Romans 6 v 12-23 The Third Sunday After Trinity 28th June 2020
Slavery is in the news, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in Bristol resulting in the toppling of the statue to Edward Colston and the authorities at Bristol Cathedral covered up a window panel commemorating him. He was involved in the Atlantic slave trade in the seventeenth century which brought fame and wealth to Bristol, but at the cost of human lives and dignity. Similar protests are spreading around the country. The Mayor of London talks of changing road names in London that refer to slave traders. Slavery in this sense was ‘the condition in which one human being was owned by another and so was deprived of most of the rights ordinarily held by free people’. The Church of England has apologised, saying ‘its historic links with slavery is a source of shame’.
In last week’s Church Times Canon Angela Tilby wrote about John Newton who ended up as a slave himself. After his rescue he became a Christian and wrote the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’. Some songs still sung today are spirituals originally sung by slaves, eg ‘Steal away to Jesus’, ‘There is a balm in Gilead’, ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’. The spirituals were originally sung by the slaves to reflect their need to express their new Christian faith. They also often contained secret messages through which they communicated with one another without the knowledge of their masters.
In the Bible we read that slavery was practiced in ancient societies, eg Israel remembered its own slavery in Egypt (Exodus 1). In Luke 4v18 we read that Jesus quoted the Prophet Isaiah when he said ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’.
St Paul regarded the received meaning of slavery as having been destroyed by Jesus. Eg Galatians 3v28 ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’. In his letter to Philemon, Paul pleaded with Philemon for his friend Onesimus ‘… that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother…’ (Philemon v15-16).
Eventually people became critical of slavery. John Newton supported the abolition of the slave trade, he counselled the young William Wilberforce, who became part of the ‘Clapham Sect’, so called because it met at Clapham. They were a group of Anglican Christian social reformers, and one reform they argued for was the abolition of the slave trade. As an MP William Wilberforce worked in parliament to abolish the slave trade which eventually happened in the nineteenth century.
Last week we read the first part of this 6th chapter of Romans, and Paul used the example of baptism to explain how we are ‘united with Christ’ in his death and resurrection. In today’s reading in Romans 6, Paul uses the example of slavery in terms of us being ‘united with Christ’. But it is as though he apologises for using this picture of slavery. He said ‘I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations’ (v19), or ‘I use everyday language because of the weakness of your natural selves’ v19 GNB. Presumably at the time slavery was widespread and well understood, but Paul did not like comparing the Christian life to slavery. However the point he was making was that for the Christian our only master can be God. We cannot serve two masters (Matthew 6v24). Perhaps as Christians we find being called ‘slaves of God’ a strange one to understand.
The whole of chapter 6 is about our Christian beginnings. Paul said in 6v3 ‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised….’. Now in 6v16 ‘Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are the slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness’. The Good News Bible translates ‘Do you not know’, as ‘Surely you know’. “Surely you know that through baptism you were united with Christ in his death and resurrection, and so you are dead to sin and alive to God”; and “surely you know that when you became a Christian, you offered yourself to God to become his slave, and so are committed to be obedient to him. Knowing that, how can you possibly claim that you are free to sin”? The comparison is to be a slave of sin or a slave of obedience. The essence of our slavery as Christians is our obedience to Christ.
Paul reminds the Roman Christians, that because they are Christians, because they have been converted from their old ways to the ways of Christ, they have exchanged slaveries. Paul says in v17-18 ‘But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness’. Paul says in v17 ‘But thanks be to God…’, and then he sums up their experience, in four stages in v17&18: First ‘they were once slaves to sin’, this is what they used to be. Second, it is something that they did ‘they have become obedient from the heart’. Third, something happened to them ‘they were set free from sin’. Fourth, and so they became ‘slaves of righteousness’. We are all slaves. But what are we slaves to? Are we slaves to our old selfish desires, our old selfishness? Or are we slaves to God, are we obedient to Him? Our Christian conversion, says Paul, is a transfer from one to the other, it is a turning to God.
Now, we don’t know precisely what the ‘form of teaching’ was that Paul referred to in v17. Perhaps it was some early form of baptism preparation or post baptism classes, some form of apostolic instruction which probably included the basics of the Gospel (1 Corinthians 15v3ff). Perhaps something about Christian ethics or behaviour (1 Thessalonians 4v1ff). Conversion is not only trusting Christ, but also involves belonging to one another in the Body of Christ. Conversion involves believing, belonging and behaving. (Romans 12).
Because of our conversion we have been set free from sin, not in the sense that we have become perfect, nor that we are no longer tempted to sin. We do still sin, we still need to say sorry to God and seek his forgiveness which we do eg when we say the General Confession. The difference is that sin is no longer our master. We are not ‘slaves to sin’, sin no longer rules over us. We have been rescued out of the lordship of sin into the Lordship of God. We have become ‘slaves of righteousness’.
Paul continues to compare and contrast the two slaveries in v 20-22. ‘When you were slaves of sin you were free in regard to righteousness’ v20. The benefits of being a slave to sin – well, what are they? You did things that you are now ashamed of, and the ultimate result was death, meaning in this context a separation from God. ‘But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification’ v22. But now if you are a servant of God, dedicated to God, you live a life of holiness and you have everlasting life, an unending fellowship with God in heaven.
And in the final verse Paul sums up his whole argument, a very well known verse, Romans 6v23 ‘for the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’. Sin pays wages, we get what we deserve – ‘death’. But, in Christ, God gives us a gift – a free gift. We get what we do not deserve – ‘eternal life’. The gift is given because of the death of Christ on the cross, and we receive the gift because we are in Christ Jesus our Lord, we are united to him by faith.
Paul’s original question in 6v1 was ‘should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound?’ We answer, as Paul did, with an emphatic ‘no’. We are united with Christ, our baptism symbolises this. At our conversion we became slaves of God. We need to constantly remind ourselves of these truths. We are united with Christ, we are slaves of God and so obedient to him. It is therefore inconceivable that we should carry on deliberately sinning, presuming upon the grace of God. The very thought is intolerable.
The Duke of Windsor (the uncrowned King Edward 8th) died on 28 May 1972 in Paris. The same evening a TV programme was broadcast outlining the main events of his life. Extracts from earlier films were shown in which he answered questions about his upbringing, his brief reign and abdication. Recalling his boyhood, he said ‘My father (King George 5th) was a strict disciplinarian. Sometimes when I had done something wrong, he would admonish me by saying ‘My dear boy, you must always remember who you are.’ Our heavenly Father says the same to us, ‘My dear child, you must always remember who you are.’ Who are we? In Christ we are children of God, we are united to Christ, and God alone is our master. Knowing that, we will not want to cause our heavenly Father pain by deliberately sinnin