Romans 6:12-23

“Therefore,” Paul writes in verse 12, “do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” Christians should not continue in sin. We do sin, but we can be confident that God does not count our sins against us. Our salvation is not in jeopardy, but we are still commanded to obey God and to quit sinning.

There is a battle going on for our bodies. The old slavemaster, sin, has been defeated by Christ, but sin continues to attack us nevertheless. It tries to rule us, but we are not supposed to let it. Sin will take over as much as we allow, so we must resist it — not let it rule in our mortal bodies. Paul says: Don’t give up. Fight against it. (If you really like sin, you are not going to enjoy eternal life with Jesus. You will experience it as eternal frustration instead.)

“Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness” (verse 13). There’s a battle going on for control of your body. Will you let sin have its way, or will you let God have his way? You have been brought from death to life, so let God win, Paul says.

How do we do that? By giving him our bodies as tools or weapons he can use for righteousness. We shouldn’t let sin use our body parts as tools to make us more wicked. Instead, we need to let God use our bodies as weapons of righteousness, as people who work for his kingdom.

“For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (verse 14). If we were under the authority of the law, then we would be condemned as sinners, and sin would have the final say in our lives. We would die. But we are not under the law, and not under its penalty. Death has been conquered, the power of sin has been broken, and the captives of sin have been set free!

Since we are under grace, sin is not our master. Going back to sin makes no more sense than running back to our old slavemaster, or for a prisoner who has been pardoned running back to his old jail cell. In grace and in salvation, sin is what we are getting away from.

If it weren’t for grace, we would be condemned whether we tried to do right or not. If there were no grace, we might as well continue in sin, because our efforts wouldn’t make any difference. So grace gives us the freedom to escape from sin and to live for righteousness. It makes no sense to seek salvation at the same time as seeking sin.

Slaves of righteousness

“What then?” Paul asks in verse 15. “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” Paul is dealing with the same question, this time from a different angle. God does not want us to sin. We are supposed to obey God.

Paul then develops the analogy of slavery a bit further to make his point: “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey — whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (verse 16).

If you choose sin, you are enslaving yourself to a master who will beat you, make your life miserable, and work you to death. What’s our choice? We are not completely independent — we are slaves of one power or the other. We have no choice about that, but we do have a choice about who will be our master. We can choose sin, or we can choose God. Why not choose to be a slave of obedience, a slave of doing right? The rewards are much better, not only in the next life but in this one, too.

The Romans had already made the right choice: “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 entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (verses 17-18). Obedience is a normal result of faith (1:5).

Why was Paul using the analogy of slavery? “I put this in human terms because you are weak in your natural selves. Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness” (6:19).

The Romans were weak — all Christians are, in their natural selves. The Romans were slaves of righteousness, and yet they needed to be exhorted to continue. We fight against sin as long as we live in our mortal bodies. It is an enemy that should be resisted. If we don’t resist, it gets worse and worse — ever-increasing wickedness.

We want to be enslaved to doing good. That is because we are already saved, not because we are trying to earn our salvation. We do good works because they are good, because our Savior wants us to do good. When we do that, it gets better and better — righteousness leading to holiness.

“When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness” (verse 20). Each slavery has a form of freedom. When we sin, it might look like we are free from outside control, but we are really in slavery. “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!” (verse 21). Sin produces death, and we do not want to serve that kind of master. What looked like liberty, actually brought bondage.

“But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life” (verse 22). Now, we are no longer under sin’s authority. We are freed from one power, but we are also under obligation: We are slaves to God. However, his benefits are infinitely better: holiness and eternal life.

The word slavery is an analogy — it is not a complete description of our relationship to God. Far more often, Scripture describes our relationship as one of dearly loved children, or as inheritors of great wealth. The word slavery is useful only insofar as it emphasizes our responsibility to obey.

In what sense is eternal life the “result” of obeying God? Paul would vigorously deny that our obedience causes our salvation — he clearly says that salvation is a gift, based on faith rather than works, on grace rather than payment. Here, Paul is simply making a contrast: obedience leads to holiness instead of shame, and to eternal life instead of death.

Why should we deny sin and obey God? “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (verse 23). If we serve sin, we get wages — something we deserve: shame and death. But if we serve God, we get eternal life as a gift, something we didn’t deserve. Choose life, Paul says. Let righteousness rule! Be alive in Christ, not dead in your sins.

Things to think about in Romans 6

  • Does the abundance of grace encourage sin? Does it give me any motivation to fight sin? (verse 1)
  • In what way is my life different now than before Christ? (verse 4)
  • Do I feel freed from sin? Do I have habits that enslave me? (verse 14)
  • In what way did Jesus die to sin? (verse 10). How can I count myself dead? (verse 11)
  • In what way am I “under” grace? (verse 14)
  • What sins enslave people today? Are there “respectable” sins?
  • Do I feel enslaved to righteousness? (verse 18)

Author: Michael Morrison, 2001, 2014

Michael Morrison, PhD Grace Communion Seminary offers online master's degrees.