Everyone has a master … who is yours?
Anyone here ever been skydiving? Anyone want to go skydiving? Anyone want to go skydiving without a parachute? Without even a wingsuit? Some have done it, as you’ve just seen. This guy, Luke Aikins, jumped from 25,000 feet without a parachute and hit a giant net set to catch him before he hit the ground. Others had jumped without a chute and put one on during free fall, or got a chute out of a box during free fall, or even returned to the same plane at a lower altitude, all without a chute. But this guy trained for hours and hours and hours to make an entire jump, including landing in a net, without a chute. Kind of crazy if you ask me. But a lot of preparation and training went into this historic jump.
Why so much training? Because as much as the skydiver wants to experience complete and total freedom, not even a chute restraining him, there is a law higher than freedom. It is the law of gravity. And without a lot of planning and preparation to deal with the law of gravity and find ways to mitigate its effects, he would have made quite a crater in the ground when he hit. As much as it may have seemed like the skydiver was in complete control and completely free, he wasn’t, even without a chute. The gravity was the one actually in charge. He had learned to maneuver himself to hit the net safely, but a higher law, gravity, was still in charge. If he made a mistake, he was dead.
Freedom does not mean the absence of constraints or moral absolutes. When a skydiver chooses the “constraint” of a parachute, she is free to enjoy the exhilaration. God’s moral laws act the same way: they restrain, but they are absolutely necessary to enjoy the exhilaration of real freedom.
As we continue on our journey through Romans, St. Paul moves from the freedom we have IN Christ to obedience TO Christ. Those two things are really two sides of the same coin. On one side is our freedom from the chains of sin and death, and on the other side is the obedience to Christ that live in Christ brings. You see, we have real freedom in Christ, freedom from the penalty AND the power of sin. But above freedom is a higher law, the moral law of God, which we are to follow. In fact, in Christ, we are now FREE to follow God’s moral law. Turn with me to Romans 6:15-23.
At the end of Romans 5, Paul makes this incredible statement: “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (V. 20). But then, lest we think that God’s grace and forgiveness render sin irrelevant, lest we think, “Well, if my sin gives God’s grace a chance to grow and show up even more, then why not continue in sin?” Paul clarifies in the first part of chapter 6 that God’s grace frees us not only from the PENALTY of sin, which is death, but also of the POWER of sin. In Christ, the grace of God sets us free from our slavery to sin. “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” he asks. Now, he isn’t suggesting that we as human beings living in this fallen, broken world that is itself in slavery to sin can live lives in which we never, ever sin. What he’s saying is that we are no longer slaves to sin, dominated by sin, under the power of sin. We are now, in Christ, under the power of God’s grace.
But then he asks a second question: So if we aren’t under the law, if we’re really free, and if God’s grace and forgiveness are available to us, does it really matter how we live? Can’t I just do what I want, live however I want, since God is going to forgive me? I mean, you’ve just said, “You are not under law but under grace.” Isn’t that what you mean? Freedom? I can do what I want now and God will forgive me? An emphatic “By no means” is Paul’s reply. To be “not under law” simply means that always doing good and never messing up, perfectly keeping God’s moral law, is no longer the standard of righteousness for the follower of Christ. In that sense, I am not under law. I am under grace because I am now identified with and by Christ, and his death and resurrection have become my death and resurrection. So now I can be said to be under grace.
That doesn’t mean I can live however I want. To be honest, freedom has NEVER meant that. Think back to before you had your driver’s license. What did getting your license represent to you? Freedom, right? No longer having to be tied to your parents’ ability to drop you off and pick you up. Able to go where you want, when you want. The freedom of the open road, right? But what would happen if everyone just drove willy-nilly wherever they wanted to drive. Some people drove on the left side of the road, some on the right. Some didn’t drive on the road at all. They go off road, on sidewalks and across yards. In parking lots some park inside the lines, some park perpendicular to the lines, and some straddle the lines. Some just stop their car where they are and get out to go do something, taking no heed of anyone behind them. It would be chaos, wouldn’t it. Yes, when you get your license, there is a sense of freedom. But it isn’t total freedom. There are still traffic laws to learn and then obey, and not obeying them has consequences, doesn’t it? Accidents, injuries, deaths, and of course parking tickets and traffic citations and the fines and costs that come with them. There is freedom, but there is a higher law too – the rules of the road, right?
Yes, we are free in Christ. We are freed from our bondage to sin. We are free from the power and penalty of sin. But we are not free to continue being dominated, owned, identified by sin. Paul’s answer is emphatic: “By no means!” Absolutely not! May it never be! No way!
Now, there’s an interesting interplay of statements in the indicative mood and statements in the imperative mood in Romans 6. This will make all of our language arts buffs happy. We’re going to get a little grammar reminder today. The indicative indicates, right. It simply describes what is. Here, in Romans 6, it describes what God has already done. So we have been set free from sin, we now have obedient hearts, we are slaves of righteousness. But then we also have the imperative. The imperative mood issues a command. It tells us TO DO something. And Paul says, now that you are under grace, “present your members as slaves to righteousness.” In other words, obey God. Follow Christ. Just as there was something that God HAD to do in order to set us free from sin, so there is something that we must do in order to live as followers of Christ, and that is, simply put, to follow Christ. To pattern our lives after the life of Christ. To allow the Holy Spirit to flow through us, transforming us.
In drawing on all of the imagery of slavery, Paul does something really interesting here. He kind of makes a play on ideas of a sort. He says something that, on the surface, doesn’t seem to make sense. He says that we have been set free to become slaves of righteousness.
You see, every one of us, those of us who follow Christ and those of us who don’t, every one of us, is serving something. Every one of us have a master. The question is, who is your master? Everyone obeys someone or something. Who or what are you obeying? Who, or what, is your master? Some of us are slaves to our jobs. We’re workaholics. We hoard our days off and vacation time but never use them. At best, we schedule working vacations where we might be physically present with our friends and family somewhere special, but we’re on our phones, on our laptops, on our tablets. Our bodies might be on vacation, but our minds are still at work. We can’t separate ourselves from our work. In fact, our work has, in many ways, become our identity.
Others of us are slaves to power and prestige. We want to have influence, authority, titles. We want people to know who we are and we want them to know what we have accomplished. We gain our significance from who we know, from our social circles, and so we name drop all the time. And everything we do is focused on getting our name out there, on climbing the ladder of influence and power and authority.
Some of us are slaves to possessions. And we don’t want to “keep up with the Joneses.” We want to BE the Joneses. We want to be the ones everyone else is trying to keep up with. Nice house. Maybe more than one. Nice vehicles. Nice boat. Nice RV. Living the good life, right? Our houses, our garages, our pole buildings, and our leased storages space is all full of our stuff. And our bank accounts might be empty. Our credit cards are certainly full.
Still others are slaves to something less socially acceptable. Some are slaves to pleasure and sex, others to alcohol or a drug of some kind. We’re all slaves to something! Some of us are slaves to anger, or to control. Who, or what, is my master? Whose voice do I obey? Friends, in Christ, you and I have been set free from our slavery to anyone but Christ. In 1 Corinthians, Paul actually says, “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything” (6:12).
And in the very first words of Romans, he identifies himself as a servant of Jesus. That’s an interesting way for Paul to start his letter, because the typical Roman citizen detested servitude. They despised it, because it meant the loss of your freedom and thus, the loss of their dignity. Not a whole lot different than the typical American citizen today, actually. Now, a servant could possibly be an employee, but the more common rendering of the word Paul used here is “slave.” Paul, as he often does, calls himself a slave of Christ. In fact, he uses a word that specifically means “bond-servant.” In that day, it was fairly common for someone to wind up having to serve as a slave, a servant for a creditor if they could not pay their debts. They worked off their debt. In the ancient Jewish world, slaves were set free every seven years and their property was restored to them. But sometimes a slave realized that they were not very good at managing their life, which is why they ended up in debt to their master. Or the master was really good to them, and so a slave might choose to remain the slave of that master for life. So the slave and master would go down to the temple, and a priest would pierce the slave’s ear lobe with an awl, and that hole in the ear lobe would signify this person as a slave of the master for the rest of his life. It was a chosen life of servitude. A willing slave. That is how Paul describes his relationship to Christ. Obviously it rarely happened, but it did happen. So Paul is saying, “I belong to Christ. I have set aside my precious freedom and become the property of another to do with as he wishes. I belong to my master. I belong to Christ.” As followers of Christ, we are to be dominated by absolutely nothing or no one but Christ.
Now, there are two ways that we as followers of Christ tend to mess this whole obedience to Christ thing up. One is to fall off the cliff of legalism. The belief that we can obey God in our own strength, by our own effort, using our own strategies. This turns the dynamic “in Christ” life into a series of Christians self-help programs and efforts. This legalistic, moralistic approach to faith is seen really clearly in Scripture in the Pharisees, who interestingly enough are typically portrayed as the biggest opponents to Christ. If I can just intentionally erase every trace of anything secular or worldly or ungodly from my life, I’ll be obeying God. So don’t drink or smoke or chew, or run around with folks who do. Jesus spent most of his time with people who did all of that and a lot that is far worse. Legalism says, “I can make myself clean enough for God to love me and offer me his grace.” So it reduces the dynamic “in Christ” life to a list of do’s and don’ts. It focuses on the imperative, what we are supposed to do, apart from the indicative, what God has already done.
But we can also fall off the other side of the cliff, into licentiousness. This is the magical view of the Christian life. It’s the pastor who had an affair with a woman in his church who said, “I know it’s wrong, but it’s ok. I’m still a child of God. God will forgive me.” That’s half true. Yes, God will forgive you, but you also must repent, leave all traces of that act behind. And you must pay the consequences of your sin in terms of its impact on your family and quite possibly your career, at least for a while. It’s most commonly seen in the motto, “Let go and let God.” This is the follower of Christ who says, “God has already done everything. There is absolutely nothing for me to do. I just need to let my new redeemed life take it’s course. My being shaped into the image of Christ will happen in spite of what I do or don’t do. It focuses on the indicative, what God has done, but leaves out the imperative, “Offer your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. Sanctification is just a big word for “God’s work in our lives shaping us into the image of Christ.” But there’s something for us to do in the process too. God has set us free from the penalty and power of sin. So we can offer our members to God as slaves to righteousness.
In their Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn report on the worldwide slave epidemic in sex trafficking, telling stories of girls who had been kidnapped or taken from their families on a ruse and then sold as sex slaves. These girls, many under ten years of age, are drugged, beaten, raped, and forced to sell their bodies night after night.
Interestingly enough, they say that it is far more effective to crack down on the perpetrators than to try to rescue the victims. That is because rescuing the girls from external slavery is the “easy part,” but rescuing them from the beast within, such as the drug addictions that cause them to return or the shame they feel, is enormously challenging. They keep returning to their abusers.
Kristof tells of rescuing Momm, a Cambodian teen who had been enslaved for five years. Momm was on the edge of a breakdown – sobbing one moment, laughing hysterically the next. She seized the chance to escape, promising she’d never return. When Kristof drove Momm back to her village, she saw her aunt, screamed, and leapt out of the moving car.
A moment later, it seemed as if everybody in the village was shrieking and running up to Momm. Her mother was at her stall in the market a mile away when a child ran up to tell her that she had returned. Her mother started sprinting back to the village, tears streaming down her cheeks …. It was ninety minutes before the shouting died away and the eyes dried, and then there was an impromptu feast. Truly it was a great rescue – and there was singing and dancing and celebrating.
But the celebration didn’t last long. Early one morning Momm left her father and her mother without a word and returned to her pimp in Poipet. Like many girls in sex slavery, she had been given methamphetamine to keep her compliant. The craving had overwhelmed her. No doubt she thought, I just have to have this or I can’t go on. Perhaps she imagined she’d be able to escape after she got it, but even if she didn’t, she thought, I have to have this.[i]
We are set free from slavery to everything else, in order to be obedient to Christ. There is an old Puritan confession of faith that reads, in part, “The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and a willing mind.” Let us pray.
[i] Dee Brestin, Idol Lies (Worthy, 2012), pp. 88-89