Present Yourselves to God
We’ll be looking at Romans 6:12-14 this morning. It’s a short passage. It’s shorter than what I originally planned to look at today, but “things” have happened this week that have had people talking a lot about what is and isn’t sin and how Christians and the Church are supposed to address it. I’ve been quietly following dozens of conversations and arguments on the Internet. None of it is new, but that doesn’t keep it from being troubling. It ties in directly with what St. Paul has to say here in Romans 6, so I think it’s worthwhile to slow down our pace a bit so that we can spend more time looking at this theme of having been liberated from the dominion of sin and death by Jesus and so that we can spend some time focusing on what it means to be dead to sin and alive to God in him.
The big thing that happened this week was that the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released a statement—called the Nashville Statement—signed by 150 evangelical leaders. It clearly lays out the Christian sexual ethic, particularly as it relates to homosexuality and trans-genderism. The statement fired up a lot of controversy, to put it mildly, but it did so—pretty ironically—by simply repeating what Christians have been saying universally for two thousand years: God’s design for human beings is marriage between a man and a woman and that any kind of sexual activity outside of that model is sinful.
Many people responded. One common response was that the Church or the Bible must be wrong. “No matter how hard I try, the desire, the temptation for sex outside that model is there,” people say, “and so it must be okay.” Others responded that this was just an archaic and arbitrary ethical standard past its prime. I hope that from our study of Romans 1 you can see where the problem lies with that statement. In 1:26-27 Paul singled out homosexuality, not for any arbitrary reason and not even because he thought it was the worst of all sins, but because it illustrates very dramatically our core problem: We are idolaters who have rejected God’s wisdom and goodness. He created us not only to share in his life, but to create life ourselves, but we have submitted ourselves, instead, to the rule of death. This one sin illustrates it so well—it rejects the very first command that God gave when he told human beings to be fruitful and to multiply and it rejects the very first institution he established—the family—to fulfil that command. There is nothing arbitrary about the Christian sexual ethic—or any other biblical ethic. But people have tried it and failed and basically said that if God really wanted us to do this, he wouldn’t allow us to have desires for sexual gratification outside of marriage. Brothers and Sisters, imagine if we applied this same thinking to other things: I’m constantly tempted to anger and violence. I’ve tried and tried, but the temptation is still there. I can’t control myself. God must have made me this way and everyone’s just going to have to accept the way I fly off the handle, beat my wife, abuse my children, kick my dog, and yell at my friends.” It’s absurd.
But these aren’t the only people giving up on biblical sexual ethics. Over the years, as I talk with other pastors—I had one of these conversations just this week—they tell me how they’ve given up on holding church members to the biblical sexual ethic. “Society no longer lives by it,” they say. “Everyone’s living together and having sex outside of marriage. Everyone’s accepting of homosexuality and a host of other things. If the Church holds people to the biblical ethic, we’ll just drive away the people we want to evangelise. We’ll end up looking like a bunch of meanies and haters and we don’t want that.” They know and accept what the Bible says about sex, but they find it easier to ignore it.
I find that sort of thing hard to reconcile with St. Paul, for example, who lived in the midst of a culture at least as sexually depraved as ours, who recognised the temptations faced by Christians, but wrote to them in his epistles, exhorting them to set aside immorality and to live holy lives—to walk in newness of life, as he said in our passage last week. It was far more difficult for Christians in Rome or Corinth to be sexually pure than it is for us today, but they were and because our brothers and sisters in the early Church lived in such a dramatically different way, the impossible happened and the Roman empire was conquered for Christ—not with swords and spears, not with horses and chariots, but by Christians who proclaimed that Jesus is Lord, not Caesar, not Aphrodite, not Mammon, not Mars—and who truly lived out lives centred on the Cross—being holy and being models of God’s grace, love, mercy, and peace. And if they could do it, we have no excuse. We serve the same Lord. We’re empowered by the same Spirit.
As I said last Sunday, one of the most powerful—maybe the most powerful—keys to understanding all this is knowing our place in the story. This what Paul’s doing here. Everyone knew the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and here in Romans Paul is using that story as a model for the bigger story of redemption. He’s reminded us already that in our baptism, we have died to sin and risen to life in Jesus the Messiah. We were born into Adam’s family—a family characterised by idolatry and sin—a family subjected to the sovereignty of death. But in Jesus a new family has been formed and through him our solidarity with Adam has been broken, we are now dead to sin, and alive to God. And Paul stressed: It’s done. We have died to sin. Past tense.
Of course, Paul also knew that sin is very real. He portrays it here almost as a personified power. We who are in Jesus the Messiah are dead to sin and alive to God, but if anyone came to Paul and said that he didn’t struggle with sin anymore, Paul would remind him that sin really is serious business, we must be constantly vigilant, and we must be constantly doing battle with it.
Here’s what Paul says in Romans 6:12:
Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.
This is where Paul stresses the need to take sin seriously, even if Jesus has made us dead to it. Remember that Paul earlier wrote about two sovereignties or two kingdoms. Adam was the founder of one and Jesus the founder of the other. In Adam’s kingdom death is the king, but in the kingdom of grace, Jesus is king. When we pass through the waters of baptism in faith, we are removed from the kingdom and rule of death to the kingdom and rule of Jesus.
This is where the story of Israel is helpful to illustrate our situation. The Israelites were slaves to Pharaoh. He could order them around any time and any way he wanted. Their lives belong to him and there was nothing they could do about it. But God parted the sea for them and led them through to the other side. In the wilderness they not only escaped from the rule of Pharaoh, but God gave them a very dramatic proof that Pharaoh had no more power over them. Take a minute this week to look up Exodus 15. Moses and the Israelites sang a song of praise to the Lord when they saw the Egyptians destroyed. The Lord had triumphed gloriously. The Lord was their strength and might and salvation. The people sang about the defeat the Lord brought, not only on Egypt, but on Edom, Moab, and Canaan, and it ends with the affirmation: “The Lord will reign forever and ever” (Exodus 15:18). The rule of Pharaoh over them was broken. The Lord was their king. Nothing was going to change that. But consider how quickly the Israelites fell back into pagan, Egyptian ways. Moses went up to the mountain to meet with the Lord and to receive his law. When he didn’t come down, the Israelites were afraid and they gave their jewelry to Aaron. He melted it down and made an idol—an image of a calf—and they worshipped it. This was the way of the pagans of Egypt. The Israelites knew it well and the first time they feared that the Lord had failed them they ran straight back to that old, pagan way of doing things.
In the wilderness they grumbled about how difficult life was. They were sick of the manna the Lord provided for them for food, for example. They grumbled against Moses and they grumbled against God. They talked about going back to Egypt. At least there they had plenty of food to eat! When it came time to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land, they grumbled again. There were giants in the land. The giants had great fortified cities and iron weapons. There was no way they could defeat the Canaanites. “Why did we follow this crazy God out of Egypt?” they grumbled. Repeatedly the people lost faith, repeatedly the people fell back into the old ways they knew from their days of slavery in Egypt. But did that make them slaves to the Egyptians again? No, it didn’t. Did the Lord stop being their king? No. The reality continued to be that they were free people, ruled and cared for by the Lord no matter how much they grumbled or bowed down to golden calves. They were free, but they’d spent so many years as slaves, it was easy to keep thinking like one. Just so with us and our slavery to sin.
We have been freed, but sin is still serious business and it still has serious power. This is why Paul stressed in 6:11 the need for us to consider, to reckon, or to do the math in terms of our having died to sin with Jesus and our having been raised to life in God. He would have said something similar to the Israelites: Reckon yourselves dead to Pharaoh and alive to the Lord. Stop and think before you grumble. Stop and think before you bow down to idols. Remember who you belong to, remember that you have been freed from Pharaoh and everything to do with his kingdom. Now go and live for the Lord.
The problem, as Paul notes here in verse 12 is as much as Jesus has done the work and as much as our baptism really has transferred us from one kingdom to another, there’s still more of this work to be done. This is why he warns us not to let sin reign in our mortal bodies. We have been raised with Christ to the life of God—but we are still waiting for our own resurrection. Jesus body has been transformed. Ours have not. He’s poured the Holy Spirit into us as a sort of down payment on what we have to look forward to in our resurrection. The Spirit gives us a foretaste of things to come and reason to hope for that future day when we once again stand in the presence of God and of the tree of life. But until then our bodies are still very much mortal. Sin’s damage has already been done. It’s in the process of being undone, but until that work is complete, our current selves are prone to falling back into sin just as the Israelites were prone to falling back into their pagan, Egyptian ways. The good news is, as Paul will explain in Chapter 8, the Holy Spirit has been given to us to turn our hearts and minds away from sin and towards God. The Spirit has been given to us so that in his power, we can put the sinful desires of our bodies to death.
Brothers and Sisters, remember to whom you belong. Consider, reckon, do the math and remember that your old self has been crucified with Jesus and that you have been raised to the life of God. Remember that he has poured his Holy Spirit into you as a down payment on the life to come and to make it possible for you to mortify, to put to death, the sinful desires of the flesh—to live the reality that Jesus has accomplished for us and in us. Consider. Reckon. Do the math. I can’t help but think of Martin Luther. When he was faced with temptation he would declare, “Baptizatus sum!” “I am baptised!” And he would grab his forehead where the water had been poured on him. That was his way of considering or reckoning what it meant to be dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus the Messiah.
Here’s how Paul continues in verse 13:
Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.
We’ve been brought from death to life in Jesus. We belong to him. This is why Paul warns us not to present our members as instruments or tools for sin, but to present our selves to God. Do you see how he does that? Do not present your members to sin, but do present your selves to God. If we are in Jesus the Messiah, there is no way, it’s impossible for us to present our selves to sin. Our selves belong to God and we can’t give what he has bought from sin so dearly back to sin. But we can ignore the work of the Holy Spirit in us, we can forget to whom we belong, and we can allow our members—our parts, our personality, our minds, our bodies—to be servants to sin. The word Paul uses when he writes about presenting our members and our selves has sacrificial overtones. To allow sin reign in our mortal bodies, to allow temptation to win in our hearts and minds and bodies is give what should belong to God over to the use of the kingdom from which he has rescued us. It’s idolatry, just as it was idolatry for the Israelites to use the gold jewelry they had acquired when God allowed them to despoil the Egyptians in order to make the golden calf. They and all their possessions rightly belonged to the Lord. They continued to belong to him, but they used the very gold he had blessed them with for idolatry. We do the same thing when we allow temptation to get the better of us. Instead, when we face temptation, as we inevitably will, we must use it as an opportunity to live the life the Spirit has given. Thinking again of Luther, this is what he wrote in his commentary on verse 13:
“If sin tempts us and fails to rule over us, it is forced to serve the saints, since ‘all things work together for good to them that love God’. Thus (the temptation to) impurity by its attack renders the (believer’s) soul all the more chaste. Pride makes it all the more humble. Indolence makes it all the more industrious. Avarice makes it all the more generous. Anger makes it all the more gentle. Gluttony makes it all the more obedient.” Have you ever thought of temptation in that way? The more we take advantage of the life of the Holy Spirit in us when we face temptation and to say “No” to sin, the more the Spirit works in us to put sin to death on the one hand and to build the virtues of righteousness.
It’s not easy work. Paul would be the first person to remind us that even though we are dead to sin and alive to God, sin is serious and powerful. He often uses the metaphor of putting off the old and putting on the new. I find that often takes the form of spending time meditating on and memorizing passages of Scripture that address the specific temptations I face. The more I have scriptures about anger in the forefront of my mind, the more likely I am to pause when I’m tempted to be angry, to think of what God’s Word says, and to bring the Spirit’s power to bear on that temptation and to train myself to respond in a godly way to the situation. If you struggle with pride, meditate on and memorise scriptures that talk about pride and humility. If you struggle with sexual immorality, meditate on and memorise scriptures that address sex and purity. If you struggle with greed, keep scriptures about generosity in mind. If impatience, keep in mind scriptures about patience. Feed yourself on God’s Word and it will become the raw material used by the Spirit to put sin to death and make you alive to God.
Finally, in verse 14, writes:
For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
Sin may be at large in the world, but Jesus, by our baptism, has transferred us from its rule to his, from the kingdom of sin and death to the kingdom of grace. What may seem odd here is that this isn’t quite how Paul puts it. He exchanges sin and death for the law: Sin has no dominion because we’re not under law, but under grace. Again, this may seem odd, but that’s because we so easily forget something that was very important to Paul and that’s that the kingdom of sin and death is the place where the law rules.
Think back to 5:20-21. That’s where Paul wrote that where sin abounded, grace super-abounded. It’s also where Paul stressed that there are two kingdoms or sovereignties. Everyone lives in one or the other: in the humanity that exists in solidarity with Adam or in the humanity that exists in solidarity with Jesus. There’s the Adam kingdom and there’s the Messiah kingdom and what Paul says here—which may come as a surprise—is that the law is part of the Adam kingdom. Now isn’t the time to explain why this is—Paul will spend all of Chapter 7 writing about this. But for the moment, what he stresses here, in case anyone was thinking that following the Jewish law will help them to be alive to God or will help them to serve Jesus’ kingdom, Paul gives an emphatic “No”.
We have been crucified with Jesus the Messiah and we have been raised with him to walk in newness of life and that means we are under the rule of grace, not the rule of the law. Paul has already pointed this out. In 3:21 he told us that God’s righteousness is revealed “apart from the law”. In 3:28 he told us that justification is by faith “apart from works of the law”. He wrote that it was “not through the law” that the promise came to Abraham and his seed that he would inherit the world (4:13), because “the law works wrath” (4:15). Again, Paul will explain this later, but for now it’s enough to know that the law is part of the Adam kingdom and, as he writes in Galatians 2:19, “Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” This is just as true of us.
This sort of brings us back to where we started. Our baptism, our being united to Jesus the Messiah, puts on us an obligation to pursue holiness—the life of God. If we can see the big picture and understand our place in it—if we understand that we’ve been rescued from an awful slavery and set free to serve the living God—it’s obvious that as much as we talk about holiness as an obligation, it’s a joyful obligation. It’s a return to the vocation for which we were created in the first place, serving before the face of our Creator who is perfectly good and wise and loving. But that’s not always how we see it. It’s easy—just as it was for the Israelites—to forget how awful slavery was—or even to forget entirely that we were once slaves at all. And then we start looking at this obligation to holiness as a burden. Maybe we start to see it as a burden we dare not place on others when we tell them about Jesus. The story gets muddled. The good news of the Gospel gets muddled. And we get what we’ve got today. Preachers preach Jesus, but they no longer preach repentance. Jesus then becomes little more than something you add to your life in the hopes of making things better, not someone with whom you are crucified and raised to new life. Or we hear people preach the message that God accepts us as we are. Now, that is true. God does accept us as we are. But that’s only part of the message. As Paul stressed in Chapter 5, where sin abounds, grace abounds even more. Grace reaches down into the midst of sin, gets hold of us, and brings us to God. So, yes, the very nature of God’s grace is to meet us wherever we’re at and however sinful we are. But the very nature of grace is not to leave us where we’re at, but to transform us. God does not meet us where we are in order to leave us there. That would be to “continue in sin, that grace might abound” and we’ve heard Paul gives an emphatic “No” to that mindset.
No, God has poured his grace into this sinful world, he has poured his grace into us, in order to take us out of our sin. Holiness doesn’t look like freedom to the sinner, but that’s because we are slaves to sin and death. Our hearts are black and our minds are confused. Part of the work of the Holy Spirit, as he transforms our hearts and minds, is to show us the nature of true freedom—to be forgiven, to be transformed, and to be restored to our vocation as bearers of the image of God. Only Jesus can do this, because only he is the world’s true Lord. Yes, his lordship is demanding, it’s hard, it’s often painful as he calls us to repentance, but in the end his is the only true freedom.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, you found us in our sin and poured out your grace to make us holy. Remind us always that we were slaves to sin and death and that by the death and resurrection of Jesus, you have set us free to your life and the life of the age to come. Keep us always aware of the gift you have given us in the Holy Spirit, poured into us in our baptism, to turn our hearts and minds towards you and towards holiness, and continue to give us grace so that we can put sin to death and live for you. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.