Congratulations on not becoming entangled with specific big box addictions— drugs, alcohol, gambling, or pornography. But we’re actually in more danger of the stuff we deem normal.
Peace Treaties with the Devil
Most of us overlook broad expanses of life that lie quietly under the power of sin—things we’ve made peace with, because they feel so natural.
Envy is one of them. It strikes with crippling effect, crushing us with the need to compete with others who have homes to die for, and lawns that look like small golf courses. Their cars are chrome and black and fingerprint easily. Their kids already carry themselves like future corporate elite.
We would be able to accept this kind of inequity if it weren’t in our faces. Some of these people went to high school with us, and maybe a few of them are our own siblings. And so we load our work week with extra hours, and resent our spouses for not making more money. For those of us happy to stay off the official addiction list, none of this counts as sin.
Anger is another overlooked area. Never have Christians exhibited so much outrage through computer keyboards. The naked hatred toward political figures or social positions pouring out of Christian hearts makes one wonder how the Holy Spirit resides in the same headwaters as such bitter sentiments.
Apparently, hate is okay as long as its target is hate-approved by the masses. For those of us who are proud that we don’t shoplift, none of this counts as sin.
And none of the other evils do either—the ones that hunker down in the heart, but haven’t earned spots on the evangelical “Most Dangerous” list. These exert calm, continuing mastery over Christian lives, and we respond to them with seamless, often unquestioning obedience.
This arrangement is acceptable in the contemporary Christian grid, because God forgives sins, anyway. We have learned that no matter how stained we become, there is an ocean of grace in Christ.
But forgiveness is not the issue. Paul has other concerns about our tenuous relationship with sin that he lays out in the second half of Romans. His emphasis moves from the individual acts of sin that we commit and turns more toward our orientation to the very power of sin itself.
When Sin Says “Jump”
The first concern is that obedience ultimately makes a statement about who or what is in charge of your life.
15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! 16 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? 17 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,18 and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.
A favorite evangelical maxim states, “It’s not about the rules, it’s about the relationship!” yet we must hit the brakes when these quotable quotes suggest sin is not a big deal. Jesus died because of sin. The Father didn’t simply forgive it. This says something about its seriousness.
When a teaching or ministry claims that because of God’s love, compassion, kindness, and mercy, sin is only as bad as acne, then that teaching or ministry has run off the rails.
Those who boast that we can sin without compunction “because we are not under law, but under grace” have missed the statement such behavior makes. Whatever we obey inadvertently tells the universe what actually rules our life, and what principle holds sway over us.
Obedience to sin in effect says that although Jesus died for our sins, past that point He has no continuing influence upon us. We might give Him a sentimental nod for His sacrifice, but nothing strongly suggesting He is in charge. It is a terrible statement: Christ is savior; sin is Lord.
“But thanks be to God,” Paul says. “You are different.” He gives the vote of confidence to typical believers, affirming that they are now obedient to righteousness and free from sin’s dominion. We answer (a bit befuddled), “Um, are you sure of that?”
We’re thinking of several instances last week that would make Paul’s confidence in us ring unrealistic.
Me, free? Yes. The day you became obedient from the heart to the gospel, you were set free from sin and became slaves to righteousness. The cross of Jesus severed, discontinued, your prior fealty to sin. It interrupted the sense of resignation within us that says, “Well, I have to do this. It’s what I am. If I don’t do it, I’m not being true to myself.” This is a slavish thought, and sin does not merit such honor. Only God deserves it. God is true king, not your base drives. Jesus passionately loved your soul and deserves elevation, not twisted sinful urges.
And so the apostle expects us to line up on what is true and reasonable.
If You Already Know the Outcome…
Consider a man who committed a crime and was released from prison in 1970. Since then, he got married, had children, grandchildren, and started a business, but four or five times a week for the last forty-seven years, he packs a shaving kit, puts his pillow under his arm, and reports to the federal penitentiary.
He has been told repeatedly he doesn’t need to be there, but he has arranged to keep a cell open, where he goes and sits for a few hours on his regular visits. On paper, this man is free. His mouth confirms he is free. His life says something else.
We need to wonder if we are making such statements in our own lives. For instance, we can predict with certainty that we won’t be doing well before we get our coffee. We can chuckle and know the words we’ll be using when we hit traffic slow-downs in the morning. We already know how we’ll respond when our spouse acts a certain way or uses a certain tone. And we already know where we’ll end up on the internet while surfing, with no one looking over our shoulders.
When all of this is true, it’s time to rethink what our lives are saying. Jesus died not so that I would be free. He died and set me free. That’s what we have to say as Christians, but we use more than words. We show it, even if the only person watching is in the mirror.
Think About the Yield
Paul goes on to provide another reason for not giving our obedience to sin: You’re growing a different crop now.
19 I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. 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. 20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 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. 22 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.23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Previous to Christ, you were investing in a very different lifestyle, and growing an increasing crop of lawlessness. Paul calls it, “Lawlessness leading to more lawlessness” which is an apt portrayal of addiction.
During those days, you lived by the philosophy of doing whatever came natural to you. We thought we could satisfy our drives and desires by feeding them. That only resulted in their coming back more frequently, demanding darker, more intense behavior. We found ourselves needing to dive deeper into the dumpster to find the “juicy stuff” because we had exhausted all of its pleasures on the surface level. Our appetites for darkness grew.
Paul juxtaposes this dark past with the redeemed present, saying, “now present your members to righteousness leading to sanctification.” Believers must know that presenting ourselves to righteousness does not start and stop with doing the right thing. It actually leads somewhere. It introduces us to a process of becoming holy, called “sanctification,” where the influence of God’s holy nature in our lives is actually on the increase. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” and our appetite for His glory is indeed growing.
But there’s something immediately rewarding about being a slave to sin—the allure of freedom. Once upon a time we were “free in regard to righteousness.” Free of concern about it. Free of interest in it.
Sinners always exult in immediate fulfilled pleasures without the encumbrances of conscience and morals. That’s why Paul insists on our considering the harvest, the crop—“What fruit were you getting?” The answer is, “Death”— you were growing farther away from God and closer to the final judgment. The fact you were having too much fun to notice, didn’t in the slightest change the nature of the yield.
Sin and Death versus Sanctification and Life is like a bundle of poison ivy versus a crate of fresh Georgia peaches. Poison ivy is the bane of existence for anybody in shorts who ever brushed up against it. It appears practically overnight and grows everywhere despite all systematized efforts to kill it.
Those peaches though, are the most refreshing treats on the planet. Whether they’re eaten chilled with cream, or find their way into a pie, makes little difference. Someone in overalls invested time to make them grow, and followed principles of cultivation. Every bit of the process was worth it.
Our growth in life is worth any current inconveniences that might come with it. It unfurls before our eyes like fresh new horizons of produce. You begin to see and experience things of God that you had previously only read about. Most important of all, you become. You advance into the holy Christ-like identity God intended for you.
We’re not slaves to the moment; we live for the outcome. As slaves of God with glorious destinies, we still need a reminder that we grow whatever we give ourselves to. That is an inescapable reality.
We can use our free will to choose a path other than presenting ourselves to God, but we’ll develop a strange sort of cognitive dissonance, like a person who insists on living in the past—the fifty year old, who keeps trying out for Little League, because that’s what he did when he was six. Life quickly becomes weird.
We live our present reality, and that reality is in Christ.
Two Practical Considerations
With the active command in this section on presenting our members to righteousness, I find two practical attitudes helpful: priority and consistency.
Priority means placing prime importance on giving oneself to God before presenting oneself to cellphones, or Facebook accounts, emails, family, friends, or workplaces. The first five minutes of your day can be a significant investment toward praising God, and offering yourself for His use again.
Break the habit of sleeping until the last possible second, where in the past you donned a slightly wrinkled outfit, hopped in the car, and chugged your coffee and pop tart. Get up a few minutes earlier. Let this be a time of focused interaction with God. Then do the wrinkled clothes, coffee, and pop tart thing.
Consistency means doing this with enough frequency to make a difference. I recommend starting off with the beginning of every workday. But the idea is to present your members to God, not create a new standard of legalism.
Obviously a five-minute meditative exercise (or a two-hour one for that matter), is meaningless if we don’t interact with God, so these ideas are nothing more than that…ideas.
Remember, this is your life statement, and your harvest.
Photo credit: Dolf Botha