I am indebted to my friend and brother-in-office William Cwirla for his thoughts on this text. Soli Deo Gloria!
When was the last time you sat down and read Saint Paul’s epistle to the Romans? You could probably read all sixteen chapters in 30-45 minutes. If you’d rather listen to it instead of reading it, it would be about the same time commitment. We hear Romans as an epistle reading in Divine Service several Sundays through the church year, but nothing beats reading this epistle from start to finish. Like the Gospels, Romans begs to be read three or four times a year.
Paul’s letter to Roman Christians might be considered the textbook for Christianity 101. Leading up to last week’s and this week’s reading from chapter six, here’s a short summary of what Paul says up to this point.
In chapters 1 and 2, Paul sets down the universal condemnation of humanity under God’s Law. Whether one is a Gentile or Jew makes no difference, all have sinned, all fall short of the glory of God. The Law cannot save you, nor can your works under the Law save you. The Law exists to shut every mouth before God, to silence every self-justification, and to make the whole world one, big sinner.
In the middle of chapter 3, Paul introduces us to the breakthrough of the Gospel, a righteousness before God that is not by what you do but by what Christ has done, namely His blood shed on a cross for you and for all humanity. For His sake, and for His sake alone, the sinner stands before a righteous God justified not by work but by faith. In fact, it is by faith in Christ, and not by works, that we uphold the Law, since Christ alone upholds the Law.
In chapter 4, Paul demonstrates this by the example of Abraham whom God declared to be righteous not by the works Abraham did but by his trust in the promise of God that through his yet to be born Seed, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Abraham believed God, the Scripture says, and it was accounted to him as righteousness.
In chapter 5, Paul sets Christ alongside Adam. Jesus is the second Adam, the new head of humanity. As the first Adam brought Sin and Death into the world, so Christ, the second Adam, brings forgiveness, justification and life. As the first Adam embodied all of humanity and brought it into the Fall, so the second Adam, Christ, embodies all of humanity and brings it into life and salvation. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men.
Last week we heard Paul’s mighty words on your life in Christ in your baptism. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his…. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
This is the sum total of the Christian life in this life. Christ died for all, and in Him all died, because He is humanity’s second Adam, undoing the damage of humanity’s first Adam. But you hear what happens when the first Adam, our old Adam gets ahold of the good news that we are free of the condemnation of the law and stand justified before God for Christ’s sake alone covered by His blood. The old Adam says that I can sin as much as I want and God will forgive all those sins. There are Christians, even of the Lutheran variety, who seem to agree with that sentiment.
The apostle Paul says otherwise. 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. It’s a dangerous thing to talk about slavery in both a negative and a positive way. We’ve been conditioned to despise slavery when we’re taught American History. The slavery question in our country was one of the factors that led to the Civil War in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet here Saint Paul calls us slaves of God. What do we make of that statement?
We make something totally different than what we think about when we hear the word “slave”. Once you were a slave to sin. Outside of Jesus, outside of His perfect mercy and perfect righteousness that covers you and frees you from sin and death, you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness. Old Adam still wants to live that way. He figures you can sin as much as you want, as often as you want, and God will still be OK with it. After all, hey, you’re baptized into Christ Jesus. God has to cover your sin. Who cares about being a slave to righteousness! Besides, slavery is bad.
Being a slave to Christ is actually being a free man. There’s another paradox for you. Like I said last week, Christians have a hard time wrapping their minds around a paradox. We like everything nice and tidy when it comes to what we believe and how we confess what we believe before the world. To say, “I am a slave of Jesus Christ” to the world means you might be itching for a fight.
Consider it another way. “The Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith”. That’s Small Catechism language about the work of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit is to keep you close to Jesus. How close? He keeps you connected to Christ in preaching, in your baptism, and in eating and drinking Christ’s very body and blood in Communion. These things are your lifelines, or “chains”, so to speak, that keep you bound fast to Jesus. When you try to pick the lock and set yourself free, you actually go back into slavery to sin. That’s not freedom. Staying connected to Christ in His gifts of forgiveness and life is freedom.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. A slave to sin receives death. A slave to God receives life in Christ not as wages earned but as a free gift of undeserved kindness. Adam must die. Christ must rise. You are a slave, but you are free in Christ. Believe it for His sake.