Text: Romans 6:19-23
On our Lectern to my left we have a copy of the Authorized Version of the Bible, commonly called the King James Version. This particular translation is one of the masterpieces of English literature that has so permeated our culture as English-speakers, that as recently as 100 years ago, every major author frequently made allusions to it, regardless of the author’s faith or lack thereof. In fact, the loss of familiarity with the King James has resulted in modern literary critics often missing important parts of older texts because they don’t get the references.
I grew up in a Christian home and can confidently consider my baptism at the ripe old age of 4 weeks as my conversion. There has never been a time in my consciousness when I wasn’t surrounded by the Scriptures.
Whether it’s being surrounded by Christianity like I was or whether it’s seeing our venerable translation of the Bible as key to our literary culture, it can be easy to forget that the Bible is actually a book from a culture that is very different from ours, with very different assumptions, customs, and worldview. It can be easy to forget that it’s a book that comes from the ancient near east, not Western Europe.
One element of the Bible and its culture that can be shocking to people from our culture that come to it for the first time is the prevalence of slavery. The Old Testament has laws governing slavery. One of St. Paul’s epistles was written to a Christian slave owner urging him to take back his Christian slave. And there is no explicit condemnation of the practice in the Bible; it’s just an assumed part of the culture. Of course, it wasn’t very long after Christianity was established that Christian theologians and leaders, such as Ss. Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom began to condemn slavery. And Christians were always at the forefront of abolitionist movements.
One thing we need to realize about slavery in the Bible is that it is very different from slavery as it existed in American history. It was not race-based, for starters. While they were certainly not given full human rights or even legal “personhood” in the Roman world, slaves were often significant parts of the skilled classes. For example, most physicians and many teachers were slaves in Ancient Rome. And in the Old Testament, the default position of slaves was very temporary. A Hebrew could only be a slave for seven years per Old Testament Law, unless the slave decided to fully give up his freedom in exchange for the economic security and protection provided by his master. And the kind of kidnapping of Africans to provide slaves for American plantations was strictly forbidden in the Old Testament. In fact, “man-stealing” or kidnapping was a capital offense in the Law of Moses.
Another thing we need to realize about slavery in the Bible is something we see in today’s Epistle reading: on a spiritual level, we all are slaves. In today’s reading St. Paul argues that every single man, woman, or child is either a slave of sin or a slave of righteousness. Please open your bibles to Romans 6, beginning at Verse 19. This is also found in your Prayer Book on page 198:
I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness.
When Paul talks about “members” he means the various parts of our bodies. Though our bodies are gifts from God, made (as we’re told in Genesis) in God’s very image, we use our bodies to sin against him. We use our eyes to see things that we shouldn’t see. We use our tongues to say things that are hurtful. We use our hands to take that which isn’t ours. If you go down the list of the 10 Commandments, you can see how our “members” are used to violate them. The Greek word St. Paul used that is translated as “slave” in the ESV or “servant” in the King James is doulos δοῦλος, which is someone who is bound to another person, without any ownership rights of their own. In our default fallen state, we are slaves to impurity or uncleanness, slaves to lawlessness or iniquity. In the Western Church we call this Original Sin. You may recall from Sunday School a couple weeks ago that in Article IX in the 39 Articles of Religion, our Reformation-era document of beliefs, speaks of this as the
fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation” (page 604 in the BCP).
In other words, we’re not morally neutral by default. We’re morally corrupted to the point that we cannot save ourselves. Sin has ownership over us, and we are powerless to do anything about it. In fact, as St. Paul said, our lawlessness only leads to more lawlessness! We’re like a person caught in revolving debt, using one credit card to pay for another, and just slipping further and further into debt with each payment.
But notice Paul said, “you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and lawlessness.” The epistle is written to Christians, not Pagans. This used to be your state; it no longer is. What changed? The cross. If you’re a baptized Christian, united to Christ by faith, Jesus bought you with his precious blood. Ownership has been transferred. You are no longer a slave to sin, but you are now a slave to righteousness. Whose righteousness? Not yours, but Christ’s. Every week in the Prayer of Humble Access we pray “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” St. Paul has just spent five-and-a-half chapters making the case that God shows his righteousness to Christians by his mercy, by his grace.
This can, however, present a problem. Doesn’t a focus on God’s grace give people a license to sin? The old saying goes: “God likes to forgive, and I like to sin. It sounds like a good arrangement!” St. Paul shows us the silliness of this sort of reasoning. Verse 20:
For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Sin leads to death. The sin tree only bears death as its fruit. But the fruit of being God’s slave is eternal life. And while this eternal life is indeed free, it is not cheap grace. For starters, the price of our eternal life was Christ’s own precious blood. This is the exact opposite of cheap. But also see what Paul says in the end of Verse 22. The ESV says “the fruit you get leads to sanctification.” The King James says “ye have your fruit unto holiness.” God’s free gift of eternal life will result in sanctification. It will result in holiness. Article XII (page 605 in your Prayer Book) calls our good works, “the fruits of Faith” that “do spring necessarily of a true and lively Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.” How do you know whether a tree is an apple or peach tree? By whether it bears apples or peaches! How do you know whether a person belongs to sin or belongs to God? By whether their lives bear fruits of sin or of good works. Article XII is clear that our good works cannot “put away sin.” I.e., we cannot earn our own freedom from sin by shaping up our lives. In fact, because we always have mixed motives as human beings, even our good works are tainted with sin. Nevertheless, Article XII says “yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ.” Because we’re God’s, our faith will bear the fruit of holiness, of sanctification. But this is a process. We’ll grow in this our whole lives.
Furthermore, as “slaves to righteousness,” we actually find freedom, as counter-intuitive as this may seem. I recently heard a Lutheran pastor liken it to a thoroughbred horse being called a “slave to running.” A thoroughbred was made to run. A thoroughbred is healthy and happy when it is running, but if it gets coddled, over-fed, and under exercised, it becomes a miserable beast indeed. Similarly, we Christians were made for good works, for righteousness, as St. Paul says in Ephesians and as we talk about in our post-Communion prayer. On a spiritual level, Christians are healthy and happy when we practice righteousness, when we are keeping God’s Law and at peace with God and our neighbor. This is why we go through this season of Sanctification during Trinitytide: we want to focus on growing in holiness, growing into who we were made to be.
Nevertheless, we all know that our flesh often rebels against our bondage to Christ and his righteousness. Most all of us have some particular sins with which we struggle. I know I do. Folks sometimes call this the “besetting sin”: something that’s just really, really hard to overcome. Sometimes there’s that little voice of doubt that says, “if you were really a Christian, you wouldn’t struggle with this.” Don’t listen to that voice. That voice is one of the Devil’s oldest tricks; it always comes with a scent of fire and brimstone. The fact that you’re struggling with your besetting sin, that it bothers you even when you fail, is proof that you belong to Jesus.
Our fallen flesh wants to justify our sins, to explain it away somehow, to excuse it, to plead extenuating circumstances. The Spirit of Christ within us tells us the truth about it so that we can repent and try again. And here’s the secret: because you’re a slave of God, not a slave of sin, you actually can overcome it. Not by your own strength, but by God’s Spirit who strengthens you. This is the main function of Confirmation, by the way: to pray for the strengthening of God’s Spirit to live out your bounden duty as Christians. Remember that Jesus says his yoke is easy and his burden light. Whatever sin you struggle with, he’ll eventually get you through it. It may take some time. It may be such a slow growth that you don’t notice it happening. But God’s grace is sufficient. He’ll take care of you. And even if you don’t conquer that sin in this life, the free gift of God, eternal life if Christ Jesus our Lord, means that one day it simply won’t be an issue. One day everyone who is united to Christ will be just like him in his perfect, glorified humanity. No sin. No pain. No mourning. Come soon, Lord Jesus.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.