Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
TEXT: Romans 6:12-23
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:12-14)
“Faith is permitting ourselves to be seized by things we do not see.” That almost sounds like a Bible verse, doesn’t it?
Actually, it’s a quote from the great German preacher Martin Luther. I’m certain that all of us know that name. Martin Luther is famous for a host of reasons. His radical ideas sparked the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. His German translation of the Bible—completed in 1534—remains as influential as the King James Version is in English. He composed numerous hymns, perhaps the best-known of which is “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”—which, I’m told, is set to the tune of a Bavarian drinking song!
Besides his remark about faith, Luther also said: “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”
Luther said a lot of good things. However, it may be that the best-known words of Martin Luther come from a letter he wrote, in 1521, to his friend Philip Melanchthon. He said, “Be a sinner, and sin boldly.”
“Sin boldly!” That short phrase has lived in the popular imagination for some five centuries. People who know almost nothing else about Martin Luther are aware that he said this: “Sin boldly!” And often, they think it’s great advice!
Of course, as with so many things quoted out of context, Luther’s intent was rather unlike what we might imagine. What he actually wrote to Melanchthon was: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly … Pray boldly—for you, too, are a mighty sinner.”
What Luther meant was that God’s grace is so powerful, it will ultimately defeat sin altogether. He believed that—rather than becoming paralyzed by fear because of our continuing vulnerability to sin—we should instead rejoice in God’s power to overcome sin.
Luther’s quote was a result of the joy and spiritual liberation that came to him through the grace of God. He had struggled with a profound sense of moral unworthiness for years, until he finally understood that we are saved by grace alone—and not by anything we do.
Today, that’s understood to be a tenet of Protestant Christianity—but in Luther’s time, it was controversial. In fact, Luther’s opponents declared that his doctrine of “salvation by grace alone” was “a license to sin.”
Luther, however, was not the first Christian to be accused of giving license to sin. Some 1500 years before Luther, the Apostle Paul wrote, “… we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16).
Paul wrote those words to the churches of Galatia (in what is today Turkey) at a time when Jewish teachers were coming from Jerusalem to bring Christian converts under the law of Moses.
“It’s fine to be a believer in Christ,” they would say, “but your men have to be circumcised, and you have to keep the law of Moses in order to be right with God.”
This was in direct opposition to Paul’s message of good news in Christ. “It is through faith in Christ that we are made right with God,” he said. “No one can be right with God by following rules, or doing good works. We could never do enough to earn God’s favour” (paraphrase of Gal. 2:16b).
Because Paul taught that we are saved by God’s grace alone—and that God’s favour cannot be earned—he was accused of giving a “license to sin.”
And in a way, I can see where the criticism was coming from, can’t you? It does seem like a slippery slope, doesn’t it? I mean, a person could ask: “If faith is the thing that saves us, why bother with good works? Why not live it up? Why not just do whatever we feel like?”
One answer, I think, is simply this: that anyone who is truly in a faith-relationship with God will certainly not want to live like the devil!
Another answer—the apostle’s own answer—is given in today’s epistle reading, where Paul writes: “What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Rom. 6:15)
I know that Paul’s letters make for difficult reading, sometimes. Often, his language and his logic appear supremely convoluted. But there is something important for our living that lies beneath the surface of Paul’s writing. And that’s especially true of this passage from Romans. It deals with the issue of what controls our lives; it deals with the issue of our free will, and it deals with the issue of consequences regarding the choices we make.
Now, I want to take a closer look at this passage, but before we dive into it, there’s something important we should take note of. Did you notice that the epistle lesson began with the word, “therefore”?
“Therefore,” the lesson begins, “do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies.” That begs the question: what comes before the “therefore?”
Whatever thoughts precede this reading lay the foundation for what comes after. And in these preceding thoughts, Paul lays out the premise of everything he goes on to say about sin. When we were baptized, Paul says, we were forever marked as belonging to Christ. We are united with Christ in his life, death and resurrection. And Paul insists that—since we are in union with Christ—we have, in principle, “died to sin.”
The first part of Romans, chapter six, has to do with the principle of Christian faith—namely, that we are “… dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11).
That sounds great, doesn’t it? However, we run into a problem when we try to practice Christian faith. And the problem is just this: that while we may, in principle, be dead to sin … sin is not dead to us!
Sin is all too real, all too obviously alive and well, even in the best of us. This is the area where we all need help. And it’s this kind of help the apostle Paul is trying to give us.
The first thing I want to look at is the issue of control, which Paul touches on in verses 12-14. If you haven’t a Bible handy, don’t worry. I’m going to paraphrase the apostle’s words as we go along.
In the first three verses of our passage, Paul is saying: “Do not let sin rule in your lives anymore. Yes, sin still looks attractive—but we Christians have given over control of our lives to God. We live under God’s grace now, and we do not have to be under the control of sin.”
You see, living as a Christian is not a matter of becoming perfect, or of being without sin. No. It is a matter of who we belong to. When we belong to God, and—in principle—give control of our lives to God, we gain the possibility of growing in the new life we have received.
The next thing I want to look at is the issue of free will, which Paul begins to examine in verses 15-19. In verse 16, he says: “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?”
Paul asks this question here as if he thinks obedience is an easy thing—but elsewhere in his writings, he openly acknowledges that he struggles with it just like anybody else.
In principle, we belong to God—but, even so, God has not removed our ability to make choices. That’s why we still struggle with temptation. That’s why we still find it so challenging to make choices that honour God.
In the next chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul admits that he, himself, is sometimes overwhelmed by his stubborn will.
“I want to do the right thing,” he says, “and I know the right thing! But I wind up disappointing God and myself. It’s like there is a war going on inside of me.” (Paraphrase of Romans 7:18-21)
Nevertheless, Paul does not give up the battle, and he urges his readers not to give up, either. He reminds them that they freely chose to give themselves to God, and he promises them that—as they renew that choice day by day—they will increasingly become servants of God, and sin will have less and less influence upon them.
This is true for us, as well. As we continually exercise our choice to make Christ the centre of our living, we grow in faith and in faithfulness to God. Instead of serving the old life and the old ways, we grow in service to God and to what is right and good.
Those of us who are parents see this happen every day, don’t we? We see it as we watch our children grow and mature into caring, responsible persons. Sure, they make lots of mistakes. They make lots of bad choices. And sometimes even the good choices they make bring difficult challenges. But—although our kids may struggle with their choices—we lovingly encourage them along the way and point them toward maturity. Our heavenly Parent does the same thing for us.
Finally, I want to look at the issue of consequences, which Paul talks about in the last four verses of today’s epistle. Here, Paul steps back and takes an overarching, long view of what he has been talking about. He says there are two ways of living—and two end results.
On the one hand, there is the life which is lived under the dominance of sin, apart from any relationship with God. Sin, however, produces nothing except death.
On the other hand, the life which is lived in relationship with Christ leads to eternal life. One great thing about the Christian life—one great thing about the grace of God—is this: what counts is the direction in which we’re headed. It’s not that we’ve reached the destination. It doesn’t matter how near we are to the kingdom of God—or how far away we still are. No. What matters is the direction of our journey.
In God’s eyes, we are all “works in progress.” That’s what Paul was getting at in another of his letters—in Philippians, chapter three—when he said:
Not that I have already … reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12-14)
I find those words very encouraging. I haven’t reached the goal, either, but—by God’s grace—I press onward.
So now, in conclusion, let’s reconsider Luther’s advice to his friend Melancthon. “Sin boldly,” Luther said, “but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.”
In light of Paul’s teachings here, we might want to translate Luther’s words differently. Or perhaps, better still, we could paraphrase them, thus: “Do not fear because sin still plagues you. Instead, rejoice in God’s grace. Be grateful for the journey you’re on—a journey toward eternal life. Rejoice and be glad, for sin and death are fading away. Christ has defeated them, and soon they will be nothing more than distant memories.”
Thanks be to God for this good news.