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Deep Grace: Die To Live


Die To Live

Romans 6:1-5


New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof tried to buy the freedom of two Cambodian prostitutes from their brothel owners. He selected young women who were there against their will, willing to tell their story, and actually wanted to leave prostitution.


The first girl was a simple transaction. For $150, Kristof left with the girl and a receipt. The other girl’s situation proved more difficult, since the brothel owner demanded more money. After some grumpy negotiation, the owner accepted $203 as the price for her freedom. But then she told him that she had pawned her cellphone and needed $55 to get it back. “Forget about your cellphone,” he said. “We’ve got to get out of here.”


She started crying. I told her that she had to choose her cellphone or her freedom, and she ran back to her tiny room in the brothel and locked the door. With this girl sobbing in her room and refusing to be freed without her cellphone, the other prostitutes – her closest friends – began pleading with her to be reasonable. Even the owner of the brothel begged her to “Grab this chance while you can,” but she hysterically refused to leave. She only stopped crying when Kristov agreed to buy back the cellphone too. Then she asked for her pawned jewelry to be part of the deal.


Kristof reflected upon the complex emotions making the decision to leave the brothel so difficult. “I have purchased the freedom of two human beings so I can return them to their villages. But will emancipation help them? Will their families and villages accept them? Or will they, like some other girls rescued from sexual servitude, find freedom so unsettling that they slink back to slavery in the brothels? We’ll see.”[i]


Sometimes as followers of Christ we resemble this woman. Though Christ sets us free from sin and death, we often choose to live in slavery to sin rather than newness of life. Christ has set us free, and we choose chains instead.


This winter and spring we’re returning to the book of Romans for part 2 of a multi-year series. Remember, we went through the first 5 chapters of Romans in the winter and spring of last year, and we’re going to cover the next 6 or so chapters this winter and spring.


Romans has been called “the most profound writing that exists.” Martin Luther, the first of the church Reformers, called Romans “the true masterpiece of the New Testament and the very purest gospel, which is well worth and deserving that a Christian … should not only learn it by heart, word for word, but also that he should daily deal with it as the daily bread of [the human] soul. It can never be too much or too well read or studied, and the more it is handled the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.” Chrysostom, one of the greatest of the church fathers, had Romans read to him in its entirety twice a week. But Romans is a tough book to preach through, and its an even tougher book to read, because in it, Paul talks so much about sin.


If Romans is the “very purest gospel,” written to a church Paul longed to visit but hadn’t been able to, spelling out for them the absolute, undiluted core of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, then it has to delve deeply into human sin, God’s grace, and what God has accomplished for us in Jesus Christ. If we don’t account for the sin in our hearts, minds, and lives, if we don’t wrestle with it, acknowledge it, we’ll never understand, really understand, what it means that God has, in Christ, paid the penalty for our sin. We’ll sing the words to Amazing Grace and never understand how amazing that grace really is.


St. Paul spoke so often and so passionately about the grace of God, the undeserved, unearned forgiveness God offers us in Jesus Christ, that he was accused of basically teaching that because God forgives us, does sin matter anymore? Because we’re freely forgiven, do our thoughts and words and actions matter? In fact, in Romans 5:21, Paul says “but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” And that leads to what seems to be a really logical next step: “If my sin causes God’s grace to shine brightly, why not sin more so that God’s grace shines more.” It was a question Paul heard often. Turn with me to Romans 6:1-5.


Slavery versus freedom was one of Paul’s favorite analogies for life in Christ. In Galatians 5:1, he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” And then in V. 13 he says, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” And Jesus himself, in John 8:36, says, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” This image of spiritual slavery and freedom goes back to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who said, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (61:1). That’s a verse that Jesus applied to himself.


But all this talk about freedom begs the question – freedom from what? Both Isaiah and Jesus were using the idea literally AND figuratively, speaking of both people’s physical condition and their spiritual condition – literal prisoners and this in a spiritual prison to sin, to rebellion against God. Here in Romans, Paul is speaking about being enslaved to sin and needing to be set free. And notice that sin is singular here, not plural. He isn’t talking about the specific sins we commit daily. They’re a symptom of a larger understanding of sin, in the singular, which is simply rebellion against God. Dependence only upon myself. Saying, “I don’t need God. I’m going to live my way.” That’s sin in the singular, and the sins we commit are symptoms of that larger attitude of rebellion against God.


So in what way has Christ set us free? Well, for starters, we’ve been set free from sin’s penalty. We get that. We understand that. The wages of sin, the outcome of sin, is death, and God in Christ offers us eternal life. So the penalty for my sin has been paid. We understand that. We appreciate that. I deserve death, and God gives me life. I stand condemned before God, but God offers me forgiveness. And when we talk about grace, that’s what most of us are talking about. I am a sinner, but because of Christ’s death and resurrection and my faith in him, my sin has been forgiven and I will spend eternity with God.


But here’s the thing. St. Paul doesn’t just say that Christ sets us free from sin’s penalty. He also says that Christ sets us free from sin’s power. So what does that mean? Think about it this way. Imagine that you’re the owner of a warehouse property. The building on the property has been sitting empty for years and needs quite a bit of repair. The inside is a mess. Windows have been broken. It needs some structural work too, so that it doesn’t fall down. You’re showing the property to a prospective buyer, and you’re making absolutely sure that he knows you’ll replace the broken windows, clean out the garbage, and hire a contractor to assess and fix any structural issues. But then the buyer says, “No, don’t worry about the repairs. When I buy this place, I’m going to tear this building down and build something completely different in its place. I don’t want the building, I want the site.”


So most of us, when we give our lives to Christ, keep on living basically the same old life with the same old habits and dirty secrets and shame. We ACT like sin still has power over us, like we have no choice. Look at v. 2. We died to sin. We have been set free from sin’s penalty, and we have been set free from sin’s power over us. So that means that in Christ we become perfect and never sin, right? No. As long as we live in this world, we will sin, because we can’t escape it. But sin no longer has a hold over us. In no longer chains us down. We can choose. We can choose to allow Christ’s presence in us to transform us. To change us.


The term the Bible uses for coming to faith in Christ is repentance. We often think of repentance kind of like saying “I’m sorry.” But that isn’t what repentance is. Oh, it includes genuine sorrow for our sin. But it also involves us turning away from it. Walking in a different direction. Living a new life. When a lying, cheating tax collector named Zacchaeus met Jesus, he didn’t just say, “I’m sorry I’ve been cheating my fellow Jews, charging them too much for their taxes” and then go on living as he had been living.


Look at his response to Jesus in Luke 19. “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (V. 8). Yes, he experienced sorrow for his sin. That’s what it means to be sorry. But he also made amends to those he had hurt as best he could. In fact, he returned anything he had cheated anyone out of $4 for every $1 he cheated them out of. And then he gave half of what he had left to the poor. He had no intention at all of going out and continuing in cheating and dishonesty the way he had. He was living a new life now, and he knew it. The old Zacchaeus had died, and a new one had been born.


We invite Jesus to live in our old, messed up, broken down, dirty, life. But that isn’t what Jesus wants to do. Theologian Russell Moore says, “For too long, we’ve called unbelievers to “invite Jesus into your life.” Jesus doesn’t want to be in your life. Your life’s a wreck. Jesus calls you into his life. And his life isn’t boring or purposeless or static. It’s wild and exhilarating and unpredictable.[ii] We’ve been set free, but we’re still living as slaves.


Now, look at Vv. 3-5. His death becomes our death. His resurrection becomes our resurrection. That means his life becomes our life. And that isn’t just an idea. That’s reality. That’s what happens when we place our faith in Christ. Baptized into his death, and raised to new life with him. Paul isn’t saying that baptism itself saves us. That’s just an act. It’s the meaning behind it that matters, the life decision you and I make that it stands for. Now, we’re to be baptized. It’s a public proclamation of our faith in Christ and symbolic of his death, burial, and resurrection to new life become ours. But when Paul uses the word baptism here, he’s referring to the entire experience of conversion and initiation into the body of Christ, the kingdom of God. And when that happens, we who were once slaves, sin having mastery over us, are set free. So why do we continue to live as if the chains are still there?


Well, some expressions of sin in my life I’m not even aware of. I sin without meaning to. But then there’s the long list that I kind of stick with, even though I know better. Some of it I’m wrestling with, right? The Holy Spirit is at work in my life transforming me and I’m slowly but surely winning some of the battles in His power. But then there are the ones I don’t want to let go of. And that is the ultimate expression of my sinful nature. The selfishness of holding on to patterns of thinking and acting that I know are hurting me and others. Some of those are so deep seated we might need professional help to overcome them through spiritual advisors, counselors, therapists, people like that. People who can gently but persistently serve as the refining hand of God in my life, a tool in the hands of the Holy Spirit transforming me. But the truth remains, I am free in Christ, and so often I live like I’m still a slave.


Frederick Douglass grew up as a slave in Maryland in the early 1800s and experienced every brutality life as a slave offered. He was taken from his mother when he was only an infant. For years as a child, all he had to eat was runny corn meal dumped in a trough that kids fought to scoop out with oyster shells. He worked in the hot fields from before sunup until after sundown. He was whipped many times with a cowhide whip until blood ran down his back, kicked and beaten by his master until he almost died, and attacked with a spike by a gang of whites.


But even so, when Frederick considered trying to escape to freedom, he struggled with the decision. He writes in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave that he had two great fears.


The first was leaving behind his friends: “I had a number of warm-hearted friends in Baltimore; friends that I loved almost as I did my life; and the thought of being separated from them forever was painful beyond expression. It is my opinion that thousands would escape from slavery, who now remain, but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their friends.

His second fear was this: “If I failed in this attempt, my case would be a hopeless one; it would seal my fate as a slave forever.”


Today, people who find themselves in slavery to sin, and who think about escaping to freedom in Christ, may have similar fears. They may fear leaving behind friends. They may fear they’ll fail in their attempt to break from sin and live free for God.


They should take heart from Douglass’s experience. On September 3, 1838, he remembers: “I left my chains, and succeeded in reaching New York without the slightest interruption of any kind. I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State. It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions.[iii] Let us pray.











[i] Nicholas Kristof, “Bargaining for Freedom,” (1-21-04)

[ii] Russell Moore, “A Purpose Driven Cosmos,” Christianity Today (February 2012)

[iii] Kevin Miller, vice president, Christianity Today International, Wheaton, Illinois