Is Grace Morally Casual?
You have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God. —Romans 6:22
Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). Don’t hold back from him. He’s the easiest person in the universe to get along with. The false saviors in our thoughts tell us how they’ll make everything better. They show the bait, but they hide the hook. There is only One whose meek and lowly heart can say to us, “I will give you rest.” Will you receive his easy yoke? The Bible says, “Present your members as slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:19).
Frank Laubach was a missionary to the Philippines. He created a way of teaching literacy that helped 60,000,000 people around the world learn to read. He is the only missionary to be honored with a U.S. postage stamp. In 1984 our Postal Service put out a 30¢ stamp with Frank Laubach’s picture on it. He helped a lot of people.
But more deeply, this very practical man longed for God. So one year he tried an experiment. He spent 1930 on a daily journey into deeper friendship with God. He was a busy man. But he wanted to walk through each busy day also in the presence of God. Here’s what he wrote to a friend on 26 January 1930:
You will object to this intense introspection. Do not try it, unless you feel dissatisfied with your own relationship with God, but at least allow me to realize all the leadership of God I can. I am disgusted with the pettiness and futility of my unled self. If the way out is not more perfect slavery to God, then what is the way out?
Our inner lives too often are not enslaved to God. You and I are Americans. We’re democratic. We have deep inside a committee of competing selves – the work self, the married self, the parent self, the secret self. They sit around a table in our mental counsels, each one shouting out its claims and expectations, demanding as much as it can get. And when the committee votes, it’s rarely unanimous. It’s an unled self stumbling along in inner conflict, fearful of missing out on life.
Jesus loves conflicted people who can’t make up their minds. What does he do? He brings us under “the reign of grace” (Romans 5:20). He says to us, “You are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). Grace is how we get traction for “newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Grace is how we come “alive to God” (Romans 6:11). Rules and regulations don’t change us. Grace does. It’s why Jesus said, “Come to me.” He is the grace we need. And my goal today is to lure you into happy slavery to the grace of Christ. Today can be a turning point for you. Today can be when you bend your neck down so that Jesus can lift away that hard yoke that rubs you raw and can replace that with his easy yoke that will make you happy.
Where are we now in Romans? In chapters 1-5 Paul gives his theological lecture. His basic message is, You’re more evil than you ever feared, and much more loved than you ever dreamed. He concludes this way: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Then he opens it up for discussion at the beginning of chapter 6, hands go up all over the room, and chapters 6-11 of Romans are the Q & A session. First question: “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Paul. If where sin increased grace abounded all the more, then why not sin like crazy, to give God all the more opportunity for grace? Paul, doesn’t your gospel encourage more sinning? Isn’t your gospel morally foolish?”
How does Paul answer that objection? He says that God’s surplus grace goes so far as to unite us with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. What Jesus did to your advantage is more powerful for you than what you’ve done to your disadvantage. Christ is that gracious a Savior. How could we trivialize him as an excuse to sin? God’s answer to the increasing flood of sin is not to build a dam with the law to hold that flood back. God’s answer to the flood of sin is another flood, a greater flood of grace in Christ. You experienced that in your baptism. Your old life died, and a new you was raised. The law doesn’t transform us like that; it only drives sin underground. So it isn’t God’s grace that’s morally subversive. That is Paul’s answer to the first question.
As we come to verse 15, another hand goes up. “Paul, you’ve just said that we are not under law but under grace [verse 14]. There you go again. Your gospel might not be subversive, but don’t you see that it’s just not serious, it’s too casual? Your gospel may not arouse sin, but it makes sin no big deal. Your ministry is not morally conscientious.” That’s the second objection. It’s in verse 15: “Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace?” In other words, even if the gospel isn’t harmful, still, is the gospel helpful? For example, does the gospel give us men permission to sin guy-sins and then shrug it off with “Boys will be boys”? Does “not under law but under grace” trivialize us? Does grace drain of all urgency the questions about how we live? Paul answers that question now. He wants to persuade us of the wisdom of God’s grace in Christ. We can be wholehearted about the positive power of the gospel.
Paul gives us a short answer to the question in verse 16 and a long answer in verses 17-23. But it’s basically the same answer, and it’s a practical answer:
Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? —Romans 6:16
We’ll give ourselves to something. Let’s never think we’re “just being ourselves” when we move away from God. Let’s never think that the further we are from God, the more freedom we have. The instant that thought hits us – the whisper inside that says, “You need to be free. So be careful. Don’t give too much of yourself to God” – when that familiar thought creeps in, stop right then and there and ask yourself, “Where did that thought come from? What is the hidden motive behind that thought? If I follow that thought, what will it do to me?” We ought to be postmodern enough to see a power play when it’s coming at us.
The insight here in the Bible is that we’re going to serve something. We were created to serve. It isn’t a question of whether we’ll serve but only whom we’ll serve. Time magazine celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 1983. The issue included an essay asking how we changed in the twentieth century. Here was the answer:
America was not merely free; it was freed, unshackled. . . . The American century was to be the century of unleashing, of breaking away, at first from the 19th century . . . and eventually from any constraints at all. . . . Behind most of these events lay the assumption, almost a moral imperative, that . . . limits were intrinsically evil.
So in 1934 Cole Porter wrote “Anything goes.” In 1970 the Beatles sang “Let it be.” By now, we’re so far into this social experiment, we’ve discovered a new freedom – free fall. Why is that happening? Because for us human beings, there is no possibility of autonomy, without consequences. We were created to serve, and we will. The only question is, Do we really want to live on sin’s plantation? The law of God can’t get us out of there, but does the grace of God leave us there?
If you still believe that you can resist the claims of Christ and hack out your own happiness and define your own freedom apart from God, nothing I say today will change your mind. But when you’ve gotten your bellyful of sin and your heart is broken and you feel violated and nobody who has used you cares, at that low point Jesus Christ will not say to you, “I told you so.” He will not embarrass you. He will say to you then what he is saying to you now: “Come to me. Take my yoke upon you.” There is nothing degrading in Christ. Obeying him leads to practical, happy, dignifying, humane, sustainable righteousness. That’s what the Bible says here in verse 16. It’s Paul’s short answer. His long answer is in verses 17-23:
But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. Romans 6:17-18
The only alternative to degrading slavery is ennobling slavery. The key to ennobling slavery is the phrase “obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed.” That phrase explains the secret to Christian obedience, in two ways.
One, Christian obedience is from the heart. Not outward compliance or regimentation but a new heart of love for Jesus Christ, because he loved us first, he loves us still, he will love us forever. A heart of love is the source of Christian obedience.
Two, Christian obedience is a work of art. If love is the source of true obedience, then the teaching of the gospel is the standard of that obedience. The standard is not a man-made list of taboos. The standard we live by now is a whole new teaching, a new perspective, a new outlook from the gospel. It’s the difference between paint-by-the-numbers and a real work of art. When I was a kid, one of the fun things we did was paint-by-the-numbers. A design was printed on white cardboard, with a number in each sector of the design. And the numbers corresponded to a pallet of paints of different colors. So you take your brush and, if green is the #1 color, you paint all the #1 sections of the design green, and then all the #2 sections red, and so forth. It was simple. Paint by the numbers. Stay within the lines. It was very do-able. And by the end you’ve painted a picture – a valley or seascape or whatever. But it wasn’t art. It was really cheesy. Art requires understanding and thought and skill and perspective. That’s what God internalizes in us through the gospel – a new sense in our hearts of what really matters and a new insight into how life really works. The law cannot change us like that. But the standard or pattern of teaching we receive from multiple exposures to the gospel leaves a deep impression, so that our obedience to righteousness is not simplistic and wooden and artificial but personal and beautiful. And if that’s slavery, well, maybe it’s not so bad.
But Paul is a little uneasy with all this talk of slavery. After all, Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). Paul himself will soon say, “You did not receive the spirit of slavery” (Romans 8:15). But here Paul is dragging slavery into it. We might think, “So it really is law after all.” So now Paul admits what an unworthy metaphor slavery is. He apologizes for it in verse 19:
I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. —Romans 6:19
We all know that human slavery is dehumanizing. So much about slavery clashes with the gospel. So the slavery metaphor only goes so far. It’s even misleading. But in one way, the slavery metaphor is useful. A slave obeys. A slave doesn’t negotiate. A slave is obligated. And that is true of our relationship with Jesus.
So let me ask you. Why do you obey Jesus? Do you obey him because it always suits you? Do you obey him as long as you feel like it and find it convenient and affordable and not scary and not socially awkward? If that’s how you obey Jesus, then your obedience isn’t obedience at all; it’s coincidence. It just so happens that what the Bible says lines up with what you were going to do anyway. But you are the one who decides when Jesus is crossing a line and asking too much. You are in control of the relationship and treating the Lord Jesus Christ as your slave. Sorry, but if you are a Christian at all, you need to face into the rest of verse 19:
For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. —Romans 6:19
That is a command, not the first bid in a negotiation process: “Present your [bodily] members as slaves to righteousness.” And this verse explains why great sinners make great saints. Do you see what Paul is saying? It’s in the “just as . . . so now” comparison. There is one thing about our old life we should always hang onto. Remember how you dove into that crazy life you once lived? Remember how you fed your passions with gusto? Okay. Keep going, but in the opposite direction. God has given you a new heart with a new thirst for Christ. Obey your thirst. Follow that passion. Take it to the max. Go for it! That’s what the Bible is saying. “Present your members, your very body, as slaves to righteousness. It will take you where you want to go now, where you become a beautiful human being – sanctification.” Get rid of your half-heartedness. Throw yourself into your new life in Christ. Here’s what’s at stake:
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. —Romans 6:20-23
If you are in Christ, you have been set free from sin not in the sense that you no longer commit sins but in the sense that your future has been redefined by the grace of God. Your future will not be what you deserve. You’ve been set free from that. Your future will be what God has promised you on terms of grace. No shame. No regret. No “What on earth was I thinking?” All of that is death. All of that is being robbed of life in its richness and fullness. When I give myself over to sin as its slave, what happens? What actually happens to me? I become a death-producing machine, grinding out death and more death. For example, pride – what does it actually do, what wage does it pay? It kills relationships. Lust – what wage does it pay? It makes us hurt each other and hate ourselves. Greed – it deprives others and stuffs us full of fear. Envy – it kills happiness and contentment. Laziness – it destroys opportunity. The wages of sin is the bitter aftertaste the Bible calls death. Master Sin pays his slaves generously and on time. But Master God gives. He gives freely to his slaves the richness and fullness of life they long for, better than we deserve.
I call you to give yourself to Christ. Obey him. Present your very body to him for his purposes. Throw yourself into the new life in Christ. Don’t drift. That itself is only a form of hidden slavery and heart-breaking disappointment. And if you find yourself bound to sins that are enslaving you, come to Christ bound in your chains, half-believing he’s not even up to the task of setting you free, but come anyway. Come just as you are. Come to him and say, “Lord, may I please serve you instead? I don’t want this old slavery any more. What good is it doing me? Receive me as your willing slave.” If you’re willing, he promises you grace. He will teach you from the gospel. He will heal your sad heart and create beauty in you. And he will do it all as a free gift of grace. Will you open your heart this morning to Christ at that very point where you are most ashamed? He is the Lord of grace. Will you let him prove it to you?