Whose Slave Are You? - Romans 6:15-19

What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? May it never be! Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness? But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed, and having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. 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 (Romans 6:15-19).

 

Every person in the world is a slave. One may live in a free country with freedom of speech and liberty to pursue happiness. But the fact is, every person is a slave. This slavery is not a political or economic slavery. This slavery is a spiritual bondage, either to sin or to Jesus Christ. No one is free to live however they choose to live. All live in slavery to one of two masters, either to sin or to the Savior. Whose slave are you?

 

The key word in Romans 6:15-19 is “slave,” which is found five times in these five verses. It is found twice in verse 16, once in verse 17, once in verse 18, and once in verse 19. This is the unifying thread that runs through these verses, the dominant thrust that ties it together. Everything in this section revolves around this word “slave.” It is translated from the Greek word doulos, which means ‘one who gives himself up completely to a master.’ This word for slave is different from the word for servant. A slave is much lower than a servant. A servant was someone who still had some degree of freedom. He could choose to accept a job or not to accept it. He still could own property, receive wages, and go home at the end of the day.

 

The word for “servant” (diakonia) is the word from which we get “deacon.” It was used for a waiter at a wedding feast or an attendant who would care for the needs of someone else, but this person still had his own life and freedom. He could do his own thing, go his own way. He could return the next day, if he chose, or he could let someone else be hired to work in his place.

 

But this word for “slave” (doulos) is totally different. It represented someone who had no personal freedom to do as he pleased. His entire life was to be given in servitude to his master, who had paid a price to purchase him from another owner. A servant is hired, a slave is owned. A slave had no independence, no self-autonomy, and no personal rights. In fact, a slave was a piece of property that was owned by someone else. When a person was owned as a slave, it meant that he was a possession of his master, bound to obey him. There was no negotiation by a slave with his master regarding what he could decide to do or not do. He was bought and owned by his master, and so there could be no hesitation or argument to obey him. To be a slave meant complete submission and total obedience to a master.

 

It is difficult for us to fully grasp what it meant to be a slave, because none of us have ever truly been owned by a master. You may have been a servant, but that is totally different from being a slave. A slave has a master, who has the power of life and death over him. He is held in the hand of his master, who has the right to issue commands without any explanation. He expects obedience swiftly, immediately, and completely. The master has bought the slave at a price, and the slave now belongs to him. In order to understand this passage, we must grasp the reality of this historical background.

 

Paul as a Slave

Paul began the book of Romans by identifying himself as a doulos, as a slave. Romans 1:1 reads, “Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus.” That is a poor translation that should be rendered “slave,” not “bond-servant.” One reason for this improper wording, I think, is because of the racial stigma that has always been attached with the word “slave,” and rightly so. With the end of the slave trade in the British Empire, and later in the United States, there is such a cloud hanging over the word “slave,” that it becomes translated with a different word. It comes politely into our English Bible as “bond-servant,” but that is not the word that Paul used. The word is “slave” (doulos), because Paul understood completely who he was and what he was. He was bought with a price by the Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus now owns him. Because the Lord bought him at the cross and He now controls and governs him. Though an apostle, he remains a slave.

 

Paul devoted himself completely to the Lord Jesus Christ and submitted himself entirely to His divine will. Paul’s will has been given up to the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ. The same is true for every follower of Christ. The issue for the believer is not “What do I want to do?,” but “What does Jesus Christ want me to do?” The believer’s entire existence on this earth is lived in compliance, submission, surrender, and obedience to the supreme authority of Jesus Christ. That is true for everyone for whom Jesus died upon the cross, purchasing their salvation. As believers, we recognize that we have been redeemed and ransomed by Jesus Christ. The Lord entered the slave market of sin and bought us with the silver and gold of His own blood. We now are the purchased possession of Jesus Christ. We have been released from our former slavery to sin, and we have been brought into a different slavery to Jesus.

 

There is no one in this world who is not a slave. You are either a slave to sin, or a slave to the Savior. There is not a third category. There is no other option. We need to understand this as we come into this section in Romans, where the key word is “slave.” I have titled this message “Whose Slave Are You?” because that is the thrust of these verses. That is the question we need to ask of ourselves. Tell me whose slave you are, and I will tell you who you will obey and how you will live.

 

I. The False Assumption (6:15a)

 

In the first half of Romans 6:15, Paul establishes his fundamental argument. He does so because he anticipates the argument that will be raised against his teaching, that salvation is apart from any works. Their thought is, “If salvation is apart from works, then I have no obligation as a Christian to do any good works. If I am saved without obeying the Law, simply by faith alone in Jesus Christ, then I have no obligation to obey the Law now that I am a Christian. I can simply live however I want.” Paul is a brilliant teacher who is always ahead of what people are thinking. He now addresses what he knows is in the mind of many.

 

This is a very important argument. He says, “What then? Shall we sin” (verse 15). “We” is an important word. With this plural pronoun, Paul is referring to believers, not unbelievers. The verb “sin” means to continue to live in sin as a lifestyle. The reference is to a habitual pattern of sin. He is asking, “Shall we continue to practice sin as the main thrust of our life?” Before we were born again, we lived in sin, we lived for sin, and we loved our sin. Can a believer continue to live as he once did?

 

“We Are Not Under Law”

He continues, “Shall we sin because we are not under law” (verse 15). That is a false presupposition that Paul knows is being raised by many. The answer is no. We are not under law in the sense that we have to obey it in order to earn our salvation. But, as believers, we are under the law of God to obey it in our sanctification. The Ten Commandments are still on the books and are quoted in the New Testament as binding upon our lives. His presupposition is that people are thinking, “Shall we continue to live as we have always lived, if it has nothing to do with giving us acceptance with God?”

 

Paul completes the question by adding, “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (verse 15). Paul knows where people are going to go with this reasoning. They are thinking, “If I am under grace, then I can walk the broad path, because there are no side guardrails on the narrow path. I can live however I want, because I am under grace. Every sin is forgiven. It does not matter then if I sin as a Christian.”

 

This argument has come down through the ages and still prevails today. This is not a hypothetical argument. There are people today who argue that obedience in the Christian life is entirely optional. They maintain that it is not mandatory and entirely unnecessary. They think that all you have to do is look back at your justification and remember that you are already declared righteous before God. Therefore, they conclude, obedience is optional. There are people today who think obedience is legalism or duty, which is a bad word. There are people today who say they have freedom in Christ to live however they want to live. So, if they want to leave their wife, they can, because it is covered under grace. If they want to cheat on a business deal, it is fine, because it is covered under grace. They think they can live however they want to live. Paul knows the twisted thinking that is in many minds, and he wants to address this faulty assumption head on.

 

There are some who only teach the indicatives of the Bible, but never its imperatives. They only teach the doctrine, but do not make any application. They do not put the implications of the Scripture before people’s lives and press for compliance to it. They never let the imperatives of the Scripture command people. In fact, in their teaching, they will not command people at all, but only interpret, teach, or explain what it says. That is the worst form of Christianity, if you can even call it Christianity. It produces a warped spiritual life that does not stand the test of true discipleship.

 

This is where Paul begins this section, with this argument. It is a very relevant and practical question. “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” (verse 15). That is the question. The answer follows at the end of verse 15.

 

II. The Firm Answer (6:15b)

 

Paul immediately slams the door on this kind of flawed reasoning. In fact, he locks the door and throws the key away. He says, “May it never be!” (verse 15). This phrase (me genoito) is the strongest negative denial in the Greek language. It could be translated as “No, a thousand times” or “Absolutely not.” It could be restated, “This argument is completely unfounded and off base.” Paul makes a blunt, blatant rejection of that kind of distorted thinking. In fact, to Paul, it is monstrous. He says, “By no means! What a ghastly thought that a Christian does not have an obligation to obey God.”

 

To think that you can live your Christian life by merely looking in the rearview mirror at your justification with no thought of pursuing the holiness before you is unthinkable. Paul is saying the thought that a believer has no moral obligation to obedience under grace and under the law is disturbing. Such a mindset is absolutely unthinkable. Any teaching that lessens a believer’s responsibility to obey the word of God is, at best, dangerous teaching, and, at worst, false teaching. May it never be!

 

III. The Familiar Analogy (6:16)

 

Paul is an excellent teacher and could have left his strong denunciation at that and simply moved on to the next chapter. But the apostle wants to dig down and peel back the layers of this false argument. He uses an analogy – that is, a picture or illustration – drawn from common life that would be easily understood by all. The analogy Paul uses is that of slavery. Though most probably you have never seen a slave, Paul writes this to the believers in Rome who were very familiar with slavery. At this time, there were millions of slaves in the Roman Empire. It is estimated that in Italy during the Roman Empire, somewhere between thirty to forty percent of the population were slaves. In the entire Roman Empire, at a minimum, ten to fifteen percent of the population were slaves that were owned by masters. There was probably a larger portion. It was not a racial issue, because slaves came from every different color of skin and every ethnic background. In fact, some people became bankrupt and were forced to sell themselves to a master in order to work their way out of debt. The master who bought them would give their debtor the money, as the only way the bankrupt one had to escape his debt. There were slaves of all different kinds. If you were born to parents who were slaves, then you were born into slavery and were a slave as well. It is estimated that there were somewhere between five to seven million slaves in the Roman Empire. So as Paul writes this, it was a common experience in life. It would be like someone today using the imagery of a businessman or athlete. Slavery was that common to everyday life.

 

Paul writes, “Do you not know” (verse 16). Now, we can understand how Paul could say this as though everyone knew this. Of course, they know about slavery. They had slaves living all around them. Some of the believers in Rome may have been slaves themselves. “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (verse 16). The key word in this verse is “obedience,” which is used three times. “Slaves” is used twice in this verse. That is what slaves do. They obey. It is heads and tails of the same coin. It is a one-word job description for a slave – obey. You obey your master. Slaves give themselves up completely to fulfill the desires of their master.

 

We Are All Slaves

Paul makes the spiritual application at the end of this verse. He says that every person is a slave “either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness” (verse 16). This means, the one who is a slave of sin is an unbeliever, who receives wages for his work. The just recompense of working for sin is death – spiritual death and eternal death. The only other slave a person could be is being a slave of God. To be a slave of God is the same as being a slave of Jesus Christ. This is to be a slave of obedience to Christ, and there are entirely different wages for that. It results in “righteousness.” This “righteousness” is not the imputed righteousness in justification, but the imparted righteousness in sanctification. This is the growing practical righteousness a believer experiences in daily Christian living. The word “righteousness” is used here synonymously with personal holiness in practical godliness.

 

We are all slaves, and we all have a master. Either our master is sin, if you are an unbeliever, or your master is Jesus Christ, if you are a believer. We all present ourselves daily to our master and follow his commands. We show up for work each day with a duty to obey our master. If sin is your master, you will obey sin for the rest of the day. If Jesus Christ is your master, you will be living in obedience to Him. This does not mean that believers obey perfectly, but they certainly do largely. For everyone of us, working for one of these two masters brings a necessary result. If you work for sin, you are paid with death. If you work for Christ, you are paid with righteousness.

 

IV. The Focused Application (6:17-18)

 

Paul now draws the application from the analogy of slavery in order to explain the change that has taken place in the lives of the Roman believers. They may not have known everything that took place at their conversion, but they needed to understand the transaction that occurred. Paul begins, “But thanks be to God” (verse 17). He gives thanks to God, because He is the one who brought about their transfer of slavery from one cruel master to a compassionate master. He does not say, “Thanks be to us,” as if they worked out this transaction together with God as a joint project. Neither does he say, “Thanks be to me,” as if each believer did this on their own. No individual Christian was able to break free from their previous slavery and could step into this other slavery by their own efforts. Paul says, “Thanks be to God,” because God alone is the one who brought about this change of relationship.

 

“But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin” (verse 17). Every single believer in Rome had been a slave of sin before they were born again. The same is true for us. Even if we grew up in the church, or were sprinkled as a baby, or made an empty profession in the youth group but were never really saved, until we are born again, we remain a slave who obeyed sin. We once lived a lifestyle of obedience to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life” (1 John 2:16). We were bound in chains to sin. We lived in bondage to sin. This is one further reason why the Bible teaches the bondage of the unregenerate will. No unbeliever has free will to choose Jesus Christ. Slaves are not free. Slaves are in bondage. Not only their brain and heart is imprisoned by sin, but even their will is in bondage. There are many other reasons given in the Bible to believe this basic teaching, but time does not allow us to look into them now.

 

Obedient from the Heart

Paul continues, “You became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed” (verse 17). “You became” indicates a radical change that took place in the past. This is one reason why I do not understand how someone does not have the assurance of their salvation, though it is possible. I wonder how they could not know that this change of masters has taken place in their life. There could not be a more radical change than to be changed from being a slave of sin to become a slave of righteousness. How could a person not be sure if this had happened?

 

Paul explains, “you became obedient.” This verb “became obedient” is in the passive voice. This means that they were acted upon by God, who was the active Agent. God powerfully intervened in their lives. God unlocked the chains that held them in the grip of sin. It was God who delivered them from the stronghold of sin. This release from sin immediately produced a new lifestyle of obedience to Jesus Christ. So real was this new obedience that Paul said it was “from the heart.” The same is true for every believer. We received a new heart, a new want-to, when we were born again. Our hearts were changed such that now our obedience is not doing something against our will. Our will and heart have been changed, and obedience is now something that we want to do.

 

“You became obedient from the heart” (verse 16) is a matter of fact. There are no conditions put on it. This is not true of only some Christians or merely of a lot of Christians. Instead, this is true of every Christian. If you are a Christian, the reality is that “you became obedient from the heart.” When Paul says, “from the heart,” he means it is an internal desire to keep the word of God that brings joy. Even when it is costly obedience, nevertheless, we sense the pleasure of God as we obey His word. This is an inside job that God does in our heart, when He changes it so that we want to obey His word. Likewise, when we do not obey Him, He convicts us and we feel bad about it. We once loved sin, but now, when we stumble into sin, we can no longer enjoy it. There may be a titillating pleasure for a moment, but it soon passes away, and the pain of conviction of sin comes.

 

The Object of Obedience

Please note the object of this obedience is, “to that form of teaching” (verse 17). The word “teaching” (didaches) means ‘sound doctrine’ or ‘divine truth.’ This is not talking about obeying empty religious traditions or human philosophies. The apostle is describing the theological framework of the Bible. It is addressing who God is, who Christ is, who we are, what Christ has done for us, and what is now required of us. This refers to the entire teaching of the Old and New Testaments and what they require of us.

 

When Paul says, “to that form of teaching,” the word “form” (tupos) means ‘a mark caused by a strike or blow.’ It indicated the indention caused by a heavy instrument, such as a rod or hammer, that would be brought down hard on an object. It would make a deep dent. There is a “form” that is produced by the hammer. In this verse, the idea is the teaching of the word has made a permanent dent in the life of a believer. It has left an imprint on a person’s soul. It was not a mere glancing blow on the surface of one’s life. It also came to mean the teaching that embodies the sum and substance of the Scripture.

 

Paul adds, “to which you were committed” (verse 17). The word “to” (eis) could be translated as “into.” The “you” refers to all believers, for everyone who is genuinely born again. The word “committed” (paradidomai) means ‘to be delivered over to another power.’ Like a slave would be handed over to a master who would dominate their life. We saw this word earlier in Romans 1:24, “Therefore God gave them over” (paradidomai). Then again in verse 26, “For this reason God gave them over.” Then in verse 28, “God gave them over to a depraved mind.” It is a strong verb, meaning ‘to be delivered over to another power.’ That is the word Paul uses here in Romans 6. You were delivered over by God to a new life of righteousness. In Romans 1, God delivered over God-haters and God-rejectors to grosser sin. But in Romans 6, He has delivered over God-lovers and Christ-believers to greater righteousness. This is what happened in every Christian’s life.

 

“The Obedience of Faith”

To underscore how important obedience is, let me remind you of what we noted earlier in Romans 1:5. In this verse, Paul wrote about “the obedience of faith” that the gospel demands. When anyone hears the gospel, it requires the obedience of faith. This could be translated “the obedience that faith produces.” There is no such thing as disobedient faith. True, saving faith is obedient to the word of God. The Old and New Testaments know nothing of disobedient, saving faith. Such is an oxymoron.

 

Paul concludes the book of Romans by stating that, “according to the commandment of the eternal God…leading to the obedience of faith” (Romans 16:26). The gospel message comes as a divine commandment to all who hear it. It is more than a free offer and more than an invitation. The gospel certainly involves these things, but it is more than that. We are commanded by God to repent and to believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ. Saving faith is the first step of obedience to God. Saving faith necessitates obedience to the command to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the first step of a lifelong journey of living in obedience to the lordship of Jesus Christ. Obedience does not begin five years after we become a Christian. It starts with our very first step when we enter through the narrow gate into the kingdom of God. Moreover, every subsequent step forward in the Christian life is a step of obedient faith.

 

Beginning and concluding the book of Romans with “the obedience of faith” is a literary device known as inclusio, or inclusion. This is when the author starts and ends with the same emphasis. This underscores what is stated and emphasizes it for all to see. What Paul is stressing in the book of Romans is that the gospel commands the obedience of faith. It is how he starts his letter in Romans 1:5, and how he ends in Romans 16:26. So we are not surprised in the middle of Romans 6 that Paul states this dominant idea of obedience. He does so three times in verse 16 and again in verse 17.

 

“Slaves of Righteousness”

Verse 18 asserts a statement of fact, “having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:18). This is a present reality in every believer’s life. This is ancient history, something that occurred the moment every believer is converted. We were freed from sin, liberated from the dominion of sin. We were released from our former bondage to sin. Jesus said, “If the Son shall set you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36).

 

That is one side of the coin, but here is the other side: “and you became slaves of righteousness” (verse 18). All believers immediately were transferred from one slavery to another slavery. In this change, God delivered over every believer to be the slave of righteousness and holiness. With this came a new desire to live in obedience to that form of teaching to which they became committed. This is an adherence to the teaching of the word of God. In Ezekiel 36:26-27, we read that God took out our heart of stone and replaced it with a heart of flesh. He wrote His Law upon our heart and put His Spirit within us. The Holy Spirit causes us to walk in obedience to God’s statutes. That is why it is impossible to think that we have no obligation to the moral law of God. These commandments are written indelibly upon our hearts in permanent ink by the finger of God Himself. It is there forever. He has put His Holy Spirit inside of us, who is now the dominant force causing us to keep the divine statutes.

 

Again, I ask, how can you not know if this has taken place in your life? To go through a heart transplant surgery and not know that you were ever in the hospital and that it happened is unthinkable. You would surely know if you had a heart transplant. You now have a new life with new energy to walk in obedience to God. The more you learn about what God did in your life at your conversion, the more sure you will become about your salvation. You will know that it is God who is at work within you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. You cannot fake such a transformed life, because it is God working at the deepest level in your life.

 

V. The Fleshly Accommodation (6:19)

 

Paul begins verse 19 by accommodating himself to us. He, in essence, addresses the believers in Rome as if they were babies. He writes, “I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh” (verse 19). Paul is still communicating with this analogy of slavery, master, and obedience so that they can easily understand what took place at their conversion. If Paul had launched into more mature instruction in development theology, he would probably have left them all behind. In order to be easily understood, Paul simplifies his teaching because of “the weakness of our flesh.”

 

He continues, “For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness,” (verse 19) This describes their former unconverted life. “Your members” is a reference to their whole being – their mind, ears, eyes, heart, hands, and feet through which their life activities are carried out. “Lawlessness” is their previous life of disobedience to the law of God. When they were an unbeliever, they walked on a slippery slope, going from bad, to worse, to awful. They were descending downward, morally speaking, going from lawlessness to further lawlessness. They were not remaining in the same place. As unbelievers, they were becoming more unlawful. We see this very thing taking place in our country right now. The bottom has dropped out, and our society is crashing to all-time lows in immorality. The unbelievers are becoming even further ungodly and lawless. This “further lawlessness” is true of every unbeliever to one extent or another.

 

“Resulting in Sanctification”

Then Paul adds, “so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification” (verse 19). Now that they are believers, they must present the members of their body to God in obedience to His law. This presentation enhances their spiritual growth into Christlikeness. As they do, they are increasingly, day by day, being conformed more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. Paul says, “present your members,” which refers to every part of their lives, as we considered in verses 13-14 in our last study. This is incumbent upon every believer.

 

We must present our eyes to God, what you are looking at throughout the day. You must present your ears to God, what you are listening to throughout the day, because it is affecting your spiritual life. You must present your mind to God, what you think about during the day. You must present your feet to God, where you go and where you travel. You must present your tongue to God, what you say to others. You must present your hands to God, what you lay hold of and what you do. From the top of our head to the bottom of our feet, every member of your body must be continually presented to God. Every aspect of our lives must be presented to the lordship of the Lord Jesus Christ, like a priest offering a sacrifice onto the altar. Your life must is no longer be in your hands, but given over to God.

 

The result is very clear, “sanctification.” This is the reality of personal holiness in the life of a believer. This is becoming more like Jesus Christ. This presentation results in our growth in godliness. This sanctification causes us to be standing out in this world like bright stars on a dark night. It should be obvious that every believer is the slave of Jesus Christ by the holiness and righteousness being realized in their lives.

 

Conclusion

These verses help us to understand what happened when we were born again. At the time we were converted, we may not have understood this with this clarity. But the reality, nevertheless, took place. We knew that we were a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior. We knew we desperately needed great forgiveness. We knew that we needed to commit our life to Christ. In that moment, we were born again. As we read our Bible, we realized that we were unplugged from our old way of life with its old sinful patterns. We were plugged into the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is phenomenal truth that I pray grabs you and will not let you go.

Dr. Steven J. Lawson

Dr. Steven J. Lawson is President and founder of OnePassion Ministries, a ministry designed to equip biblical expositors to bring about a new reformation in the church. Dr. Lawson hosts The Institute for Expository Preaching in cities around the world. Dr. Lawson is also a Teaching Fellow for Ligonier Ministries, where he serves on its board. Moreover, he is Professor of Preaching and oversees the Doctor of Ministry program at The Master’s Seminary, where he also serves on its board. Dr. Lawson is also Professor in Residence for Truth Remains, a work designed to promote and proclaim God’s written Word. Further, Dr. Lawson serves as the Executive Editor for Expositor Magazine published by OnePassion Ministries.