Enslaved to God: The Logic of Conversion (preaching resource for 7/2/23, 5th Sunday after Pentecost)

This post exegetes Romans 6:15-23, providing context for the RCL Epistles reading for 7/2/23. It draws on John Stott’s "The Message of Romans," and "The Expositor’s Bible Commentary."

"The Slave Market" by Boulanger (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)


In Romans Chapter 6 Paul addresses the accusation that his teaching concerning grace promotes sin.  His response in the first half of the chapter is to discuss the logic of baptism, showing that grace both justifies and sanctifies—leading believers to both die to sin in Christ and to live to righteousness in Christ. In the second half of the chapter Paul makes the same point by discussing the logic of conversion, using the metaphor of slavery to show that grace delivers believers from ‘slavery to sin’ (leading to death) and makes them willingly  ‘slaves of God’ (leading to righteousness and life).

Romans 6:15. Paul begins this discussion of slavery by asking, *Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace?* (15b) His vehement response is, *By no means!* (15c).  He then goes on to show how, under grace, the practice of sin is incompatible with being God’s slave. At conversion, we willingly turn from slavery to sin to slavery to God. Paul then goes on to detail the logic of this turning (‘conversion’), making the point that since through conversion we offered ourselves to God to be his slaves, and in consequence are committed to obeying him as Master, how can we possibly think that we are free to return to a life of slavery to our former master, which is sin?

1. The principle: self-surrender leads to slavery

Romans 6:16. Paul’s basic question, and challenge, is this: *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?* (16a). The concept may surprise us because we tend to think of Roman slaves as having been either captured in war or bought in the marketplace, not as having offered themselves to be slaves. But there was such a thing in the Roman empire as voluntary slavery. People in dire poverty would offer themselves as slaves to someone simply to be fed and housed. Paul's point is that those who thus offered themselves invariably had their offer accepted. They could not expect to give themselves to a slave-master and simultaneously retain their freedom. 

Paul's point is that it's the same with spiritual slavery. Self-surrender leads invariably to slavery, *whether* we thus become *slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness* (16b). The notion of slavery to sin is easily understood: Jesus spoke of it (John 8:34) and we understand that it leads to spiritual death (now and hereafter), since at the end of the chapter Paul will refer to death as the 'wages' that sin pays (Rom. 6:23).  It is less easy, however, to understand his apparent inexact parallels. As the alternative to being 'slaves to sin' one might have expected 'slaves to Christ' rather than ‘slaves to obedience', and as the alternative to 'death' the expectation would be 'life' rather than ‘righteousness'. Yet the idea of being 'obedient to obedience' is a dramatic way of emphasizing that obedience is the essence of slavery, and 'righteousness' (being made right with God) in the sense of justification is almost a synonym of life (cf. Romans 5:18). So Paul's general meaning is clear: conversion is an act of self-surrender; self-surrender leads to slavery; and slavery demands total, radical, exclusive obedience. For no-one can be the slave of two masters, as Jesus said (Mt. 6:24).  So, once we have offered ourselves to God as his slaves, we are permanently and unconditionally at his disposal. There is no possibility of going back. Having chosen our Master, we have no further choice but to obey him alone.

2. The application: conversion involves an exchange of slaveries

Romans 6:17-18. Having laid down the principle that surrender leads to slavery, Paul applies it to his Roman readers, reminding them that their conversion involved an exchange of slaveries. Indeed, so complete is the change which has taken place in their lives that he breaks out into a spontaneous doxology: *Thanks be to God!* He then sums up their experience in four stages:

a. First, *you used to be slaves to sin* (17a). Paul does not mince words. All human beings are slaves, and there are only two slaveries: to sin and to God. Conversion is a transfer from the one to the other. 

b. Secondly, *you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted* (17b). This is a most unusual description of conversion. That they had 'obeyed' is understandable, since the proper response to the gospel is 'the obedience of faith' (Romans 1:5, RSV). But here it is not God or Christ whom they are said to have obeyed, but a certain *form* (RSV 'standard') *of teaching*. This must have been the 'pattern of sound teaching’ (2 Tim.1:13), which probably included both elementary gospel doctrine (e.g. 1 Cor.15:3f.) and elementary personal ethics (e.g. 1 Thess. 4:1ff.). Paul writes not that this teaching was committed to them, but that they were committed (*entrusted*) to it.  The verb he uses is *paradidomi*, which is the regular word for passing on a tradition. One would normally think of teaching-doctrine being handed over to the hearers, but here the hearers are handed over to it.  It may be thought of this way: Christians are created (formed) by the gospel of Christ, and thus they are to remain in subjection to it. They are not ‘under the law of Moses’ but are delivered over to the testimony of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus with its ethics to which we are connected through the indwelling Holy Spirit.

It is interesting and important to note here that Paul evidently sees conversion not only as trusting in Christ but as believing and acknowledging the ‘truth’—the core teaching of the apostolic gospel (faith).  Concerning 'believing' this truth, see 2 Thess. 2:12f. and 1 Tim. 4:3. For 'knowing' or 'acknowledging' it see Jn. 8:32, 1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Tim. 2;25 and Tit. 1:11. For 'obeying' it see Rom. 2:8, Gal.5:7 and 1 Pet. 1:22.  

c. Thirdly, you *have been set free from sin* (18a), emancipated from its slavery. Not that they have become perfect, for they are still capable of sinning (e.g. Romans 6:12-13), but rather that they have been decisively rescued out of the lordship of sin into the lordship of God, out of the dominion of darkness into the kingdom of Christ (Col. 1:13). 

d. Fourthly, you *have become slaves to righteousness* (18b), in consequence of being set free from sin.  So decisive is this transfer by the grace and power of God from the slavery of sin to the slavery of righteousness that Paul cannot restrain himself from giving thanks to God.

3. The analogy: both slaveries develop

Romans 6:19 begins with a kind of apology by Paul for the *human terms* in which he had been describing conversion. For slavery is not an altogether accurate or appropriate metaphor of the Christian life. It indicates well the exclusivity of our allegiance to the Lord Christ, but neither the easy fit of his yoke, nor the gentleness of the hand that lays it on us (Mt. 11:29f.), nor indeed the liberating nature of his service. Why then did the apostle use it? He gives his reason: *because you are weak in your natural selves* (sarx, 'flesh'), or 'because of your natural limitations' (19a, RSV). Their natural 'weakness' or 'limitations' must be a reference to their fallenness, either in their minds, so that they are dull of perception, or in their characters, so that they are vulnerable to temptation and need to be reminded of the obedience to which they have committed themselves.

In spite of this apologetic explanation, Paul continues to compare and contrast the two slaveries. But this time he draws an analogy between them (*just as... so now*) in the way they both develop. Neither slavery is static. Both are dynamic, the one steadily deteriorating, the other steadily progressing. *Just as you used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever increasing wickedness* (literally 'and of lawlessness unto lawlessness', or 'making for moral anarchy', NEB), *so now offer them* (which you have done already, but will be wise to do again) *in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness* (19b; *hagiasmos*, the process of progressive sanctification, that is, of being changed into the likeness of Christ). Thus despite the antithesis between them, an analogy is drawn between the grim process of moral deterioration and the glorious process of moral transformation.

4. The paradox: slavery is freedom and freedom is slavery 

Romans 6:20-22. Paul now points out that each form of slavery is also a kind of freedom, although the one is authentic and the other spurious. Similarly, each freedom is a kind of slavery, although the one is degrading and the other ennobling. On the one hand, he writes, *When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness* (20), although that sort of freedom is better called license. On the other hand, he writes: *But now...you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God* (22a), although that sort of slavery is better called liberty.  Moreover, the way to assess the rival claims of these two slaveries or freedoms is by evaluating their *benefit*, literally their  'fruit'. The negative benefits of slavery to sin and freedom from righteousness are remorse in the present (a sense of guilt over *the things you are now ashamed of*, or 'blush to remember', JBP), and in the end *death* (21), here surely meaning spiritual death which involves separation from God, which in the final chapters of the book of Revelation is called  'the second death' ( Rev. 20:14; 21:8). *But now*, Paul goes on, the positive benefits of freedom from sin and slavery to God are *holiness* in the present and in the end *eternal life* (22b), surely here meaning fellowship with God in the new heaven and earth. Thus there is a freedom which spells death, and a bondage which spells life.

5. The conclusion: the ultimate antithesis

Romans 6:23. In this final verse of the chapter Paul continues his stark antithesis between sin (personified) and God, whom he has characterized throughout as the alternative slave-masters, to one or other of whom all human beings are in bondage. Those who are in Adam serve sin, while those who are in Christ (the second Adam) serve God. He also repeats the warning that these two slaveries are so diametrically opposed to each other that the ultimate destinies to which they lead are either *death* or *eternal life*. What is new is the third contrast, which concerns the terms of service on which the two slave owners operate. *For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord* (23). Thus sin pays *wages* (you reap what you sow), but God gives a free *gift* (you are given what you do not deserve). *Opsonia* normally refers to 'ration (money) paid to a soldier, but in this context perhaps to 'the pocket money allowed to slaves'. *Charisma*, on the other hand, is a gift of God's grace. If, then, we are determined to get what we deserve, it can only be death; by contrast, eternal life is God's free, undeserved gift, and the only ground on which it is bestowed is the atoning death of Christ, and the only condition of receiving it is that we are *in Christ Jesus our Lord*, that is, personally united to him by faith.

Here, then, are the two lives which are totally opposed to each other. Jesus portrayed them as the broad road which leads to destruction and the narrow road which leads to life (Mt. 7:13). Paul calls them two slaveries. By birth we are in Adam, the slaves of sin; by grace and faith we are in Christ (the second or new Adam), the slaves of God. Bondage to sin yields no return except shame and ongoing moral deterioration, culminating in spiritual death. Bondage to God, however, yields the precious fruit of progressive holiness, culminating in the free gift of life eternal.

Additional thoughts on Romans 6

Looking back over Romans 6, we recall that both its halves begin with an almost identical question: 'Shall we go on sinning? (Romans 6:1) and 'Shall we sin?' (Romans 6:15). This question was posed by Paul's detractors, who intended by it to discredit his gospel; it has been asked ever since by the enemies of the gospel; and it is often whispered in our ears today by that most venomous of all the gospel's enemies, the devil himself. As in the garden of Eden he asked Eve, 'Did God really say, "You must not..."? (Gen. 3:1) so he insinuates into our minds the thought, 'Why not continue in sin? Go on! Feel free! You are under grace. God will forgive you.'

Our first response must be the outraged negative, 'God forbid!' 'By no means!' But then we need to go further and confirm this negative with a reason. For there is a reason (solid, logical, irrefutable) with which to rebut the devil's devious arguments and with which at the same time Paul brings his high theology down to the level of practical everyday experience. It is the necessity of remembering who we are, on account of our conversion (inwardly) and our baptism (outwardly). We are one with Christ (Romans 6:1-14), and we are slaves of God (Romans 6:15-23). We became united to Christ by baptism and enslaved to God by the self-surrender of conversion. But whether we emphasize baptism or faith, the point is the same. Being united to Christ, we are 'dead to sin but alive to God' (Romans 6:11), and being enslaved to God we are *ipso facto* committed to obedience (Romans 6:16), pledged to 'the total belongingness, the total obligation, the total commitment and the total accountability which characterize the life under grace'. It is inconceivable that we should go back on this by willfully persisting in sin and presuming on grace. The very thought is intolerable, and a complete contradiction in terms.

So, in practice we should constantly be reminding ourselves who we are. We need to learn to talk to ourselves, and ask ourselves questions: 'Don't you know? Don't you know the meaning of your conversion and baptism? Don't you know that you have been united to Christ in his death and resurrection? Don't you know that you have been enslaved to God and have committed yourself to his obedience? Don't you know these things? Don't you know who you are?' We must go on pressing ourselves with such questions, until we reply to ourselves: 'Yes, I *do* know who I am, a new person in Christ, and by the grace of God I shall live accordingly.'


For an abbreviated summary of Romans Chapter 6, go to https://www.gci.org/articles/enslaved-to-righteousness-a-study-of-romans-6/.