I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification. For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You are a Slave!
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Commonly thought of as his greatest work, Luther wrote his Bondage of the Will as part of his debate with Erasmus of Rotterdam. Erasmus had written "The Freedom of the Will ". Erasmus believed the Roman doctrine of the necessity of the involvement of the will of the person in becoming a Christian. To be saved, they teach, that the individual must prepare him- or herself by an act of will and by good works and love. That theology looks at sin as a 'stain' or blemish on a person, rather than the complete corruption of the will and nature of the person, so they believe that even though troubled by sin, there is something that a man can do to prepare himself for conversion and faith, and thus co-operate with the Holy Spirit in his conversion. That is the freedom of the will, in Roman theology, and that is the distinguishing characteristic of the one who is saved over against the one who is lost - he did the work, prepared his heart, and cooperated with God.
Luther disagreed. On the basis of Scripture, including particularly our Epistle this morning, Luther categorically denied the freedom of the will, and spoke of the bondage of the will instead. He pointed out that while one might speak of someone as being free, either as a Christian or as an unbeliever, that freedom was not absolute. It was, in fact, relative and in relation only to the bondage of that person, which bondage was, in fact, absolute. It worked out as our text explains, and as we will talk about this morning, that we are a slave one way or the other. That is part of our theme today - You Are A Slave!
In an absolute sense, we are not slaves, but free children of God. Yet, in an absolute sense, we Christians are not free. We are not free to think just whatever we want. We are not free to do just whatever enters our minds to do. We are perfectly free to live as God's servants - slaves. To do anything else is to reject God and make ourselves God, and do it our way, instead of His. But we want what He offers and promises and guarantees. It is all so confusing.
That is why Paul writes as he does in our text. He says, "I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh." If he were writing today in modern idiom he might have written that sentence like this, "I know that this is difficult to understand, so let me put this in familiar human terms." He is using picture language to help us understand the spiritual reality of our condition.
Our freedom is never absolute, and our slavery is more complete and deep and thorough-going than we can imagine. No one can control the heart or the mind of an ordinary slave in this world. You can make them obey, even make them afraid to misstep, but you cannot actually control their thinking. They do that. You cannot make them love you or admire your cause. They may choose to do that, and even become a terrorist-like zealot for your cause, but it is by their decisions, not your work. Even brainwashing doesn't work until the victim cooperates by choice - horrible and extreme choice, perhaps, but choice none the less. Hypnosis requires a willing subject to really work. Because we are insulated and actually quite alone inside our heads, no man can make another his absolute slave without his cooperation.
This slavery in sin is another matter. We are corrupt. Sin has become entangled in our very nature since the fall. To use a farming image, the original breeding stock became corrupted and so all of their offspring carry the same corruption of sin. We are twisted by nature. Sin turns us from looking to God and caring about others - as we were created to do - into creatures that turn their gaze to themselves, and view our families and our neighbors, the world, and God Himself, through the twisted perspective of ourselves, our wants, our needs, our lusts, our personal advantage, our feelings, and our own guilt and sin. The Latin, and you know how I love the Latin, is "curvatus in se". It means "turned in on one's self".
And the one who pulls our strings is the father of evil, the devil himself. We are absolutely his slaves - slaves of sin. We no longer possess the capability, by nature, to think without sin, to speak without sin, to act with proper motives. Worse than that, when sin calls, our very nature jumps to serve. We want to do it, and feel cheated when we hold ourselves back from it, let alone when someone else prevents us from doing it. We can do hideous things to others simply because they are not US. They are not ME.
Now, Scripture reveals that life has only two possibilities, holy or profane, righteous or sinful, good or evil. There are no shades of gray, no kinda-sorta, half-way states of being. We see the world as having shades of gray between perfect good and perfect evil because we live in a world totally corrupted by evil. We can see the difference between a little white lie and outrageous fraud. We mark the difference between inadvertently taking something, even something insignificant, and grand larceny. But, if we are honest, both the little white lie and the outrageous fraud are lies, and both the accidental walking away with something that does not belong to you and the deliberate theft of precious commodities are stealing. We simply live in a world where absolute good is rare, and we often must measure between one evil and another to find the lesser of two evils.
God doesn't have to do so. He is absolutely good. Sin is sin, and evil is evil, and there is no gray areas with Him at all. He recognizes the difference between one seemingly insignificant evil and another, tremendously destructive evil. Old Testament Law addresses those distinctions. But He sees evil as truly evil, just as you can clearly see the difference between absolute darkness, and a dark room with a dim light shining somewhere in it. God is not unreasonable, He is perfect, and when we measure ourselves by the Law, He wants us to know that the standard is perfection - perfect holiness. Everything else has missed the mark, fallen short, and demonstrates a predilection, actually a helpless slavery to, sin.
That is, in fact, why the Gospel is about the free gift of God in Christ Jesus. God knows full well that we are capable of no pure good holiness. We have been corrupted and enslaved to sin by our very nature. It is, in fact, in our blood. We inherited it from the first two people, Adam and Eve. The sinful world tries to glorify it, because it does not accept God or understand the truth about sin and death and hell - and does not want to. The sinful world tries to make holiness sound like some awful bondage and limitation of our spirit, and the ability to freely choose to be wicked to one degree or another is pictured as a marvelous freedom which empowers people and makes this world so fascinating and gives true depth of meaning to our lives and all of human existence. You hear it in the movies. You read about it in the best novels. People who resist the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word cry out this twisted world-view when pressed to explain how they can turn from so marvelous a gift as everlasting life and salvation.
If you listen, and think about it, you can see that the world also teaches that we are always slaves. They simply refuse to describe their slavery as "slavery". No! They are free, and we are slaves! We contend that they are slaves of sin, and we are free. St. Paul tries to answer the debate by saying that both of us are right - we are just looking at it from opposite perspectives.
Then he asks us, which slavery do we prefer? Which outcome is more inviting to us? Do you want to be free from God and His Law and its nagging interference in your life and your choices? You can be, at least as long as this life endures. This evil, to which we are enslaved by nature, earns death. Paul writes, "Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death." The death Paul writes about is something deeper than the grave and more horrible to contemplate. The result of sin and evil is more sin and evil - and lawlessness - living without regard for the will of God. For the outcome of those things is death. That death is hell, separation from He who is life, and eternal torment and misery of both body and soul.
The other slavery results in our sanctification, and ultimately life everlasting which transcends the grave, and knows no pain, or sorrow, or sickness, or regret, or any more death. But if you are to live in righteousness as the chosen child of God, you have no choice. You cannot choose the evil path. You cannot choose the perspectives of the devil. You cannot choose to obey your lusts, or the temptations of the world, or choose to succumb to the seductions of the devil. Your flesh will want to, and you must fight it. You will not be perfectly successful, but, as a faithful servant, you will fight it and struggle to obey Him who has bought you with such a terrible price. You will seek to stay on the roster, so to speak, of the slaves of God who have all that good, and only good, to look forward to as a reward. You will fight with all of your wit and intelligence and values and energy to remain faithful. Anything else is unthinkably unfortunate in outcome.
You struggle to be a faithful servant because you are a faithful servant. The struggle and the works accomplished are not what make you His slave, they are because you are His slave by His own choice and doing. And He promises to help you in the fight and give you the power and the wisdom for the struggle.
But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. Note well that you have been freed - you did not free yourself, and you derive a benefit, you do not earn something. It is a gift. And the first benefit is sanctification. You are made holy. It isn't an accomplishment of yours, it is the gift of God through Jesus Christ. You are given His holiness. You are declared righteous before God because of what Jesus Christ has done.
Which is where the Gospel comes in for us. Our sin receives the divine sentence of death. It is carried out - but not on us. Jesus bore that sentence on the cross. He died the death that we have earned, and endured the very torments of hell on the cross and in His passion. His death on the cross was your death. He did it for you, that you might be redeemed and rescued. He died to take the penalty you have so richly earned by sin, and then He rose from the grave to proclaim His victory and tell you that it worked! Your sins are forgiven! God loves you, and you will live forever, even if you die - for you will rise from your grave unto eternal life in glory with Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.
So, having been cleansed and forgiven, having been made righteous and given a holiness which you did not work out but received by grace through faith, St. Paul asks, what do you want to do with it? Do you want to walk away from it? Do you want to sully it and smear the filth of more sins on it?
Of course not! You desire to remain holy. You want to live out that good will of God in your life that the good will of God for you might finally come to pass. And what is that will of God for you?
And so you are a slave. And this slavery is more deep and thorough-going than you realize. You cannot feel it in its truth because you still wear the quisling flesh. Your flesh is still hungry for sin and evil, but you are now the holy servant of God. Your will is shaped to be like His will. He shaped it, not you. You may not "feel" that will, but it is at work in you. The outcome of your new slavery is "your sanctification." You can see it in your life more easily than you can feel it in your consciousness. God is at work in you, bringing your life and conduct into conformity with His will. The task in never complete while we wear this flesh, infected with sin, but it is happening, and at the end, the outcome of all this work of God is eternal life for us! For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Mark those works well. You earn and deserve death with sin. Sin pays wages. But your righteousness is a gift, and your holiness is a gift, and your life and salvation in Jesus Christ is a gift. But you are a slave, always. Either you serve sins and Satan and death and hell, or you serve God and righteousness and He gives you holiness and life everlasting. The free gift of God - you did not earn it or deserve it, but God chose you and gave it to you, is eternal life in Christ Jesus.
So, Paul tells you to look at it. You have a choice. You can accept what God has already given you, and be His slave, or you can walk away from Him and from righteousness and become the slave of death and hell. But one way or another, you are a slave. I want life eternal. I am sure you do too. My flesh wants to sin, and, in fact, it is still enslaved to sin. But I want to go to heaven, and so I discipline my body, and I apply the one thing God has given me to combat sin in my life - the Gospel. I apply it by hearing the Word. I apply it by remembering my Baptism. I apply it by receiving the body and blood of my Lord Jesus often, taking what has been called by the Church, "the medicine of immortality". I apply it by reading the Word of God daily. I apply the Gospel by fellowshipping with believers, and being encouraged in my faith and life as God's slave by them, and encouraging them in turn.
Paul's answer to the question which confronts every believer isn't in our text, because he is confident that once you understand the nature of things, you will gladly serve God. But he does make the explicit appeal later in Romans, and I close with his words from Romans 12:
I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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