave to whatever you obey, whether to sin or to righteousness.

The key terms are obedience and righteousness. Given all that Paul said earlier about no one being good and the impossibility of being justified by works, this isn’t the obedience you’re probably thinking of. In v 17, Paul refers to this obedience as something the Romans had done in the past:

But thank God that, although you used to be slaves of sin, you obeyed from the heart that pattern of teaching to which you were handed over, and having been set free from sin, you became enslaved to righteousness (Rom 6:17-18).

They had “obeyed from the heart,” which freed them from sin and made them slaves to righteousness. What, exactly, did they do? “Paul is clearly referring to faith,” Robert Koester explains. “Using the word obey in this way may sound strange to us, but it is perfectly normal for Paul” (Koester, Gospel Motivation, p. 35). Paul spoke about the “obedience of faith” in Rom 1:5 and 16:26 (cf. John 3:36). The Romans had “obeyed” the gospel (i.e., “that pattern of teaching”) by believing it. And the moment they did, they were reckoned righteous. “This obedience leads to righteousness, Christ’s righteousness, and it makes us ‘slaves to righteousness,’” Koester says (Ibid., p. 35).

And now comes Paul’s use of gospel motivations. I’m distinguishing the redemption truth in bold and putting the response truth in italics:

I am using a human analogy because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you offered the parts of yourselves as slaves to impurity, and to greater and greater lawlessness, so now offer them as slaves to righteousness, which results in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness. So what fruit was produced then from the things you are now ashamed of? The outcome of those things is death. But now, since you have been set free from sin and have become enslaved to God, you have your fruit, which results in sanctification—and the outcome is eternal life! For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 6:19-23).

Isn’t Paul’s argument the opposite of what you’d expect?

It must have surprised the Romans because, in their world, slaves usually had to earn their freedom by fighting for it in the arena or spending years working to save enough money to buy it. It took effort. Along the same lines, many preachers would say that you must work hard to free yourself from sin and become a slave of righteousness.

But that’s not what Paul says. Instead, he announces that the Romans had already been freed from sin and become slaves of God. Now, given those facts, they should act like it and present their body parts as slaves to righteousness. Here’s how I would put it:

Redemption truth: Believers have been set free from sin and enslaved to God.

Response truth: Therefore, offer your body parts as slaves of righteousness.

As a slave to God, you cannot choose another Master. But why would you want to? He’s given you His Son, His righteousness, His life, blessing you with every blessing in Christ Jesus. Who would resent being a slave to God?

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.

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