Dan Popp
Awl in
Romans: The most important book ever written
By Dan Popp
January 31, 2011

Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody. — Bob Dylan

We paused our trek through Romans at Chapter 6, verse 14:

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. [ESV]

Paul has never really stopped contrasting the Law and the Good News. Here he says that believers are not under law in its stony perfection, but are guided by the goodness of the living God. We'll dig into that in Chapter 7. But now, for the third time, the apostle rejects the allegation that grace is a license to sin:

What then? Shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid! Don't you know that when you submit to someone as master and obey him, you become his slave? You cannot be slaves of sin that leads to death and at the same time slaves of obedience that leads to righteousness. [KJV, Nor, Jerus]

What is this obedience that leads to righteousness? Rightness is a gift, as Paul has insisted all along. So how can rightness be the result of obedience? I think it's clear that this facet of rightness is "sanctification" — the working out of the salvation God has freely placed in us. Jesus and His spokesmen are consistent on this: No one can truly obey God without trusting His Son; and conversely, everyone who really believes, obeys. That obedience multiplies the effect of right-wise-ness.

But slaves?

Under the Old Covenant, a Hebrew could be enslaved in only a few circumstances (for example, as a punishment for stealing), and for no longer than 6 years (Exodus 21:2). However, the slave could choose to make the relationship permanent. "But if the slave plainly says, 'I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,' then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently." (Ex. 21:5,6 NASB) When the Bible refers to Christians as the Lord's "bondservants," I think of this voluntary, joyful commitment; we've joined the Fellowship of the Holey Ear.

What's the alternative?

The Satan of John Milton's Paradise Lost blusters the well-known line, "Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." But, contrary to popular myth, the devil is not going to "reign in hell." The scriptural picture of hell is a scene of unspeakable pain, hopelessness, isolation, darkness and frustration — for all its inhabitants. You can be both a servant and a ruler in the kingdom of heaven, but you can be neither in the lake of fire.

The question is not whether we will serve, but who.

Today's disbeliever may say, "I serve only myself — I am free!" But if we listen long enough he tells us that his master is a tiny, meaningless stain. The desires behind his lord's commands are not generated autonomously — they are the random results of the chance encounter of a few amino acids long, long ago. The "freethinker" who believes that he is the Captain of His Own Ship serves a mindless, soulless nothing whose will is merely the roll of someone else's dice; whose vaunted rational mind is a delusion; and who pays the same reward to all his thralls: obliteration.

To serve self is to serve sin.

But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. [NIV, NKJV]

John Wesley comments on the phrase, the form of teaching to which you were delivered: "Literally it is, The mould into which ye have been delivered...intimating that our minds, all pliant and ductile, should be conformed to the gospel precepts, [and] as liquid metal, take the figure of the mould into which they are cast." (Compare that to Romans 12:2)

I am speaking in familiar human terms, because of your natural limitations. [Amp] ...the weakness of your flesh. [NASB]

To those who imagine that God is so smart He can't communicate with us (!) He says, No, don't worry — I can "dumb it down" so much that even you clay lumpheads can understand it!

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. [ESV] ...unto holiness. [KJV]

Freedom is the power to choose. Free people have choices; slaves have commands. If it's up to us to present the parts of our physical bodies to either good or evil, life or death, then we are the free ones. The real slaves are those who cannot seem to break the ranks of their own death march:

When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. [RSV, NIV]

The idea of benefit, or fruit, will be considered more fully in Chapter 7.

For sin pays a wage, and the wage is death, but God gives freely, and his gift is eternal life, in union with Christ Jesus our Lord. [NEB]

This simple sentence distills almost the whole letter to the Romans so far. We can work and die, or accept God's present and live. His gift of rightness is the gift of rightness, not the gift of wrongness. It isn't a free pass to sin. Grace + faith puts us in union with Christ (planted with Him through baptism and growing together, as we saw earlier in this chapter).

Finally, our Liberator is also our Lord. He is the Master who engenders such love that we cry out, "I will not go out as a free man!" We sing with the psalmist, "Sacrifice and meal offering Thou hast not desired; My ears Thou hast pierced. I delight to do Thy will, O my God; Thy Law is within my heart." At our best, we literally live to hear those words, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant" — to which we will reply, "We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done." (Ps. 40:6a,8; Matt. 25:21; Luke 17:10)

Why would anyone sell himself into bondage to Christ? Well, besides the fact that the alternative is ridiculous, I think the answer can be expressed in one word: Gratitude.

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. [NASB]

© Dan Popp


The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
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